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.
“Weak” is an example of one of those sneaky, pernicious ableist words which many people have a hard time eliminating from their language because they don’t realize that it is ableist in nature. A commenter even suggested it as an alternative to “lame,” illustrating how even people who are thinking about language use do not recognize “weak” as an ableist word.
It’s worth discussing why “weak” is ableist before plunging into its history. The reasons this word are ableist get at the crux of the ableist identity of many words: Because it centers around the idea that Disability Is Bad. Disability is so bad, in fact, that it can be used as a shorthand to refer to something viewed as bad, unpleasant, or unworthy. Disability status, or symptoms of a disability, are so awful that they can be used as an insult.
“Weak” entered English in the 1300s, courtesy of Old Norse. The word was initially used in the sense of something soft or pliant. By the 1300s, it was being used to refer to moral failings as well as physical ones, and along the way it spawned the idea that to be strong is to be good, and to be weak is to be bad. “Weakness” is still used in a diagnostic context today, in discussions of situations in which patients lack physical strength.
Numerous disabilities are associated with physical weakness. For people with these disabilities, hearing “weak” used as an insult is not very pleasant, as you might imagine. Thus, it’s a word we would like to avoid using when it is not appropriate, if possible, since we don’t want to go around suggesting that physical weakness is something so deplorable that it’s appropriate to use the term “weak” to describe things which are unpleasant, boring, bad, dull, etc.
So, what words can be used instead of “weak”? A quick trip to the thesaurus reveals a panapoly of ableist alternatives, including “debilitated, feeble, fragile, impotent, frail, deficient,” and our old favourite “lame.”
If you’re describing a situation which is dull, boring, irritating, upsetting, annoying, troublesome, not worth your time, or simply bad, why not use those words? If you’re describing a person whom you think has moral failings, how about ineffectual, indecisive, vascillating, or unsure? If you’re describing something which is not very strong, such as a quiet noise, “weak” would be an appropriate word to use in the literal sense of “lacking strength,” but you could also explore soft, imperceptible, low, indistinct, muffled, or just inaudible.
In reference to a specific individual who experiences physical weakness, you should defer to the language that person uses. If someone prefers to describe lack of physical strength caused by a disability as “weakness,” it’s an appropriate term to use, as long as you are not referring to the actual person as weak. If that person does not use “weak” or “weakness” self referentially, it’s probably safe to assume that this person will not appreciate hearing these words used by others to refer to their lack of strength. It’s also usually safe to ask a person with a disability if there are particular words which this person would prefer people to use in reference to the disability and its symptoms.