Avoiding ableist language

Do you think you are doing a good job if you reserve spaces for wheelchairs, and provide ramps for wheelchairs? Think again.

A sign on a varnished wood door saying, "Wheelchair ramp available, inquire within".

Identity first?

I am a person of Britishness. Does this sentence look odd? Because that is what language looks like if we were to fully adopt the Person first language that we are told to use. I also call myself an autistic person and a disabled person. I am an autistic person because my brain is wired in a way that is different to how the majority of brains are wired. It defines me, it is who I am. I also use disabled person. I used to be able-bodied, then a split second later due to a road collision my able-bodiedness was taken away. I was quite literally dis abled. For me the word is accurate.

But do not call me a cripple, I have been known to say, “Cripple coming through,” to get through a crowd, because crowds are difficult if you walk on crutches and people make way just because of the shock value, but even then it is a word of last resort, I start with a polite, “Excuse me, please,” then a firm, “Excuse me.” Whichever term I use, I mostly thank people for making way.

Using the term Cripple except on yourself, is the same problem as saying you have saved wheelchair spaces, they dehumanise. Ask the people who say spaces are saved for wheelchairs what the rest of the space with seats and they will say they are for people. So there are people and wheelchairs—wheelchair users are people too, you are saving space for wheelchair users. As for the picture I have chosen, how is someone in a wheelchair going to get in to ask for the ramp? Most wheelchair users are independent people and often travel alone yet signs like this tells them that they are expected to be chaperoned at all times. How would you like it if people expected you to be chaperoned?

The thing about identity first or person first language is that different people prefer different things. Non-disabled people need to be led by, respect and affirm each individual person with the the disabled person’s or person with disability’s choice of language they use about themselves. Why not talk to us? The bottom line is that we are just people who wish to be treated as people.

Ableist Language

Ableism is the systemic exclusion and oppression of people with disability.
Ableist language is reinforcing that through how you speak.

As with using person first or identity first language this takes some intelligence. For instance saying blind meaning a window covering is fine, saying someone is blindly following the crowd is not. Saying that engineers retarded the flow of the river is fine, calling someone a retard is not. A lot of politically correct advice is a set of hard and fast rules that they say you have to follow, missing the point, the point being that political correctness is about respecting people. A lot of political correctness is a very good thing, I remember reading a tabloid newspaper back in the early 2000s about “Political correctness gone mad,” which if you change the words political correctness to respecting people you end up with “Respecting people gone mad.” The newspaper was advocating that certain groups, in this case less wealthy people, should not be respected.

Ablist language is so common that a friend one called me their favourite crip and expected it to be taken as a compliment. All it takes is a little empathy, think about how a person with disabilities will feel when you say a word, if the answer is badly, then stop using that word, even when they are not there.

“It’s only banter,” some may say. But I find that to be more offensive than the actually insulting word, it shows that the speaker does not care that people are insulted. It is better to apologise, ableist language is so endemic in British idiomatic language that mistakes will be made, and I expect to make them myself. If you make a mistake just apologise.

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