Ableist language alternatives

Iris: A Gaming Network is a discussion board that seeks to subvert the status quo in gaming in attempt to find ways to rid the gaming industry of it’s strong racist/homophobic/sexist/ableist biases with a particular focus on feminist concerns. In my travels there, I noticed this discussion. It offers some alternatives to ableist or otherwise bigoted language, with some interesting discussion on regional variation following. I’ve appended the list of alternative slurs for your reference.

For more on Ableist language, check out this recent post from Feminist Philosophers. In both places, the discussion around language seems to get people quite excited. I’m not sure what it is- it is as if asking someone to avoid being an ass is somehow like putting a barrier on their freedoms which is offensive in it’s own right. Although they may believe in principle that being an ass ought to be avoided, they also believe in principle that restricting one’s freedom to be an ass is ethically indefensible. I’m not sure how to help people to get out of this particular bind in reasoning. Any suggestions?

General Non-bigoted Slurs
Waste of space

Instead of “Crazy”, “Nuts”, “Psycho”, “Insane”, etc.
Out there
Over the top
A bit much

Instead of “Retarded”

Instead of “Bitching” or “Nagging”
Moaning about

Instead of “Lame”

Silly/Fun General Non-Bigoted Slurs


29 thoughts on “Ableist language alternatives

  1. With respect to ableist hate speech, this article in the NY Times, is especially timely..
    Shelley Tremain

    Nationwide ‘Thunder’ Boycott in the Works
    LOS ANGELES — A coalition of disabilities groups is expected as early as Monday to call for a national boycott of the film “Tropic Thunder” because of what the groups consider the movie’s open ridicule of the intellectually disabled.

  2. Speaking as someone who argued for altering one’s language on the FP blog, I want to say a bit in defense of the others, but I thought there was just one. We’ve had discussions about abelist language before and the impression they can give is that almost any metaphor based on an abelist trait is offensive. That includes: “blind review” and also, presumably, “leaping to a conclusion,” “hearing what you said” and so on. That does make the task of watching one’s language pretty hard, since it is arguable that the language is full of metaphore based on people without disabilities at least in some dimension. E.g., “Two steps forward and one step back.” Is “putting my foot in my mouth” an abelist metaphor.

    I really think people felt they were asked to undertake a huge task. My sympathies with their position weren’t great, but it wasn’t a matter of just finding a different way of being critical about someone’s thought.

    In fact, given the larger question is in the background, I was very surprised to see “feeble” and “weak” on the list of OK words.

  3. I agree with your defense of the argument on your post. It was after viewing the discussion on both the sources that I mention here that I noticed the pattern I describe above, though admittedly more so on the other site than on your own. I think that whenever people are asked to change their language the “it’s too much work, and for what?” response comes up. The language, after all, isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of a greater (in this case) ableist issue. Hopefully in the call for linguistic change a greater awareness of the range of ways that ableist thinking manifests in everyday life will promote further action. When seen in light of the greater stakes involved in promoting less biased language, it becomes less about the tedious and difficult task of taking on the minutia of language, and more about a greater project that we can all agree is worthy.

    Regarding the use of weak and feeble in the list above, I’m not sure why they were included or why they ought to be excluded, and I leave that up for discussion. This list was written up by the folks at Iris, and in fact they discussed it further as well- I don’t think it’s meant to be taken as perfect or complete. Given the way that location and history imbue language with different meanings, it may be the case that those terms just don’t mean the same thing to them that they do somewhere else. I do not think weakness is an ableist term, though I think it can be used in ableist ways. I don’t think that saying “this tea is weak” makes sense to us because we understand that weakness mean “weak people” which is worse than “strong people”. But it could be the case that in some locations the lines of meaning do run that way, and if so I’d really like to know.

    That said, I don’t think the question of how to speak more inclusively will ever be completed by creating a list of forbidden words, and I don’t think that the reason why we should be fighting for it to begin with would be satisfied by that outcome either.

