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What is Ableism and how is it a part of the everyday language we use at the library?

Posted by on August 1st, 2022 Posted in: Blog

This guest post is contributed by Mary Murtland as part of her MLS internship with NNLM R7. Mary has an extensive resume including working as a library director in a rural library for over a decade! We are fortunate to have her spend her University of Rhode Island internship experience with us.

Do you have a disability bias? Project Implicit, a non-profit collaboration of researchers, created a website with a collection of Implicit Association Tests (IAT). Its mission is “to educate the public about bias”. On this website, after you agree to participate, you will be asked to choose an IAT from a list of topics. Give the Disability IAT a try. The results may surprise you.

Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.  It is based on the belief that non-disabled have more value than disabled people and that typical abilities are superior. Ableism assumes that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. The concept of “fixing” a disability started with the medical model of disability. We are taught to think that something is “wrong” with a person, and it needs a doctor’s medical attention to be “fixed”. Just because something is different does not mean it is bad. We need to recognize how ableism is perpetuated through our everyday communication at the library.

Ableist language is ever-present in conversations and people working at or visiting a library may not even be aware that they are using it. Making use of ableist language both internalizes and reveals our unconscious biases. Ableist language evolves just like slang, with phrases catching on and becoming widely accepted parts of our vocabulary. Examples are works and phrases like making a “dumb” choice, turning a “blind eye”, acting “crazy or “falling on deaf ears”. Using these kinds of terms and phrases reinforces negative attitudes or actions and continues to promote inaccurate descriptions of what having a disability means.  Keep in mind that words have power and ableist language is both harmful and unnecessary. Ableist words have become an established part of society’s vocabulary and changing the use of these words will have to be an ongoing process that we will have to work together to change.

Another thing to consider is that sooner or later non-disabled people will commonly experience a disability later in life and will also be harmed in the future by the established and ongoing ableist words that are being maintained now. According to the CDC, “one in four adult Americans live with a disability.” “The most common disability type, mobility, affects 1 in 7 adults. With age, disability becomes more common, affecting about 2 in 5 adults age 65 and older.”

Where should I start?

  • Learning about ableist language helps people recognize their own biases when it comes to disability.
  • People use ableist expressions because they have heard others say it and have become comfortable using them. Examine your go-to words and phrases and consider replacing them.
  • Try not to use disability related words to describe any person, thing, idea, or situation in a negative way. By using ableist language, you are maintaining stereotypes and feeding stigma about disabilities.
  • Think before you speak. Do not use a disability as an insult.
  • Start asking yourself “What message am I communicating when I use ableist language?” and “What words could I be using instead?”. People may not notice the absence of ableist language, but they will notice its use. Even though some of the other word choices may be synonyms, they don’t carry the same history and baggage that the ableist words and phrases do.
  • Consider working together with friends, family and/or coworkers on recognizing ableist words and replacing them.
  • Stay away from euphemisms like “differently-abled”, “physically challenged”, “mentally challenged”, “handi-capable”, or “special needs”. There are few people with disabilities that either use or prefer others to use these terms.
  • Do not address someone based on the equipment he or she is using. Ex. The cane lady or the hearing-aid guy.

People-first or identity-first language?

  • People-first language (PFL) puts the word “person” before any reference to a disability is made. The idea behind this form of language is that the emphasis is placed on the concept that a disability is something that a person has, rather than who they are. Ex. a person with autism.
    • Using this language encourages people to see the person first and not the disability.
    • Recognize that when you use a disability as a descriptor it sometimes limits your ability to view all the other aspects of a person.
    • In the past, identity- first language was accepted and often used in negative ways. Ex. Retarded, Dumb
  • Identity-first language (IFL)is referring to the disability as part of what makes a person who they are, not merely a characteristic. Ex. an autistic person.
    • Identity-first language can be used to both acknowledge and allow a person to be proud of a disability. It recognizes the disability as being an important part of who a person is. For example, many deaf people prefer identity-first language because they do not perceive inability to hear as a deficit.
    • Identity-first language is less wordy and some disability communities prefer to use it.

Neither of these choices are wrong. Oftentimes it is a matter of personal preference and worth asking a person with a disability what language he or she would like you to use.

