What is an ableist slur?

CW / TW: "What is an ableist slur?" contains ableist slurs, and commentary on ableism.

What is an ableist slur? A disabled Black scientist in glasses sitting in wheelchair and speaking into microphone while addressing a conference.

While not all ableist terms are considered slurs or epithets, it is crucial to acknowledge that certain words carry a greater level of hurt and shock due to their specific history and context.” Photo credit: ©Seventyfour / Adobe Stock

What is an ableist slur?

Unmasking ableist slurs: confronting harmful language in the pursuit of inclusion

In our collective journey toward fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must shine a light on all forms of discrimination. While progress has been made in confronting racial, gender, and LGBTQ+ biases, ableism is one area that often goes unnoticed. This form of discrimination targets individuals with disabilities and perpetuates harmful stereotypes through the use of ableist slurs. In this article, we will delve into the definition of ableism, explore the concept of slurs, highlight the prevalence of disability metaphors in our culture, and discuss why using ableist slurs is detrimental to fostering an inclusive society.

Understanding what ableism is

Ableism refers to the systemic discrimination and prejudice faced by individuals with disabilities. It is rooted in the belief that able-bodied individuals are superior. At the same time, people with disabilities are deemed lesser or broken. Ableism manifests through various forms of exclusion, such as inaccessible environments, lack of representation, and unequal opportunities. However, ableist language is one aspect that often goes unnoticed, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and maintaining the marginalization of disabled individuals.

While not all ableist terms are considered slurs or epithets, it is crucial to acknowledge that certain words carry a greater level of hurt and shock due to their specific history and context. The reason for this lies in our collective lack of awareness regarding systemic discrimination against and marginalization of disabled people as well as our limited understanding of the emotional impact certain words can have. It is essential to address this lack of awareness and attentiveness in order to foster a more inclusive society and recognize the harm caused by certain words. [NELA].

Unpacking ableist slurs

A slur can be defined as an offensive or derogatory term used to demean or insult someone based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or, in this case, disability. Slurs are weapons of prejudice, designed to dehumanize and marginalize individuals, reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating discrimination. By using slurs, we contribute to the stigmatization of marginalized groups and undermine our collective efforts toward creating a truly inclusive society.

The prevalence of disability metaphors

Disability metaphors are everywhere in our language and culture, and unfortunately, they exist predominantly as pejoratives. Phrases like "blind to the truth," "falling on deaf ears," and "lame excuse" are examples of disability metaphors that have become deeply ingrained in our language. While they are not necessarily direct slurs targeting individuals with disabilities, they appropriate disability-related terms and perpetuate negative associations with disabilities. Let's explore the etymology of each phrase:

1. "Blind to the truth"

The word "blind" in this context suggests an inability to see or perceive something accurately. It implies that someone is ignorant or unwilling to acknowledge the truth. This metaphorical usage of blindness as a negative characteristic stems from the societal perception that visual impairment hinders one's ability to fully comprehend or perceive the world. It reinforces the stereotype that blindness is associated with ignorance or a lack of understanding.

2. "Falling on deaf ears"

This phrase suggests that something, such as an argument or plea, is ignored or not considered by someone. It metaphorically implies that the person's words or message are not being heard or understood. The use of "deaf" in this context perpetuates the notion that individuals with hearing impairments cannot comprehend or respond effectively, reinforcing the stereotype that deafness equates to an inability to engage in meaningful communication.

3. "Lame excuse"

The term "lame" in this context describes an excuse or justification considered weak, unconvincing, or unsatisfactory. Originally, "lame" referred to a physical disability that affects a person's ability to walk or move normally. This metaphorical usage suggests that a person's excuse is as weak or ineffective as someone with a mobility impairment. It perpetuates the stereotype that physical disability implies a lack of capability or credibility.

It is important to note that while these phrases have become commonplace in everyday language, their origins lie in ableism and the appropriation of disability-related terms. They contribute to the stigmatization of individuals with disabilities and reinforce negative stereotypes. Recognizing the impact of disability metaphors is crucial in fostering a more inclusive society.

These metaphors perpetuate negative associations with disabilities, portraying them as undesirable traits or characteristics. Consequently, they reinforce ableism and further marginalize individuals with disabilities. 

