Sticks and stones: Changing our vocabulary to avoid using “ableist” language

By Stacey Spencer • JFCS Inclusion Program Manager       


My friend who works in sales once told me a story. It was shortly before Black Friday and he and a few of his co-workers were gathered around the computer looking at their competitors’ websites when his co-worker blurted out, “Look at their promotions – that is so retarded!”  Nobody said anything, and the small group fell into a quiet, awkward silence. The co-worker didn’t understand everyone’s reaction to what he said. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. “It’s just words. I have used that same word since I’ve been a kid!”


Is it a big deal? Perhaps people like him who use these terms are not trying to purposely hurt someone. What if the words they are saying are just ingrained in society as cultural or social norms, like the above mentioned word or other ones like “lame,” “crazy,” “spaz,” “psycho” or “insane”?


The definition for this is “ableism.” “Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities,” according to Simi Linton in Claiming Disability Knowledge and Identity. “Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled.” In an article on Disabling Ableist Language, Andy Hollenbeck defines ableist language as “any word or phrase that devalues people who have physical or mental disabilities. Its appearance often stems not from any intentional desire to offend, but from our innate sense of what it means to be normal.”


Although ableist language isn’t used intentionally, it still can project the idea that people who have disabilities are somehow lesser than able-bodied people. Consider the usage of the “R” word above. Maybe the co-worker was feeling frustrated or was baffled? Instead of using that word, he could have replaced it with “pointless,” “irritating,” or “annoying.” If you are trying to say that something is “bad” or “unpleasant,” instead of stating that it is “lame,” considering using “bad,” “awful,” or “gross.”


Another commonly used phrase that has become socially acceptable and used in everyday conversation is “that’s crazy!” I, like so many others, have used it many times. Am I intentionally trying to be mean by saying this phrase, which might seem innocuous? No, but I am un-intentionally discriminating and marginalizing someone with a diagnosed mental illness. Wouldn’t “foolish,” “senseless,” or “ridiculous” be a better word choice?


Are you unsure whether a word or phrase is ableist? According to S.E. Smith, writing for, the answer often depends on the context and situation.


For example, saying “she’s autistic” to describe an autistic person, is just a factual statement (though she may prefer to be called a person with autism, depending on how she views her relationship to autism).


On the other hand, saying, “Ugh, she’s so autistic,” to describe someone’s bizarre behavior is ableist language.


During the month of February, JFCS and Jewish communities around the world observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). The mission of JDAIM is to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted and included in all aspects of Jewish life. Through the work of JDAIM, we advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and mental health conditions. Stick and stones are not the only thing that hurts us – words we say do too – whether they are used intentionally or not.


Let’s come together as a community to honor this important mission, in part, by being more conscious and intentional about the choice of words we use. We can all learn some new ways to express ourselves in a manner that is more respectful and mindful of how we think and speak of people of all abilities.


Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) is sponsored by JFCS’ Jewish Accessibility and Inclusion Collaborative (JAIC). The mission of JAIC is to unite the Twin Cities Jewish community in raising awareness and increasing access for people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of Jewish life. For information on JDAIM events being held throughout the metro area, click here.