Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

Doing Social Justice: Thoughts on Ableist Language and Why It Matters

The economy has been crippled by dept.

You’d have to be insane to want to invade Syria.

They’re just blind to the suffering of other people.

Only a moron would believe that.

Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives. You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind: Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick. Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz.

I see these terms everywhere: in comment threads on major news stories, on social justice sites, in everyday speech. These words seem so “natural” to people that they go uncritiqued a great deal of the time. I tend to remark on this kind of speech  wherever I see it. In some very rare places, my critique is welcome. In most places, it is not.

When a critique of language that makes reference to disability is not welcome, it is nearly inevitable that, as a disabled person, I am not welcome either. I might be welcome as an activist, but not as a disabled activist. I might be welcome as an ally, but not as a disabled ally. I might be welcome as a parent, but not as a disabled parent. That’s a lot like being welcomed as an activist, and as an ally, and as a parent, but not as a woman or as a Jew.

Many people have questions about why ableist speech matters, so I’ll be addressing those questions here. Please feel free to raise others.

1. Why are you harping so much on words, anyway? Don’t we have more important things to worry about?

I am always very curious about those who believe that words are “only” words — as though they do not have tremendous power. Those of us who use words understand the world through them. We use words to construct frameworks with which we understand experience. Every time we speak or write, we are telling a story; every time we listen or read, we are hearing one. No one lives without entering into these stories about their fellow human beings. As Arthur Frank writes:

“Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. What is it about stories – what are their particularities – that enables them to work as they do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question, because human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both propose and foreclose.” (Frank 2010, 3)

The stories that disability metaphors tell are deeply problematic, deeply destructive, and deeply resonant of the kinds of violence and oppression that disabled people have faced over the course of many centuries. They perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their ways into all of the things that most people feel are more important. If a culture’s language is full of pejorative metaphors about a group of people, that culture is not going to see those people as fully entitled to the same housing, employment, medical care, education, access, and inclusion as people in a more favored group.

2. What if a word no longer has the same meaning it once did? What’s wrong with using it in that case?

Ah yes. The etymology argument. When people argue word meanings, it generally happens in a particular (and largely unstated) context. With regard to ableist metaphors, people argue that certain meanings are “obsolete,” but such assertions fail to note the ways in which these “obsolete” words resonate for people in marginalized groups.

For example, I see this argument a great deal around the word moron, which used to be a clinical term for people with an intellectual disability. I have a great-aunt who had this label and was warehoused in state hospitals for her brief 25 years of life. So when I see this word, it resonates through history. I remember all of the people with this designation who lived and died in state schools and state mental hospitals under conditions of extreme abuse, extreme degradation, extreme poverty, extreme neglect, and extreme suffering from disease and malnutrition. My great-aunt lay dying of tuberculosis for 10 months under those conditions in a state mental hospital. The term moron was used to oppress human beings like her, many of whom are still in the living memory of those of us who have come after.

Moron — and related terms, like imbecile and idiot – may no longer be used clinically, but their clinical use is not the issue. They were terms of oppression, and every time someone uses one without respect for the history of disabled people, they disrespect the memory of the people who had to carry those terms to their graves.

3. What’s wrong with using bodies as metaphors, anyway?

Think about it this way: Consider that you’re a woman walking down the street, and someone makes an unwanted commentary on your body. Suppose that the person looks at you in your favorite dress, with your hair all done up, and tells you that you are “as fat as a pig.” Is your body public property to be commented upon at will? Are others allowed to make use of it — in their language, in your hearing, without your permission? Or is that a form of objectification and disrespect?

In the same way that a stranger should not appropriate your body for his commentary, you should not appropriate my disabled body — which is, after all, mine and not yours — for your political writing or social commentary. A disabled body should not appear in articles about how lame that sexist movie is or how insane racism is. A disabled body should be no more available for commentary than a nondisabled one.

