Shifting Away from Ableist Language

This is for Blogging Against Disablism (BADD) 2016 – go read other submissions!

When, years back, I was first introduced to the concepts a) ableism, and b) ableist language, my first reaction was “How can we stopped using *all* of these words?! It’s hard.”

But when I actually tried to excise ableist words from my vocabulary … I found that it was not nearly as hard as I expected it to be.

(For those who do not know what ableism and ableist language are – ableism is to disabled people what sexism is to non-male people and racism is to people who belong to a non-socially-privileged race – here is an overview of ableist language)

I cannot speak for anybody else, but I think in my case my thought of ‘it’s hard’ was my ableist privilege telling me that I should not have to inconvenience myself for the sake of disabled people (background: I am currently perceived by society as being abled, and I can do the things which ‘abled’ people can do, which means I now have abled-privilege). Once I actually put in a effort to change the language I use, I found that, actually, it did not require that much effort on my part after all.

A key part of changing my language use was understanding why I was changing it. I got the ‘why’ from many insightful writings by disabled people about their experiences, including many essays from previous years of BADD.

Before I go into the next part, I want to make something crystal clear – if the ONLY benefit of avoiding ableist language (words like lame, stupid, ‘bound to a wheelchair’, etc.) was to reduce the harm which ableism does to disabled people, it would still absolutely be worth doing.

However, I have found that changing the language I use to avoid ableism had additional benefits. It has taught me to be more careful and thoughtful about my language in general, not just with regards to ableism. And the way which taking out ableist words makes me thing about what I say, I feel, makes the things I say more precise.

For example, instead of saying ‘stupid’, I can say ‘uninformed’ ‘thoughtless’ ‘reckless’ ‘uneducated’ ‘ignorant’ ‘bad at analysis’ ‘failed to make connections between the facts’ ‘ridiculous’ etc. Notice how all of those substitutes for ‘stupid’ are more precise about my meaning than using the word ‘stupid’.

Of course, choosing more precise words does take more effort than using a catch-all word. You know what a really good catch-all word for bad things is? It’s the word ‘bad’. Simple, isn’t it?

Learning that I could use the word ‘bad’ whenever I wanted to say something was bad, without needing to think about a more precise term *or* possibly hurting a group of people I did not intend to hurt, really helped me reduce my use of ableist language. Is saying that something is ‘bad’ as emphatic as a number of ableist words which indicated that something is very bad? No. But if it that important to me to convey that something is really bad, or that it is bad in some specific sense, then I can go ahead and find the precise terms I wish to use. I find that, a precise description of how bad something is often packs more of a punch than ableist language anyway.

Here is an example:

Ableist way: That movie is lame.
Precise way: The plot of that movie jumps all over the place, and the actors were totally miscast. I fell asleep after the first hour.
Simple way: That movie is bad.

So, in summary – 1) reducing the ableism in my language was not as hard as I thought it would be when I was first introduced to the concept of ableism and 2) pruning ableist words out of my vocabulary had improved my use of language in general.

On Privilege and Fraud

I could use racism, sexism, or classism to make my point about privilege and fraud. But today, for Blogging Against Disability Day, I’m going to use ableism/disablism to make my point.

In Anglophone cultures, when somebody says ‘I have a disability’, unless it’s really obvious, the default reaction is that they are lying. Got fibromyalgia? Then you must be making it up because you’re too lazy to work (note: this is sarcasm).

This is why every disability benefit system I know about puts a strong emphasis on finding ‘fraud’. If a single person were to fraudulently get disability benefits, that would be THE MOST TERRIBLE THING EVER, and we should spend lots of money to prevent fraud, even if it costs way more than letting a few people fraudulently get some meager benefits (more sarcasm).

But what about catching fraud among privileged people, such as abled, white, rich men? Such as the abled, white, rich men who run the financial centers in the City of London and on Wall Street?

Not a single financial regulator I know about puts nearly as much effort into catching fraud as disability benefits agencies, in spite of the fact that catching fraud is part of the core mission of many financial regulators. The core mission of a disabilities benefits agency, ideally, is to help people with disabilities.

In fact, many financial regulators try to protect the nice, abled, white, rich men from having their frauds discovered, because it would be a shame if those nice, abled, white, rich men were caught committing fraud, or, *gasp* got prosecuted (more sarcasm). For just ONE example of this, look at the free eBook at Naked Capitalism about the foreclosure review scandal.

This is partially due to corruption – rich men can bribe politicians, people with disabilities who are broke (there is a high correlation between poverty and having a disability) can’t. But the financial oligarchs also exploit ableism/disablism to re-direct anger away from them to people with disabilities.

