Knowing Disabled People Changed My Mind About Ableist Slurs

CN: ableist slurs

This post is spurred by a recent post by my colleague Ania, which is a challenge to those of us within the community to stop using ableist language for one month. I recommend reading her post explaining why certain words are harmful to neurodivergent and disabled people and can perpetuate stigma against them.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to know many people who have disabilities, or identify themselves as disabled even if they don’t have official diagnoses. Ania herself has been a big part of my revelation on this topic. I have learned through exposure that terms which I used to use casually, like “retarded,” “stupid,” “lame,” and “blind” are subtly enforcing a culture which demonizes those traits.

Ania’s post sums this up better than I ever could, but what it comes down to is that using terms which devalue people’s intelligence inherently devalues them as human beings. As atheists, we (myself included) sometimes hinge our worth as people on our intelligence. “How can religious people be so blind?” is a common thought I’ve seen and had myself. “Christians are delusional,” is another one I’ve seen far too often, and in fact have made more than one YouTube video attempting to debunk.

Basically, as rationalists, we pride ourselves on our superior intelligence and sometimes make fun of people who fall prey to seemingly obvious fallacious thinking. We use terminology like “stupid, delusional, crazy,” to describe our incredulous feelings as to how people could possibly think those things.

I’m here to say that there’s absolutely no reason to throw disabled people and people with mental illness under the bus when we’re expressing our incredulity at the ridiculous ideas which others put forth.

As someone who lives with mental illness (specifically, depression/anxiety disorder and ADHD), I can say that using terminology like “crazy” and “delusional” has the unintended side effect of lumping me in with people who make bad arguments and equating their poor mindsets with my actual disabilities.

Religion does not equate to delusion, and off-the-wall racist remarks don’t equate to stupidity. (Looking at you, Trump critics.)

I have tried, especially ever since the Skepchick debacle that I’m not going to link to, to stop using such language when I’m describing ideas and mindsets which make no sense to me, or which seem so over-the-top that only using terms that evoke a visceral response can satisfy.

Honestly? It’s hard. It’s very easy to say that Trump is a lunatic, or that conservatives as a whole are delusional. It’s much more difficult to find specific terminology to describe your exact feelings, and some of that visceral connotation gets lost when you choose not to say they’re crazy. But it forces you to actually think about what you’re saying, and describe with greater specificity what you think is wrong with their arguments.

And I think it’s important to introspect on why terms like “crazy” and “delusional” create such a visceral response in ourselves. It’s because there is a long-standing stigma against neurodivergence, and an all-too-common dehumanization of people who live with those afflictions. These terms create the same effect in our brain as cursing, at least in my experience.

“This guy is a fucking lunatic,” makes the fun brain chemicals involved with cursing, and separates us from them in such a way as we can view them as less than full human beings. How could anyone who is a rational human being possibly hold these views? Well, they may be irrational, but that’s no reason to create a categorical difference in our minds which essentially renders them subhuman.

In short, there are deep-seated reasons why it feels so satisfying to call someone crazy when they hold views which are radically different from our own. It’s easy, and vindicates us as being Right, while they are Wrong. But there are unintended side-effects, and an implication that people who actually are “crazy” are so different that they might as well not be people.

I want to give a huge thank you to Ania for posing this challenge. I have already tried to expunge ableist language from my vocabulary (although I do reclaim “crazy” to describe myself on occasion), but I know that I, and others within our community, can always do better.

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Knowing Disabled People Changed My Mind About Ableist Slurs
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14 thoughts on “Knowing Disabled People Changed My Mind About Ableist Slurs

  1. 1

    This post is very important.

    I have a strange perspective on it. I’m a person with Tourette’s Syndrome and until recently I did not care about ableist language, until I started looking into it and thinking about how it applied to me. In an odd twist of fate I discovered that the Tourette’s actually gave me some privilege when it came to the use of insult and invective and that I was not only part of the problem, but something that was an ability issue in other contexts made me part of the problem. In fact it was in a thread on Skepchick a little while after that incident where someone was kind enough to exchange text-walls with me that I started thinking about it. I’m good at insults, and that blinded me the the effects the ableist ones have on others.

    And then I started seeing the benefits that you describe here Luxander. Even slurs that refer to things that are no longer medical conditions are actually imprecise and weak ways of dealing with the problem. Arguments can’t be insane, and that knee-jerk reaction prevents us from becoming stronger at dissecting what is wrong with the argument and why. A convenient use of schizophrenic people points to no specific problems or describes the damage they do.

    I have no given up on insults, rather I have become much more controlled, rational and logical in their use. In fact it’s the insulting characterizations that are truly important. Things that feel like insults but are still important to use when necessary, like pointing out racist, sexist and ableist behavior. Instead of being lazy and using allusions to other people I’m becoming stronger and hitting social problem where they really matter on the occasions where I need to do something that will make another feel insulted.

    I’m still kind of awestruck and how a little empathy can empower so many people.

