CN: For Ableist slurs.
I have a challenge for all of my blogger friends. I want you to try and go one month without using the list of words below. For one month, in your blog posts and public opinions, I want you to not use these words. I will explain why. I will give you a reason, and regardless of whether you agree with me or not, I want you to try. For me.
Why does this matter?
The truth is that the concerns of the disabled community are often pushed to the side or seen as less important. Just a year ago there was almost a network wide outrage over being called on the use of ableist sentiments and words. It ended with one of the more dedicated and active disability and neurodiversity activists, who has actually created a lot of the accepted vocabulary of the neurodivergent movements, accused of being a troll. The concerns were ignored, a new network was launched, and little to no progress was made in improving the use of ableist language or sentiments in our community. The verdict was in. As one person famously put it: disability activism is not a real thing.
And then the whole thing was ignored. For most people it was just not enough of a big deal.
Every few months someone writes a post asking people to not use “crazy” as a pejorative, that gets summarily ignored.
And these things do matter. In the same way that racialized words perpetuate systemic racism, and the same way that racialized words can find themselves in the most seemingly benign words, ableism too is so prevalent as to be invisible.
The sad fact is that most ableist slurs are considered the soft swears, the use-instead-ofs. Want to insult someone in relatively polite company? Chances are you may reach for one of these as a stand-by. But words matter. Language shapes our perception and when we make disability an insult, when we make ability an insult, we are implying that there is something wrong with being that way. It adds to a system that treats people with disabilities as being less than human. In some cases people go so far as to imply that people with disabilities don’t have feelings or don’t feel pain. Moreover it creates a perceptions, a link between being disabled and being otherwise incompetent.
Children with cognitive disabilities are treated as though they are always unable to care for themselves regardless of whether their condition is severe enough to impede the ability to care for oneself or not. People who need assistance performing certain tasks are treated as though everything is outside of their realm of capability. In one instance, a blind woman I know had her doctor explain her care instructions to her husband rather than her. While I admit that that could have been sexism were it not for the frequent times that I’ve seen someone talk down to her as if she couldn’t understand what they were saying.
There is a correlation in people’s minds between physical ability and cognitive ability, and a part of this is because of our tendency to use ableist slurs to indicate cognitive ability. Moreover cognitive ability is often an imprecise target of their criticism. Often what people mean when they insult cognitive ability is rather ignorance or a purposeful decision to ignore reality in favour of their own biases, an act undertaken as easily by highly intelligent individuals as by those who may suffer from cognitive impairments. Most often “lacking in cognitive ability” actually refers to someone of average or even above average intelligence. It refers to bigoted ideas which are not in fact correlated with intelligence. Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Ted Nugent, Stephen Harper, may all be reprehensible human beings with bigoted ideas and some serious cognitive biases, but cognitively impaired or lacking in intelligence, they are not.
The people hurt when you use ableist slurs are often not the targets of your insults, except when you are directing them on those who are in fact disabled, it is the people surrounding you who are influenced by the perception that you think cognitive ability is an indicator of worth. It doesn’t matter what your thoughts, or what you think your thoughts on the matter are, what matters is what others perceive your thoughts to be on the matter. If I can’t distinguish you from an ableist by your words, then you are being ableist. Even if you don’t mean to be.
This is a life and death matter. The cultural perception of my abilities directly impacts my ability to access care. The more people perpetuate this idea that disability equals incompetence, the harder it is to have doctors take me seriously when I say that something is wrong. The easier it is to excuse the horrible treatment of disabled children who are made to endure torturous treatments and have their bodily autonomy violated on a regular basis. The easier it is to ignore that 80% of people with disabilities will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. The easier it is to ignore that disabled children and even adults are murdered and abused by their caretakers. That people with disabilities are sterilized against their will, and that genocide against people with certain disabilities is given the clinical sounding name of eugenics. When you suggest eradicating people of a certain type by sterilizing those who fall in its category and aborting pregnancies that belong to that type, what else is it but genocide?
The point is that I’m sick of having my concerns, the concerns of my community, the concerns of the people who are suffering ignored as not real. So for one month, I want you to pretend you care. I want you to pretend that you agree with me. For one month, for one short month, I want you to think about how often you actually use this language. And when you do, think that every time you do, there are people around you who are quietly suffering.
Non-Comprehensive List of Ableist Slurs:
Crazy – see also: mentally unstable, insane, hysterical*, any implication of mental illness: This one is a twofer (two for one) being both ableist and sexist. This particular insult is often hurled at women, often in an effort to gaslight them into believing that they are imagining things or over-reacting. Even those instances when it is not aimed at women it maintains some of its gendered component since mental health is often erroneously believed to be a woman’s concern.
