40 Alternatives to These Ableist and Oppressive Words

You may have overheard people discussing “ableist” or “disablist” language lately — the use of words associated with disability as insults, expressions of frustration or even intensifiers to underscore a point.

Many disability rights activists are pushing people to change the way they talk to fight disability stigma, a form of discrimination aimed at disabled people– or people with disabilities, for fans of person-first language.

Imagine if a term associated with your identity was considered an insult. It would sting, right? And every time people used it, they would be reinforcing the idea that people like you are bad and unwanted.

Many of these words and phrases are so ingrained in society that you might not consciously realize they’re associated with disability. In some cases, these termswere recentlyon the books of state and federal code in the U.S.

Here are some examples of ableist language: retarded, lame, crippled, crazy, insane, dumb, feebleminded, moronic, spaz, psycho, schizo, maniac, idiot, cretin, looney, hysterical, gimp, nuts, wheelchair bound, freak, weak, invalid (as a noun) and special. Some of these terms were used even used diagnostically in the past, like “moron,” “dumb” and “retarded.”

It’s important to note that some disabled people choose to use these terms to refer to themselves, arguing that reclaiming insults can dilute their power — but unless someone invites you to use them, they’re best avoided.

Other terms that continue to be used diagnostically can turn into slurs when individualsuse them to refer to something bad, like OCD, bipolar, schizophrenic, autistic, disabled or mentally ill.

Other phrases like handicapped, special needs, suffers from, victim of and differently abled are starting to fall out of favor. Some people view them as slurs, and perhaps in a decade, they’ll join the list of words and phrases considered inappropriate when referring to disability.

It can be hard to eradicate words from daily use when they’re such a ubiquitous part of how you talk. So we’ve rounded up some suggested alternatives for a variety of situations. The cool thing about fighting disablist language is that you get to expand your vocabulary and communicate better, conveying precisely what you mean!

If you mean frustrating or perplexing –”This is so stupid!” or “That’s retarded!” –consider:

1. Frustrating

2. Pointless

3. Annoying

4. Irritating

5. Obnoxious

If you mean intense –”Woah, crazy!” — consider:

6. Intense

7. Awesome

8. Amazing

9. Wild

10. Fascinating

If you mean bad or unpleasant –”Wow, that’s lame!” — consider:

11. Bad

12. Awful

13. Uncool

14. Gross

15. The pits

If you mean it as an intensifier, positive or negative –”She’s a crazy good artist!” or “This is insanely difficult!” — consider:

16. Really

17. Very

18. Intensely

19. Wicked

20. Considerably

If you mean unreasonable or absurd –”That’s crazy!” — consider:

21. Unreasonable

22. Absurd

23. Outrageous

24. Unacceptable

25. Ridiculous

If you mean to describe someone with a bad, dangerous character –”She’s psychotic!” or “He’s a sociopath!” — consider:

26. Dangerous

27. Menacing

28. Threatening

29. Evil

30. Murderous

If you mean to describe someone who’s doing something a little dorky –”They’re such a spaz!” or “Are you retarded or something?” — consider:

31. Silly

32. Dorky

33. Cheesy

34. Nonsensical

35. Illogical

If you mean to describe something that’s difficultto understand, or totally bizarre –”These mass shootings are just crazy.” — consider:

36. Fathomless

37. Daunting

38. Overwhelming

39. Bizarre

40. Bottomless

Not sure whether a word or phrase is disablist? The answer often depends on the context and situation.

“She’s autistic” todescribe an autistic person, for example, is just a factual statement — though she may prefer to be called a person with autism, depending on how she views her relationship to autism. “Ugh, she’s so autistic” todescribe someone’s weird behavior, on the other hand, is disablist.

If you’re using a word that refers to disability in a descriptive sense to suggest that something is bad, abnormal, unacceptable, weird, strange, upsetting, bizarre, odd, peculiar … you should probably consider using one of those adjectives instead!

Finally, when referring to individuals, you should always ask how they want to be treated. Along the way, you may learn some useful phrases and concepts that could help you change the way you talk — and, more importantly, change the way you think about disability.

Photo credit: The U.S. Army

109 comments

Sofía R
Sofía Ramírez9 days ago

"Wild" is a colonialist word used to oppress Native American people. Would you mind removing or replacing it?

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Greta L
Greta L2 months ago

Thank you

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Daniel N
Past Member 3 months ago

thank you

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Anna R
Anna R3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Past Member
Past Member 6 months ago

I don't see how helping one or more people feel better when you are talking to them isn't worth the effort of being a little more conscious of your word choice. No one is forcing you to replace your words completely. No one is forcing you to be politically correct. We are only asking you to be compassionate towards those that hold a deeper personal meaning of those words, and try to not ruin their day, if possible.

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Danuta W
Danuta W11 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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Chrissie R
Chrissie Rabout a year ago

Why not go back to using legitimate English? Or whatever language you speak in your country?

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Freya H
Freya Habout a year ago

I agree, Peggy B - this article reeks of political correctness. OK, there are some words that we really shouldn't use, and we do need to respect those who are "differently abled"; however, let's not go overboard.

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Peggy B
Peggy B1 years ago

I think most of these are extreme and take political correctness to the limit.

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Sue H
Sue H1 years ago

Thanks for re posting this article. With the Vile one in office (someone who is supposed to set and example), belittling everyone he disagrees with, it seems that folks find it easy to be as offensive as he is. :(

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