11 Things You Say Every Day That You Don’t Realize Are Ableist

I think we all have that token friend who’s butt hurt about political correctness. You know, the ones who are all like, “Waaaah! Free speech! Can’t you take a joke? I can’t say anything without it being offensive to someone! It’s not fair! I’m oppressed because I can’t say what I want!” That friend also definitely read this headline and was like “WTF is ableist? I can’t be openly prejudiced about another group of people? OK… *grumble grumble*

Ableism is the word used to describe discrimination and prejudice against those with physical and/or mental disabilities and disorders. Ableist language is the words you use, sometimes casually and without any negative thought, that enforces certain stereotypes, attitudes, and oppression on the large and small scale against people with disabilities. (And remember: not every disability is visible!) It perpetuates the idea that able bodies are somehow better and disabled/disordered bodies are worth mocking. It implies that they lead less full lives and are somehow less capable of being fully human or worthy of respect, which is completely incorrect.


That anti-PC friend is annoying most of the time, but before you come at them with vitriol and shout-y caps lock, take a look at your own language. I feel for those anti-PC people sometimes. It’s hard to unpack a learned behavior and actually have the room to learn and grow with the language you use when the Internet is busy jumping down your throat every time you step out of line. So long as an attempt is made in all earnestness to be unoffensive towards people with disabilities, let’s all work on removing these words from our vocabulary.

Full disclosure: I’m able bodied and I am learning, too. Please let me know in the comments section if anything is off or was explained incorrectly. But to help fellow able bodied people think more carefully about our word choice, here’s 11 things you say every day that you don’t realize are ableist.

1. “You’re so retarded.” 


The R-word is a slur used against a minority group, just like any other racial or religious based slurs you can think of. Plain and simple, it’s hate speech and an umbrella word used to marginalize people with mental disabilities and disorders. Not specific to any one diagnosis in particular, it ignores individuality while also implying that all of these people uniformly are inherently less intelligent than you (and you can’t quantify intelligence, even with an IQ test. And honestly, what does your IQ number even mean?).

What you mean to say is that someone is behaving foolishly or something else in your life is proving to be difficult or undesirable ex: “My car is being so retarded lately.” Say useless, pathetic, horrible, or terrible instead of the R-word, because the R-word doesn’t mean any of those things.


2. “Quit being such a psycho.” 

shh gif

Psychosis is a real diagnosis that means a person has thought patterns and emotions that are so disordered that they are significantly less founded in reality than someone who doesn’t have psychosis. Prone to delusions, hallucination, and increased paranoia, psychosis can be treated with proper medication and treatment. To call someone a “psycho” compares them in an unfavorable way to those with this disorder, and why would you want to imply someone’s diagnosis makes them an inherently frightening person? And it’s not in their control to have it or not have it – no one chooses to be disabled. You mean to say that a person is being unpredictable and irrational. Just say that instead.


3. “Can you dumb it down?” 


Clinically, ‘dumb’ just means unable to speak using verbal language, most often from congenital deafness. Period. How you use it: to mean ‘stupid.’ To call someone or something dumb maligns the deaf and dumb community with being less intelligent, which is totally false. Just because you are able to speak using words instead of sign language or other non-verbal communication does not make you inherently better than those who are not able to do so. Instead of asking for something to be dumbed down, ask for it to be simplified.


4. “OMG are you deaf? I told you 3 times already!” 


Again, this implies that those who are completely deaf or hard of hearing are somehow intellectually impaired by their relative deafness. Deaf people can be super smart, excellent communicators, and lead rich, full lives. Don’t use their diagnosis to bring someone else down – that’s not nice. Hearing people are not somehow “better” than deaf people. Unless you’re factually stating that someone is literally deaf, it’s probably best not to use this word to mean anything other than a medically quantifiable ability to hear or not hear.


