Ableist Terms to Avoid

Please note that use of language is always changing, so this page will also be subject to change. However, this might be a good place to start when reworking your content to avoid using ableist terms flippantly. There might be a time where some terms can be used with nuance, but it’s best to verify this with a sensitivity and diversity editor.

TermsMeanings or possible impactsSuggestions
barrenWhen applied to people, this might be hurtful to those who are unable to conceive.Childless, cannot conceive.
crazyThis word is used so often (crazy rich) but is rooted in mocking mentally ill people.For describing something excessive, try super (super rich). General substitutions can be words like: ridiculous, ludicrous
cripplingHas roots in labelling those who are mobility disabled.For describing something like “crippling” pain, consider using debilitating.
differently abled/handicapableOften pushed on the disabled community by non-disabled people. Most disabled people use the word disabled as an identity. It’s not a bad word. Avoid euphemisms for identities. Consult with a sensitivity editor if you’re unsure.
dumbRooted in defining a person who doesn’t speak using vocal cords, implies they are not intelligent.Dumb never really tells us anything in a sentence. For example, “My job is dumb.” Is it unfulfilling, demanding, boring? Ponder what you really mean before using dumb.
dummySame as above.When describing an inanimate display form, try mannequin, model, or decoy.
handicappedAntiquated word to describe a disabled person. Avoid. If you’re describing an accommodation, say, for example: disabled parking space, or accessible parking. Never say handicapped person. Use disabled or whatever identity they go by (and remember, our names work, too).
high/low functioningOften used to pigeonhole people and overplay/underplay their disabilities or neurodiversity.Best to avoid altogether. This term really doesn’t add any value.
idiot, imbecile, moron, stupidSynonymous with the meaning behind crazy and dumb.Again, ponder what you really are trying to say. As for insults, be creative with your words and do so without being ableist.
retard/retardedThis slur and any ‘tard’ suffix are unacceptable. They are rooted in mocking people who have developmental or intellectual disabilities.While there might be historical context for depicting a bigot who uses these slurs, it’s best to avoid them altogether. Highly recommend consulting with a sensitivity editor before publishing content with these slurs.
spaz/spasticA slur that derives from spastic cerebral palsy, making fun of the movements of the condition.Highly recommend avoiding altogether. If you’re just generally describing the awkward movements of an abled character, try uncoordinated, ungainly.
special needsA euphemism for accommodation or accessibility requirements. Often also used to describe a disabled person, particularly with more than one physical or developmental disability.Avoid, as it’s infantilizing. If you mean accommodations or accessibility requirements, then say that instead. And just don’t apply it to a human. It’s full of nope.
wheelchair boundRooted in the incorrect assumption that mobility devices hinder all users. When for many, these devices offer an increase of quality of life and independence.Use wheelchair user instead.

Misappropriating names of actual states of being and/or conditions

Avoid appropriating legitimate states of being and/or conditions as common expression. This often downplays the original meaning and is insulting to those who have lived experiences.

Examples:

Bipolar: (I’m so bipolar over what decision to make!)

Blind: (I must be going blind! Didn’t see you there.)

Deaf: (Are you deaf or something?)

Dissociative Identity Disorder: (What is with this change in you? You’ve got a split personality?)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder/OCD: (Sorry I straightened that photo. I’m so OCD, LOL!)

Identity-first versus people-first language

While there’s no one set-in-stone rule, more often than not, disabled and neurodiverse people prefer identity-first language, such as:

  • I’m disabled.
  • I’m autistic.

People-first language would be like the following:

  • Person with disabilities
  • Person with autism

There is a tendency for non-disabled and neurotypical people to push people-first language onto disabled and neurodiverse folks. This is not acceptable. We must always respect the language that disabled and neurodiverse people want to use.

And for pity’s sake, never shout at someone:

  • “BUT YOU’RE A PERSON FIRST!”
  • “YOU’RE NOT DEFINED BY YOUR DISABILITY!”

Some disabled people such as your humble SpAN editor do feel defined by our disabilities, and we say so with pride. So, just keep these things in mind. The only hard and fast rule is to never speak over someone with whom you do not share a lived experience. And even if you do, people have reasons for defining themselves the way they do.

Sensitivity Editing

While no one can ever be 100% perfect as an editor, you increase the chances of your work being more widely read and appreciated if you hire them. We at the Spoonie Authors Network are working to build upon our current list of sensitivity and diversity authors. If you have recommendations for our list, please contact us today!