Ableism on campus

Yesterday, it was eighty degrees and sunny. Today, in typical Wisconsin fashion, it is snowing. Midwest weather is known to change quickly. It can be sporadic, inconsistent, and unpredictable. You could call it variable, fluctuating or erratic.

What we need to do is stop saying the weather is bipolar. The weather is not struggling with terrifyingly uncontrollable highs and periods of heaviness so intense it can’t get out of bed for days. So why do we use this word?

Like many offensive terms used in the English language, most of us are not aware of the implications of our vocabulary. In this case, using the term bipolar to describe someone who is not struggling with bipolar disorder is ableist.

Ableism is a very important concept that many able-bodied and able-minded people do not have to think about on a daily basis. That is the root of privilege —privilege stems from not having to deal with something on a daily basis.

Ableism is discrimination against physically and or mentally disabled people based on the concept that able-bodiness is the norm. In an ableist society, a mental or physical disability is seen as a flaw that must be fixed, rather than as a characteristic to be accepted. This lack of acceptance and discrimination is detrimental to millions of people around the world who are actually disabled.

American society is blatantly ableist, which is evident in our vocabulary. Things that are not cool are lame, a word that originally meant walking with a limp or other physical disability. If someone is acting unintelligibly, they are retarded, another word that directly insinuates having a disability.

Using these words in a negative context has long-lasting effects on society. On a community-wide basis, it can be impossible to tell who around you has a disability. You might be directly insulting one of your friends without even knowing it.

A person who has a disability and repeatedly hears it being labeled as a negative thing can easily develop a negative outlook towards their disability, and towards themselves by association. In a larger context, when we repeatedly associate disability with things that are bad or uncool, it becomes ingrained in our societal consciousness that having a disability is bad and uncool.

Another common ableist tendency is to self-diagnose oneself with a disability based on a situational experience. This takes the focus away from people who are actually disabled, and invalidates their experience. If you are huddled under a table shaking and screaming and truly believing you’re going to die, throw up or both, if you can hear your heart beating so loudly it seems like your entire body is going to shatter from the impact or if you cannot breathe or see clearly because of intense and debilitating anxiety, you are experiencing a panic attack. If you are overwhelmed and your heart is beating quickly because you are in an uncomfortable situation or have too much homework, you are not experiencing a panic attack.

See the difference? These two experiences are not the same, so to call them both a panic attack is incredibly invalidating to someone truly suffering from panic disorder.
All of us share the responsibility to continue educating ourselves. If you are not sure what to say or how to say something to a person who is disabled, ask that person what words they are and are not comfortable with. Another incredible resource is the Internet.

If you have a question about how to conduct yourself around people who are disabled, or what language to use to describe a particular situation, google it! If you don’t have the Internet handy, a great replacement for ableist language is to just not say anything at all. Really. Just do not say anything.

If you catch yourself using ableist or other derogatory language, do not worry. We are only human after all, and everyone makes mistakes. Apologize for mispeaking and move on. This is the most mature thing you can possibly do.

If you catch someone else using ableist language, chances are they are not aware of the impact of their words. If you feel like educating them, find a good time to privately pull them aside and calmly let them know the implications of their words. It is important to note that being informed is not a contest, and correcting someone else should not be used just to make you feel superior.

If you feel uncomfortable educating someone else, or they are deliberately using hateful language and unwilling to change, it is always an option to simply remove yourself from the conversation.

There are over one million words in the English language just patiently waiting for you to use them. Here is a handy guide to some great synonyms for common ableist language. Your friends and family will be seriously impressed by your new and improved vocabulary.

Words to use instead of OCD: organized, fastidious, particular, meticulous, exact, careful, picky.

Words to use instead of bipolar: erratic, unstable, inconsistent, unpredictable, back-and-forth, fluctuating, sporadic.

Words to use instead of stupid, retarded, lame, or dumb: careless, not comprehending, not thinking, schmuck, ignorant, uninformed, pathetic, irrational, uncaring, boring, dull, clumsy.

Words to use instead of crazy, psycho or insane: outrageous, nonsensical, reckless, wild, absurd, ridiculous, goofy, illogical, out there.

Words to use instead of panic or panic attack: overwhelmed, out of control, devastated, upset, distressed, troubled, alarmed, frustrated, stressed.

Words to use instead of depressed: upset, sad, disappointed, unhappy, gloomy, miserable, dismal, down, blue, forlorn.