Divesting Myself of Ableist Language

Content warning: Ableist language.

We don’t say the r-word anymore. But have you heard someone say one of these recently?

  • “He’s so crazy.”
  • “The weather is schizophrenic.”
  • “Our workload is insane.”
  • “That’s lame.”

I have, and I’m trying to stop. All the phrases use ableist language.

Ableism is the discrimination of people with disabilities. Ableist language is prejudiced words or phrases against people with disabilities. Disabilities can range from visible to invisible; similarly, ableist language can seem invisible to us (until we start paying attention to our words!) because the phrases are so ingrained in our cultural lexicon.

I didn’t start paying attention to ableist language until I started following writer, educator, and community organizer Mia Mingus (follow her blog, Leaving Evidence, or find her on Instagram or Twitter). Following Mia and other disability activists opened my eyes up to how dangerous the language I was using was. Even though I grew up with a parent who has physical disabilities and disabling mental health conditions, I never thought about the language I used.

When I am with my father, I am always on the lookout for people who might hassle him because of his disabilities and run interference. When we are together, I help him avoid stairs, find him scooters when we go shopping, and make sure we park close to the front of the store. Even though I take steps to make sure he was physically safe, I was using language that was harming him! I was using terminology that was supposed to be used to describe medical conditions (or worse, straight-up pejorative phrases) to describe the weather, my feelings, and people who were annoying me.

Language is powerful. With it, we can elevate, alienate, equalize, oppress, and support. Normalizing ableist language allows us to subconsciously put up a divide between us and those with disabilities. It’s time to change our language and not rely on harmful words and phrases. Language allows us to be specific, and stripping ableist phrases from our vocabulary allows us to be more impactful.

Here’s a quick list of some common ableist phrases and better alternatives that you can consider using instead!

Say This

Not That

Frustrating, annoying, irritating, pointless

Stupid, dumb

Intense, outrageous, unacceptable, preposterous, distracting

Crazy, insane

Uncool, waste of time, boring, ordinary

Lame

 

I am actively working to change my language every day. And I screw up all the time – it’s hard to change your language when you’ve been speaking a certain way for 30 years. But instead of letting my mistakes slide over me, I do my best to correct myself publicly. I will stop myself mid-sentence and say, “excuse me, that was ableist; I should have said [blank] instead.” My friends are noticing and changing their language, too. Taking small steps in changing our language can open us up to noticing and taking action on larger injustices.

Resources for Alternatives to Ableist Language

Cultural Competence

The views expressed by the blog post author are their own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Policy Research Associates, Inc.

3 comments on “Divesting Myself of Ableist Language

  • Thanks for the reminder! I have been trying to be more conscious of this too – it takes time to think of and reprogram our automatic use of words. I try to say the “weather is ridiculous” now…and that usually is a better description!

  • Great perspective! I have a 2.5-year-old at home and sometimes I catch myself using similar phrases in front of her (as I then try to quickly backpedal). Her speaking has improved immensely over the past several months, and I surely do not want her to believe that these types of phrases are OK. It can be quite confusing for a 2.5-year-old who is learning (and using) new vocabulary every day. Thanks!

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