Casual ableism is a problem we don’t talk about that minimizes people with disabilities.
You may not even realize you and your friends use ableist language, but chances are: you do. Ableist language is as casual as it is common in our everyday language. One main reason for this is that ableism is so embedded in our language, we may not even realize we’re being ableist.
This means people often use ableist language without knowing or meaning to cause harm, but casual ableist language perpetuates the dangerous idea that people with disabilities are lesser than.
The language we use carries power, for better or for worse, and it’s crucial to understand what ableism is and to stop perpetuating it via language. Learning about ableism and ableist language is an important step in being a more empathetic leader and communicator—even if it’s not a topic that’s as widely discussed and paid attention to as it should be.
What is ableism?
Ableism describes discrimination in the favor of able-bodied people. In other words, it describes the discrimination against and punishment of disabled people on the basis that they are not able-bodied. Disabilities can include physical impairments as well as “invisible” ones like mental illness.
This language perpetuates ableism and the idea that people with disabilities are lesser than able-bodied people. But it’s not an issue that’s widely discussed to the degree of racism or sexism, for example. Despite this, there’s a long history of disability abuse and marginalization in the United States.
Even if you read the definition of ableism and think you’re adamantly against such discrimination, the truth is ableist language is so common and accepted in everyday phrases you may not even realize are abliest.
Ableist words and phrases to stop using
In your journey to becoming a more inclusive communicator, it’s important to reexamine the language you use and take responsibility for changing harmful language. Here are some ableist words and phrases to stop using, plus alternatives.
1. That’s lame.
The word lame actually describes when someone is unable to walk without difficulty due to an impairment in their leg or foot. It’s commonly used to describe when things are uncool, which is rooted in the ableist idea that an impairment makes something uncool and unworthy. Instead of using lame, you can say boring or dull.
2. Are you retarded?
Retard, the verb, means to delay the progress or development of something. Mental retardation was originally a medical term used to describe intellectual disability. Because of its changed use, the term is now offensive and is commonly used in non-medical contexts to insult someone’s intellectual ability. Instead, you can say someone is silly.
3. I’m so OCD.
Unlike what we commonly see in movies or hear in conversations, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is not about being super tidy and clean. Individuals with the disorder face obsessions (like intrusive thoughts) that lead to compulsive behaviors (to soothe anxiety and distress caused by obsessions). Conflating cleanliness with a disorder is flat out incorrect and minimizes those with OCD. Instead, you can say I’m picky or I love to be super tidy. There’s no reason to blame preferences on a non-existent disorder.
4. Ugh, I can’t focus. I’m so ADD. or I’m so hyper! I have ADHD.
Just like with OCD, both of these phrases conflate behavior or personality traits with diagnosed disorders. This minimizes the disorder as well as people with them. Instead, you can say phrases like I’m really distracted right now, I’m disorganized today, or I’m super energetic.
5. Psycho! or You’re crazy!
Short for psychopath, psycho is another word people use interchangeably with crazy (which is also ableist). Psychopathy is an actual mental illness that is not to be casually conflated with someone behaving or saying erratic things. If someone has a psychotic condition, then say that: they’re a person with a psychotic condition. If this is being used for someone with no condition, use something like ridiculous instead.
6. Are you blind? Are you deaf?
Both of these conflate missing something or having trouble seeing or hearing something with diagnosed medical conditions. Not only does this cause stigma, but it’s simply incorrect. Plus, if someone was blind or deaf, you would not condescendingly ask them like this either.
Instead, you can ask if someone needs something repeated or to be brought closer. Instead of saying someone is blind to your emotions, for example, you can say they’re careless or insensitive.
7. The weather is so bipolar here. Or, she’s so bipolar.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by experiencing depressive lows and manic highs, with a few diagnostically different types of bipolar disorder. Bipolar itself is an adjective that describes something having two poles or extremities. While bipolar itself can be a useful word in some situations, it is often used in a way to mimic common perceptions of bipolar disorder which further stigmatizes people with the disorder and their experiences.
Instead, for someone with the disorder you can say a person who has bipolar disorder. For other situations where use of the word bipolar refers to the disorder in a situation unrelated to the disorder, try extreme fluctuations.
8. They suffer from…
Saying someone suffers from or is a victim of their disability implies that their disability has severely downgraded the quality of their life to the point of victimization or suffering. It is disempowering and assumes pity. It also assumes that a disability and suffering are equivalent. Every person with a disability is not suffering or in favor of this language. Instead, use neutral language like they have a physical impairment.
9. They’re, you know, special.
This is a term often used to describe someone with a disability without actually saying what disability they have or saying the word disability at all. It drives stigma against people with disabilities by that disabilities are something to be ashamed of. Instead, say they have a disability or say the specific disability they have.
10. You’re gonna get sent to the looney bin.
Globally, there’s a long history of eugenics against those with mental illnesses. With centuries and centuries of disdain comes hurtful language. Terms like looney bin and asylum are rooted in a severely negative and violent perception of mental illness. Instead, call it what it is: a psychiatric hospital.