In recent months I’ve found myself coming across (being drawn to?) a lot of writing and information about ableism and ableist language. I would love to say this has been on my radar for the majority of my adult life, but that isn’t the case. I would also like to tell you I never use ableist language and that it is incredibly simple to both recognize and stop engaging in it, but that is not my experience either. As is the case with habits it takes time to change them, and many of the words I
choose to say are habits that have formed over several decades.
Since a very young age I have been fascinated by language. “Spelling” and “vocabulary” were at the top of my Favorite Subjects list for the entirety of elementary school, and any teacher who engaged in conversations of Latin or Greek roots while steering clear of rote memorization of parts of speech was high on my list of Favorite Teachers well into high school. I’m a grammar geek at heart who can nerd out pretty heartily on vocabulary, and I still use a dictionary and/or thesaurus almost daily if not more frequently. So much of my current vocabulary is a product of my environment over the years, coming from a variety of geographic, social, literary, and generational influences. I identify with language, have always prided myself on a strong vocabulary, and feel thoroughly pleased when my generational or background experiences, or the places I’ve lived, are apparent through how I speak or write. (The list is quite extensive, but includes gems like wicked, sketchy, psyched, all that and a bag of chips, yeah no, “u dub”, and placing “the” before a highway’s name – as in, “the 25″).
With all this being the case, I would think there’d be a greater intentionality with which words come out of my mouth and that I wouldn’t have only recently started examining a multitude of ableist terms I readily use. In trying to understand why that is and how to change these habits I’ve started examining the times it seems to happen most, and it is often when I am emotionally exhausted or in situations where I get caught up in the conversation and don’t take time to think as deeply before speaking. While I absolutely want to choose my words more carefully and ensure I am conveying the message I intend, I also need to be careful that this new awareness of my words doesn’t move me farther away from being able to speak comfortably with others. (Having many tendencies of an introverted and highly sensitive person who is extraordinarily reflective and struggles with anxiety and depression means I often labor over what I am going to say, both in the midst of a conversation or in anticipation of a discussion I perceive will be challenging – sometimes playing it out and considering what I want to say for as along as a few days or a week, at times even allowing it to take root in some dreamlike form or another while trying to sleep.)
One thing I can do to work on eliminating ableist language without aggravating some of my other mental, emotional, and social challenges is to really understand why I am choosing to work on these habits, and what the positive impact of this change could be. While I didn’t know it at the time, I have actually become cognizant of ableist language and made a concerted effort to change those bad habits several times before. Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s I was surrounded by people who said, “retarded” and “gay” on a regular basis, and I quickly adopted these terms myself to describe situations and behaviors. I honestly don’t remember a particular reason or situation that caused me to recognize the blatant misuse of these words I had adopted, but I worked hard to rapidly abolish them from my vocabulary. I’ve noticed both terms are used much less often than before, at least in the circles I frequently find myself in, but outside of education I do hear people say things like, “That’s retarded” once in a while. Each time I hear it I can’t help but feel as though I’ve been transported back in time 10-20 years, and every part of my being cringes – particularly when it is being said by someone close to me.
In more recent years I’ve grown a personal sensitivity to people’s common use of the word “anxiety” to describe stress or nervousness (“That’s making me anxious.” / “I have serious anxiety over that!”), and to a some extent when people use “depressed” as a synonym for “sad”. For many years I also used “anxiety” quite casually, but when I began to actually suffer from anxiety and panic attacks it brought to my attention some of the problems we create and perpetuate when using ableist language. I learned firsthand that appropriating terms associated with mental illness within casual conversation not only perpetuates stigmas but also takes away their meaning for someone who may legitimately need to use a particularly term and have its meaning be accurately understood without dismissal. Nowadays, if I tell someone that a certain environment “gives me anxiety”, I really do mean that something about that situation is causing me to suffer my symptoms of anxiety. It is neither casual nor something to laugh about, and at times it frustrates me that in addition to having to sort through the many challenges of living with mental illness and navigating how, when, and with whom it is “appropriate” or safe to share that part of my reality I also can be so easily denied the use of a word to communicate meaning to another human being because of the way society has co-opted it for other uses.
