When I was a classroom teacher, I had many problems. I was aware of some of them, I was unaware of many. One of those many about which I feel the worst as I reflect on it was the use of ableist language when talking to students. Moreover, I wish I’d brought it up the same way I brought up issues of racism, homophobia, and the other -isms or -phobias that are much more prevalent when it comes to contemporary progressive education.
I would use terms like crazy, insane, or lame with no thought to what such language might mean to a student who had or was close to a person with a disability.
As I hope the title on this post suggests, I’m not writing to demand an immediate cease and desist of ableist language. Not using such words because you don’t want to be yelled at for using them is different than reconsidering your speaking habits because you want to connect to those with whom you’re speaking rather than alienate them. That’s what
shifted is shifting my language. Here’s how I put it when I join a new team and we are doing our, “Things you should know about me,” bit during introductions:
You should know that it stings me when I hear people use words like crazy or lame. It takes me into my head because I can’t help being sensitive to how we talk about visible and invisible disabilities. I’m not telling you how you need to talk, but I want you to know that I hear that language in a way that makes me uncomfortable and that I think it’s indicative of a larger lack of conversation around how we talk and think about mental health and physical disabilities.
I don’t say whether or not I have a disability, because it really shouldn’t matter. If someone asks, I’ll tell them I try to be an ally (imperfectly). Each time I’ve had the chance to bring this up with people, at least for the moment of the conversation, it has been well received. Some folks pull me aside and admit to using ableist language. Some have asked if I’d point it out to them when it happens so they can shift their practice. I try to help, and ask that they do the same.
That’s the thing. While my awareness, intent, and reflections have shifted, sometimes I don’t think before I speak the way I want to and I’ll use a word I’ve tried to eliminate from my vocabulary. In those moments, I’ll look around, waiting for someone to react in the same way I’d expect them to react to language and thinking that have rightfully become taboo and indicative of ignorant thinking. They don’t.
That’s the thing, they haven’t said anything, but I can never know if someone living with mental illness has just heard me off-handedly say crazy and processed it to mean there’s a part of their life they can’t share because I’m uncaring.
I get this wrong. A lot. There are those who have been thinking about ableism longer and more deeply than I have, but it’s one of the quietest conversations in education and in our society at large. Some places, it’s altogether silent. So, what do you say?