Category Archives: 101

Ableist Word Profile: Moron

  • 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

Today’s word: moron! As in “what a moron, I can’t believe he forgot to change the filters,” or “she’s such a moron,” or “we had the most moronic discussion in class today.” Moron is another in the long list of ableist words which have their roots in the idea that certain types of intellectual ability are more valuable than others, and, as a bonus, it has a history in a diagnostic context as well. Today, people usually use it when they want to insult someone who lacks knowledge or who is behaving in a way which they deem “stupid.”

Again, it’s interesting to note that this word often comes up in contexts in which the person being insulted lacks knowledge. Someone who hasn’t done the reading for class is called a moron. Someone who hasn’t graduated high school is called a moron. Someone who is not as intimately familiar with an issue as other people are is called a moron. It gets to this idea that knowledge=intelligence.

Fun fact: This word entered English in the early 20th century, from the Greek for “foolish” or “dull.” It was almost immediately appropriated as a diagnostic term by, I kid you not, the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, used to refer to adults with a “mental age” between eight and 12 and an IQ of 51-70. (Hey, did you know that the IQ test is deeply flawed because it was not actually designed to measure “intelligence,” despite the name?) This put them, incidentally, above “idiots” (a “mental age” below six) and “imbeciles” (“mental ages” between six and nine).

By 1922, “moron” was being used as an insult, and it was subsequently dropped from diagnostic use. We use terms like “developmental disability” or “intellectual disability” today to refer to people who formerly would have been diagnosed as “morons.”

Henry H. Goddard, who kindly translated the Binet test into English so that it could be abused to reify intelligence, introduced “moron” into diagnostic use. He also happened to think that people who fell under this classification should be institutionalized, sterilized, and effectively erased from society. (Incidentally, Goddard wasn’t a total jerk, he was also one of the people who pushed for special education in American schools, providing access to education for people who were previously deemed unschoolable.)

Soooo…knowing about the origins of this word, do you still want to  use it to describe human beings? As an insult? I thought not. Every time people use words like “moron,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “feebleminded,” they are hearkening back to an alarmingly recent time in which people were diagnostically labeled with these terms, and that labeling was used to justify heinous abuses. That may not be the case anymore, but the legacy lingers, and so do the social attitudes which supported the belief that people with disabilities were not fit for society.

“Moron” is most definitely ableist, not only because of its history in a diagnostic context, but because of the implications it carries about valuing certain brains over others. This, again, is a word which is tricky to eradicate from one’s word usage because of the ways in which it is used. People use “moron” because they want to insult someone’s intelligence. To stop using this word, you first have to rethink the way you think about “intelligence,” and think about what you actually want to say when you use this word.

Let’s Bust Some Myths: People with disabilities just want to sue the world into compliance

One of my “favourite” disability stereotypes is that people with disabilities are rolling lawsuits waiting to happen. I first hit this stereotype when someone directed me to Penn & Teller’s Bullshit episode about the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], which focused mostly on how the ADA is all about putting people with disabilities down and treating them badly. 1 The episode also included interviews with a town that was hit with many many many lawsuits by a lawyer who is also a wheelchair user, and financially threatened many businesses in a small town.

Another big-name voice that’s come out against the ADA as being “bad” for people with disabilities (and the nice able-bodied folks who are totally oppressed by it) is Clint Eastwood. Strangely, Eastwood didn’t care two wits about the ADA until he was sued for his boutique hotel being inaccessible. Then, suddenly, he was very concerned about the unending stream of lawsuits about accessibility. 2

There are two big problems with this theory. First, and most obvious to me, is that none of these Nice Able-Bodied Folks seem to be concerned that one needs to sue (or otherwise threaten with legal action) in order to get into buildings, get written material presented in a way you can read it, get captioning, get… well, get all sorts of “little things” that people with a variety of disabilities need in order to fully interact with the world. (Trust me, I have missed many of them myself. Many many times.) Oh, but they’re really really concerned about the poor little crippled person who is just a victim of the big bad lawyer who is totally leading them on, gosh darn it. (They are, of course, not concerned about just going “Oh, hey, let me fix that right now! No need for a law suit!” If you really think accessibility is important, and people note that your space isn’t accessible when it should be, why do you fight this suit in court? Is this some American-thing I don’t understand, being from The Great Frozen Post-Socialist Utopia of Canada? Do you lose American-points if you don’t fight law suits in court? I don’t even know.)

