Ableist Language

A lot of words are associated with or derived from references to disability. These are most commonly used as insults, expressions of frustration or even intensifiers to underscore a point. This is ableist language. The use of ableist language often goes unnoticed. It has become a major part of today's slang, but this is a problem. Able-bodied privilege is emphasized further by the use of disability-related words as adjectives. A person's identity cannot be used as an insult or as a tool for getting a point across. Doing so is highly disrespectful and discriminatory. Disability is an identity belonging to people with impairments who face physical/social barriers that prevent them from leading lives like non-disabled people. When it is used so dismissively with negative connotations, it worsens the stigma that is already associated with disability. Statements like 'the economy is crippled by debt' create an image that disability is something to be feared and avoided, as observed by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg.

Rachel's thoughts on ableist language sums up the harrowing effect that these words have on disabled people:

'When a critique of language that makes reference to disability is not welcome, it is nearly inevitable that, as a disabled person, I am not welcome either'7.

She addresses the objections that people have to critiques of ableist language. The following explanation is based on her arguments as a disabled person and as an activist8 with some additions:

  1. The words people use may seem harmless, but they are not. Language is the framework through which humans make sense of the world, and words form a crucial part of language. Repeated use of ableist words normalizes them, erasing the associated pain. When these abusive words become an everyday staple, attitudes towards disability harden and disability rights will not be accorded their due importance.
  2. A counter-argument is that words such as"stupid" and "moron" are no longer used to mean what they initially did (derogatory terms to describe mentally disabled people). Even if this is so, one should remember how much discrimination and indignity these words are loaded with. Using 'stupid' as a tool to joke disrespects the suffering of disabled people in the past, suffering that was induced by the word and the attitudes that came along with it. When such memories are not honoured, there is every danger of society repeating its past mistakes.
  3. Bodies cannot and absolutely should not be used as metaphors because they belong to people, who possess the rights to determine how they are used.

'In the same way that a stranger should not appropriate your bodyfor his commentary, you should not appropriate my disabled body - which is, after all, mine and not yours - for your political writing or social commentary.'

  1. The socio-political consequences of ableist language are huge. 'If you routinely use disability slurs, you are adding to a narrative that says that disabled people are wrong, broken, dangerous, pitiful, and tragic.

'This is problematic as it shifts the blame to those who have been oppressed because of their impairments. It does not take into account the numerous barriers that restrict them and make them 'disabled'. Ableist language is the easy way out, absolving society of its responsibility to create an inclusive atmosphere for all.

  1. Another counter-argument runs this way: What is wrong in using ableist language to describe non-disability ideas/ non-disabled people? Rachel turns this argument on its head in her response: 'So why associate something with a disability when it's whatnon-disabled people do every single day of the week?'
  2. Some ableist language also leads to misunderstanding of actual conditions. For example, smeone who keeps changing their views often is called 'schizo' with reference to schizophrenia. However, this is not the experience of people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Writers like those on the website 'The Body is Not an Apology' acknowledges the difficulty to change9:

'Changing the way we speak is really tough. Words are the fabric of our thoughts. Just as we cannot shape a new society without fully deconstructing the old, we cannot liberate our minds without dismantling the ways we think and communicate.'

There are comprehensive lists available online of alternative words to use in place of common ableist terms such as 'crazy'. It is amazing to find out just how many other words exist that don't oppress a certain group of people! Some terms have become so fancy that the abundance of the English language has been forgotten.

List of ableist terms and alternatives from various online resources and author's experiences:

  • Use of 'stupid' or 'retarded' to mean frustrating or confusing: frustrating, irritating, annoying, obnoxious
  • Use of 'crazy' to mean intense: intense, amazing, awesome, fascinating
  • Use of 'lame' as a negative adjective: bad, awful, uncool, passé.
  • Use of 'crazy' or 'insane' to emphasize the positive/negative: really, very, considerably, significantly, quite
  • Use of 'crazy' to mean unreasonable or absurd: unreasonable, absurd, ridiculous, outrageous
  • Use of 'psycho', 'psychotic' or 'sociopath' to denote someone with a dangerous character: threatening, menacing, dangerous, evil, wicked
  • Use of 'retarded' or 'autistic' to refer to abnormal behaviour: silly, nonsensical, illogical, dorky, weird
  • Use of 'crazy' to mean something that difficult to understand or comprehend: bizarre, overwhelming, daunting, unfathomable, incomprehensible -Alternative words to 'stupid10': vacuous, ignorant, imprudent, imperceptive, misinformed, naive

Some of these terms, for example, psychosis, or autistic, when used in a diagnostic context for instance, are valid terms. The context of the use is extremely important to consider.

Also see these 40 alternatives to commonly used ableist phrases11.

next: How able-bodied privilege affects policy:Case study on internet accessibility