Tag Archives: ableism

Ableist Word Profile: Lame

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.

Our first two posts in this series seem to have been a smash hit! So, today, I’m picking up with “lame.” When people first start thinking about ableist language, “lame” is one of the first words they eliminate, and it’s a word worth examining. It is usually used in a context which suggests that something is bad, boring, or not worthy of attention. A word often interchanged with “lame” is “gay,” which is, of course, homophobic.

And also not very creative.

“Lame,” derived from a word which literally means “broken,” is an original Old English word. We’re getting to the roots of ableism here, people! At any rate, the word was used historically to refer to people (and animals) with difficulty walking. It’s a bit unclear when people started using the word in the context of events/situations/objects, although it appears to have started around the 18th century.

“Lame” is an ableist word. It’s an ableist word because it assumes that having difficulty walking is objectively bad, and that therefore, a word which is used to describe difficulty walking can be safely used as a pejorative to mean “this is bad.” Using “lame” reinforces ableism in our culture by reminding people that disability is bad, and that it’s so bad that it can be used as a shorthand code to talk about bad things in general. Incidentally, the related “lame-brain”? Also ableist. Just so we’re all clear on that.

One defense of this word which I sometimes encounter is “well, I know someone who is disabled and they use it,” or “I know someone who uses it self referentially.” Both of these things may well be true. I am certainly not going to override your experience. But not everyone views “lame” in a neutral or positive way. Here’s a selection from a comment left at this ain’t livin’ by FB, a regular reader:

Please imagine men AND women staring at you who either: want to insult you because you limp, want to point out that you limp, want to know why you limp, want to point you to an elevator or their personal medical specialist, and, very ocassionaly, want your number because they think you’re attractive. And you know what makes these stares complicated? You never know why they’re staring, except that there is an 80% chance it is about the limp, and absolutely no chance they’ll just leave you alone to mind your own business.

That’s how some people feel when they hear the word “lame.” And when we talk about language usage, it’s worth considering how our use of language impacts others. Not the people we know, the people who assure us that our language is ok, but the people we don’t know. The people whom we are hurting with our careless language use. Eradicating ableist language is not about meeting some politically correct ideal (and when did “politically correct” become a pejorative), it’s about thinking about our actions and considering the ways in which they impact others.

Language has power. We have power when we use language. Language is often used to oppress and abuse. That is what this series is about, an attempt to break the ableist habits of English language users because those habits enforce ableism in English-speaking societies.

So, what are some good alternatives to “lame”?

Try thinking about the situation the word is being applied to. Some suggestions might be: bad, boring, dull, not worth my time, frustrating, irritating.

Recommended Reading for October 12, 2009


The Invisible Crutch:

I’ve decided to build an invisible crutch from things that constitute abled privilege, without repeating too much of what is in McIntosh’s list (so read her list, and substitute “disability” for “color” for many of those things).

1. I can, if I wish, arrange to attend social events without worrying if they are accessible to me.

2. If I am in the company of people that make me uncomfortable, I can easily choose to move elsewhere.

This month’s Disability Blog Carnival will focus on Disability & Work:

Here are some suggested starting points: What work do you do? How’s that going? Do you get paid for it, or is it volunteer work or something you do because you just love it? What blocks you from employment? If you’re employed, what could be better? Do you want a paying job, or do you feel you contribute to society just fine without one? What unpaid work do you do that you value or that others value, for example, emotional support in relationships? If you’re a family member, friend or ally of a person with a disability, what thoughts do you have on work and employment? What’s the employment situation like for PWD in your country or region ?

Health Care & Vulvodynia [U.S. specific]

One of my concerns about health care reform in the US is how it will impact sexual & reproductive health, the domain in which vulvodynia and other pelvic pain conditions are usually classified. As far rights directly related to reproduction and abortion in particular, it’s looking grim. My hope is that patients with pelvic pain conditions will be covered adequately as well. This may not seem like the most pressing issue, since, frequently, sexual health problems will not be directly responsible for death. There are some definite exceptions, notably AIDS, and cancers.

