I’m Still Thinking about the Effects of Labels for Mental Illness and Disability

Every once in a while, a subject gets into my head and just stays there, gnawing away at my free time and causing me to think and think. The topic of how often we refer to negative things in terms once used to describe people living with disabilities or mental illnesses just won’t go away. Now that I am aware of how often these terms are used, I see (or hear) them everywhere, especially in casual conversation, but sometimes even in more serious speech and writing. This has led me to a loose collection of not-all-that-related thoughts.

So much negativity! Image by @kelsen28 via Twenty20

Where do we see these terms?

I do NOT see these pejorative terms used (often) in the news, magazines, or academic books. That’s a good sign I guess. The one exception seems to be the “crippled economy” and the like. I am wondering of that persists because circumstances actually can cripple concepts like economies, degrees of debt, etc., by causing metaphorical injuries to them. Perhaps that word can be seen as more neutral, then?

I can see how people can easily get confused until they practice using alternate ways of referring to people. The subtle nuances of finding neutral ways to refer to people dealing with various challenges can take some time to sink in. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to guide you (but don’t read too many, because they can start to conflict). I’m just glad to see there seems to be at least some effort made in new media and places like that.

I want my talking heads to leave the name calling to the people they interview. Image by @amauritorezan via Twenty20.

Who’s most likely to use these terms?

Another understanding I’ve reached is that it’s no wonder people use these disability kinds of terms to put others down; as a whole, people are still pretty ignorant about actual facts about disabilities of all kinds. I found an interesting article from the UK about the language of 14-year-olds for putting others down about disabilities.

The authors found five themes in the data.

  1. Popular derogatory terms (nuts, psycho, crazy, loony)
  2. Negative emotional states (disturbed, depressed)
  3. Confusion between types of disability (disabled, spastic, dumb)
  4. Actual psychiatric diagnoses (depression, schizophrenia)
  5. Terms related to violence (scary) (I admit, I didn’t see this as violent)

There are lots of lists of words in the article, but the authors concluded that, for the most part, the young people didn’t really know what the words meant and were just using words for emphasis, especially the popular derogatory terms. They were surprised that actual diagnoses weren’t used much, and concerned that the violence words appeared as much as they did (though they were the least used).

We’re just kids, mimicking other kids. Cut us some slack. Or educate us! Image by @lelia_milaya via Twenty20.

The article cited above inspires me to cut folks some slack. How many people know where the words “loony” or “spaz” come from? I sure didn’t until I was a lot older than a teen. Many really hurtful utterances probably come from folks just picking a word they’ve heard others use that sounds sufficiently negative to emphasize a point.

I come to the conclusion, based on that emotional maturity stuff I talked about yesterday, that people who are still muddling along at the adolescent stage of emotional maturity, at least with respect to labeling others, are more likely to engage in using disability terms to insult or put people (and ideas) down.

Now I’m back to name calling

On the other hand, name calling, in general is one of my least-favorite human proclivities. It’s something I worked with my children to eliminate (fairly successfully, for the most part, though we did love the word doofus for gently chiding ourselves for making simple errors). People just LOVE labels. And so many people define themselves by the labels others (and they, themselves) assign to them. That’s why I don’t like name-calling and that type of put-downs. They can mess a person up.

Labeling Exercise

So, here’s something to think about. How many labels have people put on you, or you have put on yourself, throughout your life? I’m thinking both positive and negative, by the way. Here’s a list for me, with my internal labels in italics. (note that some of the items in the left column I don’t personally find negative, like sensitivity and agnostic, and some of my positives are negatives for others.)

NegativePositive
FatSmart
UglyTalented
TalkativeGood listener
StupidPatient
UnlikeableHard worker
UnfriendlyEmpathetic
SensitiveGenerous
UnpopularKind
Goody-two shoesBrave
HeathenFeminist
AgnosticSpiritually open
Femi-NaziLiberal
LibtardWell read
Intellectual snobAltruistic
HystericalCentered
NervousOpen minded
Self centered
Look, I made the columns kind of equal, though it was easier to think of the items on the left

As I look at my own list, I can see that some of the labels that have been applied to me sunk in and were very difficult to shake off. Others didn’t bother me at all. I’ll have to ponder why that’s so, but as a first stab (aha, a war metaphor), I’ll guess that labels that point to my insecurities (fat, unlikeable) stuck longer than put-downs that I’m actually proud of (feminist, agnostic).

So, I challenge you to see if you can come up with a list of the things people label you (or you label yourself with). Are they accurate? Have you glommed onto inaccurate ones and believed them at some point in your life? Have you broken away from some labels?

I’ll share more about this later, I guess.

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.