Braille Monitor                                                 June 2011

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What's in a Name?

by William D. Meeker

Bill MeekerFrom the Editor: Bill Meeker is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin. Generally he is a quiet person, and you’ll almost never see him taking center stage. He is, however, one of those who, when he speaks, makes it clear that in his silences he has been thinking and has something of import to say. His comments are part of an ongoing discussion on our listservs about blindness agencies and other not-for-profits that seem to be changing their names and, in some cases, clouding what they do. Here is what Bill has to say:

This month in the nonprofit-organizations-serving-the-blind name-change conga line comes Learning Ally, formerly Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic. My screen reader pronounces the final word in its new name as if it were spelled "alley," and occasionally "a lie." Maybe a software program can have a sense of humor after all. But Learning Ally is not unique. It is only one in a spate of recent nonprofit organizations serving the blind who have, with the aid of marketing experts and focus groups, changed their names.

All these changes depict a pattern. In all but two of the name changes I am familiar with, the new names do not contain any reference to the customers they serve or describe their function. That is, the words "blind" or "visually impaired" have been excised and sometimes replaced with the word "vision." This euphemization by use of an opposite reminds me of my mother, who had Alzheimers, being housed in an area insultingly named "The Reminiscence Room."

This is no accident. Years ago our library embarked on its name change quest because potential users, most elderly and newly blind, said that they did not want to be labelled as blind. After lengthy discussion with current blind patrons, not marketing pros, it did eventually change its name. Its new name, the Talking Book and Braille Library, while not containing the word “blind,” satisfied blind patrons because it does tell what the organization is and, indirectly, whom it serves.

Other organizations have not fared so well with their new names. While avoiding the words “blind” or “visually impaired,” their new bland and vague names convey nothing about their purpose. If I were a donor seeking to give money to an organization benefiting the blind, I would have no inkling that these newly named organizations serve blind people.

This is not a trivial dilemma for nonprofit executives. On the one hand they must placate their current and potential customers and donors. It seems that shunning names containing words bearing negative connotations is seen as the solution. On the other hand, to attract donors, it would seem that a name should be specific enough to describe the organization. Those organization names I am familiar with have, with few exceptions, missed the mark. They evoke no interest, pique no curiosity, and convey nothing of their purpose.

And all of this is happening because most people still think that it is not respectable to be blind or dyslexic for that matter. What's in a name? Apparently not so much anymore. Certainly not the word “blind.”

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