Ableist Language & Phrases That You May Unknowingly Use

Graphic featuring four speech bubbles with text: “confined to a wheelchair,” “fall on Deaf ears,” “you don’t look disabled,” and “you’re acting bipolar.”

By Drew Dakessian

Ableist language is such a prevalent part of our cultural lexicon that even the best-intentioned and most well-informed people — from journalists to scholars to family and friends — often employ it in writing or conversation without realizing it.

But knowledge, as they say, is power, and the first step to ridding your everyday speech of ableism is familiarizing yourself with ableist terms and expressions. To that end, WID has compiled a list of some of the most common — and why you shouldn’t use them.

“Cripplingly/crippled by/a crippling degree of _____”

Today, derivatives of ‘cripple’ manifest as adverbs, verbs, or adjectives. However, not long ago, ‘cripple’ was a derogatory term for ​​someone unable to walk or move. While some disabled people have reclaimed the word, it is still offensive to use it to refer to another person. Even if that weren’t offensive, comparing your stage fright to a clinical disability most definitely is.

“You’re acting bipolar,” “What a schizo,” etc.

These are yet more instances of turning a clinical diagnosis into an insult. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are psychiatric disabilities. Therefore, using them in a pejorative sense is ableist. Using an abbreviated version of that disability, e.g., “schizo” rather than “schizophrenic,” is equally as bad; it’s dismissive and insensitive. Additionally, using psychiatric disabilities as insults reinforces old and inaccurate perceptions of what those disabilities are, leading to more ableism and misinformation that harms people with those conditions.  

“I’m so [insert disability here]!”

Any statement which trivially invokes disability-related language is ableist, regardless of whether you use it in the context of self-deprecation. Substituting ‘OCD’ for ‘fastidious,’ or ‘ADHD’ for ‘absentminded,’ trivializes clinical disability. In short, if you are not disabled and you ever have the urge to say you are a disability rather than that you have a disability, try using a different word to describe your feelings.

“Fall on Deaf ears,” “turn a Blind eye,” etc.

Phrases such as these may seem innocuous. However, they reduce clinical diagnoses to clichés. And they aren’t accurate: Neither Deafness nor blindness is situational, and they certainly aren’t voluntary. Also, this underscores an ableist concept that people with these disabilities must miss out on information, that it is a necessary consequence of blindness or Deafness, instead of the result of inaccessibility. Since there are countless other words for being unheard or ignored, there’s no excuse to rely on this kind of expression. 

“You don’t look disabled.”

Claiming that someone does not appear disabled diminishes their lived experience. In this case, it does so by questioning whether they have a disability at all. You may intend it as a compliment, not a declaration of doubt. Still, saying such things belittles what a disabled person is going through (especially if they have an invisible disability). It also presupposes that disability is a monolith. Not every disability looks the same and assuming so plays into the dangerous territory of implying that someone is faking his/her/their disability.

“Wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair”

Think about someone you know who wears glasses. Wearing glasses is essential to their day-to-day functioning; it doesn’t keep them from doing everything non-vision-impaired people do. Therefore, portraying the necessity to wear glasses as a fate worse than death would be ridiculous. That goes for requiring a wheelchair, as well. Unassisted mobility isn’t the be-all, end-all. Instead, simply say “uses a wheelchair.”

“Suffer from/handicapped by [insert disability here]”

Navigating the rules of political correctness when it comes to disability can be tricky. After all, there’s no universal disabled experience. Some people consider their disabilities debilitating, while others view them as nothing more than one of the many aspects of their lives. If you don’t want to delegitimize someone’s suffering or indicate that they must be suffering, don’t make assumptions regarding how they feel about their disability.

“You’re such an inspiration!”

Saying someone with a disability is handicapped, and telling them that they’re an inspiration, are two sides of the same coin. Both give the impression that having a disability is the sole thing that defines a disabled person. What’s more, saying you find disabled people inspiring just by virtue of their disabilities suggests that they’re inherently limited. That, in turn, implies that they don’t need — or don’t have it in them — to strive for genuine greatness. Disabled people do not exist to inspire non-disabled people.

The good news

Now you know, it’s possible to eliminate ableist expressions from your vocabulary. Ableist language is memetic; it’s passed from one individual to another. As a result, if just one person is willing to make a conscious effort to fight ableism, that can make it that much easier to achieve the cultural shift we need to eradicate it all together.

Published: October 27, 2021

Headshot image of Drew Dakessian, a white woman with short black hair.

Drew Dakessian is a Freelance Writer for WID.

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