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.)
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.