Category Archives: Ableist Word Profile

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”.

By 9 November, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language   



Ableist Word Profile: Scab

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 was working on something the other day and I unconsciously used the word “scab” to refer to temporary non-union workers brought in to break up a strike. And, as soon as I finished typing it, I said “hey, wait a minute!” So I took a break and researched the origins of the word to confirm my suspicions that it was ableist, and made a note to do an ableist word profile on it at some point in the reasonably near future.

Workers’ rights is a big topic of interest to me, as is organized labour and the use of unionization to advocate for the welfare of workers. Thus, I do not look fondly upon strikebreakers. I’ve always heard them called “scabs” and used “scab” myself without really thinking about its origins, but it takes only a cursory glance and thought to realize that the word is ableist; after all, what’s a scab? It’s a crust that forms on a sore or wound. And some people with disabilities have conditions which cause chronic scabbing. In fact, I have a condition which causes chronic scabbing, because I have eczema, so I’ve been using a word which is injurious to me, personally, for years.

“Scab” actually entered English around 1250, in the sense of “skin disease.” Scab as in “crust which forms on a sore” didn’t come into use until almost 200 years later, and “scab” as in “strikebreaker” is from the early 1800s. The word is derived from the Old English for “scratch/itch,” and is closely related to “scabies,” a condition which causes intense itching. And subsequent scratching. And, often, scabbing.

Why did we start referring to strikebreakers as “scabs”? We’ve actually got to take a trip back in time to 1590 to find out, because that’s when the word first started being used to describe a “despicable person,” since apparently people with scabs are despicable. These origins may have some class overtones as well, since people of lower class status are more likely to injure themselves/have untreated wounds and poorly managed skin conditions which result in scabbing. At any rate, the term was borrowed in the late 1700s to refer to people who didn’t join trade unions, and this use explains why we use it to refer to strikebreakers, since some people view strikebreakers as rather despicable.

The ableist origins of this word are clear; we’re using yet another term used to describe a medical condition/symptom as a pejorative. In this case, the medical uses of this word are alive and well. Everyone understands the meaning of scab in relation to health, and many people are also familiar with the pejorative use of the word. As someone who’s actually pretty scabby at the moment, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really connected the dots with this word, but now that I have, I’m eliminating it from my word use.

So, what’s an alternative to “scab,” for those who want to be able to say “temporary workers brought in to break up a strike” in a way which conveys sufficient rage and irritation? Well, there’s always “strikebreaker.”

I think it’s also important to note here that while I find the actions of strikebreakers pretty despicable, it’s a complicated issue. Many people hired as strikebreakers are actually unaware of the fact that they are being hired to break a strike, with employers transporting them in such a way that they are not aware they are passing a picket line. Companies have also been known to use people who do not speak the language in a region where a strike is occurring, with the goal of keeping workers ignorant about the circumstances of their employment. Some people may also feel some moral qualms about being involved in unionbusting activity, but they may be forced to accept work as temporary labourers by their financial positions. Things are never as black and white as we want them to be.

By 4 November, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language  , ,  



Ableist Word Profile: Weak

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

“Weak” is an example of one of those sneaky, pernicious ableist words which many people have a hard time eliminating from their language because they don’t realize that it is ableist in nature. A commenter even suggested it as an alternative to “lame,” illustrating how even people who are thinking about language use do not recognize “weak” as an ableist word.

It’s worth discussing why “weak” is ableist before plunging into its history. The reasons this word are ableist get at the crux of the ableist identity of many words: Because it centers around the idea that Disability Is Bad. Disability is so bad, in fact, that it can be used as a shorthand to refer to something viewed as bad, unpleasant, or unworthy. Disability status, or symptoms of a disability, are so awful that they can be used as an insult.

“Weak” entered English in the 1300s, courtesy of Old Norse. The word was initially used in the sense of something soft or pliant. By the 1300s, it was being used to refer to moral failings as well as physical ones, and along the way it spawned the idea that to be strong is to be good, and to be weak is to be bad. “Weakness” is still used in a diagnostic context today, in discussions of situations in which patients lack physical strength.