    1. 1.1

      Go, you! It is definitely amazing how much more punchy, direct, and disparaging you can be when you frame an insult around what the actual problem is with what someone is saying. I don’t tend to insult people often, or at least when I do it’s just by pointing out how shitty they’re being. Knowing the real problem means you can get down to the nitty gritty instead of just making throwaway remarks. *high fives all round*

  2. 2

    Thanks for the reminder that we are embedded in a culture of us vs. them and must try to think before speaking. Setting aside the issue of bad word choice, I must take issue with your statement “Religion does not equate to delusion, and off-the-wall racist remarks don’t equate to stupidity. (Looking at you, Trump critics.)” Stupid may be a demonizing term, how about ‘low cognitive ability’? http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/01/04/0956797611421206.abstract

  3. 4

    So, use an ableist slur in the graphic. Good to know people are making money exploiting stigmatization of crips.
    Yeah, it’s the Cruz graphic. Would a discussion of racism be enhanced by a graphic using a racist epithet? Would it be anti-racist if the author used every possible slur they could think of in the content of the article. No. That’s hipsterism. You’re not “down with the crips” doing that; you’re making money off our exploitation and suffering.
    The way to address this as a TAB (temporarily able bodied) is to get readers thinking about how language is riddled with insults that are based on disabilities, just as it is riddled with insults based on all kinds of “differences” in socially “acceptable” bodies: places where economically-exploited people are forced to live “That’s so g….” Weight “he’s rich he’s a …. cat” Age, color, gender…..etc. All bodies that are not cis, male, able-bodied, thin, white and wealthy enough to achieve an appearance of not having to labor and not having any blemishes as a result of exposure to elements — ALL bodies are subject to attack.
    We don’t need a list of epithets. We need a rational, compassionate way of THINKING about how minds in bodies all have contributions to make, talents to offer, discoveries to make.
    Crips don’t need some White Night savior, speaking only to TABs. We need a true alley who thinks in terms of liberation from oppression, based on bodies.

    1. 4.1

      Hey, I think I replied to your comment on the Facebook page, but I’ll reiterate now: The graphic was mostly meant to grab attention and show what the article was going to be about. I’m not actually making any money doing this, at least yet, I don’t think we even have ads set up here so it’s not like there’s any way this could be exploitative.

      You’re also talking about my post like I’m not one of the people who is mentally ill and thrown under the bus by the use of this terminology. I have every right to reclaim “crazy.”

      Also: Can you explain how this is White Nighting?

  4. 5

    ALSO: A sanserif font, and options to enlarge text, would be very useful for vision impaired and other people. This is nearly illegible without a magnifier. And a magnifier makes typing replies problematic.

  5. 6

    Would it be possible to do a post expanding on physically ableist language, slurs, mindsets, etc.? “Lame” was really the only physical slur mentioned in this article. I absolutely understand the pressing need to combat mental/psychiatric ableism, since there’s a massive stigma; at the same time, though, I feel like not enough attention is paid to physical disability at times. One is not worse than the other; both need addressed.

    Off the top of my head – and these are not things you do, but rather things I see casually done online: referring to something insidious as “cancerous” or referring to unfunny or tryhard as “cancer” e.g. “the comments section is cancer”. Using respiratory-based slang is potentially problematic to those with respiratory issues; e.g. “they’re full of hot air”, “that was long-winded”, “they choked while trying to give a speech”, “their brilliant dance routine had the audience gasping for air”. Heart-related slang for those with heart issues e.g. “their heart just wasn’t into it”, “the heart of the matter”, “you almost gave me a heart attack! (as in when someone has been startled)”.

    There are loads more examples, but those are just a few quick ones. I do not want these issues to surpass mental/psych advocacy; simply to be given their due as well.

    1. 6.1

      You’re totally right that physical illnesses don’t get enough attention. I hadn’t really even thought of several of the examples you listed. The heart ones I have mixed feelings about (excepting “you almost gave me a heart attack”) because I read a lot of fiction and generally think of “the heart” as a more poetical expression of passion than something related to actual illnesses. Maybe that’s something I need to introspect on.

      I made this post more about the neurodivergent slurs because those are the ones that actually affect me. (It wasn’t deliberate, it just happened that way.) I could potentially write about physical disability terminology being used in this casual way, but since I don’t suffer from any physical illnesses I don’t know that I’m really equipped to do much more than list a bunch of things you shouldn’t say.

  6. 7

    I grew up at a time when making unwanted comments about people was socially “acceptable” (which it never was, just ask those targeted by them). While I have long eschewed insults and ableist terminology and never used sexist words, I was still no better than a lot of people who used them.

    The thing that has changed my attitude the most is my own transition, which is barely more than a year ago. It’s taken me a long time to learn to shut up about people and not describe them unless it’s an accurate word (e.g. I’m ignorant of the Russian language – stating a lack of knowledge is not an insult; see also: creationists and science). Everyone needs to stick to to the topic people discuss or their words and not describe people with improper or insulting words. The problem is that it’s a hard habit to break.

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