Storify: What is Ableist Language?

Storify is shutting down in May and has informed users that we have to migrate our content elsewhere if we wish to save it. This is one of my old threads.

Jumping from @civilwarbore's excellent thread on ableism and language, I think maybe a lot of people don't understand ableist language. This is going to be a long thread because I want to storify it, so please bear with me.

I think a lot of well-meaning people wish to be sensitive to disability issues. Good! But this is a complex topic. You cannot avoid ableism by memorizing a list of "bad words" and avoiding them, because ableism is more complicated than that.

Let us talk about what ableism is and isn't. Ableism is about dismissing, silencing, or stigmatizing disabled people. Ableist language is dismissive of disabled people and dehumanizing of us. Some examples (trigger warnings apply).

* Saying someone is "deaf to our logic" or "blind to the issues" falsely conflates disabilities with obtuseness, ignorance, cruelty.

* Saying an evil person is "crazy" or "insane" stigmatizes people with mental illness as dangerous and untrustworthy.

In these cases, people are using disability words to mean things: badness, ignorance, evilness. That is dismissive and stigmatizing. The words themselves are not necessarily bad, but you're using them wrong. Say "evil" or "inexplicable" or "unfathomable", not "crazy".

Moving on, ableist language impacts our rights. Ableism is about the legal rights denied to disabled people.

Thirty states in the USA have laws on the books barring mentally ill people from voting. There are regular proposals to block mentally ill people from gun ownership, and to keep databases on us as part of denying us gun access.

That is why there is a huge context behind calling someone "crazy" or "--tard" or "insane" or other mental illness words. You are applying a label to that person which could be used to strip them of constitutional rights. That is why it is NOT the same to call someone "foolish", "stupid", or "ignorant". Foolish people aren't denied rights in our country.

Well-meaning people have latched on to the understanding that "crazy" is bad, but they think it's bad because it's descriptive. So if "crazy" is bad, then "ignorant on this issue" must be bad! You've come to the wrong conclusion because you don't understand the root. Is the word a medical diagnosis you're foisting on someone? Is the word one used to strip people of rights? These questions matter.

Moving on, ableism is about denying us employment. Ableism is about our merit and chances of employment, and is NOT about our "right" of sexual access to others.

* Beauty standards which deny us a chance to work in various industries = ableist. We deserve a chance to work based on merit, not appearance.

* Beauty standards which deny me sexual access to Brad Pitt = not ableist. No one is owed attraction from another human being. NO ONE.

Again, people have latched onto the idea that beauty standards which exclude us are oppressive, but they follow to the wrong conclusion. Beauty standards = ableist = therefore if you won't date a specific disabled person, YOU are ableist. NO. That is bad math. That is wrong.

Beauty standards that bar us from employment are ableist because we're denied the chance to work on our own merit that everyone else has. That does NOT mean that every disabled person in the world deserves XYZ job. It means we deserve a chance at that job based on our merit. Similarly, I'm not owed attraction from any specific person in the world. I deserve only to move through this world like anyone else.

Moving on, ableism is about our freedom. Ableism is about our freedom to move in society without restraint.

Those words that deny us our rights to vote can also be used to deny us our freedom or to institutionalize us against our will. So, again (broken record) this isn't about "bad" words. This is about what those words mean. The threat beneath them. Words can be descriptive or stigmatizing, and we need to understand the difference.

What is NOT ableism is words that are simply descriptive. Let me elaborate.

* Are you using "blind" to mean someone can't see? That's probably fine. Are you using "blind" to mean they're ignorant? That's factually wrong.

* Are you using "crazy" to mean yourself who is mentally ill? That's probably fine. (More on this in a minute.) Or to mean "evil"? If you mean "evil", use "evil".

* Are you using stand to mean you are literally standing up? Great. To mean you're metaphorically standing? Fine! Are you using stand to mean someone MUST stand up with you? "If you aren't walking with Pride parade, you're NOT an ally!" That's ableism.

Do you see the difference? The problem isn't the word "stand". The problem is you're saying people MUST do this thing to meet a standard. That's why I'm annoyed by, say, an inspirational poster saying "there is no elevator to success; you must take the stairs." Because a standard is being set and people are being ordered to meet that standard without thought to whether they can.

I-language is your friend here. "I think of success as like a stairway." Cool, you do you. "And YOU have to climb it with me." No, thanks.

A caveat about triggering language. Now, caveat to all this: let's talk about "bad words" and triggers. A lot of disabled people have been marginalized throughout childhood by people throwing their disabilities in their face. Sometimes those words are triggering for them now, because of that trauma.

It is important to note that ANYTHING can be a trigger. There's a famous psych case where a fluffy bunny was a trigger. Something being a trigger does not make that word BAD or FORBIDDEN for everyone else. On Twitter, it means you have a choice: either don't use that word around the person who has it as a trigger, or you two can't interact. In the latter case, that is OKAY. There are a lot of people who have to unfollow me because I talk about heavy stuff as part of activism. In the former case ("don't use the word"), you're NOT avoiding it because the word is Bad. You're avoiding it because it's a trigger.

REPEAT: Anything can be a trigger. Being a trigger does NOT make something bad. There are several disability words that are common triggers for us because they were used so much against us. In those cases, and ESPECIALLY if you're not disabled, it's a good idea to avoid using those because the potential for harm is too great. But you need to understand that those words are triggers because of the way they were USED, not because of what they mean.

Most of us don't find "stand", "jump", "sit" triggering even if we can't perform those actions, coz we weren't traumatized with those words. You cannot extrapolate that if [word] is triggering to many of us, therefore anything a disabled person can't do is also triggering!

So to sum all this up.

Ableist language isn't about banning all the words. That's untenable, impossible, undesirable. We don't WANT that. Avoiding ableist language is about understanding:

- dismissal and silencing of disabled people
- stigma
- rights
- employment
- freedom

Sensitive language is about understanding:

- common triggers
- when to use, when to avoid, when to warn for
- the context of those words

What is NOT helpful is extrapolating wrongly over to exclude words like stand, sit, hear, jump, look, listen, talk, see, chew, etc. You must understand WHY [this word] is bad to use before you can attempt to extrapolate over to whether [that word] is bad to use.

Thank you for listening to this very long thread.


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