The core problem with using a body as a metaphor is that  people actually live in bodies. We are not just paralyzed legs, or deaf ears, or blind eyes. When we become reduced to our disabilities, others very quickly forget that there are people involved here. We are no longer seen as whole, living, breathing human beings. Our bodies have simply been put into the service of your cause without our permission.

4. Aren’t some bodies better than others? What’s wrong with language that expresses that?

I always find it extraordinary that people who have been oppressed on the basis their physical differences — how their bodies look and work — can still hold to the idea that some bodies are better than others. Perhaps there is something in the human mind that absolutely must project wrongness onto some kind of Other so that everyone else can feel whole and free. In the culture I live in, disabled bodies often fit the bill.

A great deal of this projection betrays a tremendous ignorance about disability. I have seen people defend using mental disabilities as a metaphor by positing that all mentally disabled people are divorced from reality when, in fact, very few mental disabilities involve delusions. I have seen people use schizophrenic to describe a state of being divided into separate people, when schizophrenia has nothing to do with multiplicity at all. I have seen people refer to blindness as a total inability to see, when many blind people have some sight. I have seen people refer to deafness as being locked into an isolation chamber when, in fact, deaf people speak with their hands and listen with their eyes (if they are sighted) or with their hands (if they are not).

Underlying this ignorance, of course, is an outsider’s view of disability as a Bad Thing. Our culture is rife with this idea, and most people take it absolutely for granted. Even people who refuse to essentialize anything else about human life will essentialize disability in this way. Such people play right into the social narrative that disability is pitiful, scary, and tragic.  But those of us who inhabit disabled bodies have learned something essential: disability is what bodies do. They all change. They are all vulnerable. They all become disabled at some point. That is neither a Good Thing nor a Bad Thing. It is just an essential fact of human life.

I neither love nor hate my disabilities. They are what they are. They are neither tragic nor wonderful, metaphor nor object lesson.

5. Disabled people aren’t really oppressed. Are they?

Yes, disabled people are members of an oppressed group, and disability rights are a civil rights issue. Disabled people are assaulted at higher rates, live in poverty at higher rates, and are unemployed at higher rates than nondisabled people. We face widespread exclusion, discrimination, and human rights violations. For an example of what some of the issues are, please see the handy Bingo card I’ve created, and then take some time over at the Disability Social History Project.

6. If my disabled friend says it’s okay to use these words, doesn’t that make it all right to use them?

Please don’t make any one of us the authority on language. It should go without saying, but think for yourself about the impact of the language you’re using. If you stop using a word because someone told you to, you’re doing it wrong. It’s much better if you understand why.

7. I don’t know why we all have to be so careful about giving offense. Shouldn’t people just grow thicker skins?

For me, it is not a question of personal offense, but of political and social impact. If you routinely use disability slurs, you are adding to a narrative that says that disabled people are wrong, broken, dangerous, pitiful, and tragic. That does not serve us.

8. Aren’t you just a member of the PC police trying to take away my First Amendment rights?

No. The First Amendment protects you from government interference in free speech. It does not protect you from criticism about the words you use.

9. Aren’t you playing Oppression Olympics here?

No. I’ve never said that one form of oppression is worse than another, and I never will. In fact, I am asking that people who are marginalized on the basis of the appearance or functioning of their bodies — on the basis of gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, size, and disability — get together and talk about the ways in which these oppressions weave through one another and support one another.

If you do not want disability used against your group, start thinking about what you’re doing to reinforce ableism in your own speech. If you do not want people of color to be called feeble-minded, or women to be called weak, or LGBT people to be called freaks, or fat people to be called diseased, or working-class people to be called stupid — all of which are disability slurs — then the solution isn’t to try to distance yourself from us and say, No! We are not disabled like you! The solution is to make common cause with us and say, There is nothing wrong with being disabled, and we are proud to stand with you.

