Content Note: Ableist language used as negative examples.
As we walked along, my friend tripped over a raised bit of sidewalk. “Pick up your feet!” she scolded herself. I could imagine her four-year-old self being dragged by the hand as her mother scolded her in exactly those words a half-century earlier.
Oppression by default
We absorb the language that we hear around us. Until we consciously choose new patterns, we spit out the same language, unchanged. Without noticing the implications, we use phrases by default that support and perpetuate oppression. “It took balls to say that,” associates courage with cis men. “That’s so gay!” said with disdain, reinforces rigid gender roles and encourages anti-gay bullying.
We absorb a lot of ableist language, which associates negative traits with disabilities. Having a disability is not inherently negative, despite the obstacles society places in a disabled person’s way. People with disabilities have the full gamut of positive, neutral, and negative human qualities. Any of us could become (more) disabled at any time through injury, illness, or aging.
“She was blind to the consequences,” implies that blind people do not pay attention. In truth, people with visual impairments have to pay more careful attention than most to navigate the world. We can say, “She ignored the consequences,” or “She did not consider the consequences.”
“That’s lame,” to express “uncool” or “a poor effort” wrongly associates those qualities with people who limp or have other mobility impairments. We can find a way to criticize someone’s effort with more precision – if we need to be critical at all.
Respect intellectual disabilities
People with intellectual disabilities are a common target. Mistakes and questions are not “stupid,” although they might be thoughtless or unwise. Rather than equating more intellectual capacity with more value, we can give people with intellectual disabilities our full respect and stop insulting people by calling them “moron,” etc. “Dumb” means unable to speak and is also ableist when used as an insult.
Crazy does not mean bad
Another common ableist word is “crazy,” along with its synonyms “insane,” “nuts,” etc. We sprinkle them liberally into our conversation to mean unreliable, excessive, chaotic, socially unacceptable, or violent, which directly associates mental illness with those qualities.
Mental illness does not make it more likely that someone will commit violence. In fact, people living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than others. Shooting up a school or concert hall with an assault rifle is wrong, destructive, and evil. It is not “crazy.” Abusers are abusive, cruel, unethical, mean, manipulative – not “crazy.”
We use “crazy” as a slur to discredit and devalue people who are mentally ill, as well as people whose behavior we disapprove of, such as assertive, independent women. We criticize ideas that are new to us by calling them “crazy,” rather than calling them “puzzling,” “unusual,” “startling,” or “contrary to facts as we know them.”
Positive uses of crazy
“Crazed” originally meant “filled with random cracks,” like the glaze on the Small Wheel-Thrown Vase pictured above, made and photographed by Zhao Shouren. We can continue to use it in that sense.
People with PTSD, anxiety, depression, or other kinds of mental illness can choose to reclaim the word to refer to themselves.
Too little and too much
Avoiding ableist language might seem like a trivial action that barely moves the needle. At the same time, it is a concrete step we can take to make a difference in both ourselves and our culture. If everyone made a commitment to use kind, non-oppressive language, we would give welcome breathing space to marginalized groups and interrupt the subconscious reinforcement of oppression.
Avoiding ableist language might also seem overwhelming, choking off spontaneity and adding yet another reason for shame and self-criticism.
Work in progress
When we frame our language changes as a practice, we acknowledge up front that we are imperfect works in progress. We can approach the effort to change our language with kindness, one word at a time.
The first step is observation and awareness. We simply notice how we and the people around us use the word we selected. We might be surprised by the frequency and taken aback by the hidden judgments that surface.
When we are ready to take action, we can think of specific alternatives in advance. When the unwanted word pops out of our mouth, we can correct ourselves out loud and move on. “Blind … I mean oblivious.” We can also pause in conversation while we search for a non-ableist word to express our thoughts. When we visibly pause and correct ourselves, we provide others with a positive role model.
In time, the corrections will happen smoothly before we speak, and we can choose a new word to practice with.
When someone else uses ableist language, we can quietly offer an alternative. “The store was crazy today!” “It was busy?”
When we are in charge of a space and someone uses offensive words, we can say, “We don’t do that here.”
When we practice kind language externally, we also practice to be kinder to ourselves internally. We can use the same gentle retraining with our inner critic. “That was a crazy thing to say!” “Maybe it didn’t make sense…” “You idiot!” “We don’t do that here.” We all need room to be imperfect humans, internally and externally.
A lot of our ableist language not only mistakenly assumes that people with disabilities are generally damaged or broken, it also leaps to conclusions about the specific person in front of us. Behavior that looks “crazy” (nonsensical) or “stupid” (thoughtless) from the outside might make perfect sense with more information. Even when behavior may be caused by mental illness or intellectual disability, none of us are licensed to diagnose people outside a clinical setting.
We can suspend judgment, assume that people are managing their lives in a way that works for them, and stay within our own sphere of influence. If the behavior impacts us directly, we can name the impact and the change we want to see in a collaborative way, rather than judging and labeling the person.
- Fact vs myth: mental illness & violence with references, from SANE Australia
- More facts and guides about mental illness from SANE Australia
- Ableist word profile: crazy by RMJ
- “We don’t do that here” by Aja Hammerly
- Glossary of Ableist Phrases with alternatives, by Lydia X. Z. Brown
- Photo credit: Zhao Shouren