What is ableism? And why should we stop using ableist language?


  1. What is ableism? 
  2. Why is ableism bad? 
  3. What words are considered ableist?


Sadly, the world wasn’t built with people who are disabled in mind. As a result, our societies are predominantly ableist. A lot of progress is being made to create equality for people of different abilities. But one of the biggest barriers is the common use of ableist language. Read on, to find out more about what ableism is and how you can act to stop using ableist language. 

ableist language


What is ableism? 


Ableism is the descrimination in favour of non-disabled people. 

People who are not non-disabled are sometimes referred to as having a disability. According to the UK government: “You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.”

Using reductive ableist language often reinforces lots of damaging tropes which makes the lives of people with disabilities harder. 

A lot of ableism comes from the common use of ableist terms. For example, saying, ‘that’s retarded’ is using someone’s genuine medical condition (what used to be referred to as ‘retardation’) as a derogatory or humorous term. 

Until 2013, the United States of America Federal Register stopped using the term ‘mental retardation’ and replaced it with ‘intellectual disability’. This was because the term ‘mental retardation’ was used as a generalisation for people with a variety of conditions, and then became a common derogatory word which was used to mock non-disabled people by drawing comparisons to people with a disability. 

Many of the words that we grew up with as children are ableist and should not be used. 


Why is ableism bad? 


Ableism is a form of discrimination against a person – or group of people – which contributes to their ongoing oppression. This basically means that the world is unfair, and, by using ableist language, you are ignoring the unfairness – or worse, contributing to it. 

According to the charity Each Other, 49% of disabled people in Britain feel excluded from society. By using reductive ableist language, a person is undermining a genuine medical condition which can be having a very severe impact on a person’s life. Many disabled people feel like they are not fully accepted by society, and hearing ableist language which mocks or makes light of their disability probably reinforces that alienation. 

The disability pride flag is a jagged multi-coloured lightning bolt on a black canvas. The black is used to symbolise all of the disabled people who have died as a result of their disability: sometimes due to persecution; sometimes because of suicide; and sometimes because of thier disability itself. 

This black background should be a stark reminder of the struggles of people with disabilities. It is for this reason, that all of society, disbled, non-disabled, and otherwise, should avoid using ableist language and reinforces stereotypes which can be such a heavy burden for people living with a disability. 


What words are considered ableist?


The following words are all outdated terms which were used to refer to people with an intellectual disability:

  • Bonkers
  • Insane
  • Nuts
  • Crazy
  • Psycho/psychopath/psychotic 
  • Deranged
  • Idiot (and idiotic)
  • Lunatic/loonie
  • Mental
  • Retard 

All of these words, even when used in positive contexts, are considered to be ableist, and therefore offensive. 

In a positive context, someone might say ‘You got top grades? That’s insane!’ This is still problematic as it is using insanity as a metaphor. Due to its problematic history, ‘insanity’ is no longer used as a medical term. Throughout history, people who suffered from certain disabilities were classified as ‘insane’ and treated in horrific ways. There are still people today who suffer the same intellectual disabilities and it is unkind to these people and their families to use this sort of language. 

Any sort of allusion to mental illness or intellectual disability is often insensitive. For example, saying something like, ‘that’s the sort of behaviour which gets you locked up in a padded cell’, or ‘he belongs in a straight jacket’ are also deeply offensive. Padded cells are still used in psychiatric hospitals to treat patients who are at risk of severely injuring themselves. It is not considered acceptable to mock these people or casually joke about the places they are kept. As you can probably imagine, it is also really upsetting for their families and loved ones. 

Other words ro avoid include: 

  • Blind – ‘are you blind?’. This is using someone’s sensory disability to criticise someone who has sight. 
  • Cripple/crip – ‘they are a cripple’. This Refers to someone with a physical impairment which prevents them from walking. 
  • Deaf – ‘are you deaf?’. This word should only be used for people who suffer from deafness which is a sensory disability. 
  • Deformed – ‘their face is deformed’. This suggests that the ‘form’ or ‘order’ of someone’s physical condition is wrong. We need to stop talking about disabled people as being wrong.
  • Dumb - ‘that is dumb’. Dumb means someone who is unable or unwilling to speak. Colloquially, it might mean that someone is behaving like they have a disability. 
  • Lame – ‘that’s so lame’. Lame means a person or animal who is unable to walk without difficulty. 
  • Midget – ‘they are a midget’. The word ‘midget’ refers to people who are short as a result of a disability. 
  • Dwarf – ‘they are a dwarf’. Restricted growth (which is sometimes called ‘dwarfism’) refers to someone with unusually short height. 
  • Special needs – ‘they have special needs’. Using ‘special needs’ in a joking context to someone who does not have special needs undermines the suffering of people who are classified as having special needs or learning difficulties

In summary, any reference to a disability where the term is outdated or is not used specifically to describe that disability (but to compare someone to it) is considered to be ableist, and therefore wrong.