Sidestepping Ableist Language

Ashley Bischoff

Ableist Language

By Ashley Bischoff

tweet along at #NotSoAbleist

(You can move between slides with the arrow keys.)

What is ableist language?






That rollercoaster was crazy!

—by which they mean—

“That rollercoaster was wild!”

The last episode of Seinfeld was insane!

—by which they mean—

“The last episode of Seinfeld was ridiculous!”

Nickelback is so lame.

—by which they mean—

“Nickelback is insipid.”

These usages don’t exist in a vacuum.

Words that denigrate in one usage invariably leach those connotations into their other usages.

That rollercoaster was crazy!

“That rollercoaster was wild!”

—that also implies that—

“People with mental illness are wild.”

The last episode of Seinfeld was insane!

“The last episode of Seinfeld was ridiculous!”

—that also implies that—

“People with mental illness are ridiculous.”

Nickelback is so lame.

“Nickelback is insipid.”

—that also implies that—

“People who can’t walk
are insipid.”

Now you might be thinking,

“But I don’t mean ‘crazy’ that way.”

And in decades past, that also used to be a common refrain when people would use another word—


Back in the ’80s, it wasn’t unthinkable for someone to say something like—

“That new Flock of Seagulls album is soooo gay.”

And back then, if anyone objected to that, they’d get an earful of—

“Well, I didn’t mean ‘gay’ that way.”

And fortunately, in today’s world, we’ve come to realize that

Referring to things that you don’t like as “gay” also implies that people who are gay are unlikable.

When we use words like these—

What we may have intended doesn’t
really matter

Because the power of words lies in how they’re received.

And those types of usages affect the way that we perceive those words.

Suppose you were to do a Google Images search for “crazy”

A screenshot of a Google Images search for ‘crazy’. The images include people with crossed eyes and contorted faces. Many of the images depict erratic behavior.

Let’s go through a few examples together.

If you get stuck, Lydia Brown has a handy list of alternatives to ableist words:

Suppose someone were to say—

“The amount of drinking at CSUN is insane!”

Or suppose that someone were to say—

“Henny’s learning to play the flute, but she’s not too crazy about it.”

Or maybe your coworkers have interesting habits—

“His incessant whistling is driving me nuts.”

Or maybe someone were to say—

“That new Batman movie was so lame.”

Let’s try a tougher one—

“The city turned a blind eye to the lead in the water.”

Let’s tackle some stigmas.

Ableist language contributes to the stigma that’s associated with mental and physical disabilities.

And we can help reduce that stigma by using other words in those contexts.

But there’s also something else that we can do.

Another way to lessen stigmas is for people within those groups to become more visible within society. Because—

That helps show that they’re people just like anyone else.

A similar example over recent years is with LGBT people.

Society has come to realize that—oh—LGBT people are just like anyone else.

So when it comes to mental illness, I thought I’d do my part by stepping forward to say that

I have mental illness.

Now when I said that, did that conjure images of the cartoon stereotype? A collage of images of Homer Simpson purportedly going crazy

In my case, I have severe ADHD.

Or to put it another way—

If my brain were on craigslist, it might be affectionately described as having a “patina.”

Fun fact: The craigslist company consistently spells its name in all lowercase.

For my coworkers, who are among those in the audience—

This may be the first time that you’ve heard me talk about my mental illness.

And that’s because the stigma of mental illness can carry a lot of baggage.

That’s partly because many people see mental illness as a personal failing.

Rather than as a medical condition that’s out of that person’s hands.

For many people, hearing the phrase—

“I have mental illness”

—somehow comes across differently than—

“I have strep throat.”

Even though they’re not all that different.

But if we can talk to people about our mental illness, we can take away its novelty.

And we have another trick up our sleeve—

We accessibility wonks tend to do a lot of writing.

So if you’re going through a document and you come across some ableist language—

Swap those ableist words for whichever concept that the writer is actually trying to convey.




words: @FriendlyAshley / a11y: @HandCoding