Numerous disabilities are associated with physical weakness. For people with these disabilities, hearing “weak” used as an insult is not very pleasant, as you might imagine. Thus, it’s a word we would like to avoid using when it is not appropriate, if possible, since we don’t want to go around suggesting that physical weakness is something so deplorable that it’s appropriate to use the term “weak” to describe things which are unpleasant, boring, bad, dull, etc.

So, what words can be used instead of “weak”? A quick trip to the thesaurus reveals a panapoly of ableist alternatives, including “debilitated, feeble, fragile, impotent, frail, deficient,” and our old favourite “lame.”

If you’re describing a situation which is dull, boring, irritating, upsetting, annoying, troublesome, not worth your time, or simply bad, why not use those words? If you’re describing a person whom you think has moral failings, how about ineffectual, indecisive, vascillating, or unsure? If you’re describing something which is not very strong, such as a quiet noise, “weak” would be an appropriate word to use in the literal sense of “lacking strength,” but you could also explore soft, imperceptible, low, indistinct, muffled, or just inaudible.

In reference to a specific individual who experiences physical weakness, you should defer to the language that person uses. If someone prefers to describe lack of physical strength caused by a disability as “weakness,” it’s an appropriate term to use, as long as you are not referring to the actual person as weak. If that person does not use “weak” or “weakness” self referentially, it’s probably safe to assume that this person will not appreciate hearing these words used by others to refer to their lack of strength. It’s also usually safe to ask a person with a disability if there are particular words which this person would prefer people to use in reference to the disability and its symptoms.

By 2 November, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language  , ,  



Ableist Word Profile: I Feel Your Pain!

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 hear this one all the time.  I am pretty sure I am very very guilty of using this one.  I saw it used the other day in a context that I am not going to get into here, but it really struck it home for me in a way that made me jump (not at all literally) and decide that it needed to be unpacked here a little.

I feel your pain.

I had to go to the school to pick up my daughter because she had a slight fever.  Anything will get them sent home during the Flu Panic going around right now.  We walked to the nearest shoppette to pick up some canned soup for lunch before going home, and The Kid had that Look.  The tired eyes, with the dark circles and the pallor that told me she just wasn’t feeling well.  We got our soup and orange juice and a cab to get home.  She nodded off on the ride home as I stroked her hair, shoving aside my own pain wishing I knew how she felt and what she needed.  She can only tell me so much.  She can only give me clues to what it feels like to be inside her body feeling her experiences of being sick.  She is the only person who can communicate the way it feels to have that fever or that headache or to have that need for a nap and soup and cuddles and blankets.  No matter how much I understand how colds and germs and immune systems work, and no matter how well I know that low grade fevers are actually good for you, only she can tell me how it feels.

I can’t feel her pain.

Just like you can’t feel my pain.

One of the core principles of feminism, IMO, is the concept of bodily autonomy.  My body is mine.  Mine and mine alone.  You don’t get to tell me how to manage it, you don’t get to touch it without my permission, and anything that tries to attack me from the inside is treated as an enemy hostile if it dares grow uninvited.  This stems from the fundamental idea that you or anyone else who isn’t me could never understand my body better than me.

Coinciding with that, is that no one other human being other than me knows how it feels to be me, to be in my body, to literally feel the pain of living in this body.

Even the best of my doctors, the ones who care with all of their compassion, the ones who were and are capable of great empathy, can not physically feel my pain.  No matter how many fancy diplomas are on their walls or how many scans they’ve run or how many times they’ve played pin cushion with me, they still need me to resort to the handy dandy pain scale as a rubric for making this clear to them.

So, how can you, random stranger, on a random message board or in a random comment section feel my pain?

Can you feel the moment I wake in the morning, those three fleeting moments where I forget and turn my head too quickly, jarring my neck and triggering a migraine that has been hanging over me like a shroud all night?

