Fighting with the Sky

My Use of Ableist Language

Posted on: October 8, 2009

With all the talk recently of ableist language and the use of inclusionary language, I decided it was about time that I own up to my own ableist language.

I hate that this language is so ingrained into my own vocabulary.  I am aware that I do it.  I cringe most every time that the word comes out of my mouth.  But most of the time, it just slips out — it’s something that has been part of my vocabulary so long that it’s just something that comes out.  But that’s no excuse really.  What word am I talking about?  One that our society uses so often that many people don’t even think of it as an offensive or exclusionary word: lame.

I can’t tell you how many times throughout my life that I have used the phrase “that’s lame” or “don’t be lame” in my life.  It’s been a part of my vocabulary since grade school.  I wasn’t really aware of the exclusionary and offensive nature of the word until college.  That’s when I made the connection between the word “lame” and it’s association to people with mental disabilities.

But my socialization to the world “lame” is no excuse for the continued use of it.  I’m definitely more conscious of using it when I am typing because I have to think more about my word choice.  But when I’m talking, “lame” still slips out every now and then.  I am definitely more conscious of it now that I have developed my feminism and learned more about how forms of oppression interact with each other.  I catch myself when I say it now.  If I don’t catch myself before it comes out, I cringe after I say it and think “I can’t believe I just said that.”  I definitely don’t say it as much as I used to.  I’m more aware of it now.  But it’s definitely still there.

This post is not meant as a way for me to get people to tell me “it’s ok as long as you are aware of what you are doing.”  If I have learned anything from developing my feminism as well as becoming involved in the feminist blogging community, it is that no one is perfect.  But these flaws have to be examined.  And over the past couple days, I have been increasingly reminded that “ableism is not feminism.”  I have to own up to my use of ableist language.  I have to work towards eliminating ableist language from my vocabulary.  But, I do not expect my admission to using ableist language and my word that I will work towards improving this will make it all better.  It won’t.

While I’m not expecting people to tell me that I’m not at fault for using ableist language as long as I admit to is and work towards ending it, I do hope that this post will encourage other people to question the nature of the language they use and how it may be exlusionary or offensive.

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12 Responses to "My Use of Ableist Language"

For a while I’ve been pointing out to people how wrong it is to use “gay” to refer to something that is uncool/boring/etc. But it’s only recently that I’m realizing, as you are, that others words that I use all the time like lame and crazy, are also offensive.

So thanks for writing about this, and I’m also working hard to try to wipe these words from my vocab even though it’s pretty tough.

Thoughtful piece, nice work. Lame was really hard to get out of my speech too – I think a lot of people see it as a way to communicate the distaste of “gay”. Personally? I have issues with “stupid”, “dumb”, and “crazy”. Also “idiotic”.

One thing which I found really interesting about the most I wrote on messing up in which I messed up and a commenter called me out, was that someone said “well why don’t you just use ‘frick’ or ‘frak’ instead of the objectionable word?” And I had to explain that, you know, those words are sanitized versions of the objectionable word, which means that they carry the same intent, even if the word isn’t used.

And I think that’s something people have a really tough time with when it comes to eliminating ableist language. Like, the use of terms which reference mental illness, such as “insane” and “crazy” when really a more appropriate word might be “intense.” (i.e. I hear people say “that comments thread is getting insane!” It’s not getting *insane*, it’s getting *intense*.)

So, it’s not just about committing to not using a whole lot of words which are very engrained in the language, it’s also somewhat about a fundamental reframing. Examining words and thinking about what you really mean. Was that guy who cut you off the other day at the light really an “idiot”? Maybe the word you want is “careless,” or “reckless,” or “thoughtless.” Is this person who keeps leaving obnoxious comments which are clearly missing the point really a “moron”? No, that person is probably “privileged,” or “unwilling to engage,” or possibly just “a shithead.”

Don’t you find that this constant eagerness to police your own language and the language of others is intellectually limiting? If we continue on this path, we can find a way to label almost any word as potentially offensive to somebody. The result of this (self)censorship can only be complete silence.