It bothers me when people use ableist terms that I have chosen to omit from my vocabulary, but I fully acknowledge there was a time when I didn’t even think about the negative impacts of those words. Moreover, there are any number of ableist terms I still weave into conversation on a regular basis – some that I have started to think more deeply about and am actively trying to change, and others that I have yet to fully explore and work on. I’ve found myself carefully considering words and their meanings, but the ones I am particularly focused on removing from my vocabulary first are, “crazy” and “insane”. I am a little shocked at just how often I am used to saying them in a variety of contexts, particularly things like: “That’s crazy/insane”, “That’s crazysauce”, “It’s driving me crazy/insane”… But now as soon as the word pops into my mind or comes out of my mouth it causes me pause, and more often I can be heard saying things like, “That’s cra– sorry, that’s… (any other non-ableist word that more accurately describes what I am actually trying to say).” This reminds me that I am a work in progress, but that I am on my way to making a positive change that will improve my skills in speaking, writing, and even listening while ensuring I am not just talking or thinking about my values but that I am living them even when I may not be at my best.
Here’s what I am trying in an effort to change my habits:
When I am in the midst of a sentence and either catch myself saying or coming near to saying an ableist term I will pause, take a moment to consider what I actually want to say, and then choose a different word or correct what I have just said. Similarly, I will continue to enlist the help of those I speak with often to help me choose better words and to be patient with me when I stop mid-sentence to think about a more accurate and thoughtful word to use.
If I can’t articulate my emotions in the moment without using ableist language or otherwise saying things I will later be uncomfortable with, then I probably shouldn’t be speaking. Alternatives would be to employ the above “pause and really think about what message I am trying to convey” strategy, or to choose not to speak in that moment.
Sidenote: I find myself in situations fairly often where I feel I am “on the spot” or “expected” to speak, or where there is a very limited amount of time to “get your 2 cents in” and contribute thinking before the window is essentially closed. As someone who can require a bit of processing time to digest or reflect this can be pretty tough, but it especially contributes to poor word choice when things are emotionally charged or have been consistently intense and have worn me down in some way. Many times when I don’t say something I will receive comments, questions, or confusion from the people around me after the fact. To help alleviate this I can name the choice I am making – “I am really (emotion) right now and am choosing to collect my thoughts/feelings before re-engaging.” “I’m having a hard time with ____ and am going to take a little while to process before I speak.” I can also remind myself that, although my choices have an impact on others, it is not my sole responsibility to take ownership for any feelings or misgivings they may have because of my choosing to engage in a way that helps me keep true to my values. That last bit is likely to be the hardest, but that’s a post for another day.
Do you have any thoughts, experiences, or resources on this topic? Please share them in the comments or on Twitter!
A couple ideas/questions I have for myself to further explore and reflect on:
- Are you using language to describe something, or are you using it to insult someone/something? When you focus on the former there are any number of alternative word choices available. How often are you doing the latter? What does that tell you?
- Can any principles of Universal Design, or even UDL, be applied to this context? (For example, if I would choose my words more carefully around someone with a known physical or mental disability, why would I not choose my words more carefully ALL THE TIME? People shouldn’t have to tell me what personal experience they may have in order for me to be sensitive to it, just like I would hope to not have to ask a stranger to do the same. Good choices are good choices, and we should make them all the time – not just when it appears to serve the situation or is somehow more convenient to us.)
Some readings I’ve enjoyed recently:
- “Replacing “crazy” for ableism and preciseness of language“ - WhatPrivilege?
- “Alternatives to using ableist slurs“ - Is This Ableism?
- “Confronting Ableism“ – ASCD Educational Leadership
- “Doing Social Justice: 10 Reasons to Give Up Ableist Language” – Huffington Post