Can you feel the way my body feels like it is bruised in all of the places it rested against itself or the mattress all night?

How can you, random person in line with me at the supermarket, feel my pain?

Can you feel the pain that my hip and other joints are causing, necessitating the cane, or that the cane is causing my back and shoulders?

Can you feel the dizziness that the blearing pain in my head causes?

How can you, random family member/friend/concerned citizen, feel my pain?

Can you feel the numerous side effects that my body must endure from the various medications I need to make it through a day?

Can you feel the rawness of my throat from the numerous times one of those side effects was not being able to hold a meal down?

I am not discounting the way that you want to relate to me, or to express that you share in my disapproval of something.  I understand that you want to sympathize with my frustration.  You may even want to align with my feelings, or appreciate my sentiment.  There are lots of options that you have that don’t somehow imply that you have some kind of insider info on the goings on of my body or what it really feels like to be me.

Ableist Word Profile: Mongoloid

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.

“Mongoloid” is a word which is used in several different senses. Today, we’re not concerned with the use in physical anthropology, describing individuals who fit within a prescribed set of physical characteristics, but rather with the use in reference to people with disabilities. Specifically, the term has been used historically to refer to people with Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome), and more generally to people with developmental disabilities, although this usage is out of vogue at this point. Like many words historically used to talk about people with disabilities, it’s used today in a pejorative sense, in this case to talk about people with faces which are not conventionally attractive, especially if they are deemed intellectually inferior, “slow,” or obnoxious; “her mongoloid features,” “that mongoloid down in shipping.”

Using “mongoloid” to talk about someone with a developmental disability is offensive, which is why most people don’t do it any more. It’s also offensive to use it in the same way that people use “retarded.” Or to call someone a “mongoloid” because that person doesn’t match your ideal of physical beauty, intellectual rigor, or pleasant personality. In fact, if you’re not a physical anthropologist, it’s better not to use this word at all.

So, ready for the horrific origins of “Mongoloid”? It’s an archaic term for a racial group, referencing the Mongols; the term is retained in this sense in physical anthropology to discuss people of Asian, Native American, and First Nations ancestry. There are a number of physical characteristics which can be used to put people in this grouping. Since people historically noted that individuals with Trisomy 21 shared some of the facial characteristics associated with people in the Mongoloid racial grouping, they referred to the condition as “Mongol” or “Mongoloid Syndrome.” And people with Trisomy 21 were called…wait for it…Mongolian.

But there’s more! The man for whom Down Syndrome is named, John Langdon Down, claimed in 1866 that the facial characteristics of people with Trisomy 21 represented a genetic regression, because Caucasians should not have “Asian” facial features. The concept of “evolutionary throwbacks” was just starting to gain traction, and this is one of the many ugly ways in which it manifested (hello, racism, my old friend). Indeed, the idea that people with disabilities were “throwbacks” and “genetic regressions” was used as an argument for forced sterilization, institutionalization, and other abuses of people with disabilities well through the 20th century. (And such practices continue to go on today, although the reasoning for them may not be framed as bluntly as it once was.)

Wikipedia helpfully informs us that “use of the term ‘Mongoloid’ for racial purposes has therefore acquired negative connotations because of the connection with Down syndrome.” Thanks for that, Wikipedia.

So, in short: Don’t use “mongoloid.” I think this is a word which most of our readers cringe to see and hear, which makes it an easy word to avoid, since hopefully you’re not using it anyway. If you find yourself reaching for it, think about the person you’re describing, and think about what you really want to say. Do you want to say that someone’s annoying you because ou is having trouble grasping a concept? How about “Mary really seems to have difficulty grasping the right procedure for clocking out, can someone give her a hand?” as an alternative.

Do you want to use this term to describe someone with unusual facial features? How about…you just don’t comment on what other people’s faces look like?

Ableist Word Profile: Invalid

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 word is “invalid,” a word often used to describe people who are viewed as helpless. This ableist word is closely linked with “weak” and “infirm” and has many of the same problematic overtones, including assumptions about disability, living with a disability, and how people with disabilities navigate the world.

