Why is it so difficult to change ableist language?

By Daniela Buchillon-Almeida, OHSU UCEDD Intern

September 19, 2022

Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) Logo consisting of yellow, blue, and green intertwined lines with OHSU written underneath in gray letters.
Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) Logo consisting of yellow, blue, and green intertwined lines with OHSU written underneath in gray letters.

Language is deeply intertwined with power. When we choose to use words that have historically been used to harm groups of people or originate from places of hate, we perpetuate the stigma and ideas of oppression and exclusion attached to said words that ultimately support a system in which one group is placed above the other. Over the last couple of decades, Americans’ understanding of the relationship between language and power has grown, and we have moved away from using many words with harmful and oppressive connotations; some communities have even begun to use words historically used against them in order to reclaim their stolen power. However, while we have made much progress, overall knowledge, understanding, and change of ableist language is limited.

If you were to ask the average American to list a few examples of ableist language, the list would consist primarily of known slurs and outdated general terms for individuals with disabilities, but how many would even consider listing words like “dumb”, “crazy,” or “lame”? These words are so common in our everyday language (e.g., using the expression “that’s crazy!” to express shock) that many would find it outrageous to call them ableist, but that does not change the fact that these words originated as ways to degrade and alienate individuals with disabilities. Using this type of ableist language, even if it is in a seemingly harmless expression of shock, maintains the idea that anything that strays from the norm should be looked down upon. We must take into account that intent does not always correlate with impact, and even our best intentions can negatively impact others. But why do so many people not know that these words have ableist connotations?

I learned the answer this summer through Oregon Health & Science University’s (OHSU) UCEDD summer internship program. During our orientation, we had a presentation about language and power as it relates to ableism, and one of the presenters pointed out that individuals with disabilities are rarely perceived as being experts in their disability; when combined with humans’ tendency to resist change, we have a system in which we end up ignoring and/or pushing against individuals with disabilities when they tell us a word, term, or phrase is harmful. A recent example can be seen in the backlash that occurred when singers Lizzo and Beyoncé promised to change the lyrics in their respective songs “GRLLLS” and “Heated,” which contained the ableist slur “spaz” historically used against individuals with cerebral palsy. Although both singers believed the word to hold a different meaning, they recognized how their language could be harmful, but many individuals criticized the change online and accused disability activists of being overly sensitive.

We may inherently want to dismiss the claims that our commonly used words are ableist because changing our language requires effort and discomfort. During my internship, I was tasked with creating a one-page summary of ableist language for providers at OHSU, and at first, I was resistant to the idea that words I used so regularly were ableist. However, as I read more on the topic, I learned the weight that my words carry and how refusing to change my language would support the continued oppression and discrimination of individuals with disabilities, so I began implementing alternative words into my everyday speech and being more mindful of my overall word choice, and I invite you to do the same. Our words hold power, so let us use it to continue moving towards a more inclusive and respectful world.