Inclusive Language is Not Enough
By Jill Feder
This article is supposed to be about the harms of offensive disability language, about how certain words hurt. But as I sit here writing, I can’t bring myself to write the world’s thousandth article about that. Not again. It’s 2022, and I am tired of talking about disability language. I can’t believe we, as a society, are still having this conversation.
Careful usage of disability language is lionized as a big way people can be inclusive of people with disabilities. Thousands of people, including myself, have poured hours into think-pieces about why and how people should use inclusive language to describe the disability community, like using “disabled” instead of “special needs.”
To be crystal clear, language matters. It has the power to help shape the way society thinks about disabilities. However, that power isn’t everything. As a multiply disabled person, I can’t help but be suspicious about why society at large focuses so much on language in their inclusion efforts instead of other disability issues.
Disability language is one of the most basic disability inclusion topics that exist. Non-disabled people who learn it don’t have to question their institutions, systems, or personal values and biases. The adoption or avoidance of words does not force anyone to make substantial, concrete efforts to dismantle centuries of harm. It’s purely symbolic and hollow.
For true allies, learning what and what not to say is just a building block of their anti-ableist journey. But for most people, their journey ends at that lesson. For them, learning a few words is their way of doing the bare minimum. It’s a simple method for people to appear inclusive as they sit and twiddle their thumbs. In my experience, many organizations and institutions that parrot “inclusive language” (and “inclusivity” in general) on the surface actually care little for disability issues. Their commitment to the cause is skin deep. It’s all lip service.
Furthermore, the fact that the disability community is still forced to spoon-feed people without disabilities about simple issues like this shows that they aren’t listening. We keep asking the non-disabled community to treat us with basic respect, over, and over, and over. We have vied for them to give us equal rights and inclusion for decades. We have tried to convince them that we, too, are human beings just like them. We keep believing that this time, it’ll be different, that in time, they will come around. All we do is fruitlessly repeat this cycle.
If people were going to come around, they would have done so years ago. COVID has shown us that our society will adapt quickly when it deems change is necessary. And yet society has taken its sweet time to change for us, despite decades of us begging and pleading for it to care. At this point, disabled people and allies need to understand that society’s collective inaction and apathy is an active choice. It’s not a flaw in the system. It’s a feature. That is why so many people in power use inclusive language and other empty platitudes to placate us when in reality things will be the same as before. It is crucial that we don’t get deceived.
Passive positive reinforcement will never make society move, but societal pressure and consequences will. Saying this out loud doesn’t elicit the same warmth and fuzzies performative gestures do, but it does elicit a far more productive call to reality.
We must force those who have caused disabled people harm to take accountability and to make reparations, not empty promises. We cannot allow society to continue its half-hearted attempts at creating inclusion, like using inclusive language without being inclusive, anymore.
If people really want to help the disability community, they need to do a number of things. First of all, money talks, and you need to spend it on us—on accommodations, on living wages, support programs, and other needs.
Next, you need to carve out specific spaces for us. For example, employment discrimination against our community is rampant and has made so many impoverished. 1 in 3 employers will not hire people with disabilities. At this point, I believe society outright owes us the jobs, the sustenance to live, to which they have shut us out. The employment, education, housing, and other sectors need to prioritize our community to remediate the harm they have caused.
Furthermore, people need to make it legally dangerous to discriminate against those with disabilities. For many companies and institutions, disability lawsuits are just a slap on the wrist, a fee of doing business. We need to tighten and better enforce disability-related laws so that they have more of an impact.
In addition, we need exclusion to hurt companies and institutions’ pockets. I feel that societal exclusion does not significantly hinder companies’ profits. Establishments of all kinds monitor their businesses in minute detail. If these organizations’ hostility to disabilities really affected their bottom line, they would have fixed it years ago. We need to somehow change the stakes for these entities so that exclusion hits them where it hurts, like their reputation and stakeholder involvement.
Overall, we need to generate a sense of urgency toward cultivating inclusion. We collectively need to make exclusion against people with disabilities more costly, scandalous, and shameful. That way we can foster true inclusion for all.
Jill Feder is a Glossary Editor and Content Writer for Accessibility.com and serves on the Board of Directors for MCIE.