Finding Alternatives to Ableist Language
(Content notice: examples of ableist, anti-LGBTQIA, and otherwise harmful language; mention of eugenics)
As a little kid in the ’90s, I attended school and physical therapy in a racially diverse group of kids with various physical and intellectual disabilities. Besides considering my cerebral palsy something that made me unique, special, or different, I knew that disabilities were also parts of other people’s identities. I realized that many people didn’t have these experiences or that I might be some non-disabled kids’ only disabled friend. Even as a little kid, I pushed back against other kids using “gay” or the r-word as insults. “Because some people actually are!” I’d retort, standing in the playground in my walker. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I sensed that identity wasn’t an insult.
Although I had some degree of awareness from a young age, I wasn’t completely free of ableism, either. Removing ableism from our language is an ongoing process for everyone. I’ve never used ableist words like stupid or crazy to describe people, but being involved with #DisabilityTwitter taught me never to use them at all, even to disparage certain cheesy books or movies. It’s a paradigm shift to think of certain media as simply absurd or not to my tastes. It means that I don’t associate disabilities with being bad or inferior, even subconsciously. It also means that other people are probably less likely to consider me snobby or contemptuous when I dislike something they like.
Casual, ableist language always frustrates me because it’s unnecessary. Often, ableism is not the intent, and there are plenty of non-ableist alternatives. Why say lame when you mean uncool? Katie Klabusich wrote in The Establishment in 2016, “Replace ‘crazy’ with the adjective you actually mean.” This is an excellent point. Depending on the context, “crazy” could mean absurd, bizarre, preposterous, irrational, or various other words. In the past few years, I’ve stopped saying, “What a crazy day!” and try to say weird, wild, or busy instead.
Ironically, words like “insane” and “crazy” are bad habits, which crept into my speech partly in response to being told that I had a big vocabulary. As a kid, I often used big words, even incorrectly, thus annoying and confusing other kids. However, if we have big vocabularies, then we have a unique opportunity to find clear, non-ableist options. I understand that keeping up with the times and changing one’s habits is challenging. I don’t want to judge anyone for doing things differently than I do. I’m simply trying to point out biases inherent in everyday language.
Words like “crazy” and “insane” are imprecise, so they can obscure deep prejudices. The connotation is that mentally ill people are dangerous, unreliable, and delusional, or maybe constant liars. Even expressions like “pathological liar” suggest that habitual liars must be mentally ill and their perception of reality cannot be trusted. Considering that mentally ill people are at a higher than average risk for being the victims of crime, especially sexual assault, the stigma that these words carry is dangerous. From fiction to the legal system, there’s a cultural expectation that mentally ill people are dangerous and unreliable. This can lead us to be unfairly suspected of violent crime. Conversely, when we’re victims, our testimonies are often discounted. This enables predators to target mentally ill people with virtual impunity.
Clichés are expressions that were once original but now have become trite. Many figurative expressions coined by Shakespeare fall into this category. Metaphors lose their meaning when people use them automatically and start to forget that they are figurative. People often use sensory metaphors in this way. There’s usually a more direct, accessible way to say what they are trying to convey. Why use “turned a blind eye” to a problem when you could say “ignored” instead? These kinds of metaphors are ableist because they equate blindness with the deliberate, harmful choice to ignore a problem.
Because so many ableist expressions are clichés, they seem automatic and embedded in our culture. Changing them takes intent and creativity. Speaking and writing more directly also has the added advantage of being easier for most people — including disabled people, people without formal education, and English language learners — to understand. It’s both inclusive and accessible.
Yet, the easily avoidable problem of ableist language keeps recurring. I was disappointed to hear Brendon Urie sing, “And there’s a lot of lame guys out there” on Taylor Swift’s song “ME!” this year. Lame is an ableist, derogatory word for mobility disabilities like mine. Despite recent advancements in disability representation in pop culture, in some ways, not much has changed since 2003–07. The lyric is jarring to hear in 2019 and brings me back to 2003 — but not in a nostalgic way.
When I was a high school freshman in 2003, the Black Eyed Peas’ album Elephunk was released, which included the song “Let’s Get it Started.” The original version of the title contained the r-word. My small, mostly white and non-disabled, Catholic high school always played the censored versions of this song and ones with bleeped racial slurs at dances. I thought it was ironic and a little hypocritical that another song on the same album, “Where is the Love?” laments various types of bigotry.
Still, many people had no idea what ableism was in the early 2000s. I probably thought I’d made the word up independently. When I was in high school, a lot of people were still using “That’s so gay!” as a pejorative or ableist slurs like the r-word. The false and bigoted implication that there’s something wrong with LGBTQIA or disabled people is clear. Most of my high school friends would never have done this, even in the early 2000s, but it was still very common. As a disabled kid, I deliberately chose friends who were open-minded and not ableist.
Many people, even avowed liberals and progressives, frequently use ableist language. Many people might not realize that words like “moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile” were used by eugenicists. Eugenicists considered each of these words a slightly different level of intellectual disability and directly associated them with the desired eradication of disabled people. It’s both enraging and disheartening when anyone considers these eugenicist words more benign or polite alternatives to “profanity.” I’d much rather call someone an asshole than suggest that their behavior is due to mental illness or intellectual disability. Is a politician’s perceived intelligence, mental illness, other disorder really the issue? Or, in an effort to apply Occam’s razor, think rationally, and avoid speculation, is behavior really the important issue? Why speculate on diagnoses and contribute to disability stigma when other factors more readily explain abuses and crimes? Is lack of intelligence the real problem, or is it incompetence and willful ignorance? Is it a psychiatric or personality disorder, or abuses of power? For more examples, please see @painandcats_’ hashtag #WhenYouReallyMean.
More resources on ableist language: