Language is constantly evolving and adapting. The acceptability of common rhetoric may shift or change as communities come to discover language that best represents their identities or as the origins of words come to light. Harmful terminology regarding people with disabilities is normalized in everyday vocabulary, and advocates are speaking up about it.
Much of today’s common language is at risk of perpetuating ableist narratives, often failing to accurately convey one’s message. The inherent ableism in modern language may not always be widely evident, but learning about its impact can help to avoid causing unintentional harm in the future. By teaching kids more inclusive language from a young age, the normalization of ableist language can begin to be dismantled. Encouraging inclusive language can also help children learn word meanings and develop interpersonal communication skills.
What is ableism?
Ableism is discrimination or prejudice, implicit or explicit, against people with disabilities. Ableism is rooted in the harmful belief that disabled people are inferior to able-bodied people. It can manifest in a variety of ways, including able-bodied actors portraying characters with different abilities, uploading digital photos without alt-text or captions, lacking ramp or elevator access in buildings, and using language, as insults or otherwise, to “other” people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” With this in mind, the ADA is actually representative of a wide array of people!
How does ableism impact language?
The range of language that carries ableist connotations is vast, including insults, cliches, descriptors, and reactions. Many words with ableist ties are filler and can be better conveyed with alternative vocabulary choices. Others are words used to negatively classify people with disabilities.
For example, words like “crazy,” “stupid,” “insane,” “dumb,” and “psycho” draw on stereotypes that belittle or mock mental illness and impairments. More explicitly, using “OCD” to say you’re highly organized or “depressed” to express sadness—without a diagnosis of either—also serves to downplay the severity of mental illnesses that people manage on a daily basis. Ableism has impacted language by normalizing the co-opting of disability rhetoric by non-disabled people, especially through words that express diagnosis or mockery.
Ableism is also responsible for making the very word “disability” taboo, resulting in the normalization of alternate words that serve to make able-bodied people comfortable with the subject of disability rather than prioritizing the comfort of disabled people in their identity. Such alternate words and phrases include “handicapped,” “special needs,” and “differently abled,” to name a few, which are effective in avoiding the legal, medical, and social realities of disability. By dancing around the subject of disability, this rhetoric prioritizes assimilating people with disabilities into an able-bodied-centric society over making society accessible to all.
How can parents and children incorporate more inclusive, less ableist language?
The most significant step for parents in working toward more inclusive language is to listen to people with disabilities, especially as resources can quickly become outdated. Following disability advocates and reading or watching recent content with children that is created by people with disabilities are also easy ways to engage with the community’s conversations. It’s similarly important to note that people with disabilities may have individual preferences towards terminology, so it’s always best to ask!
For instance, there is some debate between the usage of “people with disabilities” and “disabled people.” The former is an effort toward empowerment by choosing to avoid defining people by their disabilities, while the latter is an effort toward reclamation of the word “disability” and a rejection of rhetoric that must remind people of someone’s humanity prior to their disability status.
Another rule of thumb is to do your own research! If you suspect a word may have questionable connotations, look into its origin to see if it has been used to inappropriately classify mental or physical impairments.
Even though ableism may seem deeply woven into society, there are simple changes you can make to your daily language and instill in your children! Doing so improves communication of meaning and avoids perpetuating stereotyped, belittling, or mocking ableist narratives.
- Instead of “dumb” or “stupid,” try uninformed, uneducated, ignorant, illogical, or nonsensical.
- Instead of “crazy” or “insane” (meaning intense), try shocking, awesome, amazing, incredible, fascinating, extremely, unpredictable, irrational, or unreasonable.
- Instead of “crazy” or “insane” (meaning absurd), try outrageous, unacceptable, ridiculous, bizarre, wacky, unbelievable, or unreal.
- Instead of “psycho,” try dangerous, threatening, unnerving, or chaotic.
- Instead of “OCD,” try meticulous, precise, focused, detailed or detail-oriented, organized, clean, neat, or picky.
- Instead of “lame,” try bad, boring, unpleasant, unpleasing, lackluster, insufficient, or inadequate.
- Instead of “depressed,” try sad, down, blue, upset, or tired.
- Instead of “blind” (meaning unaware), try ignorant, careless, insensitive, thoughtless, or oblivious.
While it may seem daunting to alter your everyday speaking and writing habits, the change will be a positive one for you, those around you, and your children. Navigating ableist language is a nuanced and ever-changing landscape, but the effort to unlearn it will become easier with practice and encourage the natural use of inclusive language by your children who learn through observation. Kids raised by and around people who actively avoid using ableist language will help language become a more inclusive and accessible space for people of all abilities.