12 Common Words and Phrases You May Not Realize Are Ableist

Fitness

Paraplegic woman travelling in her wheelchair beside the ocean

Ableism is defined as prejudice and discrimination based on one’s disability or perceived disability. Ableism is deeply embedded in our society. It surfaces in policies, actions, media, and the language we use. While ableism can be intentional (like the killing of disabled people in Nazi Germany), more often than not, it’s unintentional. But good intentions don’t lessen the harm.

In 2020, Google searches for “ableism” doubled. That’s good news. In order to grow, we must first recognize that there’s a problem. If you want to know more about how to eliminate ableism from your life, a good starting point is avoiding ableist language.

Here, you’ll find a list of of words and phrases that have ableist connotations. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list, meaning there are other ableist words and phrases out there, but it’s a start. Also, it should be noted that some of these terms have been reclaimed by people within the disabled community. It’s important that we don’t police the language of actual disabled people because words can create a sense of identity.

1. Tone Deaf

As with many ableist phrases, “tone deaf” is problematic because it uses a disability as a negative descriptor. Usually when someone uses the phrase “tone deaf,” they mean someone or something didn’t “read the room well” or that an action or remark was inappropriate for the situation. It’s important that we stop linking deafness with ignorance, because these types of misconceptions are harmful to the deaf community.

2. Blind Spot

Similar to the previous example, “blind spot” links blindness with ignorance. Not being able to see has nothing to do with one’s knowledge, and yet even Harvard-educated disability rights lawyer and advocate Haben Girma, who is deafblind, has had to push back against the narrative that “disabled” is synonymous with “ignorant.”

3. Cripple or Crippled

“Cripple” or “crippled” is an example of a term that’s been reclaimed by disabled people. I even write for a publication called Cripple Magazine. However, this is a term that should never be used by someone who’s able-bodied. Throughout college, I often heard people use the word “cripple” to describe their friend who was on crutches due to a temporary injury. This was always awkward, as I use a crutch to get around because of a permanent disability. I’m offended when people use disability as a joke or insult because my identity is sacred to me.

4. Spastic or Spaz

Another term that has been reclaimed is “spaz,” short for spastic. Spastic is used to describe tense muscles that can be a result of cerebral palsy (my disability!), spinal-cord injuries, strokes, or multiple sclerosis. There’s nothing inherently negative about spasticity — aside from the pain that can result from it — but like many neutral words, people have used “spaz” to make fun of people with and without disabilities.

5. Lame

In recent years, “lame” has become a slang term synonymous with uncool or bad in some other way. But the term was originally defined as “having a body part and especially a limb so disabled as to impair freedom of movement.” Even though the language has shifted over time, using a word that once described the disabled to signal that something is uncool is offensive — and, well, uncool.

6. Differently Abled

This one may come as a surprise because “differently abled” is often thought of as a more positive alternative to “disabled,” but the term was originally coined in 1980 by able-bodied politicians at the Democratic National Convention. The disabled community as a whole has never embraced the term because it’s a euphemism for disability. Many disabled people push against the belief that disability is inherently negative. And if something isn’t negative, there’s no need to tiptoe around it.

7. Special Needs

“Special needs” is another euphemism that people use in place of “disabled.” A few years ago, an ad tied to World Down Syndrome Day made clear how absurd the term really is. When you really think about it, it’s easy to see why the term “special needs” is offensive; it suggests that disabled people are somehow needier than their nondisabled counterparts, which is not the case. The only reason our needs are seen as “special” is because our society is designed to cater to nondisabled people.

I’ve noticed that parents of disabled children cling to this label, which is understandable because many parents see their children as special. However, I wish more parents would listen to disabled adults and activists who have been in their child’s position. Removing this term from our collective vocabulary is one way to ensure children grow up in a world that’s a little less ableist.

8. Suffering

At least once a year, I read a magazine or newspaper article that describes a disabled person as “suffering from” their disability. People often use “suffering” to describe disabilities because they understand disability as a condition, something that only causes pain and suffering. However, disabled people can live fulfilling lives just like anyone else. Disability advocate Andrew Farkash created the hashtag #DisabledJoy to show that disabled people experience joy, too — joy that can be a result of their disability.

9. Wheelchair Bound or Confined to a Wheelchair

Both “wheelchair bound” and “confined to a wheelchair” are phrases that paint wheelchairs, assistive devices that give people freedom to move about independently, as imprisoning. In reality, many wheelchair users say their wheelchair is liberating. For years, I only got around using a crutch, but I got a power wheelchair during my second year of college, and I was able to go to the dining hall independently for the first time. My wheelchair allows me to thrive in a world that is constantly trying to hold me back.

10. Imbecile

The term “imbecile” is not only ableist but also classist, as it was used in the early to mid-1900s to justify institutionalizing and sterilizing young women who were poor or considered to have low IQs. In the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, Carrie Buck tried to challenge the state of Virginia’s plan to sterilize her after she was involuntarily institutionalized. The court ruled in Virginia’s favor, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

11. High or Low Functioning

Functioning labels are a point of contention within the disabled community. Autistic activists have done a tremendous amount of work explaining why calling an autistic person “high” or “low functioning” is demeaning. While I cannot do justice to the work that has been done by autistic folks, I can give an abbreviated explanation.

Autism, like any other disability, is too complex to be boiled down to an arbitrary functioning label. As with neurotypical people, autistic people’s abilities vary from day to day. Someone may be able to do something one day, and the next day all of their energy can be depleted. It should also be noted that functioning labels tend to define the severity of a person’s autism in terms of how it affects others (i.e., how easy others find it to communicate with them, or how disruptive people find an autistic person’s behavior). I highly suggest reading more from the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network.

12. “See the Able, Not the Label”

While this saying seems cute and catchy at first glance, it can actually be harmful to disabled people. I first became aware of this slogan during my second year of college. One of my classmates who was a speech pathology major had a sticker on her water bottle that read “See the able, not the label.” A wave of shame washed over me as I wondered why my nondisabled peers had to deny a part of my identity. Why couldn’t they accept me for who I was? Why did nondisabled people always view disability as something negative?

These aren’t questions I can answer, but I can say that when I encounter this slogan and others like it (think: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude”), I make a mental note to downplay my disability as much as possible. I feel as though I must cater to others’ discomfort with disability no matter how far along I am in my disability acceptance journey because society has taught me to tread as lightly as possible. All I want is to be able to be fully present in every part of my identity, to be accepted and seen for all that I am. And part of who I am is disabled.

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