Category Archives: Ableist Word Profile

What is Ableism? Five Things About Ableism You Should Know

Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities, including the expression of hate for people with disabilities, denial of accessibility, rejection of disabled applicants for housing and jobs, institutionalised discrimination in the form of benefits systems designed to keep people with disabilities in poverty, etc.

1. Ableism has a dictionary definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the world ableism back to 1981; likely the word was in use amongst activists before then.

[< ABLE adj. + -ISM suffix, after RACISM n., SEXISM n.2, etc. Compare ABLEIST adj., and also earlier ABLED adj. 2, ABLED n.] orig. U.S. Discrimination in favour of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people. 1981 Off our Backs May 39/1 ‘Ableism’that is, the systemic oppression of a group of people because of what they can or can not do with their bodies or mindsis the result of..ignorance. 1993 R. HUGHES Culture of Complaint iii. 162 But certainly clause (3) made it clear that he was against racism, sexism, ableism, lookism and any of the other offences against social etiquette whose proscription by PC was already causing such mirth and laughter among the neo-conservatives. 1994 Canad. Woman Stud. Fall 92/2 Just as there is racism in the feminist movement, there is also ‘ablism’. Able-bodied women have not fully accepted women with disabilities. 2006 C. OYLER & B. HAMRE in C. Oyler Learning to teach Inclusively viii. 145 Although racism and sexism..are recognized as serious challenges to fairness, equity, and democracy,..ableism is often not even acknowledged.

It defines ableist as “Characterized by or exhibiting ableism.”

I mention the dictionary definition because people often claim that ableism is a made-up word that internet activists created just to annoy them, as opposed to a word with history that people with disabilities ihave been using to define their experiences for at least 30 years.

2. Ableism can be deliberate.

A. The Canadian Government went to court so they could continue to make their web content inaccessible to screen readers.

B. Clint Eastwood argued vehemently that 10 years was far too short a period of time to expect that businesses would follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and painted himself as a little guy fighting back against the “sleazy lawyers” preying on “the disabled”, rather than as someone who had been breaking the law for 10 years and was now choosing to fight for his right in court to continue to do so. John Stossel argued earlier this year that the ADA might require businesses to be accessible, and this was unacceptable 20 years after the ADA had been passed. [Content warning: John Stossel]

C. Where’s the Benefit has spent the last few months detailing out how cuts in spending will affect people with disabilities. It’s hard to pick just a few examples. How about the Member of Parliament who declared that anyone who was on Twitter too much wasn’t really disabled. Or what Disability Living Allowance (DLA) actually does being misrepresented by both the government and the press?

D. Dave Hingsburger: Service Interupted:

‘Purposeful exclusion,’ I said, ‘there is no way anyone could design this, approve this and build this, without knowing that people with disabilities will never be able to use it. That makes it purposeful. The fact that only certain people can now use it make it exclusion.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said but I interrupted.

‘This is bigotry in concrete, this is prejudice made of steel and glass, this is how builders and designers and hotel managers spit in the face of those with disabilities. They knew, they didn’t care, they did it anyways.’

E. Politicians across Canada, who make 30 second advertisements that are carefully scripted to make the best impact, don’t use the subtitling option when they upload those same 30-second scripted videos to YouTube. But I guess some politicians are okay with their videos looking like this (image description below):

Photobucket

Image description: Michael Ignatieff (older white dude in a sensible blue shirt and tie, his hair a bit windblown) with the caption “Don’t let anybody into Medicare”.

Actual quote: “Don’t let anybody intimidate you”.

3. Ableism has an academic definition.

Here’s a good example:

Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities that is characterized by the belief that these individuals need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society (Castañeda & Peters, 2000). As a result of these assumptions, individuals with disabilities are commonly viewed as being abnormal rather than as members of a distinct minority community (Olkin & Pledger, 2003; Reid & Knight, 2006). Because disability status has been viewed as a defect rather than a dimension of difference, disability has not been widely recognized as a multicultural concern by the general public as well as by counselor educators and practitioners.

Laura Smith, Pamela F. Foley, and Michael P. Chaney, “Addressing Classism, Ableism, and Heterosexism in Counselor Education”, Journal of Counseling & Development, Summer 2008, Volume 86, pp 303-309.

You can also get a degree in Disability Studies. There is a Disability History Association. There are several academic list-serves dedicated to discussion disability. You can go to disability-studies focused conferences. You can go to Deaf-studies focused conferences. You can get a degree in Deaf Studies. You can read a wide variety of academic books that discuss the history of ableism.

Or you could read people talking about their lives on their blogs. There are a lot of blogs where people talk about experiencing ableism.

