Language is complicated.
Language relating to marginalized groups, doubly so. Using the wrong term can cause individual harm and perpetuate oppression on a larger scale.
Much of our everyday language is casually ableist, and this translates to ableist language in novels, whether the novel features disabled characters or not. Sometimes, these words are intentionally included to make a point. Other times, the author uses them unthinkingly, perhaps not even aware that certain terms are ableist in the first place. Complicating the matter further is that there isn’t a consensus about what’s acceptable or harmful terminology: some people within the disabled community may despise a term that others proudly claim.
With this article, we don’t want to tell authors what to do. You need to determine what is right for your story, your characters, and your audience.
To help you make an informed decision, though, we wanted to point out a few things to keep in mind, whether it’s regarding straight-up ableist language or simply what terminology to use to refer to your disabled character.
Please note that this article will include the uncensored use of many different kinds of ableist language and slurs, as well as example sentences they might be used in. Some of these may be unpleasant to read.
Disability terminology: How should you refer to disabled people?
“With a disability” or “disabled”?
One of the most common questions we get is about “person-first” versus “identity-first” language.
Person-first language is what you will often see in professional settings. It means saying “person with a disability,” rather than “disabled person.” This also applies to more specific conditions, such as “girl with autism” or “man with mental illness.”
The thinking is that by putting the person first, people will focus on the person rather than defining them solely by their disability. This logic is sound and well-intentioned.
However, there is a large group of disabled people who actively prefer not to use person-first language. Instead, they opt for identity-first: disabled person, autistic girl, mentally ill man.
There are several reasons for this—enough to write a full article about! Here are short versions of some of these reasons. Some people might identify with only one of the following and vehemently disagree with others, while others may identify with multiple reasons or even all of them.
- Many people don’t feel as though they can be separated from their disability. “Girl with mental illness” can make it seem as though the mental illness is an accessory to be removed at will. The girl, instead, might feel like her mental illness is an integral part of her, and cannot be separated from who she is as an individual. “Mentally ill girl” might therefore feel more accurate to her.
- Many people feel as though person-first language indicates that the disability is something they should distance themselves from—that it’s automatically negative and should thus be far removed from the person. If this person considers their disability to be a neutral or positive trait, they may want to bear the label of disabled proudly.
- Many people feel as though the very concept of disability—as broader society understands it—doesn’t exist; they feel that there is no objective definition of disability. Instead, they argue that there are medical or social conditions that society marginalizes, and that it’s that marginalization that is disabling, not the conditions themselves. The word “disability” and person-first language, then, would imply that the condition bears the responsibility for the disabling effects rather than society. These people may still identify as “disabled” because they feel that society disables them, but that does not, in their view, make the condition itself a disability.
- Many feel as though dancing around the topic further Others disability. After all, we don’t frantically try to avoid saying “a blonde girl.” No one is insisting on “a girl with blond hair” or “a girl with blondness.” The trait is considered neutral. Just as a person might be a rich person, a meticulous person, or a sullen person, they may be a disabled person, and there is no need to treat the word “disabled” any differently.
- For some people with multiple disabilities, it depends on how they relate to the condition. For example, they may call themselves a mentally ill person with epilepsy, or an autistic person with mental illness.
Often, caretakers and other professionals lean toward “person-first,” and people in the disability community lean toward “identity-first.” There may also be regional differences, for example between the US and the UK.
These are completely individual decisions. Each disabled person must decide for themselves what they prefer, and whether they even feel strongly enough to have a preference in the first place. It is never OK to tell a disabled person how they should self-describe.
In your writing, consider the story and what feels right for your characters in terms of how they identify, but be aware of the complicated in-group and out-group discussions surrounding disability labels. It’s not straightforward or simple, so these decisions need to be made with care.
Abled vs. non-disabled
Much like with “disabled” and “with a disability,” there is no in-group consensus on how to refer to those without disabilities. The two most commonly used terms are “abled” and “non-disabled.” Again, there are many reasons individual disabled people might default to one or the other, and some people may not have any strong preference either way. In general, both are acceptable to use.
Disabled people as nouns
An autistic. An albino. An epileptic. The disabled.
This, again, comes down to highly individual preference. Some happily self-describe as such. Others despise the terms. From what we’ve seen, the general consensus seems to be that they’re less acceptable than other terms. They’re fine to use as adjectives, but using them as a noun often feels incredibly objectifying. It takes the person out of the equation entirely and focuses solely on the disability.
