Guest blogger Jessica Ping-Wild explains why we should refrain from using ableist language in our writing.
To be politically correct is still a relatively new concept. Though the term dates back to the early 20th century, it seemingly only became popular globally within the last few years. And with its entrance into coffee table conversations around the world, it picked up quite a few skeptics along the way.
I believe that those who detest the idea of political correctness have missed the point of its presence entirely. It’s not about censorship; it’s about respect.
Over the last decade, we have become much more “woke” as a society. Presenters and journalists have begun using more gender-neutral phrases and words in their storytelling. When you turn on the TV, you will now see bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colours represented on screen. Many of us have even completely eliminated some harmful slurs from our vocabulary.
But in all of this change, there is one group that is consistently left unprotected: the disability community.
Because many Western nations have passed laws giving disabled people equality in both the workplace and other key areas of life, some individuals think that the “disability problem” has been wrapped up with a bow and can now be forgotten about.
But that is simply not the case.
Disabled people are still discriminated against on a daily basis by their employers, landlords, doctors, and peers.
Discrimination solely based on someone’s ability level is called ableism. Like the other more well-known isms of the world, ableism can manifest in many different ways, including in the language we use.
As a writer there are many things you can do to be a better ally to disabled people, but the one we are going to focus on today is the use of ableist language in your work.
Ableist language has been around since disabled people have existed; and since disability is a normal part of the human condition, ableist language has a pretty extensive history. But not every ableist term is inherently offensive.
Take a widely accepted ableist term like “dumb,” for example. “Dumb” can be traced back to the Old English language as well as the proto-Germanic language. In Germany, the term was mostly used to describe someone who was boring and/or confused. This definition, though potentially unkind, is not problematic for one particular marginalized group, so it is not inherently offensive on its own. But when this definition is blurred with the Old English definition, things change.
In England, “dumb” was used to describe someone who was unable to speak. Throughout history, Deaf individuals have been labelled “dumb,” by everyone from their doctors to their family members. This label wasn’t just used as a way to identify these individual’s disabilities, but instead as a way for them to be declared as ignorant and/or uneducated.
As you can imagine, this caused massive amounts of harm for the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Though the colloquial way that we use the word “dumb” today aligns most closely with the proto-Germanic version mentioned above, this word is still ableist. Enough people still use “dumb” as a slur against the Deaf community that erasure of its problematic past is impossible. Not to mention, the pain and trauma embedded within the word could be considered comparable to slurs targeted at the black and LGBTQ+ communities for centuries.
“Dumb” is not the only word with this extensively offensive history. Others that come to mind include “crazy,” “deranged,” “imbecile,” “crippled,” “gimp,” “idiot,” and “retarded.”
This list is in no way exhaustive, but it’s a good starting place if you’d like to adjust your vocabulary to be more kind and inclusive to the disabled community.
Beyond being more respectful, though I fully believe that should be reason enough to begin to eliminate ableist language from your writing, there are further benefits to doing so.
First of all, whether you’re a journalist or a copywriter, you’re probably reaching more disabled people than you might have even realized. There are over 1 billion disabled people in the world. That’s a lot of eyes, buying power, and influence. If your language is more respectful, you don’t know the sort of impact that could have for your reader. It might just be the difference between them sharing your article or buying your product, and choosing to go somewhere else.
Secondly, making the choice to eliminate ableist language from your vocabulary gives you an unique opportunity to challenge yourself as a writer. How else can you describe a frustrating person or situation? What other words should you be eliminating? You now can take your craft up an extra notch and ultimately do some good for the world along the way!
Ableist language, even if it doesn’t seem like it on the surface, is oppressive to the disability community as it keeps us in an inferior position within society. By choosing to eliminate these words from your writing, you are not just being respectful to disabled people, you are being an ally.
Jessica Ping-Wild is a model, actor, dancer, singer, creator, influencer, writer, and blogger. In June 2020, she founded The Rolling Explorer, a blog dedicated to sharing her experiences as a disabled young woman living in the 21st century. Jessica was born with CHILD syndrome, which is a rare condition that affects 60 people worldwide with skin and limb deficiencies.
Although she is American, she now lives in central London with her husband and dog. When she is not working, Jessica loves to read, travel, and spend time with family and friends.