We Can Abolish Language Policing
Words can inspire reflection and growth, instead of prompting attacks
A few months ago, I wrote an essay about why I dislike the term “differently abled.” As an Autistic person, I find it unhelpful and condescending to hide the word “disabled” behind softening euphemisms like that one. I also explained that the majority of disabled people feel the way I do about the term.
In the same piece, I also noted that the use of words like “differently abled” are revealing in a useful way; they indicate to me that a person is uncomfortable with disability, or is unfamiliar with the disability rights movement. Knowing that allows me to meet the person where they are, and (gently) encourage them to ponder how they feel about disabled people. I want to educate people about disability justice, so it’s very fruitful to approach the use of a “problematic” word in a curious, reflective way.
Many readers missed that point in my essay. They were too focused on learning that yet another phrase in their vocabulary had been deemed problematic. I had intended to invite readers to reflect on their own language use, and use language as a jumping-off point for having conversations about just how common ableism is. Instead, I was met with a mix of hand-wringing apologies and outraged defensiveness.
“I’ve been guilty of using the term differently abled,” one person wrote, “Thank you for helping me clear up my shit language.”
“These days nobody knows what words to use,” complained another commenter. “Everyone is walking on egg shells so much because we’re told that the most important thing is not to cause offense.”
I don’t think there’s any use in a person feeling guilty for having used the phrase “differently abled” in the past. Though I dislike the phrase, I don’t think it’s categorically “shit language.” A few disabled people even prefer the term. And I certainly don’t want people to walk on eggshells about which words they use. That tends to inhibit frank discussion, and makes it harder for me to connect meaningfully with people on their own terms.
With the exception of slurs, verbal abuse, and hate speech that’s clearly intended to cause…