Doesn’t the intention behind an utterance count for anything? If you say “This movie is lame”, it is self-evident that your intention wasn’t to offend the actual people who limp (like me, for example.) I would never be offended by such a statement if it’s obvious that the author of the utterance meant no disrespect to me or to anybody.

Clarissa, intention is usually not taken into account because it privileges the offender’s feelings over the offended. When someone calls something “gay” I’m personally kinda hurt because the implication is that the word “gay,” or in this case “lame,” is something that can also be used to describe something that generally is unpleasant. I’m sure there are people out there who use the term “lame” to describe themselves because that’s how they feel comfortable. I think that because in all the discussions of ableism we’ve seen on the internet lately, many are more likely to respond with “What’s the big deal? No one even uses the word ‘lame’ to describe a disabled person!” which just isn’t an excuse. Feigning ignorance doesn’t make privilege or the hurting of others go away.

Laura, great post. I’m also working on getting “lame,” “crazy,” etc out of my vocab, it’s gotten much easier of late with all the discussions of ableism.

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Laura. Laura said: My Use of Ableist Language http://bit.ly/nkMBY […]

On the contrary, “policing,” as you call it, has enriched the English language for me. By forcing me to actually, you know, think about language use and to find exciting, fun, and new words to use.

And the intention by an utterance? When a slur is involved, the intention is to denigrate the object of the slur. Because the whole point is that the slur is accepted as objectively bad; “lame” wouldn’t be an insult, for example, if we didn’t think that being lame was bad.

I know this is going to sound bad but I like the word lame, and this is why.

Although I now know that it’s obviously ableist language, my definition (and I’m pretty sure others as well) does not even begin to include disabled people. I know it started out that way, but in my lifetime with my generation, that word is what it once was. And I guess that is my problem with it, what do you do with a word that obviously has more than one meaning to a generation. Because I think it would be wrong to say that most teens and young people who use it are in any way referring to disabled people.

Lame to me means dumb, boring, unsurprising, eye rolling, etc all in one word, it does not mean I think disabled people are dumb boring, etc.

Again, i’m going to try to limit my use of the word as well, b/c I gave up the word ‘gay’ as meaning the same a year ago. And yes I realize that it’s the same thing, but it doesn’t seem to be.

There is a part of me that had thought about this, especially “That’s totally Gay, dude!” from South Park.

Although South Park is deliberate satire, of course.

Of course the double meaning of all these words originates in the fact that any condition which was considered outside of societal norm and therefore undesirable becomes used as an insult.

Anything to do with the differently abled, the different sexual preferences, sexual activity outside of puritanical norms, even simple eccentricities.

Hence: Lame, Gay, Witch, Slut, Slag, Faggot, etc, etc.

And how about “That is totally Crazy”

Even the latest false negative being used by teenagers today: Sick.

Great post! I have a mobility impairment, and I have a partner who is a generation younger than I am – and who is a computer geek and gamer.

Getting them to stop using “lame” as an insult was a five-year struggle, but they finally stopped – though their friends continue to use it, even in front of me, with complete obliviousness.

What’s worse is my nephew is a young adult in the military who is accustomed to calling anything ineffective, foolish, or otherwise bad or disfavored “gay.” We’ve tried to explain, and when we do, he apologizes, but slips right back to it. Agh!

This post has been added to a link roundup! Thank you.

Nanci, one of the reasons why I advocate for non-ableist language is because it reminds people that people with disabilities exist, and we take up space, and you can’t always tell who we are just by looking at us. You can’t always tell who in your audience – be it your blog audience, your radio show, your t.v., your day-to-day speech – will be kicked in the gut because of something that to you doesn’t even ping your radar.

Truly, the individual words don’t matter that much to me, although I respect that for some they are really a hot button issue. But I do hate the assumptions that “no one uses lame/dumb/crippled/whatever” to refer to people with disabilities anymore and “no one here will care if I use it because they don’t have a disability.”

Most people who claim the former are currently able-bodied. I assure you, people call my husband lame, crippled, and worse, and not in a joking ironic way, but in a “get out of my way, you crippled lamer” insulting way.

I totally accept that a lot of people do not use these words while thinking of people with disabilities. But arguing that no one does is arguing without all the information.

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