Revising & Ableist Language

Words have great power. The power to help, the power to heal, and the power to hurt. Use this power carefully. Anthony Douglas Williams. (quote centered above a printed page)First, let me get this out of the way, using language in an inclusive way is not about political correctness.  Saying or doing something out of an obligation to political correctness seems to suggest a desire not to offend someone because you don’t want to seem like a jerk in public, but you might hold different views within the deep, dark recesses of your heart.  Inclusive language comes from a place of compassion, love, and respect.  Or at least this is where I’m starting from.

Second, let me get this out of the way too.  Language is living.  It’s dynamic and evolving.  Every year, new words are added to the dictionary.  New slang and neologisms emerge in the day-to-day lexicon all the time.

Third, while new words are often generated with ease, getting rid of out-moded words is like trying to dust with the fan on — a futile endeavor.

Fourth, stop reading if at any point you think I’m being too “sensitive”.  I’m not.  Language matters.

Now, that we have gotten some of these premises out of the way, let’s think about ableism and ableist language.   AutisticHoya defines it as:

Ableism is systematic, institutional devaluing of bodies and minds deemed deviant, abnormal, defective, subhuman, less than. Ableism is *violence.*

So, not to get too academic here… ableist language, then, is a systemic, institutional tool used to devalue then the bodies and minds of those that a society deems atypical, whether due to variances in cognitive, neurological, physical, or some other construct.  Put more simply, just as racist language devalues those individuals from historically marginalized racial groups, ableist language devalues those whose abilities differ from what is considered the social norm.

Whew, okay, now that we’ve gotten the definitions, terms, and such out of the way, let’s talk about how this comes up in our every day speech and writing.  But if you need more reasons to stop using it, check out Everyday Feminism’s 10 Questions about why Ableist Language Matters, Answered.

So once you’ve decided, “Hey, not cool.  I don’t want to say or write this way anymore,” don’t be surprised when you catch the words, “that’s so crazy” or “don’t be lame” coming out of your mouth.  Or maybe you’ll cringe when you feel so “schizo” because you changed your mind or your “OCD” because you double checked the locks on the front door.  Remember, how I said language is inherently conservative to change, it’s hard work.  But it’s important work.

Some big picture thoughts…

You will want to think about how you represent disabled characters in your work.  If their flaw has to do with overcoming their disability, yeah, that’s a problem.  Don’t do that.  That is actually a flaw with your writing, not with the character.  Talk to some people who are disabled as your character is.  The same applies here with what motivates them.

Also, if one of the ways you show your MC as so giving and generous is that they are nice to some secondary disabled character, that’s a problem too.  You don’t get to be a special snowflake because you’re friends with a disabled person.

If you don’t have any familiarity with the disability, please for the love of humanity, talk to the population you are *trying* to represent.  Don’t just do one hour of research and call it good enough (because trust me, it’s not).

Also, if you think of disability as only a hindrance to the achievement of anything, let’s talk.  Seriously.  Or actually, better yet, listen to autistics or whoever you’re representing to how they see themselves, their strengths, etc.

Line level picture thoughts…

Familiarize yourself with the most common ableist terms.  There are a lot of great lists of ableist language out there.  Here are two:

Familiarize yourself with some of the more creative alternatives.  There are a lot of these lists around too.  Bookmark them and have them up for when you are writing.  Or highlight the word you wish to replace and come back to it when you have time to think through what you are really trying to describe.

Revise with an eye toward more inclusive language.  Use the lists of common ableist terms along with your handy dandy CTRL+F to search your document for the words.  Scrub your whole manuscript.

  • A note on Person-first language:  Person-first language is saying for example someone “has autism” versus “is autistic.”  It’s often a contested front that can sometimes depend on the disability being represented.  Again, when in doubt, turn to the community of people you’re trying to represent.  For autism, I read loads of blog posts to support not using person-first, so I don’t.

Get feedback and more feedback and listen.  Know that you may likely screw stuff up.  You’re learning.  It’s part of the process.  So make sure you find some great betas who can help you and then listen to them.  Don’t be tempted to dismiss them under the banner of “That wasn’t my intention, so it’s fine…” because your readers aren’t in your head.  They don’t know your intention.  They just know how they feel when they read what you wrote.

  • A note on exploiting labor:  Your relationship to those providing you feedback should be mutually beneficial.  It’s not anyone’s job to educate you on ableist privilege.

So my hope here is to show you the basics what you can do to strive toward avoiding ableist language in your writing.  In a future post, I’ll get into the nitty gritty and more of how I’ve put these into practice for my own manuscript.

alt terms for ableist language




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