When I fractured my ankle, I had to be in a walking boot for a couple of weeks. I was lucky to still be mobile, but I had to stay off uneven terrain while in the boot and four weeks after. I became acutely aware of hard it can be to get around even on solid ground. My footprint was literally bigger and I kept smacking my boot into things, tripping twice. Negotiating stairs was a challenge. Even simple things were a little harder. And, again, I was lucky -- this was temporary!
The experience made me acutely aware of mobility and barriers to it that you don't even notice when they don't affect you. I started rethinking my workshops -- especially the ones I teach outdoors -- with an eye toward accessibility. This brought me back to ableist language, which is sort of the other side of the accessibility coin.
Why ableist language is harmful
But first, let's talk about why you should care, too.
The AP Style Book, still my Bible despite not having worked in a newsroom for several years now, puts it pretty clearly. Ableism is “the belief that typical abilities – those of people who aren’t disabled – are superior. Ableism is a concept similar to racism, sexism and ageism in that it includes stereotypes, generalizations and demeaning views and language.”
I have some personal experience with this. Besides my own few weeks in a boot, I was a family caregiver to a person with chronic mental illness. Calling someone "crazy" or saying they're "off their meds" in casual conversation landed differently once mental illness was part of my daily life. The slangy use suddenly began to feel wrong. And as I started working with more patients of our healthcare clients, I learned how they wanted to be referenced and how ableist language hurt them. I realized the bias and stigma that language reveals.
Some ableist terms to avoid
Here are some terms I'm trying to avoid in writing and conversation:
- Off their meds
- Tone deaf
- Suffering from
- Battle and journey
The National Center on Disability and Journalism Style Guide has more guidance.
It's an ongoing process and I'm still catching myself making mistakes. If those mistakes are public, I own the error, thank the person who pointed it out, aplogize and vow to do better. Then I try to do better. You can, too.