Can Words Hurt Us?

In Features, My Piece of the Sky, Opinion by Louise Norlie

“My complaint fell on deaf ears. I think it is a lame excuse. He regarded the issue with a blind eye. That method is being used as a crutch.”

How do these phrases make you feel?

All four phrases above are examples where disability is used as a metaphor for something else. In each case, that something is negative.

In the first example, “deaf ears” are people who unfairly ignore the complaint. Although “lame” is not used to describe disabilities today, it is still used as an adjective for something that is weak and deficient.

“Blind eyes” are often used to symbolize ignorance or the act of overlooking an important fact. In the last example, it is apparently detrimental to use something “as a crutch.”

It is being relied upon due to mental laziness or weakness; the act of “using a crutch” implies that there is an inadequacy and that there must be another, better, stronger way of acting or accomplishing a goal.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find examples of common phrases that show the existence of “ability” as a metaphor for positive traits.

For example, we may say “I see what you mean” not to describe that we are visualizing something with our eyes but to indicate that we comprehend what someone is trying to communicate.

We also may say “I hear you” not to express that our ears function but that we understand others or sympathize with an opinion.

In both cases, the implication is that “ability” in these areas corresponds with a virtue, a sense of empathy, or broad-mindedness. This wording may suggest that “disability” has the opposite consequence.

Metaphors are not merely used in poetry or literary prose. Use of metaphor is more widespread in everyday language than we realize. If I say that I will “expose” the truth or “dig beneath the surface” of language, such as I am ostensibly doing in this article, I am using the metaphor that language is an illusory surface with a hidden significance beneath it.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with metaphors themselves. They are an intrinsic part of language. Metaphors are a sign of how people think and how a culture perceives ideas. They can influence our lives.

Newly developed metaphors can reveal an innovative way to approach a problem while stale metaphors can keep us forever locked in conventional, unoriginal patterns of thinking.

One defense of the use of disability-related words as metaphors is that these words are not being used as metaphors at all. Some of these words simply have secondary meanings or definitions.

In fact, most dictionaries support this assertion. So, we have the case of which came first – the chicken or the egg?

The original definitions of these words are simple; they correspond to an actual physical state. Over the years, other abstract concepts were associated with the originals and branched away.

In a chain of illogical conclusions, meanings became blended in ways that have little to do with reality, such as if a person refuses to listen to you, then that person does not hear you.

Therefore, that frustrating person who ignores your complaint is “turning a deaf ear.”

It is nearly impossible to assert that the secondary definitions have absolutely no connection with the original definitions.

Furthermore, it is difficult to rule out the possibility that these secondary definitions and metaphorical usages came into existence because of prejudice against people with disabilities.

It could be claimed that these are merely words and that most people “know better.” However, language and metaphors are a fundamental way of expressing how we conceive the “real world.”

In many ways, our perception of the “real world” is based on our ability to communicate it.

Our language is created by and maintained by our culture. Once these metaphorical phrases and definitions came into being, they were inherited by those who do not even consider the implications of what they are saying.

By continually associating disabilities with “negatives,” the persistent use of these disability metaphors may be perpetuating derogatory ideas and attitudes.

Right now, these phrases are used all too often and go unnoticed in newspapers and media sources. No one questions their appropriateness and few people complain.

However, being aware of how these phrases and words function may be a step toward exposing stereotypes and preconceptions about having a disability. Language is always evolving. Hopefully, harmful metaphors will be recognized as such and eventually eliminated from common usage.

Send your comments to . Tell us what phrases bother you the most.