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.

    1. I also believe that 'derp' and 'herp derp' are fairly new terms (from memes) intended to mock ignorance and clueless gaffs. I'm sure someone has used them in an ableist way before, but that is different than having an embedded ableist meaning.

      My understanding growing up was that it was okay to call an action (or perhaps an object) stupid, but not a person. The implication was that the word meant "bad decision", which no one is immune from, but it was insulting to label a person "incapable of making good decisions". Just a thought.

    2. IMO, stupid is arguable. I don't use it. It's a lazy word and usually used when ignorant is what's actually meant. But it's arguable that it's not ableist.

      Can't agree on idiot and dumb. Idiot is ableist for the same reason retarded is. It was a clinical diagnosis, not all that long ago.

      I disagree that dumb has been decontextualized.

  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."

    2. If what you said about idiot and moron is true, it's also true of retarded.

      I disagree. All three are ableist.

  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.

    1. Frustrating or inefficient are words that may work, and online synonym dictionaries can offer plenty of options that may more accurately or specifically convey what you're trying to express that aren't ableist.

      I'm autistic and ADHD and definitely think stupid is ableist in almost any context. Do I sometimes say it without thinking in casual conversation? Absolutely, but I'm working on avoiding it completely.

      I'd also say that sometimes people describing the language of others as "elitist" can be somewhat ableist, as a lot of neurodivergent people speak in unconventional and specific/particular ways due to fear of being misunderstood, a need for effectiveness, having learnt language and interactions more from reading old books than from talking to people, etc.

      Does that mean that some language is inaccessible because of education being less available to some demographics, classism, and the fact that many people don't have English as a first language or may have disabilities that limit their vocabulary? Yes. Of course that's still an issue. But hopefully in these cases people would be willing to ask for clarification and things can be explained in different terms that they understand

  6. In a book that I'm working on, I am using the word "deranged" to describe a military officer who perpetuated such cruelty that I cannot think of a better word. The book is based on my experience as a Dept of Defense whistleblower, and the OSC case that followed. I think there are times when people have to make their own choices about words. How the words are perceived by others is not in the control of the speaker, but of the listener. Of course we need to have sensitivity and consider how others may perceive our words, but this hyperfocus on ableist language has become OCD. Neurological hypersensitivity runs in my high performing family of workaholics and we are challenged with anxiety related issues. I was an autistic child with delayed language until age five. Even though I am on the spectrum, I believe I am capable of making my own interpretations about what others say, even when they use "ableist" language. I try to understand where it is coming from. I do not consider autism a disability but a gift. It is the anxiety related disorders that often are comorbid with autism that cause the disabilities. If we are so obsessive about offending others that we have to walk on eggshells, then that is representative of care taking behavior that is "enabling". I believe there may be a time and a place for any word....I even find myself using four letter words sometimes for lack of anything stronger, but I am usually conscious of my audience. I think instead of hyper focusing on control, and telling others what words they can use, we just need a general rule that kindness is better than cruelty when interacting with others.

    1. You just said that "this hyperfocus on ableist language has become OCD." Let me share why that in itself is harmful, and how it has affected me materially and career-wise in the past:
      As an autistic person of color with OCD, I am often tardy everywhere thanks to getting caught up in compulsions (no matter how early I start getting ready or how early I get somewhere) because of not moving on, no matter how much I want to. It's using OCD in contexts like these that led me to lose a job once.
      In an attempt to share that I have OCD with a colleague at work to request accommodations, the coworker responded laughing and saying "OMG I'm so OCD too, you should see my room!" Of course I didn't feel comfortable continuing the conversation and trying to get taken seriously for my struggles, which are the same reasons they let me go. I didn't feel comfortable requesting accommodations from someone who thinks OCD is a character trait that everyone has, as it obviously wouldn't be taken seriously as it is something many think is "controllable" and really isn't. If people knew what it is really like, especially in the ways it is manifested that are at odds with current stereotyped representations, it would not be used inappropriately as many words you used here are.
      It's problematic to use disabilities as adjectives because it makes them lose the meaning. SO many elementary-aged kids now use "ADHD" and "OCD" as adjectives, as you are doing here. The very real effects of having these are then delegitimized, to where when someone opens up about their own experience, we aren't taken seriously.
      So actually, using words you used just in this post, is misappropriating them from their necessary uses in mental health. "hyper focus", "obsessive", we really aren't being considerate then of the reality of what it's like to experience these things.

    2. Strongly agree with and appreciate this response. It has also helped me to realize that my own OCD affects my time management when I previously only connected that to ADHD and inability to accurately percieve/judge/estimate the passage of time and how long something may require. Gonna go look into advice from other OCDers on the topic, thanks!

  7. Thank you. Disrupting the normalizing of oblivious privilege is always good.

  8. 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.

    1. Why do you have to be pejorative of the *person*? Why not just say "that was definitely a mistake you've made before, it's getting ridiculous."

  9. Your essay & the following comments might as well be in Greek, as far as I am concerned..What on earth is linguistic ableism ?

  10. Further comment: what are the criteria for your approval? This says to me you squelch or ignore comments that may be critical.