For a few moments, I feel guilty thinking about sexual health in light of other deadly, catastrophic illnesses…

But then I remember that it’s not fair to minimize the very real suffering & misunderstanding that I and other pelvic pain patients go through. And I remember how hard it is to convince others, including doctors, of how very real it is & how difficult it can be to get an effective level of care.

Fat Hatred and Disability on the Cleveland Show:

Sidewalks that are functional for an able bodied person are not necessarily useable to someone in a scooter. Poles that can be easily navigated when they are stuck in the pavement, are not necessarily easy to move around in a scooter. Often curbs are not turned down. Sidewalks are carelessly blocked off by cars hanging out of drive ways, and let’s not forget those who think that they don’t have to shovel their walkway in the winter. My personal favourite are those that believe the scooter rider should always yield when faced with a pedestrian on the sidewalk.

My Use of Ableist Language:

I can’t tell you how many times throughout my life that I have used the phrase “that’s lame” or “don’t be lame” in my life. It’s been a part of my vocabulary since grade school. I wasn’t really aware of the exclusionary and offensive nature of the word until college. That’s when I made the connection between the word “lame” and it’s association to people with mental disabilities.

In the news:

McDonald’s in row over mobility scooter [New Zealand]

McDonald’s is yet to deliver on a promise to say sorry to a woman who was denied service in a drive-thru, because she was on a mobility scooter.

Margaret Todd says she could not squeeze her scooter through the front door of McDonald’s in Blenheim, so had no option but to head round to the drive-thru.

Outrageous pre-existing conditions

(Originally posted a month ago at three rivers fog; in the meantime, news also came out that things like acne were considered pre-existing conditions as well: consider any and all further outrage well and fully included in the subject of this post.)

You’ve undoubtedly heard the news already. A history of domestic violence or C-section are considered, by private US health insurance companies, to be “pre-existing conditions,” which are used as a basis for denying coverage, rescinding coverage, charging higher rates, or other discriminatory practices.

Of course, this is outrageous. Why should a woman who has been beaten by some asshole be denied health care coverage? It isn’t fair.

But there’s something wrong here. And not just with this discriminatory practice — but with the people breathlessly reporting it.

Because, you see, it is being reported, not as:

Pre-Existing Condition Exclusions Are Morally Wrong, but as

How Dare They Treat DV Victims and Mothers the Same Way They Treat Women with Depression, Diabetes and Cancer!

It is being reported as different from “normal” pre-existing condition exclusions. It is being reported as being especially wrong. As being worse. A true moral violation, taking things to a new level.

But why?

Here’s the thing. Insurance companies refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (anything from asthma to leukemia) because they know these people will be highly likely to incur greater costs than healthy patients. The entire rationale for excluding them is because they cost more money.

If you have had a C-section once, you are much more likely to end up having another one if you ever give birth again. If you have a history of domestic violence, you might end up with an abusive partner again, and end up needing care.

Yeah, it’s complete bullshit that these people would be refused health care. It’s downright immoral.

But why is it especially immoral to refuse health care to these women — but not to women with osteoporosis or an anxiety disorder or back pain? Or Ehler-Danlos Syndrome or food allergies or heart disease or lung cancer?

How is it any different?

Victims of domestic violence don’t deserve to suffer consequences for something that is not their fault. This is truth. It contributes to the very popular cultural myth that victims are somehow to blame for the abuse they suffer — that they must have done something to provoke it, or that they should have left, etc. All this stuff is highly damaging.

But that doesn’t make it different than telling a woman with lung cancer that she can’t have care because her disease is somehow her fault. Which contributes to the very popular cultural myth that people with medical conditions are somehow to blame for them — that they must have done something to earn them, that it’s their own fault they ended up that way, and therefore they lose rights to certain things because they are inflicting the costs of their mistakes on the rest of us.