The second problem is that most of the people I know with disabilities don’t have the time/energy/inclination/spoons to sue about an accessibility issue.

Let me give you a personal example. (The plural of anecdote is not data, but strangely, there isn’t a lot of data available on “people not suing for accessibility-related issues”. This isn’t something pollsters ask.) Just the other day, Don and I went to the mall to take advantage of Boxing Day Sales. And, like every other time we go to the mall, it became apparent that the mall’s “accessibility plan” didn’t really include making the actual shops accessible. Lots of junk in aisles, aisles too narrow for a wheelchair, ect. (You’d think we’d stop going to the mall, but we only go about once every six months. The other mall we shop at is better, and I keep forgetting why we don’t trek out to this one very often.)

Don, kindly, pointed out that the shops I was going into didn’t have space for him. At first I thought about making complaints at each individual shop, but I wasn’t sure if the mall actually had a policy, and Canada doesn’t have an equivalent to the ADA. So, then we talked about going to the Mall Information Desk and finding out the details there. That fell through when we saw a very lengthy line, and a very harried pair of employees behind it.

In a world of sue-happy disabled people, we’d probably be contacting the Human Rights Commission, or a lawyer, or our Member of Parliament (that’s Federal government) or MLA (that’s Provincial). Instead, we came home, and agreed to stop shopping there because this is rather ridiculous.

Ultimately, I wrote a letter to the mall to bring this to their attention, but I have no idea if that will actually mean anything in the long run.

This anecdote isn’t unique by any stretch, and many people with disabilities I’ve talked to don’t even go so far as to write a letter (or an angry blog post) because this takes energy and time that could be spent doing countless other things.

People with disabilities are really no more sue-happy than your average person. Some people with disabilities, just like some average citizens, call their lawyer whenever there’s a problem – because they have a lawyer to call. Others stoically press on through life. Others write letters, to editors, to MLAs & MPs, to mall administrators. It’s almost like “disabled people” don’t all react the same way to things, and have a variety of ways of dealing with “adversity” (in the form of non-existent ramps).

So, in short, the myth of the sue-happy cripple who’s just a law suit waiting to happen is perpetuated by Nice Able-Bodied Folks who are actually full of Bullshit. 3

  1. I can’t rant about this enough because this episode really pissed me off. They actually put someone in an iron lung and tried to get around New York, thus demonstrating that you can’t actually make the world accessible for everybody, so obviously the ADA is “Bullshit”.
  2. And this is why I won’t watch any movie he’s in, produced, directed, mentioned as a good thing, whatever.
  3. Okay here’s a link to “highlights” of the Bullshit episode on YouTube. It is not captioned, which I guess kinda disproves their ultimate point. I live in a country that doesn’t have an ADA, and I’m still waiting for Halifax to embrace the idea that business owners should be “more compassionate” and put in wheelchair ramps. ANY DAY NOW I’m sure it will be true.

Ableist Word Profile: Spaz/Spak

  • 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

Spaz/spak, both derived from “spastic,” come with a lot of variations. Someone may be said to be a “spaz” or a “spak,” for example. Someone who is behaving erratically is spazzing or spakking out. “Don’t spazz out,” people say dismissively when someone is reacting to a situation in a way which they think is extreme. There have also been proposals to use “spakking up” or “spakface” to describe what we and many others have been referring to as “crip drag,” in which actors without disabilities portray people with disabilities on stage and screen.

These words pop up in some surprising places; doing some research for this AWP, I even found a model of wheelchair called a “Spazz.”

So, what gives? “Spastic” is a word from the Greek, derived from a root which means “drawing or pulling up,” used to describe people who experience muscle spasms. The word dates from the late 1700s, and began to be used in the 1800s to describe people with spasticity. Spasticity can be associated with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions. “Spaz” as a slang term popped up in the 1960s.

