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Ableism in everyday language

Language is a powerful tool that enables us to express our ideas and thoughts – but it can also be used to manipulate, control, or exclude certain individuals. Language reflects our beliefs – which may be conscious or unconscious – and therefore also the way in which we perceive the world. What if this belief turns out to be an ableist one, and what can we do to make our language use more inclusive?

What is ableism?

As not everyone might be familiar with the term ableism, it makes sense to define it: according to the Cambridge Dictionary, ableism is the “unfair treatment of people because they have a disability (= an illness, injury, or condition that makes it difficult for them to do things that other people do)”. [1] While it is less well-known than sexism or racism, it is still a prevalent issue in society, mainly because many of the things we do and say are ableist without us even noticing. For instance, these might be conditions that we take for granted, such as architecture, and access to goods and services.

What does this have to do with human rights?

Ableism, whether intended or not, can be considered detrimental to basic human rights for several reasons. Article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), for instance, states that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” [2] – ableist utterances would not fit in with this spirit of brotherhood. Moreover, the fifth article states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. [2] While ableism may not be comparable to torture, it certainly fits into the category of degrading treatment.

From language to reality

Not only the UDHR offers a framework for standing up against ableism, but also national laws in Austria and legal frameworks. These state that not all forms of discrimination are on purpose and explicit. One example of a form of discrimination that is neither explicit nor on purpose, is the use of certain terms in everyday language.

While we may believe that we are acting in an inclusive, non-discriminatory way, the use of our everyday language and certain terms could inadvertently actually suggest the opposite. In fact, language dominates our reality and shapes the way we perceive the world. When we use certain terms, we don’t really think about them. However, they might further an image or imply certain attributes that are detrimental to equality.

What is wrong with the term “differently-abled”?

A majority of disabled people consider the word “differently-abled” to be ableist because it has been coined by able-bodied politicians. Furthermore, it has been used as a euphemism, therefore suggesting that disability should be treated as something negative. This is why many disabled people prefer the actual usage of “disabled” over “differently-abled” or other euphemisms. [3]

What is wrong with the word “idiot”?

Many might correctly guess that it is not nice to call someone an idiot in the first place, but the main issue with this word (or its adjective, which would be “idiotic”) is that it is used to make fun of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Alternatives that are not ableist would be “uninformed” or “ignorant”. [4]

What is wrong with the word “lame”?

Compared to idiot, lame might sound pretty harmless – but it isn’t. In fact, it is often used as a metaphor for people with physical or mobility disabilities, which is why this word should be avoided. Acceptable alternatives are, for instance, “boring” or “monotonous”. [4]

While it is not always guaranteeable to use completely inclusive language, since everyone makes mistakes and might accidentally use an offensive word or phrase, it is best to at least try, since it is one of the easiest ways to be a better ally for disabled people. While language might not be a visible form of discrimination against a certain group of individuals, even small, everyday actions can truly contribute to change. Changing our behaviour can help change our structures, which can then embody the spirit of article one of the UDHR.






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