A Partial History of Ableist Language

Adam Thometz


I recently came across a post by Lydia Brown at Autistic Hoya, one of my favorite autism/disability blogs, in which she creates a glossary of ableist vocabulary. The reason for including some of the words should be immediately apparent to anyone with their head in this century (eg. “retard,” “mongoloid,” “suffers from ___”) but there are some words, the inclusion of which seems questionable or just overly sensitive or PC to the average person (eg. “idiot,” “dumb,” “moron”). I myself was shocked to find these words as well but it turns out that these words have a dark history that most people are not apparently aware of.

When I debate with someone about autism in real life, I might perform what the average person would see as nitpicking: criticizing the use of certain words or phrases. My reason for doing this is that they invisibly propagate the ableist agenda, though I focus more on words that could be directed at autistic people for obvious reasons. Words like ‘retard’ and ‘idiot’ are/have been used to stigmatize mental disability in the same way that the word ‘nigger’ was traditionally used to humiliate black people and in the same way that the word ‘faggot’ has been used to demean LGBT people. Even though I have argued in the past that autism is not a disability proper, it is often labeled a disability and thus autistic people also become a target of this ableist vocabulary.

“But why criticize the use of words like ‘idiot’?” you might ask, “They’re totally harmless words in normal conversation!”

Are they?

At around the same time I stumbled upon Lydia’s list of words, I read George Orwell’s paper “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1946, which changed the way that I think about language, written and spoken. In his paper, he argues that mediocre writers are largely unaware of what they write or say. They either do not stop to think about the implied meaning of what they say, they don’t care about the implied meaning, or they don’t care enough to articulate their point in a fresh way, resulting in very imprecise, dull, and, therefore, bad writing or speech. According to Orwell, some marks of such writing and speaking include the use of dying and dead metaphors (“and so he washed his hands of the whole thing”), “pretentious diction” (eg. overly big and obscure words, foreign phrases, scientific terms), and words that don’t readily or vividly mean anything in their given context (check out any art/music/literary criticism for prominent examples. “This film is so self-aware!”). Bad writing stems from unoriginal and unexamined thoughts – that is, thoughts fed to us by society. The vehicle of bad writing helps to keep these thoughts alive and no amount of elegant articulation could salvage it.

Reading Orwell’s paper along with Lydia’s list of words and some research into the listed words had helped me realize that a general ignorance of your own language has great potential to feed the ableist agenda. Lydia points out the history of the words and Orwell illuminates the possibility that ignorance perpetuates the machine.

To give an example, words like ‘idiot,’ ‘moron,’ and ‘imbecile’ are words that come with a history that’s related to mental illness and its stigmatization and that history dates back to the early 20th century. These words have existed before and were simply used to describe someone who was inane but in 1911, these three words became the official words that psychologists would use – in the name of science! – to describe people with IQs lower than 70. If your IQ is between 51 and 70, you’re a ‘moron,’ able to learn how to complete menial tasks and communicate but nothing more. If it’s between 26 and 50, you’re an ‘imbecile,’ never progressing past the mental age of six. Between zero and 25, you’re an ‘idiot,’ saddled with poor motor skills, extremely limited communication, and little response to stimuli. This classification existed from 1911, when the first IQ test was devised, to the early 70’s when people finally realized that these were awful labels. Psychologists then eschewed this classification system and moved on to – something even better! – degrees of ‘retardation’; mild, moderate, severe, and profound to be exact.

Therefore, the use of words like ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile,’ and ‘moron’ should be off-limits when describing someone with a mental illness or someone who is just asinine to keep the ableist agenda at bay. These words either were derived from actual descriptions of the ‘mentally ill’ or have been/are still used to oppress them. Yet people still use them because these words have become a part of their lexicon. I even hear my father and stepmother, who I understand don’t intend to insult me, still refer to autism as a ‘disease’ and as something that you ‘suffer from.’ I often think that they are just ignorant of what they’re implying, that their speech and their thought are disconnected in these embarrassing moments. But when someone talks on autopilot, so to speak, what they say and how they say it provides insight into what the person’s actual attitudes are or, if they’re conformist enough, what society’s attitudes are. Eerie, isn’t it?

Moral of the story: have a better understanding of and be more sensitive to the inner workings of your language. Why? Not just for the sake of political correctness toward auties – I personally don’t give a flying rat’s ass about political correctness – but because you speak the language and therefore have an intrinsic responsibility as a living and self-actualizing human being to know and speak it well. By knowing and speaking well, I don’t mean knowing a lot of fifty-dollar words or coming up with the most complicated way to say something simple (that would make you sound more obnoxious than intelligent). I mean knowing your words well and being constantly aware of the relationship between your words and your intended meaning, assuming you have one, you slithering sophist (also, good grammar). This way, you could overcome the ableist agenda.

“But isn’t this just a case of words evolving and changing meaning over time?”

Good point. But whether or not it’s at the forefront of your consciousness, words like ‘idiot’ still have historical baggage and have been intended to be hurtful or oppressive. The fact that these words manage to live on despite their shady past is disturbing if you think about it.

“Well, Mr. Language Police, what words should I use instead of ‘idiot’?”

First of all, hypothetical questioner, I’m not Mr. Language Police, I’m Angry Autie (though I don’t mind being called Mr. Anti-Ableist Police if you must ascribe some juvenile sounding police-related epithet). Second, if you bothered to read beyond the words not to use in Lydia’s post, you will find that she has picked some substitutes for insulting someone’s intelligence that are not only acceptable but also far more eloquent than ‘moron’ and ‘crazy.’ Some of my favorites are ‘asinine,’ ‘vapid,’ ‘inane,’ ‘ridiculous,’ and ‘ignoramus.’ Alternatively, if all you want to do is generally insult someone, you could hurl the highbrow yet effective Shakespearean insult.

I also have no intention of policing anyone’s language but my own. I’m not gonna be that guy at parties who launches into unprecedented lectures on ableist language whenever I hear someone use the word ‘idiot’ in regular conversation. The best I can do is try to set a good example however I can, from calling someone like George W. Bush ‘inane’ instead of an ‘idiot,’ to writing about ableist language.