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Ableism/Language

Last updated 12 April 2014.

For my most recent perspective on linguistic ableism and the reason that this page exists, see this post: Violence in Language: Circling Back to Linguistic Ableism

Note from 16 June 2013:

This page has received tens of thousands of pageviews since it launched, and has been simultaneously the subject of a number of angry and accusatory comments and letters as well. I never wrote an introduction to this page before, so I'm going to take the time to briefly do so now. The most frequent accusations that I receive in response to this page can fall into three general accusations that I am a) attempting to police everyone's language, b) obsessed with being politically correct, and or c) extremely hypersensitive to imagined insults and slights. I contend that none of these accusations are true.

Language is inherently political. Both as individuals and as larger social and cultural groups, it is self-evident that the language we use to express all sorts of ideas, opinions, and emotions, as well as to describe ourselves and others, is simultaneously reflective of existing attitudes and influential to developing attitudes.

The terms that are listed below are part of an expanding English-language glossary of ableist words and terms. I have chosen to include words or phrases that I know of or that are brought to my attention that meet two criteria: 1) Their literal or historical definition derives from a description of disability, either in general or pertaining to a specific category of disability, and 2) They have been historically and or currently used to marginalize, other, and oppress disabled people.

The rationale for including some of these words may be readily apparent to many visitors as meriting inclusion on this list, such as for "retarded" and "invalid." For others, however, there may be the lingering suspicion that I have opted to be overinclusive and thus, extremely hypersensitive and obsessed with being politically correct. The reason that I have listed words that may not readily come to mind when asked to consider "insults and slurs targeting disability" is precisely because so much of this ableist language is utterly pervasive both in everyday colloquy and formal idiom with hardly any notice or acknowledgement, even by fellow disabled people not using the language as part of any reclamation project. On that note, the list is not intended to condemn or scold disabled people who use any of the words included in the spirit of reclamation or as self-descriptors.

Its primary purpose is to serve as a reference for anyone interested in learning about linguistic microaggressions and everyday, casual ableism. And to the observation that some of the terms offered as alternatives carry analogous meanings, I have stated that the reason some words are included while others are not is because some words have oppressive histories and others do not. For example, the word "dumb" has a disability-specific history (referring to people who cannot speak, and often used to refer to Deaf people), whereas the word "obtuse" does not (deriving from a meaning of "beating against something to make it blunt or dull").

Granted, there will always be folks, disabled or not, who will disagree with the existence, purpose, and or scope of this glossary for a variety of reasons. This brief essay is not intended as a thorough examination of and response to every possible criticism, which would merit an entire series of essays to adequately discuss. My hope is that the glossary will continue to serve as a resource for those interested in its purpose and contents, and that criticisms of this page might now be more nuanced and more informed, given this background and explanation.


+ As a side note, it should be obvious to most readers that political correctness has little, if anything, to do with basic human decency and respect for others, and my primary concern is, in fact, basic human decency and respect for others. Also note that I emphatically insist on referring to myself and my community as autistic, which is assuredly not the politically correct terminology.

++ As another side note, it is my intention to eventually expand the entries on this page to either further explain each term's history and or to link to other pages, such as the Ableist Word Profiles from Forward: Feminists with Disabilities (FWD), that have already done so.



Glossary of Ableist Phrases

This is a list of ableist words and terms for reference purposes. Some of the entries are slurs, some are descriptions of disabled people, some are slang that derive from ableist origins, and some are common metaphors that rely on disability and ableism.

This is a living document, constantly growing, expanding, and changing. If I've missed something, please let me know!

One important note: Many people who identify with particular disabilities or disability in general may use descriptors from this list in an act of reclaiming the language. You may well too! BUT if you do not identify with a particular disability/disabled identity, it's probably appropriative to use some of those terms. (Some examples are mad and crip.)

After the list of ableist words and terms, I have included lists of alternatives to ableist slurs, descriptions, and metaphors, if you're interested in unlearning the patterns of linguistic ableism in your own language.


Blind to ____ / turn a blind eye to ____ / blinded by ignorance/bigotry/etc.
Refers to Blind people or people with visual impairments.

Bound to a wheelchair (wheelchair bound)
Refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities.

Confined to a wheelchair
Refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities.

