A brief PSA on language

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

I beg to differ.

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

You know what is really hard?

Confronting people on their use of same language.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

19 thoughts on “A brief PSA on language

  1. I don’t think the main problem for the nondisabled is getting rid of offensive language, but coming up with terminology to use instead. I’ve come across more well-meaning, nondisabled people than I can count who would be so afraid to say a “forbidden” word that they’d resort to terminology like “people like you” (usually the blind in my case). We may disagree on this, but I for one find these over-the-top euphemisms far more annoying than if they’d say “the blind” or “autistics” (a term I for one actually prefer) in reference to people with my disabilities. I’m not saying that you should be okay with these terms (and I think some of the terms you list are indeed offensive), but what do you tell people that they need to say instead?

  2. Oh, Astrid, euphemisms make me grit my teeth so very much.

    I think that it’s definitely appropriate to tell people how you want to be referred to, and to let people know that it’s, you know, ok to ask PWDs how they would like to be described, because everyone feels differently. As for what people could perhaps consider saying instead of blatant ableist language; when I have conversations with people about this, I always ask “what are you trying to convey? What do you mean, here?” And I try to get them to define what they’re getting at, which sometimes helps me come up with alternative words to suggest. The strongest pushback, of course, is the “I can’t find anything else this strong,” which can sometimes be a good opening to say “yeah, so you see why I object to it, because the reason it’s so strong is because of the embedded ableism. Maybe that means you have to sacrifice something that’s ‘strong’ in the interests of combating ableism, or maybe it means that you need to come up with something new to use that doesn’t marginalize people.”

  3. I think people referring to themselves as blind or autistic is not even nearly in the same category as saying someone is “blind to privilege” or diagnosing scary people with autism or calling someone crazy to dismiss or delegitimize them – etc.

    I don’t care for euphemisms for the sake of euphemizing. I do prefer to use the language that the people affected prefer, because it’s their lives, not mine. But this post is not about euphemizing everything and anything and avoiding ever actually addressing these issues. It’s a post about people who complain that it’s too hard to rid their vocabulary of words that are used to marginalize people, because they’ve never thought about it before. Those people are essentially telling the people marginalized: your marginalization is an acceptable cost for my continued thoughtlessness. My ability to never address my privilege is more important than your basic human dignity.

    It’s not that hard to stop calling people crazy. It really isn’t. It might be a bit difficult to come up with something to say instead, but compared to living life as a “crazy” person who is being treated like shit because of their “craziness” that everyone just accepts without thought? Don’t even fucking tell me your two seconds are more important. Don’t even fucking try.

  4. The other thing is that when people (like us, but others as well) talk about ablist langauge, we not trying to make you feel bad, or tell you you’re a bad person. Not even when we lose our temper and stop being nice about it.

    As the post says, we’re soaking in a world that tells us all the time that this language is acceptable and that people who protest it are just being oversensitive. It’s difficult to even walk down the street without overhearing someone using the sort of language that is being talked about here. [Case in point: when I talk too much about ablist language, I have to watch myself for the next week because every time I want to talk about how much I dislike something, my mouth goes straight for “That’s so lame.” *sighs at self*]

    But it’s really irritating and frustrating being told constantly that it’s hard. We know it’s hard. We live here, too. We have to work on our own language, making our words inclusive and not using racist/sexist/ablist/heterocentric turns of phrase casually. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need to keep having these discussions. We know it’s hard.

    We’re just not necessarily sympathetic every day.

    Telling people that you’re not going to reconsider using certain language because you don’t like the way they’ve asked – especially when previous requests have been polite – is a tone argument. “I’d be your ally, but you haven’t earned it yet.”
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Life conspires against me =-.

  5. I use “crazy” self-referentially in a Mad Pride kind of reclamatory way, because, well, I am mentally ill. But then it occurs to me that it’s an invisible disability in my case, and other people do not necessarily know that I’m not joking when I say I’m crazy. And then I get all ambivalent about whether I should be using it or not, except the only other thing that comes to mind is “f’ed in the head” and that’s not necessarily better. It’s a constant point of pondering.

