A is For Ableism: What is “Ableist?” What’s Not?

Hello readers,

First of all, thanks to Sue Grafton, whose alphabet-themed mystery novels inspired the title of this post. My theory is that you could probably come up with a different disability-related word for every letter of the alphabet. I’m not going to try to do that, but I may come up with other “letter posts” as the year goes on. Now, on to the topic.

Ableism is a popular word these days. Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I am not a proponent of political correctness. If anyone ever told me, in all seriousness, that Southerners should all be called “Appalachian Americans,” I’d fall down laughing. (I’m from the South, by the way, and that’s one of our particular jokes). I believe all December holidays deserve recognition and respect, but you can still say Merry Christmas, or not, if and when you want. If your sitcom character with a disability happens to use a wheelchair, I’m not going to jump on you. That’s why I’m very careful about calling something ableist or even using the word. The more we police ourselves and each other, the more miserable we’ll be.

But what happens when words and actions cross into true discrimination? You’ve probably seen this–black people being called the N word or using it on each other. Well-meaning fathers telling their sons not to “act gay.” Somebody making a remark about “getting gypped” or “getting Jewed” at a store. (My living grandmother once did this last one right in front of me, and had we been alone I’d have given her a piece of my mind. Amazing what family gatherings will do for your restraint).

How do you know when words or actions are truly ableist? What are some common instances of ableism? Moreover, what do we do about it? Can we stop it?


Example 1: College friends are discussing a class assignment. One student calls it “dumb.”

Is this ableist: In my opinion, no. There are definitely ableism-driven words out there, and we’ll get to those in a minute. However, our culture has evolved in such a way that “dumb” no longer means “unable to speak”; in fact, it’s offensive if used that way. “Dumb” now means “stupid,” “not enjoyable,” and several other things. It’s not polite to call people dumb, and it damages self-esteem if done too much, but it’s not classically ableist.

This said, words like the R word are definitely ableist. The argument is that “it’s just a word,” but words like that are describing whole groups as undesirable, just like the N word does, or like it does to call LGBT people “deviant.” Don’t do it.

Example 2: A teenage girl is having a particularly bad episode of PMS. Her parents say, “Stop acting crazy.”

Is this ableist: Depends. The majority of the mental health community sees this as an ableist word and I am inclined to agree. Why? “Crazy” is used in such a way that it denotes, “This person is of lesser value. This person does not understand reality and cannot participate in it.” This is particularly true if that teenage girl is experiencing/expressing real anger, sadness, or other emotions that others simply don’t understand.

Of course, we all use “crazy” now and then. You might use it when watching a YouTube video showing a man dancing naked through a patch of cacti. You might use it affectionately, as in, “My husband is a funny, crazy guy who brightens my day.” I’m not going to say, “never say this word”–to me, it’s kind of like the Appalachian American thing. That said, be careful when you use it, and never say directly to a person, “You are/are acting crazy.”

Example 3: A restaurant owner or manager comes up to a family dining out with a child or other relative who has autism. Because the person is behaving in a certain way, the family is asked to leave.

Is this ableist: Yes. A PWD should never be barred from or kicked out of any establishment because of the disability, and neither should loved ones. It’s the equivalent of saying, “This is not a colored restaurant.”

Example 4: The owner of a small store has aisles that are too narrow for wheelchairs or strollers in certain parts of the store. Customers with disabilities are encouraged or outright told not to use those areas.

Ableist: Yes. Intentional? No, maybe not. This is why ableism is tricky; a lot of people don’t mean to do it. Then again, a lot of people don’t mean to positively discriminate against Asians by saying they’re all great at math, either. By law, if your place of business is going to be accessible, the whole place must be. You also cannot effectively tell someone, “Stay out of this section.” If you don’t know how to make a business or house accessible, you need to do some research.

Example 5: A hired matchmaker suggests to a client with a disability that he or she “try dating disabled individuals first” or only makes matches with other PWDs.

Ableist: Yes, and it happened in real life. This statement assumes that PWDs are not equal relationship partners, can only relate to TAB people as caregivers, and are better off with “their own kind.” It’s the same thing that happens when a teacher suggests a student be in a self-contained classroom or receive services that are not necessary because he o she has a disability.

Example 6: A school theater director who regularly modifies productions to reflect racial differences, sexual orientation, and national origin only gives bit parts to cast members with disabilities.

