When talking about disability words matter

Featured Articles

alt="When talking about disability words matter: a pregnant woman is standing against an isolated pink background doing a time out gesture with their hands.

@Krakenimages.com Adobe Stock

When talking about disability words matter

When talking about disability, model the language you would like people to use and don’t hesitate to point out offensive language in others.

Dear Aimee Abled-Mom of A Disabled Kid,

Because of my kid, I don’t say those words anymore. But when my friend used the r-word the other day I tried to call her out on it and she got so mad at me. She said, “You know I didn’t mean it like that, come on! Are you really trying to censor me?”

I didn’t want to get into a fight. I did know what she meant and I knew she wasn’t trying to be hurtful, so I let it go. Was I wrong?


Xoxo Letting It Go

Dear Letting It Go,

Don’t let this one go. Six years ago, someone called my daughter the r-word. I wasn’t there when it happened, but hearing about it from my husband felt like a kick in the stomach. He was out with both of our girls when it happened. On our street. On our block. Where we used to walk a hundred times a day. There was a group of teenagers walking by. First, he heard them snicker. Then, he heard them say this:

“Look at that girl in the stroller. She looks fucking retarded.”

“Dude, she probably is retarded, just look at her father.”

“That thing behind the stroller? Oh shit, that’s a man?”

“Look at that fuckin’ faggot.”

There’s no question that this is hate speech. But what about when it’s not so black and white, like in your letter? Does that count as hate speech too?

The short answer is yes, yes it does count when talking about disability. But since one of the purposes of this column is to elevate disabled voices, I will answer your question on talking about disability by telling you how I found the answer to this when someone else asked me this about two years ago and I didn’t know how to answer him.

It was when a friend of my husband did the exact same thing as your friend did you to when he called something totally retarded and my husband pointed out what he said and asked him to please not use that slur anymore. He exploded, saying we were censoring him and we had no right. I shot back that we were asking him to be a civilized human being, but then I started to doubt myself. Were we censoring him?


Read more of Aimee’s Advice Column: Ask Aimee


I did a little googling and found that there are many words in today’s slang that originate from words for disability. Besides the r-word, there are plenty more, like moron, idiot, imbecile, and others. Since you said in your note that you stopped saying those words, maybe you are ahead of me, but I thought I would share a few still in common parlance that I only recently connected the dots about. Take lame for example. Lia Seth, a disability activist, writes here about her reaction when she, a cane user, declined an invite and her disappointed friend’s response was, “That’s lame.”

“Words have meaning. When you say the disappointing things in your life are “lame,” you’re putting them on par with my own ability level. You’re telling me, in so many ways, that I’m disappointing and not good enough.”

Words can really hurt when talking about disability.

Then there’s crippled and paralyzed. In the same piece, Ms. Seth points out that unless one is actually disabled, they have no business having crippling student debt. I used to bemoan being paralyzed by stress and anxiety. So you see, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to talking about disability.

One other phrase I’m determined to eradicate when talking talking about disability is wheelchair-bound. Karin Willison is a disabled blogger who has plenty to say about this and other phrases here. Like Karin, when my daughter is in her wheelchair, she’s free! She’s a wheelchair user. She isn’t bound or confined to anything.

“There are so many problems with the term “wheelchair-bound,” it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, it seems to imply something involving handcuffs — and hey, whatever floats your boat, but I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they say it. “Wheelchair-bound” suggests that the person is literally physically tied to their wheelchair, as if they never get out of it for any reason. The similar and equally problematic term “confined to a wheelchair” does the same thing.”

It can never hurt to be a little more thoughtful, a little more cautious when talking about disability. Model the language you would like people to use, and don’t hesitate to point out that language others use is outdated and can be offensive. So what if you know your friend didn’t mean it that way, and so what if they think you’re being a stick in the mud for correcting, or worse, censoring, them.

'When talking about disability, model the language you would like people to use, and don’t hesitate to point out offensive language in others.' @thewriteaimee #AskAimeeCLICK TO TWEET

This is not censorship. The worst that can happen is the person ignores your polite request completely and keeps using the term. But I bet even if they push back, most of the time it will be just bluster. They’ll think about what you said and maybe eventually something will make it click.

You’re modeling and teaching kindness. As people with privilege of any kind, this is our role. In particular, if we are abled or if we are white, or if we are of economic means, we have an obligation not just to change our own behavior and language, but to be an active part of the change in the world around us too.

You’re helping to make a difference for your child, for all disabled people, and for all people everywhere. When talking about disability we can change the world- one word at a time.

Doesn’t that make it worth it?



Article by
Aimee Christian

Aimee Christian is a freelance writer published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, on Romper.com, and on Popsugar Family. Currently hard at work on a middle-grade novel about am 11-year-old girl with an unusual disability who is faced with a difficult choice.


"Model the language you would like people to use, and don’t hesitate to point out that language others use is outdated and can be offensive."