An Expansion On What the Ableist Word Profile Is and Is Not

The Ableist Word Profile has a new introduction:

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • 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

This reflects the fact that there seems to be a bit of confusion about the purpose of this series.

Our goal with the Ableist Word Profile is to explore language, and the way in which language usage can subconsciously reinforce ableism. Indeed, the very structure of the English language reflects social attitudes about disability, and English language users are, therefore, steeped in these attitudes. We hope that all our readers can agree that the reason ableist language is so strong is because it is rooted in ideas about disability, and the value of people with disabilities, and prevailing conceptualization of disability.

While a lot of these posts are intended to get people thinking about word usage, they are not intended to dictate the language that individuals use. Only you can decide what language you use, but you should do so in full awareness of the impact that your language has. Ultimately, the person you need to be accountable to is yourself, not us.

This series is not about telling people that they cannot use language in a reclamatory way, as recently discussed by Lauredhel. At all. It’s also not about telling people which language they should use to define their own experiences. We cannot take that away from anyone, and we don’t want to, because we don’t want to police personal expression. When describing themselves, when choosing words that have meaning for them personally, people can find reclamatory word use incredibly empowering. That’s why we don’t edit comments in which people use language like “lame” self-referentially. Because we don’t view that as ableist.

What we are exploring is how these words are used against people. How words can become weaponized. And how they are used in settings far beyond their original context. We want to spark a discussion about the incredible power that language holds, and how much of this power is exercised on an entirely unconscious level.

I hope that this clears things up a bit; I will be writing more on this topic in the near future.

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'.

3 thoughts on “An Expansion On What the Ableist Word Profile Is and Is Not

  1. Well said!

    However, it may also be worth exploring how some of these words are used in a medical/technical way. Too often people (myself included) assume that when they use a word in a specialist context that it cannot be offensive or unfair in any way. But this simply isn’t true. Specialists are human, and just as susceptible to the vagaries and common usages of language as the rest of us.

    Unfortunately, these are the people who, by virtue of their authority, unwittingly reinforce many of the problems you address in AWP. I can’t suggest how to address this issue, but it seems to me that some medical/technical terminology needs to be reclaimed by those specialists, and some needs to be updated.

    I’d like to share an example – when I first started studying psychology I was worried by some of the terminology, until I learned the (pretty narrow) definition and usage within a psychological context. As such, if I’m talking about mental illness with my non-psych friends (especially when their boyfriends are around) I have to be careful not to use such terms because some will immediately go for the common stereotype ie. I mention depression (which I suffer from), someone says ‘boo hoo, poor me!’, or I say schizophrenic, someone goes ‘mrer bleh bleh’, which I find utterly despicable.

    But my avoiding using these terms doesn’t help anyones cause – it’s just passive reinforcement of a mindset that I’d rather break down. The specialists need this terminology, and they need to be able to use it without having it hijacked by bigots (even unconsciously). They need to be able to use it without themselves unconsciously assigning discriminatory meanings to it. We, as their clients and patients, need them to be able to use it without fear of being unintionally offensive.

    We all need to reclaim these terms, not just those with a disability, but also those who work with it.

  2. I love the Ableist Word Profile. It really makes me think about the way I use language and the impact it might have on others, and it has so far sparked a lot of debate among my friends. Thanks for such a thought-provoking series!

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