Trigger warning: ableist/disableist language and slurs, mentions of and links to discussion of murder of disabled folk, Autism Speaks, Anti-Vaxers, benefit cuts and service closures and mental health issues

This is a brief blogpost on ableist language, I am Autistic and have mental health problems but otherwise have relative able bodied privilege(1) but find such slurs very common on the left, feminism and more generally. So this post only incoherently voices my opinion no one else’s, especially those who have articulated similar much better. 😛

I remember repeatedly being called ableist slurs(2) such as “spaz” and “retard” at secondary school as I am sure is a very common experience. I don’t think quite as many folk internalize such to quite the same degree and the belief in ones lack of social skills before one even knew what Autism was. I am sure we were told when kids and teenagers not to use such words as they were offensive. But that is the problem such words are not just offensive and impolite, like swear words that will get you in trouble, which who even pays attention to? They are oppressive, they are slurs, using words that refer or referred to medical conditions as something worthy of ridicule. “Mental retardation” may not be in the DSM 5 but it was in previous editions and still is in the ICD 10(3) it holds a scientific meaning equivalent to intellectual disability.
This language used to insult, is incredibly dehumanizing and when you leave it unchallenged it echoes in your head mention by mention as you gradually or less gradually accumulate feelings of worthlessness. It is language stolen from disabled folk and used by those with power and privilege to belittle us and belittle disabled folks role in society. And it is language only those affected by the specific condition referred to get to reclaim.

People frequently use “irrational”, “mad”, “psychotic”, “insane”, “crazy” etc not as medical terminology but to armchair diagnose someone with mental illness or to insult them. A right wing person is not crazy or stupid, they are wrong and oppressive which is much worse. Finding the correct words to say something is not easy so we shouldn’t refute such ableism with more ableism as many folk don’t find verbal communication easy. But it is better to not be able to think of a word, than contribute to the dehumanization of disabled folk.  It is so ingrained to say things like mad and lame without thinking, it is that normalized, but this does not stop such language being oppressive, this does not stop the negative connotations having material affect. Even when one utters such words oneself they still hurt.
Anders Breivik was not autistic because he showed a lack of empathy for the people he murdered, the Woolwich murderers are not psychotic as they beheaded a man, both may or may not have such conditions or some other/s but killing people or doing other awful things is never solely caused by mental illness, developmental, intellectual or any other disabilities. Armchair diagnosis based on incorrect stereotypes of such are especially harmful. Associating those with such conditions with such people especially as this is likely one of few areas of representation in the media such disabilities will get (other than being oh so inspirational for Neurotypical and able bodied folk) tells those with these disabilities that they are an insult, they are like a murderer, they are like these right wing folks, they are these awful things, what they are is how you would best describe these people, not as anything else. We are not a metaphor for all the horrible things and horrible people. And this association makes one feel incredibly isolated, undermining ones sense of identity as well as feeding into a systematic ableist culture, where it easier to cut(4) and underfund(5) services when there is such stigma around and force many disabled folk off benefits despite their lives being at stake(6).

Reading something simple in one of the manifestos for our student union elections this year as “have Worked with individuals who suffered from wide spectrum of disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, Autism, Developmental delay”(7) is really upsetting. The implication being that Autism is something you suffer from, that there is something wrong with being Autistic, a message that I am lucky not to have forced on me from an early age due to only recent diagnosis, but many autistic folks have experienced this. It is something very dehumanizing as it says there is something wrong with something that is so inextricable from our personalities, our selves when this is far from the truth and for many being Autistic can be a positive identity. This sort of rhetoric is common from Anti-Vaxers who in the recent past(and present) had influence such as to popularize the low take up of MMR vaccines due to apparent risk of autism(how awful-[sarcasm]) to organisations in America such as Autism Speaks(8) and supports attitudes where parents feel justified and are evensupported and sympathized with after the fact for murdering their Autistic children(9).

Language is not just language it is culture it is influence, it is privilege it is power. It is power to feel human and be treated as such. It is the power that such language is backed up by, the systematic oppression it feeds into. We Disabled people are not metaphors for insults to throw at someone you despise, however awful. Ableist languages and slurs are not just offensive, they tears down our sense of selves and allows others to tear down accessible support structures and our very lives.

Links in text/referencey things:

  1. http://exposingableism.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/the-invisible-backpack-of-able-bodied-privilege-checklist/
  2. http://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html
  3. http://apps.who.int/classifications/apps/icd/icd10online2007/index.htm?gf70.htm+
  4. http://www.localnewsglasgow.co.uk/2013/03/day-care-centres-to-close-despite-opposition-from-users/
  5. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/18/inexcusable-mental-health-treatments-underfunded
  6. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-claimants-lose-all-their-income-under-disability-benefits-reform-9107586.html
  7. http://www.glasgowstudent.net/about/electionmanifestosspring/sdo/1732
  8. http://thecaffeinatedautistic.wordpress.com/so-what-is-the-problem-with-autism-speaks/
  9. http://www.squidalicious.com/2013/09/on-autism-murder-apologists.html
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