Because if you haven’t done anything wrong, you won’t ever end up sick. If you do end up sick, there must be something you did wrong.

Maybe that woman smoked. And maybe that other woman slapped her boyfriend first. And that woman who was raped wore a short skirt and flirted with the man first. That does not make this violation her fault. This is basic feminist theory. “Blaming the victim.”

Health care is a human right. We all deserve basic health care that respects a person’s dignity and integrity and humanity.

So why are these things different? Especially outrageous?

I can’t identify any reason except one.

Because they apply to healthy women.

It’s understandable why health insurance companies would refuse care to women with arthritis. It makes sense that they would deny care to women with psychiatric disorders.

Because we, as a society, think it is OK to deny quality of life and societal access to people with medical conditions, disabilities and chronic illnesses. We have determined that it makes sense to discriminate against them. We get why these things are done. And they’re done to those people. Over there. Not to me and mine.

But C-sections? Why, one-third of mothers in the US will have a C-section instead of a vaginal birth! That affects me and mine. Therefore, it is especially outrageous — that we would be treated like we treat them.

Oh, but that’s not how you think?


What justification is there for acting as though these practices are any worse than the practice of denying coverage to women who have lupus?

There isn’t any that isn’t rooted in a deeply ableist bias.

How about we get outraged by the fact that there is any such thing as a pre-existing condition exclusion at all? I can get behind you on that one.

Ableist Word Profile: Idiot

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.

Following on yesterday’s profile of “cretin,” I thought I’d tackle “idiot” this morning. This is another word which is commonly used to denote low intelligence, and it’s also a word which many people are unaware is ableist in nature. “Idiot” is also closely tied to ideas about intellectual worth, and attitudes that people with intelligence which does not meet an arbitrary standard are somehow lesser human beings.

“Idiot” is a very old word. It’s derived from Latin and Greek roots for “ordinary person,” which came to be used to refer to unskilled labourers, and eventually to people who were ignorant or who lacked education. Interestingly, the word also has roots in lack of civic participation; in Ancient Greece, participation in society and the democratic process was a virtue, and people who did not engage with society were regarded as suspect. This attitude is mirrored in some branches of the modern activist movement; people who don’t engage in the “right kind” of activism are sometimes referred to as “idiots,” for example.

This word appears to have entered the English language around 1300, in reference to people who lacked reasoning skills and were poorly, if at all, educated. In the 1800s, “idiot” acquired a new nuance, as it started to be used as a diagnostic term in reference to people with severe developmental delays. An “idiot” medically speaking was someone with a “mental age level” of less than three years, or an IQ under 30. It was, quite literally, a diagnosis of mental inferiority, as decided by the medical community. I would like to point out, for the record, that people with this diagnosis were subjected to indignities like institutionalization and forcible sterilization, with no less a figure than Oliver Wendell Holmes once saying “three generations of idiots is enough” when defending the forcible sterilization of Carrie Buck in Buck v. Bell in 1927.

And before you leap to say “well, that’s old,” I would like to point out that the word “idiot” was used in a diagnostic and medical context in my home state of California as recently as 2007, when the penal code was finally amended to remove this word from the law books. This illustrates that “idiot” had a dual and widely accepted usage through the 19th and much of the 20th century; laypeople used it to refer to anyone they believed was lacking intelligence, while members of the medical community used it as a diagnostic term.

So, we can see that “idiot” is ableist from several perspectives. It’s yet another word used to denigrate lack of intelligence, and it’s a word with a history as a specific diagnostic term. So, what can we use as an alternative to “idiot”?

Many of the ableist words which reference “inferior intelligence” are actually used in settings when people want to say that someone is being thoughtless, reckless, irresponsible, or rude. So, those are all good words to use as alternatives to “idiot.” One of the things about exploring ableist language is that it forces us to think about the actual meaning of a sentence; when you find yourself wanting to refer to someone as an “idiot” or something as “idiotic,” pause and think about the meaning of what you are trying to say.

