First, let’s go over what “ableism” and “ableist” mean. In short, ableism occurs when people are discriminated against, or otherwise dehumanized, based on disability. This might include mental disability or physical disability. On a structural level, ableism also crops up in terms of literal access. Think about venues where a wheelchair user can’t enter safely, a sidewalk that isn’t properly constructed, or a classroom or live event that doesn’t have a sign language interpreter available. Ableism also lives in our language—even when we don’t mean it.
What can that look like? For example, think about how often you use these words or phrases: crazy, lame, crippled, paralyzed, schizophrenic, bipolar, OCD, obsessive-compulsive, dumb, stupid, blind spot, blind reading, falling on deaf ears, moronic, insane, or psycho. That list is far from exhaustive, too.
If you don’t use those words yourself (well done!) you probably come across them often in social media or even media at large. They’re common, and most people are using them colloquially, devoid of the original hurt and targeting behind the language. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less damaging, especially for people who live with marginalized conditions or identify with some of those labels. Disability and mental health are already unfairly stigmatized—we don’t need hurtful language adding to systemic barriers.
You might be wondering: Well, what can I say instead? Try being more specific. If you say you’re “paralyzed,” for example, you might be referring to a feeling of being trapped, of being afraid, of being stuck, or so on. You can just say you feel stuck. If you feel that someone’s behavior is erratic or difficult to understand, you can simply say that, instead of describing it as psychotic or attributing it to a specific mental health condition. People’s conditions do not make them bad, evil, or a burden. When we shift language away from doing harm (even if it’s unintentional harm), we’re taking a small and steady step toward allyship and inclusion.