Friday, 1 May 2009

Lose the language. Now.

Cross posted

This post is my contribution to Blogging against disabilism day.

I've noticed, not so much at In a Strange Land, but sometimes in comments, and more frequently in comments at The Hand Mirror, and very, very frequently elsewhere in the NZ blogosphere, 'ableist' language. That is, language that uses disabilities to disparage something. Very, very simple stuff, like saying that something is lame, or that someone had a bit of a spas / spaz.


Here's why. (This is very much Disabilism 101 - old, old news to people who work with these issues all the time, but evidently, not much known elsewhere.)

You can say that x is bad just by saying, "X is bad." But another way to say it is to compare x to something (which is also perceived is bad). So, "X is lame" carries that same connotation i.e that "X is bad." The two statements are equivalent. And from there, it's just a short step to: "Lame is bad. You are lame. You are bad bad bad."

Sure, you can pick apart the language logic, and point out that of course, being lame is not something that people normally welcome, that being less than able bodied in any way is not desirable. And really, that's all that you are saying.

Whatever. The point is, you are using language that describes the way that living breathing thinking feeling human beings are, language that describes integral parts of their everyday reality, and using that language to say that some other totally unrelated thing is bad. What people with disabilities hear, and what I hear too, is language that mocks and denigrates them. It's all so very negative, so very disempowering for people with disabilities, and yet it is so easy to avoid.

So lose it. Make the effort and find another word. Here's some that you can use:


And instead of knocking people who have cerebal palsy, which is a heart breaking condition, by saying that you, or someone else, threw a spaz, what about talking about having a wee tanty. It carries exactly the same connotations.

English is a very rich language. Next time, instead of plumbing only the depths of disabilism, that is, language and behaviours that deny the humanity of people with disabilities, make a little effort, try being just a bit sensitive, and mine the rich resources of English instead.


Anonymous said...

I've got a limp and it's never occurred to me to be bothered by the word "lame" in either sense. No one has ever used to the word to me.

I appreciate that you're bringing attention to the issue of ableist language but it's too much of a stretch.


Deborah said...

SLO, I appreciate that you're okay, but really, what you are saying is, "I'm okay, therefore everyone else ought to be okay, and that's all there is to it."

Ruth said...

Language reflects how we think about things, including disability. I'm reading many posts for BADD that talk about how we need to look at ableism and that includes considering those with disabilities other than our own and those who, as you point out, feel differently. The disability community is so diverse that it offers a chance for all of us to grow in tolerance and understanding. Much work to be done - by all of us, me included.

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO MUCH for this post.

Anna said...

It's interesting in itself that these words have persisted in our vocab as insults, even when people don't interpret them literally or take offense. They're such entrenched insults that we hardly give them a second thought - unlike when I hear someone describe something pejoratively as 'gay', for example, which really jars.

I think the 'entrenched' nature of the insults actually reflects some very entrenched ideas about people with disabilities. I think a lot of people think of disabled people as a sort of different category - people who don't have the same aspirations for jobs, relationships, family, leisure etc as everyone else.

I have a disability in the form of a mental illness (I'm not even sure that every definition of disability includes mental health issues, but my university's does). I've also been known to use words like 'mental' and 'nutty' - and on one level, I know they're wrong, but on another, I don't feel like they describe my health experience either. I tend to use these words to mean someone's on a completely different wavelength to everyone else - occasionally in a good way, but usually not.

Attila the Mom said...


Thanks so much for writing today!

Anonymous said...

I was riding in a bus yesterday behind two young ladies who peppered their speech with liberal use of the word 'gay', by which they meant somebody unpleasant and stupid, not somebody who is homosexual. I debated saying something about it to them. If they were two men I definitely would have, but being a man myself, I couldn't see a way to confront them without exercising patriarchal right. Before I could come up with a solution they got off the bus, thus removing the problem from my sphere of awareness. I'm still bothered by it though.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't calling something 'weak' mock those who suffer from degenerative muscular diseases?

Never That Easy said...

I agree that the fact that it doesn't bother some people doesn't mean it still isn't a valuable insight to have: it can still bother others.

I particularly like your list of alternatives, as I can never think of a great one right when I need it. ;)

Anonymous said...

Ahem. This is a good post. And I'm all in favor of ditching the verbal cop-outs.

But --

Speaking as someone who has cerebral palsy:

It is not a "heart breaking condition."

Deborah said...

I'm probably projecting my own feelings there, capriuni; I have a beautiful gentle, little niece with cerebral palsy, and she is struggling with getting mobile, and one of my daughter's friends has cp, and has just been told that no, she can't play in the school netball team, and she is so disappointed.

