Common Ableist Terms You Might Be Using

Ableism (discrimination against disabled people) is unfortunately so prevalent in society that it has pervaded everyday language. People use this language without even thinking about its origins or the problem with its widespread use. I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common ableist words/phrases in an effort to both illustrate their prevalence and raise awareness for those interested in avoiding this language (and educating others!).

There are more comprehensive lists of ableist terms worth viewing (see the Additional Resources section listed at the end of this post). I’ve tried to focus on what might be considered the most common or surprising terms so you can start the process of eliminating this language.

Some of these terms are only considered ableist when they are used to reference a non-disabled condition (since it essentially compares the condition to that of a disabled person). It devalues the experience of the disabled person and makes the disabled condition less genuine.

Other terms in this list are considered ableist because they refer to disability in negative terms.

Some of these terms are so commonplace it may take some effort to remove them from your vocabulary. There are plenty of alternatives to use. First, take time to notice if you do use one of these terms. Correct yourself with an alternative phrase every time you notice it. Finally, look for opportunities to bring up the discussion about ableist language with others who may be unaware they use it.

For example, correcting someone after they have used an ableist term may not be the best way to teach them about ableism (or maybe it is!) since it could make them defensive, but there may also be other ways/times to raise awareness about ableism and disability.

Ableist Terms

Autistic–Fine to use to describe someone on the spectrum who prefers identity-first language, but not acceptable to use to describe someone who is NOT on the spectrum. Avoid saying someone is “acting autistic” or categorizing someone as “a little bit autistic.”

Deaf–Fine to use to describe someone who is a member of the Deaf community, but it diminishes the experience of someone who is Deaf when it is used casually to reference someone who is not Deaf.

Blinded by something (or turning a blind eye)–This equates avoidance or common shortsightedness to blindness.

Crazy, Bonkers, Insane, Lunatic, Psycho, Maniac, Cuckoo, Nuts–These all reference mental instability but are also used to describe common behavioral errors from individuals who do not exhibit mental illness.

Mad/Madman/Mad Scientist–See above.

Wheelchair-bound–Suggests that the wheelchair is a trap or a prison instead of an assistive mobility device. It emphasizes negative connotations around wheelchair usage rather than inclusivity and neutrality.

Lame–This term is used to describe something as feeble or unconvincing, a negative definition originating from the term referring to someone who cannot walk or has a leg or foot injury. Again, usage of this term suggests lameness is negative and equates physical disability with unconvincing rhetoric.

OCD–A diagnostic term that becomes problematic when used to describe someone who is not diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Bipolar–A diagnostic term that becomes problematic when used to describe someone who is not diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

Depressed–A diagnostic term that becomes problematic when used to describe someone who is not diagnosed with Depression.

Dumb/Dumb things down–A term used to describe someone who is unable to speak in certain environments or situations. Suggesting the word ‘dumb’ relates to intelligence equates intellectual disability with the ability to speak, which is another form of ableism.

Spaz–This is a term used to describe someone with a spastic muscle condition, such as cerebral palsy, but is also used to casually reference erratic, hyper, or wild behavior.

Additional Resources

Ableism/Ableist Language by Autistic Hoya

Avoiding Ableist Language Augsburg

15 Crazy Examples Of Insanely Ableist Language by Parker Marie Molloy

These 9 Careless Things You Say Are Hurting People With Disabilities by Soumadri Banerjee

These 9 Careless Things You Say Are Hurting People With Disabilities by Soumadri Banerjee

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