There are a number of things that create social movements and one of them is language. It is a cornerstone in the work as part of messaging, changing minds and creating change. Good writing is only created by masters who can produce language that is worth reading. The art of changing minds is by telling stories, providing evidence for the change along with protest calls and in this day of social media hashtags. All of these things encompass language. The meaning of a word is based on multiple things and the way in which that word is used can create love, hatred, pity, sorrow and other emotions. There have been many parts to movements and one is language. It is part of the creation of change and is centered on the words used to develop that change.
Over the years I have witnessed how people push back on horrible language and demand editing of the words and tones in which those words are used. At the same time, I have watched how many push back on the change – calling people “language police” – discouraging people from telling others about how to speak or letting people know that it is insulting to be corrected all the time. I must say this criticism usually comes from people who have no desire to see change, because they are completely content with how things are going. They are the ones who do not believe in systemic racism and they don’t like to acknowledge people’s pain and reasons for why they are upset about the language. To be dismissive of people’s feelings about language is just another form of white supremacy that is embedded in the good ole American way.
In the fight to dismantle Ableism the use of language is and will be an imperative part of moving this country and the world to equity. There are a number of phrases that are used by many in our everyday language and yet they are offensive to people with disabilities. There are words that are used as adjectives and should be removed from all vocabularies and as I tell others we must pull out the thesauruses for some use. Now let me be honest, this came as a learning experience for me as well. Over the years I have been “schooled” by many disability activists about my own language. I took my correction with care and asked in love how can and should I update my language. It has made me a better person and most definitely enhanced my work. I appreciate the lessons learned and hope that one day social justice work will no longer embrace ableism.
A few systemic language changes that I have observed over the years in social justice work:
Illegal Immigrants – no one is illegal – now we use Immigrants
Victims of violence – now we use survivors
Calling a Black man – boy
Referring to a grown woman as gal – or girl
Mulattos – now we use the term Mix-raced people
American Indian – now we use the terms Native Americans, Indigenous
Hispanic – now we use Latina/Latino or Latinx
Poor people – now we use of low socio economic status
Ex-convicts or Ex-felon/s – now we use people first language – Formerly Incarcerated
Prisoners/Inmates – now we use human rights language – Incarcerated
Homeless – many are pushing for language change to use Unhoused
The use of pronouns – when first asked to do this there was much push back but after much activism and education – introducing oneself with name, org and pronouns has become part of the norm – this is even placed in many people’s signature lines for emails, posted on ZOOM description boxes etc.
When it comes to ableist language that is also offensive in social justice work, well in general but since my work is in the field of activism and public policy…..
It is time for “progressives” to stop using terms that are offensive to people with disabilities or the disabled. Yes, language is fluid and yes acceptable language changes but that decision is for the disenfranchised to lead not the privileged. They should also stop telling people they are being annoying or “policing” their language.
There is always complaining and push back when disenfranchised people express their concerns, tell their stories of why language needs to change. As when Black people tell white people that a situation is racist or actions are racist and there is immediate friction, anger, confrontation and in many cases the ultimate white tears. These same triggers are produced when privileged people are asked to upgrade or edit their language because the language or phrases are insulting, harmful and/or offensive. I know from personal experience, because I am one of the people who will ask people to stop using certain language or phrases on ZOOM calls and I can actually see their frustration and hear the “himin’ and hawin’ “ over the mic. I have also received the emails telling me that maybe I should “calm down” or asking “is it really necessary for me to change my language?”
Just as the above language and phrases changed over the years, so must the ableist language and it was the push back and demands of those communities that created not only language change but actual movement and policy change.
Some Ableist terminology that is problematic:
Stop using terms like crazy and insane as adjectives such as: “It’s crazy how last night went” “That’s insane” or referring to people as “the crazies” or “He’s crazy” like Donald Trump (when no clinician has deem him so)– use your language – use adjectives – “That’s amazing” “That’s phenomenal” “That’s so weird/strange” and call Trump what he is a despot, racist, xenophobe, misogynist, angry etc.
Let’s update some of the phrases we normally use so that they are not ableist. NOTE -these are but a few – there are some great articles on this in the resource area at the end of this post:
I Stand in Solidarity/We Stand in Solidarity to I am in Solidarity; We are in Solidarity
He/They have a blind spot to He/They have missed the point; they do not recognize the issue/problem
They turned a blind eye to the issue to They ignored the problem
Keep your eyes on the prize to Keep your heart on the horizon
Every walk of life to all people
All hands on deck to All people on deck
I had to learn this as I entered into working on disability policy. It did not come to me as something I just knew. I have been a student learning from experts with lived experience whom these terms, phrases and this language is harmful and causes them to feel left out of the movement, disenfranchised and disrespected. When they ask for there to be change or edits on documents or language they are often greeted with push back, friction, anger and confrontation. As this country is working on the inclusion of equity in much that we do, we need to make sure we include not using ableist language as part of this change.
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Blog post by Lydia Brown – last updated February 27, 2021
National Center on Disability and Journalism – at Arizona State University
Disability Language Style Guide
Associated Press – Stylebook – Tweet sent out on April 23, 2021 – Introducing a revision and expansion to our guidance on writing about disabilities
Disability Language Guide by Labib Rahman – Stanford Disability Initiative Board
The Harmful Ableist Language You Unkowingly Use – Equality Matters – by Sarah Novic – March 30, 2021
Avoiding Ableist Language
Why You Need To Stop Using These Words and Phrases – Harvard Business Review by Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar December 15, 2020