Weasel Words: How “Disability Vocabulary” is Sneaking into Our Language

Hello again, readers,

I have a new post based on my recent trip to a writer’s conference, and this one is centered on words.

Writers have a fairly unique vocabulary–it’s not exactly workplace jargon, but if you don’t hang around writers much you might not know what we’re talking about. We regularly use our own acronyms and phrases like:
-POV (Point of View)
-Limited/omniscient (this refers to third-person point of view but we usually just use one of those two words)
-Pubbed (short for “published”)
-Crit (short for “critique”)
-Sensory words (felt, saw, heard, and so on)
-Head-hopping (jumping between POV characters in the same scene–it’s a big no-no)
-Weasel words

This last one has nothing to do with rodents. Weasel words are words you put into a manuscript that you don’t need. They’re the ones you cut when your word count is too high or you need to clean up a draft. Some guilty words are “just,” “really,” and “that,” to name a few. There are other types of weasel words too, though–words that creep into our vocabulary without conscious knowledge. No, I’m not talking about cuss words or jargon. I’m talking about disability-related words, used outside the context of disability, that may be undermining the community of PWDs.

I’ll give you an example. One day at my conference I was walking from dinner to our evening group session when I heard another attendee say, “My husband is a high-functioning introvert. He can function around people really well but needs to recharge.” I understood what she meant and knew she wasn’t poking fun at disability in any way, but it occurred to me: that’s a weird way to say someone’s an introvert.

Another example: I took a class based on “writing acoustically”, or writing so your readers can hear different cadences in your words. For example, you write differently during a fast-paced action scene than you would a scene where a romantic waltz takes place. The instructor asked how many of us were musical in some way–how many of us chose the class because the title referenced acoustics. Most of us raised our hands, including me since I’m a singer. One of the few who didn’t joked, “I’m musically retarded.”

Now, you all know how I feel about that word (hereafter and forever known as the R word just because I hate even thinking it). Yet it is a word that has crept into our vocabulary. We use it without thinking, but it is a slur against PWDs, whether or not they have intellectual disabilities.

Now, is “high-functioning introvert” also a slur? No. The trouble is, it’s not the best way to get your point across. Why? Because when you start categorizing people as high- or low-functioning, you’re using disability vocabulary and unconsciously sending the message that
(A. It is okay to define people this way, especially PWDs
(B. Disability vocabulary can be applied to anyone in any situation, even where it may be inappropriate
(C. “High-functioning” people are better than “low-functioning” people
(D. It’s better to have some traits and not others (extraversion privileged over introversion, for instance). The degree to which you can or will exhibit the desired traits indicates how well you “function,” therefore how well you “deserve” to be accepted in circles of those who naturally have the desired traits.

Sometimes, disability vocabulary can be downright weird when used the wrong way. For example, let’s say you have a TAB person who happens to be a bit of a neatnik and is particular about how her clothes are folded. She doesn’t have intrusive thoughts or compulsions–yet her friends and family say, “Oh, Scarlet is just OCD.” No, Scarlet is not OCD. No one *is* obsessive compulsive disorder. They *have* obsessive compulsive disorder. Big difference. And, just because you have 1-2 traits of OCD or any other disability does not mean you have the diagnosis or should be classified as such. That’s not because OCD or any other disability is bad; they shouldn’t be taken lightly, is all.

I’m not saying we can never joke about disability. I do it all the time–in reference to myself. But it is a tricky and often offensive subject because to poke fun at someone else’s disability, or use disability vocabulary inappropriately, carries negative results. The problem is, disability vocabulary is so accepted these days, it’s weaseled its way into our everyday language, in ways that it shouldn’t.

I personally wish we didn’t have this kind of vocabulary–high- and low-functioning, special needs, what have you. For now we do because we are imperfect and because these words can be helpful if used correctly. Yet I caution everyone–please, please be careful how you use them, and always do so with respect.



