Five things to consider before using ableist language


In this post I’m openly going to discuss problematic language so please, if you find ableist or profane insults triggering, then you might want to skip it entirely.

I’m on twitter a lot. In fact it’s how I met my partner 3.5 years ago and it’s also how I know a lot of the people who are reading this post. One of the issues that is currently top of my mind is the Ford family. I’ve written two posts about the Fords and heck, I’m not even a political blogger. In fact I’m so unhappy with our current mayor and council that, not only am I volunteering for Andray Domise’s election campaign for Ward 2 but my twitter profile has a David Soknacki “twibbon”.

One of the things I have encountered all-too often on twitter amongst people who are anti-Ford and even from people I would consider friends and allies, is the use of ableist terms to describe and insult both the Ford family and their political supporters. It bothers and frankly, upsets me, and when I get bothered I write. So here we are.

First, a couple of things I want to be clear about up front:

  • I’m not stifling free speech. Everyone has the right to use language others consider inappropriate, but if you use it in a public forum I want you to understand its consequences. All I’m asking of everyone is to think before they use terms that stigmatize, offend and do concrete, measurable damage to others.
  • Please don’t dismiss this as political correctness. I’m not advocating the imposition of some sort of Orwellian Newspeak – I’m challenging people to think before they speak (or write) and to reconsider many of the assumptions they have about language. I’m not trying to impose an antiseptic new world order, in fact I’m hoping to encourage people to challenge the current one.
  • I’m not policing tone. I have no problem with people being profane, insulting, judgemental and angry – in fact I’ve written separately about how useful anger is when confronting injustice.
  • When people use ableist terms it doesn’t annoy me, in and of itself. It’s so baked into our everyday language that we have all used words like “idiot”, “insane” and “moron”. What I find upsetting and frustrating is when people are so attached to using harmful language that they insult you if you question its use.
  • Internalized ableism is a thing. One of the people who engaged me on twitter argued that I must be wrong in suggesting words like “idiot” and “moron” are ableist because he didn’t find them offensive and he has an ADHD/Asperger’s diagnosis. He subsequently went on to call me a “fucking lunatic” which, given I am one and have no problem with that, probably didn’t cause the level of offence he intended.
Image is of the meme, privilege-denying dude, saying, "If what I say offends anyone I'm sorry you're too sensitive"

Image is of the meme, privilege-denying dude, saying, “If what I say offends anyone I’m sorry you’re too sensitive”

Secondly, I want to be open about the fact that I have skin in this particular game. I come from a long line of “crazy” people – my great-Aunt was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized for most of her adult life. Like my father, I have lost employment due to severe depression. My mother was told by a prominent doctor that all the symptoms she experienced after my sister was born were “in her head” and she needed to “just get over them”. In addition to my family history, many of my significant relationships have been with individuals who have psychiatric and/or mental disabilities. My children are both developmentally disabled – hey, our family seems to specialize in “invisible” disabilities.

What is ableist language? So much has been written about this it’s hard to know where to start. It’s also the case that, ironically, a lot of what is written on this topic is cognitively inaccessible to many, including me. Two pieces I’ve found extremely helpful starting points though are Autistic Hoya’s terrific glossary of ableist terms and alternatives and Doing Social Justice: Thoughts on Ableist Language and Why it Matters from Disability and Representation.

So, here are the five things I’d like you all to consider before using ableist terms:

Do you really want to use terms deployed by eugenicists?

Canada has an appalling history in terms of eugenics and state-sanctioned abuse of the mentally and intellectually disabled. From Huronia in Ontario to forced sterilizations in Alberta, this history is actually all-too contemporary. You can read more here about eugenicists in Canada and here for more about the Canadian movement which sought to eradicate the “feeble-minded”. Take a look at one of the posters put out by the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene: 

eugenics in Canada

Image description: Black and white poster from 1924 titled ‘Four types of mental deficiency’. Four black and white pictures of people are on the poster, labeled ‘Idiocy’, ‘Mongolian Imbecility’, ‘Imbecility’ and ‘Moron (high grade feeble minded)’. The caption at the bottom of the poster says:

The feeble-minded can be divided into three groups. (1) Idiots with a mental age less than three years; (2) Imbeciles with a mental age between three and seven years; (3) Morons with a mental age of between seven and eleven years. The moron group has been largely neglected in Canada and has contributed greatly to criminality, vice and pauperism.

The Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene conducts activities to secure better provision for the control of feeblemindedness.

