Types of Ableist Language and What to Say Instead

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What Is Ableist Language?

Without even realizing it, most people use words every day that are ableist. You may be surprised by that, especially if you don't know what ableism is.

Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities. The discrimination can be intentional or unintentional and is based on the belief that non-disabled people are superior to disabled people.

Ableism is centered around the notion that disabled people are imperfect and need fixing. It can show up in ways ranging from personal to institutional. It also includes the many ways in which disabled people are considered "less than" non-disabled people.

If you're someone who makes a point to be conscientious in your communication, it may be shocking to realize that you're unknowingly using ableist language.

This isn't something that's your fault. Instead, these are words that we're so used to hearing and seeing previous generations use that it's natural for us to pick them up.

Because the words we use that reference disabilities are usually negative and are never meant as compliments, they can be harmful to people with disabilities.

We'd be less harmful if we stopped using them, which is a great motivation to change how we talk and communicate with others.

It's helpful to realize that using ableist words (even though we aren't usually talking specifically about disabled people when we use them) still impacts those people.

Let's examine the types of ableist language, common ableist words, and what you can say instead.

Types of Ableist Language

Ableist language typically falls into one of the two categories: words or phrases based on physical disabilities and words or phrases based on neurodivergence.

Words and Phrases Based on Physical Disabilities

Ableist language that we use about physical disabilities means that the words may have some type of reference to a real physical disability. A physical disability can either affect the whole body or a part of the body.

For example, the expression "the blind leading the blind" refers to people who don't know what they're doing. That may seem harmless, but it enforces an untrue idea that blind people can't be in charge or take on leadership roles.

Here are some other common words people use that are actually ableist:

  • Dumb: Similarly, we use "dumb" to say that someone or something isn't intelligent, but the word "dumb" refers to a person who is unable to communicate verbally.
  • Lame: We say "lame" when we mean something is boring or dull, but "lame" actually refers to lower body parts that don't function properly for walking.
  • Spastic: When someone is behaving in a chaotic or erratic manner, we call them "spastic." The term "spastic" really refers to muscle tightness and contractions caused by cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.

Words and Phrases Based on Neurodivergence

Ableist terminology can be rooted in how different brains work. This type may be used to describe people who are neurodivergent.

For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health condition involving obsessive thoughts and ritualistic behaviors. But we use it colloquially often about everyday things, as in someone saying that they "are so OCD about cleaning," meaning they clean their house often and thoroughly.

We also say we are "so obsessed" with things like someone's hair color, or item of clothing, even if we have never seen them before and will never see that item again.

When we use these words about differences in mental health, we minimize the experiences of people who have very real mental health conditions. And because many forms of neurodiversity are not visible to outsiders, we may be using these words around people who have the same conditions we're mocking.

Ableist Words and Better Alternatives

Now that you know why it's hurtful to use ableist language, you may be wondering what to do about it. After all, this is how people talk!

Changing Your Vocabulary

The good news is, though, that you can be part of a larger cultural shift to move away from using ableist language. The best place to start is to have a full understanding of which words in your vocabulary should be swapped out for a word that is more sensitive.

In that vein, below is a handy list of words that are ableist, and suggestions for what to say instead.

Instead of Saying
  • Stupid, retarded, etc.

  • Dumb

  • Crazy, nuts, psycho, etc.

  • I'm so OCD.

  • I'm obsessed with X.

  • I'm ADD about X.

  • Lame

  • Blind leading the blind

  • Falling on deaf ears

  • Barren

  • Crippled

  • Derp

Say This
  • Ignorant, dense

  • Ignorant, dense

  • Bizarre, outrageous

  • I'm particular.

  • I'm enamored with X.

  • I'm unfocused.

  • Boring, unexciting

  • Unknowledgeable

  • You didn't hear me.