  4. Good points. I did go over to the OEP and check on “weak” which has an obsolete sense of bendable and then the first meaning refers roughly to moral character and the second to physical strength. Your ‘tea’ example led me to expect otherwise.

    I think “blind” to mean window covering was a separate sense by 300 years ago, and that’s one that’s been declared offensive, I think. I’m not sure. But my indecision on the topic vanished when I realized that if it were in my interest, I’d certainly change. So it seems one should do it when it is in others’ interests.

  5. Hmm. Looks pretty clear to me that ‘weak’ is being suggested as an alternative pejorative, which can be substituted for ‘lame’. So the fact that ‘weak tea’ is fine doesn’t really show, I’d think that their suggested is use fine. (And even ‘weak tea’ isn’t always fine. If instead of saying ‘this tea is lame’ I say ‘this tea is weak’, then the meaning I intend seems like a problematic one.) Tricky, tricky issues! Thanks for posting on this.

  6. I found the post on this subject over at Feminist Philosophers so self-important and condescending (ableist) that I feel compelled to respond to it here. The post sets out to show what it already assumes, namely, that eliminating ableist language is an impossible task, but a noble one. In order to arrive at this conclusion, FP makes some surprising claims. Consider this one:

    “But the list itself raises interesting issues– arguably (see JJ in comments) some of the terms on the list of suggested alternatives are also ableist. This shows just how hard it is to avoid ableist language, and how hard to even figure out what it is.”

    Why would anyone make inferences like that from one case? Why not simply decide that this is a poor list? We might, eventually, also want to conclude that we should continue to develop strategies other than “alternative lists of insults”; but could we have gotten there from having examined ONE rather compromised list? The list also contains words which, according to gay male friends I’ve had, should be considered homophobic. Should we conclude, then, that it is “hard to avoid” and “hard to even figure out” how to rid language of ableist words in ways that aren’t homophobic or rid language of homophobic words in ways that aren’t ableist??

    The introductory sentence, taken with climax and denouement of the post, are what I found most breathtaking:

    (Intro:) “I posted a little while back on the tricky issue of ableist language.” [one week ago, hardly a research schedule] … “Virtualjess at What Sorts of People wonders why there is a lot of resistance to reforming one’s language to avoid ableism, and I’d suggest this is one reason. It’s daunting to contemplate trying to drastically change one’s language when it’s not even clear exactly what changes to make. Avoiding ableism can seem impossible when those advocating it may not even be succeeding…”

    I am repeatedly amazed at how quickly and the ease with which some nondisabled people assume positions of authority over disabled people in order to evaluate them, their claims, and their practices. Note that the last sentence refers to “ableism” when what has been discussed is only one manifestation of it, namely, “ableist language”. This transposition allows the author to imply the following astonishing idea: we don’t need to apologize for our ableism. And why should we let them get down on us about this? They don’t even understand this stuff [i.e. their own alleged oppression, rather than one manifestation of it, namely, ableist language] themselves!

    But here the noble (and patronizing) ending: “And not wanting to do something impossible? That’s pretty understandable. In fact, I think it’s well worth making the effort even if perfection is not obtainable. But being a bit overwhelmed and confused by what’s called for is an understandable response, and one that I think we need to discuss and address.”

    I’m sure disability theorists and activists the world over will sleep more peacefully tonight knowing that their analytic inadequacies have been accounted for, “validated,” and excused, and that some others are now going to take over and do some really serious work on the subject.

    Shelley Tremain

  7. Let me see if I’m getting the hang of these alternative slurs, ones that we can all feel comfortable with.

    Shelley thinks that the asshat over at Feminist Philosophers who posted on this is kvetching in a self-important and condescending manner that makes it a non-wacknoodle alternative to post over here instead, where Virtual Jess also has plonkered the mooks who have festooned this fartsniffing topic. But did Virtual Jess find JJ and Jender’s contributions to be pimplesqueezing or merely buttsmearing? That’s my only remaining confusion. Unless I scuzzlefiddled the drompet a while ago. (Ok, I just made that up.)

