This piece was written as a guest post for Indiana University South Bend’s American Democracy Project blog.
Content Note: This post contains ableist slurs.
Edited on March 7, 2016 to reflect a better understanding of language that includes non-verbal communication.
Ah, presidential campaign season. It is time, once again, for people in suits to trot out ideological rhetoric, proclaim heartfelt empty promises, and spew harmful ableist language on a national stage.
In the world of politics, those first two sentiments are probably not unfamiliar. The last one, however, might have you tilting your head in confusion. After all, Microsoft Word’s red squiggle underline is currently telling me that “ableist” isn’t even a word, so it seems likely many of you won’t be familiar with it, either.
What is ableist language?
Let us first define “ableism.” According to the Canadian website Stop Ableism Inc.:
Ableism is a set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.
In other words, ableism is oppression of and discrimination against disabled people, in both actions and attitudes.
Following on from that, we can create a simple definition of ableist language.
Ableist language consists of words, phrases, sounds, signs, gestures and symbols used to oppress and discriminate against disabled people.
Lydia Brown, an autistic activist, has blogged extensively about ableist language. She has created a helpful glossary of ableist words and suggested alternatives.
What does this have to do with politics?
A lot. Political pundits, candidates, and their supporters—not to mention journalists—have no problem using the words “idiot,” “crazy,” “stupid,” “insane,” and even “retard” (as talking head Ann Coulter did in a famous 2012 incident).
During the September 16 CNN Reagan Library debate, which featured Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls, the Twitter hashtag #GOPDebate filled up with people using the word “stupid” to describe the participants’ words and actions. Afterward, candidate Donald Trump remarked on the “stupid questions” asked during the debate.
— The Washington Times (@WashTimes) September 21, 2015
This behavior is not unusual, but it is harmful. When we call people “stupid” to discredit them or their ideas, what we are really saying is that we do not value people with low intelligence. We are saying that an individual’s worth is directly proportionate to their intellect, an idea that is often used to harm people with diagnosed intellectual disabilities and learning disorders. This concept is used to strip disabled people of their rights.
— Slate (@Slate) September 18, 2015
Similarly, when we use the ableist words “crazy” and “insane” to express disdain for concepts and people, we are further harming people with mental health conditions. Such language suggests that mentally ill people cannot be logical, thoughtful, or trustworthy. Not only that, but fear of connection with the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses prevents many people from seeking needed mental health care. I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever want to be the reason anyone is afraid to take care of themselves.
In her post “Violence in Language: Circling Back to Linguistic Ableism”, Brown writes:
Using the language of disability (either directly or through metaphor) as a way to insult other people, dismiss other people, express your vehement loathing for them/their viewpoints, or invalidate their viewpoints is actually extremely ableist (and often sanist, neurotypicalist, audist, or vidist).
As any student of politics is aware, words are imbued with meaning. Our word choices speak volumes about our attitudes and prejudices. This campaign season, I hope you will choose words that accurately convey your thoughts—without resorting to harmful ableist language.