  • Desolate, unfruitful

  • Disabled

  • Ignorant, dense

  • Stupid, Retarded, Idiot(ic), Cretin, or Moron(ic): People say this to imply something, or someone isn't intelligent or worth their time, but the words refer to people with intellectual disabilities. Instead, say that a situation or person is frustrating, ignorant, dense, unpleasant, cheesy, or awful.
  • Dumb: This word refers to a person who doesn't speak verbally, but people often use it to mean that something or someone isn't intelligent or wise. It's listed separately from stupid and its synonyms because it references a physical disability instead of an intellectual one. Try using any of the non-ableist synonyms like irritating or uncool.
  • Crazy, Nuts, Mad, Psycho, or Insane: "Wow, that's crazy!" may not seem like a harmful statement, but if you think about someone with a mental health condition hearing that statement, it's easy to realize that it is. So instead of using one of those words, try outrageous, bananas, bizarre, amazing, intense, extreme, overwhelming, or wild.
  • OCD: This term is used culturally in reference to things that people do in a way that's jokingly considered obsessive or compulsive. Rather than saying you're "so OCD about" something, say that "I'm particular about how I keep my things."
  • Obsessed: We're listing this separately from OCD because it's used differently and is one of the only ableist words meant as a compliment. People say "I'm so obsessed with X" to imply they like it, but it's ableist because it makes a joke about OCD. If you love something, you can say that you're enamored, absorbed, enchanted, charmed, or delighted by it.
  • ADD: "I'm ADD about my homework" means a person has a hard time focusing on it, but not that they actually have ADD. To avoid being unkind to people with this condition, other words to use include unfocused, short attention span, lacking focus, or uncontrolled.
  • Lame: You're probably just saying something isn't exciting, but really, you're referencing injured or damaged legs that don't walk with full function. Instead of using the word lame, try boring, bland, unexciting, pathetic, or unoriginal.
  • Blind: "I'm blind to my flaws" is said to imply a person can't see their shortcomings, but people who say that aren't generally blind. So rather than saying something negative about blind people (e.g., blind spot), use ignorant, not knowledgeable, or a gap in understanding.
  • Deaf: If someone's idea was not well accepted or listened to, you might say that it has "fallen on deaf ears." You probably don't mean that the people listening can't actually hear. So, instead of saying that someone or something is deaf, try saying these words instead: ignored, disregarded, passed-over, not noticed, etc.
  • Barren: People who are assigned female at birth but cannot have children are called barren. However, people use that word, which is about a physical disability, to refer to anything where growth isn't possible, such as land that is not producing crops. So you can use the words desolate or unfruitful instead.
  • Crippled: "Being yelled at so much crippled my ability to be productive at work" may sound like a good sentiment, but it's hurtful to anyone who is disabled. Instead of saying a person or object is crippled, try to say that they are disabled.
  • Derp: This silly word is almost always meant as a joke. It's used to reply that something a person views as stupid or lame. It's also used as a noun, as in calling someone a derp. Though it isn't in reference to a specific disability, it is a play on intellectual disabilities at large, and that's harmful. Use any of the synonyms for "stupid" or "lame" instead.

These suggestions are meant to convey the same meanings as the ableist words, but you may find that some options work better in certain settings than others.

Tips for Making These Changes

Change is challenging, but it's possible! Here are some tips to integrate these alternative words into your personal lexicon. Of course, referencing this guide again whenever you are looking for non-ableist language is a given.

Share With Your Friends

Don't go on this journey alone! Tell your friends, colleagues, classmates, and/or loved ones that you are going to make a point of no longer using ableist language.

You can share this article with them, or other literature on the topic. Then, ask them to hold you accountable and point out when you slip up. If they're up for the same, help them out by making it a two way street.

Create a Challenge

Go bigger than just sharing with others that you're making a point of communicating more inclusively. Post on your social, write an email, or send a group text about this subject and ask others in your world to join you in stopping the use of ableist language.

Pick a duration of time that seems viable, like an hour, a day, or a week, and challenge yourself and anyone interested to not use any ableist words for that period of time.

Once that's gone successfully, create a longer challenge. Before you know it, those words will be history!

Practice Makes Practiced

There's no such thing as perfect when it comes to humans, and that's OK. Don't plan on succeeding at this immediately, as these are words that we have been conditioned to use every day. Instead, praise yourself and others for each time they use a non-ableist alternative word. Positivity will get you far here!

If it takes you years to make the change, that's totally acceptable. The point is that you're making an effort to be a better person by speaking in less harmful ways, and that's what matters most.

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