ableism / ableist languageLast updated
Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. According to Verywell Mind, a highly regarded website for mental health professionals, it is “based on the belief that there is a correct way for bodies and minds to function, and that anyone who deviates from that is inferior.” Ableist language includes not only insults and slurs but also many terms that might seem reasonable but carry ableist ideas, attitudes, or histories. For example, the words “dumb” or “lame” may seem harmless but they come from a history of insults for people who are unable to produce speech or who have physical disabilities. Often, these words turn up in jokes, metaphors, and euphemisms; see below for example phrases and alternatives.
Definitions of ableist language change over time. The term “handicapped” was once widely used and accepted; now, most disability advocates consider the term offensive. (Note: Although some municipalities continue to refer to it as “handicapped parking,” the Americans With Disabilities Act uses the term “accessible parking.”) On the other hand, “crip” is a term currently gaining some acceptance in disability communities, despite its root in the still-offensive word “cripple,” though reserving the term for the context of someone’s stated self-identification is important given its history.
Even common words like “healthy,” “unhealthy,” or “able-bodied” describe an idea of a “standard” human body, suggesting that people with disabilities are abnormal, rather than just another expression of the human experience. For example, health is not a single, defined, unchanging state – for all of us, throughout our lives, it is a scale or a spectrum often based on many factors. Unless it is intrinsic to a story, it is usually not necessary to comment on the assumed healthiness or unhealthiness of a person. If it is necessary to describe a person without disabilities in a disability context, being as specific as possible about what disability they do not have is helpful for clarity (i.e., “She is the only hearing member of a Deaf family.”)
The following list provides examples and alternatives for common phrases that use ableist language. This is not a complete list, but contains many of the most common uses of language around disability. It’s also important to note that context matters. For instance, the term “blind review” or “double-blind study” when discussing a scientific study may still be commonly used in many journals. But the phrase “blindly followed” can be read as portraying blindness in a negative light, suggesting someone who doesn’t make their own decisions. Not using disability-specific terms to describe unrelated issues or ideas helps avoid these pitfalls.
|Instead of||Preferable phrasing|
|“turned a blind eye”||purposely ignored, allowed to happen, oblivious to|
|“fell on deaf ears”||ignored, unswayed by, remained unheard, not persuaded by|
|“tone-deaf”||unaware of, oblivious to|
|“dumbstruck”||shocked, surprised by, confounded|
|“blindly followed”||followed despite warnings, allowed to be led, followed unaware of|
|“drives me crazy,” “maddening”||drives me up the wall, makes me angry, is frustrating|
|“differently abled,” “handicapable,” “special needs”||Many people with disabilities find terms and euphemisms like this condescending or worse. Specifying the disability when possible, or simply saying “has a disability,” is straightforward.|
|“able-bodied,” “healthy,” “normal”||if it’s necessary to describe someone who is not disabled, terms like “nondisabled” or a “person without a disability” are straightforward. However, unless it’s the focus of a story, it should not always be necessary to comment on the health, ability, or disability of a person.|
|psychotic (to mean “irrational”)||erratic, implausible, ridiculous, unrealistic|
|crazy (to mean “unusual” or “surprising”)||bizarre, wild, eccentric, odd, strange|
|insane (to mean “upsetting”)||aggravating, disruptive, overwhelming, absurd|
- #CancelCrazy & 40 Alternatives (mindyourmind)
- 8 Words To Use Instead Of “Crazy” (Thesaurus.com)
- Words describing mental health can stigmatize. That’s painful and dehumanizing. (Washington Post)
- Language Style Guide (National Center on Disability and Journalism)
- The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use (BBC)
- Instead of These Ableist Words, Use Inclusive Language at Work (HuffPost)
- Critical Disability Studies Collective: Terminology (University of Minnesota)
Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableist language refers to individual words and phrases (like “dumb” or “crazy”) as well as metaphors or expressions (such as “emotionally crippled”) that perpetuate negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. Unless it is intrinsic to a story, it is usually not necessary to comment on the assumed healthiness or unhealthiness of a person. Using disability-specific terms only in the context of disability, rather than to describe unrelated issues or ideas, helps avoid these pitfalls.