Avoid Ableist Language

Content Warning: Descriptions of ableism and oppression, Covid-19 and examples of ableist speech.

What is Ableist Language?

Ableist language is any communication that validates the belief that disabled people/bodies/functioning are less worthy of respect than others. Let's break this down. In an ethical society, every person is entitled to equal respect. People are considered responsible and accountable for their actions, but that does not take away their entitlement to respect; it is because we respect people that we require accountability for actions that harm others.

Ableist language assumes that disabled people are less worthy of respect because they are disabled. This may happen either by deriding someone for being disabled, or using disabled people's bodies, lives or functioning as an abusive term. Many people are aware that the r-word is ableist. Words that are repeatedly used to abuse marginalised people become slurs on account of such use. However, even when words are not regularly used to bully or abuse disabled people, they may be considered ableist because they refer to disabilities and are used as derision. Examples include terms like "lame", "spaz", "stupid", etc. The predominant usage of these terms is not for disabled people associated with the terms. However, they are still ableist because their use upholds the devaluation of disabled people. Language can be devoid of slurs and still be ableist, if it serves to mock or deride bodies, functions or abilities.

This does not mean that every use of these terms is ableist. Because many terms both describe disability and are also derisive terms, they are not ableist when used as neutral descriptions, especially if the term is what the disabled person themselves uses. Eg, using the terms "Deaf", "blind", or "disabled" as descriptors when relevant in context.

Why does it Matter?

Ableist language both upholds and perpetuates ableist structures. It matters in as much as any artefact of subordination matters: it symbolises oppression, and acts as a value-signifier. It does not, by itself, maintain the oppression; but it is a part of the many ways in which oppressive hierarchies are maintained. Language impacts how people think about things. If our language regularly uses disability as a placeholder for worthlessness, we are being primed to believe that disabled people are also worthless.

You may not consciously believe it, but you will easily defer to such a stance when it is ubiquitous in society. You may, for instance, believe that mask mandates are inconvenient, and so decide not to support them because you do not need them. A lack of mask mandates has forced many disabled people into shielding at home. Many disabled people would currently be able to access public spaces if mask mandates were in place. Yet, governments have prioritised the convenience of the majority (enabled people who don't want to mask) over basic access of minorities (disabled people who cannot risk infection and therefore cannot access public spaces where people are not masked). This is how disabled people's access is deprioritised. Snide comments about people being "paranoid" serve to dismiss disabled people and minimise their concerns, entrenching the idea that the convenience of masklessness trumps access needs. We are primed to think of disabled people's access needs as not important, when we are primed to think of disabled people themselves as irrelevant.

Likewise, most public forums that will moderate other forms of oppressive language (eg. racist/misogynistic speech) are unlikely to also moderate ableist speech. This is a symptom of the problem: ableist speech is considered unproblematic because most people also regard ableism itself as unproblematic. For example, several governments issued healthcare guidelines directing hospitals to deprioritise disabled people for medical services during Covid-19.

Ableism matters because disabled people do.

Many people have already written about ableist language (see list at the end of this post). However, as long as people continue to use ableist language, we will need to keep addressing its harm.

Common Objections

When we call ableist language out, disabled people are often confronted with a slew of objections. Even where people are willing to eschew other forms of oppression in language (such as avoiding sexist/homophobic language), people will often draw the line at foregoing ableist language. For many, this is because it is deemed too difficult: ableism is so ubiquitous in our language that it takes too much effort to divest ourselves of it. For them, it is easier to try and justify ableism than to work on getting rid of it. Many others will become defensive because acknowledging that one's language is ableist is equated to admitting to being a "bad person", and nobody wants to be seen as a bad person.

Please remember: if someone is telling you that your language is ableist, it is because they respect you enough to hold you accountable. It does not reflect badly on you that someone trusts you to respond well to this. Also remember that if a disabled person is telling you something is ableist, it probably is: ableism is ubiquitous.

In this context, here are some of the common responses we hear.

1. "But I didn't abuse any disabled person! I would never use this to bully actually disabled people!"

People will sometimes try to defend ableist language by claiming that they were not bullying disabled people, or would never use those terms to refer to disabled people. However, this defence ignores the fact that the language still uses disabled people/bodies/functioning as derision; it endorses a belief that the disability is inherently worthless/derisible.

When I call a piece of art "lame", I am doing two things simultaneously: I am claiming that the artwork is unworthy of praise, or is uninspiring/banal. But at the same time, I am also equating the term "lame" to banality/worthlessness. This reinforces a connection between a disability and worthlessness. And since lame is still used to refer to an inability to walk, this language reinforces a connection between the inability to walk and worthlessness. No matter whom or what you are deriding with ableist speech, you are also reinforcing ableist values.

2. How do I insult someone's intelligence without being ableist?

You can't. Insulting someone's intellectual capacity is inherently ableist. Words like "stupid" continue to be used by people to bully and abuse disabled people of all stripes. If you find yourself eager to insult someone for their intellectual capacity, remember that nobody chooses their own intelligence. Whether by nature or by nurture, people do not have much agency over their capacity to think. Insulting that does little to change it.

Instead, consider what you're actually angry or upset about. Are you angry that someone is ignoring science? Say so. Are you frustrated that someone refuses to acknowledge wealth inequality? Express that. Are you annoyed that someone feels entitled to hurt someone else? Call that out. Are you affronted by someone being a bigot? Bigotry is always a choice, by all means, confront that.

3. "But can't words have different meanings in context?"

Absolutely. However, language is a powerful tool of construction. Language has the power to inform beliefs, perception, and behaviour. When the same word refers to both a disability and derision, we can choose not to use the term as derision. Chances are that the derisive meaning of ableist terms originated in the derision of the disability itself. If so, it definitely is ableist even with the different meaning. Even if not, as long as people still understand the word to also refer to a disability, by continuing to use these terms as derision, we choose to maintain the equation of the disability to the derision.

