Calling out disablist language

// 1 May 2012

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This post is my contribution to Blogging Against Disablism Day. Check out more posts here.

blogging against disablism logo: a square with lots of different coloured outlines of people, one using a wheelchair and one with a stickA 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.

Comments From You

Philippa Willitts // Posted 1 May 2012 at 11:11 am

Great post, thanks Laura.

Suzie // Posted 1 May 2012 at 11:47 am

I think it’s very common to use this sort of language without really thinking about it, and it does require a lot of awareness to avoid doing it. In addition to what you say about it creating a stigma around disbilities/mental health, it can also trivialise the problems people face. In a similar way to people using “rape” to mean lesser problems (like using someone’s facebook account) – I often hear people misuse terms such as OCD, anorexic, schizophrenic to describe people who are organized, skinny or behave eratically. It lessens the impact of the words and stops people taking problems seriously. I’ve even heard people describe things/people as “disabled”, outside of the context of a genuine disability. The misuse of language can have a negative impact both ways; either a negative connotationbecomes asociated with a group of people or a problem becomes trivialised.

Holly Combe // Posted 1 May 2012 at 12:00 pm

…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.

Well said, Laura. I think a lot of people think their words will lose power if they don’t go to descriptions that are commonly recognised as slurs but there’s always another way. Over-used words are boring anyway!

Ella Stevie // Posted 1 May 2012 at 12:05 pm

Really helpful post. So, not only would refraining from using these words (in innappropriate ways) stop people from being insensitive and disablist but would also make them less lazy and more eloquent in speech! Thankyou Laura :)

Alasdair // Posted 1 May 2012 at 12:33 pm

Good article, although I guess it’s a mark of how established such language is that I immediately found myself thinking, “But hang on, if I can’t say this policy or idea I don’t like is madness and the people behind it are idiots, what am I supposed to say?”

After further thought, I think I’ll go with “Your ideas are highly misguided and misinformed, and based on a poor understanding of the situation and/or plain wishful thinking.” A little less punchy perhaps, but there are always alternatives.

Ruth Madison // Posted 1 May 2012 at 1:44 pm

So true! I hate hearing people use the word “retarded” to mean something that they hate. And when I try to explain why that’s hurtful and wrong, I get told that I’m too sensitive and “why is the world so PC these days?”

I say, go ahead and insult what you want to insult. Do it using language that actually means what you mean, not language that means mentally disabled (a group you are not even trying to insult)!

Catherine Elms // Posted 1 May 2012 at 2:32 pm

This was a really interesting article, thank you. I hear people use the word “special” a LOT as a punchline, in very similar ways to how John Bishop used the word, and I hear the words “mental”, insane”, “crazy” used as descriptive terms, with no thought to their ableist origins – I have to admit that I’m currently working on eliminating those words from my vocabulary, though it’s a work in progress due to how overused the words are!

Sira // Posted 1 May 2012 at 2:42 pm

This article really struck a chord with me because there are so many disablist words that I would never use, that I cringe when I hear, and would call out others for using, but then this morning in a meeting I blithely described a new policy as crazy without even thinking about it. I tried to save it by then describing whoever came up with the policy as intransigent and prideful, but by then I felt it was a bit late to correct my earlier choice of word. Reading this I realise I probably should have done.

It just goes to show how big a job we all have when even someone like me who loves words, writes for pleasure and has an interest in etymology, feminism and social justice comes out with that kind of thing.

I get very annoyed by people who would read your article and think “well that’s just political correctness gone mad” – another disablist phrase right there. When I hear that phrase, I always think well, in my day (and I’m only 35!) it was just called good manners to think before you spoke and to do your best not to hurt people’s feelings if you could possibly help it. That’s even before you get into examining how our choice of words affects thought and action and then feeds into practical discrimination.

You’re right – this isn’t about limiting language at all, it’s about avoiding lazy and hackneyed (not to mention damaging) metaphors and being more creative and precise with our language. And English has such a wealth of words to choose from. That’s the sort of challenge I really enjoy and I’m going to be making much more of an effort from now on.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

Jane // Posted 1 May 2012 at 6:34 pm

Even as someone with the disability in question, I find myself caught out by the language around mental health. I do not count the times I have blithely described myself as “crazy”, as that is in part an act of reappropriating the term of abuse, and frankly also a lot quicker than saying “experiencing entrenched trauma issues and long term mood disorder”.

However, a couple of weeks ago, I did find myself describing the actions of an amusingly hyperactive small child as “going mental”. In the discomfort that followed, I justified this in my head with “It’s okay if I say it, because I’m crazy myself. If I say it, it’s *ironic*.”

Then I realised I was being – to use the technical term – stupid.

Alex_T // Posted 1 May 2012 at 9:54 pm

Thank you so much for this. My sister has severe, profound and multiple learning disabilities and my other sister and I have always had to battle all this on her behalf as she can’t speak up for herself. It usually feels like we’re such a small voice against all the normalised abusive language and like Ruth, above, we get told we’re too sensitive if we react to it. It’s just really nice to know that it’s not just those of us with a vested interest that are doing the fighting, someone is stepping up to share the burden!

sian norris // Posted 3 May 2012 at 11:30 am

great post. i know i use the word ‘crazy’ way too much, and every time i hear myself say it i cringe and wish i could put my words back in my mouth.

When people say to me ‘oh but x word doesn’t really mean that any more’ I find a useful parallel is describing women as ‘hysterical’. Just because we might think a word has changed meaning, or because other people aren’t willing to recognise that something is ableist, doesn’t mean it isn’t. One of the things i love about this site is how it has opened my eyes to issues like this.

Sarah Levis // Posted 7 May 2012 at 5:29 pm

Excellent post. My parents never allowed my sister and I to use the word “retard” as children, and I’ve been working with people with intellectual disabilities for over half my life, so that one has always bothered me…I do use the mental health ones more than I ought to, though. Thank you for the reminder.

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