What is ableist language and why is it harmful?

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An illustration of why ableist language is harmful. In the centre of the illustration a woman is staring silently ahead, a group of women are talking in front of her to each other excluding her from their conversation.

Ableist language is harmful because it uses words or phrases associated with disability to degrade everything from people to the weather.

What is ableist language and why is it harmful?

The economy has been crippled by debt.

You’d have to be insane to want to invade Syria.

They’re just blind to the suffering of other people.

The weather is schizophrenic

Only a moron would believe that

He’s so crazy.

To answer the question what is ableist language you need to first understand what a disability metaphor is. 

Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives. Do you see something wrong? 

Compare it to a disabled body or mind: Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick

Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz.

I see harmful uses of ableist language everywhere: in comment threads on major news stories, social justice sites, and everyday speech. 

These words seem so “natural” to people that they go uncritiqued a great deal of the time. I tend to remark on this kind of ableist language wherever I encounter it. In some scarce places, my critique is welcome, and in most areas, it is not. 

When a critique of language that refers to disability is not welcome, it is nearly inevitable that, as a disabled person, I am not welcome either.

I might be welcome as an activist, but not as a disabled activist. I might be welcome as an ally, but not as a disabled ally. I might be welcome as a parent, but not as a disabled parent.

That’s a lot like being welcomed as an activist, an ally, and a parent, but not as a woman or as a Jew.

Whenever I have raised the issue of ableist language and use of ableist slurs, one of the first questions people ask is: ‘What is ableist language?’

And then after I have answered that question, a barrage of related questions follows, challenging the very existence of ableist language and ableist slurs.

What Is Ableist Language?

What is ableist language? Ableist language (also known to some as ‘disableist’ language) is offensive to disabled people, and it can also refer to language that is derogatory, abusive, or negative about disability. Though often unintentional, the use of ableist language suggests that disabled people are abnormal. Ableism is the systemic exclusion and oppression of disabled people, usually expressed and reinforced through language, social relationships, and other interpersonal behaviors.

People With Disabilities Australia

Whenever I have raised the issue of ableist language, one of the first questions people ask is: ‘what is ableist language?’ And then, after I have answered that question, a barrage of related questions follows, challenging the existence of ableist language. Here is a small sample of what people have asked me:

Why are you harping so much on words, anyway? Don’t we have more important things to worry about?

I am always very curious about those who believe that words are “only” words — as though they do not have tremendous power. Those of us who use words understand the world through them. We use words to construct frameworks with which we understand experience. Every time we speak or write, we are telling a story; every time we listen or read, we are hearing one. No one lives without entering into these stories about their fellow human beings. As Arthur Frank writes:

“Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. What is it about stories – what are their particularities – that enables them to work as they do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question because human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both propose and foreclose.” 

The stories that disability metaphors tell are deeply problematic, deeply destructive, and deeply resonant of the kinds of violence and oppression that disabled people have faced over the course of many centuries. This is at the core of why ableist language is harmful.

Disability metaphors perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their way into all of the things that most people feel are more important. If a culture’s language is full of pejorative metaphors about a group of people, that culture is not going to see those people as fully entitled to the same housing, employment, medical care, education, access, and inclusion as people in a more favored group.

What if a word no longer has the same meaning it once did? What’s wrong with using it in that case?

Ah yes. The etymology argument about ableist language. 

When people argue word meanings, it generally happens in a particular (and largely unstated) context. With regard to ableist metaphors, people argue that certain meanings are “obsolete,” but such assertions fail to note the ways in which these “obsolete” words resonate for people in marginalized groups. For example, I see this argument a great deal around the word moron, which used to be a clinical term for people with an intellectual disability. I have a great-aunt who had this label—interned in state hospitals for her brief 25 years of life. 

So when I see this word, it resonates through my family history. I remember all of the people with this designation who lived and died in state schools and state mental hospitals under conditions of extreme abuse, extreme degradation, extreme poverty, extreme neglect, and extreme suffering from disease and malnutrition. My great-aunt lay dying of tuberculosis for 10 months under those conditions in a state mental hospital. The term moron was used to oppress human beings like her, many of whom are still in the living memory of those of us who have come after.

Moron — and related terms, like idiot and imbecile – may no longer be used clinically, but their clinical use is not the issue. They were terms of oppression, and every time someone uses one without respect for the history of disabled people, they disrespect the memory of the people who had to carry those terms to their graves. why ableist language is harmful

What’s wrong with using bodies as metaphors, anyway?

Think about it this way: Consider that you’re a woman walking down the street, and someone makes an unwanted commentary on your body. Suppose that the person looks at you in your favorite dress, with your hair all done up, and tells you that you are “as fat as a pig.”

Is your body public property to be commented upon at will? Are others allowed to make use of it — in their language, in your hearing, without your permission? Or is that a form of objectification and disrespect?

In the same way that a stranger should not appropriate your body for their commentary, you should not appropriate my disabled body — which is, after all, mine and not yours — for your political writing or social commentaryA disabled body should not appear in articles about how lame that sexist movie is or how insane racism is. A disabled body should be no more available for commentary than a non-disabled one.

The core problem with using a body as a metaphor is that people actually live in bodies. We are not just paralyzed legs, or deaf ears, or blind eyes. When we become reduced to our disabilities, others very quickly forget that there are people involved here. We are no longer seen as whole, living, breathing human beings. Our bodies have simply been put into the service of your cause without our permission.

Aren’t some bodies better than others? What’s wrong with language that expresses that?

