Calling out disablist language
Laura Woodhouse // 1 May 2012
This post is my contribution to Blogging Against Disablism Day. Check out more posts here.
A couple of weeks ago we published an apology for the disablist language used in one of our posts. We should have spotted it before the post went up, and the fact that we didn’t is a reflection of (among other things) just how normalised disablist language is. As I’ve begun to educate myself about disablism over the last few years, I’ve noticed this more and more. And while I’m doing my best to eradicate disablist language from my own speech and writing, I often fail to call out my friends and other people when they use it.
My excuses are the usual – rubbish – ones: the moment passed, I didn’t want to make my friend feel awkward, it didn’t seem like an appropriate time. None of these excuses are good enough, because letting disablist language go unchallenged perpetuates the discrimination suffered by disabled people, and that’s a much more serious issue than momentary social discomfort. I expect men who are on my side to challenge sexism in their social groups, and I need to do the same when it comes to disablism.
So, to kick off my commitment to speaking up, I’m going to use this post to highlight some of the disablist language that I frequently hear and try and give a straightforward explanation of why we shouldn’t be using it and how it can be avoided. I recognise and respect that some disabled people reclaim certain words for their own use, so I want to make it clear that I’m talking about the flippant, everyday use of this language in a non-reclaimed sense, usually by people who aren’t disabled.
First off is a word that seems to be used more and more in the UK: “retard”, or “retarded”. These words are generally used to refer to someone or something that the speaker thinks is ignorant, messed up, annoying, crappy or unlikeable. They are also used to describe people who are learning disabled, often in an insulting way, although “mental retardation” is an official medical diagnosis. So when you use “retard” or “retarded” to mean ignorant, messed up, annoying, crappy and unlikeable, you’re essentially saying that learning disabled people are ignorant, messed up, annoying, crappy and unlikeable.
Sadly, many people do actually believe this. But if you don’t – and you’re straight off my friends list if you do – try to think of what you actually want to say about that individual or thing, rather than equating them or it with people who are learning disabled. They have enough prejudice to deal with.
Along the same lines is “special”. I’m reminded of a sketch by comedian John Bishop where he described a certain kind of outfit and said he wouldn’t be wearing it again because it made him look “a bit special”. Because apparently having what are referred to as special needs (which in itself is problematic) is hilariously embarrassing. The assumption is that no one would want to be mistaken for someone who is disabled (usually learning disabled). The underlying message is that disabled people are lesser human beings. Again, if you don’t think so, don’t use “special” as a way to disparage and embarrass.
Finally, some of the most frequently-used and normalised disablist language relates to mental health issues. If people behave in a way we don’t like or can’t understand, they’re “crazy”. Situations we find objectionable are “insane”. That woman who treated our best friend badly is “nuts”. The vast majority of the time these things have nothing to do with the mental health of the people involved. But because society tells us that people with mental health issues are dangerous, out-of-control, weird and irrational, many people use words associated with them to describe individuals and situations that are all of these things, and more. This serves only to further stigmatise individuals with mental health issues (and that includes me, at least at some points in my life).
I must admit I find myself on the verge of using mental health-related language in an awful lot of situations. But as with my previous points, there are always other words to describe what you actually mean. It isn’t “mental” that people are demanding justice for Ched Evans: it’s disgusting, incomprehensible, upsetting. It isn’t “crazy” to say that Nadine Dorries cares about women’s rights: it’s ridiculous, naive, just plain wrong.
And I’m not “mad” for thinking that language matters. Some people might think I’m being pedantic, but language is the way many of us describe and navigate through our world. It structures most people’s thought patterns and many of our interactions with others. It affects everyone. So let’s be mindful of others in the way we use it.