Using crazy as an insult actually adds to a lot of the stigma surrounding mental health. There are people living with, for example, who are schizophrenic who are perfectly reasonable individuals and in no way bigoted, scary, or dangerous. For some time I lived next door to someone who was a paranoid schizophrenic. They were one of my best neighbours; courteous and helpful. Not once did we have a problem with this person. Yet for many people, the idea of having a paranoid schizophrenic next door is a worrisome one. Homes for people with various such conditions often have a difficult time finding acceptance in their neighbourhoods. They residence can find themselves accused of all sorts of things from light vandalism to more serious crimes, often without any actual evidence and with the residence in fact being completely innocent.
Some people try to compensate by calling them un-medicated instead, which is actually no better. There are a variety of conditions for which medication is not appropriate. Some people may also have serious reasons not to take medication including allergic reactions, or having experience dangerous side effects that prohibit use. Sometimes a person can be medicated but not symptomless because they are still working on finding the right cocktail. Regardless stigma surrounding medication, both its use and not use, has had dangerous consequences. This includes the violation of bodily autonomy by forcing medication or a procedure on someone.
Dumb: from the phrase deaf and dumb, it means non-verbal or mute. It has become a synonym for intelligence impaired. The association between non-verbal and cognitively disabled leads to non-verbal children being treated as though they cannot think for themselves. This is one reason why autistic children’s boundaries are often ignored as tantrums rather than a communication of distress.
Stupid/Idiot/Retard: This one is difficult for a lot of people to grasp and is the one that most often generates hostile responses when called out. We know we shouldn’t call children stupid or that people in authority should avoid using the word “stupid” so as not to hurt their self-esteem. Often when people use the word, they mean someone who is uninformed, or who holds on to false ideas even when faced with evidence. If that’s what they mean, why is it harmful? Because regardless of what they mean, the fact is that the word stupid implies implicit cognitive ability.
We form a picture in our minds of someone who is cognitively impaired and we combine it with that of someone who is willfully ignorant and/or bigoted. But at the same time there is a second picture. That picture is every single neurodivergent child who was called stupid because they learned differently than other kids. To them, the picture of someone who is stupid is themselves.
The simple fact is that the measure of intelligence in our society is flawed. What’s more, we’ve known this for some time. The SATs are known to have both a racial and I believe gender bias. The IQ test measures a very specific kind of intelligence, primarily one related to the ability to take tests. It is not an accurate measure of a person’s knowledge, ability to learn, skill, or worth. And before the usual accusations of “Well of course you would say that” start flying, I say this as someone who scored both a 145 and a 165 on separate IQ tests, and as someone who doesn’t test well.
The societal perceptions of what counts as intelligence and what doesn’t is based on racist, classist, sexist, and other such biases dating back over centuries. School learning, what was and still continues to be the domain of those wealthy enough to have access, is praised above technical learning. This despite the fact that electrical work can be some of the most skillful and intricate work that needs doing. Yet an electrician is considered socially to be stupid when compared to say an electrical physicist, even though one may be called the real-world application of the other.
We as a society have proven that we are incredibly bad judges of what is considered intelligence, but we treat those we falsely assume to be less intelligent as also being less human. The measure of perceived intelligence has been a justification in denying people of colour their rights. It was used as a justification for denying women their rights. And it is again being used as a justification to deny people with disabilities their rights by implying that a false measure of intelligence is in any way an indicator of humanity and personhood.
Blind/Deaf/Lame/Autistic/Bi-Polar or any other impairment/condition as pejorative: I feel like this is should be self-explanatory, but when you use something like a condition that people actually experience as a pejorative you are making it clear that having that identity is negative. That there is something wrong with being blind, or being deaf, or lame, or autistic, or bi-polar, etc. We can argue until the cows come home about whether there is something inherently bad with any of those things, so I will just summarize with unless you are any of these things you don’t get to have an opinion on it, end of story, but ultimately that it irrelevant. Because ultimately regardless of whether there is something wrong with say, being autistic, the fact is that it translates into there being something wrong with being an autistic person. Hate of the thing becomes hatred of the person living with it. And this translates into dehumanization, devaluation, and death.
To be clear, by this I do not mean referring to a blind person as being blind. I mean only those cases where a disability is used as an insult. Just like someone being gay is not a problem, or using the word gay, except when you use the word gay to mean “something bad or undesirable”.
Cretin: The pompous ass’s go to when they want to call someone stupid and sound smart doing it. Cretin refers to someone who suffers from cretinism: a condition afflicting some children who suffer from hypothyroidism. It is literally a name for someone with a diagnosis.
Mongoloid: The no-longer used term for people with Down’s Syndrome, however, it also contains a racial history as well. Another twofer: racist and ableist.
This is not a comprehensive list of ableist slurs, nor should it be taken as such, but it is a step forward. One month of having to think a little more creatively about insults and what it is you are really trying to say.
I’m even willing to bet on it. Let’s make it a competition. Name a forfeit if you like, and put up your own collateral. Just for one month, think of ableism and avoid using these words in your posts. And if you won’t participate in this challenge: Tell us why.
And who knows, perhaps at the end of that month, you will understand why we ask you to avoid using these words, in the same way you understand why you shouldn’t use other oppressive language.