Casual ableist terms aren’t just words

Everyday language we take for granted does more damage to the lives of disabled people than we think.

COMMENTThe other week, my thirteen‐year‐old brother came home from school and told us that another boy in his year had called him stupid. It was the first incident that had so unsettled him that he reported it to each individual member of our family.

One might read this and wonder what the big deal is. Teenage boys use insults far worse than this. The thing is, however, that my brother has Down Syndrome, so words like “stupid” carry a whole other layer of offence where he is concerned. Angry, but not too surprised, I realised that this wasn’t the first time that a word like “stupid” had made me feel this way and it wouldn’t be the last time my brother would encounter someone who would use ableist language.

The ubiquity of ableist terms is impossible for me to ignore, though I feel very alone in this awareness in most social situations. Words like “stupid” and “moron” are tossed out as casually as “how are you?”, but I feel as though someone has scraped their nails on a blackboard every time they are. I have never heard the word “retarded” used more than during my last two years spent in college. There is something terribly wrong when someone can articulate feminist theory perfectly or destroy a homophobic argument but in the same breath describe something as “retarded”.

The R‐word, defined most simply, means slowed down, or kept back. The word was first used to describe people with intellectual disabilities in the late nineteenth century and replaced words like “imbecile” and “moron” which were clinical terms that had grown pejorative in meaning. In the 1960s the R‐word joined the ranks of language used to insult someone and was deemed offensive.

Its connection with people who have disabilities has remained, despite the demurring of people who are called out when they use it. The fact is, even if you don’t think of it as a description of a person with special needs, it still resonates that way with a significant number of people. Words you take for granted, like “idiot” were invented as clinical terms in institutions where people with disabilities were hidden away, neglected and abused. There are people alive who remember that trauma. We do not know better than people with special needs when it comes to the significance of the historic language of their own oppression. To claim otherwise is to gloss over centuries of abuse.

The simple fact is that people, whether or not they admit it, use these words as insults because of their connection with people who have disabilities. In a Google Consumer Survey in April 2015, 40% of people surveyed said that they associated the R‐word with someone who has an intellectual disability. There is no version of reality in which the use of the R‐word to insult someone or express annoyance at a situation or object doesn’t perpetuate the stigmatisation of disability.

That people who have an intellectual disability are inadequate or in some way divorced from reality is a grave misconception. People who have intellectual disabilities are as varied a group in terms of intellect and ability as any other. They are not lacking in the ways society has decided so any adjective that means “slowed down” or “inadequate” is wholly inappropriate. Disability is neither positive nor negative. It is simply another state of existence. If this is the case (and it is), why does the R‐word maintain impact as an insult? The sad truth is that most people will not take the time to learn that disability is not the curse they think it is.

A lot of people obviously believe that the R‐word is an accurate way to describe someone who has an intellectual disability, and more people still, at the same time, use it as an insult or to describe something that is broken. If the perceived experience of someone with an intellectual disability can be used as an insult, that person is rendered an object of ridicule and burden. It allows people to go on thinking that disability is something terrible from which they must distance themselves. Objectification makes it easier for an individual to justify violence against another. Throughout history, words have been used to achieve this effect in the cases of every marginalised group. Stigmatisation causes isolation and bullying, as it permits people to go on thinking that a person with an intellectual disability is unable to understand their surroundings or communicate effectively. These are real harms that are brought about by the language we use.

Even if someone doesn’t understand the remaining connection between ableist language and people with intellectual disabilities, and uses it to describe foolish behaviour or something that isn’t working properly, they still keep these words in circulation. Just because they don’t get it doesn’t mean that someone else hasn’t been deeply offended or hurt. Settings in which ableist language is used casually or in jest are unwelcoming for people who have disabilities. They can feel unaccommodating or even unsafe. Spaces in which men used word like “whore”, are unwelcoming to me as a woman. When we insist upon the tolerance of this language, we exclude too many people from the conversation. Spaces that ought to be safe for everyone just aren’t.

Language is the framework of everything we do. It constructs every social interaction and influences what is and isn’t acceptable. A society that uses ableist language is ableist, end of story. Workplaces, schools and universities are not places in which everyone is made feel equally welcome. Freedom of speech is definitely important, but when its vindication involves the exclusion and therefore silencing of other people, I fail to see why that counts as a response when I ask someone not to use the R‐word.

People who have intellectual disabilities have spoken up about the offensive nature of the R‐word. Actress and advocate Lauren Potter, who appeared on Glee for many seasons and has Down Syndrome, has been particularly vocal about this. At the end of the day, when people in possession of experience we lack speak about the nature of their oppression, we need to just sit down, be quiet and listen. We have a responsibility to reflect upon the insults we take for granted, because when we do use them, no matter the intention or subject, we’re no better than the teenager who called my brother stupid.

Writer’s Note: Ableism is the discrimination against people who have a disability. I have dealt with only some ableist terms, specifically those affecting people with intellectual disabilities. Ableism also discriminates against those with mental illness or physical disability.