The current global economic crisis was largely caused by the fraud in the world’s major financial centers – i.e. rich white man fraud. But somehow they have made the case that a major cause of the financial array is all those greedy people with disabilities (I find it incredible how people with high positions in the world’s most powerful financial firms can claim that people who try to get meager government benefits are greedy – it’s the pot calling the porcelain vase black).

And because we live in an abeleist culture, many people buy this nonsensical argument, and direct the anger which should be aimed at the frausters in the major financial centers at people with disabilities instead.

They’ve even managed to use corruption to steal the benefits of people with disabilities by finding ‘fraud’ that doesn’t exist. A big example is ATOS, which makes big profits telling people who are so sick that they are about to die that they are ‘fit to work’.

Ableism (and racism and sexism and classism) shields privileged fraudsters from accountability. And because they face less accountability, it is they, not the oppressed people who are assumed to be lying until proven otherwise, who have much more incentive to cheat.

And I think that is one reason why ableism (and racism and sexism and classism) persist – it is very useful to the people in power.


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My Favorite BADD 2012 Posts

Earlier this month, I participated in Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 (you can read my entry here). There are so many wonderful posts that it is truly humbling. I almost feel unworthy to have my post among such insightful pieces.

Though I took my time about it, I have finally read all of the BADD 2012 posts. It is very difficult to pick the best posts, and if you have time I urge you to read all of them. That said, some posts made more of an impression on me than others. So I share with you the posts which taught me the most, or were the most moving, or were, in my much humbled opinion, the best written. They are in the order they appear in on the BADD main page.

Benefit Scrounging Scum: Do You Know What You’re Asking?
Restless Hands: On Self-Injury, Autism, and Behavioral Therapy
Bethlehem Blogger: What ‘Retards’ Have Taught Me About Peace Work and People
Square 8: Connecting Dots
Single Lens Reflection: Clippity Cloppity Goat and the Troll
Ballastexistenz: Caregiver Abuse Takes Many Forms
AutistLiam: It Gets Inside Our Heads by
Ask a Wheeler: Assumptions About Disability
Ballastexistenz: Pulling Back Curtains
Never That Easy: My Years of Magical Thinking
Thoughts of Nothing: Living With Chronic Back Pain
Gilded Cage: The Myth of Survival of the Fittest

Memories of a Special Education

This is for Blogging Against Disablism Day. Be sure to check out other BADD posts.

When I was in high school, I would occasionally mention I had at one point been in Special Education (‘Special-Ed’ for short). I did this because I found the results amusing – nobody would believe me. I was “smart” and Special-Ed is only for “[r-word]”. I, of course, knew that I was telling the truth.

I forget exactly when I was in Special-Ed, but I think it was when I was 4-5 years old. In the first draft of this post, I said why I was placed in Special Ed, but I decided to cut that out, because that is not relevant at all to what I want to talk about today. All you need to know is that I was there, and that it was appropriate that I was there – it was not a mistake.

This was one of the first times I had regular social contact with other children my age. Thus, I was a (mostly) blank slate when it came to peer relations.   I thought all of the kids in my class were totally ordinary, and even when I review my memories, all of my classmates from special-ed still seem totally ordinary to me. I didn’t think of them as disabled children, or children with problems, or being tragic in any way, shape, or form – I simply thought that they were themselves.

When my parents talk about their memories of the special-ed class, it sounds very different from what I remember. They focus on all of the problems that the children had – for example, one of my friends had severe lead-poisoning. I didn’t know that at the time – I only found out that she had lead-poisoning many years later when my parents talked about her. My father has said that the class made him scared of having more children, because he said the class showed him many of the “awful” things which can happen. I think he also said that he would have wanted an abortion if he thought his child would have some of the problems my classmates had. When I heard these statements, they sounded really strange to me, because I had never thought of my classmate’s conditions as being “awful”.

For a while, I regularly visited one my classmates from special-ed at the hospital. Even the fact that he was in hospital 24/7 did not make me think he was strange or in a tragic state – I simply thought “he’s in the hospital near our home? Great, we can spend lots of time together”. When we played together in the hospital, he didn’t seem like he was suffering. I still do not know why he was in the hospital, though if I really wanted to know I could ask my parents.

However, in the many years since I have left special-ed, I have been immersed in an ableist society. I’m not the blank slate I once was. And I know that I cannot ever again look at people with disabilities the way I looked at my classmates. Even when I try to fight the ableist attitudes I have absorbed, it is a struggle – the ableist attitudes are still there inside me.

The thing which makes me really sad is that, if I could take a time machine back to my special-ed classroom, the first thing I would do is try to figure out my classmates ‘problems’ and then label them accordingly. If I were to encounter them anew, I would not be able to see them as plain human beings the way I did when I was a child.