    I hope my own asinine limitations here do not poindexter me as an asswipe (merely a bozo), and that even the gits and skeeves who JUST DON’T GET IT share my sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  8. Rob, you make me laugh.

    Thank you so much, Shelly, for your response. As you might have noticed from my response to the more recent Feminist Philosopher’s post, I was getting exceedingly uncomfortable with where the conversation was going. My main area of concern, of course, was that I just don’t like talking about people- I’d much prefer to talk with them 🙂 Which is why I linked the posts here. These issues are difficult, but I think that they really do become impossible if you try to sort them out without talking with the people you’re talking about. And in this case, it seems, insult has been added to injury precisely because of this mistake.

  9. I notice your smiley faces; unfortunately, they get triggered by various punctuation signs. It’s one of WordPress’s optional features, in case you are wondering.

  10. Oh yes! I’m not sure about Shelly’s but my smiley faces are both intended and sincere. Comes from being of the generation who learned to type on icq. We tend to think that smiley faces can be used in typed messages to indicate where one would smile in a conversation, just as apostrophes can indicate a pause. But thank you for your concern 🙂

  11. I must say I love the idea of a list of “non-bigoted slurs”. When I was younger and very earnest, I tried to avoid using words that denoted parts of the body during moments of anger or extreme need to curse, on the grounds that it was wrong to derogate body parts and functions (esp. because such derogation usually redounds badly on women). Now I try to avoid using words that denote parts of the body in moments of anger because I’ve got a three-year-old who is an excellent mimic.

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  13. Along the lines of jj’s comment, I’m surprised to see “stupid” and “unintelligent” held up as appropriate terms to use. Isn’t it ableist to use words referring to the mentally disadvantaged as terms of derision and denigration?

    Might not “Pimplesqueeze” have the potential to be embarrassing or hurtful to those who, through no fault of their own, suffer or suffered from severe acne? Or “poor” to those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds?

    It’s quite interesting that, even in an attempt to remove the offense of “ableist” language, there are still some classes of people regarding whom it seems perfectly acceptable to use their afflictions and life situations as epithets.

    (For that matter, why isn’t “dumb” proscribed, as being potentially offensive to those who cannot speak?)

  14. hey all. this way posted a long time ago, but reading this list makes me wanna reiterate concern for using ass negatively. or any body part. but particularly ones like asshole. using this word as an insult attaches badness with deviant ways of having sex, which keeps us from doin stuff with our bodies that feels good. ive felt the shutting down (in myself and others) that happens when someone angrily/aggressively uses words like that. thanks!

  15. Actually, you could see ass as an anthropocentric slur–as in mule, dog, pig, chicken. The one that always made me scratch my head was the British bird. I always wondered what using that expression to refer to a good looking woman implied about British uses for poultry.

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  17. I gotta say this post is extremely offensive considering the use of stupid in your list. stupid is a very ableist word and I really don’t think you should use retarded words like that.

  18. Jerk and bozo are slang for a dull or stupid person.

    Ponce is slang for either a pimp or an effeminate person, so it’s at least a homophobic slur.

    Plonker is slang for a fool or a man who sanctions sexual relationships between his girlfriend and his male friends. I’ve also seen it used for poor/homeless people.

    Git is derived from “illegitimate offspring” and is no better than bastard.

    Poor is classist. What’s wrong with not being well-off? There’s nothing wrong with being weak either.

    Please do your research before claiming that certain words aren’t bigoted/offensive.

  19. I’m surprised that no-one has decried ‘chode’ yet. It’s a slang term for penis. As someone on the trans-feminine spectrum it’s a huge dysphoria trigger to me to be referred demeaningly as a male-anatomy term like that.

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  22. A trans friend of mine just called out the word “chode” as being trans and intersex bashing. Probably should lose that word from this list.

  23. So to avoid offending anyone we should all talk like Vulcans.

    Seriously, does ANYONE with a mental illness take offense to–or even give any thought to–words like “crazy” or “insane?” None that I know do.

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