“Idiot” is also used in rhetoric to talk about someone who is uninformed about an issue or someone who is unaware of the complexities of a topic. In this sense, a value judgment is being made about someone’s intelligence on the basis of the fact that this person is not familiar with the fine and nuanced details of everything on Earth. It’s worth noting that we all came into this world with no knowledge of anything, and that all of us were uninformed about topics we now consider ourselves knowledgeable about at some point. In this case, rather than using “idiot,” a better word choice might simply be “uninformed.”

Ableist Word Profile: Cretin

Read a Czech translation of this post, prepared by Vera!

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.

The word “cretin” is often used to describe someone of limited intelligence, often with the added connotation of being irritating. “That cretin didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!” “That Bobby in accounting is such a mouthbreathing cretin!”

“Cretin” is an ableist word. It’s one which shouldn’t be used by people who consider themselves allies to people with disabilities. Many of the synonyms the dictionary so helpfully provides (idiot, moron, mongoloid, imbecile, fool, half-wit for example), are also ableist.

Let’s talk about the word origins of “cretin” first, shall we? The first recorded use of the word dates to the late 1700s, when it was integrated into English from an Alpine French word, crestin, in the sense of “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” (Incidentally, who wants to play “spot the ableist language” in that dictionary entry?) The word appears to have its origins in the Vulgate Latin word for “Christian,” which may be, depending on which authority you believe, a reference to the suffering of Christ, the humanity of people with disabilities, or a fetishization of innocence, the idea being that people with disabilities can’t sin, and are therefore Christlike. Other authorities suggest that this etymology is wrong, and that the word may be derived from the same root for “creature.” No matter which etymology you prefer, the roots of this word are clearly rooted in ableist thought.

It’s not really clear which medical condition the Alpine French were describing, but English speakers used it to refer to people with hypothyroidism or iodine deficiencies, two problems which were apparently common in the French Alps. Cretinism, as it came to be known, was associated by members of the public with low intelligence, and as a result, people started using the word to refer to people whom they thought were unintelligent, even when those individuals did not have the medical problems the word was originally coined to describe.

By the 20th century, the medical community was abandoning this word to describe an actual medical condition, since it had acquired such a pejorative connotation, although the word can sometimes be seen in some medical texts. The continued use of “cretin” in English speaks to the ingrained ableism in the language, and also to ideas about intelligence and elitism which are very common in many people. The judgment of intelligence as a value which can be quantified, and the idea that people with lesser degrees of “intelligence” under objective testing are unworthy, are distressingly common. (They’re going to come up again and again in this series, too.)

So, what can you use instead of “cretin”?

Well, the first thing you need to do is examine the word the setting is used in. Let’s take the two examples above.

In the first example, our speaker is bemoaning the actions of a careless mechanic who failed to do a job properly. Surely, in this case, words such as “thoughtless,” “careless,” or perhaps “poorly trained” would be a better fit. “That thoughtless mechanic didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!”

In the second example, the context is a bit unclear. Not knowing the speaker, we don’t know if Bob from accounting works slowly, is a bit pedantic when it comes to processing reimbursement claims, or what. It becomes necessary to examine what it is about Bob which so infuriates the speaker. That examination may uncover other words which would be not only more appropriate, but more accurate.

Devaluing the Disabled Body

Two separate posts about disability issues have had me thinking lately about the way in which our society systematically devalues the disabled body. One, on Feministe, about a casting call for someone to play a disabled character, and another, on Hoyden About Town, about a shameful chapter in the right to die debate. The very word “disabled” is devaluing, although as Amandaw at Three Rivers Fog has pointed out, it’s difficult to come up with less problematic language; the way our language is structured, people who are ablebodied and neurotypical are the “normal” and people who are not are “abnormal,” with the implication that they are also lesser.

