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Avoid These 5 Common Ableist Words and Phrases

By Gina Gibson, Sensory Inclusion Specialist and Pam Dewey • ableism, ableist phrases, ableist words, ableist language, mental health, disability rights, accessibility • July 01, 2021

You may not be familiar with the term ableism, but you’ve likely encountered ableist language without realizing it. According to disability activist Stacey Milbern, ableism is “a system of oppression that favors ablebodied-ness at any cost, frequently at the expense of people with disabilities.”

Ableism perpetuates the idea people with disabilities are inferior. It suggests that people with disabilities should be fixed, rather than accepted as unique individuals.

Ableism can manifest in many ways. It can look like not including accessibility into building design, using people’s disabilities as a punchline, employers refusing to provide reasonable accommodations to employees or talking to a person with a disability like a child. Ableism appears in our language, and many everyday phrases or words perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Here are five ableist words and phrases to avoid.

He or she looks so normal

If you suggest someone with a disability — or a person with diverse intellectual, emotional or physical needs—“looks normal,” you’re implying a person with a disability is abnormal. You’re also stating only non-disabled people are “normal.” This suggests people with disabilities are “other” or less than. Thinking that way is incredibly harmful to people with disabilities.

Many disabilities are “invisible,” meaning the people with these disabilities don’t have visible, physical characteristics. It doesn’t make these disabilities any less real. 

Using terms like crazy, nuts, insane or psycho

One in five people in the U.S. has a mental health issue. You likely know someone with a mental health challenge or have one yourself. When you use words like— crazy, nuts, insane or psycho — you’re suggesting the idea of having mental health challenges is an insult.  

Maybe you’ve even said something like, “You’re so OCD.” Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health diagnosis. You aren’t complimenting a person when calling him or her OCD. You are instead suggesting everyone with OCD should be ashamed of how they act.

Though these terms have become a part of our language, you can convey a point without using ableist language. Instead of saying, “You’re so OCD,” say, “You’re very nitpicky.” Substitute, “Today was a busy/overwhelming day at work,” instead of, “Today was a crazy day at work.”  

Saying handicapped

Handicapped is a term long rejected by the disability community. Being handicapped has a negative connotation. It brings to mind a person who isn’t capable or able to function as part of society. It segregates people with disabilities and ignores their personhood. It again suggests people with disabilities should be pitied, rather than just viewed as people who may need different accommodations.

Calling someone or something retarded

Most people are aware that the word retarded is no longer acceptable. And yet, they still say it. People with intellectual disabilities were formerly referred to as mentally retarded. That term has long been outdated. Like handicapped, retarded has an incredibly negative meaning. People use it to make fun of those with disabilities. It’s the same as using a derogatory term to describe a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. You should eliminate this word from your vocabulary, and advocate that those around you not use it either.

Suffering from a [disability]

In a Medium article, writer Kathryn Poe states, “We’re not suffering. We’re just living our lives in a different way.” Suffering has a negative connotation and implies a lack of agency for people with a disability. It also suggests their lives are terrible, and they need your pity. As Poe states, people with disabilities just live differently. They are human beings and want to be treated equally.

Using ableist language perpetuates negative ideas about people with disabilities. It casts people with diverse intellectual, emotional or physical needs as abnormal or inferior. Ableism implies people who live differently are somehow not living correctly and aren’t capable of full, happy lives. That is the root of ableism — suggesting there is only one way to exist and that life is impossible for those with a disability.