4. Ableism can be accidental. This doesn’t make it okay.

A. I don’t think Google woke up one morning and decided to make some of their products completely inaccessible to certain users. I know they managed to pull it off anyway.

B. I don’t the mainstream media woke up one morning en masse and decided to ignore protests in support of the Community Choice Act. I know they managed to do it anyway. More than once.

C. I don’t think Canada’s Minister responsible for Disability-related issues deliberately sought out a wheelchair-inaccessible space for her constituency office. I do think continuing to have it 7 months after this was pointed out to her in Parliament is deliberate, though.

5. Ableism kills.

Record of the Dead: October 2010
Record of the Dead: September 2010
Betty Anne Gagnon and Murder Most Foul
Quick Hit: Parents of Disabled Children
Tracy Latimer is dead because her father is a murderer

Ableist Word Profile: Special

  • 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 that 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.

Special. Special needs. Special education. Special bus. Special treatment.

Disability euphemisms are sometimes very difficult to untangle, which is why I hesitated so long to write an Ableist Word Profile on ‘special’ even though a number of readers requested it. Euphemisms illustrate a world where good intentions and changing language norms collide, leaving some of us in an uneasy position on the sidelines. When I wrote ‘Needs Are Not Special,’ for example, some people resisted the personal opinion I laid out in the post.

And I think that resistance demonstrated some interesting conflicts in the way people think about disability as well as language. Some people find ‘special’ a safe and comfortable word, one that takes the scary disability out of the matter. Others find it patronising, cutesy, and dehumanising. Some people think it’s more friendly, making people with disabilities more approachable. Others think that it feels like an insult. Some people honestly don’t care.

Some people with disabilities really don’t like ‘special.’ Others actively identify with it and like it. And the same holds true with a lot of disability euphemisms. This makes the point about self identification above extremely important; our goal with this series in general is to think about the role of ableism in language, not to police self identification or reclamatory language use.

It is also to acknowledge and discuss the fact that the disability rights movement has been having conversations about language and disability terminology for decades, and that many nondisabled people are (perhaps willfully) unaware of these conversations. They come up with complex and tormented euphemisms to talk about disability instead of just asking a disabled person if there’s an appropriate term. Many nondisabled people are shocked that many people with disabilities, including myself, view ‘special’ as a rank insult that is horrifying to encounter. This word makes me so angry. So angry.

Thus, when I say ”special’ troubles me,’ I mean ‘please do not use this term to refer to me, because I find it personally insulting, and I have an identity, that identity is disabled, please respect my identity by using the word I self identify with to refer to me’ and I also mean ‘I would vastly prefer that you consider not using it as a default/general term, but use it for self identification if you identify with it, and to describe other people who self identify with it.’ And, in return, if I know that someone identifies as special needs or with any other term involving ‘special,’ I will refer to that person that way, because I believe that respecting self identification is a critical thing. However, I note that I don’t personally know anyone who identifies with this term; I see it being used by nondisabled friends and family, applied as a label by others and not claimed as a self identification.

I think that people, including earlier generations of disability rights activists, started using ‘special’ to talk about and frame disability from a place of kindness. With the goal of inclusion. To humanise disability and make it seem less frightening. Perhaps, even, to stress the need for accommodation. That was certainly the intent behind, for example, the Special Olympics. Yet, even as it was being used in this way, it was also being twisted and used in the opposite way, to insult people with disabilities. ‘Special’ became a double-edged sword: A respectful term for people with intellectual disabilities, for example, and an insult along the lines of ‘r#tarded.’ Accommodation, a basic human right, turned into ‘special treatment,’ a nuisance. A hassle. Something that isn’t really necessary.

Euphemisms are hard to talk about because of the dual nature of their use. Yes, all ableist language is used in many different ways, including coded ways, but euphemisms feel particularly tricky to me. Because I see them used as insults and as proud self identification. I see them used by people who are struggling to find the right words to say, and not wanting to cause offense. And, sometimes, their usage reflects cultural and political differences; English is spoken in a lot of countries and it’s used in a lot of ways, and a word or phrase that rings wrong to me is entirely polite and appropriate somewhere else, just as some people cannot stand the phrasing ‘people with disabilities’ that’s used here in the United States. When you enter translation between languages, things get even more entangled.

So, here’s what I, personally, don’t like about special: I feel like it’s an isolating word. I feel that the concept of ‘special’ stands in the way of full integration into society, and it also perpetuates some very harmful myths. It sets people with disabilities aside and stresses that they are different and alien. That using a wheelchair, for example, is ‘special’ and different and weird.

