Last night I got in from a late trip to the gym, and instead of jumping right into the writing I had planned to do, I had a snack and distractedly turned on the TV and started flipping channels. It was the time of night when major network sitcom reruns are airing in syndication, and one of my faves was on, perfectly abetting my procrastination. I had been watching for only a few moments when a character described something annoying as “lame.” I rolled my eyes and changed the channel, only to find another network sitcom rerun featuring another use of the word lame as an insult. I watched for a few minutes and changed to another channel. Where I happened to catch yet another major network sitcom and another casually insulting use of the word lame.
It happened three times on three different shows in the span of about 20 minutes. Despite being reruns, these shows are neither ancient nor obscure, but they all relied on using lame as an insult to get a laugh.
So let’s talk about ableist language. Ableism is discrimination against those with disabilities, attitudes and practices that favor the able-bodies and -minded, and can manifest in prejudiced attitudes, denial of accessibility, or outright hate. Since disabilities may be physical, mental, or developmental, it is important to remember that you don’t always know what the people around you are living with.
I can hear some of you groaning through the screen; I know that conversations around ableist language have been making eyes roll since they began. But they’re necessary.
When I tell you it’s offensive to use the word “lame” as an insult, you might not want to hear it. GENERALIZATION ALERT: Chances are that if you’re the type of person who easily and frequently calls a thing you don’t like “lame” or calls a person you don’t like “retard,” you’ll be unreceptive to a nuanced conversation anyway. I sincerely hope that you might seek enlightenment, but I’m going to be blunt: I’m not talking to you.
I’m talking to the many people who use ableist words without fully thinking of the harm they may be doing, or perhaps otherwise intelligent people who may not be aware of it. I’m talking to the people who can see my point when I tell you that lame is a word that describes a physical impairment affecting the ability to walk, but who still point to the commonly accepted secondary definition of it as an insult. I get it. But LOTS of things have been societally accepted that are still cringeworthy. Many words are in the dictionary with hateful pasts or vile connotations in the present. And ultimately, don’t you want to do better?
I’ve seen people speaking out against ableist language get verbally swatted away with shouts of “Everybody uses it that way…” or “But freedom of speech…” or my favorite, “DON’T BE SO SENSITIVE!” Personally, I moisturize frequently so while my skin is soft, it is far from thin. You don’t have to be overly sensitive to give a damn about your fellow humans. And if a marginalized group tells you respectfully how your actions are hurtful and you choose to double down instead of listen, you are making the least productive choice.
This can be a murky topic. It isn’t lost on me that even as I type this right now, Microsoft Word is loudly telling me that “ableist” isn’t even a thing by underlining it with a squiggly red line. A simple Google search will clear that up for any doubters, and this comprehensive list of ableist language is a good place to start. Even the language used to describe ableism is sometimes in question, and ableist language often gets confused with political correctness, which is part of the problem in even talking about it. Political Correctness is about saying “the right thing” at whatever cost, often placing the PC agenda above the content of your communication itself, which I despise.
I’m not at all politically correct; I care about my fellow humans and I also really love vocabulary and accuracy. If you’ve only thought of ableist language as being about PC-ness or that those who object to it are all oversensitive whiners, I invite you to think differently. It’s not at all about pretending that people aren’t disabled or needing you to walk on proverbial eggshells every time you open your mouth. It’s about not automatically equating a person’s condition with being bad.
If your name is Tracy and you hear someone look at a steaming pile of poop that they just stepped in and say “Ugh, that’s so Tracy!” you might be a little annoyed, right? And no, if your name is Tracy you’re not completely defined by those five letters, just like people with disabilities are not fully defined by them, just not deserving of being automatically deemed “less than.”
I’m not perfect and none of us is beyond reproach, so I’m just asking you to give it some more thought. Imagine me using the internet on any given day and seeing constant articles like “The 25 Craziest Things That…” and “The Insane Reason Why…” as a person who speaks out about mental illness and removing the stigma. I am open about having depression, and it’s exasperating to see these words applied to any and every thing that is out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them. Hey, I’m telling you I have mental illness. Go on and call me insane if you’re sincerely referring to it. I even use the word crazy, which is frowned upon by some PC folks. But sometimes, as when describing my mentally ill mother’s violent psychotic episodes wherein she was identifiably deranged in an aggressive way, I’ll say “crazy” because that’s exactly what the word means and I intend to include the inherent negative connotation because I’m describing a specifically bad situation.
I think we can all stand to be more accurate and direct in our speech overall, so why not think of avoiding ableist slurs that way? Aim for accuracy and expand your vocabulary! It’s fun! (For a language nerd like me, anyway.) If you call someone who doesn’t have a developmental or cognitive disability a retard for saying something you don’t agree with, you’re not only being offensive, but you’re being ineffective. Why not be more accurate? Were they dithering or faltering, perhaps? I’m not suggesting to always just “be nice,” on the contrary; I believe that sometimes one needs to let someone know exactly how they feel, and language is here to help us in that endeavor. Why throw out an inaccurate ableist slur when you could call someone a fetid shitbag instead? I see people being called that same one R-word constantly when they may be more of a feckless louse or a disingenuous blowhard. Did you find their opinion dismal, noxious, odious, or fell? Say that.
Did someone make a joke you didn’t like? Could be a lazy hack. Maybe they’re an irksome chatterbox who won’t stop bumping their gums. Lots of readers appreciated my use of the word wastrel in this piece last week, and it is indeed one of my favorite insults. Ditto uncouth and asinine.
I’d prefer to live in a world where there are no insults needed, but we’re not there yet. So, insult away, just leave the ableism out of it.