Ableist language becomes so due to bigoted attitudes. Many ableist slurs were originally diagnostic terms. “Retarded” means slow, and this diagnosis was meant to describe someone who was slower to learn new data and skills. If we did not have cultural hatred for slow learners, then the R-word would never have become a slur. In this respect, the medical community is stuck in a verbal arms race with those who hate disabled people, trying to find new stigma free terms.
A word or phrase that’s selected to avoid stigma can still be used as a slur, if the speaker is determined enough. The 1990s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a few examples. A guy complains “no one in the sighted community” would date him, suggesting a blind girl would not be able to tell he wasn’t cute and making a bitter joke out of it. In another instance Buffy, mad at herself for missing something obvious, cries out “God, I am so mentally challenged!”
This is why, in addition to urging people to abstain from using ableist slurs, I also encourage people to root out their ableist beliefs. Constantly changing the terms for cognitive disability is necessary and will be so for as long as these attitudes persist. But shifting the terms isn’t enough if we all still agree that mentally impaired people are defective, flawed, unacceptable, and worthy of scorn.
We have to move past the idea that disabled – stupid, crazy, lame, spastic, dumb, and weak – is the worst thing a human can be. It’s no coincidence so many English language insults are about disability. The English speaking world gave us eugenics, asylums, forced lobotomies and sterilization. It’s a shitshow, and hating disability goes back centuries in English language literature and plays.
Our language is ableist because our culture is, and our culture is ableist in part because our language is. I will continue working against slurs, but also the myths and biases that give them weight. Disability is a fact of the human species. It’s evidence of our survivability and adaptability that we can be sick or maimed and yet not die. It’s also evidence of human ingenuity every time we develop a new prosthetic or adaptive device or surgery.
There are terrible things in this world and in humanity: cruelty, callousness, hatred, and greed. These are the words we should use to describe what we detest, what we find unacceptable. When we use disability language and diagnostic labels to show disgust for something, what we really show we hate is disabled people. We can do better.