As a society, we in the United States are still largely ignorant of all the common, everyday ways that people who are able-bodied hurt people with disabilities, both mentally and physically. And most of the time, we don’t know we’re doing it. As Erin Tatum writes in Everyday Feminism, “able-bodied privilege is one of the most unrecognizable forms of privilege in society.”
I’ve often been guilty of is using ableist language. For example, when describing an outrageous or difficult situation, I might call the situation “crazy” or “insane.” Or, I might use those same terms to describe a person with whom I have a hard time interacting.
These words are a way of communicating emotion and impact, without needing to be precise or all that descriptive. They’re often used as filler words, which is part of why they’re so common. In Thought Catalogue, Parker Marie Molloy lists other common examples of ableist language, such as “lame,” “dumb,” “retarded,” “blind,” “deaf,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” “invalid (noun),” “maniac,” “nuts,” “psycho,” “spaz.”
Other examples include describing an unpleasant situation as “depressing,” or describing someone who is fastidious as “OCD.” Depression-sufferer Stephen Kelly writes, “Describing trivial disturbances as ‘depressing’ cheapens a complex and difficult illness.” Kelly gives many examples of the common ways that the word “depressing” is used as a synonym for “disheartening” or “sad.” Kelly writes, “Depression is not sadness – it’s far more complex than that. It’s a life-threatening illness that manifests itself in a myriad of ways.” His article also quotes how feminist activist Gloria Steinem distinguished the difference, “When you’re depressed, nothing matters. When you’re sad, everything does.”
The blog Autistic Hoya has a thorough list of ableist language examples and, likewise, does a good job explaining why these words are harmful: Ableism is not an arbitrary list of bad words; language is *one* tool of an oppressive system; and being aware of language can help us understand how pervasive ableism is. Ableism is systematic, institutional devaluing of bodies and minds deemed deviant, abnormal, defective, subhuman, less than. Ableism is violence.
Besides being hurtful and harmful to people who have disabilities, the use of these filler words also decreases the effectiveness of our communication. We stop using the wide variety of words in the English language that communicate precise meanings and, likewise, understand things less precisely. Consider, for example, the difference between saying, “He’s crazy!” versus saying, “He acts in outrageous and unpredictable ways!” Or instead of saying, “That movie was lame,” explaining, “That movie was unoriginal and unenjoyable.” In truth, the world is a more exciting place when we are thinking precisely about what we actually mean, and can communicate our precise meanings to other people. And when we do, we demonstrate love and respect for our fellow human beings.
Using non-ableist language doesn’t mean that you have to be nice to everyone or that you cannot criticize other people. For example, if you’re trying to say that you find someone extremely unpleasant, instead of using ableist language like “maniac” or “psycho,” you could use more descriptive non-ableist language such as “terrible,” “unconscionable,” or “disgusting.”
The article on Autistic Hoya raises another important issue. It’s important that people who are able bodied still respect the rights of people who are disabled to self-describe, explaining, “not every person with every disability is personally upset or hurt by every term on this list [of ableist language], even ones that reference their specific disability. Once people who are able bodied hone our awareness of ableist language, that doesn’t give us the right to walk around correcting people who are disabled.”
The point isn’t to train a force of PC police, but rather to foster respect for our fellow human beings and to deepen our awareness of how our words and actions affect others. Even though the harm of ableist language is often unintentional, the effects can be the same as bullying.