Ableist Language: What Are Some Examples, and How Can We Become Better Allies?

Apr 30 / CHRIS WAGNER, M.S
We’ve all most likely heard the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” at some point when we were children. Even then, I knew that it was absolute rubbish. In fact, physical pain makes more “sense” to me than mental pain. Sticks and stones may leave cuts and scars, but your body can typically heal those naturally. Emotional wounds are another thing entirely and their effects can be long-felt and devastating. While we’ve all hopefully grown up beyond the point of schoolyard bullying and name calling, I have no doubt that we’re still familiar with the injurious power of words.  
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So, What Exactly Is Ableist Language? 

Language is a fluid and evolving construct (Case in point – Dictionary.com recently added the word “supposably”. I’ll give you a moment to get over this.) which has led to more and more people questioning the roots of the words and phrases that have become commonplace. Just look at TikTok user @mackenziebarman, who’s amassed a following of over 2 million accounts from her comedic telling of how songs, words, and fairy tales originated. On her channel, she plays the part of two people – one who is joyously singing a song or nursery rhyme, and another who slowly explains its origins. From the ice cream truck song, to “5 little monkeys jumping on the bed”, to “eenie meenie miniy mo”, she discusses the history of each piece that many of us grew up with (spoiler alert: they’re all terrible!).

So, what does this have to do with ableist language? Just like many songs and nursery rhymes have racist, sexist, or classist histories, many of the words that we use today have roots in othering differing types of disabled people. When you’re speaking to somebody else, and you want to exaggerate an aspect of the situation, do you describe something as “crazy”, “insane”, “dumb” or “stupid”? Have you ever described something as “falling on deaf ears”, or somebody as “crippled by doubt”? We may view these as harmless aphorisms, but as we’ve shown above, words not only have meaning, but history. 

Ableism Extends Far Beyond Our Language 

When we continually use these types of words to describe our situations, we internalize a negative connotation with not only the words, but the people that embody them.  Is it any wonder that a survey in the UK found that 2 out of 3 people find it awkward to interact with a person who has a visible disability? When you consider that many people have disabilities that aren’t visible (autism, depression, or anxiety for example), there is real harm being done by carelessly using sayings like “I’m so OCD about my bedroom”, or “OMG, she’s so bipolar!”.