I always find it extraordinary that people who have been oppressed on the basis of their physical differences — how their bodies look and work — can still hold to the idea that some bodies are better than others. Perhaps there is something in the human mind that absolutely must project wrongness onto some kind of Other so that everyone else can feel whole and free. In the culture I live in, disabled bodies often fit the bill. 

A great deal of this projection betrays a tremendous ignorance about disability. I have seen people defend using mental disabilities as a metaphor by positing that all mentally disabled people are divorced from reality when, in fact, very few mental disabilities involve delusions. 

I have seen people use schizophrenic to describe a state of being divided into separate people when schizophrenia has nothing to do with multiplicity at all.

I have seen people refer to blindness as a total inability to see, when many blind people have some sight. 

I have seen people refer to deafness as being locked into an isolation chamber when, in fact, deaf people speak with their hands and listen with their eyes (if they are sighted) or with their hands (if they are not).

Underlying this ignorance, of course, is an outsider’s view of disability as a Bad Thing. 

Our culture is rife with this idea, and most people take it absolutely for granted. 

Even people who refuse to essentialize anything else about human life will essentialize disability in this way. Such people play right into the social narrative that disability is pitiful, scary, and tragic. 

But those of us who inhabit disabled bodies have learned something essential: disability is what bodies do. They all change. They are all vulnerable. They all become disabled at some point. That is neither a Good Thing nor a Bad Thing. It is just an essential fact of human life. I neither love nor hate my disabilities. They are what they are. They are neither tragic nor wonderful, metaphor nor object lesson.  

If my disabled friend says it’s okay to use these so called 'ableist words,' doesn’t that make it all right to use them?

Please don’t make any one of us the authority on what is or is not ableist language. It should go without saying, but think for yourself about the impact of the language you’re using. If you stop using an ableist word because someone told you to, you’re doing it wrong. It’s much better if you understand why.

It is also important to remember many people who identify with particular disabilities, or disability, in general, may use terms that seem to be ableist. But, as Lydia X.Z. Brown (Autistic Hoya) writes:

“If you do not identify with a particular disability/disabled identity, it’s probably appropriative to use some of those terms. (Some examples are mad and crip.)”

Read more: How does ableist language promote ableism?

Are disabled people really oppressed?

Yes, disabled people are members of an oppressed group, and disability rights are a civil rights issue. 

Disabled people are assaulted at higher rates, live in poverty at higher rates, and are unemployed at higher rates than non-disabled people. 

We face widespread exclusion, discrimination, and human rights violations. For an example of what some of the issues are please take some time to read some of the insightful articles at the Disability Social History Project.

Shouldn’t people just grow thicker skins? Why do we have to be so careful about offending people?

Another way to answer the questions - what is ableist language and why it is harmful - is to understand it is not a question of personal offence, but of political and social impact. 

If you routinely use disability ableist slurs, your ableist language is adding to a narrative that says that disabled people are wrong, broken, dangerous, pitiful, and tragic. That does not serve us. 

Those of us who inhabit disabled bodies have learned something essential: disability is what bodies do. They all change. They are all vulnerable. They all become disabled at some point.

By trying to stop ableist language you are trying to take away my First Amendment rights?

No. The First Amendment protects you from government interference in free speech. It does not protect you from criticism about the words you use. 

Are you playing the Oppression Olympics?

No. I am not playing the oppression olympics. I’ve never said that one form of oppression is worse than another, and I never will. In fact, I am asking that people who are marginalized on the basis of the appearance or functioning of their bodies — on the basis of gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, size, and disability — get together and talk about the ways in which these oppressions weave through one another and support one another.

If you do not want ableist language used against your group, start thinking about what you’re doing to reinforce ableism in your own speech. Think about what ableist language is and how the use of ableist language is harmful. 

If you do not want people of color to be called feeble-minded, or women to be called weak, or LGBT people to be called freaks, or fat people to be called diseased, or working-class people to be called stupid — all of which are harmful disability slurs — then the solution isn’t to try to distance yourself from us and say, No! We are not disabled like you! 

The solution is to make common cause with us and say, There is nothing wrong with being disabled, and we are proud to stand with you.

Why can’t we use disability ableist slurs when a target is actually a nondisabled person?

Why can’t we use ableist language when a target is actually a non-disabled person? To my knowledge, former President Trump of the United States is not mentally disabled, and yet his policies have been called crazy and insane

Most Hollywood films are made by people without mobility issues, and yet people call their films lame

Someone who has no consciousness of racism or homophobia will be called blind or deaf to the issues, and yet, such lack of consciousness runs rampant among non-disabled people.

So why associate something with a disability when it’s what non-disabled people do every single day of the week? As far as I can see, lousy foreign policy, lousy Hollywood films, and lousy comments about race and sexual orientation are by far the province of so-called Normal People.So come on, Normal People. Start owning up to what’s yours. 

And please remember ableist language is harmful, that we disabled folks are people, not metaphors in the service of your cause. 

What is ableist language and why is it harmful? is adapted from Doing Social Justice: Thoughts on Ableist Language and Why It Matters by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Disability, and Representation. It is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Article by
Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is a 56-year-old wife, mother, writer, and graduate student passionate about disability justice. She works as a Content Manager and Writer for The Body Is Not an Apology and as the Outreach Coordinator for The Tiferet Center.


Remember: ableist language is harmful, disabled people are people, and they are not metaphors in the service of your cause. | ©Joanna Ławniczak / Behance Creative Commons