Ableist Word Profile: Invalid

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

Today’s word is “invalid,” a word often used to describe people who are viewed as helpless. This ableist word is closely linked with “weak” and “infirm” and has many of the same problematic overtones, including assumptions about disability, living with a disability, and how people with disabilities navigate the world.

The Latin roots for this word literally stand for “not strong.” It entered English in the early 1600s in the literal sense of “not strong,” and also in the legal sense (“this argument is invalid”). Within 10 years, the word was being used to describe people with sickness or injuries, and in 1702, “invalid” started to be used as a noun, originally in reference to soldiers with war injuries, and eventually to refer to people with disabilities as well as people with temporary illnesses and people recovering from injuries and surgery.

“Invalid” is a tricky word because there are legitimate and entirely appropriate uses for it; when I say an argument is “invalid” because I mean it’s “not strong,” that’s a, well, valid use of this word. What we’re concerned with is seeing “invalid” used as a noun, whether in reference to someone with disabilities or in reference to someone who is perceived as helpless for other reasons.

People with disabilities are often infantalized. Assumptions are made, for example, that wheelchair users cannot do anything for themselves, and must be pushed (even in power chairs), that things need to be handed to them, and, oddly, that things must be explained for them LOUDLY and s-l-o-w-l-y to make sure that they understand. Individuals who walk with the assistance of a cane or walker encounter similar problems. In fact, for pretty much anyone with a visible disability, there’s an assumption on the part of society that this individual is helpless.

In some cases, people with disabilities do need assistance and accommodations.

But, here’s the thing: They can ask for it! And when they politely say that they do not need assistance, they mean it. People with disabilities can lead entirely independent lives, or empowered lives with the assistance of an aide if they do need assistance on a regular basis. They aren’t helpless. And thus, calling them “invalids” is pretty not appropriate. Since “invalid” is associated with the cultural baggage of “poor hapless people with disabilities,” when it’s used in reference to someone without a disability; “‘I’m not an invalid,’ she snapped, ‘I can open the door on my own!’,” it’s ableist. Because it involves the use of a term (inappropriate though it is) which refers to people with disabilities in a context which is meant to be derisive.

How do you know if you’re using invalid safely? Well, are you talking about a person, or an object? If it’s an object (an argument, a passcode, a parking pass, etc), it’s appropriate. If it’s a person…don’t use it. Instead of “invalid” in reference to an able bodied person who appears helpless, why not just say “helpless?” And, instead of invalid in reference to people with disabilities, why not “person with disabilities” or “disabled person,” depending on your nation’s model? Or use the term that the person would prefer to hear used?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

9 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Invalid

  1. I don’t know if this always works, but I think it’s generally true that if you’re using it in the way that’s pronounced in-vah (like inAccurate)-lid it’s safe to use (e.x. that’s an invalid point), but if you’re using it in the way that would be pronounced in-vuh (like duh, only with a v)-lid, it’s probably not. Hopefully that makes some sense. Or at least enough that someone more adept with explaining this sort of thing than I can reinterpret it. But yeah. I love this post, and the whole series in fact.

  2. Well, I sort of covered that in the bottom; if you’re referring to an object or idea (a point, a passcode, etc), invalid is perfectly acceptable. This post focuses on using it in reference to people; a person is not an invalid or even invalid, although a person can make an invalid statement.

  3. Hi, really enjoying this series, it’s nice to see all the reasons why it’s just not acceptable to use these words laid out nice and clearly for posterity. It’s a great resource for anyone bored of explaining again and again why words like ‘lame’ and ‘invalid’ are actually pretty offensive to many DWP, and that the arguements that ‘they’re never used to describe real DWP’ just don’t wash.

    I know they’re not strictly ableist terms but any chance of doing one of these on blind and deaf one of these days because I’m fed up of people using blind or deaf as synonyms for ignorant, not being able to physically see or hear something is not the same as willfully ignoring or refusing to acknowledge something and I’m tired of this linguistic lazyness! I’m sure you’ve got hundreds more words to tackle but just thought I’d add to the pile!

  4. Invalid is one of these words whose use to mean one thing has become less acceptable as its other meanings have changed. Of course, even if it still meant “not strong”, it would not really describe many disabled people, but given that invalid as an adjective has come to mean “without worth”, its use to mean any kind of person (whether sick or disabled) looks more offensive than perhaps it used to.

    How is it that a major manufacturer of goods for people with disabilities can get away with using this word in their name, i.e. Invacare? The sickly image doesn’t exactly match with those ultra-modern looking Storm power-chairs and sporty lightweight Crossfires, after all.

  5. I applaud this continuing series.

    Matthew — I wondered about the name Invacare when I was young too. I concluded that the name probably came about well before the company decided to start developing sporty, highly mobile wheelchairs and when the company was still focused on “ways to push around [on wheels] people with disabilities.”

    I hope that this series eventually addresses the use of “cripple” or “crippled” to describe a person and the use of “crippling” as a metaphor, e.g., “The program was crippled by the lack of a project head.” I know that some people with disabilities are reappropriating “cripple” [or, as I hear most often, “crip”] but I still see it used offensively in the modern media in the way that “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair” appears.
    .-= ModernWizard´s last blog ..Meanwhile 23: “Halloween” =-.

  6. ModernWizard: recently I came across a website called Couldnaecare (the Scottish way of saying “couldn’t care”), a reference to a time when Invacare’s customer service record left a lot to be desired, in the view of the site owners. They now say Invacare are pretty good, but the website name stuck.\

    @sanabituranima: back in the 1980s what were called invalid carriages – one-seater fibreglass cars with a two-stroke engine and a sickly turquoise paint job (essentially Trabants for disabled people) – were still quite common in the UK. Around 1985 Clive Sinclair (best known for the Spectrum computer) launched a one-seater electric car called the C5, which I guess nobody thought much of at the time (and not many people bought the vehicle anyway), but I now find it amusing that a car which so resembled an “invalid carriage” got called a C5.

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