Please know that when you use terms like “idiot”, “moron” and “imbecile”, these are taken directly from the Binet-Simon scale which was used by eugenicists to justify the segregation, imprisonment, sterilization and euthanization of the disabled. The Binet-Simon scale evolved into the Stanford-Binet scale, an IQ test that is still in use. And remember, these terms reflect an oppression of disabled people which was not only generally accepted but was state-sponsored.

“But those terms don’t mean the same thing now!” – or, how we perpetuate stigma

The Stanford-Binet scale is still in use and disabled people were abused, sterilized and killed in Canada by the state during my lifetime. This “historical” oppression is more akin to reality – the fact that government-sanctioned abuse and murder of the disabled no longer overtly exists doesn’t mean that disabled people are even close to being included in our current society, let alone integrated within it.

When we use words like “crazy”, “cretin”, “insane”, “retarded” and “idiot” to describe situations or people we disapprove of, we further stigmatize the people who were (and in some cases still are) labelled using those same words. I’ve seen people who, in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, railed against the stigma associated with mental and psychiatric disabilities – then perpetuated that stigma by using ableist language.

The impact of stigma

I’ve written before about this issue but just a few “highlights” for you to consider:

  • Disabled people are worse off than their non-disabled peers in terms of finding employment and housing. Just a couple of examples: one study found that in 2010 in the U.S., disabled people were half as likely to have a job as their counterparts without disabilities and in 2009, the number of young autistic adults who had a job was nearly half that of their peers with other disabilities. Ontarians with communication disabilities aren’t even properly covered by legislation mandating basic rights like accessibility.
  • I’ve quoted this before but it’s worth quoting again. Data proves that:

Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders – especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment 

  • The impact of the mentally disabled being less likely to seek treatment because of stigma is profound. Only 19.6% of people in the U.S. who receive treatment for a mental or psychiatric disability receive “minimally adequate treatment” whilst the risk of suicide is 20 times greater in individuals with severe depression and those with a bi-polar diagnosis are at even higher risk.
  • Tracy Latimer is probably the most famous Canadian example but disabled people everywhere are at much higher risk of being abused or murdered by parents or caregivers – and those same parents/caregivers often receive sentences that are light to non-existent.

Stigma is at best harmful and at worst, deadly.

Our modern fetishization of “intellectual superiority”

One person who engaged with me on twitter took the view that in describing Rob Ford as an “idiot” and as “stupid”, he was merely being factually descriptive. I see this an awful lot and in my view it’s one of the most insidious forms of ableism.

We see it everywhere, this idea that people who are “smart” are somehow better, more superior than others. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of education and completely deplore ignorance. I’m talking about how certain people assume that others who do not share their views are therefore intellectually inferior. The Fords play on this to rally people to their cause – when they talk about “downtown elites” and “lefties” the dog-whistle they are blowing is to tell their supporters, “hey, these people think they are better and smarter than you”. It builds resentment and it’s something that we inflame and reinforce every time we accuse the Fords and their supporters of stupidity.

Many parents of autistic people and even autistic people themselves, also display ableism in this regard when they, consciously or otherwise, emphasize that they or their children are “high functioning”, have a diagnosis of Asperger’s not autism, are not “severely” autistic and so on. I see it in books, statements and memes that talk about the genius of autism and that retroactively diagnose people like Newton and Einstein as autistic. In fact, all autistic people have value and they don’t need to be a savant to demonstrate that. Individuals with an intellectual or cognitive disability, whether due to autism, Fragile X, Down Syndrome or something else are all inherently valuable and all have both gifts to offer and rights that need to be respected.

There are so many other more descriptive, fabulous words you could be using

Rather than see Rob or Doug Ford or his supporters as “stupid”, I’d prefer to use words that describe them more accurately, depending on what they are stating. In describing the Fords, words that come to mind are: ignorant, bigoted, obtuse, irrational, rage-inducing, assholes, fuck-heads and so, so many more. These words are not only more accurate than calling the Fords “dumb” or “idiots” because they get to the root of what it is that makes them so objectionable, they also happen to be not ableist, so why not use them instead?

English is a beautiful language, a remarkably precise language with a million words to choose from to deliver your exact shade of meaning - Laura Fraser

English is a beautiful language, a remarkably precise language with a million words to choose from to deliver your exact shade of meaning – Laura Fraser


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12 Responses to Five things to consider before using ableist language

  1. Lisamaree August 20, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

    I love swears, particularly those that link someone’s outward behaviour with the body parts we use to expel waste or have the coitus. I particularly like to nounacise a verb and verb up nouns. Fuckwittery is probably my most favourite word ever. Eg. The recent outbreak of measles amongst teenagers in a wealthy Melbourne suburb reflects on the Fuckwittery of not immunising because of a fraudulent and completely disproven study into the side effects of the MMR in 1999. There really is no other word.
    Great post De

  2. Rachel August 20, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

    I knew there was a reason I hated the word ‘stupid’. I agree wholeheartedly.

