How to Identify and Avoid Ableist, Exclusive Language

September 23, 2021

As communicators, we know that words are a powerful tool, which is why it’s important to use inclusive language. Before getting into avoiding ableist language, it’s important to understand what ableism is. Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. Nearly 20% of Americans have a disability, so it’s important to use non-ableist language in your communications.

When writing about individuals where their disability is an integral part to your story, ask them what language they would like used to describe them. Some may prefer person-first language (e.g., person/individual with a disability) while others may like identify-first language (e.g., disabled person).

Also, keep in mind that any story you write should not be about the amazing things that disabled people have done simply because they are disabled. If you do, you’re objectifying them for the benefit of nondisabled people. For example, a story about paralympians should focus on them as athletes first and foremost who happen to be people with disabilities.

There are many alternative words that can help you be more expressive in your writing while avoiding ableist language. This blog post has an extensive list of ableist terms and their alternatives. A couple of examples are “tone deaf” (instead use insensitive or out of context) or “blind spot” (instead use unconscious bias). It’s important to note, as the author does, that “Many of the words and phrases [in the post] are not considered slurs, and in fact, may not actually be hurtful, upsetting, retraumatizing, or offensive to many disabled people. They are simply considered ableist (the way that referring to a woman as emotionally fragile is sexist, but not a slur).”

If you have any questions about ableist language, reach out to University Relations at unews@umn.ed or the Office for Equity and Diversity at oed@umn.edu. Check out OED’s Ableism and Disability Justice resources as well!

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