Examples of Ableist Language in Everyday Life

Unfortunately, our world is filled with ableism, or discrimination based on disability. A lot of it is in how we speak, and many people don’t know that they’re being ableist. I went on a little rant on Twitter a few weeks ago about examples of ableism in everyday life, and I thought that I would turn it into a blog post so I could explore some of those examples in more detail. Most of these are examples of ableist language, and some are just ableism in general.

In the spirit of transparency, this post does contain ableist language. I am, of course, calling it out, but you should know before you read further that this post contains it. You should also know that I talk about weight a little bit, as well as food and medication.

Related: Everyday Ableism

Did you know that you're probably discriminating against people with disabilities in your regular conversation? Ableism is thoroughly embedded in our society, especially in how we talk. Here are a bunch of examples of this, as well as why it's a problem, so you can work on eliminating ableism from your vocabulary.

Accusing someone of being mentally ill because they’re wrong about something or acting unbelievable (crazy, stupid, insane, moron, etc.) – This is one of the most common examples of ableism and I’m pretty sure (or at least hopeful) that people don’t realize that what they’re doing is comparing someone with a mentally ill or intellectually disabled person. Crazy and insane described people who were ill and were used in a derogatory manner. Similarly, stupid, idiot, moron, etc. described people with intellectual disabilities. When you use these words, you are comparing the person or event you’re discussing with disabled people.

Being angry because someone who parks in a handicapped spot (and has a disabled placard) can walk. – I have talked a LOT about how there are invisible disabilities, so I won’t restate that here. One thing I will say is that I can walk and “look” fine (depending on how closely you look) but am very much not fine. See: Not All Disabilities Are Visible

Calling someone lazy because they need more rest than you – Many people with disabilities, like ones with chronic pain, have limited energy. They need to conserve that energy.

Saying that if someone doesn’t go vegan they’re selfish – There are so many people out there with medical issues that prevent them from going vegan. In my case, I have already had to cut out so many types of foods that if I cut out animal products I would have almost nothing left to eat. Don’t shame people because they can’t go vegan.

Claiming that people are only going gluten-free to lose weight – This is also one of the most annoying things about cutting out gluten; so many people have asked me if it’s because of trying to lose weight. First of all, if you cut out gluten but don’t cut out carbs, you’re not going to lose weight because gluten-free carbs are still carbs. Second of all, there are LOADS of people who don’t eat gluten because their bodies hate it. I don’t have Celiac, but my RA attacks my body if I eat gluten.

Making fun of someone who has a lot of food substitutions in their order – Similarly, I’ve had to cut out a lot of foods because my body doesn’t like them. I can’t eat them! I don’t have a traditional allergic reaction like hives or anaphylaxis, but my body does attack me. It’s not my fault that I have to change a lot of what I order!

Calling the weather (or someone) schizophrenic or bipolar when things keep changing – This is similar to the first item in this post. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are mental illnesses, not comparisons for you to use.

Calling someone who needs trigger warning entitled or a snowflake – Would you call a veteran with PTSD a snowflake because they can’t be around fireworks? Combat zones aren’t the only things that can cause PTSD, first of all, and there are plenty of other people who need trigger warnings for very real issues. Someone who has battled addiction, an eating disorder, or something similar does really need that trigger warning. Also, someone who has epilepsy could be triggered to have a seizure if they watch a video with flashing.

Ways that you might be discriminating against disabled people without realizing it. Click To Tweet

Saying you have PTSD from something when you very clearly don’t – You went to the mall on Black Friday and joke that it gave you PTSD? Shame on you. This is a medical condition and loads of people already don’t believe that people have it from something other than a combat zone. You don’t need to contribute to that by joking about it.

Faking a limp so you can use your grandparent’s handicapped placard (and just using it in general) – YOU ARE WHY PEOPLE DON’T BELIEVE THAT MY DISABLED PLACARD IS MINE.

Parking in the handicapped spot without a placard or license plate or in the spot with lines through it – There are loads of people who need that spot, and you’re taking it away from them. If I’m having a bad pain day, a handicapped spot can be the difference between going somewhere and not going, and parking in it instead of having to trek across the parking lot can be what prevents me from ending up in the ER. Also, the spot with the lines needs to be left open for vans that are wheelchair accessible, so you can’t park there. As a friendly reminder, it’s also illegal and wrong to park in that spot with your hazards flashing.

Saying you have ADD/ADHD when you’ve clearly just had a lot of coffee – I hope by this point in this post you get that comparing your life without illness to a real medical condition is wrong.

Saying you have OCD because you like things to be orderly or clean – See above.

Accusing someone of faking their disability or illness (especially if for attention) – Dude, my dude, why are you doing this? You also need to keep in mind the situation in which you’re accusing someone of faking. Is it someone who has evidence of medical appointments, infusions, medications, etc., and you’ve seen them, like on social media? Definitely not faking. Is it someone who looks fine but is parking in the handicapped spot? See above. I got accused of this in high school and it hurt so much – and that was years before I got diagnosed with a chronic illness.

Saying that someone with a mental illness is faking that their fidget spinner/object helps them – Do you have ADD/ADHD or anxiety? You don’t get a vote. Close your mouth.

Telling someone that your pet is a service animal because you want to take them into a restaurant, store, etc. – Similar to above: YOU ARE THE REASON WHY SOME PEOPLE WITH SERVICE ANIMALS AREN’T TREATED SERIOUSLY. You are taking advantage of a system that is supposed to help people with disabilities and making the people with disabilities (aka the people who are supposed to be helped by that system) believed less.

Our society is full of ableism, or the discrimination against disabled people. These are 23 ways you might be exhibiting ableism, with explanations of why it's a problem. You might be really hurting disabled people without realizing it!

