11 February 2014

Violence in Language: Circling Back to Linguistic Ableism

Trigger warning/content: Use or quotes of ableist slurs and language. (No profanity/swears in this post.)

The single most frequently-viewed page on this website is the glossary of ableist phrases. As with anything frequently shared and visited on the internet, reactions generally fall into one of two camps: happy and supportive, or else, highly critically or viscerally offended. Eventually, I prefaced that page with its own brief essay explaining some of the reasons for its existence. (It still receives a lot of criticism. Some of these criticisms are valid, and I continually revise the page to reflect my own process of learning and unlearning. Others span the gamut of accusations about my intentions or the page's reasons for existence.)

For example, a few months ago, someone pointed out that the list of alternative phrases assumed class and education privilege. The commenter said that a lot of the words seemed like SAT words. In response, I attempted to revise and expand the list of suggested alternatives to account for varying tones, moods, and access to education or linguistic privilege. More recently, another person criticized the list of alternatives for including profanity because swears are fairly common triggers. (At the same time, a lot of other people find swears to be the most easily accessible language. I have now added a trigger warning before a new, separate list of alternatives just for the swears, located at the bottom after everything else. I'm not going to outright delete them, though, because there's also a lot of baggage for many people who have been continually told that they should not use swears, abused for their language, or oppressed by a lot of classism and ableism in demonizing the use of swear words.)

One of the most common (inaccurate and mischaracterizing) criticisms, however, both from inside and outside the disability community, is the accusation that the list is a tool for policing language or censoring words.

So what's the purpose of the list? Why compile it at all? Because linguistic ableism is part of the total system of ableism, and it is critical to understand how it works, how it is deployed, and how we can unlearn our social conditioning that linguistic ableism is normal and just how things are or should be.

As important as it is to recognize and uncover the violence of linguistic ableism (how ableism is specifically embedded into our language), it is also critical to understand why this is important. (And this is where those who jump the gun and leap to accusations of pedantic, holier-than-thou, smug language-policing or censorship have not yet come to understand why this page, and those like it, need to exist.)

Linguistic ableism:

a) is part of an entire system of ableism, and doesn't exist simply by itself,

b) signifies how deeply ableist our societies and cultures by how common and accepted ableism is in language,

c) reinforces and perpetuates ableist social norms that normalize violence and abuse against disabled people,

d) actively creates less safe spaces by re-traumatizing disabled people, and

e) uses ableism to perpetuate other forms of oppression.

Language is not the be all end all. This isn't about policing language or censoring words, but about critically examining how language is part of total ableist hegemony. This is about being accountable when we learn about linguistic ableism, but it is also about being compassionate to ourselves and recognizing that to varying extents, we have all participated in ablesupremacy and ablenormativity. This is about understanding the connections between linguistic ableism and other forms of ableism, such as medical ableism, scientific ableism, legal ableism, and cultural ableism.

Language reflects and influences society and culture. That's why students of any foreign language often study the cultures where that language is dominant. (And that's not to dimiss the many valid criticisms of the ethnocentrism and colonialism in much area and language studies programs.) Language isn't important for silly semantic reasons, but because it cannot be separated from the culture in which it is deployed. Feminist theory, queer theory, and race theory have all analyzed how sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, binarism, and racism are embedded in language. This is the same process.

Using the language of disability (either directly or through metaphor) as a way to insult other people, dismiss other people, express your vehement loathing for them/their viewpoints, or invalidate their viewpoints is actually extremely ableist (and often sanist, neurotypicalist, audist, or vidist).

For example, I am talking about using the language of mental illness ("crazy," "insane," "psycho," or "wacko," for example), cognitive disability ("retarded," "slow," or "moron," for example), or physical disability ("crippled" or "completely blind/deaf," for example). In another example, I am also talking about using disability as metaphor.

Using the language of disability to denigrate or insult in our conversations and organizing presumes that

a.) people who hold undesirable or harmful viewpoints must hold them because they are mentally ill/have psych disabilities/are mentally disabled/are disabled in some way,

b.) having mental illness/psych disability/mental disability/any disability is actually so undesirable and horrible that you can insult someone that way (the same underlying reason why socially embedded linguistic heterosexism lets people use "gay" as an insult),

c.) it's acceptable to use ableism against one disability group while decrying ableism against another disability group (creating horizontal or intra-disability oppression) or another form of oppression against another marginalized group (creating horizontal oppression), and

d.) and that no one who is disabled in any way might actually share your opinion or be on your side,

thus actually actively excluding and marginalizing this part of our community, and making our spaces less safe and less inclusive.