Examples of ableist slurs

Ableist slurs encompass a range of derogatory terms and phrases that target disabled individuals, reinforcing stereotypes and causing harm. Words like "retard," "cripple," "spaz," "lunatic," and "psycho" are disrespectful because they are ableist slurs that target individuals with disabilities or mental health conditions. Here's an explanation of why these words are considered disrespectful.

1. “Retard”

The term "retard" is derived from the word "retarded," historically used to describe individuals with intellectual disabilities. However, it has been misused and turned into a derogatory slur over time. It is deeply offensive because it mocks and belittles individuals with intellectual disabilities, perpetuating the stigma surrounding their abilities and implying inferiority.

2. “Cripple”

The word "cripple" is an ableist slur targeting individuals with physical disabilities. It is derogatory because it diminishes and dehumanizes individuals based on mobility impairments. The term promotes negative stereotypes and reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are inferior or helpless.

3. "Spaz"

"Spaz" is a derogatory term originating from the word "spastic," which was historically used to describe individuals with cerebral palsy. It is highly offensive because it mocks and ridicules individuals with motor or coordination impairments. The term perpetuates the marginalization and devaluation of people with disabilities.

4. "Lunatic"

The term "lunatic" is rooted in outdated beliefs linking mental illness to the moon's phases. It is disrespectful because it stigmatizes individuals with mental health conditions, suggesting they are erratic, unstable, or crazy. Using "lunatic" as an insult further contributes to the discrimination and misconceptions surrounding mental health.

5. "Psycho"

The term "psycho" is a slang abbreviation of "psychopath" or "psychotic," which are clinical terms referring to specific mental health conditions. Using "psycho" as a slur is disrespectful as it trivializes and demonizes individuals with mental health issues, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and creating an environment of fear and prejudice.

These ableist slurs are harmful because they demean, dehumanize, and marginalize individuals based on their disabilities or mental health conditions. They reinforce negative stereotypes, contribute to the social exclusion of marginalized communities, and hinder efforts toward creating an inclusive and respectful society. It is essential to recognize and challenge the use of these ableist slurs to promote understanding, empathy, and dignity for all individuals, regardless of their abilities or mental health. 

"It is essential to recognize and challenge the use of these ableist slurs to promote understanding, empathy, and dignity for all."

The harmful impact of ableist slurs

The use of ableist slurs perpetuates a cycle of discrimination and oppression, reinforcing negative stereotypes and contributing to the marginalization of individuals with disabilities. The impact is far-reaching, affecting the individuals directly targeted and the broader disability community. Ableist slurs undermine the self-esteem and mental well-being of those who bear the brunt of the slurs. And contributes to a hostile environment that inhibits their participation in society. Moreover, using such language reinforces ableism as a norm, making it harder to dismantle systemic barriers and promote inclusivity.

"You're not automatically a bad or evil person/activist if you have used ableist language ... but if you have the cognitive/language privilege to adjust your language, it's definitely worthwhile to consider becoming more aware/conscious of how everyday language helps perpetuate ableist ideas and values."

Lydia X. Z. Brown

Moving towards more inclusive language

Confronting ableism requires collective action and a commitment to change. We must recognize the power of language and its impact on shaping societal attitudes. By consciously avoiding ableist slurs, we take a significant step toward fostering a culture of respect and inclusivity. Instead, let us embrace inclusive, respectful, and empowering language. This shift not only benefits individuals with disabilities but also enriches our society as a whole.

In pursuing justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must confront ableism and its manifestations, including the use of ableist slurs. By understanding the harmful impact of these slurs, we can actively work towards dismantling ableist structures and creating a society that values the dignity and worth of all individuals, regardless of their abilities. Language has the power to shape perceptions, and by choosing our words carefully, we can contribute to a more inclusive future where everyone is respected and embraced for who they are. Let us strive to eliminate ableist slurs from our vocabulary and embrace the richness that diversity brings to our world.

Additional resources on ableism and ableist slurs

Article by
Brendan McDonald

Brendan McDonald, the author of "What is an ableist slur?" is a former humanitarian aid worker who holds a Bachelor of Professional Studies and a Master of Social Science. In early 2014, after dedicating a year to the Syria Crisis, he experienced burn-out and was subsequently diagnosed with clinical depression. Brendan also faces several medical conditions, including chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), peripheral neuropathy, and bicuspid aortic valve disease (BAVD)