Image of Noel Nightingale

Noel Nightingale

The Hollow Nature of Political Correctness
by Noel Nightingale

From the Editor: Noel Nightingale is a Member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Blind Lawyers and First Vice President of the NFB of Washington. She is an attorney in the Environmental Practice Group in the law firm of Heller, Ehrman, White, & McAuliffe in Seattle. This is what she says:

There are several problems with the late twentieth-century notion of political correctness, in which euphemistic words are used to communicate meanings with which people are otherwise uncomfortable. We are all familiar with the evolution of the labels placed on us as blind people. Over a relatively short period we have linguistically mushroomed from "the blind" through several stages to "individuals who are visually impaired." The primary problem with the notion that it is not politically correct to call us "blind" is the clear implication that blindness is not quite respectable, that it requires apology or disguise. It implies that blind people are inferior because of our blindness.

That aspect of political correctness is the subject of a 1993 resolution passed by the National Federation of the Blind. We ourselves accept the label of "blind" because we know that blindness is just one of our characteristics and that nothing about it is inherently demeaning. Consequently it is the official policy of the Federation in the words of Dr. Jernigan that:

We believe that it is respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use. We can make our own way in the world on equal terms with others, and we intend to do it.

Another problem with political correctness is that it is the most hollow of philosophies. When tested, the politically correct person's attitude about the abilities of blind people frequently crumbles to dust. Take the case of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Along with other government agencies it has adopted a policy of equal employment opportunity. DSHS uses the right words when it talks about hiring disabled individuals, but when actually put to the test, its words lack substance.

John Herring was hired in 1989 by DSHS to work as a Social Security Insurance facilitator. He is blind and has a master's degree in social work. In November of 1990 DSHS notified Herring that it was terminating his employment because Herring's supervisor found his work unsatisfactory. After Herring sued DSHS for employment discrimination, DSHS told the court that, even with reasonable accommodations, Herring's blindness prevented him from performing the job. DSHS's expert witness, an ophthalmologist, testified at the trial that Herring's disability of blindness was so severe that he could not perform the essential functions of his job. Herring's job primarily consisted of reading, writing, and analysis.

The jury who heard Herring's case didn't buy it. After a six-week trial the jury found that Herring had been discriminated against and wrongfully terminated. The jury awarded Herring $55,000 for past economic damages, $500,000 for future economic damages, and $550,000 for non-economic damages. The trial court awarded attorneys' fees of $299,931 and costs of $18,715. DSHS refused to give up and appealed the judgment, again arguing that blindness in and of itself made Herring unqualified for the job. The Court of Appeals didn't buy it either and affirmed the jury's award.

The solution of the problems associated with blindness is not to dress up society's vocabulary but to change society's beliefs about how blindness affects (and does not affect) people's abilities. We know that, when equipped with self-confidence and the skills of blindness, blind people can do virtually anything we set our minds to, whether we are referred to as "blind," "legally blind," "visually impaired," or "partially sighted."

Because I do not know him, I do not know whether John Herring possessed the skills for his job, adequate training in the skills of blindness, or confidence in himself as a blind person. The jury who sat through his trial found that he was indeed qualified to do the job. However, it is not Herring's talents on which I am commenting; it is the false creed of a government employer, DSHS, and others like it, which is the mere shell of a philosophy about blindness. While DSHS knew the politically correct language to use with regard to blind people, its knowledge extended no further. Even in the face of its own equal employment opportunity policies and programs, DSHS was willing to make blanket assertions about the inability of all blind people—not just allegations about John Herring—when it was attempting to justify its actions.

Herring's case and many others remind me of the protagonist Winston in the novel 1984 by George Orwell. The poor soul had the mental faculty to remember what Big Brother had proclaimed the day before and knew that what was being said by Big Brother the following day was entirely contradictory. Winston looked around him and wondered if he was the only person left on earth who had a memory. The person who uses politically correct language today, without having simultaneously adopted a positive philosophy about the abilities of blind people, cannot be relied on tomorrow. Words in and of themselves do very little good unless along with them comes an understanding of our true abilities.