Ableist Word Profile: Why I write about ableist language

  • 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 is Part 1 of a two-part series on Ableist Language Discussions in the Blogosphere.

There’s a lot of chatter that goes on ’round the Social Justice Blogosphere about Ableist Language: what is it? what do you mean? those words don’t mean that! how can you say that? what does that mean? why are you bringing this up? don’t you have more important things to talk about? Intentions intentions intentions! It makes my head hurt.

I talk about ableist language for a variety of reasons. The most obvious, I think, is to challenge ableist ideas that center the experiences of non-disabled people. When someone proudly assures me that words like “lame” and “dumb” and “r#tarded” are never used to describe actual people with disabilities, I’m fairly certain I’m talking to one of the currently non-disabled. Currently non-disabled readers, I’m here to tell you: those words, and any similar words you think are “archaic” and not used anymore, are used all the time, as taunts and insults towards people with disabilities, and in some cases as official diagnoses. Some of them are also used in reclamatory ways by some disabled people, but certainly not all.

But it’s more than that. Part of why I challenge ableist ideas and ableist language is because I would like more Social Justice bloggers to think “Oh, yeah. People with disabilities also read social justice blogs! I should remember that more often when I’m writing.” [I also like to challenge it in other places, which is why I occasionally go through spaces like Wikipedia & TVTropes and re-write every instance of “wheelchair bound“.]

There’s a strong tendency to assume that disability-related issues are somehow a separate thing, as though there’s a Disability Silo and things like reproductive justice, racism, heterosexism, anti-immigration, transphobia, classism, and misogyny, etc, don’t actually enter into that silo. As though no one with a disability is interested in reading about these topics, or is affected by them in any way, or is an activist on the topic, or wants to be more of one.

When someone writes something like “Wow, those anti-immigrant people are r#tarded idiots!” [I made this example up] or giggles about seeing Dick Cheney “wheelchair bound” because “it couldn’t happen to a more deserving person!” [I did not make this example up], I bring up the ableism, and my activity in the disability rights movement, as a way of reminding them that we’re here. We’re reading. We’re participating. And it’s more than a little-bit alienating to see social justice bloggers using our experiences and oppressions as their go-to for “insulting people we don’t agree with”.

But at the same time, I don’t think talking about ableist language – no matter how well-intended – is enough. It’s a step. But that’s all it is.

I will write more about that tomorrow.

8 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Why I write about ableist language

  1. I read on Ezra Klein’s blog that JUST THIS WEEK the word “r#tarded” is being taken out of laws in the US concerning persons with intellectual disabilities. I was astonished to hear that it had been kept in so long, and it really brought home exactly that — that we CAN’T so glibly use ableist words while pretending they have no connection to actual ableism.

    (Article is here:

  2. And it’s more than a little-bit alienating to see social justice bloggers using our experiences and oppressions as their go-to for “insulting people we don’t agree with”.

    It’s striking and disturbing and meaningful how often their choice of insult is ableist. It also feels like just another way of getting a cookie – pick out a vile personal insult and throw it at an individual we disagree with, and voila, instant acclaim/ally-dom. (Not saying it’s only coming from allies rather than marginalised people, but given intersectionality, many of us are both marginalised and ally, so it follows that many of us are vulnerable to the desire to show off our social justice ideals and to earn credibility cookies.)

    Because we’ve been culturally inculcated with the idea that disabled or different bodies are a sign or consequence of inner moral failings, those responses to Cheney were basically people going, ‘SEE!’ very loudly. Like that connection, that symbolism, had been proven true.

  3. (Sorry, meant to italicize the bit I was quoting from your original post! I didn’t want to appropriate that as my own writing. I can’t edit my comment, so if you want to add italic tags or quote marks to clarify, that’s absolutely fine by me.)

  4. Yeah, you need to use “em” “/em” for italics, and “strong” “/strong” for bold.

  5. I am a professor of linguistics and a wheelchair-user. You might be interested in looking at my recent article on ‘lame’, which came out in the Journal of English Linguistics. There is a link to it on my website, under publications. If you want it but can’t access it, go ahead and e-mail me and I’ll send it to you. I enjoy your blog!

  6. Conveniently for me, I’m at uni right now so I can access it through sagepub. Thank you!

    The language is a bit much for me (I’m an historian, not a linguistic) so I’ll have to read it later, but I skimmed the first four pages and it looks very interesting. Thank you for the link to it!

Comments are closed.