Ableism is a form of discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities “based on the belief that people with typical abilities are superior.” It exists in many forms, and one of these is ableist language. You might argue that you’ve never intentionally said words that discriminate, but ableism is deeply ingrained in our society that we sometimes don’t notice it. Ableist language hurts people with disabilities and gives a harmful misconception about them.
Today, language is a bit like stepping on a minefield. What our parents taught us when we were younger is considered offensive and taboo now. But that just means we’re learning as a generation. NPR reporter Neda Ulaby once said, “Language is living, and using language that brings more dignity to people with mental illnesses maybe not such a strange idea after all.” Here are common phrases you might not know is ableist:
In today’s context, telling someone they’re lame means they’re uncool or that something is boring. The original definition means a human or animal with restricted movement or inability to walk because of an injury. We all know at least one person who fits the traditional description of the word, someone who is confined in a world of impaired movement. These days, the phrase “That’s lame” is tossed here and there without the gravity of the literal meaning. Why should we stop using it then? As this article ends, “It’s about respecting people in all their diversity.”
Here’s another way you can say it: The next time you’re tempted to use “lame” to describe something, why not substitute it for “boring,” “lifeless,” or even “uncool”?
“Are you blind?/Are you deaf?”
We’ve all said both phrases when we’re annoyed or angry. Calling someone “blind” is a negative connotation that means they’re ignorant when in fact, blindness has got nothing to do with one’s knowledge. In the same vein, calling someone “deaf” implies stupidity when someone doesn’t understand or respond quickly enough.
Here’s another way you can say it: “Didn’t you see/notice it?” “Didn’t you hear what I said?” “Why aren’t you paying attention?”
Describing someone as “wheelchair-bound” implies that they’re imprisoned or confined to using the assistive device when in fact, it’s something that gives them freedom and mobility. The website Free Wheelin‘ describes the usage of the phrase as “not outright insults, but they evoke pity or limitations.” We all know that people in wheelchairs can freely move and go about their day independently. They also don’t spend all their time in their chairs, they get out of them to sit at restaurant booths or sleep on a bed.
Here’s another way you can say it: You can just say “They use a wheelchair.”
If you didn’t know it already, “retard” is a derogatory term you should never use. In the past, we grew up throwing that word around because, for us, it was simply a synonym for “slow” or “stupid.” Now, it’s considered an insult and said only in the most hurtful of contexts. Even if you didn’t direct it at someone with a disability, that’s still implying something negative. Now that we’ve been educated, we can, as a society, let this word go once and for all.
Here’s another way you can say it: You should specify the referenced disability. Otherwise, the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s (NCDJ) Disability Language Style Guide says you can say “intellectually disabled,” “mentally disabled,” or “developmentally disabled.”
“I’m so OCD!”
You shouldn’t be saying you’re OCD unless you’re medically diagnosed to have obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Mayo Clinic describes OCD as “patterns of unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). These obsessions and compulsions interfere with daily activities and cause significant distress.” Being a neat freak isn’t equal to OCD. Sometimes there are just some things that feel off or make your skin crawl — uneven tiles on the floor, not being able to wash your hands often — but if you don’t go out of your way to “make them right,” don’t say you’re OCD.
Here’s another way you can say it: You can use these words instead: “Finnicky,” “fussy,” “fastidious,” or even “perfectionist.”
“Are you crazy?”/”That’s insane!”
Many are now rallying to put the words “crazy” and “insane” in the same category as the r-word, meaning potentially erase them from existence. Telling someone they’re “crazy” when they do something bad trivializes mental illness. Describing a person as “insane” might lump all mental illnesses together — from instability to violence. In the medical field, they prefer the terms “mental illness” or “mental disorder.” Other words with ableist connotations you should avoid include “psycho,” “crazy,” “mad,” and “deranged.”
Here’s another way you can say it: Think of another adjective that can substitute the word in the context you’re saying it. It could be “silly,” “strange,” “atypical,” “thrilling,” “terrifying” — use your creativity.
“Crippled by ___”/”Paralyzed by ___”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes the term “cripple” as a “partly disabled person” or “something flawed or imperfect.” It’s an ableist term that boxes a person with just one aspect of their life. But recently, disabled people have reclaimed the word and used it to empower their community. There’s even an online publication called Cripple Magazine, the first-ever media company for young disabled creatives.
Here’s another way you can say it: Ask the person how they want to be referred to. You can also use the phrases “physically disabled person” and “person with a mobility impairment.” If you’re using the word as a metaphor, consider using phrases like “frozen by,” “stopped by,” and “completely stuck.”
“Suffers from”/”Victim of”
Describing a disabled person as “suffering from” or a “victim of” their disability implies they’ve got a “reduced quality of life” because of their disability. As the NCDJ says, “not every person with a disability suffers, is a victim or is stricken.” Using those phrases also connotes some form of pity that we all know disable people do not need.
Here’s another way you can say it: You should specify the nature of their disability. For example, if they’ve got cerebral palsy, you can say, “He has cerebral palsy.”
Keep in mind that this isn’t a comprehensive list of ableist phrases we should watch out for. But now that you know which ones you should avoid or change, that’s a start at least.
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