Ableist language isn’t seen as taboo—it is used all the time, but its origins and impact are bleak. For centuries, anything that deviated from white patriarchal norms was considered a problem, and the words chosen to describe said afflictions reflect that. For instance, the word hysteria comes from the Greek word for the uterus, hystera. The medical term hysteria was essentially a gendered way to dismiss and pathologize women’s issues, as men understood them, and force women to perform heteronormativity (i.e., get married, have babies) as a solution. This codified the idea that people with uteruses were emotional and unruly—it helped shape the stereotype that women are “crazy” and “too much.”
I am actively working on removing ableist language from my vocabulary, and I am not always successful. It’s so easy to dismiss something or someone as “crazy” or “insane,” especially when other people do the same so freely.
And make no mistake, ample research suggests that the words medical professionals use continue to push biases forward. A 2018 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine examined the reactions that 413 physicians-in-training had to chart notes using neutral language and notes using stigmatized words. The researchers found that exposure to the stigmatizing language was associated with more negative attitudes towards the patient and less diligent treatment of the patient’s pain. In short: The words used impacted the care patients received.
This callousness has implications for life outside of clinical settings. People with disabilities are paid less, have less access to higher education, are more likely to be killed by police, and are often seen as social liabilities that drain resources. The words we use impact how we perceive the world around us, and we help normalize systemic oppression with the casual cruelty of our everyday language.
Regularly, I used words like “insane,” “dumb,” “hysterical,” “idiot” to describe myself. My therapist would often point out just how often I used them to belittle myself. And they worked, time and time again: How I spoke to and about myself was an act of self-sabotage and a way to affix blame to myself when things went wrong. Deciding to remove ableist language from my vocabulary made me realize just how unkind I’d been to myself and others—and how necessary it is for us all to stop.
I am actively working on removing ableist language from my vocabulary, and I am not always successful. It’s so easy to dismiss something or someone (even myself) as “crazy” or “insane,” especially when other people do the same so freely. Even some of my most considerate, empathetic, inclusive friends will use them occasionally, and asking them to reevaluate their word choices can create friction. But every little bit helps, and conversations about language are vital to moving us toward becoming a more understanding, compassionate, and inclusive society. Because in the end, using these words so carelessly only creates more pain, misinformation, and suffering that needn’t exist when the act of simply being alive is already so complicated.
My experience limits my understanding of the hurt and pain caused by ableist language—my disability is a mental one, not physical, and something I have often been able to hide. Others aren’t able to tuck their disability away, and more importantly, no one should need to do so. Nobody should have to hide who they are to avoid stigma, shame, and marginalization simply because medical and social biases are entrenched in individual thinking. Changing my language won’t undo the systemic barriers those of us with disabilities face, but it’s a start toward a safer, more equitable world.
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