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Ableism Is Embedded In Our Language. We Can Dismantle It.

From slurs to euphemisms to callous idioms, ableist language is ubiquitous — but we can still avoid it.

Last updated on November 17, 2021, at 2:47 p.m. ET

Posted on November 16, 2021, at 2:28 p.m. ET

Over the last two years of news coverage about the pandemic, there's been a creeping trend of characterizing the coronavirus’s effects on society — the labor shortage, the national debt, the infection rates — as “crippling.”

“As we struggle to describe the destructive impacts of a highly contagious virus, we’ve fallen back on language that is not only out of date but deeply harmful,” Emily Macrae writes for Ricochet Media, citing this specific adjective appearing in coronavirus news coverage as merely one example of the larger issue of ableism in our vernacular. She adds, “Ableist language equates disability with deficit, focuses on individual shortcomings rather than systemic failings and involves terms that historically entrenched segregation without regard for their origins.”

The BuzzFeed copy desk’s preferred online dictionary, Merriam-Webster, defines the adjective “crippling” in this use as “to deprive of capability for service or of strength, efficiency, or wholeness.” To reach this definition, however, you have to scroll past a more literal definition of the verb (“to deprive the use of a limb and especially a leg”) and the offensive noun “cripple” (“a lame or partly disabled person or animal”).

To erase ableism from how we write and speak, we need to agree on what ableism is, and understand how it's manifest in our language. Ableism is defined succinctly as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.” This form of discrimination has pervaded our vocabulary, and many words we use on a daily basis have an insulting and inhumane association. Beyond “crippling,” ableism is on display when people use the words “lame,” “crutch,” and “handicap.” But for every ableist word out there that devalues those with a disability, there’s usually a more neutral alternative that doesn’t rely on a cliché or callous analogy.

Ableist language makes the world a more hostile place for people with disabilities, but the words we use can also disarm the discrimination that thrives in the status quo.

Here’s one resource we use: In a comprehensive glossary of ableist terms on their website, disability rights activist Lydia X. Z. Brown outlines several words with prejudicial connotations — from “lunatic” to “nuts” to “duh” to euphemisms like “fall on deaf ears,” “turn a blind eye to,” or “blinded by ignorance” — and which synonyms you can opt for instead. It’s easy to note demonstrably egregious examples of ableist idioms, but there are dozens of ambiguous euphemisms like “they’re being myopic” (which could be offensive to those with a vision impairment) or “you need to stand up for what you believe in” (keeping in mind those who physically cannot stand). If it seems dubious in context, a careful, perceptive copy editor might catch it and suggest a workaround.

And it’s not just physical disabilities whose descriptions have been co-opted for casual mainstream use; terms that used to only refer to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities have also been lifted in this way. Someone who’s acting “autistic” has been conflated with someone who’s self-centered, withdrawn, or socially awkward. People self-critically call themselves “OCD” because of their eccentric organizational habits or deem the changing weather patterns “bipolar.” Virtually everything under the sun can be regarded as “dumb,” a word that used to refer to nonspeaking people or those with a communication disorder.

In the past, words like “crazy,” “insane,” and “stupid” were used as official diagnoses for people housed in institutions, Emily Ladau writes in her book Demystifying Disability.

“Not only are they outdated; they’re hurtful and offensive,” Ladau writes. “And there are plenty of alternatives. … It’s easy to fall back on using disability as a metaphor, but it’s just as easy to avoid.”

She adds, “Ableist words are so embedded in society’s vocabulary and mindset that avoiding them and actively remembering to use alternatives needs to be an ongoing process. To apply this idea more broadly to dismantling ableism, remember: Being an ally needs to be an ongoing process.”

Congregated protesters carry signs that read "shut down ableism" and "disability rights are human rights" and "dignity for all"
Barbara Alper / Getty Images

Demonstrators at the Non-March For Disabled Women inside Grand Central Station in New York, Jan. 19, 2019

As covered in a previous issue of our Quibbles & Bits newsletter, some people even believe that using person-first language (“a person with disabilities” or “a person with autism”) as opposed to identity-first (“disabled person,” “autistic person”) can make the disability an abstract or unimportant idea, and that the former framing suggests that personhood and disability are oppositional and mutually exclusive — an ableist construct.

The language we use can have a stark effect on someone’s life, particularly when it comes to neurodivergent people, who can be classified as “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.” But how someone is “functioning” can change day to day, similar to the way someone with migraine or chronic pain can have fluctuations in their ability to function. Support needs, meanwhile, don’t change so often.

That’s why many autistic people told us they have traded these labels in for the terms “high support needs” and “low support needs.” While “-functioning” alludes to a deficit within someone, “support needs” denotes that the problem is in their environment.

Characterizing how someone operates in the world, rather than how society can more practically accommodate them, is an inherently capitalist assessment. Over time, it’s become apparent that these labels are flattening and obscure more than they clarify, and that they ultimately fail as descriptions of someone.

“In using ‘functioning’ instead of ‘support,’ it’s a really profound shift that’s easy to mistake for just a change in terminology,” science writer Steve Silberman told BuzzFeed News. He added that an autistic person once told him, “If they label you ‘high-functioning,’ your struggles become invisible; if they label you ‘low-functioning,’ your skills and aptitudes become invisible.”

“In using ‘functioning’ instead of ‘support,’ it’s a really profound shift that’s easy to mistake for just a change in terminology.”

“I think [the ‘functioning’ labels] are incredibly unhelpful at best and deeply harmful at worst,” Emma Brown, cochair of the Neurodivergent Staff Network at the University of Bradford, told BuzzFeed News. “Both labels perpetuate stigma and ableism.”

It often falls on a copy editor to determine whether a writer’s language is explicitly ableist or has an ableist origin. We can avoid using disability to bolster a metaphor, but it’s only a start. Ableism is so profoundly saturated in the way we write and speak that we have to make this judgment call constantly, and letting it be published in a news outlet has profound consequences. Ableist language makes the world a more hostile place for people with disabilities, but the words we use can also disarm the discrimination that thrives in the status quo.

The examples of ableist language outlined above are only one element in a massive system that disparages and complicates life for people with disabilities. That ableist words have become so normalized could only be the product of a society that doesn’t respect disabled people, let alone value their livelihoods. And recalibrating your vocabulary alone won’t rid our world of ableist bias, Lydia X. Z. Brown told BuzzFeed News, adding that their glossary needs to be contextualized in the greater scheme of things.

“Just changing our language doesn’t mean that you’ve shifted your positionality; it doesn’t mean that you’ve disrupted systems of power, and it doesn’t mean you’ve taken a good, hard, long look at privilege that you might have. … Ableist language only represents broader overarching and underlying ideas about disability that already exist in society,” Brown said. “And so you can eradicate ableist language, but that doesn't mean that you suddenly stop being ableist.”

In the glossary of ableist words, they write, “Being aware of language — for those of us who have the privilege of being able to change our 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.*”


4 Things We're Reading

1. The New York Times: "BIPOC or POC? Equity or Equality? The Debate Over Language on the Left."

2. Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally by Emily Ladau

3. Rolling Stone: "Billy Bragg Changes 'Sexuality' Lyrics in Support of Transgender Rights"

4. The National Center on Disability and Journalism's updated style guide


And finally, a tweet:

My three favorite things are eating my friends and not using commas.

Twitter: @TheLiberalPoet

Update: This post itself originally included a few instances of potentially ableist phrasing and has been revised.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.