5. “The blind leading the blind.”

stop talking

Like blind people can’t get around and will lead each other in circles if left to their own devices. This phrase is used to describe willful ignorance begetting more willful ignorance yet it somehow implicates people who are unable to see as well as those of us who have functioning eyesight. Blind people are not willfully ignorant by default and they don’t idly putter around in darkness without a means to get around. There are plenty of ways to navigate your body through space if  you happen to be blind, so don’t imply that blind people are completely helpless and need able-bodied help to assist them through life.


6. “Special needs/special bus.” 


Treatment and care for people with disabilities is frequently categorized as special needs. While the term itself is not ableist, it perpetuates the idea that taking care of people with disabilities is a notch above what should be expected. That level of care can frequently be deemed ‘extra’ or unnecessary. It’s the cherry on top of care, treatment, and education programs already in place for able bodied people and is therefore extraneous and basically charity work. Nope. People in wheelchairs, for example, should be able to go into whatever restaurant they want to and the restaurant should not refer to their accessibility ramp as “special accommodations.”


7. “Ethan suffers from… Maggie is the victim of…” 

kanye no gif

This phrasing puts the diagnosis or an event leading to a disability in front of the person affected by it. It puts an emotion and distinct behind a fact and unless you are that exact person, you should not be the one controlling their narrative about how they discuss what happened to them. Rather than saying suffers from/victim of, say “has” – it keeps it as fact. Ethan doesn’t suffer from muscular dystrophy, he has muscular dystrophy. Maggie is not the victim of PTSD, she has PTSD. Get it?


8. “She’s just a little… challenged.” 


Challenged is a pejorative word used to describe a disability as something that must be overcome or surmounted and that the person with the disability must be “brave” and face the day in spite of it. People with disabilities get up in the morning and live their lives just like you and me. While they may be presented with a different set of obstacles, and people with disabilities may very well be brave people, the word ‘challenged’ reminds me of this lovely TEDx talk from Stella Young where she rejects the idea that she’s inspirational simply because she doesn’t feel sad about her disability.


9. “That’s so lame.”

shaking head

Originally used to describe people unable to walk in a typical way due to injuries or muscular/neurological disorders affecting the legs and feet, this word is more frequently used to say that something is unoriginal, uninspired, unexciting, lifeless, and awful. And unless you want to say that all people who use canes, crutches, walkers, etc to assist them are also all of those things, it may be best to not say ‘lame’ to mean something bad. Say something is boring instead of calling it lame next time you’re tempted to say it.


10. “I’m just really OCD about my food.”

eye roll

While your personal tics and eccentricities may be similar to those who have been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you shouldn’t be casually saying you’re OCD about something, unless you really are. You strongly prefer for a certain thing to be a certain way, but if it’s not, you are not neurologically unable to function without it. For example, you would prefer for your turkey to not be touching your mashed potatoes, but if they do happen to accidentally touch, you don’t have to throw the food out. You can still look at it. You can still eat that day. Just say that you’re particular, that you’re anal retentive, or that you micro-manage instead of saying that you’re OCD (unless you really do have OCD).


11. “My sister has been so bipolar lately.”


Bipolar disorder aka manic-depressive disorder is something that affects 5.7 million adults aged 18 and older in the U.S. alone. Personally, I have plenty of people in my life who have bipolar disorder and they each lead varied, full lives. They are not defined by their diagnosis alone. What you mean to say is that someone is being moody or that there are abrupt and sudden changes in traffic/the weather for example, but just say that next time instead of calling something bipolar.


Which of these did we get incorrect? What phrases did we forget to include? What do you disagree with? Tell us in the comments!

You can follow the author, Aliee Chan, on Twitter.


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  • Hail Satan

    Context. These words aren’t intended to be discriminatory and aren’t in popular culture; therefore, they aren’t.

  • Regan Kirwin

    As a special needs child and as a special needs adult, I call it special needs. We have needs, that are special, that need to be met. Don’t be so easily butthurt.

  • Aidan Lewis Cox

    This list is pretty retarded.