Mind your language: words can harm

By Emma Tranter

There are plenty of words in our language that we know are offensive and harmful – particularly slurs that are sexist, homophobic or in other ways oppressive. While the use of these slurs is certainly an issue, many of us are aware of their meaning and history, and know better than using them, particularly in an insulting context. However, when it comes to ableist slurs – language insulting based on disability or mental illness – these words are so frequently used that we don’t often consider them as offensive or harmful.

So many of these words are so ingrained in our vocabulary that we don’t consider the ways that they’re harmful – ‘stupid’, ‘crazy’, and many others are so common that we just consider them negative words, without considering their history and meaning. But these words do have a specific meaning: they are based in the idea that intelligence and mental health are fair things to insult. When we use words that are tied to disabilities – whether physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses, the implication is there is something inherently bad and wrong about the people who live with those conditions.

Often ableist slurs aren’t used with bad intentions: a lot of people respond to bigotry by using ableist language. More times than I can count I’ve seen people call Trump or Farage ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional’, which is incorrect and unfair. It’s completely reasonable to say racist bigots are evil, but to blame this evil on mental illness is unfair and inaccurate. Millions of people all over the world experience psychosis and delusions, and don’t express violent, oppressive beliefs – it isn’t fair to tar all them with the same brush. Mentally ill people are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and to portray them as violent and evil is in itself dangerous and oppressive.

And it’s not just slurs that are the problem – so often people use the language of mental illness and disability as adjectives incredibly inaccurately. We’ve all heard people describe perfectionism as ‘a bit OCD’, or else call an unpredictable situation ‘bipolar’ or ‘schizophrenic’. Words like these are not adjectives for any circumstance or situation, they’re associated with illnesses and disorders that are already highly stigmatised, and throwing them around casually only belittles the experiences of people who live with these disorders and illnesses.

Avoiding ableist, harmful language isn’t the only way to deconstruct our internalised ableist attitudes but it’s definitely something we all should try to be aware of. You might think that it’s ok to use language like this if it seems like you haven’t offended anyone, but you never know for certain that the people you’re with aren’t mentally ill or disabled in some way. Even if no one around you is offended, your efforts shouldn’t be limited to when there are people present to offend, especially as the people who are around you are probably influenced by your language, and may be encouraged by your use of offensive words. Whilst there are plenty of other issues of ableism that need to be tackled, considering your language is a small way to show respect and consideration toward these issues.

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