To the layperson, someone with spasticity might appear clumsy or inept, because of the muscle jerks and clenches which characterize spasticity; folks with spasticity can have difficulty walking, talking, and so forth because their muscles are not entirely under their control. Thus, it’s not too surprising that people started using “spaz” to refer to people who appeared clumsy, because, you know, why just call someone “clumsy1” when you can use an ableist slur instead?

The word is also used to describe erratic or “crazy” behavior, such as “flipping out,” along with some characteristics of neuroatypicality such as awkwardness in social situations, saying things which appear random, not following a conversation, or simply being “geeky” or “dorky” in the eye of the observer. I’ve also heard the word used in reference to epilepsy, most recently on everyone’s favourite television series, Glee.

Both “spaz” and “spak” have clear ableist roots because they’re shortened versions of an actual diagnostic term. They shouldn’t be used to refer to “spasticity” at all (unless, of course, as self identification by someone with spasticity) and they’re definitely not appropriate as slang terms to refer to people without spasticity. The implication here is that spasticity makes someone worthless, inept, awkward, laughable, useless, etc., and “spaz/spak” have become umbrella terms to refer to a wide range of human behaviour.

Because these words are used in so many different ways, it’s hard to come up with a list of recommended alternate uses. I suppose I could try, but I’d go on for hundreds of words. This is another one of those cases in which it’s worth examining what, precisely, is meant by referring to someone as a “spaz” or “spak” or what one is trying to convey when someone is said to be “spakking out” or “spazzing out.”

One of the most interesting objections to this series, for me, has been the idea that it is “taking words away,” paired with a great deal of resentment about being asked to consider language usage. On the contrast, I think that the series adds words to the vocabularies of readers, because it forces people to articulate and clarify what they actually mean. Instead of leaping to a handy ableist slang term for something, people actually need to think about what they want to communicate, and find a word for it. Maybe I’m just a word geek, but I think that’s really fun, personally, exploring new words to use.

Perhaps readers can come up with some suggestions or examples of replacements to “spaz” and “spak” they’ve started using or encouraging others to use below.

  1. Fun unrelated etymology fact: Clumsy is derived from a Middle English word which refers to being numb with cold.

Disability 101: Treatment Suggestions and Why They Are Not a Good Idea

I suggested a treatment/”cure” to a PWD for her/his/zie’s condition, and they ignored my suggestion/did not throw themselves at my feet with gratitude/got upset. Why? I was only trying to help!

Many people who do not live with chronic health issues, perhaps in a spirit of wanting to help those they know who are in pain, disabled, chronically ill, or affected by a neurological or mental health condition, may suggest different treatments or ways that they believe the person with the condition, illness or disability should use to “get better.” Many PWDs and chronically ill people, however, have experienced this exact process before, and often to the point where such “well-meaning” pieces of advice get…well, annoying; a stranger, acquaintance, co-worker or relative might suggest something that has been suggested many times before. Such “well-meaning” suggestions may imply some very different things to the PWD, chronically ill person, person with a mental health condition, or non-neurotypical person, namely:

…that they cannot be trusted to manage their own health, disability/disabilities, or course of treatment. Many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses have found treatments that improve their quality of life. Even with these treatments, they will probably still remain disabled/ill or still have their condition; the treatments that they have worked so hard to find, additionally,  most likely work for them. It is not your job, whether you are a friend, relative or other person concerned for the PWD’s “well being,” to bombard them with suggestions for different treatments, or push them to “just try” treatments (some of which may even be questionable in their effectiveness). There is a long history of people with mental health conditions, the non-neurotypical, persons with disabilities and chronically ill people being forced into undergoing treatments, into hospitals, and even into institutions by able-bodied people who presume that those with the health problems are not pursuing the “right” kind of treatment, and that this must be corrected—even at the expense of the individual’s humanity. Unless you are a professional, doctor or other specialist working with the person who has one of these conditions, and/or unless the treatment that they are undergoing is actively damaging their health, it is probably best to keep your recommendations about what course of treatment that you think the individual should be undergoing to yourself.

