What’s Wrong With Ableist Language?

Just read this excellent article about ableist language.

“The economy has been crippled by debt.”

“You’d have to be insane to want to invade Syria.”

“They’re just blind to the suffering of other people.”

“Only a moron would believe that.”

Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives.

You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind. Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick.

Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz.

You can carry on reading here.

11 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Ableist Language?

  1. A very common instance is the use of “lame” to describe e.g., an argument. I think people often don’t even make the connection with ableism here. It’s like the word “gyped” to mean “ripped off,” which people don’t use much any more but was common when I was a kid. People largely did not know that this term referred to gypsies. And because “lame” is an anachronistic word for disabled, I think some people (surely my children) do not understand it as ableist.

  2. i wonder what people think about *positive* metaphors involving abilities not everyone (literally) has. e.g., “to see this”, used to convey: “to appreciate this immediately/non-inferentially/without argument”? (or, from the article, “as far as I can see…”)

    i’ve heard some people (not people who are blind afaik) assert that this language is problematically ableist. i am not sure, myself – i am inclined to think this is fine, but, not being blind,i realize i am notin the best epistemic position to judge. can someone offer an argument either way?

  3. In the last few years, there’s been a huge amount of work in philosophy of language on slurs. Almost everything about how they work is very controversial, but one thing that seems clear is that slurs are a very special category of terms in a lot of ways: they display behaviour very different from other parts of language.

    Because of that, it’s not at all clear to me that we can extend claims about the linguistic or social role of slurs directed against members of some group to metaphors (whether live or dead) involving characteristics about members of that group, or that we should have the same norms in the two cases. Particularly since metaphors are very complex things on their own, and not at all well-understood.

    I’m not saying that I’m convinced we shouldn’t have the same norms; I’m just saying that I think that there are huge complexities here, and I don’t have a good theory of how to deal with them. I’d be extremely interested to read anything on this issue that’s attentive to this distinction and informed by contemporary work in philosophy of language. Can anyone suggest articles on the topic?

  4. Are claims about slurs being extended to metaphors? I take it there’s quite a lot introduced in this article which could be further unpacked. But the idea you’re talking about – is it trying to extend claims about slurs to certain metaphors? Or are the metaphors problematic irrespective of whether one can say they are slurs because they embody (!) ideals about what counts as a normal, good body versus what sorts of bodies are inferior? I’d also like suggestions of things to read on this topic.

  5. Anon grad student – have you looked at the phil index? I didn’t look very far, but there’s clearly a lot going on. I’d wonder if metaphors are close to cognitively understandable slurs, as opposed to more expressive one. Mind you, I know just about nothing, but I’d guess it might be easy to form some hypotheses to take to the literature.

  6. I agree with this. In fact, it might be a good idea to no longer describe brilliant ideas as ‘visionary’ since it’s prejudice against sighted people and all. *rolls eyes*
    Seriously, I once knew a guy with limited vision who had no problem with using the phrase ‘Turn a blind eye to’ and as a crutches user, I have no issues with people describing the UK economy as being ‘Crippled by bad fiscal policy’ as I often have myself. The real issue I have is when people describe me as ‘suffering from’ Autism when it’s others’ attitudes that cause me to suffer, but I have absolutely no problem with the more neutral phrases, and nor does anyone else with the conditions those phrases mention.

  7. My beef with ableist language is that every time someone uses what I consider to be an offensive word, they’re also saying: “You’re nothing. You’re no one. Your life doesn’t matter.” Sad, but true. We need to accept each other for who and what we are,
    regardless of race, gender, sexual preference OR disability. ALL lives matter.
    Make that your mantra. Don’t just focus on one particular group. And if we wish to eliminate bigotry, the solution is simple: stop raising children to become bigots. Lead by example. Children mirror what grown-ups show and tell them. Case of “Monkey see, monkey do.” Do we really need more bad behaviour in this world? We get enough of that from our authority figures. What they do to one another is their own curious, though rather questionable, business. Too they don’t realise until it’s too late that what they do to the rest of us can have serious implications.

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