5 Ableist Phrases to Stop Using Immediately

Updated: Jul 7

According to Access Living, ableism is “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability.”


While it might be easy for you to say, “I’m not ableist,” because you don’t agree with the views expressed in the above definition, it can be harder to say, “I never do or say anything that’s ableist.” The truth is, implicit biases creep into our everyday lives and especially show up in our vocabularies. And, because language is powerful, we need to be conscious of everything we’re saying.


Here are 5 ableist phrases you may have recently said that you should stop using right now.


The dreaded “R” word


I genuinely (and naively) thought this word had been eradicated from people’s vocabularies years ago, but several recent incidences have made me realize that it’s still being used. I’m always shocked when I hear the word being said so nonchalantly in some of my favorite classic movies, like “Legally Blonde,” and even more shocked when I hear people throwing it around today.


It goes without saying: any term that’s been used to negatively describe those with intellectual disabilities should not be one of your insults. Period.


Special needs


Special needs might seem like the perfect phrase. It may seem a little bit softer than the term disabled, and it’s still used by much of the media today, making it seem like an acceptable term. But the jury is out: disabled persons do not like the phrase special needs.


People who have disabilities do not have “special” needs. They have human needs. Their needs just might look different from your own because the resources and supports they need are not readily available due to our ableist society.


Plus, we don’t need a softer way to describe disabilities because being disabled isn’t bad. Disability is a natural, normal part of life. The term disabled might seem negative, but that’s only because our implicit ableism has made us look down upon disability when we really shouldn’t.


Blind to/Deaf to


I’m sure we’ve all said this one. It’s pretty common to say, “Well, they’re blind to this,” when someone seems to have missed something obvious. Why not simply say, “Well, they didn’t notice this,” instead of using someone’s disability as lingo?


Wheelchair bound


The word “bound” implies that someone is stuck or confined, which is far from the truth when it comes to using a wheelchair. First and foremost, people who use wheelchairs aren’t in them all the time. And even those who do need to use a wheelchair whenever they’re moving around agree that they don’t feel bound to it, but instead feel free because it gives them mobility.


What are they going to get out of it?


People often ask this question when the idea of including students with disabilities in general education classrooms comes up. This question is extremely ableist because it implies that people with disabilities are incapable of learning and that teaching them the grade-level general education curriculum will be a waste of time.

Instead of wondering what students with disabilities could possibly get out of the same education as their nondisabled peers, presume competence. How do we know what a student can or cannot do if we don’t even give them the opportunity?


Plus, as Dr. Jennifer Kurth says, “They’re going to get a lot out of it.”

Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.

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