• Chris McMillan

10 Questions About Why Ableist Language Matters, Answered

The Good Men Project


31st March 2021


Every Day Feminism

10 Questions About Why Ableist Language Matters, Answered

Why are you harping so much on words, anyway?


By Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

“The economy has been crippled by debt.”

“You’d have to be insane to want to invade Syria.”

“They’re just blind to the suffering of other people.”

“Only a moron would believe that.”


Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives.

You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind. Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick.


Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz.


I see these terms everywhere: in comment threads on major news stories, on social justice sites, in everyday speech. These words seem so “natural” to people that they go un-critiqued a great deal of the time.


I tend to remark on this kind of speech wherever I see it. In some very rare places, my critique is welcome. In most places, it is not.


When a critique of language that makes reference to disability is not welcome, it is nearly inevitable that, as a disabled person, I am not welcome either.


I might be welcome as an activist, but not as a disabled activist. I might be welcome as an ally, but not as a disabled ally. I might be welcome as a parent, but not as a disabled parent. That’s a lot like being welcomed as an activist, and as an ally, and as a parent, but not as a woman or as a Jew.


Many people have questions about why ableist speech matters, so I’ll be addressing those questions here. Please feel free to raise others.

  1. Why are you harping so much on words, anyway? Dont we have more important things to worry about?

I am always very curious about those who believe that words are “only” words — as though they do not have tremendous power.


Those of us who use words understand the world through them. We use words to construct frameworks with which we understand experience.


Every time we speak or write, we are telling a story; every time we listen or read, we are hearing one. No one lives without entering into these stories about their fellow human beings.


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