10. Why can’t we use disability slurs when the target is actually a nondisabled person?

To my knowledge, the president of the United States is not mentally disabled, and yet his policies have been called crazy and insane. Most Hollywood films are made by people without mobility issues, and yet people call their films lame. Someone who has no consciousness of racism or homophobia will be called blind or deaf to the issues, and yet, such lack of consciousness runs rampant among nondisabled people.

So why associate something with a disability when it’s what nondisabled people do every single day of the week? As far as I can see, lousy foreign policy, lousy Hollywood films, and lousy comments about race and sexual orientation are by far the province of so-called Normal People.

So come on, Normal People. Start owning up to what’s yours. And please remember that we disabled folks are people, not metaphors in the service of your cause.


Disability Social History Project. http://www.disabilityhistory.org. Accessed September 14, 2013.

Facebook. “Disability and Representation.” https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=638151876196123&set=a.535870946424217.126038.447484845262828&type=1. Accessed September 14, 2013.

Frank, Arthur W. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


  1. 9/14/2013 | 9:39 pm Permalink

    I appreciate this post because language shapes who we are and what we become. Additionally, public perception significantly contributes to whether or not an individual will seek help when needed AND whether or not resources will be shared.

    The only point I would ask you to consider is avoiding use of the expression “mentally ill.” Typically, persons with physical health conditions are not described as “physically ill” and describing persons with mental health conditions as “mentally ill” is divisive and sets us apart from society.

    Otherwise, this is a tremendous piece!

    • 9/14/2013 | 10:19 pm Permalink

      Hi AJ, thanks for your comments. I’ve changed “mental illness” to “mental disability” throughout. Thanks for pointing out the terminology issue.

      • 1/19/2014 | 5:00 pm Permalink

        This is interesting to me. I have what I usually refer to as a “mental illness” but I haven’t delved into the theory behind changing that to “mental disability.” It is something for me to think on.

  2. 9/14/2013 | 10:36 pm Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I have to say I haven’t actually come to any firm conclusions, but at a very deep level, I cannot agree with everything you’ve said on this subject. I’m going to do a bit of thinking aloud here, and this post will likely get long. I hope I do not offend but I’ve been needing to talk this out with someone anyway, and the people around me are completely incapable of having this type of conversation.

    The most blaring example where I think I will have to disagree are with terms like blind, especially when used in metaphor.

    Blind is not some newfangled word made up as a label that was then given only to disabled people who happen to lack the ability to see. The term blind refers to the inability to see, or impaired sight, and it can apply to any living being that cannot use their sight, or is impaired in sight. It can also apply to inanimate objects/places/etc that one cannot see or has trouble seeing (blind allies, etc). For a very long time “sight”, “seeing” and various other forms of the sense of sight have been used metaphorically to refer to seeing with one’s mind, rather than one’s eyes, so lack of sight/impairment in sight is by extension also valid in these same metaphors.

    I’m not sure I remember ever seeing blind used as a pejorative, to put down people who can’t see. I’m sure it’s happened, but I don’t recall hearing it. Even when it’s used sarcastically (“are you blind?!”) it’s usually specifically asking if someone is lacking the ability to see something. That has absolutely nothing to do with marginalizing a subset of society and every thing to do with making a reference to a missing or impaired sense… which not only fits completely within the original definition of the word, and the definitions that have been used since (I believe) at least the 13th century, but also in no way puts down or marginalizes people who have an impairment in their sight.

    Other sense related terms have similar use in metaphor, and are used similarly. I feel it is a disservice to the strike perfectly good words from a language because a select subset have taken those words and turned them into pejoratives against people. I’m behind you in campaigning against using them against people, as pejoratives, but not in dropping the use of the words in every day language or metaphor where there is no slight to people involved.

