Disability Language: Stop Using These Words Now

Published September 8, 2021

Everyone has encountered language that was at best outdated and at worst intentionally offensive. Here we review outdated and offensive words you should stop using now. 

The R-Word

A word used to insult people’s intelligence that is rooted in derogatory sentiments towards people with disabilities.

Greg Thomson discussed in an Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act article that the r-word, as well as “mental retardation,” was once used as a clinical descriptor of people with disabilities. It has often been used to label those with cognitive and developmental disabilities in particular. The term has since morphed into a slang term to insult people’s intelligence, in general. At the same time, even as the word’s meaning has gradually shifted, it still is inextricably linked to people with cognitive disabilities.

Some people feel that when others continually use a word in a negative way, it associates that word with negativity. They believe that when people use the r-word in a negative way, it devalues everything it’s attached to, whether it is the person being insulted or people with cognitive disabilities. As Alyssa wrote for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network:

When we call people r—–s as an insult, we are reinforcing the concept that people who have developmental disabilities are inherently less, that being compared to them is insulting, that they deserve to be treated with the sort of ridicule we are attempting to treat our insultee with. None of these concepts are OK, and that’s why calling someone a r—– isn’t OK.

In essence, many feel the word associates people with cognitive disabilities with poor intelligence, capabilities, and value as human beings.

Crazy/insane

A term often casually used to describe things or people that are wild and surprising. Many feel that this term is associated with negative ideas about people with mental health conditions and find it offensive.

Brenda Curtis, Ph.D., MSPH, an assistant professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Penn Medicine, observed that:

The fact that the word ‘crazy’ draws on stereotypes, and specifically a stereotype that is stigmatized, is the crux of the problem with using that word. One of the common stereotypes around mental health and substance use disorders is the idea of a moral failing. A lot of people will think, ‘oh they're just sad, get over it,’ or ‘oh, if you don't want to use drugs, just stop, no one forced you to.’

Curtis added that "ideas about mental illness perpetuated by words like 'crazy' include the idea that people with mental illness are divorced from reality," and that "these stereotypes and the sense of blame they place on a person with mental illness tend to cast people in a category of 'others' that few people want to claim as their identity." 

When you have a person who is having a hard time and needs to talk to someone and needs treatment, they're less likely to go to their physician or another person for help if they don't want that person to see them in a different light. When stereotypes affect treatment, either initiation of treatment or treatment engagement, when it's isolating people, that's a problem. - Brenda Curtis, Ph.D., MSPH

Many professionals and people with mental health conditions feel that the word “crazy” is very stigmatizing and demeaning to people with such conditions. They find the term very offensive and do not want others to use it.

Psycho

A derogatory term used to insult people’s perceived wildness or weirdness. This term is also used to insult people with mental health conditions, to frame them as irrational, violent, and less than human. This term is considered extremely offensive in the mental health community.

The Lehigh Center for Clinical Research stated that the casual use of the term psycho is offensive because:

Using a word like psycho is extremely damaging and hurtful to someone suffering from a mental condition, as it serves to other them [exclude them] as something other than normal. Someone battling depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or another mood disorder can’t help the fact that their brain undergoes certain chemical imbalances that cause their mood to change. So when we call someone a psycho or say they’re acting schizo, we’re telling them they aren’t acting normal and that their mental illness is something they should be ashamed of, despite it not being something they can control.

Psyche author Vincent S. Martin, who experienced symptoms of paracusia, a disorder associated with psychosis, wrote for Psyche about the personal harm “psycho” and other similar terms brought to her mental health.

I will never forget the way that I felt when I kept hearing these hollow and insulting statements [such as psycho]. When people close to my life loved throwing the insult 'mentally ill' and the r-slur around, people who would proceed to shut me down and invalidate me instead of asking 'how can we do better?’ 

Others believe that the term “psycho” is used to punish marginalized people. Disability activist Lydia Brown penned a treatise on the subject, arguing: 

Antisocial Personality Disorder, the diagnostic category that comes closest to approximating the lay definition of psychopathy, is most often a tool for criminalizing poverty, blackness and brownness, and disability. It is the diagnostic label that legitimizes non-compliance as a mental health problem.

Refusal to take medications? Non-compliant. Failing math class? Non-compliant. Stimming [self-stimulatory body behavior] in public? Non-compliant.

If you are non-compliant, you are anti-social. You are mentally ill. You are a psychopath.

The language of pathology, mental illness, madness, disease, and disability, has long been used to reinforce other existing structural oppressions like racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, binarism, cissexism, and ableism. Ableist metaphor [terms such as “psycho”] draws on the language of disability to characterize, denigrate, attack, rhetoricize, and politicize—and it does so based on the presumption that deviation from typical thought, movement, emotional processing, communication, bodily/mental functioning, learning, remembering, sensing is evidence of defect, deficiency, disorder, and ultimately, moral failure.

Many advocates and persons with mental health conditions feel that the casual, yet derogatory, use of the word “psycho” harms people with genuine mental health challenges and advise others to not use the term.

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