By: Marco Ovies, Features Editor
Content warning: mention of ableist slurs and aggression
When I was in elementary school, the “r-word” was just beginning to be recognized by the general public as a slur. While originally introduced as a medical term in 1961 for people with intellectual disabilities, the word gained a negative connotation over the decades. It was not until 2010 that we saw President Obama change that word in federal law to “intellectual disability.” According to the Special Olympics, “when social media users are posting about people with intellectual disabilities, 7 in every 10 of those posts are negative, and 6 in 10 contain a slur.”
There are other less recognized, harmful words that also originated from medical terms. For example, “crazy” has had many meanings and dates back as far as 1570 where it was used to describe “diseased” or “sickly.” Then in 1610, it received its more modern definition of “deranged, demented, or unsound mind or behaving as so.” So by throwing “crazy” around as a negative descriptor, what is that saying about our views of those suffering from mental illness?
There is also “stupid”, which is extremely ableist and insults people with cognitive impairments, autism, ADD, and other developmental disabilities. These are triggering words that add up to cause psychological and emotional damage for folks with disabilities — an already vulnerable group. If that isn’t a good enough reason to stop using “stupid” (and all the words I mentioned in this article), it also creates and enforces systemic and institutional bias by putting “abled” people above others.
Another word that needs to be thrown away is “dumb” which is offensive to people who cannot hear or cannot speak. By throwing this word around as a negative descriptor (this includes when you’re talking about a person, an inanimate object, or a situation), you are inherently saying that those who cannot speak or hear are inferior to those who can.
Our society promotes a negative atmosphere for those who have intellectual disabilities, and a majority of this is from the type of language we use. If we collectively deem it appropriate to use these terms and microaggressions, we allow for further abuse to these people. Just in the 20ᵗʰ century, the United States sterilized over 70,000 people, most of whom were women deemed as “imbeciles.” People with intellectual disabilities are also seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those without a disability.
I understand it can be difficult to change the words we are accustomed to using, but there are alternatives to these words. Ridiculous, offensive, senseless, silly, irrational, outrageous, ignorant, and impractical are just a few examples of words you can substitute. The next time you want to use “stupid” or “crazy” as an umbrella term, try and think about what you are trying to say and use a more descriptive word. It is easy to slip up, especially in the beginning. But what matters is making the conscious effort to use equitable language and correct yourself when you slip up. It is also important to take accountability for the words you use and correct others who may be using this language.
The words we use in our everyday life can have a bigger impact than we think. By being more mindful of the words we are using, we can make the spaces we occupy more accessible for everyone.
For a more in-depth list of ableist words, you should check out this comprehensive list. I encourage you to think critically about the words you choose and research which words you should and should not use. But don’t let your activism stop there. Start advocating for folks who are impacted by ableism and really listen to their concerns and needs. If you’re looking for a way to become a better ally, check out Social Diversity for Children Foundation’s list of 10 ways you can be a disability ally.