For alternatives, try being more precise in your language. Maybe you meant to say one of the following (much longer list on the glossary):
- These people have completely ridiculous ideas.
- That person's viewpoint is extremely harmful.
- That idea is extremist.
- Those people have disturbing and concerning opinions.
- That comment was super problematic.
- I can't even engage with that person anymore.
- That person is a total [profanity/swear].

If you find yourself using this ableist language, please take a minute to re-examine how your perspective has been informed by ableism. This isn't an accusation or an insinuation that you are automatically an Evil Person. We have all participated in ableist structures, and are all continually learning and unlearning. But if you are truly committed to building more just and inclusive communities, then it is critical to unlearn how we have been conditioned into accepting ableism in all parts of our lives and societies, including in our language.


  1. As always, an excellently argued and thoughtful post, Lydia.

    There is, however, one point to which I would question. This would be using the following phrase as some form of legitimate criticism:
    "That idea is extremist."

    Now, there are plenty of deeply concerning extremist views out there.

    On the other hand, having a desire to live in a society free of discrimination might be considered extremist. Having a desire to live in a society where Aspies (and many other marginalised groups: see "passing") are accepted for who we are instead of facing a constant implicit (even explicit) message that we should "assimilate* or be destroyed" might be considered extremist.

    * Allusion to the Borg entirely intentional. I'm aware that might be considered offensive to many high on the kyriarchy.

    I am also aware that I hold any number of "extremist" views.
    For instance:
    * I think our species needs to decarbonise its economy as a matter of extreme urgency.
    * I think that this implies a massive shift as far down the food chain as we can go. Yes, veganism; yes, less processed "food".
    * This also almost certainly implies the abandonment of capitalist economic systems (not necessarily in favour of socialist ones: there are a number of alternatives, but there are plenty out there who would consider this view deeply extremist).

    The reasons for this include my conclusion that if we don't, the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer first and hardest from the consequence of inaction (unfairly not taking into account the fate of nonhuman animals, even entire species - possibly including our own - from this inaction).

    The fact that these views might be considered "extremist" does not make them innately problematic.


    Almost as an aside, I've been giving some thought to the term "delusional". This is a term closely associated with what are considered negative traits of some forms of mental illness. I have been accused of being delusional to my face.

    I think it's likely that we all have beliefs that might be considered delusions, although it's in the nature of delusions that the person holding those views would not consider them delusions. For instance, I'm sure I don't have any....

    I mean, as soon as you include anyone with any religious beliefs, or in the basic assumptions of modern neo-liberal economics (endless growth, infinite resources, perfect knowledge of the market, interchangeability of the means of production etc: see my comments above on capitalism) you immediately include just about everyone on the planet, and that's before you start moving into less common delusions. These might include, for instance, the biochemical model of depression and the efficacy of antidepressants as a result of this model. The list goes on.

    For instance, someone I know was placed under a mental health restraining order some years ago for believing the NSA were spying on him through his computer. He remains under this order, in spite of the Snowden revelations.

    Is the term "delusional" then *unreasonably* pejorative, given that they are delusional by any objective measure, or do we just describe all the above ideas as ridiculous?

    1. The list of alternatives to ableist phrasing are simply prods in different linguistic directions. The term extremist can carry a positive, neutral, or negative value, depending on context. For example, many of my own positions are accurately described as extremist. (You could also use the term as an adjective to say that "Lydia Brown is an extremist in her disability justice radicalism.") Its inclusion on the short list of alternatives isn't because it's inherently negative, but because many times people intend to say extreme or extremist (in either the positive or negative value) when instead they use an ableist term.

    2. Anonymous
      "I think it's likely that we all have beliefs that might be considered delusions, although it's in the nature of delusions that the person holding those views would not consider them delusions."

      "Is the term "delusional" then *unreasonably* pejorative, given that they are delusional by any objective measure, or do we just describe all the above ideas as ridiculous?"

      First, that "can't know a delusion is a delusion" feels a lot like "if you ask yourself if you're crazy, you aren't." MI ppl aren't actually as incapable of self-awareness & basic humanity as these things imply. It's a myth imo. For this to be true, a delusion would have to be any old belief that any of us (MI or not) could hold & we'd never know we were wrong until confronted with the truth at which point perhaps decades of false thought patterns would stop having an impact. C'mon.