…that you are frustrated by the individual’s inability to “get better.” You may not say or even think this outright, but in some cases, actions speak louder than words.

…that you want to be given cookies/be thrown a parade/told you are fantastic for suggesting something that, in actuality, has probably been suggested to the individual many times before. In its more severe forms, this tendency is known as the “savior” or White Knight complex. Here’s the problem: Disability, chronic illness, mental health conditions, non-neurotypicality and pain, for the most part, are not things that can be cured. They can be dealt with, but it is oftentimes up to the person with the condition—-with appropriate support from family and friends-—to decide which treatments he/she/zie would like to pursue. Though you might like to, you cannot be the affected person’s able-bodied savoir. It is not the job of PWDs/chronically ill people to make you–an able-bodied person–feel better about yourself, whether by following your every treatment-related suggestion, or being uber-thankful whenever you deign to offer well-meaning advice that is related to their condition(s).

In addition, finding the right treatment(s) to improve quality-of-life can be a long, tiring, and agonizing process for many persons with disabilities, chronic illnesses, health conditions, mental health conditions, and neurological conditions. For many, starting an entirely new treatment for their condition(s) would, on some level, entail starting all over again; since getting to the point to where they are able to function and where their quality of life has been improved takes a long time, do you think that many non-able people would want to start from square one again to “just try” a treatment that’s been suggested, offhand, by a “concerned” person in their lives, that might not even work for them—-or that, in some cases, may make them worse? Because of each individual’s limitations when it comes to things such as time, finances, energy, tolerance/intolerance of additional discomfort or pain, or medication/treatment side effects, starting over with a “new” treatment might actually be a huge inconvenience for some people with disabilities, chronic health conditions, non-neurotypicality, or mental health conditions.

An earlier version of this piece was posted at Faces of Fibro on July 6, 2009.

Accommodation is Not “Special Treatment”

“Treat us like you would anyone else.”

It’s a common catchphrase you hear in some spheres of disability rights activism when an able bodied person asks about how to behave around people with disabilities. Pretty simple, right? Treat us like you would anyone else. Acknowledge that we are human beings. That we have a right to exist. That we should be treated with respect. That we deserve space on this Earth, just like everyone else. Greet us when we enter a room. Talk to us, not our interpreters/communicative devices. Don’t touch our assistive devices without permission.

You get the drift.

Be good. Be kind. Be human.

Now, try requesting accommodation.

“I thought you said you didn’t want any special treatment,” they say.

Folks, accommodation is not “special treatment.”

Ok?

I know that a lot of us have been told our whole lives that requesting accommodations is being unreasonable and demanding special treatment. It’s not. We shouldn’t have to request accommodations in the first place, because if people treated us like everyone else, they would respect us as human beings and recognize and try to anticipate needs. Kind of how like a group of people walking arm in arm will break up and go single file to let someone else pass them on the sidewalk.

That’s not special treatment. That’s recognizing that another human being has a need which should be accommodated so that this human being can go about daily activities.

Talking about this with Anna recently, she pointed out just one source of frustration; the need for wheelchair-accessible transport to the airport. “Don needs to get to the airport,” she said. “That’s all. Just like everyone else who needs to get to the airport from their house.” Getting to the airport is not a “special need.” Needing a form of transit which you can actually travel on is also not a “special need.” These are needs which people at all ability levels actually encounter pretty regularly.

Likewise, everyone needs to eat. Everyone needs to breathe. These are not, in any way shape or form, unusual needs. And there are lots of different ways to fulfill them. One way is not better than another. And we have a duty, collectively, to make sure that all ways are equally accessible. There it is, the A word.

Accessibility is not about special treatment. It’s about ensuring that people are able to do things they need/want to do. Just like everyone else. We are not asking for special treatment when we request accommodations, we are just asking to have our right to access recognized.

