Some of our most common, ingrained expressions have damaging effects on millions of people – and many of us don't know we're hurting others when we speak.
I like being deaf. I like the silence as well as the rich culture and language deafness affords me. When I see the word ‘deaf’ on the page, it evokes a feeling of pride for my community, and calls to me as if I’m being addressed directly, as if it were my name.
So, it always stings when I’m reminded that for many, the word ‘deaf’ has little to do with what I love most – in fact, its connotations are almost exclusively negative. For example, in headlines across the world – Nevada’s proposed gun safety laws, pleas from Ontario’s elderly and weather safety warnings in Queensland – have all “fallen on deaf ears”.
This kind of ‘ableist’ language is omnipresent in conversation: making a “dumb” choice, turning a “blind eye” to a problem, acting “crazy”, calling a boss “psychopathic”, having a “bipolar” day. And, for the most part, people who utter these phrases aren’t intending to hurt anyone – more commonly, they don’t have any idea they’re engaging in anything hurtful at all.
However, for disabled people like me, these common words can be micro-assaults. For instance, “falling on deaf ears” provides evidence that most people associate deafness with wilful ignorance (even if they consciously may not). But much more than individual slights, expressions like these can do real, lasting harm to the people whom these words and phrases undermine – and even the people who use them in daily conversation, too.
Not a small problem
About 1 billion people worldwide – 15% of the global population – have some type of documented disability. In the US, this proportion is even larger, at about one in four people, with similar rates reported in the UK.
Despite these numbers, disabled people experience widespread discrimination at nearly every level of society. This phenomenon, known as 'ableism' – discrimination based on disability – can take on various forms. Personal ableism might look like name-calling, or committing violence against a disabled person, while systemic ableism refers to the inequity disabled people experience as a result of laws and policy.
Sara Nović discusses writing with students at the Rocky Mountain Deaf School in Colorado, US (Credit: Sara Nović)
But ableism can also be indirect, even unintentional, in the form of linguistic micro-aggressions. As much as we all like to think we’re careful with the words we choose, ableist language is a pervasive part of our lexicon. Examples in pop culture are everywhere, and you’ve almost certainly used it yourself.
Frequently, ableist language (known to some as ‘disableist’ language) crops up in the slang we use, like calling something “dumb” or “lame”, or making a declaration like, “I’m so OCD!”. Though these might feel like casual slights or exclamations, they still do damage.
Jamie Hale, the London-based CEO of Pathfinders Neuromuscular Alliance, a UK charity run for and by people with neuromuscular conditions, notes that the potential for harm exists even if the words are not used against a disabled person specifically. “There's a sense when people use disableist language, that they are seeing ways of being as lesser,” says Hale. “It is often not a conscious attempt to harm disabled people, but it acts to construct a world-view in which existing as a disabled person is [negative].
Using language that equates disability to something negative can be problematic in several ways.
First, these words give an inaccurate picture of what being disabled actually means. “To describe someone as ‘crippled by’ something is to say that they are 'limited' [or] 'trapped', perhaps,” says Hale. “But those aren't how I experience my being.”
Disability as metaphor is also an imprecise way to say of saying what we really mean. The phrase ‘fall on deaf ears’, for example, both perpetuates stereotypes and simultaneously obscures the reality of the situation it describes. Being deaf is an involuntary state, whereas hearing people who let pleas ‘fall on deaf ears’ are making a conscious choice to ignore those requests. Labelling them ‘deaf’ frames them as passive, rather than people actively responsible for their own decisions.
Hale adds that using disability as a shorthand for something negative or inferior reinforces negative attitudes and actions, and fuels the larger systems of oppression in place. “We build a world with the language we use, and for as long as we're comfortable using this language, we continue to build and reinforce disableist structures,” they say.
If ableist language is so harmful, why is it so common? Why might someone who would never purposefully insult a disabled person outright still find ableist expressions among their own vocabulary?
Ableist language as colloquialism functions like any other slang term: people repeat it because they’ve heard others say it, a mimicry that on its face suggests use is undiscerning. However, according to University of Louisville linguistics professor DW Maurer, while anyone can create slang term, the expression will only “gain currency according to the unanimity of attitude within the group”. This suggests ableist slang is ubiquitous because, on some level, the speakers believe it to be true.
It’s possible for individuals to be truly unconscious of these biases within themselves, and unaware of the ableism couched in their own everyday sayings. But the fact is, discussions about the negative effect of a word such as “dumb” – a term originally denoting a deaf person who did not use speech, but which now functions as slang for something brutish, uninteresting or of low intelligence – have been happening in deaf and disabled circles for centuries.
According to Rosa Lee Timm, the Maryland, US-based chief marketing officer of non-profit organisation Communication Service for the Deaf, these conversations have remained largely unexamined by the mainstream because non-disabled people believe that ableism doesn’t affect them, and ableist language perpetuates and justifies that belief.
“Ableist language encourages a culture of separation. It defines, excludes and marginalises people,” says Timm. She adds that this allows non-disabled people to be bystanders in the face of ableist culture infrastructure at large.
A boomerang effect
Although these words and phrases are obviously harmful to the groups they marginalise, non-disabled people who casually use ableist language may be negatively impacting themselves, too.
“What happens to this group of hearing, non-disabled people later in life – be it hearing loss, an accident, a health issue, aging or any number of things – when they transition to the disabled community?” says Timm. “The ableist language they used has created an oppressive environment.”
One of the most effective way to move away from ableist language is understanding the disabled community, having conversations and listening to their concerns (Credit: Alamy)
Timm notes this ‘environment’ includes an impact on their own self-worth. “Beauty standards are a good comparison, in terms of language’s psychological power,” she says. “As a parent, if I say, ‘wow, that’s beautiful’ or ‘that’s ugly’, my children see that and internalise it… This can have a profound impact, particularly if they examine themselves and feel like they don’t match the standard… The same goes for ability.”
Hale seconds the idea that nondisabled people who experience disability later in life will be harmed by the rhetoric they use today. They also note that the divisive nature of ableist language can even have a negative impact on people who will never experience disability.
“It hurts all of us when we de-humanise ways of being, and construct them wholly in the negative,” they say.
Dismantling ableist structures
Given how ingrained ableism is in our society, rooting it out may seem an overwhelming task. Being aware of the words you use each day is a necessary step in the process. “Dismantling disableist structures doesn't start with language, but building a world without them requires that we change our language,” says Hale.
Examining your own go-to phrases and attempting to replace them with less problematic synonyms is a good start. “Think about what you mean. Don't just repeat a phrase because you've heard it, think about what you're trying to convey,” says Hale.
Often avoiding ableist euphemisms just means choosing more straightforward and literal language – rather than “fall on deaf ears”, one might say “ignoring” or “choosing not to engage”.
Language is ever-changing, so eliminating ableism from your vocabulary will be an ongoing process rather than a static victory. You may stumble, but checking in with disabled people is an effective way to find your footing and continuing to build a more inclusive vocabulary. “My advice is always to listen,” says Timm. “Ask questions, avoid assumptions, and start by listening to the people who are impacted the most. Think about whether your own word choice is contributing to their oppression.”
It may feel uncomfortable, but discomfort and vulnerability necessitate introspection, which Hale points to as keys to dismantling ableist attitudes. “According to [disability equality charity] Scope, two-thirds of the British population feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person,” says Hale. “Why? If you can work out why you're uncomfortable, you're well en route to changing it.”