This word, to me, stresses a hierarchy of normality. And, thanks to the way that it has become twisted, it has become a singularly loaded word. Everything from ramps to quiet rooms for taking exams is considered ‘special treatment’ and sneered at. Nondisabled people think that we are pulling off some kind of giant scam here and that’s reinforced when we talk about, for example, ‘special education.’

The very idea that accommodations are ‘special’ stresses that they should not be expected. That they are a prize or treat. That you don’t deserve them. I want to see accommodations normalised. I want to see it assumed that everyone who wants to participate in something is able to do so, that no barriers are presented by other participants or the venue. I don’t want that to be ‘special.’ I want it to be ordinary.

Likewise, the idea of referring to human beings as ‘special’ is one I find troubling, not least because this term has become weaponised. I have trouble parsing whether it is being used as a celebration of identity or an insult whenever I encounter it.

What about you? Do you like or dislike ‘special’? What does this word evoke for you when you encounter it?

AWP: “The Disabled”

  • 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.

A month and a half ago I wrote a fairly angry email to Ms Magazine blog [which you can read here – yes, I sent it to them, no, I never got a response]. While part of my ire was raised by the subject matter and the treatment of people with disabilities as unthinking pawns of the “religious right”, a significant portion was because of the casual use of “the disabled”.

The short form of why this is a problem: People with disabilities/the disabled are not a collective group that all agree on anything. Asking what “the disabled” want or “the disabled” are doing is exactly like asking what “women” want and what “women” are doing. Women are individuals. Some of them are women with disabilities! We don’t all want the same things, but grouping everyone under the same umbrella, as though we are a Collective rather than Individuals With Opinions and Needs is… well, it’s pretty damned ableist, as well as being arrogant, ignorant, and irritating.

Long Version:

We’re still living in a society that makes a lot of casual assumptions about people with disabilities and their experiences. When people start talking about “the disabled” they are generally about to launch into some sort of stereotype – “the disabled are the pawns of the religious right”, for example. This boils down a lot of complicated people – people who have a wide variety of needs, wants, opinions, thoughts, and experiences – into one homogeneous group.

This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.

Saying “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” may seem like a pretty minor thing. It is, so it shouldn’t be that difficult. The reason for it, though, is that it can be that small reminder: that people with disabilities are people. That disabled people have opinions and thoughts and experiences and needs that are not universal to all people with disabilities. That we are, in fact, people, and it would be nice if we could be treated as such.

Language doesn’t change everything. It isn’t an end in and of itself. But it can be the first step in combating the sort of ableism that makes it okay for many people – including editors and writers for major and minor news sources – to dismiss us as pawns without thought.

See Also: Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media by meloukhia at Feministe.

Ableist Word Profile: Crazy (to describe political viewpoints or positions)

  • 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.

We just ran an ableist word profile on the word “crazy,” written by the lovely guest poster RMJ, who discussed how the term is used in a variety of contexts and situations. This follow up is sparked by what I’ve seen as a recent resurgence here in the United States in use of the term in a political context, to describe or characterize an individual with a particular set of political views. Every time I see it, it grates on me, and I thought it was worth a focused discussion here at FWD.

Before I begin, I should make clear that I personally identify as “crazy” sometimes. Not always, but when the depression gets overwhelming and I can tell my thoughts are getting tangled, or especially when I’m in the grips of a manic episode. (More accurately, I identify as a “crazy bitch,” but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ve also been consistently described by others as “crazy,” in contexts ranging from affectionate to outright hostile and dismissive. So when I see this term tossed around in the media, it feels personal to me.

And it’s been tossed around a whole lot lately, largely by traditionally liberal or progressive media outlets. I first started seeing it show up at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s blog that combines “breaking news, investigative reporting and smart analysis.” Marshall doesn’t mention it on the site, but it also contains a big heaping spoonful of ableism with that political analysis. Here are some recent examples:

This is just a sampling of the posts with headlines including the term “crazy” and is not at all comprehensive. Even within this sample, we can see that the term is used to describe viewpoints with which TPM does not agree (like revising history textbooks or arguing, like Gaffney, that the Pentagon logo indicates a secret plan to subject the United States to Shariah law) and thinks are biased, bigoted, racist, or otherwise offensive (such as the protests about Obama speaking to schoolchildren or the racial laws in Arizona).  None of the posts, though, engage or critique those viewpoints or speakers in a substantive way – simply describing them as “crazy” is seen as self-evident and no further discussion is needed to demonstrate these views or people should be excluded from reasonable political discussion.