As a rule, we would suggest avoiding them unless you’re a member of these groups yourself.
Special needs and other euphemisms
People often go to great lengths to avoid the word “disabled”—or when they do use the word, they might attempt to soften it. So, we hear about “special needs,” “differently abled,” or “handicapable.” We might also hear about a kid who “happens to have cerebral palsy,” as though it’s incidental, even when disability is the topic at hand.
Much of this stems from the idea that disability is inherently negative. Carefully avoiding the word, or going to great lengths to phrase it as airily as possible, can reinforce that belief. There are absolutely disabled people who do choose to identify with these sorts of terms, but it seems to be becoming less common. Disabled people often don’t dance around the topic the same way non-disabled people might, and in our personal experiences, we’ve found that euphemisms often seem to stem from the discomfort of non-disabled people more than anything else.
This covers phrases along these lines:
- special needs
- (mobility / mentally) challenged
- differently abled / specially abled
- levels of ability
- happens to have/be/use X
Again: this does not remotely mean that one should tell a disabled person how to label themselves. Self-identification trumps all.
Wheelchair-bound and other judgmental terms
Speaking of framing disability as negative, this often happens when people talk about specific conditions, as well.
Let’s take the term “wheelchair-bound,” which is a common descriptor. Most wheelchair users we know despise this term. The term indicates that they’re bound to their wheelchair, as though the wheelchair is a negative thing that takes away their freedom, when in fact wheelchairs are the very opposite: they allow free, independent movement. Wheelchair users depend on and frequently love their wheelchairs. It becomes an integral part of their life and body.
(It’s also important to note that there is a history of ableist abuse in the form of literally tying people to their wheelchairs. This has happened in both care facilities and in private homes. You can probably understand the problem of invoking abuse when talking about an assistive tool.)
Why frame wheelchairs as inherently negative? Even if an individual might experience it as such, isn’t it better to use a completely neutral term—“wheelchair user” or “uses a wheelchair”—and not make that assumption for them?
While “wheelchair-bound” is the most familiar of these terms, it happens all over, with all kinds of conditions. Watch for these terms and others like them:
- confined / restricted to a wheelchair
- suffers from Tourette’s
- afflicted with cerebral palsy
- victim of AIDS
- left blind from the accident
Instead, use neutral, straightforward terms—“uses a wheelchair” or “has cerebral palsy”—as much as possible.
Functioning labels to describe the nature of someone’s disability are very common. These include obvious terms like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” but also terms like “mild” or “severe.” These terms are fine in some contexts. For example, describing pain levels as “severe” makes sense, as does someone describing their anxiety as “mild.”
In other contexts, the terms are more complicated. For conditions like autism, it’s rarely as simple as simply dividing people into “high-functioning” and “low-functioning.” Consider the following:
- People’s “functioning” varies per skill—people can be nonverbal and live independently, while others are great with communication but need live-in care. It can even vary per day and per situation. Therefore, the term doesn’t actually convey any useful information.
- The skills that abled society ascribes value to are not the be-all and end-all, and it rubs many disabled people the wrong way to privilege those skills over others.
- “High-functioning” is not a compliment or necessarily desirable; for many people, it’s incredibly draining and harmful to appear as such. Moreover, the emphasis on achieving “high functioning” results in abuse by parents, teachers, and doctors.
- Using “low-functioning” often results in that person being written off and not taken seriously, and “high-functioning” often results in people demanding that person act completely “normal” and them not being given assistance.
- These terms are often determined from those watching from the outside, rather than the person actually experiencing the condition. Many supposedly “low-functioning” people function perfectly fine based on their own goals, wishes, and lifestyle, whereas many supposedly “high-functioning” people might hate to be described as having “mild” autism, as it can feel dismissive of how intensely they experience their condition and differences.
Instead of using functioning labels, consider what’s necessary for the situation. Describe without judgment what someone is or is not capable of, and do so only when that information is relevant. Consider whether the distinction is important to what is being communicated. “Barbara, who is autistic, wrote a book.” Whether you put “high-functioning” there is not terribly relevant to Barbara writing a book and doesn’t actually add much information.
If it is relevant, let it become clear through context or description. “Marie went out to the movies with her friends and chatted in a wine bar until late.” This means that Marie is probably good at coping with crowded environments and enjoys social activities. Note that we can’t make assumptions about her social skills or how draining such a night might be for her.
