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Calling yourself out on calling others

Ever accused someone of being deaf: “Are you deaf, or what?” Ever scoffed at someone for being “so lame”?

How does it sound when put like that? In natural, everyday English, the actions of accusing and scoffing at someone marry well with the adjectives used to describe the person (or thing): you accuse someone of being deaf and you scoff at someone (or something) for being lame.

Does accusing someone of being deaf conjure up negative or positive connotations? Do you scoff at something that you find good or bad?

Defining characteristics

Let’s take a closer look at the definitions of these terms. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the adjective deaf as “unable to hear, either completely or partly”. The second entry here, however, reads: “disapproving unwilling to listen”. The Cambridge Dictionary definition of the adjective lame is: “Unable to walk: (especially of animals) not able to walk correctly because of physical injury to or weakness in the legs or feet”. It also defines lame as: “Not satisfactory: (especially of an excuse or argument) weak and unsatisfactory”.

We may not be consciously aware of what we’re saying, or implying when we employ such terms and turns of phrase, but the fact is, English is inherently predisposed to harmful ableist language, and we’re all guilty of it.

A little linguistic introspection

I’ll be the first to put up my hand. Frustration with my daughter for not being able to find what she’s looking for when it’s right in front of her nose: “You must be totally blind!” Expressing the feeling of being disheartened with a situation: “It’s so depressing.”

Yet, put yourself for a moment in the shoes of someone who is actually deaf or blind or depressed, or someone with a mobility disability. How might you feel now? Might the negative associations of something being lame or depressing make you feel devalued, if it’s such a bad thing to be lame or depressed? Or if such terms seem to be thrown around willy-nilly, to put down, mock or joke around when, for you, these are actual medical conditions that affect you, your life and the people close to you. As depression-suffer Stephen Kelly so neatly sums it up in his article on the use of the word depressing – and which could apply to any disability: “Describing trivial disturbances as ‘depressing’ cheapens a complex and difficult illness”.

While the English language has long called out sexist and racist terms, and rightly so, it would appear that we have been less quick off the mark when it comes to ableist language. Words and phrases so ingrained in our language use that it’s only when we stop and think about when and how we use them that we become aware of their derogatory and discriminatory nature.

Negative language habits hamper positive social change

For the around 1 in 5 people living in the UK with a disability, ableist language can certainly cause offence and stigmatise this significant proportion of the population, who already find themselves excluded or marginalised in a society which these days more often than not claims to be pro-diversity and inclusive. (A debate on the reality of this is not for this article.)

No one wants or deserves to be discriminated against, excluded or marginalised. Today, it is increasingly becoming standard practice for companies to promote and practice diversity and inclusion in the workplace and to implement corresponding policies under the umbrella of “equal opportunities”. In terms of ableism, while there is still a long way to go, this is one example of a welcome move in the right direction: to be included and catered for and to feel valued within a team, department, company and, by default, one would hope, society.

But physical and “practical” inclusion does not automatically equate to emotional inclusion, nor to understanding, acceptance or equality. This is where language comes in, and is where we can make a good start towards valuing everybody equally: by being aware of and adjusting set-in-our-ways words and turns of phrase that paint disability and people with disabilities in a negative light.

After all, language and mentality go hand in hand. Words help shape our mentality towards people, and towards prejudice. As Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar writes on the subject in the Harvard Business Review, “When we verbally describe the things, experiences, and people around us we are also assigning value to them and that value impacts how we interact with each other.”

Unacceptable ableist language or accepted – and acceptable – language use?

By calling someone “blind” or “OCD”, we’re drawing on disability to insult or poke fun at someone, thereby, albeit subconsciously, reinforcing prejudices and putting up emotional and societal barriers. We’re using language in a derogatory fashion, to express a negative opinion. This use of language is not just directed at people: We also use disability words and expressions to describe places, situations and events, to make it clear, for example, that a “blind spot”, a “crippled economy” and a “lame party” are bad things.

It could be argued that while such language can be considered offensive or harmful when directed at a person, can it really be labelled “ableist language” when used in the above contexts? Are these not simply set expressions that have become embedded in our language and that now bear no relation whatsoever to disability, as a result of natural language change? Is calling out these and similar expressions as ableist language taking it a bit too far?

The counterargument here could be that by using such language, we’re (nonetheless) associating disabilities with something less, something inferior, whatever the circumstances. That even by using disability-related words and phrases indirectly, we’re helping fuel ableism, because by doing so, we’re validating discriminatory assumptions about disabled people.

Dividing opinion and provoking thought

Readers are likely to fall into pretty much one of three camps: the “Huh?!” camp, the “Mmm…” camp and the “Exactly!” camp. There will be those who can’t believe we’re even discussing this, those who hadn’t really given it any thought before, but may now be thinking “actually, now you mention it…” and those who wish more was being done to highlight ableist language and bring about linguistic change to drive positive social change.

And this won’t necessarily be a disabled/non-disabled divide either. Each individual’s stance on ableist language will essentially boil down to their own experiences, perceptions and/or sensitivities.

A question of acceptance and respect

Ultimately, whatever camp you’re in, all anybody wants is to be accepted and respected. In turn, it therefore falls to us all to show this acceptance and respect by being more consciously aware of the language we use and how we use it and the impact this may have.

With a language as rich as the English language, we have a wealth of vocabulary and turns of phrases we can draw on to express ourselves and our emotions effectively. All it takes is a little thought and consideration, to help eliminate negative linguistic connotations around disability and people with disabilities and to break down language barriers to a more truly diverse, inclusive and equal society.

What camp do you fall into? Are you, or have you ever been affected by ableist language? We’d love to hear if you think we’re thinking too much into this or think we have a point or if this has given you any food for thought!

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