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Learning to Use Less Ableist Language as a Disabled Person

What is ableist language anyway? Ableist language is that which devalues individuals with disabilities. Though people who use ableist language normally do not have ill intent, the use of their words presents as if individuals with disabilities are abnormal. Many times, offensive words are used so casually that their impact may not be directly seen. Many may not even realize these words can be associated with those who have disabilities. Some examples would be “retarded,” “crazy,” “wheelchair-bound,” “suffering,” and many others. As a person with a disability (I have cerebral palsy and am an amputee, a wheelchair user, and I have an intellectual disability), one would think I would know how offensive this is. However, I never knew the damage words like this could cause to my community.

Growing up, I never considered the true meaning of these words. I heard them used and incorporated them into my everyday language, unaware of their impact, until a few years ago. Do I blame my parents and others who were around me for not telling me how harmful these words could be? No, because the reality is, they may not have realized themselves.

However, I can change how I use this language in the future as well as how those around me use it. I wrote my first book called “Dear Anxiety: Letters from a Girl Who Cares and Letters from People Who Suffer from Anxiety.” Suffer was a poor choice. Suffer implies that anxiety is something those featured in my book are plagued with and can’t have functional lives with. The reality is people with anxiety have functional lives and can carry on just as anyone can. This word choice was made early on in my writing career. I have also referred to myself as wheelchair-bound in the past. When I say wheelchair-bound, it implies that it holds me back from doing certain things. Instead, the opposite is true, my wheelchair allows me to do certain things my otherwise limited mobility may hold me back from doing.

I find it important to call myself out for using words like these because I am now aware of the damage they can do. I actively do not use those terms anymore and am making a more conscious effort around the language I use. I have changed my views on these words which have helped me to incorporate my knowledge into my everyday word choices. Though sometimes I may slip and use a word I shouldn’t (I’m human and make mistakes), at 32 years old, I am still growing and evolving.

I feel the same standards need to be held up for everyone with regard to word choices. I know some things may take time once a habit is created, especially if it’s something we may not be aware is damaging, it takes time to break. I think we can all learn and work together at calling ourselves out and becoming more aware of the impact of our words. I think it is humbling when we all can take a look at ourselves and admit when we were wrong even if we didn’t realize it at the time. Progress can be made by starting a conversation. I believe society as a whole has to start making a more conscious effort towards not using some of the words I have mentioned. We need to continue to include other changes in our vocabulary and the way we see other people. Remember words matter and all individuals matter.

Getty image by dmphoto.

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