  6. I was at an Assistive Tech expo with my friend Jesse the K, and she corrected a vendor on his use of “wheelchair bound”. “I’m not bound, I’m liberated,” she said. He responded, “Thank you,” which seemed to me the perfect response.

    Dang, I thought, I wish everyone would respond so well to activism!

  7. Slave2TehTink, I have the same problem – I refer to my antidepressants fondly as my “crazy pills,” but I have had people be very upset by that usage. Whoops.

    I personally think it takes more than “two seconds” to consciously change your vocabulary. But I don’t for a second use that to then say that it’s not worth the effort.

  8. Personally? i *am* asking people for more than just changing a few words in their repertoire. That aint enough for me. That can be a start, but no that isnt enough. Everyones got their bottom lines though, and i respect that.

    It actually *is* hard to change sometimes decades of soaking in it. But that doesnt mean people dont need to get over themselves and do the damn work. This is hard stuff, challenging old patterns that are supported by an ableist system. It just is. Just like creating structural accessibility is sometimes not easy at all. Sometimes it *does* cost time, money, energy to make a space more/ accessible. Sometimes more than people think they have available. It just does. But that doesnt mean it shouldnt or cant be done. It means priorities are currently fucked up and need to change.

    This work can be hard and embarrassing and confusing and frustrating, and we are always learning and fucking up, learning and fucking up. But for ENabled folks to suggest that because “its too hard” therefore they dont have to bother is just bullshit. Same old same old.
    i want solidarity, and it isnt enough to stop calling that door “retarded” because its not working right, or this class “lame” because you find it boring. That is bare bones, bottom of the barrel stuff as far as im concerned. It truly is the very least people can do. And if thats all folks are willing to commit to, im out.

  9. (Also, I’m sorry if my last comment reads as offensive or flippant or both. I should have taken the time to word it better.)

  10. FWIW, I’m not meaning to imply that it doesn’t take work to change long-held habits. I do think that change pales in comparison to the changes that marginalized people have to make to their lives to accommodate a world that is hostile to their existence.

  11. I still refer to my dogs as “crazy” and “nuts” – maybe Mikey’s gnawing on my hand is his way of objecting?

    However, I’m trying to erase it from the rest of my speaking and from conversation on the internet – it’s easier in writing, because you can look back and there’s a delete key! (or a mod) It also makes you more creative – you don’t rely on the “crutch” of ableist words – it’s like when an English teacher bans a word from the class or when you have to write a definition in French.

    I’m not making fun of people who object to certain words, I think it’s a matter of being polite, being a decent person to abide by their wishes.

    What gets me is that my sister REFUSES to do so. I hate people using “gay” as their go-to word for something or someone annoying, or stupid. My mom still says, “You’re dad’s so gay – sorry he’s…”

    But Becky… I once talked to her and her friend and asked them to stop. They started calling things “homosexual” instead. If I can barely get my mom to not say gay, I don’t have high hopes for the ableist terms we use.

  12. FWIW, I’m not meaning to imply that it doesn’t take work to change long-held habits. I do think that change pales in comparison to the changes that marginalized people have to make to their lives to accommodate a world that is hostile to their existence.

    That’s a good way to put it.

  13. I’ve made numerous announcements at my school’s weekly General Meeting to ask students and teachers not to use those words. Unfortunately, instead of complying everyone has either started arguing with me or completely ignored me. I’m really not sure what to do anymore. It’s either let it go and die a little on the inside everytime someone screams “LAME!” while I’m in the room, or have the entire school turn against me because I’m trying to make a positive change. The worst part is, my school is an alternative school of about 80 students and our main rule is respect. I’m having the same problem trying to get my mother to quit saying “retarded”, “idiot”, “lame”, and “moron”. When I try to tell her those words are offensive she generally calls me an idiot and tells me to stop correcting her like she’s a moron. Uphill battle: 2 Me: 0

  14. Ugh. But Lesly, don’t you know no disabled people are hurt by that language? And NO one ever uses the words lame/retarded/moron in that way anymore! All those mobility-impaired people who suddenly hear the words gimp and lame referring to them? DON’T EXIST. All the people with cognitive conditions who have been called retard, idiot, spaz and so forth? ALSO NOT CURRENTLY EXISTING. But, you know, Random Abled Person doesn’t hear it much, just like Random Dude never sees any sexual harassment on the subway/train/trolley system, therefore IT NEVER HAPPENS SO THERE.

