Content warning: This article deals with terms that can be hurtful to people who manage disabilities, mental illness, or other medical conditions. I mention these terms to educate about why we should choose other words instead.
If the title of this article made you cringe, then I feel hopeful, because you recognized a term originally meant to demean people who are mentally ill. I did this on purpose to show how commonplace using that expression is. Heck, I even have characters in my first novel who use terms like this. Was I purposefully trying to be ableist and hurt people who manage mental illness?
No. Not at all.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for me to do it now that I am aware of it. I’m a disability advocate and part of my life is dealing with my own disability and mental illness. When I hear something like, “Uh, he’s so OCD; look at how he straightens the painting,” I’ll roll my eyes until I can see inside my own brain.
Language and slang are always changing. A few years ago, using crazy meant the same as massively or super. I said the word crazy a zillion times in a day: That’s crazy awesome! And because I’m Irish, there are some expressions I’ve inherited from the generations, like: I am so mad jealous (mad meaning insane, used differently than how it’s been reclaimed in Mad culture).
Once upon a time, I used to be “disabled and alone,” so I didn’t interact with other folks who manage disabilities. Since late 2016, though, I’ve had the privilege of entering Disabled culture, and wow, am I still learning things all the time! This past year in particular, it was language. I’d read tweets from disabled people asking others to stop using terms like lame, idiot, stupid, crazy, psycho, and even legitimate medical names for mental or brain conditions used as insults or flippantly. Living humans are hurting from these terms. It’s a real thing.
I’m a humorist author, and I often deal with crap by trying to be funny. When someone says, “That’s so lame,” I often reply with, “That’s not lame, I’m lame!” Then I do a rimshot on my air drums. But you know, equating lame with weak or boring? That kinda stings. I’m neither weak nor boring. I take my lame legs—which are that way from severe chronic pain—and live a really interesting life with them. I overcome so much discomfort just to get out and do all the things. My lame self goes to conferences and sits on author panels, gives a reading, does book signings, heads to a local TV studio to do an interview, meets with authors I do edits for, takes romantic strolls with my husband (and rollator), and even uses special urban poles made for lame folks like me to go hiking.
I am fully aware that terms like stupid, dumb, and idiot are so entrenched in our language, it’s sometimes a surprise to recognize their origin and how they hurt others. It does take practice to choose other words instead. But when you think about it, what does something like My job is stupid mean? Do we actually know any information about this person’s job? Is their job frustrating, poorly managed, unfulfilling? Stupid isn’t really the best description to explain the situation to us. I have been noticing for myself that I often really want to say ridiculous instead of stupid for something that doesn’t make sense or is unreasonable.
In addition, there are legitimate medical names for conditions that people are abusing. I mentioned OCD before, but I’ve often seen bipolar used in this manner as well (I’m so bipolar about whether to move away or not.). Spaz originates from Spastic Cerebral Palsy. Don’t use terms like that. Just don’t.
I’ve recently gone over one of my latest manuscripts and wanted to practice what I’m trying to preach, by removing or replacing ableist terms with something else. (Yes, I still had some in there. Like I said, it’s a learning process.) To my delight I discovered my language has a lot of words! There was always something better to say. When I kept the few words I did, it was with nuance, to express a character’s own flaw or perception, which I counterbalanced with another character correcting what was said.
So, when you’re writing your narratives or dialogue, consider replacing commonly used ableist expressions with something else. I have a strong feeling you’ll find something that more accurately describes what you’re trying to say.
And humorist authors can still be way funny while avoiding these terms. Because when you think about it, is it really funny to bash a demographic just for a laugh? I personally don’t think so.
Hope this gets you thinking!
And HAPPY NEW YEAR! May you have all the spoons you need to fuel your awesome!
Cait Gordon is the author of Life in the ’Cosm (Renaissance) and The Stealth Lovers (Renaissance, 2019). Her short story, A Night at the Rabbit Hole, appears in the Alice Unbound Beyond Wonderland anthology (Colleen Anderson, Exile Editions). Another short story, The Hilltop Gathering, is included in the We Shall Be Monsters anthology (Derek Newman-Stille, Renaissance). Teaming up with sensitivity editor Talia C. Johnson, Cait is co-editing the Nothing Without Us anthology, a collection of short stories that feature protagonists who identify as disabled, Deaf, blind, neurodiverse, Spoonie, and/or who manage mental illness.
A bit of a social media junkie, Cait can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. She also has an author website and is the creator/editor of the Spoonie Authors Network. If you need editing services, visit her biz, Dynamic Canvas Inc.