    The subset of words that refer to mental illness and function are a whole other can of worms. The problem I see with this entire class of words is that ever since psychology has been around (and maybe before, I don’t know the history), there’s been a steady stream of words that have been used as labels. At some point, with each label, people start using them as pejoratives, eventually there’s an outcry against the words, and they’re struck from the language as medical terms. I have a problem with this, not because I like them being used as pejoratives, but because striking them as medical terms only serves to leave their only usage as pejoratives. They lose their clinical definition altogether and they enter the language as one more stone that people can use to throw at people with mental illness or cognitive issues.

    This is not helpful. We’ve got a huge group of words now for which this was true, that are not used for anything but putting people down. The thing is, once people said “no, you can’t use that word anymore to refer to us”, the word was left in the language with no more valid use, no longer referring to that group or anyone else in any other way but rudely. Forcing people to drop these words does absolutely nothing but add to the arsenals of people who love to sling around hate speech.

    That’s why I’ve never gotten behind the campaign to end the word “retarded”. Retarded is a valid English word, whose original meaning was “delayed”. It didn’t start being used as a pejorative until the very recent history, from what I can tell. Our campaign shouldn’t be to drop the word from our language, but to teach people that it’s ridiculous to use it as an insult. We should be fighting the people that use it in hate, not striking it from our language. If we keep doing this we’re just going to keep losing perfectly good words every time a hateful group of people decides to try to make a new definition… and those people will go on using the words whether anyone else can or not. That feels far too much like shooting ourselves in the foot.

    We had a discussion on the word “stupid” a while back, and I went and looked it up and I stick to my guns on that one. The original word comes from a latin word that literally means “struck senseless”. Someone who’s been whacked over the head often has temporarily impaired judgement, they make decisions that make no sense, they say things that make no sense, etc. From what I can tell, based on the etymology, referring to someone as being stupid, making a stupid mistake, etc, was in no way referring to a class of disabled people, but someone who has temporarily poor judgement… and that’s precisely how I see the term most often used today.

    There was a discussion a while back where you called terms like “stupid” hate speech, regardless of whether the person using them knew their history or not. I have a huge problem with that. Hate is a strong word. It has a very strong meaning because it represents a very dangerous thing. Hate can destroy people, and usually does. In order for something to be hate speech, the words have to be uttered in hatred. There has to be malice involved, or there is no hate. A word in and of itself cannot be hateful, words do not have malice, people do. A word being used in a way that does not spew hatred toward someone cannot be hate speech, even if the word is otherwise often used in a hateful way by others.

    Another topic I want to touch on is the whole “reclaiming words” thing. I’ve always been behind this without thinking about it all that much. I believe one of my bio descriptions on some site says something like “I’m a gimp. I can call myself that, you cannot. Unless you happen to be a gimp as well.” But the more I think about this the less sense it makes. Why is it okay to “reclaim” something as a label and then tell people that they can never call you that, even though you call yourself that? Sure, it’s done all the time. I’ve obviously done it myself. But how does it make any real objective sense? If I’m calling myself a gimp all the time then my friends will start to think of me as a gimp, how can I then get annoyed with them if they start using the term? If a whole group of us starts using “gimp” to refer to ourselves how can we then get annoyed if polite society, which has essentially eradicated the use of the term gimp, starts using it to refer to us again? If we want to reclaim the term fine, but I don’t see how we can reclaim it while still insisting that others can’t use it, without being hypocritical.

    I’m going to post this before it gets any longer, hopefully we can continue this discussion.

    • 9/14/2013 | 11:11 pm Permalink

      Tam, clearly we disagree on a number of points. Just to correct you about one issue: I have never referred to “stupid” as hate speech. On someone’s FB page today, I referred to it as ableist, and we can disagree on that, but I have never referred to it as any form of hate speech. In fact, I use the words “hate” and “hatred” very sparingly, in my writing and in my life, for the reasons you cite. I can’t recall having written that I hate anyone or anything because I don’t harbor hatred for people, and it would be very unusual for me to assume that other people harbor hatred unless they show it in an extremely violent way. The only time I can recall using the word “hate” in anything I’ve written is in the context of violent hate crime against a marginalized person. I have written a great deal in various forums about people not throwing around the word “hate,” but rather using the proper emotion words for what they actually mean.

