**Content warning: This article contains references to discrimination, stigmatization, microaggressions, and other forms of violence against people on the basis of race, disability, and other social statuses.**
Words Matter: Why I Embrace Anti-Ableist Language: by Catkin O’Grady
Ableist language–we see it, hear it, and sometimes even use it ourselves, often without realizing that we’re doing it. It’s so entrenched in our language that it slips easily from our tongues. We see it on social media when our friends complain about a politician and exclaim, “He’s such a psycho!” We hear it when a family member expresses frustration over something by saying, “This is so dumb!” And we say it when we feel like we’re over-doing something: “I’m so OCD!” But why does this happen, and why should we strive to not use ableist language?
First, let’s define ableism. According to disability justice advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown, ableism is:
- Oppression, prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against disabled people on the basis of actual or presumed disability.
- The belief that people are superior or inferior, have better quality of life, or have lives more valuable or worth living on the basis of actual or perceived disability.
(Brown, Lydia X. Z. Autistic Hoya. “Definitions,” 2011-2020.)
It’s baffling that ableism is prevalent in our society, especially since so many of us are disabled. According to the CDC, “61 million adults in the United States live with a disability” and “26 percent (one in 4) of adults in the United States have some type of disability.” If we look back at American history, however, it’s apparent that disabled people have long been othered–stigmatized due to their inability to fit the able-bodied ideal of normalcy–and that this has also been used to discriminate against people based on their race, ethnic group, gender, and other social factors. Scientific racism, for example, has been used to further the agenda of white supremacy, and this has influenced terrible policies and acts such as the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Tuskegee Study, the Nazi Euthanasia Program and Aktion T4, and even the academic ableism seen in today’s universities.
Human beings are an ever evolving species. Our best qualities include the ability to reason and empathize with others. Unfortunately, humans still possess an inherited fear of the unknown. This means that anything that we perceive as outside of normal is something to be avoided and feared. I’ve heard people say they would rather be dead than disabled. But ask any disabled person how they feel about it, and most times they will express pride in their status. This is because society disables people, not the other way around. Disabled folx are disabled by the barriers they face in life, whether physical (e.g., inaccessible buildings) or invisible (fewer work opportunities for the disabled). Ableist language stems from this prejudice, and it’s time for us to evolve beyond this harmful practice.
How can we avoid using ableist language? One way is to consider the words we’ve grown up hearing and using. For example, I was having a conversation about someone whose argument I disagreed with, and I blurted out that they didn’t “have a leg to stand on.” This is an ableist metaphor, used to describe a weak argument, but which further implies that being an amputee is something bad. I immediately realized my blunder and said “Oops, Ouch!,” a phrase that my partner and I use when we inadvertently misgender someone or say something ableist or inappropriate. The goal is to condition oneself to weed out these internalized ableist words from our vocabulary, as well as challenge our internalized beliefs about disability.
We should also extend this mindfulness about ableist language to writing. I cringe whenever I see an article say something like, “COVID-19 is crippling our nation” or “politicians have turned a blind eye to the plight of the poor.” Ways to combat ableist writing include being mindful of our own writing and correcting it as necessary, talking with others about ableist language, writing letters to editors or authors, writing blog posts (like this one!), and learning more about disability and ableism. Also, please try to be as empathetic as possible when talking with friends who have used ableist language. Sometimes, even when you feel like you’re being kind, they will take things the wrong way. I have been unfriended on Facebook by a fellow disabled person, even when I tried to be kind. However, if we don’t speak out against ableism, it will continue to happen in our society.
We must also keep in mind that many disabled folx, similar to LGBTQIA+ folx with the word “Queer,” have reclaimed ableist descriptors, such as “Crip” or “Mad.” This is done to empower themselves as disabled or as people with a mental/psychiatric/neurological condition. For example, I identify as not only Queer, but also as Crip, due to my many physical conditions, some of which limit my ability to move and be productive, as well as Mad, due to my Generalized Anxiety Disorder (“GAD”) and a history of depression. I further identify as Neurodiverse, also known as Neuroatypical or Neurodivergent, due to my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) along with auditory and sensory processing issues. Like many disabled folx, I am proud of who I am. And, while I understand that my conditions do cause me difficulties in life, I know that this is not because I’m damaged or abnormal; it’s due to how society frames disability. So, remember, if you’re disabled it’s ok to reclaim your power by using descriptors such as “Crip,” but that’s your choice–some disabled folx still consider it a slur. But if you’re not disabled, you should never use that word to describe a disabled person.
To learn more about disability justice, check out Sins Invalid and their Ten Principles of Disability Justice. Some great advocates to follow include Lydia X. Z. Brown, Imani Barbarin, and Alice Wong.
Lydia X. Z. Brown – https://autistichoya.net/bio/
Definitions – https://www.autistichoya.com/p/definitions.html
Scientific racism – https://apa.nyu.edu/hauntedfiles/about/timeline/
Chinese Exclusion Act – https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/chinese-immigration
The Tuskegee Study – https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm
Nazi Euthanasia Program and Aktion T4 – https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/euthanasia-program
Neurodiverse – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurodiversity
disability justice – https://www.sinsinvalid.org/news-1/2020/6/16/what-is-disability-justice
Sins Invalid – https://www.sinsinvalid.org/
Ten Principles of Disability Justice – https://www.sinsinvalid.org/blog/10-principles-of-disability-justice?rq=ten%20principles
Lydia X. Z. Brown – https://autistichoya.net/
Imani Barbarin – https://crutchesandspice.com/
Alice Wong – https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/