“Marie’s aide helped her select her clothes and they planned the day’s meals.” In other words, Marie is probably not living independently. (Note that the idea of living “independently” is also fraught with complications. All people—disabled and not—are dependent in many ways, but the help disabled people require is looked upon very differently than the help others require.)
To specifically describe someone’s situation, you can use language like: “Devon lives in a group home and relies on disability benefits for income. He has strong verbal skills, but misses social cues.” It takes more words than “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” but it also conveys more–and more useful–information. If the character’s situation and skills are genuinely relevant, one might as well be specific and accurate.
The above is autism-specific because “low-functioning” and “high-functioning” are commonly used when discussing autistic people, but a lot can be extrapolated to other conditions as well.
For instance, take “mild/severe” and physically disabled people. Again, these terms tell you little about the actual disabled person, instead highlighting which skills, abilities, and needs society views favorably and unfavorably. A wheelchair user who requires assistance with daily activities like dressing, showering, and eating, for example, would likely be labeled “severely disabled,” even if those activities take up only a small fraction of the person’s day.
These terms can be dangerous past just being inherently vague. Functioning labels directly and massively impact disabled lives, from services offered in schools to government/nonprofit funding. At the most extreme, functioning labels like “severe” have consistently been used in defense of ableist abuse and even murder. When parents forcibly sterilize their children or stunt their growth, they often bring up the “severity” of the disability as justification, citing an inability to use the bathroom independently, reliance on a feeding tube, a lack of verbal communication, or any number of other “severe” effects. When a disabled person is murdered by a parent, spouse, or other caregiver, the same excuses are given—and they’re often accepted by society and the courts as reasonable.
As we’ve shown, though, “severity” is a vague concept at best and relies on necessarily ableist assumptions of ability. Functioning labels also wholly erase disabled folks’ right to self-determination. These terms attach “severe” or “mild” (and all their attendant connotations) to disabled people despite the actual and varied impacts their disabilities have on their lives. The fact that “severe” can then be used as an excuse to abuse and kill disabled people while “mild” can be used to dismiss and deny the right to accommodation and care—itself a form of abuse—is galling to say the least.
Finally, consider that a lot of functioning labels are simply a disguised way of saying, “How much of a burden is this person for their environment?” or “How close to normal is this person?” Those interpretations may sound harsh, but that’s how a lot of disabled people have experienced it, and it becomes hard to interpret the terms as anything else after a while.
Adapting language use
A lot of people’s first instinct is to adapt their language use to take disabled people’s conditions into account. For example, an author might write that a character with one eye “closed her eye” rather than using the plural; ditto a one-handed person “washing his hand.” They might be careful not to use language like “she made a quick run to the store” or “walked down the street” when it comes to a wheelchair user, and might avoid having a blind character say “I see” or a deaf character say “I heard about that!”
As always, this is a subjective, personal preference, but we’ve heard from many disabled people who find these changes unnecessary. Adapting language like that often feels clunky, and these are such common phrases that disabled people are likely to use them themselves.
Additionally, it can often feel Othering. Adapting language in this way seems to stem from a desire to avoid pointing out what the disabled person can’t do, because being reminded might be painful for them. The logic is understandable, but it operates on paternalistic assumptions of what’s painful for disabled folks. Even if the intent is to normalize or respectfully acknowledge the disability, it often comes across as awkward at best and condescending at worst.
Ableist language: How does this show up in everyday use?
- Those crazy bastards.
- Right, and we’re just supposed to follow the psychopath’s instructions?
- Her spastic movements practically knocked over the table.
- I’m so OCD about this stuff.
- I swear, he’s totally schizo.
- These psychos have been harassing me all day long.
- Special? Yeah, they’re “special,” all right.
- What a retarded idea.
- Don’t be such a spaz!
- School is a madhouse right now.
- Jack continued to spout off lame-ass excuses.
- Don’t mind me, I’m just really bipolar lately.
- Wow, autistic much?
- I can see that—I’m not blind, you know.
- Since the crash, his uncle is pretty much a vegetable.
- These fucktards need to leave us alone.
- Thomas is so damn stupid.
- He’s running around like a mental patient.
- Short-bus Stella is at it again.
- Let’s not listen to anyone with a two-digit IQ.
- I’m a total cripple when I’ve got a cold.
- The newspapers were filled with batshit quotes from politicians.
- I’ve been spazzing out about it all day.
- Would you just let me do this? I’m not an invalid.
