Monday, December 03, 2007

A new vocabulary

Kay Olson of the Gimp Parade is reaching a much larger readership now, as a permanent addition to the team at Alas, a Blog. And congratulations to the Alas blog owner on such a fine choice! In the comments stream of her first post, the usual question about language came up--is it disablist to say someone you dislike is "psycho," or to call bad ideas "lame" or "idiotic"? Yeah, it is. Sorry. I know, maybe it seemed cool in high school, but "lame" isn't your best choice. And it's stale, too. Here, for future reference, are some words that might be more precisely descriptive, with the bonus of not involving whole groups of perfectly decent disabled people in your disapproval:
Got more? That list didn't take long to come up with, no thesaurus required. The Friday spelling test is optional.


Alison Hymes said...



Maddy said...

Feeble, or feeble minded.

Something peculiar has happened to blogger comments so just for now, this is my calling card "Whittereronautism"so we can find each other.

Penny L. Richards said...

Hi Maddy, I assume you're adding to the first category, of disability-related words that have become troubling disablist insults. Yeah, those too. Only a few decades ago, "feebleminded" was still an official diagnostic category that doomed people to sterilization, segregation, and worse. It's a word that carries too much pain to use flippantly.

Greg (Accessible Hunter) said...

I am a big proponent of people first language. This is a great list! The only one I can add is: inapt. Have a great day!

Unknown said...

Hah! I've been working on my "D List" for a while now; thanks for reminding me about it.

Oh, and I would add the quintessent, "Who the hell are YOU to complain?" to the list.

Anonymous said...

Usually when I call someone "psycho" or "psychotic" it's because I genuinely believe him or her to be psychotic based on his or her behavior and/or speech. I do not use this word lightly or to be hip. I genuinely believe people to whom I apply this appellation are periodically, chronically, or permanently mentally ill to the point of being physiologically or chemically incapable of granting equal value to lives other than their own and acting accordingly, and that without medication or surgery, their choice patterns are unlikely to change. I don't throw this word around, but I do use it as shorthand for all that. Is this disablist?

Fortunately, it doesn't seem to come up all that often.

Penny L. Richards said...

Hi Sara, I agree that you're probably talking about a somewhat different decision-making process in choosing that word. But...but but but. I tend to like the rule that says people should be called what they want to be called. And I've never heard of people with mental illness preferring to be called "psycho." The word has a lot of pop-culture baggage -- including the Hitchcock movie, and the Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer" -- that's not conducive to respectful interactions.

"Psychotic" still has specific medical applications, and if those are known to apply in a particular case, I can see where the full adjective could be appropriate to use.

Anonymous said...

Since I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, and certainly haven't been hired to act as one for the people whom I would describe this way, perhaps it would be better to simply describe behavior as insane, psychotic, sociopathic, passive-aggressive, etc.?

I am trying to get this right. At the same time, some of the people who are mentally ill but don't want to be described as mentally ill are avoiding diagnosis and treatment as part of their mental illness. (Yeah, I've personally seen some of that.) And some of them may achieve positions of power before anyone calls them on it. So?

At what point in our behavior do we abdicate the right to dictate how we will be described by others? At what point is it correct for others to disregard our feelings in the interests of honesty?

Does this ever come up in other areas of disability, areas besides mental illness?

Penny L. Richards said...

It does come up in other areas--developmental disability is one example. And a complicated one at that! People-first, or not? Mental retardation, or intellectual and developmental disabilities? Autistic, or has autism? Strong feelings on many opposing sides of these questions... and all I can come down to is that people should be called what they want to be called.

If an individual can't or doesn't choose (for example, my son is non-verbal and hasn't made his preferences clear, and may not actually have a preference, though I wouldn't want to assume that), then consult self-advocates who are closer to the experience. And always err on the side of respectful language.

In general, I'd say diagnostic terms shouldn't be used as insults or pejoratives. That widespread practice adds to the stigma of a diagnosis.

Anonymous said...

I object to ill-conceived. Do most people with disabilities really wish that they had never been born?---wich requires being conceived! All people (including babies in the womb) should be loved and respected.

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