      Furthermore, I am extremely uncomfortable treating any incorrect belief as a delusion & ignoring the historical (& current! right now!) associations between delusions & mental illness/the mentally ill. The connotations of delusion(al) make it impossible to strip its meaning down to just factually incorrect (especially because not all delusions are factual claims anyway). How would using it on non-MI ppl's beliefs (whether ridiculous or incorrect) not be specifically to add the pejorative connations? That is unreasonable to this MI person.

      Using it on MI ppl is a so bunch of that type of unreasonableness plus the unreasonableness of veering into armchair diagnosis territory, using someone's illness to undermine their arguments, etc, etc.

  2. I see your point, but I recoiled from 'extremist' because how it's used against Muslims or groups associated with terrorism ( Pakistani, Arab, Iranian, Afghan, etc).

  3. I liked most of your original list and agree, however the words "stupid" and "idiot" I see no comparable alternative nor do I find them ableist. I also consulted someone else who is also disabled (I myself am not learning impaired but I am neuroatypical) who agrees. Not sure you'll see or reply to this comment but yeah. I do agree that language is important and that's why I am very careful with my word choice. However, the words "dumb," "stupid," and "idiot" are so decontextualised as to have nothing to do with disabled people in the 21st century, and are simply not comparable to slurs. Also if you look at the history of "derp," it also has no connection to ability at all; please do your research. I hope you'll see this, I'd love to discuss this further.

  4. I liked most of your original list and agree, however the words "stupid" and "idiot" I see no comparable alternative nor do I find them ableist. I also consulted someone else who is also disabled (I myself am not learning impaired but I am neuroatypical) who agrees. Not sure you'll see or reply to this comment but yeah. I do agree that language is important and that's why I am very careful with my word choice. However, words such as idiot, stupid, and dumb have been so decontextualised that I truly don't see how you can consider them ableist ("dumb," I can kind of see your logic there, but the others, no). Also, "herp derp" or derp has nothing to do with ability at all; please do your research. I would love to discuss this further and I hope you'll see this.

    1. "Idiot" and "moron" were claimed as slang long ago, and so are no longer considered official terms--which means that, since there are no scientifically-defined idiots and morons, using these terms to insult people is generally considered fair game.

      With that said, may I suggest an insult with no collateral damage, a satisfyingly hefty two-syllable compound word without a history in medicine, and without any profanity, without even the suggestion of obscenity, despite sounding like it refers to _something_ dirty. Lady, Gentleman, or alternate-nonbinary-honorific-of-your-choice, I give you: "CHUMPSTICK."

      (as in, "pawns dont DOO that you chumpstick")

      Combining non-offensive words and mildly-offensive words can be a lot more satisfying than just cussing someone out, anyway. Which of these sounds better:

      "YOU MOTHERF***ER"

      or "Why, you fartlicking, pastehuffing, dung-smoking illegitimate sewer-rat son of an unruly camel."

  5. I have recently been confronted about my use of the word "stupid" in relation to how a particular software program handles conflicts between online and offline interactions. I was referred to your list of ableist language as proof of my infraction. While I can initially understand how someone could see any use of that particular word as potentially triggering of harmful emotional responses, after reading this article I see that the focus is on this type of language in relation to people.

    In my particular context, the word "inane" would have been somewhat fitting for the connotation and denotation implied, but I have historically suffered socially from my use of "elitist" language, and thus have been forced to adopt more common, colloquial patterns of speech in everyday interactions with others. The only colloquial alternative in the list with the right denotation was "rage-inducing" which, unfortunately, carries a much heavier connotation that was intended in the interaction. I have difficulty finding a lexical middle-ground here, and honestly I had no intention of going into great detail about the problems with the software implementation in the first place, so my only options remaining would be to go into a detailed explanation of the emotional response prompted by use of the software in this particular context, or to simply remain silent and not share my opinion at all.

    Perhaps some clarification is in order to specify in what contexts individuals should be more sensitive to their use of language, or whether people should be constantly alert regardless of context? If possible, some references to research and scholarly publications would also be extremely helpful in improving the reputation and acceptance of the ideas presented here.

    I am personally diagnosed with ADHD (predominantly inattentive) and have my own limitations with regards to mobility. I am also a transgender woman and a feminist. I am not unsympathetic to what you are saying or the motivations behind it, but I do feel as though this article (and the preamble to the word list) could benefit from some clarifications with regards to language used outside of the context of people or human behaviors.


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