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These 9 Careless Things You Say Are Hurting People With Disabilities

Posted by Soumadri Banerjee in Disability Rights
July 26, 2017

Just the other day, in a conversation I was having, my friend clarified himself, saying, “By ‘bad’, I don’t mean ‘psycho’ bad, but just ‘bad’, you know?” The implications of his words occurred to me only later but that is because we’ve become so desensitised to ableist terms that we don’t really pick up on them easily.

Ableism can be defined as prejudice against people who are mentally or physically disabled and the systemic oppression they have to put up with. How often have we found ourselves uttering phrases like, “What are you, blind?”, “That’s such a retarded thing to say,” “That’s just crazy talk,” or “You’re such a moron?” Such phrases are common and we use them regularly without thinking twice. Ableism in our culture is deeply pervasive. It finds expression in our speech, in our writings, and in all forms of language and communication.

Because it has been normalised to such an extent, most people using ableist language do so without being aware of the implication behind their words. Subtle insults, directed at minority groups, may seem harmless at first glance but such microaggressions, when accumulated over a lifetime, result in lower self-confidence, depression and higher mortality. Thus, language too can become a medium of oppression. Let’s take a look at the meaning behind certain words which are most definitely ableist but are very much part of everyday conversation.

“That joke was so lame!”

This is a commonly heard phrase. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to ‘lame’ jokes. ‘Lame’ was originally used to refer to people unable to walk due to physical disability or neurological disorders affecting their feet. In modern day parlance, it has come to mean unoriginal, uninteresting or dull. Next time you use the word ‘lame’ to describe a film or a song, bear in mind that you are equating people who have to rely on canes or crutches with all those negative meanings.

Alternatives: Unimpressive, Boring, Tedious, Uninspiring, Tiresome, Lacklustre, Meh

“Can you please dumb it down?”

“Dumb”, again, has been clinically used to refer to speech-related disabilities or communication disorders stemming from inherited deafness. However, today the word has become synonymous with lack of intelligence. Take the phrase “dumb as a box of rocks” or the film “Dumb or Dumber”, starring Jim Carrey. The phrase “dumb it down” is also used to suggest making things more accessible or obvious. In either case, when used in this sense, the word implies that those who are capable of verbal communication are somehow more intelligent than those who are not, which is simply not true. This applies to words like “idiot” and “stupid” as well.

Similarly, the word “moron” is often used synonymously with “dumb”. This term, however, has a clinical history. Coined in 1910 and initially used in psychology circles to refer to those with mild intellectual disabilities, it eventually became closely linked to the Eugenics movement in America. People who fell under this label were confined in state hospitals where they underwent inhumane treatment under conditions of extreme degradation and poverty. While today the word is mostly used to denote a lack of intelligence, such words resonate differently among marginalised groups because of the history associated with it.

Alternatives: Frustrating, Pointless, Silly, Ignoramus, Unwise, Irrational. Try “Can you make it more accessible?” or “Give me the skinny” instead of “Dumb it down”.

“…if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

The above quote is from the Bible (Matthew 15:14). In “Sultan”, Salman Khan’s character says that when Shahrukh Khan stares into the eyes of a girl, then even if the girl is blind, she cannot resist his charms. Cue laughter from the audience. Both these instances convey the idea that blind people are ignorant or should be laughed at. The idea that blindness has any bearing on intelligence is entirely inaccurate. Moreover, blind people are not helpless creatures but are in fact perfectly capable of managing themselves and others. They have plenty of means to get around. Look no further than Marvel’s “Daredevil” for a positive portrayal of blindness. Sure, he’s a superhero but he’s also blind and a perfectly capable lawyer.

Alternatives: Careless, Reckless, Brash, Irresponsible, Ignorant, Disinterested

“Never go full retard.”

Frequently found in internet comments sections, the word “retard”, which is actually used to refer to people with intellectual disabilities, has come to be synonymous with lack of intelligence or undesirability. This word, which is not specific to any diagnosis in particular and is used as an umbrella term, directly constitutes hate speech, insinuating that everyone who suffers from any form of mental disability is somehow lacking in intelligence.

Alternatives: Pathetic, Terrible, Dreadful, Abysmal, Horrible

“Quit acting like a psychopath!”

Remember Norman Bates? Yes, that’s right, the creepy proprietor of Bates Motel from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film “Psycho”. The trope of the potentially violent escaped mental patient, or the killer with split personalities is widely prevalent in media. These tropes help perpetuate the idea that people with mental illnesses are violent and, conversely, that violence is only committed by people with mental illnesses. Not only are such representations inaccurate, they stigmatise people who may be suffering from disorders, thus making it much less likely for them to come forward and seek treatment.

The word ‘psychopath’ has been used to other and demonise people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Psychosis or even manic depression and anxiety. These are distinct disorders, which are, in reality, far removed from the popular conception of the psychopath. Psychopathy is not even considered to be a real medical disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include psychopathy as a proper medical diagnosis.

Alternatives: Unpredictable, Erratic, Irrational

“My friend has been acting so bipolar lately!”

