When I was hired by a tech company a few years ago to work on software accessibility, I was thrust into a world of acronyms. It was alarming because every time I asked, “What does that stand for?”, (and believe me, I always asked because I am relentless, people), I’d get some variation of a blank stare and a, “Huh, I’m not sure. Maybe …” Sometimes the person would try to save face: “I used to know, but …” I know every field has their jargon, but it seemed to be nonstop there. And it appalled me how it seemed that my colleagues had literally forgotten that people on the “outside” have no idea what they are saying most of the time.

A few months ago, I got rehired at this company, and I was treated to a new acronym: “PWD.” I saw it first in an e-mail about me: “Lauren is a PWD and you can set up a one-on-one with her.” What the hell is that? I thought. If I’m an acronym, I’d sure like to know what it is that I stand for in Techlandia.

So I sat for a minute and pondered, and suddenly I had it: “person with a disability.” In this e-mail, being introduced to someone I did not know, I wasn’t a screenreader expert, skilled at providing constructive feedback, or knowledgable about accessibility best practices and testing standards because I have a web accessibility certification. Nope. I was merely a person with a disability.

And then, it seemed like “PWD’s” was everywhere. The acronym bounced around my workspace like a little kid with a secret. I have not had occasion to hear it used by another person with a disability, only by able-bodied folks, and I find myself flinching slightly every time it’s uttered.

I couldn’t figure out why I was having such a negative reaction. Certainly, I am a PWD. Presumably, the people using this acronym have good intentions. But it nags at me. I find myself drawing a comparison to the phrase “people of color” and its sometimes abbreviation to “POC.” An abbreviation that I have used on occasion for advocacy purposes, and because my fingers were apparently too lazy to type out all those words.

In the context of the e-mail mentioned above, I believe my chafing has to do with my unmentioned skills. For the most part, I don’t feel that my professional skills are taken seriously. They may be comparatively meager to most people who work in tech, but they still exist. I still add value, not just because of my disability but because of the knowledge I have worked to acquire, simply because of my innate curiosity, I might add, not because of any professional development offered to me. I know that I have value logically, but I do not see it reflected back at me in the world, so it’s hard to remember it day to day. Being summarized simply as a PWD makes me feel one-dimensional and overlooked, and reenforces my general feeling that that is all I was hired for. I wonder if “POC” leaves a similar bad taste for those who are reduced to those three letters, and I feel uncomfortable with that realization. Discomfort is how we learn, so ultimately, that is ok. I’m glad for the opportunity to rethink how we commodify people. My conclusion is that acronyms are simply not cutting it, and will never truly be enough.

4 thoughts on “PWD’s, and My General Yucky Feelings

  1. It was such a strange feeling I had as I, too, tried to decipher the meaning of these letters. But yes, I definitely think my irritation is not at the letters and their meaning, but (like your reaction) at the lack of the mention of anything of substance!

  2. Agreed, without mentioning your actual qualifications, it just sounds like tokenism. We just need a PWD or a POC to show up & make an appearance to make us look good. Not because they have actual specific skills that they can contribute! I blame umpteen shallow corporate/nonprofit diversity trainings & seminars…

  3. Not right by any stretch of the imagination…. an introduction via email should be about you and the job and the skills you have to fulfill that job. The acronym doesn’t allow the person on the receiving end of the email to know you as you instead of as a PWD.

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