Last week at the 2016 annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, Sarah Grey (of Grey Editing) and Ashley Bischoff (of Friendly Editing) presented a session called “What’s the Word? Inclusive Language for Gender, Race and Disabilities.” Bischoff took on the issue of ableist language, which I thought I had a handle on. But until that morning, I didn’t realize how wide the problem could be or how easy it is to stumble.
What is Ableist Language?
Ableist language is any word or phrase that devalues people who have physical or mental disabilities. Its appearance often stems not from any intentional desire to offend, but from our innate sense of what it means to be normal. Our individual worldviews start with ourselves; that is, our definition of normal is that which I am.
For those who don’t have a disability, that is their normal. For someone who is blind, or who has autism, or who uses a wheelchair, that is their normal. As individuals, we sometimes forget this and go on believing that we all are the same kind of normal.
And that’s where the problems begin. Inadvertent though it may be, ableist language implies that people not like us are somehow abnormal, and it can especially isolate and marginalize those with disabilities. It can communicate to a reader: There is something wrong with you.
Although ableist language often isn’t used intentionally, we, as editors, must put some intention into eliminating it. The most extreme examples are the most obvious and easily avoidable. No thoughtful writer or editor would, for example, refer to someone experiencing wide mood swings as a retard or a schizo. Those are obvious no-no words. But ableist language can be much more subtle.
Take the word lame. To use Bischoff’s example, consider the statement, “Nickelback is lame.” What the speaker really means is that Nickelback is horrible, or insipid, or noisome. In that statement, lame is equated with one or more of those negative words.
Now consider someone who uses a wheelchair — someone who is physically lame. Does that make them a horrible, insipid, noisome person? No, but that can be the implication.
“But I didn’t mean it that way!”
Of course you didn’t. You’re a nice and thoughtful person. But people don’t read what you meant, they read what you wrote or allowed to be published. As Bischoff says, “What we may have intended doesn’t really matter, because the power of words lies in how they’re received.”
As copy editors, we represent the readers — all of them. A big part of our job is making sure that the informational or entertainment value of a text reaches our readers without problem. To do that, we must be able to see the text not only from the writer’s point of view, but from the reader’s perspective, too. And that includes reader who are not like us.
Your first reaction might be that this is political correctness run amok, that people just aren’t that sensitive. It’s true that some people — regardless of ability — are not easily offended. But avoiding ableist language isn’t just about avoiding offense.
“Those types of usages affect the way that we perceive those words,” Bischoff says. When we use words like lame, crazy, insane, schizo, dumb, psycho, and spazzed without thinking, we silently imply — and readers infer — that mental and physical disorders are avoidable personal failings and not medical conditions out of a person’s control.
So when you come across words like this in your editing, take a moment to decide whether it really is the right word for the situation. It only takes a moment, but that little moment can mean the difference between tacitly denigrating a portion of society or reinforcing what we truly know about people with disabilities: That they’re just as normal as us.
Photo by “Hobvias Sudoneighm” via Flickr.