Blog > February 2019 > Language and Equality for People with Disabilities

Language and Equality for People with Disabilities



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The words we use in everyday conversation have the undeniable ability to either empower or oppress others. If we use positive words to describe people, we can help to foster their sense of pride, identity, and purpose. But, if we use derogatory words, like ableist slurs, we can cause the opposite effect even if we do not mean to.

In his editorial, Disabling Ableist Language, Andy Hollandbeck defines ableist language as “any word or phrase that devalues people who have physical or mental disabilities.” He says, “Its appearance often stems not from any intentional desire to offend, but from our innate sense of what it means to be normal." And he’s not wrong - many of us have let slip a questionable phrase at some point, and this doesn‘t mean we‘re bad or ableist people.

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Casual Ableism

But how possible is it to achieve equality when casual ableism is so commonplace? Take, for example, instances where people use mental illness slurs to insult others. When we hear these insults, the person usually means to say something is illogical, bad, or nonsensical. They probably don’t mean to target people who have mental illnesses, but by assigning the word negative and insulting connotations, they do.

Kinder Language

Making use of kind, positive, and empowering language is everybody’s business. Replacing ableist terms with more accurate words helps to create a more accepting society for people with disabilities - a society which doesn’t equate a diagnosis with an insult. Disability activist Annie Elainey explains this in depth in her video, Casual Ableist Language, where she talks about how these words can paint people as lesser and bad.

The flip side to talking about ableist language is making sure we use correct and positive terms when we talk about people with disabilities. The Australian Network on Disability’s guide to inclusive language encourages us to use person-first language, i.e. saying ‘person with a disability’ rather than ‘disabled person.’ Here, we put the person before the disability. This is, of course, very general and all members of the disability community won’t feel the same. When you are referring to people you know, it can be better to ask them the terms they prefer to use. 

Tips for Avoiding Casual Ableism

Changing the terms we use and the way we speak is a learning process, and nobody is expected to be an expert! Here are just a few tips on replacing casual ableism with words of empowerment.

  • Use person-first language, like “person with a disability,” instead of “disabled person.”
  • Research! If you’re not sure which terms are ableist, there are many great resources for common phrases (and alternatives) online!
  • Replace ableist words and slurs in everyday speech with the word you mean.
  • Avoid colorful metaphors about disability and use respectful, direct language instead.
  • Avoid terms like “bound” and “confined” when speaking about people with disabilities - instead, try to focus on positive language.
  • Keep in mind that mobility aids, like wheelchairs and crutches, are tools that people use to access the world - they are not limitations!
  • When speaking with people who have disabilities, follow their lead in terms of the language and terms they prefer to use.
  • Be intentional in your speech.
  • Make yourself aware of the words you use and the effect they may have on others.
  • Remember that using empowering language helps to create a society built on equality.

Helpful Resources

Avoiding Ableist Language

The Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital has composed a quick guide to avoiding ableist language for people who are allies. You can view the guide on their website, or download a copy of it in PDF format for future reading.

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The Impact of Ableist Words 

Dr. Neal A Lester’s article for Teaching Tolerance, No Joking Matter: Words and Disability, is a wonderful resource if you’d like to learn more about the impact of ableist words. The entire article is also available as a lesson plan.

Common Questions About Ableist Language

Access2Arts, a disability-led arts organisation, has published an information question and answer format article about using ableist language. You can read 10 Answers to Common Questions People Ask When Being Called Out for Using Ableist Language here.

In Conclusion

Using kind and positive language is everybody’s responsibility. When we replace oppressive and ableist words with empowering ones, we are helping to lay the foundations of an equitable society for people with disabilities.

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