There’s been an even more recent explosion of use of the term to describe Rand Paul and Paul’s views, after he won a Republican congressional primary in Kentucky.1 Paul favors the free market and freedom of private business, to the extent that he seems to believe that anti-discrimination laws are an unreasonable restriction on businesses. Now I am no fan of Mr. Paul – and wrote about my problems with him previously on FWD – but that doesn’t mean I approve of political cartoons like this:

A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.
A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.

To my mind, characterizing Rand as “mad” or “crazy” and not saying anything further is a lazy way to dismiss him and his ideology without actually having to engage with it. There is a lot to say about Rand’s ideas: how prioritizing private business over human rights preserves existing institutional structures that will continue to perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other oppression if not checked by a larger force like the government; how the line between private and public realms is a lot fuzzier and less distinct than Paul implies it to be; that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and BP’s seemingly inadequate safety protections and near complete inability to effectively respond are strong indications that business will prioritize profits over public goods like environmental safety; how an attitude of business before anything else will influence Rand’s views on everything from the minimum wage to immigration policy to climate control to internet neutrality. Those are all important discussions to have, discussions where we can’t assume that everyone in the audience will come down on the same side, but calling him “crazy” or “mad” and leaving it at that elides all of those complicated issues. Even more strongly, it implies that those discussions are not even worth having because it is so evident that the views or person being dismissed are wrong and absurd and laughable.

In Newsweek, Conor Friesdorf made an interesting observation about the policies and people who are dismissed as “crazy”:

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. The “kookiest” policy is arguably farm subsidies for corn, sugar, and tobacco—products that people ought to consume less, not more.

These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.

What I conclude from that is that the media doesn’t consistently use “crazy” and other ableist terms to refer to absurd policies or those that lack rational support, but instead reserves those terms for people outside of mainstream politics. Which in turn implies that the term is used primarily to further marginalize and dismiss people who don’t fit expectations of what a politician is or what are common or popular political arguments. To me, this is even more evidence that the implicit subtext of terming a person or policy “crazy” is “shut up and go away, or start blending in better.” Which, again, is exactly the message leveled at people with mental illness when they’re called “crazy” or “loony” or “unhinged” or any number of synonyms.

This selective usage is even more reason the term “crazy” shouldn’t be used in the political context – partly because it’s a lazy out for commentators who refuse to engage with the actual policy issues or political ideas being proposed on a substantive level, and partly because it fiercely underlines and reinforces marginalization and dismissal of people with mental illness. It reminds me that when people call me “crazy,” what they really mean is “stop existing in my consciousness – either disappear or become normal.” To see progressive writers and organizations rely on the marginalization of people with mental illness to score easy points against unpopular politicians is upsetting not only because of their perpetuation of ableism, but also because it puts me in the extremely uncomfortable position of defending people like Palin and Paul against this kind of criticism.

  1. An earlier version of this post had stated, in error, that Dr Paul won the Republican congressional primary in Virginia. Thanks, Katie, for the catch.

AWP: Why writing about Language Isn’t Enough

A cookie.  In icing it reads Meets Minimum Standards of Decent Human
Description: A cookie. In icing it reads Meets Minimum Standards of Decent Human. By sajbrfems, used under a Creative Commons License.

This is Part 2 of a 2-part series about Ableism & Language. Part 1: Why I Write About Ableist Language.

In social justice blogging circles, especially feminist-focused ones, it’s not unusual to have conversations about language, and why language matters. Those conversations can vary from explaining why it’s problematic to call women & girls “females”, why using “he” and “mankind” to be a generic non-gendered term is sexist, reclaiming – or not – of words like “bitch”, and what it means to refer to “undocumented immigrants” rather than “illegals”.

These conversations often focus on how sexist or racist language is a symptom of a problem that needs to be addressed. We can talk about how calling women bitches is a sign of sexism, or referring to people as “illegals” is dehumanizing to immigrants. And yet, when trying to have discussions about ableist language, we’re back to the silo of disability. Instead of talking about ableist language as part of the manifestation of the disdain and abuse of people with disabilities, it’s treated as isolated – the problem, instead of a symptom of the problem.

Ableism is not simply a language problem.

Ableism manifests in the social justice blogosphere in so many different ways. They can vary from just not thinking about disability at all when writing about social justice issues to shrugging off critiques from disability-focused bloggers as being “too sensitive”. It can be ignoring posts about disability-focused issues or only linking to non-disabled people writing about disability-issues instead of to disabled bloggers. It can be as apparent as declining to acknowledge disability exists to as “subtle” (to some) as declining to make your blog template accessible to screen readers.

There are also choices that social justice bloggers make about how we educate ourselves, and whose voices we highlight, who we approach about their writing, and who we ask to be mediators. If we’re not reading disability-focused blogs, then we’re not learning about disability-focused issues – and, in turn, we’re not highlighting those voices, bringing attention to those issues, or thinking about that analysis when writing our own posts.