      • 9/15/2013 | 12:03 am Permalink

        This was actually referring to a conversation back in August on Son of Baldwin’s page, I went to look it up but wow does that page have a lot of posts, it seems to have disappeared into the ether. It was the same day that he quoted you on one of his updates (https://www.facebook.com/sonofbaldwinfb/posts/10151610494442862), from a comment you had made on that thread, wherein you were using the term “disability slur”. You did use the term “hate speech” later in this thread: https://www.facebook.com/sonofbaldwinfb/posts/10151645928952862 … perhaps you were just echoing because that’s the term others used. In any case, “disability hate speech” and “disability slur” carry the same basic connotation for me, and a similar argument applies. I don’t think something can be a slur without intent to “insult a person or damage his reputation”.

        • 9/15/2013 | 12:30 am Permalink

          The discussion was not about the word “stupid.” It was about the word “moron.” And given the fact that the word “moron” was used as a pretext to degrade, incarcerate, abuse, and send someone in my family to an early grave — someone who looked like me, who shared a number of the features of my neurology, and who I consider my spiritual mother — I think the word “hatred” would most certainly apply. What happened to my great-aunt was violence and oppression on the basis of her disabilities. She was treated as though she was subhuman — by her family and by the so-called “mental health” system. That is what I had in my mind when I responded to the George Carlin clip, because he made use of the word “moron” as a pejorative, and the history of that word is steeped in violence. This is very personal to me. I need this particular line of discussion to end right here.

  3. 9/14/2013 | 11:16 pm Permalink

    Oh, I might as well quickly add two other things I wanted to mention on this subject…

    While thinking this over the past few weeks I have tried to avoid using these words myself, until I came to some more firm conclusions about their use. The problem is that I have been using various words that various people have a problem with, for most of my life, and it’s nearly impossible to even realize I’m using them much of the time. If I’ve still been using them while actively trying not to, I can’t expect anyone else to be able to drop them easily, even if they’re trying to.

    The term crazy is a hard one for me. For various reasons. I have considered myself crazy for most of my life. Certain things make me feel more out of touch with my mental faculties, and I talk about things like this frequently. I’m not sure there’s a synonym for crazy that can be used that has the same nuance, and if there was, it would have the same meaning and therefore people that have a problem with “crazy” would have a problem with it as well. The etymology of that one seems to have been from craze, “full of cracks or flaws” (evoking the image of crazed pottery). Since the 1580s it’s been used to mean “of unsound mind, or behaving as so”.

    If I speak of myself or someone else as being crazy, and they are actually behaving as if they have an unsound mind, then why is that problematic? Can we use the term “unsound mind” without being offensive? If so why the problem with “crazy”? It’s problematic that people who have mental issues are marginalized, but the fact that they have mental issues can’t be swept under the rug and completely ignored in an effort to avoid marginalizing them. (And yes, “crazy” is often used when “evil” would be the appropriate term, and in other similar situations. I can agree that that is problematic, that is not what I’m referring to.)

    Part of being able to accept one’s self is recognizing and owning one’s differences, flaws, shortcomings, inabilities, etc… I don’t believe it does any good at all to pretend them away. That’s why I recoil at the “differently abled” term. Parts of me are broken (e.g. nerves that no longer function), parts are damaged (e.g. damaged nerves, parts of my mind that were affected by abuse, arthritic joints, etc), parts are just way far from average (e.g. the way my mind is wired, some of which is advantageous, some of which is not), perhaps I need to do a better job at coming to terms with those things and loving myself the way I am, but owning the fact that there are broken parts is part of that process. I reserve the right to see some of my disabilities as tragic. I’ve slowly lost too many things that I love not to. Refusing to speak of the problem doesn’t help anything. Pretending that it doesn’t exist won’t help anything. Asking other people to stop using terms that are valid, does not seem like it will ever be helpful either.