The Latin roots for this word literally stand for “not strong.” It entered English in the early 1600s in the literal sense of “not strong,” and also in the legal sense (“this argument is invalid”). Within 10 years, the word was being used to describe people with sickness or injuries, and in 1702, “invalid” started to be used as a noun, originally in reference to soldiers with war injuries, and eventually to refer to people with disabilities as well as people with temporary illnesses and people recovering from injuries and surgery.

“Invalid” is a tricky word because there are legitimate and entirely appropriate uses for it; when I say an argument is “invalid” because I mean it’s “not strong,” that’s a, well, valid use of this word. What we’re concerned with is seeing “invalid” used as a noun, whether in reference to someone with disabilities or in reference to someone who is perceived as helpless for other reasons.

People with disabilities are often infantalized. Assumptions are made, for example, that wheelchair users cannot do anything for themselves, and must be pushed (even in power chairs), that things need to be handed to them, and, oddly, that things must be explained for them LOUDLY and s-l-o-w-l-y to make sure that they understand. Individuals who walk with the assistance of a cane or walker encounter similar problems. In fact, for pretty much anyone with a visible disability, there’s an assumption on the part of society that this individual is helpless.

In some cases, people with disabilities do need assistance and accommodations.

But, here’s the thing: They can ask for it! And when they politely say that they do not need assistance, they mean it. People with disabilities can lead entirely independent lives, or empowered lives with the assistance of an aide if they do need assistance on a regular basis. They aren’t helpless. And thus, calling them “invalids” is pretty not appropriate. Since “invalid” is associated with the cultural baggage of “poor hapless people with disabilities,” when it’s used in reference to someone without a disability; “‘I’m not an invalid,’ she snapped, ‘I can open the door on my own!’,” it’s ableist. Because it involves the use of a term (inappropriate though it is) which refers to people with disabilities in a context which is meant to be derisive.

How do you know if you’re using invalid safely? Well, are you talking about a person, or an object? If it’s an object (an argument, a passcode, a parking pass, etc), it’s appropriate. If it’s a person…don’t use it. Instead of “invalid” in reference to an able bodied person who appears helpless, why not just say “helpless?” And, instead of invalid in reference to people with disabilities, why not “person with disabilities” or “disabled person,” depending on your nation’s model? Or use the term that the person would prefer to hear used?

By 26 October, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language  , ,  



Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence

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.

Wait! you may be saying to yourselves. Kaninchen Zero, what the hell is ‘intelligence’ doing in the Ableist Word Profile series? Intelligence isn’t a disability!

Okay, so maybe you’re not saying that. But I’m serious. I hate this word. Hate the concept. With a hatred that is a pure and burning flame. True, part of this is because I get told all the time that I’m like wicked smart. When it’s some of the more toxic people in my family saying it, there’s more to it: You’re so intelligent so why are you poor? Other people use it as an opportunity to put themselves down: You’re so smart; I’m not; I could never do the things you do.

Does intelligence exist? At all?

Maybe it doesn’t.

There are tests that measure… something. They’re called Intelligence Quotient tests. The idea is that these tests actually measure some fundamental, real quality of human cognition — the people who believe in IQ believe that there’s a single quality that informs cognition as a whole and that people who have higher IQs have more of this and think better and perform better generally while people who have lower IQs have less of this quality and perform more poorly. Sorry; it’s a muddle of a definition, I know. Partly it’s a conceptual and linguistic problem — some things are not well defined and these things tend to be the things we consider to be fundamental. It’s much easier to define smaller things at the edges; it’s easy to define a fingernail. It’s harder to point to where blood stops flowing away from the heart and starts flowing back towards it.

The man who developed the first intelligence tests, Alfred Binet, wasn’t actually trying to measure intelligence. He’d done some work in neurology and psychology and education, and in 1899 he was asked to become a member of the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child. Primary education in France had become mandatory, so a lot of work on educational psychology was being done due to the large demand and the large available sample population. Binet, and others, were assigned to the Commission for the Retarded. (Again, please accept my apologies; I wouldn’t use the word if it were mine.)