Bipolar disorder is a genuine medical condition which causes unpredictable shifts in mood, energy and activity. People who suffer from bipolar disorder often experience extreme depression followed by a period of elevated mood. Since 1990, bipolar disorder has led to an increase of 14.3% in the annual years of healthy life lost per 100,000 people in India. When you casually remark about bipolar disorder, you trivialise the experiences of those who have to actually deal with the mental ups and downs of this condition.

Alternatives: Unpredictable, Moody, Temperamental

“This must be crazy, right?”

I know what you’re thinking – even “crazy”? It just goes to show how desensitised we’ve become to the usage of such words in everyday conversations. The word actually means “mad” or “insane” and can act as an umbrella term to cover a broad range of mental illness from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Again, using this word casually further adds to the stigmatisation of mental illness and belittles people who do have to live with such disorders. When you do have the option of choosing your language, why not choose words which are less alienating in effect?

Alternatives: Thrilling, Exhilarating, Ridiculous, Absurd, Preposterous

“What are you, deaf or something?”

Like the word “blind”, this is another word commonly shouted out during traffic jams. Or think of a term like “tone-deaf” which is directed at people perfectly capable of hearing. Again, a deaf person is not deaf by choice. “Deaf”, like, “blind” becomes synonymous with ignorance which is both morally and factually incorrect. The implicit suggestion in this comparison is that one must be deaf to exhibit such behaviour which is not even close to the truth. People who have hearing disabilities are not necessarily less intelligent or incapable of getting things done.

Alternatives: Rash, Careless, Reckless, Impulsive, Irresponsible, Ignorant, Uninformed

“Lol! Triggered!!!”

‘Triggered’ jokes are commonplace on most internet meme pages today. As jokes, they are used in a derogatory sense to refer to feminists who, very rightly, take offence at patriarchal cultural attitudes. However, the origin of trigger warnings dates back to the early 1900s, when psychologists were dealing with, what was then called, ‘war neurosis’ in soldiers who had served in the war. The psychologists were trying to figure out which events exactly triggered painful memories or flashbacks from the war. It eventually led to the discovery of what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today, trigger warnings are common on social media and blogging platforms, serving as a forewarning to users about content that might exacerbate their mental health issues. Trigger warnings are potential lifesavers for victims of traumatic experiences such as sexual assault or hate crimes, along with those suffering from mental illnesses like anxiety or bipolar disorder. To use ‘triggered’ as a joke is extremely callous as it downplays the very real consequences of trauma from physical, emotional or mental abuse.  

Alternatives: None. Do not use ‘triggered’ as a joke.

Ableist language further contributes to the marginalisation of people with disabilities, making it harder for them to come forward and discuss their struggles. People with disabilities have first hand experience of the stigma and prejudice such language helps create.

For instance, a person I spoke to, who has been diagnosed with spina bifida, a spinal disorder which affects one’s ability to walk, had this to say: “On most days, walking is extremely hard or entirely out of the question. I’m mostly wheelchair bound and on rare occasions, use a stick to hobble around. When people look at me, I often get the feeling that they think there is something wrong with me. They think I’m different and sometimes use this as an excuse to bully me and call me names. These words are like a punch to the gut. They make me feel I was born wrong and that I am somehow less than human.”

The fact that not all disabilities are visible makes it all the more important that we do not trivialise disabilities through our speech.

60 million Indians suffer from mental health disorders of some type or the other. Our government expenditure on mental health care is only 0.06% and there is a significant lack of coverage on mental health issues.

In 2015, doctors predicted that India was well on its way to becoming the suicide capital of the world with depression and other mental health issues being the primary reason behind 90% of the suicides.

Often, a person suffering from depression is asked to ‘get over it’, as if it’s their own fault for being weak and susceptible enough to depression. Depression, however, does not come with a switch that one can choose to flick on and off at will but requires proper medical care and treatment.

In such an environment, where misconceptions about mental health abound, ableist language helps perpetuate negative stereotypes about those suffering from psychosocial disabilities and further stigmatises any helpful talk around mental illness. After all, a person suffering from anxiety or depression would be much less likely to come forward and discuss these issues when their very illness is trivialised and treated as a joke.

Not being immune to cultural influences, I know that I have used ableist terms in the past, and on occasions, still do. But as far as language is concerned, it is not something immutable but is fluid and can evolve with time.

Until a few years ago, “gay” was commonly used in the negative sense until it was pointed out that such language was rooted in homophobia. Today, a lot more people are sensitive about using the word in a similar manner. In the same way, ableist language is rooted in prejudice against people with mental or physical disabilities.

What we need is for people with disabilities of all varieties to be able to come forward and share their experiences in a comfortable environment. It is not merely ‘political correctness’ which is at stake here. Words are not merely just words, but in fact, they help shape and inform our very perception of the world. We need to be aware of the meaning behind the words we use, their implications, the messages they send and the long term consequences they might have. Tempering our speech, in lieu of that, is not censorship, but an act rooted in self-awareness and empathy.