Ableist Language To Avoid And Acceptable Alternatives

Ableist language is all around us whether we know it or not. The belief in the inferiority of people with physical, mental, or psychiatric disabilities is deeply rooted in our culture — so deeply rooted in fact, that we often can’t see our own biases. Words like “crazy” and “lame” get thrown around on the daily with little to know understanding of their oppressive history.

The use of ableist language is a huge issue both inside and outside of the workplace: according to the CDC, more than a fourth of Americans live with some sort of disability. When we use ableist language, we insult and diminish an enormous part of the population. We as a society need to reevaluate our language and attitudes towards disability. This starts in the workplace. With 2023 just beginning, commit yourself to removing ableist terms and expressions from your vocabulary. Below, you’ll find a few of commonly used ableist terms and more respectful alternatives to use instead.

“Crazy”

We frequently use the word “crazy” to describe something strange or out of the ordinary. We also might use it to refer to a person’s intense interest in something (“He goes crazy for baseball”). However, we forget that “crazy” has historically been used to insult those with mental illnesses (“He’s crazy”) and to diminish people’s genuine experiences (“She doesn’t mean that, she’s being crazy”). This history clings to the word, no matter when it’s used. Instead of calling people or things “crazy”, instead try

  • wild
  • unbelievable
  • shocking
  • amazing
  • intense
  • Ridiculous

“Lame”

The word “lame” has come to be synonymous with inferiority. Merriam Webster defines “lame” as something, “lacking needful or desirable substance”. But the word was originally used to describe people or animals with non-functional limbs. When we conflate lack of full mobility with inferiority we do an enormous disservice to the millions who don’t have complete use of their bodies. This type of derogatory language perpetuates harmful stereotypes of disabled people. Strike “lame” from your vocabulary and instead use:

  • uncool
  • bad
  • awful
  • unpleasant
  • Inappropriate

“OCD”

We use the term OCD when we want to describe someone being extremely meticulous or detail-oriented about something: “Sorry to be so OCD, but could we adjust the margins on this” or “He’s so OCD he wanted us to change all these tiny things”. But OCD is a real mental illness that affects 2% of the world’s population. It’s not an exaggeration to throw around whenever it suits you. If you need to use describe a situation where someone is very particular, instead of OCD use:

  • particular
  • precise
  • organized
  • Fussy

Emtrain is here to help you make your workplace more open and welcoming to everyone. While utilizing respectful language is vital, inclusivity goes far beyond the simple words we use. Promoting true belonging involves changing the way we conceptualize things as well as the way we act. This is where Emtrain comes in. Our DEI training courses don’t just build rote compliance: they treat respect and empathy as workplace skills that can be developed over time. To learn more about what Emtrain can do for your DEI efforts,  contact us  or download a free demo of the Emtrain Solution today!


deidisabilitydisability inclusion
Jacob Halabe
Marketing Intern, Emtrain
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