  1. galacticexplorer · May 27, 2015

    Good post… you gave some examples here that I would not have thought about. OCD is one that I’ve been working out of my vocabulary lately. I never used to think much of it, but it then started to bother me that so many people would refer to themselves as having OCD or “OCD tendencies” whenever they had any sort of quirk. To me, it felt like cheapening the experiences of people who actually have the disorder and I wondered if using “OCD” casually as a descriptor of behavior was contributing to that. So I’m weeding it out. I’ve tried using “I’m being a little bit obsessive” as a replacement because I feel like it doesn’t have the connotation of appropriating a disorder while still describing the behavior. I hope that is an improvement.

    It also bothers me a little when anyone who gets distracted is called “being ADD.” I had suspected I had the disorder for years and years, but without an official diagnosis, I was hesitant to ever use it for myself because I couldn’t be 100% sure and it didn’t feel right to me to claim it. Well, my psychologist finally diagnosed me, but it has bothered me for quite some time that people who have no signs of having the disorder throw the label around at every single moment of distraction. It doesn’t reflect at all the struggles that I’ve had to overcome to be successful in my studies (and the struggles I still deal with) and, while I’m not going to throw a fit about it, I find it frustrating. Anyway, I guess that’s why I decided I should become more conscious of the ways I am doing that to other people, and I will take your suggestions into account as well.

    • independencechick · May 27, 2015

      Well, I’m certainly flattered! Yes, the ADD one occurred to me as well. It’s funny how people only seem to do this with primarily psychological disabilities. For example, you never see someone trip or spill food and go, “I’m being CP right now.” (???) I’m not trying to police anyone though, because Lord knows I’ve done the same things. I’ve had to consciously avoid the R word, not because I use it against others, but because I have used it against myself when frustrated with my disability. It doesn’t help me and it sure as heck doesn’t help anyone else. As for those other phrases, you’re right–they cheapen a very real part of life, and there’s really no reason for it. After all, you’re not “higher-functioning” just because you know how to parallel park, right?

      • galacticexplorer · May 27, 2015

        I suck at parallel parking 😀

        I also had to consciously stop using the R-word. It’s one of those things that I never thought about until I started seeing some people mention how hurtful it was. My first thoughts were to be defensive (as is often the case when confronted with the possibility that we are wrong), but then I thought long and hard to myself and wondered “does it really cost me anything to stop using this word that is apparently hurtful to others?” And the answer is no, no it doesn’t. So really, there’s no excuse.

  2. independencechick · May 27, 2015

    Well, I can’t even drive, let alone parallel park, so I guess I’m a low-functioning traveler? Snarkity snark snark.

    I think people who get defensive about using or not using that word–or any other insulting word–do so because they feel it tramples on their personal freedoms. In a sense, that’s okay–we live in a free country. But “free country” is not a face-value thing. For example, your right to dance naked around your yard stops at the fact that your neighbor has curious toddlers and finds the display highly offensive. Your right to pee wherever you want stops at basic sanitation.

    I think the R word is also a source of controversy because it began as a medical world. “Mentally r____” is how doctors described people with intellectual disabilities (and many still do). Because the medical system is so respected, people are hesitant to drop its terminology. Not saying we shouldn’t respect doctors–they’re the ones who suffer through med school for 8+ years with little sleep and bad food. But doctors are still fallible beings, and not using a word they coined will not kill us.

    • galacticexplorer · May 27, 2015

      Agreed… just because it is legal to do something doesn’t mean it is right. There are many things that people have done to me that were unequivocally wrong and immoral, but that I would not want to be /illegal/. That doesn’t make them not wrong. An awful lot of Americans (on any side of an issue) like to fall back on “it’s a free country yada yada” when they are told that what they are doing is wrong. I would rather focus on what I should and shouldn’t do than what I can and can’t do.

      • independencechick · May 27, 2015

        That’s a huge key a lot of people ignore, but that should be drummed into our brains: Just because you can, does not mean you should!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s