Talking with my father about this recently, I was trying to frame accessibility in a sense that he would understand. I said “imagine that I was a full time wheelchair user, looking for a place to live. When I arrived at my house [referring to the house I live in now] to look at it, I would have turned away immediately. Because my house is not accessible. Every time you deny accommodations, it’s slamming a door in someone’s face.” My father said, in a bit of a lightbulb moment, “so, what you’re saying is that for people who need accommodation, the world can be like going to look at houses for rent and being told that you can’t have the key to the front door?” And I said “yeah, pretty much.”

Accommodation is the key to the front door. And everyone’s entitled to have a key to the front door, people.

Everyone.

Disability 101: What is Able-Bodied or Abled Privilege?

What is able-bodied or abled privilege?

The term able-bodied/abled privilege refers to the numerous benefits—-some hidden, many not—-that many societies and cultures accord to able-bodied and/or abled people. Despite many folks’ paying lip service to notions of equality for PWDs, the chronically ill, people with psychiatric conditions, and those with chronic health conditions, abled privilege still exists, and there are still a lot of people who are resistant to the idea of a truly equitable, accessible society. Able-bodied and abled privilege is often hard for non-disabled people to spot; yet, in the words of the famous Palmolive dish soap ad, [YouTube link] most of us are “soaking in it.”

Many cultures have social expectations, structures, cultural mores, and institutions that are set up to accommodate able-bodied and/or abled people with the most ease; this is, of course, problematic for those who do not fit the standard of “able-bodied,” or “fully able,” whether in whole or part. Able-bodied or abled privilege also encompasses things like not having to worry about one’s energy level and/or pain level on any given day, the possible negative reactions of others to one’s needs due to his/her/zie’s disability or chronic condition, being stared at or questioned about (with varying degrees of invasiveness) his/her/zie’s disability or condition by strangers, her/his/zie’s ability to move for long distances or on a variety of surfaces without inconvenience/discomfort/pain and at a pace considered “appropriate” by others, being able to make decisions about the course of one’s medical, psychiatric, or other type of treatment without being questioned by others as to whether he/she/zie is making “the right choice” or can make a “rational” decision about his/her/zie’s own treatment-related choices, or being ignored by able-bodied people when one needs assistance in public; these kinds of able privilege masquerade as “the norm” for those without disabilities. For more examples, see Rio’s update on Peggy McIntosh’s famous article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” [link goes to Amptoons].

An earlier version of this post was originally posted at Faces of Fibro on May 6, 2009.

A brief PSA on language

So many people have complained that it is asking too much of abled people to stop using words they consider trivial: crazy, insane, lunatic, idiot, moron, dumb, blind, etc.

I beg to differ.

You know what is really damn easy? Erasing these words from your vocabulary. All you have to do is stop saying them.

You know what is really hard?

Confronting people on their use of same language.

We aren’t even asking you to do the hard work. We aren’t asking you to tell other people to stop using that language. We aren’t asking you to confront other people on their use of that language. We aren’t asking you to explain why it is problematic, to answer people’s questions, to deal with their redirection tactics, or to handle the attacks on and harassment of the people negatively affected by that language that such confrontations always seem to draw.

You don’t have to take the brunt of it. You don’t have to deal with the negative consequences. You don’t have to face employment discrimination, street harassment, caretaker abuse, and other people’s general cluelessness about our lives. You get to sit tight in your privilege, enjoying it without even realizing you’re doing it.

All you have to do is cut a few words out of your speaking and/or writing vocabulary. That’s it.

We’re the ones who are putting our safety on the line trying to change the cultural system that oppresses us.

Two seconds to reconsidering what you’re really trying to say? Easy.

Changing other people’s deep-seated attitudes? Really damn hard.

How do you think we feel when you complain that two seconds is just tooooo haaaaard for you to take on?

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

Ableist Word Profile: Wheelchair Bound

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.

I considered making this entire post “People don’t like being told they’re wheelchair bound. Stop doing it. Try ‘wheelchair user’ instead. Thank you.”

Then I remembered how often that argument is rejected. [My favourite: But I don’t like the terms that people with disabilities prefer, and I’m way more important!]

