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Ableism is the discrimination against people with disabilities based on the believe that typical abilities are superior” – Access Living

Continuing the “Say This Instead” series that was highly popular last year, it’s time to talk about “ableist” language, which encompasses many different words, euphemisms, and phrases. The world wasn’t designed with people with disabilities in mind – society is inherently “ableist”. This means that the lens with which we view the world, the way that we communicate, and the structures that shape society pose challenges every day most of us don’t realize for people with disabilities. As we move toward a more inclusive society, we hold ourselves accountable for being more aware of these challenges so that we can remove how we contribute to them as individuals and institutions. One way is by eliminating ableist language in our communication.

It’s important to understand that disabilities can be physical and invisible.  You truly cannot tell what disability someone may have so it’s important to become more aware of the language that we use. We perpetuate ableism every day through our language.  Using disability language as metaphors like “They must be deaf,” “It’s like the blind leading the blind,” and “You’re so lame” makes light of disabilities that people live with daily. In addition, making light of mental illness and symptoms of actual psychiatric conditions in phrases such as “she’s crazy” or “He’s acting bipolar” shines a negative light on mental disability.

Say This Instead

Ableist metaphors are heavily used in our language, so it will take time and effort to correct. I’ve only recently removed “crazy” from my vocabulary myself.  Nevertheless, it is possible to change our behavior and language. Steer clear of using physical, invisible, or mental disability terms lightly and metaphorically, as these terms impact the lives of real people every day.  Be more accurate in your descriptions. Instead of calling someone “lame,” identify the specific issue that you are displeased with and approach the challenge with more accuracy and maturity.

Keep this context top of mind in your daily conversations – eventually you can control and eliminate such references – and others will follow your lead. Consider discussing this at work to make your coworkers aware of the issue and practice at work. You might be surprised how quickly you can change.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile