While being disabled can come with many challenges, one of the most difficult is the often unintentional ableist language used by those close to me. As a person with invisible disabilities, many people in my life often forget that I am disabled. They use words or phrases that can be very harmful. Because of this, I have often experienced ableism from strangers, friends, and even family.
Ableism is the intentional or even unintentional discrimination or oppression of people with disabilities. Ableist language or phrases affect the nearly 1 billion people in the world who have a disability by infantilizing, insulting, and stereotyping.
I experience this more often when interacting with those in my family who are much older. However, it can also occur with friends that are used to using certain phrases we grew up with. As a disabled woman with a child who has a disability, I am very aware of the language we use. I know exposing my children to this language can encourage internalized ableism and stigmatize those with disabilities. So I have made it my mission to help raise awareness so fewer people are likely to use language that can harm the marginalized group of people like myself.
Here are 6+ ableist words and phrases you should take out of your vocabulary.
1. Crazy, Bipolar, or OCD
When I was in high school, I had an English teacher whose emotions seemed to fluctuate. One day at school, she would be very happy. Later, she would be easily frustrated and strict. It didn’t take long for many of my peers to start referring to her as “bipolar” because of what they considered drastic mood swings. I remember her getting really angry when she found out because using “bipolar” in this way stigmatized the illness. It even minimized the complexity of this mental illness.
Using mental health diagnoses to exaggerate certain personality traits that have some similarities to certain mental illnesses is harmful. It can encourage stigma or trivialization of these serious illnesses.
Instead, try: bizarre, outrageous, irrational, or focused.
2. Dumb or any variation of stupid
I grew up hearing this term in my everyday life. I never really stopped to consider its connotation until I worked with adults who had intellectual disabilities. These terms have been used historically to try to harm those with intellectual disabilities or autism. For instance, many of those people with disabilities have unequal opportunities for education.
Instead, try: ignorant or lacking in knowledge.
3. Cripple or lame
These terms are insulting to those with physical or mobility disabilities.
Instead, try: physical disability or limb difference.
4. Handicapable or special needs
“Handicapable” is a particularly offensive term that is often used by able-bodied persons to try to add worth to a disabled person by saying they can still do XYZ.
“Special needs” infantilizes the disabled person and is often seen as offensive by those of us with disabilities. We don’t have “special needs.” They are basic needs for our survival or our best quality of life.
Additionally, labeling people as “special needs” doesn’t offer the same legal protections as “disability” does, and the term often ends up as a negative. As a disabled artist, Quinn West shared with USA Today, “Abled people assume that saying ‘special’ means a ‘good special’ when disabled kids who went through the system know that kids would use ‘special’ as an insult.”
By using these terms, you are putting more value on the disabled person’s contributions to society than on who they are. It is harmful to view disability in this way. Just because a person is disabled and cannot do something, that does not take away their worth as a person.
Instead, try: disabled, has a disability, neurodivergent, or chronically ill.
5. Using blind or deaf as an insult
Using these terms as a means to criticize others adds a negative connotation to these disabilities.
Instead, try: obtuse, dense.
The R-word is a form of hate speech that has been used for years to insult or bully those with autism or intellectual disabilities. Some will defend this word because “mental retardation” was used as a medical term, but it does not erase the harm that it has caused.
Instead, try: a specific descriptor for the situation (i.e., boring, terrible, don’t care for it, etc.)