Language and Ableism – stop using like words crazy and insane as an adjective and other things…..

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

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One year of lockdown for COVID19……I’m still here (Blessed & Thankful)

I boarded a plane heading for home from Birmingham, AL at 6:00AM on Saturday, March 14, 2020. The night before as I was sitting in the hotel lounge area and watching the news, CNN reported that the then President announced a National State of Emergency. The night prior to this, March 12th the NBA canceled the rest of their season. There were only about 10 states that had reported cases of the SARS 2 – COVID19 virus. The people in Birmingham were saying this will not come to Alabama. How wrong that prediction was? I knew that this virus would not only come to Alabama but it would hit with a vengeance and devastate not only Alabama but this country. 

I have a dear friend, a sister to me who lived in Birmingham at the time. In fact, she was the reason I attended the meetings I went there for on that trip. She was wonderful to me. She took care of me those last hours of not knowing our future, as we went to my last dinner in a crowded restaurant the night before she drove me to the airport for my flight to safety in my home. I told her to go home pack your bags and get the hell out of Alabama. She has the resources and the ability to go other places and I told her to use them and go! **NOTE: She listened and continues to remain safe today! (THANK God)

As a person who makes sure they are knowledgeable and reads everything, none of this came as a surprise to me. I had been following the independent news outlets and reading a number of International papers. I also used to work in the public health field and remain active with a few old colleagues. All of this information and intel was saying that it was not a question of “if” COVID19 was going to come to the United States, but “when” and how harmful will it be for the country. There was also a lot of discussion about how ill prepared the US was for all of this. 

As I walked through a nearly empty Reagan National Airport on an early Saturday morning in March after departing my flight that had about 20 passengers it really hit me that this COVID19 was something serious. The baggage claim area was completely void of people and there were only 10 pieces of luggage. There was me and an elderly woman who was searching for her bags and then for the front entrance. Her son was coming to get her. I helped her find her bags and let her know that the airport was under construction and the signs were confusing. I got her to an entrance where her son could drive up and get her.  Then I walked over to the METRO station to catch the train home. I am blessed that the Yellow Line here in DC takes me straight home from the airport. 

I stood on the platform, just me and about four other people, waiting for my train looking over at the deserted drive way of the airport. There were about five cars and three taxis waiting for people to come out, no one was being dropped off. The train arrived and it was empty but this was not unusual for an early Saturday morning. Yet I still had an eerie feeling on my ride home, because I had some idea what was in store for the future but not how long this pandemic would last. 

I am a planner so I spent my time on that ride getting my lists together and preparing myself to get ready for what was next, well what I thought was next. I had to get groceries, home products, prepare to stay inside my home. I do not own a car but I am blessed to live near a Walmart and Giants food store. I decided to break up my days for gathering supplies. I went to Walmart Saturday morning and then to the Giants Food grocery store Sunday. It was a horrible experience as I was terrified that I would catch the virus from someone I encountered. At that time there were no mask requirements and there was little to any guidance of how to avoid being infected when in public settings. 

I gathered as many products and food as I could fit in my house and then I started my journey of being quarantined for this pandemic. 

It took me three Saturday mornings to realize that I just could not go anywhere in the morning. I am used to waking up on the weekend, working out with some floor exercises and then I hop on the METRO take it to a stop and then walk for 35 – 60mins through DC to the next stop. It’s the second part of my workout as well as my connection to outside nature (I’m a city girl – this is about as much of outside as I do) and I get to see and experience the place where I live. The District is ever changing and these walks help me to stay updated with some of these changes. 

I have worked from home since 2014 so that part was not new to me. I actually worked and work from anywhere in the world as long as I had a good internet connection. My job used to entail that I travel at least 1 week and sometimes more in a month. It is part of my connection to “the streets” and how I do my activism and policy work – from the streets to the suites. Not traveling was also something that caused me angst. I was “trapped” in my home with the ability to only walk around my neighborhood. I am blessed to live in a wonderful place and community so that was amazing. But to be confined and to be scared to be around people was not a good thing for my psyche and emotional well-being. 

In this year of quarantine I have celebrated a number of family events via ZOOM; worked on multiple projects without one in person meeting; learned how to be by myself for more hours than I ever thought I could be; engage in new hobbies; use online shopping as I never thought was possible and realize how absolutely blessed I am. I have become closer with “my girls” which I never thought was possible as we have known each other since childhood. I have a new Tribe who have my back and it has been amazing getting to know and love them. I have been exiled from a number of organizations (NCIL being one) and I have ended a number of relationships – that were never friendships. I have been blessed to save some money and to assist some family who needed love and care. In this year I have lost only two family members to COVID19 and had only a handful actually be infected by this horrific virus. I know that is phenomenal since most of my family is Black and lives inner cities where COVID has decimated communities.

Now here we are a year later and my movement around The District is not as constricted. We have learned so much about this virus and its abilities. I listen to scientist and doctors and they say to wear a mask. I ordered masks. They said you can go out just don’t be in large crowds for long periods or at all – continue to social distance. They said you can eat in a restaurant just not right next to others. Then they said wear two masks as the virus has mutated and these new strains are much more contagious. There is a vaccine and they said to take this. I have not been able to do this yet for multiple reasons the main one is that I am one of those people who has allergies to medication and almost all vaccines I have taken my entire life. Stay tuned for this! I am working with my physicians on this and hope to have a plan soon. 

I count the days on my calendars. Today is day #406 since I came inside on Sunday, March 15, 2020. I will forever live my life as before and after COVID. I am hopeful that our future will be better. What I am not so sure of is what that future looks like for me, for my family and friends and for my work. I do not see us “returning to normal” anytime soon. It may be years before my life of travel all around the country resumes and most definitely not outside of the United States. What I do know is that I will never take for granted, my life or the lives of those I love and care about. I will forever be grateful for the wonderful times we have spent together in these times of uncertainty even via online. And when I am able to be with them all in person at gatherings of love I will sit and take those times in with enormous gratitude and complete awareness of all of our mortality. 

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