Crazy 
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Cretin
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities.

Cripple/Crippled (by ____)
Refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities.

Daft
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Deaf-Mute
Refers to Deaf people or people with hearing impairments.

Deaf to ____ / turn a deaf ear to ____ / etc.
Refers to Deaf people or people with hearing impairments.

Derp (also herp-derp and variations)
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities.

Diffability
Can refer to any person with a disability.

Differently abled
Can refer to any person with a disability.

Dumb
Refers to Deaf people or people with hearing impairments, people with speech impairments, or people with linguistic or communication disorders or disabilities.

Handicap(ped)
Refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities.

Handicapable
Usually refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities, but can also mean any person with a disability.

Harelip
Refers to people with cleft-lip palette or similar facial deformities.

Idiot(ic)
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities.

Imbecile
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities.

Insane or Insanity
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Invalid
Refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities or chronic health conditions.

Lame
Refers to people with physical or mobility disabilities.

Loony/Loony Bin
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Lunatic
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Madhouse/Mad/Madman
Refers to an institution housing people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Maniac
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Mental/Mental Case
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Mongoloid
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities and specifically Down Syndrome. Derives from a double-whammy of racism AND ableism, from the belief that people with Down Syndrome look like people from Mongolia.

Moron(ic)
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities.

Nuts
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Psycho
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Psychopath(ic)
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Psycho(tic)
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.

Retard(ed)/[anything]-tard
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities.

[you belong on the] Short-bus/ that's short-bus material/etc.
Refers to people with intellectual, learning, or other mental disabilities.

Simpleton
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities.

Spaz(zed)
Refers to people with cerebral palsy or similar neurological disabilities.

Specially Abled
Can refer to any person with a disability.

Special Needs
Usually refers to people with learning, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, but can mean any person with a disability.

Stupid
Refers to people with intellectual disabilities (i.e. "in a stupor").

Suffers from ____
Can refer to any person with a disability.

Wacko/Whacko
Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities.



________________

Non-ableist language:
Always respect an individual person's preference for identifying or describing xirself.

Instead of an ableist word, perhaps you actually meant to say...
(more invective replacements that use profanity/swears are included at the very bottom in a separate list)

Asinine
Bad
Bleak
Boring
Bullish
Callous
Careless
Confusing
Contemptible
Coward
Crappy
Dense
Devoid of _____
Disgusting
Dull
Enraged
Evil
Extremist
Furious
Gross
Half-hearted
Horrible
Ignoramus
Ignorant
Impolite
Inane
Incomprehensible
Inconsiderate
Inconsistent
Infuriating
Insensible
Insipid
Irrational
Jerk
Lacking in _____
Livid
Mean
Nasty
Nefarious
Nonsense
Nonsensical
Obtuse
Outrageous
Overwrought
Paradoxical
Pathetic
Petulant
Pissant
Putrid
Rage-inducing
Reckless
Ridiculous
Rude
Scornful
Self-contradictory
Shameful
Solipsistic
Spurious
Terrible
Tyrannical
Unbelievable
Unconscionable
Unheard of
Uninspired
Unoriginal
Unthinkable
Unthinking
Useless
Vapid
Vile
Vomit-inducing
Without any _____ whatsoever
Wretched


For describing people with disabilities/disabled people in general:
Disabled
Has a disability
With a disability
With a chronic health condition
Has a chronic health condition
Neuroatypical
Neurodivergent

For describing people on the autism spectrum:
On the autism spectrum
Autistic
With autism [if preferred by individual]
Aspie [if preferred by individual]

For describing people with intellectual disabilities:
With an intellectual disability
Has an intellectual disability
With a cognitive disability
Has a cognitive disability

For describing people with sensory disabilities or impairments:
Blind
Low vision
Deaf
Hard of hearing

For describing people with physical or mobility disabilities:
With a physical disability
With a mobility disability
Uses a wheelchair
In a wheelchair
Uses crutches
Uses a cane
Uses a walker
Has [specific condition here]

Trigger Warning: Possible Replacement Insults Using Swears/Profanity (directly below)
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Asshat
Asshole
Douchebag
Douchecanoe
Fucker
Fuckface
Half-assed
Shitty