Let's talk about language! How to avoid being accidentally ableist
Part 1: Say disabled
Hello, happy Tuesday.
Language matters. With the words we choose, we can perpetuate stereotypes or reinforce outdated narratives. But if we think about what we’re saying, we can also do the opposite.
Talking about language isn’t being prissy and oversensitive. It really is important. It’s step one on the road to inclusion, ground zero for a better society. The right language can bust those aforementioned stereotypes and rewrite those narratives.
But I think, if we’re going to succeed in changing the language around disability, we need to explain to people why they should avoid certain phrases, rather than just calling them out. It’s laborious but I think it’s worth doing. Otherwise, without any understanding or context, people won’t become the agents of change they could be.
And so! Because I believe that nondisabled people can be good disability allies I’m going to do you a nice favour and provide a multipart cut-out-and-keep guide to language and disability! Don’t say I never do anything for you.
Welcome to: Let's talk about language! How to avoid being accidentally ableist
Today, we’re starting the series with a look at why you should say disabled and avoid all the euphemisms we end up using instead. But before we go any further, new readers may want to check out this post about the fundamentals of disability activism. It provides the crucial context for this discussion.
Part 1: Say disabled
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
If you mean disabled, say disabled. It is not a bad word.
It is an adjective. A neutral description.
It’s also the most accurate way to describe the experience of having an impairment in an ableist and inaccessible world: i.e. a person is disabled by their environment. This is really important in understanding disability as a social construct, not a medical reality, which is the first towards dismantling said ableism and inaccessibility.
So, in the name of anti-ableism, here are some things to avoid:
I don’t see you as disabled - not only does this say you think disability is bad. It also says that you don’t like thinking of your mate who is disabled as disabled, because you think ‘real disabled people’ don’t have mates. Not cool. (See also: “I forget you’re disabled”)
Differently/less/specially abled - having to us some icky euphemistic phrase for disability is icky. Just say the word, it doesn’t bite. Disability also isn’t about what we physically/mentally can or can’t do, it is a social phenomenon created by an ableist society - so our ‘different abilities’ don’t have any relevance here. Cool? Cool. Also we can’t, like, fly
Special needs - Lord above. This one makes me feel queasy. Not only is it euphemistic as hell, it also contributes to the idea that the needs of disabled people are more than, different from, and more burdensome than the needs of nondisabled people. In reality, our needs are exactly the same as yours, it’s just that ours aren’t being met. Also, take a moment to imagine someone calling you “special” and see how you feel. Gross
X isn’t a disability - often used in relation to autism/ASD, this implies a condition can’t be a disability if it has positive aspects (spoiler alert: all disabilities have positive aspects) and is also used to deny autistic people the access accommodations they’re legally entitled to. In a slightly different but still uniformly bad way, this phrase is also used to police who does and doesn’t get to call themselves disabled, which is a) not cool and b) still harking back to the old idea that disability is medical, not social
But you don’t look disabled/sick - what exactly does being sick or disabled look like? And why should sick and disabled people conform to your preconceived notion of what that means? Truly, what does this even mean?
Funnily enough, when I crowd-sourced Disability Twitter for this piece, the only person who told me they didn’t like the word ‘disabled’ started their tweet with “I’m not disabled but”. Some nondisabled people really think their opinion on this is important, huh?
Stay tuned for Part 2: Piss On Pity, coming next week. Subscribe below so you don’t miss it.
See you then for some more anti-ableism!
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Link of the week
I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension between physically inhabiting your body - a visceral, tangible feeling - and the weird experience of having that body socialised in a way that doesn’t reflect that feeling, so I found this piece about the choice to wear make up really interesting (New Statesman)