4. "But won't this mean we lose language? We lose some ability to express ourselves."

Sure. But language is fluid, and we create it. When we choose not to use certain terms, we are trying to dissociate certain terms from certain meanings. This happens organically all the time. We no longer use "you" as a formal pronoun, but use it informally as well. We no longer use "thou" in everyday speech. We have added many terms over the decades and lost many other terms as well. We cannot maintain static language rules even if we tried. We also gain a vast repository of unused terms that more accurately describe what we actually want to say. Instead of "this artwork is lame", I can choose to describe why I dislike it. "This artwork is boring", or "This artwork uses insipid colours", or "This artwork is derivative". Refusing to use ableist language can support increased accuracy in communication. In consciously trying not to use ableist language, we gain awareness over our own vocabulary. We gain agency over what kind of values we endorse. That is definitely worth some deliberate changes in language to many of us.

5. "What about Free Speech?"

If free speech is your defence, you already know your position is not defensible. What you are actually saying is that the reason you want to use ableist speech is because you have a right to do it. Yes, you do. Doesn't make you a better person for it, and certainly doesn't entitle you to listeners. People are equally entitled to speech that calls yours out. You have a right to free speech in the same way that you have a right to be a jerk. We're not trying to make it criminal to use ableist language, or use a broken system of sanctions to enforce it. Rather, we're trying to convince you that kindness and politeness are valuable, and societal norms have excluded disabled people for far too long.

6. "You're all too soft, I can't be responsible for your feelings! The real world doesn't care about your feelings!"

To begin with, there is nothing wrong with being "soft". There is inherent value in kindness, and claiming that people are not generally kind does not make kindness itself any less valuable. It is true that we did not hear people complaining about ableist language in the past. However, the fact that disabled people in the past did not historically have the space to do so did not make their lives any better for it. This is similar to claims of earlier generations being "hardened by war/difficult circumstances". If people are indeed "hardened" by trauma, it does not mean that people must be forced to face trauma. Rather, we can acknowledge that many people survived difficult circumstances, many others didn't, and we do not need to maintain difficult circumstances for their own sake. The goal of society ought to be making everyone's lives easier, not maintaining difficulties simply because some people faced them.

Further, ableist language is not bad because disabled people feel bad, it's bad because it reinforces the devaluation of disabled people in language and culture. This devaluation has material impacts on disabled people: we are deprioritised for medical care, denied access to public spaces and regularly face discrimination. Disabled people continue to be ignored in the Covid-19 pandemic: many countries have done away with safeguarding measures. Immunocompromised people have little choice but to shield, losing jobs that refuse to support remote work. Pandemic-era online access measures have all but vanished, making it even more difficult for disabled people to maintain communities.

Ableist language is not the cause of all these problems, far from. But it is one part of the solution, and one that we have significant control over. We may not be able to overhaul capitalist systems, but we can choose to be conscious about what values we endorse in our language. We can choose not to endorse the devaluation of disabled people, and encourage people to think about whether that is a worthwhile value system to perpetuate. We can choose to talk about ableist language as symbolic of ableism; language is an aspect of culture. In making language less ableist, we do make culture less ableist by implication.

"The real world is unkind" is a reason to change the real world, not to force abuse on everyone.

7. "What if I'm insulting myself with these terms? Can't I reclaim them if I'm using it for myself? "

Reclaiming is an act of converting a negative term that applies to you into a positive term of pride. You can reclaim ableist slurs as a disabled person. I reclaim the term "crip" as a person with limb difference, but I am careful not to reclaim terms that do not describe my own experiences of disablement. Additionally, I will never utilise reclaimed terms as abusive terms, for myself or others; it does nothing for inculcating pride in disabled identities to continue to use them as abuse. So no, abusing yourself with ableist terms still equates disability with the abuse, and cannot be considered reclamation.

8. "I can't change society by myself."

No, nobody can. It takes a critical mass of many people for societal norms to shift. You cannot, by yourself change society, but you can choose to try. The critical mass cannot form if everybody decides they cannot do anything about it. It can form if more people decide to try. Critical masses form when individuals come together to form them. You are one such individual.

9. "My language is oppressed by society, stop telling me how to use it"

Many languages are devalued in a white-supremacist culture. Many people also face censure in their use of these languages. However, there are disabled people in every culture. It may be worthwhile to also consider how our own culture(s) treat disabled people, and work on increasing the inclusion of disabled people in our languages, whatever they be. This is not a call to censure minority cultures/languages, but to seek greater inclusivity within them.

10. "This is just virtue signalling"

Yes and no. It is virtue signalling, in that you are signalling what virtues or values you support. Would you rather be signalling harm? Certainly, even the response "this is virtue signalling" is also signalling: it signals the speaker's dismissal of ableism, and the associated minimisation and devaluation of disabled people's concerns.

If you mean that it is merely performative, that may be true. Many people performatively signal support for values without actually changing their behaviour to match those values. Ideally, you would want to work on both. Refraining from ableist language doesn't, by itself, cure you of ableist behaviour; but continuing to use ableist language is, by itself, ableist behaviour.

Read More About this

Lydia X. Z. Brown, Glossary of Ableist Phrases

Lydia X. Z. Brown, Violence in Language: Circling Back to Linguistic Ableism

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Doing Social Justice: Thoughts on Ableist Language and Why It Matters

Lydia X. Z. Brown, Ableism is not "bad words." It's violence

Ariane Resnick, Types of Ableist Language and What to Say Instead

Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar, Why You Need to Stop Using These Words and Phrases