One of the problems with having discussions about disability issues is that people with disabilities are not out there, in public, in the same way that other subsets of the human community are. This is because of the fact that society has devalued people with disabilities, creating a vicious cycle in which people with disabilities are erased so that we can feel comfortable continuing to marginalize them. The assumption often seems to be that life with a disability is not worth living, and therefore any measures taken to promote quality of life or community engagement are useless (much like disabled bodies themselves, in the framework of a society which fears disability).

As a society, we have not placed a high emphasis on accessibility. We have not created a society which is friendly to people with disabilities, which as a consequence makes it very difficult for them to engage with the world of the ablebodied; even people with economic clout who have access to numerous tools and resources face struggles with simple tasks like navigating a street, because society is primarily structured for the benefit of the ablebodied. For people living in poverty, or people of colour, it’s even more difficult to get basic support, and this can lead to situations in which people are trapped in homes or residential treatment facilities. Not because they are disabled, but because society has refused, in any way, shape, or form, to accommodate them or to recognize that they are human beings who have a right to be part of our society.

I regularly see business owners complaining about ADA regulations and other measures which are designed to make the world more easy for people to navigate when they can’t walk, because apparently, if you can’t walk, you don’t deserve to be an active member of society. I regularly see people with disabilities marginalized everywhere from public transportation to traffic law; it is viewed as unreasonable that people using mobility aids and other assistive devices should expect to be able to negotiate the street, ride a bus, or even safely navigate the side of the road. I regularly see people with disabilities marginalized in careless language, from the President of the United States making derisive comments about the Special Olympics to friends who routinely inform me that things they don’t like are “lame.” And for people who are bedridden or unable to leave their homes for other disability-related reasons, there is nary a hint of suggestion that support could be provided to make life more enjoyable, more full, more rich. After all, if you’re bedridden, what do you have to live for?

This is a society in which the lives of people with disabilities are not highly valued. The post on Hoyden About Town just about broke my heart, with the description of a disabled man who has been marginalized and forced into a position of such utter misery that he would rather die than go on living. He doesn’t want to die because he’s disabled. He wants to die because his living circumstances are deplorable, because he’s trapped in a bed in front of a television set. Apparently, actually providing him with things which would improve his quality of life is so pointless that it would be better to just let him rot. The ruling to allow him to refuse nutrition is, as the author points out, not a “win” by any stretch of the imagination, and it amounts to little more than the government doing a terrible job from the start and being grateful to pass the buck.

I believe in the right to die with dignity, but the Hoyden About Town post made me realize that I prioritize the right to live with dignity. I believe that all people have a right to live rich, happy, excellent lives, and we as a society need to make sure that they are provided with the tools to make that happen. The ablebodied, who control much of society, need to break themselves of the beliefs that life with a disability is tragic, not worth living, and inherently lesser than that of our own lives. We need to promote the idea that all people should have equal access to society, equal value in the eyes of society, and the equal potential to contribute to society. It is not for us to decide when life is and is not worth living, nor should we pat ourselves on the back when someone society has thrown away decides to die rather than enduring a restricted and grim existence.

If someone decides that ou wants to die rather than enduring several months of pain and misery in the end stages terminal cancer, or feels that ou does not want to live through the end stages of a severe neurological disease, that is their right, and they should be provided with the tools to do so. But people should not be asking to die because society has made their lives miserable. And we should not be providing such poor treatment and support to people with disabilities that they want to die rather than go on living; we should not be devaluing life to the point that people come to believe that they are worthless or have no hope.

