Let’s Talk about Disability Talk

As you may be aware, I’m on a big kick to learn about my own unconscious biases, and as a former linguist, I’m very interested in how the language I use reflects these biases. I have already been thinking a lot about issues with and labels for neuroatypical folks, since they apply to many of my friends and family members.

Helpful button.

My friend Rollie has been a great source of information and resources about labels, concerns, and the great diversity of people who fall into this category (it’s not just people on the autism spectrum). For example, just yesterday they posted about being hard of hearing, which means their audio processing is different from a lot of people’s, so they need to be spoken to slowly and clearly. They got a button to wear to let people know, which I find very cool. It helps an invisible challenge be more visible.

All this learning scrambles my brain, but it needs some scrambling.

The above shows how I am learning to use words like neurodivergent or neuroatypical rather than things like Aspie or whatever. I just have to ask people what they prefer, and that helps. That’s a great start, but when I start examining my own language, I realize I come out with some cringe-worthy utterances, all the time. Constantly. A lot.

I got started thinking about all this when another friend, Robin (who happens to be the offspring of my two favorite linguistic mentors), posted an article in Forbes magazine by Andrew Pulrang called “It’s Time To Stop Even Casually Misusing Disability Words.” Hmm, I mused, I think I do that without giving it a second thought. Could this be another one of my unconscious biases coming through?

Yeppers, it sure is. The best news about the article, for me, is that it’s directed at organizations and companies who are trying to focus on diversity and inclusion, another of my favorite topics right now. The opening paragraph sets a great tone, I think:

It’s not “oversensitive,” or too “new” of a concern for organizations and businesses to take a hard look at reforming ableist language. Ableism itself is not a new phenomenon, even if “ableism” is a new word to some of us. And avoiding offensive language throughout organizations isn’t just about preventing bad publicity. Curbing use of stigmatizing and problematic language makes workplaces safer for diversity, more productive for employees, and friendlier to customers and clients.

Andrew Pulrang, citation above

Most of us probably are aware that it’s not a great idea to use “retarded” in polite speech (or any speech unless you’re talking about how a plant’s growth was retarded in last week’s weather incident). What I hadn’t thought about very much was how often I and my friends say ideas or actions are stupid, lame, dumb, idiotic, moronic, and such. When we say something has crippled something else, that’s insulting people with physical disabilities. I’m pretty sure that in most people’s minds, these words are no longer labels for people, but that’s not a good excuse. As Pulrang points out:

The fact that a people still use such terms without intending to hurt disabled people doesn’t matter. They are harmful in all cases.

Andrew Pulrang, citation above

Sure, I know that asking people to find other ways to express that an idea is not great falls into the “politically correct” category for a large swath of people. I do get it that most people have no idea they are insulting others with their words. That’s because it’s a product of unconscious bias, not conscious. But, now that I am aware that I tend to talk this way, especially when I’m upset (another sign that unconscious bias is leaking out), I really want to work toward not using ableist language and monitor my speech and writing.

And calling me “politically correct” is not insulting, in any case. Speaking respectfully to people and taking their desired names, pronouns, or labels into account seems like a good thing. So there.

Well, what should we say, then?

That was my first question. Luckily, Pulrang shared some ideas. He cites a blog post by Lydia Brown titled Ableism/Language, that was updated in June, 2020. Brown writes more about ableist words and expressions, and offers a helpful list of alternatives for a wide variety of words and situations. I’m gonna refer to this often (and read more of her blog, which looks fascinating).

I also ran into this excellent diversity style guide that is fairly current (the preferred terms change frequently, as we know). Glossaries in the collection are very helpful for figuring out if you’re saying things in a neutral way or an ableist way.

Having to think about better ways to say things may well be to our benefit, too.

An added benefit of consciously reshaping our use of disability words and expressions is that it forces us to think more deeply about what we are talking about, and express our thoughts and feelings more precisely, maybe more humanely. “Crazy,” “insane,” “idiot,” and “moron” aren’t just offensive to people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities. They are also cliches that allow us to write people off without having to contend with their ideas and actions.

Andrew Pulrang, citation above

Are you feeling bad for frequently using some of the terms I’ve been talking about today? Don’t be, since you are just talking the way you have heard people talk your whole life. And as Lydia Brown points out right at the start of her blog post:

Note that some of the words on this page are actually slurs but many of the words and phrases on this page are not considered slurs, and in fact, may not actually be hurtful, upsetting, retraumatizing, or offensive to many disabled people. They are simply considered ableist (the way that referring to a woman as emotionally fragile is sexist, but not a slur). You’re not automatically a bad or evil person/activist if you have used random language on here, but if you have the cognitive/language privilege to adjust your language, it’s definitely worthwhile to consider becoming more aware/conscious of how everyday language helps perpetuate ableist ideas and values.

Lydia Brown, Ableism/Language

I find this all pretty darned fascinating and educational, which is why I have probably overwhelmed you with quotes. Please go read the articles I link to if you’d like to learn more about ableism and what you can do about minimalizing it and treating all your fellow humans with respect and kindness. I don’t want to insult people without intending to, so I’m glad to learn more.

Don’t be a doofus, go learn!

Wait, I think doofus may be one of those terms I should retire from my vocabulary. It sure is, because I found the definition: “A doofus is a dummy or a simpleton.” Wow, the definition gives me two more words to avoid. Off I go to learn more! It’s weird how excited I get when I glom on to a new topic to research.