Arts & Culture

Ableism in English: Please Don’t Act ‘Dumb’

‘He is gamophobic – emotionally crippled.’ ‘That was hysterical! I am still laughing!’ ‘Are you crazy?’ ‘She’s a weirdo – just ignore her.’ ‘Why are acting like an idiot?’ ‘He is blindly following her.’ I could go on, but I think I have made my point. And the point? English is drowning in ableism.. 

An ableist language is a language that is offensive or derogatory to people with disabilities. It reeks of ableism – the systemic oppression and exclusion of people with disabilities. Oftentimes, it paints a negative shade on disability by subtle means. This is apparent in some phrases of the language in which ableism is starkly inherent. Considering English, both the language and its literature are ableist in nature. Though no one had intentionally fashioned it that way, it just came to be. The majority of authors of English literature have been non-disabled throughout history and in their quest for eloquence, they have come to associate disability with everything that they consider to be bad. An example? Onomatopoeias. Even though these are seemingly innocent words that denote sound, it is the emphasis by authors on onomatopoeias that makes it ableist. Most English poems, particularly from the Romantic Age, are examples of this – the poems comprehensively weaved with ableism.

Many authors are ‘eloquent’ in demonizing the disabled – as evident from the trend of equating blindness and deafness with darkness, silence and death. And they consider it as a means to spruce up their work – make it much more beautiful. And this has gone largely unnoticed because both the readers and the writers were from the same community – non-disabled. However, with increasingly many disabled persons taking to literature, both as readers and as writers like Jennifer Bartlett, Jillian Weise, and others, ableism in English has come under the limelight. But what is truly disturbing is that ableism is not only in the literature but has also intertwined within the language. Ableism is present in many languages – however, in their literature and not in the language itself. But considering English, ableism has rooted into it so deep that it is present in the words that we use – and we don’t know it.

The most disturbing thing about ableism in language is that it touches everyone – sometimes making them think it is okay.– Centennial College

Some of the common terms in English have ableism ingrained into it – and we hurt millions of people when we use it, often unknowingly. Considering languages, ableism manifests in different forms like metaphors, euphemisms and ‘jokes’. These forms of ableism are particularly devastating because these normalize ableism – creating a mirage that ableism is okay. When you joke or use ableist metaphors, you perpetuate the idea that it is okay to do that – often encouraging others to do so and with such perpetuation, disabled people often accept these tropes subconsciously and internalize them. But what is truly heart-rending is that people don’t know they are doing that. Does anyone know that common terms like ‘moron’ ‘retard’ and even ‘idiot’ were actually clinical terms that were used to refer to the mentally ill before they made their way to everyday English.

Recently last week, I was doing an assignment and my friend texted me about a small technical problem and I cleared it up. She replied “That’s quite easy. Wow, I’m pretty dumb lol.” This shows how deeply, deeply ingrained is ableism in the language. ‘Dumb’ is a word to denote people who can’t speak and we are using it as a synonym to ‘stupid’. Doesn’t this imply that mute people are stupid? Just think about how a disabled person would have felt if he had received that message. And that is why it is high time to stop this and correct ourselves; correct ourselves to remove ableism – and racism, casteism and other -isms for that matter – from our speech.

To do this, we have to conscious about our speech – granted we can’t always be on the guard but when we try, we can avoid using ableist expressions for most of the time. Perhaps we can start using new words as substituents to ableist expressions and perhaps, the more creative persons can even coin a word if they can’t find a suitable substituent. After all, English is the most rapidly evolving language and I am sure it has space for new words. Considering bygone literature, there is nothing we can do about it – but we can make sure the ones that are to come aren’t ableist. Sure, without ableism, literature would be a little less eloquent but I think we can sacrifice eloquence to prevent millions from ableist microaggressions. And to achieve that, we need inclusion. Even as far as 2012, around 90% of books reviewed by the New York Times was of white writers. And without a significant proportion of disabled writers, it is very difficult to bring light to the ableism that exists and even more difficult to prevent that from happening. But it is heartening to know that many disabled writers are entering the fray, writing not only disability but pioneering into other topics as well. 

But it is even more heartening to know that people – especially teachers and academics – have taken against the ableism that English hides (not so much). And they have taken it upon themselves to educate and enlighten their students about it – making sure that they don’t commit the same mistakes their predecessors did. This is even more important in case of school teachers, because when this is impressed on young minds, they abide by it and more importantly, they are also the beacon of light – the torchbearers – to a society that’s free from ableism. And this English Language Day, let’s try to make a change in English – for the better.

Read Also:

Elitism in English: Why Can’t Hindi be as “Cool” as English?

Beyond Ableism and Ignorance: Disability and Fiction

Why You Need to Stop Using These Words and Phrases

Feature Image Credits: Still from Harry Potter

Harish Neela Lingam

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Journalism has been called the “first rough draft of history”. D.U.B may be termed as the first rough draft of DU history.Freedom to Express.