  15. I had never *seriously* considered this until I read this post, linked from… Feministing, I believe. This is definitely food for thought, as well as for reconsidering my vocabulary and the things I write.

    But– and this is a legitimate question/thought on my part, so please don’t assume I’m trolling, and I’m sorry if it’s offensive– thinking about it, I don’t entirely understand what makes language ableist or not ableist. It seems to be different from the idea of racist or sexist language. Some of the words mentioned have legitimate definitions that don’t have anything to do with disability. When I refer to something as “crazy,” I’m not implicitly invoking a comparison with a “crazy person,” but trying to invoke one of the other definitions. Is the idea that, presumably, these other definitions came out of the use of “crazy” as a descriptor of disability? Most of them didn’t, though– the primary definitions for “crazy” date back to about the same time. Is something considered ableist if any of its definitions apply to disability?

    Thanks for the clarification; this is a very interesting idea!

  16. The use of ‘crazy’ as ‘bad’ is ableist because the connotation is dependent on the ableist assumption that being mentally ill is objectively a bad thing, that disabilities are moral qualities and character flaws. You personally don’t have to invoke a comparison to a person with a disability; the invocation is inherent in language and societal attitudes.

    Also: You (generalized you) don’t get to decide how someone hears what you say. Especially if that someone is a marginalized person and you are speaking from a position of privilege. This is a fundamental concept of social justice language work.

    You don’t have to change how you talk, either. We certainly aren’t going to stop you as long as you aren’t using abusive language here. If it makes you uncomfortable to have it pointed out that your use of language is privileged, that’s how it works. Examination of internalized privilege is always uncomfortable. It stings when I do it. But it’s my responsibility to live with that discomfort because it’s certainly not worse than the discomfort of actually living with institutional discrimination.

  17. I wouldn’t say it’s too much to ask me to stop using those words, but it is not very easy. I’m hoping as I work on it it will get easier. I already take a while to think of responses because of second guessing myself, and I think it takes noticeably longer for me to review: “I want to say I don’t want to freak out. Ok, can’t say that. Okay, I can say melt down. Can I say melt down? I am going to go with that and come back to it later to decide.”

    I really like this series, it gave me a gift of realizing that “low intelligence” isn’t morally or objectively worse than high, which is quite hard to wrap my head around but liberating. I have shared it with a few friends and they were willing to think about it hypothetically but disagreed. But we’ll see.

    The only word from the list I am not letting go of is scab, because strike breakers minimize the effect of the strike to the organization like a scab does. But I will probably not say it, I just won’t worry that I should be correcting people who use it. (And it is a bit relevant as my school is in the throes of protesting a huge fee increase and reduced funding for student workers and grad students. Oh, California…)

  18. About a year ago I started using the word “wackadoo” in lieu of “crazy” when referring to people who just make my head hurt with their nonsensical, confusing ways. I still describe *things* as “crazy” sometimes. Like, “that traffic was crazy!” What I’m trying to say is that the traffic was exhausting, too long, confusing, and out of control. I’m not sure if it’s inappropriate to refer to THINGS as “crazy” “moronic” “insane,” etc. but I am going to work on some replacements for those, gradually. For me the hardest part is adjusting the very casual speech. Those things you say when you’re exhausted (from that traffic), or frustrated, angry, or otherwise emotionally off-kilter. It’s the interjections and exclamations that are the hardest to retrain. But “wackadoo” has worked out well, and so far no one has asked me, “what the heck is that?”

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