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?