  4. 9/15/2013 | 5:14 pm Permalink

    This is a great discussion! I think it’s so interesting how each one of use feels differently about these words. That makes the whole subject all that more fraught.

    I, too, am opposed to the term “mental illness.” There is no such disease, for one thing. I have no idea what “mentally challenged” means.

    Depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and even psychosis. . .I’m sorry I don’t have the right words here. . .are they “mentally challenging?” Is a person who struggles with depression but leads a happy life (and yes, there are those, myself included). . .am I “mentally challenged?”

    I wonder if any of us who are not part of the power elite not “challenged” in some way. . .and ponder whether the best course would be say we are indeed all challenged and not delineate in what way except when needing help. I have no idea if I’ve gotten my point across here. It’s a hard concept for me to articulate.

    Thank you, Rachel, and thank you, Tam, for adding some interesting push back.

  5. 11/3/2013 | 5:47 am Permalink

    I feel I must point out that in the next post, Disability as the Ultimate Insult, Rachael uses “hate” exactly in the manner in which she claims she does not use the term in her comment above. Just noting.

    On the one hand, language can be used to communicate or to wound… as a pen or as a club. And I prefer it as a pen… but I also don’t like to get wrapped arou d the axel about every use of every word. If you *can’t see* the impact of racism in your actions, you *are* “blind” to it by every meaningful definition. If this bothers people who also literally cannot see concrete objects that others cannot perceive certain things, they must deal. They do not own the inability to perceive just because their eyes do not work. I do not own pain just because I suffer from it chronically. Other people will have other sorts of pain, both physical, mental, emotional, and yes, metaphorical, including but not limited to financial, political, job related, and Internet drama.

    Just because society is ablist doesn’t mean I have to internalize it.

    • 11/4/2013 | 10:41 am Permalink

      Dejah, please read my comment more carefully. My point is that I did not use the word “hatred” to refer to the word “stupid.” I have used it to refer to another word — a fact that I also note in my comment.

      The point here isn’t that people are “bothered” by disability slurs, though systemic issues often get minimized to personal hurt. This isn’t about personal offense. It’s about how words reflect and reinforce ableism in the larger society, with all of the abuses and civil rights violations that flow from that.

      Lastly — Telling people that “they must deal” is not welcome here. You’re free to disagree with anything I write, truly, but not on the basis of “people just need to suck it up.” This is a space to discuss representations of disability and their implications for our lives. If you feel that people just need to get over it, this probably isn’t the right blog for you.

  6. 12/30/2013 | 1:14 am Permalink

    This is so powerful, it shakes me to my very core. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and encouraging discussion on the issue of why abelist language use has got to stop. I am going to take a huge personal risk here and admit that as a deaf person, I struggle with my ability to access any spoken language, and much of what is written using languages grounded in the experiences of hearing persons. This often feels oppressive to me in ways I hope to explore more openly, using modes of expression and language that reflect my life experience. I am also sure there are ableist tendencies in my own language use and I’d really like to address them. TY again, for putting this out here.

  7. 12/30/2013 | 9:13 am Permalink

    Tam, while “blind” isn’t pejorative in and of itself, it becomes pejorative when we use it to mean “in denial”, “oblivious”, “obtuse”, “stubborn”, “immoral”, “unscrupulous”, “incompetent”, etc. Our language regularly equates sight and light with understanding, knowledge, and compassion. And the flip-side is that blindness and darkness get associated with all the negative traits I just listed. Think of these metaphors/phrases and what they really mean:
    Love is blind. – Being in love causes you to be in denial of people’s flaws. – Blindness = denial
    Turn a blind eye (and a deaf ear) = let something immoral happen. Blindness (and deafness) = immorality, enabling wrongdoing
    Blind to the truth. – Seeing is being aware and blindness is being unaware. Blind = oblivion, unawareness
    The blind leading the blind. – Incompetent people are being led by people who are just as incompetent. Blindness = incompetence

    And the thing is that often sighted people don’t realize this, but people actually start to internalize these associations with blindness and then those associations inform how they interact with blind people.

