Words Matter

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On Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. It was such a fun event and the feedback was positive and embracing…makes me feel like I did something right!

However, the story I’d like to share came in a private conversation with Patrick, the Director of Patient Experience at “The Beth”. Before I share this insight, let me give you a little Marcus Engel philosophy…

Having the honor to share my story with the great people at “The Beth” this past Friday!

When I first lost my sight, it was the early 90s and “politically correct” language was still thought of as this ridiculously liberal notion of sugar coating everything so it sounded better. Quite possibly, this is because I was from a small town in Missouri. With my white, middle class, rural, Protestant upbringing, I guess I can use the excuse I didn’t know better.

So, when I was first told I’d never see again, I asked, “Am I blind?” Yet, there was a part of me that wondered, “Is it okay if I call myself blind? Or, do I have to use the term ‘visually impaired?’ Or ‘visually challenged?’ Or ‘sight difficulties?’” I just didn’t know. And, I didn’t know if it was okay for other people to refer to me as blind, either.

As I got a little more experience and maturity behind me, and especially as I started working with the disability support services offices at college campuses across the country, I started to adopt the “person first” way of speaking. Like, “Joe is a blind man” became, “Joe is a person who is blind” or “Joe is a man who is blind.”

While I began to use this slight difference in language, I didn’t trip on it much. Like, if someone said, “Joe is a blind man”, I wouldn’t get all up in arms and correct it. I would just be sure I was using person first ways of speaking.

Which brings me back to my story from my time at The Beth. Before a keynote, I was talking to Patrick about the hospital, Newark in general, their specialties and bragging rights of the facility, etc…and then I totally stuck my foot in my mouth by NOT using person first language.

I asked, “Do you have a lot of indigent patients?”

Patrick paused…just long enough to let me figure out I’d said something wrong. “We try not to use the word ‘indigent’, and instead we say, Beth Israel serves the needs of the community”.

God, he’s so right! In my quest for knowledge, I’d just broken my own rule. I’d put this population of patients in the category about their socio-economic status instead of looking at their universal humanity. How could I be so stupid?

Patrick gave me grace with this hiccup…and I got some reinforcement to my own rule. People are people. Humans are humans. That is our basis. To see individuals by their socio-economic status, their race, their gender, their abilities or disabilities, their religion…all these things serve to separate us from other humans.

I don’t want to be separated from other humans. I want universality of all. If I see others as different, then that gives other human beings the ability (dare I say…the right?) to also see me as different. We all have differences, certainly, but it is our humanity that is the glue that binds us together.

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  • Kary Gillenwaters


    I love this post! Thank you for the reminder of how easy it is to for ALL of us to use language other than intended. It is a great call for all of us to practice self-awareness and to honor the continuous attention and commitment to practicing inclusive language that connects us and meets our differences with honor and compassion.

    It is especially timely at this time in our nation’s history. Thanks for putting into words what has been on my mind so beautifully.

    With humble appreciation,


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