For at least a year, I’ve been making a concerted effort to stop using ableist language in my normal way of talking. This means not saying things like “crazy”, “lame”, “stupid”, “dumb”, and other words that are rooted in current or past ways of describing people with mental and/or physical disabilities.
This has been…. harder than I initially thought it would be. There are a *lot* of words that are rooted in ableist attitudes. And they get used a *lot* in normal day-to-day conversation. So it takes work to stop using them. And I’m not even really there 100% of the time yet. But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about today. I wanted to dig into my reasons for making this change, (and hopefully to inspire at least some people to do the same).
For a long time I was a person who resisted this effort, in part because it was extremely daunting for the reasons described above. But also, I really felt like (at least this is what I told myself) at least some of these words are so far removed form their original ableist roots that they no longer are problematic. When people say something is “lame”, they aren’t meaning that it’s like a person who has trouble walking, right? Language changes, after all.
The thing is, I think that most people who at least dabble in caring about social justice know that this argument doesn’t necessarily hold water. Because most people who care about social justice don’t use the phrase “that’s so gay!” to describe things that they think are silly or absurd or bad. Because we mostly understand that that usage harms gay people (and queer people generally).
The thing is, the people who *do* say that things are “so gay!” will usually tell you that what they are saying has nothing at all to do with gay people. That’s not what that word means to them when they use it in that way. But we still understand that this secondary usage of “gay” is directly connected to the concept that “gay” could be synonymous with “bad”, which is directly connected to the idea that being gay is bad. And it is worth it to avoid perpetuating that implicit idea.
I think the reason a lot of people (me included) have trouble seeing this same connection as clearly when it comes to ableist language is because most of these words have a much longer history of having been used in the colloquial sense to describe bad things, uncool things, silly, absurd, and ridiculous things. And so they connection between them and their roots is no longer felt to viscerally. For many adults today, the usage of “that’s so gay!” is a new thing that has happened in our lifetimes, and is directly connected to the homophobia in our culture today, and that’s why it’s not a linguistic change all of us chose to embrace.
But ableist language is something we grew up with. It has been everywhere, our entire lives. It’s been normalized by literal generations of usage, to the point where we feel not only it’s totally natural and normal and unproblematic, but also somewhat immutable.
And that’s what I thought for a long, long time. But then I realized what it really means that these words have been so deeply embedded in our language for so long that they seem impossible to escape.
The pervasiveness of casual ableism in our language tells us something about how deeply embedded ableism is in our culture. How normalized, how so-very-naturalized that we don’t even notice. We think that that’s just the way things are, just the way things have to be.
This language, when you hear it, when people say it, it communicates something about just how long people with disabilities have been marginalized and oppressed, been considered less than, unworthy, synonymous with all things bad and uncool and ridiculous. The fact that we have been doing this for decades, for generations even, isn’t an excuse.
The fact that we have been doing this for decades and generations should tell you that we are way overdue for a change. It tells a story of generations of pain and oppression. And that should make you care more about stopping it now, not less. Historical ableism shouldn’t get a pass just because it’s old. And you don’t get a pass for saying things just because your parents and grand-parents said them – our parents and grand-parents believed lots of terrible shit, in most cases, and we do our best to be better than that, because we have the tools available to know better than that. We are more connected to more people with different abilities, and we know better than to dismiss them as synonymous this badness, uncoolness, and as worthy of ridicule (which is what ridiculous really means).
Being more thoughtful about the words you use has a lot of great benefits:
- It can be part of a mindfulness practice that helps you think more consistently about and be more aware of ableism and to give more thought to accommodation and accessibility generally, beyond the language you use.
- It sends a message to people with disabilities – many of them will notice that the words you use do not put them down, and they will appreciate that. Much like queer folks sometimes decide whether or not someone is safe for them to come out to based on whether they say “that’s so gay!” (even though often times the people who say it aren’t particularly homophobic, it’s impossible to immediately tell the difference between them and the ones who are), people who actually actively care about disability justice will take note of the presence or absence of ableism in your speech.
- It also means using less euphemistic language a lot of the time, and saying what you actually mean more directly than most ableist language does. I’ve already pointed out the directness of “ridiculous” above. Why ridicule something by declaring it to have a disability of some sort (lameness, dumbness, etc) when you can literally declare it worthy of ridicule?
We can do better. You can do better. So what’s stopping you?
I know it’s daunting. But there is help! Below are some links to resources providing common ableist phrases that you might consider avoiding, as well as lists non-ableist alternatives to those words. Learn some new words! It’s good for you!
- A good place to start This resource provides alternatives to the language I’ve highlighted here, which I think of as the big four of ableist language. It doesn’t stop there though!
- Ableist words and terms to avoid from Autistic Hoya. A much more comprehensive list, with alternatives listed at the end.
- The is this ableism tumblr has also collected together a list of resources for eliminating different kinds of ableist language