[I used to make really flippant comments about how no one is actually bound to their wheelchair, in order to make people think about what their words meant. Then I started reading reports of people being bound to their wheelchairs and, in extreme cases, left to die. Flippant comments are less funny after that.]

Shackling language like “wheelchair bound” is problematic because it leaves the average listener with the idea, again, that wheelchairs are a tragedy. You’re stuck in one, and it’s horrible, and you can’t do anything or go anywhere and it’s so very very sad, and isn’t their life such a tragedy. Just because of being bound to that wheelchair.

The thing is, a wheelchair is the exact opposite of a tragedy. As the blogger at Accessibility Net in New Zealand put it:

I then explain: I’m not wheelchair bound. I’m not tied to the wheelchair. To use the term “wheelchair bound” implies *limitations*. When in fact, the wheelchair is a tool of freedom. It’s without that wheelchair that I am seriously limited.

So each time I am told I am wheelchair bound, the implied message I get is “you’re in a wheelchair, you’re limited”. Yeah, I’m in a wheelchair, it gives me wings!

A white woman (Anna), sunburned and tired looking, stands behind a white man (Don), also sunburned and tired looking, in a manual wheelchair.  They are posed in front of a wooden figurehead of a mermaidThis certainly mirrors the experience Don had when getting his sexy sexy wheelchair of awesome. He went from not being able to get out of the house more than once a week, if that, to being able to not only go out several times a week, but doing it with only limited pain. The wheelchair opened up the possibility of our enjoying this strange, hilly city we moved to. [That’s us in the picture, after two days of handling the hills in historic downtown Lunenburg. Usually he uses an electric wheelchair, but we rented the manual for the trip. I vividly remember how exhausting getting up those hills were, which I think is obvious if you look at both our faces.]

Wheelchair user also reminds us who is (or should be) in charge of the chair. The person using the chair should be directing it, even if they’re not able to control it themselves. [This is a great post by Wheelchair Dancer about how to push a wheelchair. Learn it, live it, love it, folks.] When we talk about people who are using wheelchairs as though they have some agency, we’re reminding ourselves and others that they should have that agency.

Thirdly, wheelchair user is inclusive of people who are either full- or part-time wheelchair users. There are people who only have to use a wheelchair during high pain days, or in the winter, or after an accident, or for only six months, etc. “Wheelchair bound” always has an air of permanence to it, while wheelchair user can be both permanent or temporary, and using terms like full- or part- time wheelchair user reinforces the idea that folks who only use wheelchairs for certain activities aren’t faking a disability.

I hope this much longer version of my originally-planned post still gets at my basic argument: People don’t like being told they’re wheelchair bound. Stop doing it. Try ‘wheelchair user’ instead. Thank you.

Ableist Word Profile: -wit

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 ableist word profile: On the appendage of “-wit” as a suffix to another word to make an insult, as in nitwit, halfwit, f*ckwit1, etc. To be clear, this ableist word profile is not on the word “wit” in the sense of “funny or amusing,” but rather on the use of the word “wit” in slang terms which are meant to imply that someone is “stupid,” as judged by the speaker. As kaninchenzero discussed in her profile on “Intelligence,” the historic reification of intelligence and insistence upon valuation of a particular kind of intelligence has been particularly damaging to people with disabilities. Using “-wit” is a suffix in a supposedly pithy insult is a great example of the way in which ableist modes of thinking are embedded into our very language.

“Wit” in the sense of “mental capacity” comes from Germanic roots, and has been used in English to refer not just to intelligence, but also to knowledge, and to thought processing (three different things) for a very long time. In the sense of being amusing or funny, the word dates to around the 1500s, and since being witty is usually associated with being “clever,” there are actually some ableist overtones to this sense of the word as well, like the idea that you need to be “clever” to be funny, and that some types of humour are more valuable than others.

“Nitwit” appeared around the 1920s, and appears to have Yiddish origins, with “nit” meaning “nothing,” so a “nitwit” is literally someone who is deemed lacking in intelligence or thought processing abilities. Which is not a terribly nice thing to say about someone. Calling someone a “halfwit” isn’t much better, and likewise with “f*ckwit.” All of these things play into the idea that intelligence is something which can be objectively measured and should be objectively valued. Using the F word evokes a whole new set of issues and overtones which I don’t have time to delve into here.