The problem he was trying to solve was how to identify — consistently, without having to rely on the judgment of people who could be swayed by all sorts of personal biases (as we all are, including me) — those children who needed extra help. Maybe they had developmental disorders, maybe they had learning impairments along the lines of ADD/ADHD, dyscalculias, dyslexias, maybe malnutrition, injury, or childhood disease had caused neurological damage or limited development. The specific etiology wasn’t the point; the point was to be able to know who these children were and get them assistance. Which may be ascribing too-noble motives to him, but he doesn’t do so great later.Read more: Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence

Ableist Word Profile: Vegetable

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 word: vegetable, in reference to a person in a coma. I hope I don’t need to explain why this is ableist, people.

Here’s an illustrated guide.

These are vegetables:

Photograph of vegetables in large baskets at a farmers market, including eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, summer squash, and bok choy. Image taken by computix and licensed under Creative Commons.
Photograph of vegetables in large baskets at a farmers' market, including eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, summer squash, and bok choy. Image taken by computix and licensed under Creative Commons.

This is a person:

Photograph of a tattooed person with short dark hair crouched in a sea-green bathtub, arms outstretched and head in the tub. Photograph taken by J. Star and licensed under Creative Commons.
Photograph of a tattooed person with short dark hair crouched in a sea-green bathtub, arms outstretched and head in the tub. Photograph taken by J. Star and licensed under Creative Commons.

Vegetables are tasty delicious things which we consume. People are, well, people. People are not vegetables. Ever. There is a medical condition with the unfortunate name Persistent Vegetative State (PVS). The origins of the term are a bit unclear, but I think we can safely assume that they are probably not favourable to people with disabilities. This condition is actually misdiagnosed and confused with other conditions; for example, locked-in syndrome can resemble PVS. I would also like to note, for the record, that it is possible to recover from this state, unlike a vegetable, which cannot recover after you have eaten it.

But just because doctors use the word “vegetative” when discussing a particular medical condition doesn’t mean that you should use it, especially if you are not even using it to refer to that medical condition. Or even that they should use it, honestly. It is unbelievably offensive to call someone a vegetable.

So, when in the heck did we start referring to people as vegetables?!

Around the 1850s, people began using the term to talk about things which were dull, boring, and uneventful; the slang terms “dull as a turnip” and “turnip head” are also relics of the idea that vegetables are boring. By 1921, it was in use to refer to people who lived lives perceived as dull by others. Which is, you know, not very cool, but is also a usage rarely heard today, because when the word is used in reference to people, it is used almost exclusively to talk about people who have experienced traumatic brain incidents and are unconscious, or awake, but not aware.

It’s not really clear which medical condition people are thinking of when they talk about someone as a “vegetable,” although presumably it is supposed to reference a coma or similar state from which someone will not recover. Whatever people are using it to refer to, it needs to stop.

People should not refer to someone in a coma as a “vegetable.” They should use the proper medical term for whatever condition that person actually has. Since that person is not in a state to communicate about which term they would prefer, going with an actual medical diagnosis is reasonable.

This term also shouldn’t be used in a slangy way as in “don’t drink and drive, or you might become a vegetable.” How about just “don’t drink and drive, you might severely injure yourself or others”? Now then. That’s not hard, is it?

Now, here’s a personal anecdote which I think explains why the term “vegetable” offends me so deeply.

A few years ago, a man who had been a friend of mine in high school was involved in a serious car accident. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital capable of dealing with severe trauma, but it quickly became evident that he was not going to recover and was in fact actively dying. So, his family made the choice to donate his still-viable organs.

When I attended the memorial (which included several very touching readings of letters from people who  had received organs from him), I saw a woman walk up to his grieving mother and sister and say “well, at least you did the right thing and donated his organs once you knew he was going to be a vegetable.”

Yeah. Case closed.

Next page →
← Previous page