The devaluing of the disabled body leads to assumptions. Like “all people with disabilities are miserable and longing to be un-disabled.” Or “people with disabilities don’t have sex.” Or “people with disabilities can’t lead normal lives.” Or “all people with disabilities are heroic/romantic figures.” Society collectively silences people with disabilities and would prefer that they be shut away somewhere where people don’t have to look at them because they make people uncomfortable, and society expects people with disabilities to adhere to its own views and opinions of disabilities, to behave gratefully when society throw them scraps from the table, to be brave and cheerful when society tells them with a patronizing smile that there’s “only so much we can do, really.” In all of this, members of society never stop to examine their own assumptions, nor do they stop to consider the fact that they are being every bit as foul as the racists and misogynists of the world.

We are at a point in society where most people are offended and upset if they are called out on racist and misogynist behavior, because while racism and misogyny are still widespread problems, we collectively believe that race and sex should not be used as grounds for discrimination, and that the history of discrimination and abuse against women and people of colour is wrong and shameful. We have come to believe, in other words, that devaluing people on the basis of sex and race is wrong.

We haven’t yet reached that state with ableism, and I want to know why. Why is it that people raising questions about problematic language in the sphere of disability issues are accused of being “too PC”? Why does society expect people with disabilities to strive for as close a simulacrum of “abled” life as possible, and why does society get offended when people with disabilities are proud of their disabilities, or reject things which are supposed to make them more “normal”? Why are people angry when people with disabilities ask for basic dignity and respect? Why is it that people routinely think it is acceptable to devalue people because their bodies or brains are not like theirs?

What is normal? What is abnormal?

(Thanks for the links, Lauredhel and Anna Winter!)

Originally posted on this ain’t livin’.

Disability 101: Defining Disability

Hello, everyone! I am Annaham of HamBlog, and since I’ve written a Disability 101 series of posts, I thought it would be a good idea to cross-post some of the series here.  My inspiration was piqued by the Finally Feminism 101 blog, which is brilliantly maintained by tigtog of Hoyden About Town. I hope that this series will answer some 101-ish questions about disability. My hope is that this will serve as a starting point for people (of all abilities) who wish to learn more about disability, chronic illnesses and health conditions, and the issues surrounding disability/CI/CHC terms, etiquette, and frequently-asked (and pontificated-upon) questions. (In case you’re wondering who the hell I am and/or why I am taking on this project, my bio is located here.)

If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments field. Please be respectful and on-topic when commenting.
Also, please keep in mind that I do not speak for *all* PWDs and folks with chronic illnesses or health conditions in this series. It is not intended as “the” guide to 101 questions on disability; my intent is to offer (pretty subjective) answers to common questions on disability, and of course, there will be folks who disagree.

Thanks, and enjoy!

What is “disability?”

The World Health Organization defines “disability” in the following way: “Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.”

Additionally: “[D]isability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” [ Source]

But aren’t we all disabled in some way?

No. This sort of “folk wisdom” implies, directly or indirectly, that mundane things—things that may be minor inconveniences (at least for some able-bodied people–those with whom this bit of “wisdom” seems to be most popular), but that are not fundamentally impairing or restrictive to one’s quality of life or participation in civic and/or private life—are disabling, when they are, in fact, not. Disability, additionally, is a term that refers to a long-term or lifelong condition.

What is “ableism?”

Ableism refers to discrimination, devaluation, misconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudice—conscious or unconscious—of and against people with disabilities, the chronically ill, and people with chronic health conditions. As a culturally-based structure that often intersects with other oppressive “isms,” systems of privilege, and “-phobias” (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, white privilege, cisgendered privilege, class/economic privilege, and transphobia) ableism assumes that able-bodied people are the “norm” in society, and as a result, culture, various institutions, attitudes and social mores are formed in accordance with the needs of able-bodied people.

What is meant by the terms AB and TAB?

“AB” is an abbreviation for able-bodied; “TAB” is a slightly more to-the-point abbreviation meaning “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” TAB refers to the inevitable—namely, that most of us will face disability at some point in our lives; whether it comes sooner or later varies depending upon one’s circumstances.

Originally posted at Faces of Fibro.