Content Warning: This post contains uncensored ableist words and phrases in an effort to educate. Some may find this triggering or upsetting.
What You’re Really Conveying, Why It Matters, and What You Can Use Instead
Whenever I discuss ableism and ableist language, even within social justice circles, I’m often accused of: a) attempting to be “politically correct,” b) making up a new term so I can be oppressed, or c) trying to find any reason to be upset.
People are partially right. GASP! Ableism is a fairly new term, but the oppression predates modern history. If you’re not familiar with ableism, check out my blog post: What is Ableism?
Now…making up a term so I can be oppressed? I’m not the only one oppressed by ableism (Disabled people are represented in every other marginalized group) and ableism isn’t the only oppression I experience. I feel no need to add another oppression badge to my Social JustVest. I also don’t care about political correctness. I care about kindness, centering marginalized people, and I actually deplore most so-called politically-correct terminology (it’s developed by people in Ivory Towers with no lived experience and no attempt at consensus). And trying to find a reason to be upset? No thanks. My doctors have told me I’m not allowed to do that any more.
Basically, ableism (and its most encountered form, ableist language) is real and I have no desire or inclination to make it up. I don’t benefit from its creation, its existence, I’m actively harmed by it.
The 9 Phrases
1. “Don’t listen to her! She’s crazy!” or “That party was crazy” or “Read these 25 Crazy Foods You Can Make!”
- Etymology: Came from the Old Norse for “krasa” or “shatter” and then to Old English meaning full of cracks which over time led to use to describe mentally ill people.
- Primary dictionary definition: “mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way”
- Newer uses: extreme, unbelievable
- Message sent: “crazy people aren’t to be believed” or “crazy looks like extremes”
- Commentary: Why not just say unbelievable or find a better word to replace extreme instead of bringing in a word that’s been used to oppress the mentally ill? This quote from Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper really explains it well: “Crazy” was a way to shut people up, disregard them entirely.” People have never stopped using crazy in a negative way to degrade, silence, and control mentally ill people. Non-mentally ill people may say that it’s just a word, but this is a word with a long history of oppression, and to try and erase it or sanitize it so you can use it in place of “very” or “extremely” instead of choosing a different word is inconsiderate at best and deliberately harmful at worst!
- Alternatives: unbelievable, extreme (or replace the whole phrase), amazing, incredible, unlikely,
- Note: When coming up with alternative words for crazy, if you’re trying to describe another person’s mental health, reconsider. Is it your place? Is it necessary?
2. “The economy was crippled by the recession”
- Etymology: “to creep”, it’s been used to describe Disabled people since the 1300s
- Primary dictionary definition: “unable to walk or move properly; disabled.”
- Message sent: “I consider it a negative thing to be crippled (Disabled) so I use it to describe an economic catastrophe”
- Commentary: Yes, more definitions have been added to “crippled” but what makes it ableist is that people are using a word historically associated with disability and using it as a negative, as though disability is inherently negative.
- Alternatives: ruined, tanked, debilitated, destroyed, and devastated
3.“We turn a blind eye to atrocities”
- Primary dictionary definition: “unable to see, sightless”
- Message sent: “I consider blindness a choice and that it’s appropriate to use blindness as a metaphor. I think that blind is synonymous with willful ignorance.”
- Commentary: Again, there are additional definitions, but using blindness (or deafness) as a metaphor for people’s deliberate horrible behavior, making a comparison (unwitting or not) between blindness and ignorance is unacceptable.
- Alternatives: ignorant, ignore, apathetic, uncaring, unaware, uninformed,
4. “Stop treating me like an idiot!”
- Historical definition: like with imbecile and moron, idiot was an actual medical term used to categorize people with “profound intellectual disability”
- Primary dictionary definition: “a stupid person”
- Message sent: “People with intellectual disabilities are treated as less than human and you’re treating me as less than human and I don’t like it because *I* deserve better, since I’m not *actually* intellectually Disabled.”
- Commentary: Words like stupid, idiot, moron, dumb, and imbecile are all words that are used to specifically oppress people with intellectual disabilities. They’re also used against developmentally and cognitively Disabled people. These words have power. They were once a medical diagnosis and today they’re used to dismiss and harm. They’re used to establish a hierarchy of worth. “Praise your kids for their intelligence!” “There should be an IQ test to run for government office!” “The world would be a better place with fewer stupid people!” As though the problems in our world are created by those with intellectual, developmental, and cognitive disabilities and NOT those with privilege and therefore power. As though intelligence is the solution and not kindness and respect. You may argue that you’re not talking about “actual” Disabled people when you use this language, but you’re still creating that hierarchy and you’re still creating a society that devalues Disabled people. Like I said in previous blog posts, your words have a ripple effect. Create a positive ripple.
- Alternatives: use words that don’t relate to intelligence as a measure of worth.
5. “But you don’t look sick/disabled!”
- Message sent: “I think there’s only one way to look sick/disabled” “I’m unknowingly invalidating your lived experience.”