- I told you that already! What are you, deaf?
- These idiots just won’t leave us alone.
- Wow someone forgot to take their medication today.
- Haha, I’m totally paranoid, I know.
- What a lunatic.
- This kind of moronic plan will never work.
- I hate listening to her dumb rants.
- I did so much homework today, I’m totally braindead right now.
All of these phrases are inherently ableist. They’re not all equally severe: some are microaggressions, while others are violent slurs. What they have in common is their problematic implications.
Some link mental illness to violence and unpredictability. (It’s important to recognize that some mental illnesses can result in violent or unpredictable behavior, because erasing that fact only further stigmatizes those particular experiences of mental illness. But language that necessarily links mental illness to violence contributes to dangerous beliefs that often result in mentally ill people being victims of violence themselves.)
Some suggest mentally ill and developmentally disabled people should be dismissed and not taken seriously.
Some take existing conditions and appropriate them in a way that stereotypes the condition or turns it into a joke.
Some are outright slurs.
Maybe some of these phrases come as a surprise. Many people never pause to think that “lame” might be hurtful for many physically disabled people to read, that “batshit” is short for “batshit crazy” or “batshit insane,” that “fucktard” and “libtard” are derived from the word “retard,” or that many common insults, like “moron” and “idiot,” are in fact outdated medical terminology referring to developmentally disabled people.
Much of our language—especially when negative—is linked to disability. Some of it has become so normalized that many disabled people might no longer care. We know many mentally ill people who aren’t fussed about “crazy,” for instance. However, we know just as many who are bothered by it. Think about it: how often do people use that word simply to dismiss someone and their opinions? What does it imply? It suggests that someone is mentally ill and therefore unreliable, not worth listening to, or even outright dangerous.
Similarly, words like “stupid” and “dumb” are so normalized in our vocabulary that many don’t link it to disability to begin with. For that reason, not everyone cares about the words. However, it’s still important to realize their origins or implications. “Dumb,” for example, means an inability to speak, which makes the connection to a lack of intelligence problematic. For that matter, insults regarding intelligence are inherently ableist by nature, implying that having low(er) intelligence is bad and shameful. (In fact, the entire concept of intelligence reinforces the idea of classifying people and worth based on arbitrary capabilities, which is often used in tremendously ableist ways—but that’s difficult to go into in such a short space.)
Keep an eye out for words like the following, as well as related words and their derivatives:
- crazy / insane / demented / mad / lunatic / batshit / cuckoo
- dumb / stupid / idiot / moron
- lame / cripple
- spaz / spastic
Note that this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination.
Also keep an eye out for neutral words appropriated in a different context, especially when this context is negative.
- psycho(-tic, -path), schizo(-id, -phrenic)
- OCD, bipolar
- ADHD, autistic
- deaf, blind
Many disabled people find this particular form of ableist language especially harmful because it targets specific disabilities, using the contemporary medically accepted terminology.
Disability as metaphor
Often, terms related to disability are used in a metaphorical sense. Consider phrases like this:
- blind to her faults
- deaf to their screams
- tone-deaf (in terms of conversational tone)
- color-blind (in terms of race)
- crippled by debt
- an autistic devotion to comic books
- paralyzed by fear
Some disabled people don’t mind the above terms at all and may use them themselves, while others have a significant problem with them. They may feel that it’s tacky or even appropriative to use the disabled experience as a simple metaphorical tool, or point out that these phrases are often used in a disparaging or stereotypical way.
In other words, like many of the terms in this article, it’s highly individual. However, we feel it’s important to list so that authors are at least aware of how their words may be received, as some may wish to pause and consider whether alternative phrases exist.
Purposeful use of ableist terminology
As with many other marginalized groups, disabled people may reclaim slurs used against them—for instance, the way some physically disabled people claim “crip” or “cripple,” or some mentally ill people call themselves “crazy.”
Reclamation is complex and often fraught. It can be a source of immense empowerment for disabled people to reclaim violent language by redefining its context; at the same time, some people have such strong negative associations to certain slurs that even seeing them used in-group can be hurtful. If your character(s) choose to reclaim slurs, we suggest that you be aware of the real-world politics and nuances surrounding that choice and make sure the reclamation is clear within the text.
Disabled people are not immune to the ableist ideas society constantly espouses, and internalizing those ideas can lead to the use of terminology. This applies to all the common ways that non-disabled people use these words, but there are also situations where the situation is more nuanced and unique to disabled people.