  3. B August 22, 2014 at 3:43 am #

    I agree, and yet am upset that you would use the word ‘disabled’. Is this word factually correct? Dis-abled: not able; lacking in ability. Is my autistic daughter disabled? Were the athletes competing in the 2012 Paralympics disabled? Why are we still using this word to highlight what a person cannot do, and using this to define them? It is a one-sided, ableist term which dismisses the many amazing things a person CAN do as irrelevant in the face of their physical or mental irregularities, challenges or whatever else you want to call them. I personally find this word very offensive. I always tell my daughter she is differently-abled, which is factual without diminishing her in any way.

    • OMum22 August 22, 2014 at 9:15 am #

      I *always* respect personal preferences with respect to language but this isn’t a conversation with one person so I have to pick labels that offend the least number. Amongst the disabled people I know and read, identity-first language is their preference; so I use autistic rather than person with autism and disabled rather than person with a disability. This also makes sense to me because when I describe myself as Canadian, no-one immediately criticizes me by crying, “oh, but you’re so much more than your nationality!” Using identity-based language doesn’t mean we’re suggesting people are one-dimensional and we shouldn’t need to use people-first language to remind ourselves that yes, disabled people are people.

    • JAMZ August 22, 2014 at 11:43 am #

      I am disabled, and I have an autistic daughter. I work in an agency that helps disabled individuals. We use both person first language and identity first language. There are just times that one makes more sense to use over the other, and there are people who choose to self-identify certain ways. The word disabled is not ableist in any manner. Using that word is not shameful. To purport that we who are disabled should never use the word disabled and instead use “differently abled” is, for me, ableist. It tells me that you find shame in disability. Disability does not imply “lacking.”

      There are significant functioning differences and deficits physically for many disabled individuals and it’s a struggle to overcome social prejudice in my thinking, and help others overcome it too. But I know that just because my body is disabled, that doesn’t mean that I, as a person, am Less Than.

      My autistic daughter has some significant challenges, and they require her to receive supports and services in order to help her learn to navigate the world for when she’s an adult. As with my other daughters, I’m raising her to become an adult whatever that means for her. We make sure that in her IEP the team of teachers help her learn using her strengths. I don’t put glossy sugar glaze on it, though, because most people don’t think or learn the way she does and that makes her autism a disability. There are some things that she is overcoming, and there are many things she’s trying to overcome. As always we are using her strengths and capabilities. We just don’t fool around with saying she’s “differently abled” because although it’s true in a sense, the fact is that she’s different. And as Temple Grandin put it, Different, Not Less. Disabled does not mean Less.

      It’s perfectly ok to de-stigmatise the word disabled. My Fibromyalgia doesn’t make me differently abled. It has most definitely disabled me. I take care of myself, have made some adjustments in my lifestyle, and I’m still disabled. I make it work.

      • brownin329 August 22, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

        Your autistic daughter’s challenges are not because she is autistic, but rather the neurotypical world has not made a place for her yet. But we autistics are forging ahead to make a place anyway. Disabled DOES imply less than, whether you like it or not. Hopefully when she is older she will tell you how she’d like to be acknowledged…

    • bloop October 2, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

      diffrrently abled is actually seen as a really terrible term to use
      -a disabled person

      • Mobygibin March 10, 2015 at 11:26 am #

        Completely agree!

        People ARE disabled. It is not their ‘impairment’ or ‘difference’ than disables them, it is societies which are not accessible to all. I use a wheelchair, but it is not my difficulty walking that disables me, it is the steps into the bank, the high counter at the doctor surgery, the employer who thinks I am a fire risk. Disability caused by society and because of that it is absolutely right to acknowledge that people are disabled. ‘Differently-abled’ is patronizing, and lets society off the hook – it doesn’t address that things need to change.

  4. brownin329 August 22, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Well said. (Written)

  5. Rujul September 20, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    Hello Deanne,
    Very sensitive subject that u hv touched here.
    I’m not as good as u probably are when it comes to articulating certain topics.
    Over the years, I’ve come to realize – everyone is dealing with certain disability, whether call it disability to understand one self, others around u. Or just in general.
    So, I personally see some minor gaps in ur verdict. This is in no way to challenge your article, thoughts nor objective, it’s just mere observation.
    Happy to discuss. And before u say anything, I’m willing to assume, I could be wrong. But would want my message across.
    Good article, over all.


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