Content Warning: Use of derogatory terms, discussion of reproductive rights, Covid19, sterilization, abuse, and forced hospitalizations.
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In a world full of uncertainty and chaos, the last thing we should worry about is how we interact with our words to each other. This is not a new concept in the disability community that words matter especially when it comes to ableist language such as using terms like crazy, dumb, insane, idiot, stupid, lame, retarded, hysterical etc. There is a huge history behind these words and how they’ve harmed the disability community by being oppressive, dehumanizing, derogatory, demeaning, and dismissive. These words have been used to treat both the disabled and non-disabled community members as other-than or less-than, and to degrade the person in order to gain a sense of control, or to feel superior to the person being insulted by virtue or political correctness.
What I want to make clear is that this is not about being offended or being politically correct, but to understand that there is a history behind using these words in order to create harm to the disability community particularly in the medical community. These words that people nonchalantly use in everyday language were used to sterilize people, had taken away reproductive rights, had people committed to institutions, had forced people to be hospitalized, lobotomized, and electrocuted. Furthermore, these words were used to dismiss medical concerns, take children away from their parents, take away educational and work opportunities, and were used to dehumanize people with disabilities to the point where physical abuse was justified, and some of this is still happening today.
Every time that we use ableist language we are perpetuating the harm and oppression that many people with disabilities continue to experience. At this time where people with disabilities are at extreme risk of dying with Covid19, terms such as #Covidiot have been popping up in social media to call out people who are not adhering to government mandated social distancing, which should be called physical distancing to be more clear. The term is ableist as the word idiot means person of low intelligence, or lacks basic intelligence, this term is used against people with disabilities particularly in the intellectual, developmental, and learning disabilities community to denote that they are less-than non-disabled people which is again demeaning, dehumanizing, and oppressive.
So why do words matter when clearly there are more pressing matters, such as people literally dying of Covid19?
The answer is that people with disabilities deserve human dignity and that there is never a good reason to use ableist and oppressive language. We live in a culture that systematically devalues people with disabilities as it is, and to perpetuate more hate during a time of crisis is not going to solve what people are experiencing currently. However, it is important to recognize the frustration with people who are not following physical distancing, or who are abhorrently disregarding the rules set out by the government, and if people need to express their feelings about it then by all means, but there are ways to do this without using ableist language. If people insist on using ableist language than I implore them to think about how the language has been used to take away the dignity and rights of people with disabilities and how it has impacted their lives and their family’s lives. I further invite people to think about why it is so important to them to keep using oppressive language in order to get their point across.
Everyone has the capacity to change their language, it costs absolutely nothing, but it makes a huge difference, especially in this time of crisis. Right now, everyone deserves support and to be treated with dignity, and we can do this so simply using our words in person, in texts, and online.
For further reading about why ableist language is oppressive please take a moment to check out the content below:
On Ableist Language link: https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/on-ableist-language/
Your Ableism Hurts link: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/yourableismhurts
Ableism and Disability History link: https://flexforward.pressbooks.com/chapter/ableism-and-disability-history/
On the History of the Term Moron Link: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/the-sinister-history-of-the-word-moron-explained