I am not a Hashtag: More Thoughts on PWD

  A few years ago, I wrote a post about the acronym PWD, (persons or people with disabilities). I’d like to expand on that here, because it has, as I feared but suspected, become ever more pervasive as my years of work in accessibility have progressed.
   For a bit of grounding, if you’re new here, hello! I’m a blind person. I’m also a person who is a lot of other things, but for this context, I will focus on the blind bit. I’d like to tell you a little about my employment history, which has mirrored thousands of blind people and people with other disabilities in its chaotic trajectory. I am 35, and have only worked at a company as a fulltime employee, with health care and benefits, for the past two years. (Not even two years, a year and 7 months, more accurately.) The rest of my adult life, I have either been unemployed or underemployed, working a series of temp, volunteer, and contract jobs, making minimal if any money and having no access to employer-provided health care. My parents provided me a safety net. I was extremely privileged and lucky, but many people don’t have that luck. My lack of employment and reliance on my parents’ generosity caused me incredible guilt and shame. I had anxiety and insomnia to the point that during the day, I would sometimes get lost and confused outside on the streets, or forget what I was doing, or picture how much easier everyone’s life would be if they didn’t have to deal with me any more.
     The statistic that gets thrown around is that 75 percent of blind people are unemployed. We are cautioned by some against giving this statistic, because it often does not account for retired people, people who aren’t actively looking for work, or people with other circumstances that might prevent them from working. I choose to use the 75 percent though, because it is accurate in its implications: a staggering number of blind people struggle to find work, much less build meaningful careers. These struggles come with all the consequences you’d expect: poor mental health, poverty, and continued societal oppression.
    Right now, I am lucky enough to have a job. I test experiences on Microsoft applications for accessibility and usability. Awesome, I’m lucky to have work, especially right now. That I have held a steady income throughout this pandemic has been nothing short of miraculous.
    There’s a problem though, one that makes me unhappy on a daily basis and sometimes contributes to a low-thrumming hopelessness I feel about people with disabilities being able to integrate fully into the workforce. My colleagues have been using the term PWD to refer to their customers and users with disabilities, and they also use it to refer to me and my colleagues who are disabled. In this instance, my colleagues and I are all blind or visually impaired. Yet, we are simply referred to as the PWD team. It’s as if my job title is Lauren Back, PWD. It’s as if my job role is Lauren Back, PWD. I’m never recognized for my professional skills, only my PWDness. The other day I was in a meeting and someone wrote in in the chat, “So excited about the new PWD hire!”
    Frankly, this language is extremely othering for me. I am not a PWD hire. I am not part of a PWD team. In an attempt to do the “right thing” and hire people with disabilities, we need to be careful about over-correction leading to the same issues of othering and isolation occurring in the workplace as well as outside of it. I hear people talk about wanting to make devices and apps that help people with disabilities succeed in the workforce, help them thrive and get promotions and contribute to the diverse human tapestry. Great! If that’s how you feel, don’t throw us all together on a special team and give us a hashtag so you can look noble and good to other corporations. Though I believe many people are sincere, the real way to ensure a change is to integrate, to take skill into account, to treat us like individuals with specific talents and interests and not just a interchangeable “PWD” monolith.
    One last thing: my colleagues with disabilities and I are all blind or have low vision. “People with disabilities” encompasses many more disabilities than just blindness. Would you say, “So excited for the new blind hire!” If that makes you uncomfortable, you probably shouldn’t say, “So excited for the new PWD hire!” Would you say, “So excited for the new LGBT hire!” or the new POC hire, or the new woman hire? PWD is reductive. Please treat us as individuals, with the diverse interests and talents of any able-bodied person.
    I welcome any feedback on this post and I am open to dialogue. My word is not, nor should it be, the last word. Please feel free to share this post or excerpts from it whereever you think would be helpful.

6 thoughts on “I am not a Hashtag: More Thoughts on PWD

  1. Oh sweetheart. Ever step forward takes at least 2 steps backwards. I just hate this. It is demeaning. You are just people.

  2. I hear you, lady. For decades of my life, I have run into, and disliked, labels and categorizing of people — all the while realizing the need to watch for my own tendency to categorize others at times. I like to practice “checking” myself and stop doing it to others as a disciplinary practice. I don’t like when it is done to me so I should therefore not do that to others, I tell myself! (Didn’t someone express that as a model for human interactions long ago?). At different times and for different reasons, I have chaged at being categorized by my marital status, parenthood status, alleged religious bent (people so often make assumptions without asking or truly listening to the answers), political bias, income level, body size or shape, or generational strata. So I think it’s good and IMPORTANT for those of us who encounter these things to gently (or not so gently, depending on the context) advocate for turning the tide iin the direction of simply calling and considering people as people, period. If you test software and people at your place of employment want to call you something, why can’t they call you a software tester rather than a PWD? On the other hand, does the company have an ACTUAL category of employees called PWDs? If so, I agree with you that it’s time for the company to be more reasonable. I hear you that you’re APPRECIATIVE of the benefits of full-time employment (congratulations!) . . . BUT . . . it may be time to find a succinct way to ask your supervisor to help you change the culture around labeling people with acronyms and hashtags. I have often told people to call me simply “Margaret” if they want to label me, for a starting point. From there, we can talk about whatever issues they want to discuss. But I don’t want them to start out the conversation with some presumed label for me. Finding the right ways to combat this tendency is still a work in progress for me but I consider it worthwhile to find ways to make a difference in any conversation or organization where this tendency rears its ugly head. As usual: a very thought-provoking blog post here. Thank you for reminding me how important it is not to label, categorize or limit people according to my own biases and presumptions.

  3. Hi Lauren. I don’t have an answer to your question right up front, but, I will be thinking more on this before answering. One thing I can observe from living in the middle of the country vs the west or the northwest, I can’t see that happening in most company cultures here as they tend to be more conservative. You may be in the middle of a liberal area where people think they’re being very cosmopolitan and accepting by using this term or terms since people in your area tend to be more “open” about how they refer to people instead of just people. I’m not sure I’m stating what I’m thinking in my head correctly but…..more to follow. What I would say to you as someone that has NO IDEA how you feel, is that you have the best parents and they’re the best sounding board and support.

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