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Ableism in writing and everyday language

March 16, 2021 By Crystal Shelley Resources

Content warning: ableist slurs, words, and phrases

In my social work class on human diversity and social justice, I learned about privilege in different forms: race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and education, to name a few. I already knew I held privilege in some ways and not in others, but there was one particular area I was oblivious to: disability. Until that class, I didn’t realize that I haveprivilege because I’m non-disabled. I never have to think about whether I can navigate public spaces. I never have to worry that people will treat me like I’m unintelligent because of my ability status. I never have to strain to find authentic representations of my ability levels in media. Given my privilege, I’m not an expert on disability or ableism. I do, however, recognize how ableism is perpetuated through writing and everyday language, and I’m continually working on recognizing how I contribute to this. The purpose of this post is not to tell anyone what they can or can’t say, but to provide others with the context and resources that have helped me think critically about my own words when it comes to ableist language. 

DISABILITY

To understand ableism, it’s important to understand disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” 

Disabilities come in many forms, and not all of them are visible. The CDC lists different areas that disabilities may affect, such as 

ABLEISM

The National Conference for Community and Justice defines ableism as “the intentional or unintentional discrimination or oppression of individuals with disabilities.” In a post for the Center for Disability Rights, Leah Smith explains that ableism “often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.” She explains how ableism usually stems from non-disabled people with good intentions: how we view disability as something wrong, how we treat people with disabilities through our actions and our language, and how we exclude them from having a seat at the table and a voice in conversations. 

When I learned what ableism was, I began to recognize how my own thoughts, words, and actions played into it. I’ve gone out of my way to be extra nice and helpful to someone with a visible disability because I thought they must need this from me. I’ve projected my voice when talking to an older adult because I assumed they were hard of hearing (which is also a form of ageism). I’ve judged people for parking in accessible parking spots when they don’t look like they have a disability. I’ve used ableist language, like calling a person lame or dumb—words that have origins referring to disabled people in negative contexts. 

This last example is the one I want to focus on here. As an editor and a social worker, I’m particularly interested in the role language plays in social justice and stigma. Out of all the ways I can check my bias and privilege, changing my language is one of the easiest things I can do.

PERSON-FIRST AND IDENTITY-FIRST LANGUAGE

This section was updated on 1/29/2021.

The idea of person-first language and identity-first language is to reduce stigma when referring to an individual with a physical or cognitive disability, or a health or mental health diagnosis. 

Person-first language places the individual first, such as “a person with a disability” or “a person with autism.” The reason for this is to place the person first and to separate the characteristic from their identity. Identity-first language places the characteristic first, such as “a disabled person” or “an autistic person.” This type of language may be preferred by those who see their disability as part of who they are, which cannot—and should not—be separated from their identity. People with Disability Australia details the differences between PFL and IFL. As J. R. Thorpe writes for Bustle, “The difference between the perspectives essentially boils down to personhood and disability: is it something that you have, or something that's at the core of your identity?” 

While there's been a strong push to make person-first language standard, PFL is considered harmful by many disability advocates because of the message it sends: that being disabled is separate, shameful, or unworthy of affirmation. PFL is frequently used and recommended by families of disabled folks and the professionals who work with them, but not often used by the disabled folks themselves (where IFL is more common). For a much more nuanced breakdown of PFL versus IFL and why PFL can be harmful, I strongly encourage you to read Lydia X. Z. Brown’s two articles on the significance of semantics and identity and hypocrisy.

There is no consensus on whether to use person-first or identity-first language for a specific group, disability, or diagnosis. Some people prefer PFL, and others prefer IFL. If possible, talk to the individuals you’re writing about to understand how they self-identify. You can also consult the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s style guide, which has guidance on preferred language for some specific groups. 

Regardless of whether person-first or identity-first language is used, grouping all individuals that share a common characteristic with a preceding “the” should generally be avoided, such as saying “the disabled,” “the mentally ill,” or “the elderly.” This type of language is seen as lumping all of these individuals into one group and ignoring the unique experiences of each person. This also applies to groups across other marginalized characteristics, such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion.

ABLEIST WORDS AND PHRASES

There are many lists that cover specific words and phrases that are considered ableist, so I’m not going to try to create one. Instead, I encourage you to look at one or all of them to get an understanding of how pervasive these are in everyday language. Some words relate to physical disabilities (crippled, wheelchair-bound), some relate to mental health (crazy, cuckoo, schizo), some relate to intellectual disabilities (moron, simple, derpy). Others refer to how we frame a person with a disability (a victim of, suffers from) versus a person without a disability (normal, healthy, well). Some are considered slurs, while others may be ableist in specific contexts. If you use any of these terms, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. What I’m encouraging you to do is to think about the impact of these words or phrases on people who are affected by ableism. 

Here are some comprehensive word lists:

WHY IT MATTERS

So why do I care, especially if it doesn’t affect me? These are some of the reasons why it matters to me, and I hope it’ll help frame why I’ve made a commitment to learning about ableist language, removing it from my own vocabulary and writing, and educating on the topic.

For more about disability rights and language, I highly encourage you to read Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s post about why this matters

FINAL THOUGHTS

If this is all new to you, you’re not alone. The nature of privilege is that it’s invisible—it’s only until we learn about how we benefit from privilege and begin to recognize it that we can change how we fit into the picture. Language is only one way in which ableism manifests in society, but the language we use can transform conversations, perceptions, and biases. It’s okay if this is overwhelming and if you don’t change the way you speak and write overnight. It’s also okay if you choose not to change at all. However, I encourage you to think about how taking these small steps can create a different experience in an ableist world. 

Ableism in Writing and Everyday Language was originally published on Rabbit with a Red Pen on July 2, 2020.

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