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Ableism: Language and Microaggressions

Discriminatory Language

Discriminatory language is language that is typically associated with a marginalized group but is borrowed by another group and used in a discriminatory manner.

Ableist language is an example of this as it uses words that have historically described people with disabilities. The words have become embedded in our language and we don't even realize the words we are saying have an impact.

Alternative Language

Ableist language is not a list of bad words and you aren't a bad person for using them. However, Ableist language is one part of an oppressive system and by changing how words are used, this diminishes the words actual meaning and changes the way we view those with disabilities. Most Ableist language uses terms in negative slang or metaphors. This perpetuates the view that having a disability is a negative experience and also increases the subtle opinion that people with disabilities are less than everyone else. While it might be just a word to you, you don't always know who is around you and how the words hurt. Ableist Language is a common microaggression. Challenge yourself, pick a word that you use unconsciously, and try replacing it with a more appropriate term.

Instead of these Ableist Words/Phrases:             

Use these alternatives:

Bipolar Erratic, All over the place, Unreasonable, Back and Forth, Emotional

Disappointing, Frustrating, Tacky, Annoying, Obnoxious

 OCD Meticulous, Neat, Picky
Spaz, Retarded

Silly, Dorky, Cheesy, Nonsensical, Illogical

Stupid, Retarded

Frustrating, Pointless, Annoying, Perplexing, Irritating, Confusing, Foolish, Silly

 Depressed Upset, Sad, Blue, Disappointed
Crazy, Insane, Mental (meaning Intense)             Intense, Wild, Awesome, Very, Really, Amazing, Fascinating, Wicked Extremely
Crazy, Insane, Mental (meaning Absurd)

Unreasonable, Absurd, Outrageous, Unacceptable, Ridiculous, Unreal, Unbelievable

Psycho, Sociopath, Psychotic Dangerous, Menacing, Threatening, Evil, Murdering, Strange, Criminal
Derp Obviously, Of course



Zoom In. (2019, January 1). Diamond Law Training.

Six people describe microaggressions they experience based on their disability, and their journey toward a positive disability identity


Microaggressions are a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination or prejudice against members of a marginalized group such as a racial minority.  (Definition from Oxford English Dictionary).

Microaggressions hold power because they are invisible and may not allow the offender to see that their actions and attitudes may be discriminatory. However, like all discriminatory behavior, microaggressions have a negative impact on mental health. One way to support victims, is to name microaggressions as they happen whether they are ableist, racist, sexist, homophobia, transphobia, or other discrimination.

Examples of Microaggressions

Theme Example Message

Denial of personal identity:

Occurs when any aspect of a person's identity other than disability is ignored or denied

"I can't believe you are married."

"What do you like to be called - disabled, handicapped, challenged?"

There is no part of your life that is normal or like mine. The only thing I see when I look at you is your disability.

Denial of disability experience:

Occurs when disability-related experiences are minimized or denied.

"Come on now, we all have some disability."

"I know all about [disability], I have a family member with [totally different disability]."

Your thoughts and feelings are probably not real and are certainly not important to me.

Denial of privacy:

Occurs when personal information is required about a disability.

Someone asks what happened to you.


Someone wants proof of your disability.

You are not allowed to maintain disability information privately.


Occurs when people frantically try to help people with disabilities (PWD)

Someone helps you onto a bus or train, even when you need no help.

Someone feels incapable of rescuing you from your disability.

You can't do anything by yourself because you have a disability.

Having a disability is a catastrophe. I would rather be dead than be you.

Secondary gain:

Occurs when a person expects to feel good or be praised for doing something for a PWD

"We're going to raise enough money tonight to get Johnny that new wheelchair." i feel good and get recognition for being nice to you.

Spread effect:

Occurs when other expectations about a person are assumed due to one specific disability

"Those deaf people are retarded."

"Your other senses must be better than mine."

Your disability invalidates you in all areas of life.

You must be special in some way.

You're not normal.

You have "spidey sense."


Occurs when a PWD is treated like a child.

"Let me do that for you."

Crouching down to eye level (for wheelchair users)

You are not really capable. I know better than you how to do this.

Your disability reduces you to child mentality or ability.



Occurs when a PWD is praised for almost anything.

Also is considered Inspiration porn.

"You people are so inspiring."

"Your so brave."

You are so special for living with that.

Your so brave for getting up and doing everyday things.

Second-class citizen:

Occurs when a PWD's right to equality is denied because they are considered to be bothersome, expensive, and a waste of time, effort and resources.

People work hard not to make eye contact or to physically avoid a PWD.

Accessibility issues will be fixed when more PWDs use the space.

PWDs are disgusting and should be avoided.

Those people expect too much and are so difficult to work with. They have no patience.

Your rights to equality are not important to me.


Occurs when sexuality and sexual being is denied

"I would not date someone who uses a wheelchair."

PWDs are not my equal, not attractive, and not worthy of being with me.


*Examples adapted from Microaggressions PDF linked below and the Guide from Washington State University

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