There are a lot of words we use to insult people when we think that they are not intelligent, or are not acting in an intelligent way. What’s interesting about the way we use these words is that a lot of them insult people not for lack of natural intelligence (whatever that is), but for lack of knowledge. We say that someone is being a “nitwit” when they don’t know the facts of a matter, that someone is being a “f*ckwit” when they are being obstinate or recalcitrant from a lack of knowledge about a situation, that someone is a “halfwit” if ou fails to grasp a situation immediately.

It fascinates me to see that people have equated knowledge and intelligence when in fact these are two separate issues, and the ability to process information is still another issue. Someone can have lots of knowledge but not know how to apply it, someone can have the ability to acquire information but lack the ability to access information resources, and so forth. As a culture, though, we’ve decided that these three things are the same and that people who are “below” our level are lesser than us, which is a rather interesting state of affairs.

And it’s really damaging to people with disabilities who use communication systems other than spoken languages, to people who are not neurotypical, to people who have aphasia and other problems expressing themselves. These people were historically written off as “halfwits” simply because they couldn’t communicate in a way which satisfied the social norms. It wasn’t about their “mental capacity” or “native intelligence” but about, literally, the fact that they couldn’t communicate.

So, when you’re calling someone a “somethingwit,” you are referring to the historical oppression of people with differing communication systems, to the oppression of people who are neuroatypical, to people who think and acquire knowledge differently.

When seeking alternatives, it all comes back to this: What do you really mean when you call people nitwits? Do you mean that they lack knowledge to which you have access? That they did something wrong? That they are being closedminded? That they are frustrating you? That they don’t think the way you do? (It’s ok to say that someone doesn’t think like you do, as long as you aren’t placing a value judgments on it.)

Or, are you passing a value judgment? Are you really saying “this person is stupid” when you call someone a “nitwit”? Because, if you are, seeking out alternatives is about more than plugging in the word or phrase that describes what you really mean. It’s about changing your way of thinking and the way, in particular, that you think about intelligence/knowledge/communication/thought processing.

  1. I’m not a prude, but I know some people find this word triggering, so I’m opting to censor it here.

Guest Ableist Word Profile: Crutch

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.

Sasha_feather is a science fiction/fantasy fan and anti-oppression activist. She is a contributor to Access Fandom

Dr. Kerry Weaver from the US television show 'ER', a white woman using a forearm crutch, text provided by Sasha Feather
Image: Dr. Kerry Weaver from the US television show ‘ER’, a white woman using a forearm crutch

Has anyone ever told you that you are using something as a crutch? Have you ever used this metaphor yourself as a pejorative?

What do people mean when they use this metaphor?

The metaphor implies that crutches are universally bad and that they prevent the user from moving onto the next stage of development.

There are underlying messages within this attitude that one should rely upon the self and not be using outside help or tools to deal with problems. All of this is ableist, and falls in line with similar prejudices against medications. If you cannot support yourself, well then, there must be something morally wrong with you: this is the message of our ableist society.

Crutches are assistive technology; they are tools. While it is true that tools can sometimes cause harm, tools are not essentially bad. I think most people would agree that tools are good things. Often tools such as crutches are the products of many years of innovation, design, engineering, and human ingenuity. People with disabilities often rely on tools more than fully able-bodied people do to help us navigate and live in the world. Crutches and canes are mainly useful for helping people to walk. They have other uses too. If you watch the US television show “House”, you might observe Dr. House using his cane for a variety of other creative purposes, such as a reaching device.

The metaphor of “crutch” can be reclaimed by using it as a positive metaphor. Some examples of this:

“I appreciated having creative projects to do as a crutch to help me through the grieving process.”

“I handed out fliers at a recent event. They were a good crutch for helping me go up and talk to people I don’t know.”

If you are looking for another metaphor to use for a tool that a person uses for a short time before moving onto the next stage of development, I suggest using “training wheels”.