For example, someone with an intellectual disability may have grown up hearing frequent insults regarding their intelligence, and may have internalized it and end up commonly disparaging themselves: “I did it again. I’m such an idiot.”
Another example: disabled people often have their abilities, trustworthiness, or worth doubted. In an effort to establish their value and become accepted by the non-disabled around them, they may attempt to distance themselves from other, less “acceptable” disabled people:
- “Just because I’m autistic doesn’t mean I’m a psychopath!”
- “There’s nothing gross about what I have. It’s not some kind of infectious disease.”
- “I’m deaf, not retarded.”
- “I just have depression; it doesn’t mean I’m crazy or dangerous. I don’t hear voices or anything.”
- “I can’t use my legs. That’s all. It’s not like I’m some drooling vegetable.”
While the statements may be factually accurate, and it’s important to correct wrongful assumptions about what a certain disability entails, doing it in this manner perpetuates ableist oppression and throws other disabled people under the bus. It casts those other conditions as negative, and implies that whatever ableist behavior the person is experiencing would be acceptable if it were aimed at someone who does have those other conditions.
Yes, it may be realistic for a teenage character—especially one with no contact with the disability community—to use outdated or euphemistic terminology, and to hold deeply harmful ideas about themselves or other disabled people. Word use often depends on someone’s exposure to disability politics and communities. Many disabled people change how they refer to themselves and others as time goes by, and regret how deeply they internalized problematic ideas in the past.
However, replicating this in a novel without further examination can reinforce and further normalize those ideas. After all, this language and these beliefs are so common that most readers wouldn’t stop to think about the deeper implications or problems. They may see a problematic phrase in the novel, shrug, and move on. Readers may even agree. It perpetuates the problem rather than offering alternative views that many disabled people wish they’d been exposed to earlier.
We encourage authors who may want to use ableist language in their novel to make it clear why and how this language is being used. It’s not always enough to simply show a disabled character using a slur; consider fully engaging the character’s internalized ableism on the page.
For many disabled readers, seeing this sort of unexamined language use in a book—particularly one featuring disabled characters they may have been relating to—is a slap in the face.
While showing (internalized) ableism via the use of ableist language is a valid narrative choice in some circumstances, it’s highly worth being conscious and intentional of how and when to use those words.
What about if an author intends for a character to be clueless about disability, or even to be actively ableist?
There’s certainly a case to be made for showing the realities of ableism in your story. As authors, we often want to reflect the world around us as accurately as possible, and our society—as we’ve discussed throughout this piece—is ableist.
However, if you decide to include ableist language (or any other form of ableism, for that matter), do so with intention and care. Consider the following: Who will benefit and who might be harmed from seeing ableism depicted? Are you critiquing ableist language in the text, and/or will its inclusion perpetuate its use? What’s the narrative purpose behind the inclusion—to motivate a non-disabled character; to further the disabled character’s arc; as shorthand to indicate someone is a bad person; to incite a plot point? How will this scene fit into the broader context of disability representation; is it subverting or reinforcing common tropes? Are there disabled writers already tackling similar types of ableist oppression?
It’s possible and important to realistically and respectfully depict ableism. Ableism is a definite part of the disabled experience and glossing over that could lead to a shallow portrayal of disability, or could even be a form of erasure.
At the same time, reading is often an escape. Consider what it means when disabled readers can’t escape their oppression even in fiction. And if you do intentionally include ableism, consider not only how best to do so, but also whether you’re the best person to explore that particular facet of disability in the first place.
While this article focuses on ableist language, be aware that ableism is so much more than a list of words to avoid. Hopefully you can see that even the most basic of terminology questions have no simple answers, and the same is true of ableism in every arena. Authors can follow all the advice in this article to the letter and still end up with a dubious representation of disability based on their story or character choices.
Having said that, we wouldn’t have written this article if we didn’t believe in the importance of language and its use. Be true to your character’s voice, yes, but also understand the many and varied effects of ableist language. Understand why certain terms are ableist. There are often other words that are just as true to a character’s voice, but that don’t have the negative baggage. Consider the benefits of using these alternatives.
Writing a respectful portrayal of disability is about much more than the points raised here, but it’s always worth looking over your manuscript to ensure all your language choices are intentional. It’s simply due diligence to see whether you might have accidentally included language that can severely hurt your disabled readers and continue to marginalize an already vulnerable group.