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10 Words and Phrases You May Not Know Are Disability Slurs

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Many slurs are a hard “no” to say— we know how they’ve been used to undermine minority groups and understand why we shouldn’t use them. Disability slurs, however, don’t receive the same negative press as words that harm other minority groups, so they’re often regularly interspersed in our conversations. If you’d like to change your phrasing to be more mindful of the disability community’s history and challenges, here are 10 common terms you may not know are disability slurs.

1. “Spaz”

If you’ve ever called someone a “spaz,” you may have meant it all in good fun, but it’s anything but fun for many people with disabilities. The word “spaz” is slang for “spastic,” which is a medical term that was originally used to describe people with cerebral palsy. By the 1960s, though, “spastic” had devolved into the word “spaz” — and quickly became synonymous with thoughtless, out-of-control, ridiculous behavior. Plenty of people with disabilities have been called “spaz” for simply existing in their bodies or speaking or thinking in ways able-bodied, neurotypical people don’t understand. 60 years later, we still haven’t retired the word “spaz” from our everyday conversations, but it’s time to leave it a thing of the past.

2. “Crazy”

You’ve probably used the word “crazy” more times than you can count, but you may not know it’s harmful to people with mental illness. Since the Middle Ages, “crazy” has derogatorily referred to people who have a disease or sickness. In the 1920s, the word “crazy” started becoming synonymous with the word “cool,” and to this day, it’s often used to describe fun, exciting experiences. Unfortunately, though, it’s also been weaponized against plenty of people with mental illness to describe their symptoms. Although we’ve made progress in dismantling the mental health stigma, people with mental illness still are called “crazy” for having noticeable symptoms of schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Any offensive word that was a staple in the Dark Ages is not a word we still need in our lives.

3. “Lame”

If your first inclination is to call a boring night out or a letdown of a party “lame,” please think again. Although “lame” was originally a term to describe people who struggle to move, by the 1600s, it was used to describe old, irrelevant news. In the 1940s, “lame” became even more derogatory as it rose in popularity as a way to describe socially awkward people. Although “lame” is still regularly thrown around as an innocent enough teen insult, its connotations make it detrimental to people with disabilities who have difficulty walking or who struggle with social interactions. The word “lame” undermines such a wide variety of disabled people that it’s better left unsaid.

4. “Retard”

You’ve likely seen the “r-word” all over the internet — and you may also have spotted plenty of campaigns against it. “Retard” is one of the most recognizable disability slurs, but even a spate of awareness campaigns about how the “r-word” hurts people with intellectual disabilities hasn’t taken it out of people’s vocabularies. The word arose in the Middle Ages to neutrally describe a slow state or a delay, but in the 1970s, its meaning shifted to offensively describe people with cognitive delays. People with all kinds of disabilities — from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to autism — have heard the “r-word” directed towards them, so even if you use it to describe able-bodied people or inanimate objects, think again before you say it.

5. “Fallen on deaf ears”

If you think someone’s ignoring you, you may feel tempted to say that your words have “fallen on deaf ears” — but some members of the Deaf community would like you to pick different phrasing. The phrase has long been used to mean that someone is actively ignoring what you have to say, which may seem pretty innocuous at first. However, the term associates deafness with a hearing person deliberately not listening — which is not an accurate comparison in the slightest. People in the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities may often be taken not listening carefully when they can’t actually hear others, so conflating the two is a huge “no-no” — and so is using this phrase.

6. “Autistic” as a slur

Although many people on the autism spectrum prefer to refer to themselves as “autistic” rather than as “people with autism,” neurotypical people often throw around the word “autistic” to describe behavior that seems hyper-focused or socially awkward. The difference between the two matters — “autistic” is perfectly fine as a clinical term or a self-identifier, but it’s not a word for neurotypical people to use to mock or deride others. Using “autistic” as an insult became especially popular as the internet spawned chat rooms and discussion forums, but just because someone hiding behind a screen thinks “autistic” is an acceptable insult doesn’t mean it’s not a disability slur. The word “autistic” does belong on the web — but only to positively or neutrally describe someone with autism.

7. “Cripple”

You may think “cripple” sounds like a neutral term, but it’s now an outdated, offensive way to refer to someone who struggles with movement. “Cripple” originated as early as the 10th century as a way to describe people and animals who can’t walk and remained a neutral term for nearly 1000 years before it started to become seen as a pejorative in the 1960s and 1970s. The word “cripple” has been used to insult many people with physical disabilities for their perceived weaknesses, which is why people eventually stopped using the term in laws and statutes. Today, people with physical disabilities have started a movement to reclaim the word “cripple,” but if you don’t have a physical disability, this word isn’t yours to reclaim.

8. “So OCD”

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a completely valid diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great way to describe yourself. Since the 1980s — when OCD first appeared in the DSM — people have described themselves as “OCD” based on stereotypes about the mental illness, like being extra tidy or wanting tasks done in a certain order. However, many of the people who call themselves “so OCD” are describing traits that are not intense enough to be clinically diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s so important that we stop making light of the real struggles people with OCD face by describing ourselves as “OCD” because we like to line up our pens on our desks.

9. “Midget”

You may not hear “midget” thrown around every day, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful to people with dwarfism. The word “midget” is derived from the word “midge,” which refers to small, annoying insects. As people with dwarfism struggled to be gainfully employed, many ended up as “attractions” in circus sideshows that used the word “midget” to draw in customers. The use of “midget” to describe people who were touted as “other” and openly gawked at for years makes it a pejorative for many people with dwarfism. Today, many people with dwarfism prefer the less negative descriptor “little person,” so unless people with dwarfism choose to openly reclaim the word “midget,” there’s no good reason for people to still use it.

10. “Insane”

You may have described some of the most wild, fun days of your life as “insane,” but the word has a far darker meaning for many people with mental illness. In the 1500s, the word “insane” referred to people with intellectual or mental health disabilities, and it later became associated with asylums that trapped and mistreated mentally ill people. Now, “insane” is a legal term to describe people who don’t understand that their unlawful behavior was criminal because of their mental state, but it’s also used to put down people with mental illness. People with a variety of mental health conditions are often called “insane” for having panic attacks, manic episodes, or hallucinations — and this phrasing could prevent them from getting the help they need. Let’s leave the word “insane” in the courtroom and stop using it to disparage people who struggle with their mental health.

Disability slurs pepper so many everyday conversations that it may be hard to steer away from them, but changing your vocabulary to eliminate words that harm the disability community is worth your time. Removing disability slurs from your everyday lexicon takes time and effort, but framing disability in a neutral or positive way instead will help reduce the stigma surrounding disability and mental illness.

Getty image by Sergio Mendoza Hochmann.

Originally published: June 14, 2022
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