The Use of Language – Passion or Problem

By Eden Beschen
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

Language is a powerful tool. Whether it’s a formal speech or a casual conversation, the words we choose can profoundly affect those we are addressing. If you have ever had the experience of being moved by someone’s words, you know first-hand the power of language. However, while words can be moving, they can also act to isolate. Discriminatory language has often been wielded by those in power in order to separate themselves from some perceived “other”. This discriminatory language trickles down into frequent use, and many may be unaware of the origins of terms, especially as they relate to disability. Discriminatory language can therefore become exclusionary language, even though one might not purposefully mean to insult a group.

Exclusionary language in its most obvious form manifests as slurs – derogatory or insulting words that are applied to a group of people. Though it may seem obvious, in order to foster meaningful connections between people it is important to ensure that the language we use is welcoming and inclusive.

Ableism is the bias or discrimination against people with disabilities. Like racism and sexism, ableism manifests itself in a myriad of ways, including but not limited to: education, employment, bullying, low expectations, lack of accessibility in the built environment, and ableist language. As with racism and sexism, ableism often has the effect of increasing isolation of an already marginalized group. While many people are aware of exclusionary language as it relates to race, gender and sexuality, many are not aware of how deep-seated ableist language is. Ableist language can have the effect of reinforcing the idea that people with disabilities are less than human or markedly different from a perceived notion of “normal”.

Ableist language has been used to marginalize and oppress people with disabilities and continues to do so today. Unfortunately, one of the most derogatory terms referencing people with disabilities is still the frequently used,  “retard” or “retarded” (hereafter collectively referred to as “the r-word”). It is upsetting how many people still employ the r-word in their vocabulary.

The fact is, ableist language is much deeper than the r-word. There are many words and phrases used in daily life that have ableist roots. Some examples include “crazy”, “turn a blind eye to”, “dumb luck”, “lame” and “crippled by”. The definitions of these terms are derived from the description of a disability, either literally or historically. For examples of ableist language and alternative words to use, see Autistic Hoya – an invaluable resource for anyone looking to learn about exclusionary language from the perspective of a person with a disability.

Special Olympics’ Spread the Word to End the Word campaign is a powerful example of the effort to fight exclusionary language. Their website provides the reader with testimonies from people with disabilities reflecting on how the r-word affects them, as well as a multitude of resources including how to take action to end the use of the r-word.

Integrating disability studies into general education is another way to raise awareness about ableism. Most people who use the r-word likely have no close connection to a person with a disability, and therefore do not stop to think about what the word carries with it. Educating people is a very important step in preventing exclusionary language, and can be done in formal settings, like the classroom, or informal settings, like at the dinner table with friends and family.

Social connectedness is linked to accessibility – you cannot be connected if a space is not accessible – whether this space is a physical location or a discussion. Exclusionary language can render conversations inaccessible in that words and phrases have the ability to make people feel uncomfortable or make them feel they are not a part of the discussion. Advocating against the use of exclusionary language is not to advocate for censorship, but rather to advocate for the active choice of using inclusive language. The fact that ableist language is still so widespread reflects how people with disabilities are often overlooked in movements, and as a result contributes further to their isolation. Together, we can make each and every conversation accessible.