- Commentary: This is usually a case of intent vs impact. You may not intend to offend the person, but your intention is pretty irrelevant here. Often times, when someone doesn’t “look” sick/disabled that means they’ve had to struggle to get accommodations and a diagnosis. It means they’ve been dismissed, harassed, and accused of faking. There is no one way to look sick or disabled. Maybe you’re trying to compliment the person but try a different way because being Disabled is part of our identity and being dismissed isn’t a compliment, it’s a reminder of our constant struggle to be taken seriously socially and in a medical environment. It also reminds us that society has an incredibly rigid idea of what sick and healthy, Disabled and non-Disabled looks like and this concept prevents people from getting the help they need, often times, until it’s too late.
- Alternatives: let the person know that they look great if that’s what you’re trying to get across
6. “The weather is so bipolar!” or “One second I’m mad and the next I’m sad! I swear I’m bipolar!”
- Message sent: “I don’t actually understand what Bipolar Disorder is and instead of taking a few minutes to find out, I’ve decided to make light of a serious mental illness that affects the quality of life of millions!”
- Commentary: Bipolar Disorder is not feeling mad one second and sad the next. It’s periods of (hypo)mania and depression. Yes, bipolar can be used appropriately as an adjective in certain contexts (for instance chemistry or geography), but using it as an adjective in the mental illness sense in a way that seems to downplay others’ actual reality and furthers people’s misunderstanding of Bipolar Disorder. It contributes to stigma, fear, and it spreads misinformation. However, if you have Bipolar, and you’re describing your symptoms or reclaiming, there’s nothing ableist about referring to yourself as bipolar.
- Alternatives: unstable, mercurial, volatile, unpredictable
7. “Stop using that as a crutch!”
- Primary dictionary definition: “mobility aid that transfers weight from the legs to the upper body. It is often used for people who cannot use their legs to support their weight”
- Newer use: an excuse
- Message sent: “I consider a crutch a weakness or an excuse. People should be able to get by without mobility devices!”
- Commentary: Just really think about the message sent here and how it affects people who need crutches to get around. It plays into the idea that Disabled people, including mentally ill people, use their disabilities as an excuse if they show weakness or if they need accommodations.
- Alternatives: the phrase is just unkind and confrontational in general, rethink
8. “He stands up for what he believes in!” or “Stand with those affected!”
- Primary dictionary definition: “to support oneself on the feet in an erect position”
- Idiom definition: “confront fearlessly” “to refuse to compromise””to defend” “to support” “an expression of strength”
- Message sent: “I believe that strength and support is synonymous with abledbodiedness and the ability to stand.”
- Commentary: I’m sure some will argue this is “nitpicking” but when every expression having to do with disability is somehow a negative and every expression having to do with abledness is considered a strength or a virtue, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The words we use to describe our world help construct our reality. We need to be more intentional.
- Alternatives: Solidarity with, support, together with
9. “You can’t hang out? Lame” or “That movie wound up being so lame!”
- Primary dictionary definition: “(of a person or animal) unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot.”
- New Use: “uncool”
- Message Sent: “I think disability is uncool”
- Commentary: Most people who use the word lame in this way aren’t aware of the definition or history, but that doesn’t make it okay. The reason the word lame has the negative connotation it does is because of it’s original definition. Because in abled society, disability is considered negative. Many of us have stopped using gay as a pejorative. It’s time to do the same with lame and words like it. It has the same effect on Disabled people.
- Alternatives: ridiculous, bananas, shit, what a letdown, sad, fudge muffins, crap, craptacular, craptastic
Words That Describe Abledness and Disabledness
Maybe you’ve noticed through reading this blog post the massive double standard in how we describe abledness vs disabledness and the words we associate with each. Abledness is associated with strength, conviction, morality, independence, values, ability and overall has a positive association. Disabledness is associated with weakness, helplessness, feebleness, lack of fortitude, codependence, neediness, inability, and overall has a negative association. All of the words and phrases listed above associated disability with negative qualities. How do you think that affects Disabled people? When you use the words that describe disability as a way to insult someone, (Disabled or abled), don’t you think that impacts Disabled people, and more importantly, don’t you think that very clearly describes the ableist society that we live in that it’s so widespread and acceptable?
Coming Up With Alternatives
Autistic Hoya has an excellent guide to ableist language with a list of alternatives but I also think you need to be personally thoughtful. Stop. Take a moment. What are you trying to express? What’s the point that you’re trying to get across? Too often we rush to communicate and that’s when we use language that’s harmful. When we take the time to think about the people around us and the impact of our language, that’s when we make better choices. I doubt you really think that the party you went to was “crazy” or that the person’s eye was “blind”…try to express what you really mean. Be intentional in your word choice and you’ll notice a difference not only in reducing ableist language, but in communicating more effectively.
Are You Being Ableist?
There are times when someone might use an ableist word and not be ableist. And there are other times when someone could use a seemingly benign word and be ableist. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine if you’re being ableist (this is just a guide):
- Are you using a word associated with disability?
- Are you using it to mean something negative?
- Are you Disabled yourself?
- Are you in a position to reclaim that particular word?
- Are you using it in a reclaiming way (not as a way to disparage others or in a way unrelated to the definition)
Language is a part of culture. Please help create a culture that values Disabled people. We deserve better.
I hope you found this educational or helpful in some way. If you did, please share it widely, comment, and like!