conferring · disability · language

Find Different Words

I was transported back to teaching fifth grade while reading Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally by Emily Ladau, who is a passionate disability rights activist. I remember conferring with a student who used the word crazy constantly in her writing. I conferred with her about the importance of making precise word choices. I wanted her to remove crazy from her writing since it wasn’t a specific adjective. Over time, she found other words to describe people and situations without using the word crazy. I am pretty sure I photocopied some of her writing – before and after using the word crazy – so I could show it to future students as an example of ways to write with specificity.

Ladau’s book made me realize I missed a teachable moment when I was taught this student (and future ones) to use words other than crazy as descriptors. In Demystifying Disability, Ladau writes:

There are some words that aren’t just insults; they’re outright slurs. … And words such as “mad” and “crazy,” which are slurs against people with mental illness.

(Ladau, 2021, 22-23)

When non-disabled people employ words like crazy, insane, and lunatic in their speaking or writing, they are perpetuating harmful stereotypes about people with mental health disabilities. This language is offensive. 

If I could go back in time, I’d use the research part of my conference to share my concern about using the word crazy. I’d ask, “Are you talking about a person with a mental illness?” When the word no surfaced, I would take that moment to call the child in rather than calling them out. Explaining why and how words like this can hurt people is the first step to eliminating the casual use of these words in a student’s writing.

In fact, I had the opportunity to discuss this with my 12-year-old daughter a couple weeks ago. She referred to someone’s “crazy” behavior in her class. I asked her, “I’m wondering… what was your intention when you called {name}’s actions crazy?” Isabelle replied by telling me the student was being rude and disruptive. I explained that rude and disruptive were more specific ways to describe her classmate’s behavior; those words weren’t harmful. I said a bit more about the word crazy. We decided that we would be more careful before using words (like crazy) in the future.

Loretta J. Ross, a feminist human rights educator, wrote an excellent piece called “Speaking Up Without Tearing Down” for Learning for Justice magazine. While her article doesn’t deal with disability, it’s a relevant read when trying to create a classroom culture that calls students in. Ross asserts that classrooms are made for calling in:

Teaching calling-in practices means teaching students techniques to avoid escalating conflicts and to relate to each other in affirming ways. When we teach call-in skills, we create what we need for ourselves and our students: brave spaces in which everyone understands that people make mistakes, that people come from diverse cultures and languages that may use words differently, and that people should not be punished for not knowing the right words to say. When we call students out instead of building a call-in culture in the classroom, we contribute to increasingly toxic and polarized conversations. And we make learning less inviting.

(Ross, Iss. 61, Spring 2019)

Check out this resource from Seed the Way for more on calling in.

Used with permission from Rebecca Haslam. Source: http://www.seedtheway.com/uploads/8/8/0/0/8800499/interrupting_bias__calling_out_vs._calling_in_revised_oct2022__2_.pdf

Using ableist language devalues people with disabilities. Much of this language is ingrained in society. We cannot eradicate ableist language until we realize what it is, so we know what to say instead. Here are a few examples from Demystifying Disability that will provide you with an excellent place to start thinking about the language we use when we speak and write:

Say ThisNot This
disability/disabled
person with a disability/disabled person
differently abled (unless preferred)
handi-capable
handicap/handicapped
special needs (unless preferred)
able-bodied (if not physically disabled)
does not have a disability
neurotypical (if not neurodivergent)
nondisabled
normal
regular
person who uses a wheelchair
wheelchair user
wheelchair-bound
confined to a wheelchair
person with a physical disability/physically disabled personcripple*
gimp*
invalid*
spaz*
* = People may choose to reclaim these words as personal identifiers, but they should be used in references to a person only with explicit permission.
(Ladau, 2021, 24-27)

“One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability” (Disability inclusion overview, World Bank. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability). We owe it to everyone with one or more disabilities – chronic illness, communication disorder, developmental disability, hearing disability, intellectual disability, learning disability, mental health disability, neurological disorder, physical disability, or vision disability – to be discussed and treated respectfully. It will have a ripple effect if we commit to removing ableist language from our vocabulary.

12 thoughts on “Find Different Words

  1. Dear Stacey…

    Thank you for this post. My father, who passed away in a traumatic and tragic way, suffered with severe mental illness. This resonates with me strongly, and I appreciate you sharing.

    It is often not only challenging for those who experience it as a patient, but for the families that love them. He died less than a decade ago, but the wounds have yet to heal.

    I have since penned the words for a children’s book I hope to publish that addresses what it’s like to be a loved one of others who struggle in this way. It’s called, “He’s Still My Dad…”

    It is a great consolation to know that there are people like you who reflect and share their thoughtfulness with others for the benefit of those who often struggle more than anyone else.

    Thank You… ~Dr. Carla Michelle

    Like

    1. I cannot imagine what you went through with the traumatic loss of your father. I’m glad this post resonated with you. As you mentioned, it’s not just the people with the disability who are affected by ableist language, it’s also families and friends. Being more mindful of our language benefits everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My daughter works in mental health and has schooled me along the way. Some words are ingrained in us, and we really need to check ourselves constantly. MLB changed the “disabled list” to “injured reserve” a couple of seasons ago. T

    Like

  3. I love how reflective you are in this and how you show (teach!!) your readers to be as reflective & thoughtful. While we can never go back in time and erase a mistake, we can absolutely move forward with the knowledge that we learned. This is a great piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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