But I take your point.

Anonymous said...

The one that I have trouble with, and that I really have to work on, is disparaging people I disagree with politically by calling them mentally ill. It's not okay for me to do that.

Helen said...

I have a problem with "lame", because throughout my life - and I've lived for half a century - I've only seen the word used in a human context in older literature (Robert Browning "one of them was lame", "the halt and the lame", etc. I have never heard it used this way in a modern context either in print or verbally.
Where I HAVE seen the word used in a modern context is:
1. Overwhelmingly with regard to horses, but sometimes with regard to other animals.
2. In a literary sense to denote someone speaking without conviction. "He said lamely".

I think the modern use of "lame" speaks to (2) and because I simply don't hear it in common speech used to indicate a human disability, I think the objections to it spring from a poor understanding of it on the part of some which has now spread.

The reason I don't use it is that now the genie is out of the bottle and it is now ipso facto offensive, and I don't wilfuly write to hurt others, but I think it's wrong.

(For the record, I walk with a slight limp and my H has a quite severe one! We both consider ourselves able.)

Michele Fountain said...

Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

Deborah, sorry, I should've been clearer. It's not "I'm ok, so everyone's ok" but that I don't see other people with limps objecting to the word. And basically I agree with what Helen said about the way "lame" is used.

Same goes for the word spaz, it doesn't connect up with cerebral palsy for me. But it sounds like there is more recent history there and a bunch of people with CP saying don't use it. I'd say I won't use it but don't think I do anyway.


Tricia McDonald Ward said...

Thanks for writing about this. I've tried getting this point across a number of times, but the responses have generally been mocking or incredulous.

I do disagree with your description of CP as a "heart breaking condition" but otherwise I think your post is very good, and I particularly like the list of alternative words.

Julie said...

Thank you Deborah. I've been guilty of using "lame" as you've laid out so this was a very timely post for me on a personal level.

I've got a few secondary teacher friends who have to deal with the whole "gay" = bad thing with their students. Their responses have been quite inspiring, and hopefully educative.

Julie said...

Anjum has also blogged on disabilism over at Kiwi Stargazer :-)

A Nonny Moose said...

There's a whole lot of Change Language Bingo attached to this when I've tried to point it out. Mainly I get "That's so overly PC".

When you're caught out saying something off hand like "Oh don't have an epi about it" to an epileptic sufferer, then you'll think twice about it. Like I did.

I still find myself saying "Don't be such a retard" in fits of anger. But one of my new year's resolutions was cutting out ableist and lazy language. And I never EVER use "gay" as an insult - I have too many gay friends to be that completely insensitive.

KellyK said...

@Anonymous: I don't think "weak" is derogatory, because it's more literal and purely descriptive. A weak argument, weak reasoning, etc. There's no inherent allusion to a person the way there is with "lame" or "gay."

Andrea S. said...


I don't have CP, but I do know some people who do who would never call it a "heart breaking condition" either, any more than I would consider it "heart breaking" that I am Deaf and also have attention deficit disorder. That your niece has to work much harder than other people to do certain things is not automatically heart breaking--really, only your niece can define that.

I had to work very hard in weekly speech therapy for 15 years as a child to speak as clearly as I do now. I'm glad I have reasonably understandable speech because it does happen to be convenient to have. But I don't find it "heart breaking" that I had to work harder than other people to achieve speech that still isn't quite the same as most hearing people's speech. I don't think either you or I, or even an adult with CP, are really in a position to guess how your niece will feel about all this as she gets older.

As for your niece's friend--who was it that told her she couldn't participate? If it was a specialist who knows all about her condition and knows of some really good medical reasons why it isn't safe for her, then that's one thing and still sad for her. But if it was the school or someone unqualified making that decision then that's discrimination. In which case, the heart break should be blamed on discrimination, not the CP. Most people with disabilities I know blame most of their biggest frustrations in life on discrimination, inaccessibility, and the attitudes of other people.

Other than these caveats, good post. I do get annoyed by phrases such as "deaf and dumb," "deaf to their pleas," "dialogue of the deaf" etc. "Dumb" used to just mean mute but has other connotations today that makes it inappropriate to use even if it actually *were* relevant to mention whether or not a deaf person can speak--which it usually isn't. "Deaf to their pleas" implies a person who is *refusing* to hear something, whereas most deaf people, just like most hearing people, are quite capable of seeing someone in distress and responding with assistance. If you mean to say that someone refuses to listen, then just say that. And "dialogue of the deaf" doesn't even make sense. A real group of Deaf people would sign with each other and experience no impediment with communication! Or even if they were all speakers/lipreaders (which can happen), they would find a way to get by!