Thirdly, ableism manifests in whose voices we trust. For all that I’m very happy to provide people with book lists, I’m a bit suspicious of people who decline lists of disability-focused bloggers they could be reading as well. Why does someone’s voice have to go through the publishing-sphere (and usually through academia for the books you’re going to get from me) before it counts as worth-reading?

I get why people talk about language, and I agree that language is important. But I’m not giving cookies out for publicly declaring your ally-status by saying you won’t (or will try not to) use ableist language anymore. That’s a great first step. Now move on.

[Thank you to s.e. smith for helping me clarify my ideas.]

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.

Guest Post from RMJ: Ableist Word Profile: Crazy

RMJ is a twentysomething with OCD who grew up in Kansas and currently lives in Virginia. She works in education and loves cooking, cats, and television. She blogs about feminism and stuff at Deeply Problematic. RMJ’s previous guest post: Athletes with Disabilities: Arm-Wrestlers as Exceptions and Inspirations.

  • 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

Like every ism, ableism is absorbed through the culture on a more subconscious level, embedding itself in our language like a guerrilla force. Crazy is one of the most versatile and frequently used slurs, a word used sometimes directly against persons with mental disabilities (PWMD), sometimes indirectly against persons with able privilege, sometimes descriptive and value-neutral, and sometimes in a superficially positive light.

As a direct slur against PWMD:

Crazy as a word is directly and strongly tied to mental disability. It’s used as a slur directly against PWMD both to discredit and to marginalize. If a person with a history of mental illness wants to do something, for good or bad, that challenges something, that person’s thoughts, arguments, and rhetoric are dismissed because that person is “crazy”. If a PWMD is going through pain because of something unrelated to their mental state, culpability for the pain is placed solely on their being crazy. Even if their suffering is related to their disability, it is, in a catch-22, dismissed due to their “craziness”; the PWMD is expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they want to be viewed as a valid human being.

Examples:
“I can’t believe Britney shaved her head. Crazy bitch.”
“Not only is Dworkin cissexist, she’s fucking crazy!”

As a way to discredit neurotypical people:

Crazy is also often used to describe a neurotypical person that the speaker disagrees with. It’s used to discredit able-privileged persons by saying that they are actually mentally disabled – and what could be worse than that?

Examples:
“Tom Cruise is fucking crazy. Seriously, he’s batshit insane about Prozac, yelling at Matt Lauer and shit.”
“Did you hear that Shirley broke up with Jim? She thought he was cheating on her.” “Yeah, she’s crazy, Jim’s a great guy.”

As an all-purpose negative adjective:

Crazy is often used – even, still, by me and other feminists – to negatively describe ideas, writing, or other nouns that the speaker finds disagreeable. Conservatives are “crazy”, acts of oppression are “crazy making” , this winter’s snow is “craziness”. This usage makes a direct connection between mental disability and bad qualities of all stripes, turning disability itself into a negative descriptor. Whether it means “bad” or “evil” or “outlandish” or “illogical” or “unthinkable”, it’s turning the condition of having a disability into an all-purpose negative descriptor. When using crazy as a synonym for violent, disturbing, or wrong, it’s saying that PWMD are violent, disturbing, wrong. It’s using disability as a rhetorical weapon.

Examples:

“They took the public option out of the health care plan? That’s fucking crazy!”
“Yeah, Loretta went crazy on Jeanie last night. Gave her a black eye and everything.”

Crazy as a positive amplifier:

On the flip side, crazy is often used as a positive amplifier. Folks say that they are “crazy” about something or someone they love or like. But just because it’s positive doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Crazy as a positive adjective still mean “overly” or “too much”. It’s meant to admit a slight lack of foresight or sense on the part of the speaker. Furthermore, a slur is a slur is a slur, no matter the context. Crazy is mostly, and overtly, used to mean “bad”, “silly”, “not worth paying attention to”, “too much”. Persons with mental illnesses are none of these things as a group. The positive use is not that positive, and it doesn’t absolve the mountains of bad usage.

Examples:
“I’ve been crazy busy lately, sorry I haven’t been around much.”
“I’m just crazy about ice cream!”

Crazy a destructive word, used to hurt people with mental disabilities. It’s used to discredit, to marginalize, to make sure that we feel shame for our disability and discourage self-care, to make sure that those of us brave enough to publicly identify as having mental disabilities are continually discredited.

Editor’s Note: It can take longer than usual for comments to appear on Guest Post entries. Please review our comment policy. Interested in Guest Posting at FWD? Check out our Call for Guest Posts!

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.

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.

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.