    As a blind person, language like this is what leads to people assuming that I really am oblivious to my environment. It’s what leads them to project their idea of blindness as tragic onto me. People regularly suggest I pass off my pet dog as a guide dog because they assume I really am immoral. They’re surprised when I do well in my field of choice because they assume that I really am incompetent. And all of this happens just below the surface. They’re not aware of it and if I try to call them out on it, often they will deny it. But their questions, their comments, strongly point to their subconscious association between blindness and the traits mentioned.

    It’s a similar phenomenon where the word “gay” itself isn’t pejorative, but when it’s used to mean “annoying” or “strange” then it becomes pejorative. People have started to understand that language like “that’s so gay” perpetuates heterosexism. This is the same concept–language like “what are you, blind?” perpetuates ableism.

    • 1/11/2014 | 9:27 pm Permalink

      Thank you for you clarifications. I suppose this seems basic to some, but pointing out the subconsious word associations in such common phrases really helped me to grasp this article more fully. Of course, it is no one who identifies as disabled’s job to make these connections apparent & educate the able-bodied, but I appreciate you taking the time to do so.

  8. 1/15/2014 | 1:24 pm Permalink

    Michael D’Antonio’s book “The State Boys Rebellion” recounts the tragedy and crime of boys who had no families or whose families were ruled incapable of caring for them, and who were warehoused in the Walter E. Fernald School for the Feebleminded in Waltham, Massachusetts, an institution for society’s younger castoffs. They received practically no education, and were subject to abuse and mistreatment. This institution was founded during the heyday of the eugenics movement.

    The term “moron” was coined in 1920 by Henry H. Goddard, best known for his notorious (and discredited) 1912 book, “The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness,” one of the movement’s classics.

    D’Antonio’s book details how the boys were encouraged to join a “Science Club” and receive larger rations of oatmeal and tickets to Red Sox games. The oatmeal was given to them with radioactive milk, and, of course, without their informed consent. It was part of an MIT research project to track the absorption of calcium and iron.

    Fred Boyce, who spearheaded the class-action suit against MIT and Quaker Oats, had been labeled “moron” when he was admitted to Fernald, and this label stayed in his official records all his life, despite his attempt to have it removed. After he was released from Fernald, he taught himself to read, hired a tutor to improve his literacy, and became a successful operator of a carnival-concessions booth. He discovered that, far from being intellectually dull, he had above-average intelligence. He died in 2006, age 65, of colon cancer, possibly caused by the radioactive oatmeal. Although he forgave his family and the Fernald staff, he knew well how damaging labels can be.

  9. 1/19/2014 | 4:55 pm Permalink

    As someone with mental illness, I am acutely, painfully aware of the use of diagnoses/illnesses, etc, being used pejoratively, and it ALWAYS 100% of the time gets under my skin. Especially as someone with bipolar disorder, I get physically tense and frustrated when I hear people say things along the lines of the usual “she is so bipolar!” when they mean “moody” or “difficult” or whatever they choose to poorly articulate by appropriating and invalidating my experience.

    I rarely correct people, but perhaps I should do so more.

    A close friend of mine is super interested in disability studies and has an invisible disability, and we love conversations like this. This post has really opened my eyes to the fact that while I don’t think I use these metaphors very often, if at all, I am far less conscious of some of the more seemingly-innocuous ones (“lame”, etc). It is important to remember the history of these words and because of this post I hope I will be even more sensitive to the flippant use of ableist language.

    We have so many wonderful words at our disposal, there is simply no need to choose the ones that connote ableist privilege.

    Thank you for the post!

    • 1/19/2014 | 4:57 pm Permalink

      able-bodied* privilege, I should have said.

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