Growing up as a hard-of-hearing kid, when I couldn’t hear something, some classmates would ask me “Are you Deaf?” as an insult, rather than just repeat what I didn’t hear. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being d/Deaf or hard of hearing. But because my classmates used this term to insult me, it was more difficult for me to embrace being part of the disability community.
Ableist language — or words and phrases that imply disability is bad — is everywhere. It’s common to hear people say things like “this is crazy” or “that person’s being an idiot.” And because it’s so common, kids pick up on these words from an early age and incorporate them into their own vocabulary.
Saying these phrases may feel like a victimless crime, but in reality, it hurts members of the disability community. Using ableist language undermines both disability acceptance and disability pride.
Luckily, there are easy alternatives you can use to replace the ableist language in your lexicon. And this isn’t a journey you have to take alone. If you hear your child saying an ableist word, you can — and should — explain that it hurts people and that there are better ways to say what they mean.
Here are five common types of ableist language that you and your child should cut from your vocabulary, and phrases that you can replace them with.
1. “Stupid,” “Dumb,” and “Idiot”
If you disagree with what someone says or does, you may jump to attack their intelligence by using terms like “stupid,” “dumb,” or “idiot.” The problem with these terms is that they’ve historically been used to invalidate the agency of people who have intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. For example, these terms have been used to argue that someone with a condition such as autism or Down syndrome is unable to have a job, vote, or even form their own opinion.
There are many other ways you can disagree with someone and not use harmful language. Say you disagree with politicians creating and voting in favor of transphobic laws. Alternatives you can use to discuss their actions include “harmful,” “ignorant,” and “dangerous.”
Even when not referring to a person, words like “dumb” can be harmful. If you call Paw Patrol “stupid,” you’re essentially saying that someone’s interest is “stupid,” which can act as an extension of them being “stupid.” Instead, you can call the show “ridiculous” or be more specific in your insult, and your child can say “silly.”
2. “Crazy” and “Insane”
You may want to talk about the “insane” amount of work you have to do, or your kid might talk about the “crazy” TikTok they saw. But both these terms have been used as slurs against people who live with mental illness, especially those with symptoms that include paranoia and/or delusions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Using these words, especially when describing other people, is ableist and may unintentionally promote mental health stigma.
If you have a ton of work on your plate, you can describe it as “overwhelming” or “too much.” These descriptions are also better at getting to the point of why the amount or complexity of work is frustrating.
If someone acts in a way that you or your kid does not understand, you can describe their actions rather than calling them “crazy.” Be specific, like “they yelled for five minutes,” instead of using ableist terms to describe them.
And if your kid wants to describe that TikTok, “wild” is a better choice that doesn’t hurt anyone.
The term “lame” was created to describe someone who is disabled, has weakness, or is unable to move — and the latter two could also be related to a disability. In daily vernacular, people sometimes use the word “lame” to mean “boring.” But being disabled isn’t boring at all, and calling something “lame” may unintentionally promote disability stigma.
Instead of using the word “lame” to describe a movie or TV show you don’t like, you can use terms like “boring” or “not my taste,” or explain in more detail why you don’t like it.
“Lame” is not the only term that’s meaning has been misconstrued in this way. Another common example is using “crutch” or “crippled” as a metaphor, such as “Don’t use your notecards as a crutch!” or “The economy was crippled by the stock market crash.” A crutch is a mobility device that can help permanently or temporarily disabled people move around, so using it negatively can be harmful and paint people who use crutches as lesser than. The term “cripple” has been reclaimed by some members of the disability community, so using it in a negative way furthers the idea that disability is somehow bad.
4. “Deaf” and “Blind” as Insults
Being d/Deaf or b/Blind is perfectly fine, but using these terms as insults is not OK. If someone asks you to repeat something or needs help locating something, your response shouldn’t be to ask if they’re d/Deaf or b/Blind as an insult. Whether or not a person actually has some level of hearing or vision loss, using these two terms as insults teaches those around us that there is something wrong with having these disabilities.
There aren’t great alternatives to these terms as insults. Instead, just repeat something or help someone locate something without insulting them, and teach your kid to do the same.
If your kid has a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, wants to sit out during gym class, or whines about doing their homework, you may want to call them “lazy” — jokingly or not. But there are many reasons why people have trouble doing or motivating themselves to do any of these things, such as having an invisible disability that causes chronic fatigue. And if you call someone “lazy,” like a work friend, they may be put in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether or not to publicly reveal their health information.
Insulting someone by calling them “lazy” doesn’t actually help them do what you want them to do. So cut the judgment and focus on saying positive things that could actually motivate someone to do what you need them to.