  11. Thank you for this and the related post. I am from India and speak, read, write two other languages fluently (and understand a few more). I have been thinking recently about the inherent aggressiveness (or mildness) in languages, and how the differences may impact our personalities. Growing up with a non-English mother tongue, I don't recall an equivalent of the response for this for example: "Can I ask you a question?" or "I've a question."
    "Yeah, shoot!" In my language, the response usually translates to, "Yes/yeah, speak." or "Yes/yeah, what?"

    I know this is a very small example. But, I am wondering if the language we grow up with id directly related to our personalities and perspectives.

    Thanks again for your good work. And continuous reminders to be mindful of what we say and mean.

    ~ Pari.

  12. In discussing linguistic ableism with others, and even in some of the comments on this post, I have heard others insist that some words with ableist origins (particularly "idiot" and "stupid") are no longer problematic because they have become so decontextualized from their original use. I have mixed feelings about this. It's true that when someone calls their friend an idiot for doing something thoughtless, disability is probably the furthest thing from their mind. But I cannot shake the sense that insulting someone's intelligence or intellectual capacity is inherently ableist, no matter what words you use for it.
    I am also very aware that such terms are still used to perpetuate violence against disabled people, which almost brings their meaning back around full circle. These words are no longer diagnoses, and many people have no idea they ever were, but they still know what they mean well enough to use them to deny agency and respect to people who are or act "like a disabled person." Because that is really what you are saying when calling someone stupid or an idiot, you are saying they either are or are acting like they are "mentally deficient" as an insult. That's ableist and there's no way around that.
    I also think there are many other words that are more widely accepted as problematic by people who know their origin that most people do not know the origins of anymore. For example, most people have no clue that g*psy is a slur used for the Romani people. In fact, most have never even heard of the Romani people. They think the slur refers to a particular style of dress or perspective on life. That does not mean that they shouldn't change their language once they learn where the word comes from. It still matters.
    All that said, I also recognize that it can be difficult to find a suitable alternative without sounding unnecessarily formal or more intense than intended. In day to day conversation I usually don't care about that, but in writing those nuances of tone can be very important. There are times when I struggle to figure out what else to use. Because these words are so normalized, there seems to be a dearth of terms of equivalent tone and intensity that are not even more distinctly ableist. This is because we have not normalized the use of more specific language to convey our criticisms and frustrations casually, which is something we can only do through out individual choices.

    I'm not sure what my point is here. These conversations are hard, and I have been disappointed by many people's unwillingness to listen, even if in the end they still disagree. I wish our society never got to be like this, and I wish the people who seem to care so much about other causes demonstrated the same concern for disability rights and inclusion. I know we are not alone in this, but sometimes it really feels like it.

  13. Hi, I found your glossary a while back through a twitter thread about ableist slurs. It was illuminating on how much is normalized in our language and its something we all need to work on. However, I'm curious of the word "fool", "foolishness", and "foolhearted". It's variations and usage are different depending on context. Sometimes it's meaning is similar to "stupid" or "dumb", other times its similar to "silly", "childlike", "recklessness" or 'ignorant/ignorance".

    In its (possibly medieval or older) context, fool was used to mean someone of low intelligence or someone who behaves odd due belonging to a different culture, belief, or way of living. But it's modern version means someone who is ignorant, willing to chose ignorance or bigotry over knowledge and empathy, or choosing to do something that is high risk but knowing of the danger of the risk.

    I've seen a few people discuss how "fool" is ableist based on its older context, but there's also some discussion on how fool lands in more of a gray area depending on context in the situation and how its used.

    Here's a link to some examples of "fool" and its related usage and terms (some are ableist while others point to ignorance): https://www.etymonline.com/word/fool

    Here's also someone discussing "fool" vs "stupid": https://tonidorsay.tumblr.com/post/84547712014/how-is-fool-not-ableist-when-stupid-is-hypocrisy

    I'm autistic and I often heard this word in the more modern version, often in times when a person is actively making a decision that may harm themselves or others and in the context of choosing ignorance over knowledge. I also use it to describe something in a similar context. "Foolishness" and "foolhearted" feel similar to "recklessness/reckless" and "silly" or "goldenhearted". In tarot, the Fool card depicts a young innocent person who is new to the world and unaware of its hazards. It's context in tarot also means innocence or ignorance, boldness, and impulsivity.

    Similar words to fool (and variations): recklessness, weird, impulsive, silly, ridiculous, absurd, clown, jest/jesting, ignorant. I heard "ignorant fool", "obtuse fool", "pathetic fool", "careless fool", and "reckless fool" before.

    With all this said, it lands in a weird grey area, kind of like vapid, inane, and silly. Some of these have abeist slurs as a part of their synonyms, but reading through your glossary and this essay post, it seems as long as the words are not a direct or indirect reference to a disability, it is fine.

    "Fool" changes its context depending how it's used. I think as long as it's not using a person's disability as a negative trait but use a person's choice in the context of risk judgement, ignorance, or silliness, its fine as well. Like: "Bigots are fools. Their hate harm Black people like myself" or "I was a fool to think that this was a great idea cooking super late at night" or "I'm going to be a bit of silly fool today, lol"

    Anyway, sorry for the long and mildly repetitive comment, it's something that's been on my mind for a while, mostly because I like using "fool" in both positive and negative ways in its modern context. I been treating it as both a replacement word and reclaimed word. But yeah, this was an interesting rabbit hole to explore on it. (I forgot the history of jesters and clowns in relation to modern comedic relief tropes, but this is long enough, lol)


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