Disregarding someone’s food allergy – Why on earth would you do that? This is dangerous and wrong. Yet there are people who still do this.

Saying that someone is only disabled if they’re in a wheelchair or use an assistive advice – As mentioned above (and loads of times on this site), there are so many people with invisible illnesses. Most people who are disabled do not use an assistive device. 90% of the time, I do not look disabled, but I am.

Saying people are weak for needing medication or trying to get someone to go off their medication and do all-natural treatments instead – Every now and then, I get a comment or email from someone telling me that the chemicals I’m putting in my body are terrible and I need to try XYZ random treatment and I’ll be healed. Sometimes those things work for some people, but it does not work for me. I have to take all of my chemicals in order to be a functional human being, and if I didn’t, my autoimmune disease would advance to my organs. Everyone is entitled to choose the course of treatment best for them, and saying that someone should take all-natural treatments or that they are less because they need medications is so beyond wrong. (PS – Don’t suggest a random treatment to someone who hasn’t asked for advice or help. But that’s an issue for another day.)

Calling someone or something tone-deaf or blind because of something or a comment that ignores an issue – This makes me super uncomfortable. Again, this goes back to comparing something or someone’s behavior with an actual medical condition. Stop it!

Saying that a big bad issue “cripples” something else, ie a storm cripples the coast (Side note: I personally hate the word cripple) – This is using language describing a disability as a metaphor. At this point in this post, I really hope I don’t need to explain to you why that’s wrong.

Asking your friend with a narcotic prescription for some of their meds or joking about how that person just uses them to get high – Do you have any idea how difficult it is for someone with chronic pain to get a narcotic prescription? Not only is it illegal for them to give you some of their medication, but it’s also incredibly insensitive of their medical needs. It’s also incredibly insensitive to suggest that they use their medication for recreation and not necessity. For me, my daily narcotics are not strong enough for me to get high, which I’m thankful for because that means I can still be a person. I don’t like how my emergency medication makes me feel, but if I need that medication, I’m probably not well enough to do things any way. You can learn more about alllll of this in my posts on How Chronic Pain Patients Use Opioids, Being a Chronic Pain Patient in the Opioid Epidemic, and Chronic Pain Patients Aren’t Automatically “Junkies.”

Saying that you had a panic/anxiety attack when you just felt anxious – This is something else that negates the experiences of people with a mental illness. Feeling anxious is something that everyone experiences; a full-on anxiety attack is a miserable feeling felt by people with an illness. If someone has an anxiety attack, it might not be considered a serious thing by others because they think that person just feels anxious.

What are some other examples of everyday ableism?

Like this post? Check out:

Everyday Ableism, Not All Disabilities Are Visible, At Letter to the Mom Who Yelled at Me on the Bus for My Disability, On Inspiration Porn

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  • Reply Emily of Em Busy Living

    My MIL still uses the phrase “retarded” in a joking manner. Drives me insane. I’m still catching myself using “crazy” sometimes even though I’m trying my hardest to remind myself constantly why I shouldn’t use it. I think with continued awareness many of these ableist phrases and actions will go the way of the use of “retarded;” it will take time and practice, but one by one people can remove themselves from being one of the offenders.

    August 4, 2017 at 8:00 am
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      Ugh, that’s so frustrating. My hope is that things will change a lot over the next decade or so. Also, not getting mad at you or anything, but do you realize what word you used in this comment that you probably shouldn’t have? (I found it kinda of hilarious considering the post and your comment.)

      August 9, 2017 at 11:42 am
  • Reply Sarah @ Back to Carolina

    These are all SO true. I think that the general public could really benefit from this list. You did a great job explaining the “whys,” too!
    I never noticed the handicapped parking abuse until I really needed it. I’ve sat on the phone and had it out with a Jimmy John’s manager over their delivery guy cutting me off to take the last handicapped spot at the doctor’s office to make a delivery. I blocked the delivery guy in while I waited to talk to him.
    That was just the tip of the iceberg after a weekend of seeing people in downtown Charlotte parking in the off loading zones/clearly parking in handicapped spots without a tag bc parking was so crowded.
    I also get very bothered with the OCD thing and people off handedly saying they have a mental illness that they clearly don’t have.
    But, all of the things you listed are super important.

    August 6, 2017 at 12:32 pm
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      Thank you so much! I’m very impressed you blocked the delivery guy in – totally necessary.

      August 9, 2017 at 11:43 am
  • Reply Kate the (Almost) Great | Boston Lifestyle Blog - Dating with Chronic Conditions | Kate the (Almost) Great, Boston Lifestyle

    […] you’re concerned about continuing ableism, you can send them these posts: Everyday Ableism, Examples of Ableist Language in Everyday Life, and We Need To Talk about […]

    August 14, 2017 at 8:02 am
  • Reply Kate the (Almost) Great | Boston Lifestyle Blog - What You Should Know about Disability | Kate the (Almost) Great

    […] I’ll leave these pieces here for you to read instead of repeating myself: Everyday Ableism, Examples of Ableist Language in Everyday Life, and On Inspiration […]

    October 6, 2017 at 8:01 am
  • Reply Leigh Ann Stratakos

    Thank you for this very thorough post. Cleaning up my ableist language has been an ongoing process for me the last year or two. There are a few here that I was not aware of and will now pay attention. Thank you again, I’m sure there was a lot of emotional labor involved in writing this post.

    January 28, 2018 at 6:18 pm
  • Reply Kate the (Almost) Great | Boston Lifestyle Blog - How Is Chronic Pain Differerent from Acute Pain? | Kate the (Almost) Great

    […] for Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients, Tools for Pain Management That Aren’t Medications, Examples of Ableist Language in Everyday Life, Why the Traditional Pain Scale Needs To […]

    January 18, 2019 at 9:23 am
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