Ableist: In most cases, yes. The key is, the director is picking and choosing what to modify, which is unfair to a whole population. However, the arts are tricky. There are three cases in which this would not be ableism:

1. The actor is really only experienced enough for small roles.

2. The entire point/integrity of a role or production is changed if it is modified for disability (i.e., if your lead character will be performing gymnastics tricks onstage, and you can’t get rid of those scenes because the production revolves around them). This goes for modifying for race, orientation, or other differences too, by the way.

3. Disability precludes an understandable performance (for example, you have a deaf actor who cannot speak intelligibly.) However, if you then bar that actor from participating, or you punish their deafness by never letting them do anything meaningful, you are committing ableism.

Ablesim exists, but many of us are still in denial. Fortunately, just as many of us want to prevent it. Knowledge is power, and it is my hope that these examples helped.





  1. Okay, so I’d love to bounce something off of you and get your opinion. I know you’re not the arbeiter of all things ableist and not, so if you don’t want to answer that’s totally fine and I won’t press it.

    My family is very religious and, frankly, their beliefs are pretty absurd and irrational. I’m not talking about believing in god or Christianity in general (which I have no problem with). I’m talking about things that most Christians find to be weird, like believing they can cast demons out of me, teaching me as a 5-year-old to prepare myself to be tortured to death during the 7-year tribulation, and believing that god told them what his favorite food is (they wouldn’t tell me, though. It’s a secret only for those who Truly Believe I guess). To say nothing of the fact that they’ve disowned me for “straying from the path”.

    Unsurprisingly, I’ve been subjected to some pretty rough stuff due to their weird brand of religion. In response, I tend to call their beliefs “religious crazies” as in “uh oh, Mom’s getting into the religious crazies again.” To be clear, “crazy” is NOT meant to indicate that they are mentally ill (for all of their bizarre behavior, I have no reason to think they are). But I’ve been concerned at times that my words are ableist all the same, since my intention doesn’t necessarily make what I’m saying okay. I admit I’m a bit attached to being able to use these words in this case because I’m angry and it encompasses my frustration and disdain for their utterly irrational and harmful practices. But maybe that’s exactly the problem? Other mentally ill people in my life haven’t had a problem with it, but I wonder if it’s not something I should say in mixed company. Thoughts, if you have them?

    Again, if this isn’t something you feel you should have to answer, that’s totally fine. πŸ™‚ Thanks for listening!

  2. Well, my gut reaction is, “How nuts is that”, if that tells you anything. πŸ™‚ Seriously, though…

    Off the top of my head, I will say this:
    1. You have every right to feel angry and disillusioned by that behavior
    2. I would not consider “crazy” in that context ableist, because of the behavior you’re talking about and the way/reasons it’s being used (abuse). We need a word for that. Maybe we should all be looking at the word “crazy” and saying, “Okay, we need to dissociate this word from treatable mental illness. We need to get to a place where it means, ‘obvious, serious, deviant behavior meant to hurt someone'”–or something like that. You know, kind of how we got to a place where “dumb” now primarily means “stupid/waste of time.”

    I would consider “crazy” an ableist word if you’re using it in the context of a person who:
    1. Displays treatable mental illness, because that person deserves dignity and the chance to function in society
    2. Does not display mental illness but is called “crazy” for expressing certain emotions (i.e., calling a person with CP crazy because she finally snapped and told you off for treating her like a five-year-old)
    3. Does or says things that, while outside the mainstream or disagreeable to some, are not hurting anybody. (For example, I wouldn’t call an LGBT person crazy because, even if I don’t understand or agree with everything they do, they’re not mentally ill or in need of exorcisms–Lord, have mercy on us all).

    Thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

    1. πŸ˜€ And thank you for your very well-thought-out reply. I really do appreciate it as I respect your opinion on these matters a lot. Haha yeah, thankfully my parents never went quite so far as an exorcism, unless you count badgering me into spending many hours being prayed for to remove the “spirit of oppression” from my soul. … Okay, maybe it was an exorcism lite. πŸ˜€

      I agree, I would prefer if we would dissociate the word “crazy” from mental illness, and dissociated the word “stupid” from intellectual disability. 100% of the time, I use those words to describe the ridiculous actions of able-bodied, not-mentally-ill people. I do agree that it’s incredibly hurtful to call another person “crazy” or label them with some sort of mental illness because that person is emotional, upset, frustrated, etc. My mother long-distance diagnosed me with Bipolar because I “used to be so nice” but now was “mean” (meaning I no longer let myself be walked all over). Um? Mother, I’m not sure you know what bipolar is, and you should probably leave the diagnoses to the doctors. πŸ˜› THAT is the sort of behavior I call crazy, not to mention obnoxious, hurtful, and ableist to use mental illness to try to discredit someone.

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