Everyday ableist language to be aware of:

Words to avoid Consider using instead
When referring to a person When using as an adjective
Afflicted with/by, stricken with, suffers from, victim of  Has a disability, is disabled
Blind to ____ / turn a blind eye to ____ / blinded by ignorance/bigotry/etc. / double-blind review Blind, low-vision, or sight-limited people willfully ignorant, deliberately ignoring, turning their back on, overcome by prejudice, doubly anonymous, had every reason to know, feigned ignorance
Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound uses a wheelchair, wheelchair-user, in a wheelchair, began using a wheelchair, needs or requires a wheelchair, is a full-time wheelchair-user
Crazy, cuckoo, deranged, disturbed, insane, loony, loony bin, lunatic, mad, nuts, psycho, psychotic person with a mental health disability, person with mental illness/mentally ill person, person with a psychiatric disability/ outrageous, bananas, bizarre, amazing, intense, extreme, overwhelming, wild, confusing, unpredictable, impulsive, reckless, fearless, lives on the edge, thrill-seeker, risk-taker, out of control
Cripple, gimp, invalid, lame, spastic, or spaz physically disabled person, person with a mobility impairment, paralyzed person (if referring to a disabled person) boring, bland, unexciting, pathetic, or unoriginal.
Deaf and dumb/deaf-mute, dumb Deaf person, nonspeaking Deaf person, non-verbal, signing Deaf person, hard of hearing person, DeafBlind person, ASL user, ASL speaker, signer To replace dumb: dense, ignorant, lacks understanding, impulsive, risk-taker, uninformed, silly, foolish (to replace metaphor)
Deaf to ____ / turn a deaf ear to ____ / etc. Refers to Deaf or hard of hearing people. willfully ignorant, deliberately ignoring, turning their back on, had every reason to know, feigned ignorance
Defect, birth defect, defective, deformed describing the specific condition or appearance Faulty, unreliable, not working,
Disabled restroom, Handicapped parking Accessible restroom/parking
High functioning, low functioning Person who is able to…, person who is unable to…, person with high support needs

Describing the specific characteristics that a person has that are relevant to a particular description or context, e.g. “needs help eating and bathing” or “is able to go to college.”

Mentally retarded, mentally challenged, mentally handicapped, cretin, imbecile, mongoloid, moron, idiot, retard, riding the short bus, slow, stupid (comes from “in a stupor”), twice exceptional Person with intellectual disability/intellectually disabled person, person with a cognitive disability/cognitively disabled person, person with a learning disability/learning disabled person Uninformed, reckless, impulsive, ignorant, risk-taking, risky and dangerous,
Midget, vertically challenged Little person, person of short stature, person with dwarfism/dwarf Short, petite, small, little,
Normal, regular, able-bodied Does not have a disability, nondisabled, is not living with a disability
Special ed, special needs Disabled, blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, speech or communication disability, learning or cognitive disability, psychiatric or mental health disability, physically disabled, developmentally disabled, emotionally disabled, a little person,


Brown, Lydia X.Z. (2021, November 16). Ableism/Language. https://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html

Communicating With and About People with Disabilities. (2022, February1). Disability and Health Promotion. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/materials/factsheets/fs-communicating-with-people.html

Eisenmenger, Ashley. (2019, December 12). Ableism 101. Access Living. https://www.accessliving.org/newsroom/blog/ableism-101/

Ladau, Emily. (2021). Demystifying Disability. New York: Ten Speed Press.

Novic’, Sara. (2021, April 5). The Harmful Ableist Language You Unknowingly Use. Equality Matters. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210330-the-harmful-ableist-language-you-unknowingly-use

Shelley, Crystal. (2020, July 2). Ableism in Writing and Everyday Language. Rabbit With a Red Pen. https://www.rabbitwitharedpen.com/blog/ableism

Shelley, Crystal. (2021, March 16). Ableism in Writing and Everyday Language. The American Copy Editors Society. https://aceseditors.org/news/2021/ableism-in-writing-and-everyday-language


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NNLM Region 7
University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School
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This has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012347 with the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.

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