Disability Studies – Ableist Language – Inappropriate Disability Metaphors

Disability Studies is an academic field that researches ways cultures and styles of writing marginalize disabled individuals and amplify the difficulties they face. Learn how to identify abelist language and avoid inappropriate disability metaphors in your writing and the texts of others. Adopt a style of writing that is accessible to those with disabilities. Expand your audience and work towards more access and equity for those with disabilities.
4 common pictograms depicting disability 4 common pictograms depicting disability

Related Concepts: Audience; Critical Disability Studies; Emphatic Information Literacy; Inclusive Language; Rhetorical Reasoning; Universal Design; Usability


What is Disability Studies?

Disability Studies is a field that analyzes treatments of disabilities and those with disabilities in our society. One of the main tenets of disability studies is that aspects of our society marginalize disabled individuals and amplify the difficulties they face. One of those aspects can be what and how we write, whether it is the phrases and metaphors we use or the way we envision who our audience is. Every time we write, whether it is an argument for class, a letter to the editor of a local paper, or a social media post, we shape the culture around disability, for better or for worse. This article will give you tips to shape it for the better.  

There are two main considerations for how you can do this. First, you can make what you write inclusive by not casting disability as “less than,” “abnormal,” or negative. Second, you can make what you write accessible to those with disabilities in order to expand your audience and work towards more access and equity for those with disabilities.

What is Ableist Language?

One way that our culture marginalizes and excludes those with disabilities is by defining “normal” as “able-bodied.” Such a definition suggests that those with disabilities are “abnormal,” even though 1 in 4 Americans has a disability and the vast majority of people will experience some temporary or short-term disability over the course of their lifetime (connected with aging, illness, or injury). By privileging those who are able-bodied over those who aren’t, our culture is ableist. In order to not reflect or reinforce this ableism, it is important that your writing recognizes that disability is a normal part of the human experience.

Ableist language can include using metaphors or terms that connote disability negatively or that may be considered outdated. Ableist language does harmful cultural work against those with disabilities and should always be avoided. Below are some common examples of disability-related metaphors as well as terms that are negatively connotated. (Here’s a more thorough list is available here.)

What are Inappropriate Disability Metaphors?

Disability Metaphors to AvoidDisability Terms to Avoid
dragging one’s feetwheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair
turn a deaf ear tosuffers from/victim of
turn a blind eye/blinded to/blind-side/blindspot crippled/crippled by
crazy/insane/lunatic/maniac/nuts/psychoinvalid
dumb/lame/idiot/stupid/moronicHandicapped/handicapable/differently abled/special
Example of Meanspirited, abelist language. The sign reads: Shoping carts are not intended to be used as walkers.
Example of a discriminatory message that lacks information empathy and audience awareness given the audience for this store is primary elderly folks. Photo Credit: Joe Moxley

How to Write Inclusively

Use Appropriate Terminology

When writing about a specific disability, it’s important to double-check any terms you may have encountered previously, as terms and their meanings can change over time. A great approach is simply to note how people with that disability refer to themselves, especially in whatever sources you may be using in your writing. It is crucial to use whatever term an individual or community prefers and never to “diagnose” or assign your own term or label. Additionally, the National Center on Disability and Journalism has a great style guide on a list of terms and their appropriateness. If it is necessary for you to use a term that is historic or has negative associations, consider using quotation marks to indicate that you are treating the word in a particular way. 

Person-First Versus Identity-First Language

Beyond what language to avoid, disability communities have also explored what language best captures their experiences and how they want to be described. One option is person-first language, which refers to individuals with disabilities as people first and “with disabilities” second, such as a “person in a wheelchair” or a “person with dementia.” This option emphasizes everyone’s shared human identity. Another option is identity-first language, which foregrounds a specific identity connected to disability, such as “Deaf” or “Autistic.” This option emphasizes how disability can be a core component of someone’s identity. Currently, many disabled people prefer identity-first language, but some disability communities prefer person-first still, and within some communities preference is split, so (as with terminology above) the best approach is to use whatever term an individual or community prefers. If you find that preference is mixed within a community, you can acknowledge this in your writing through a foot- or endnote. 

Don’t Praise or Spotlight Disability

When someone with a disability is treated differently than an able-bodied person, that’s also ableist. Sometimes this happens when disabled individuals are praised for things in ways that an able-bodied person would not be. For instance, calling people with disabilities “brave” for doing everyday tasks or “inspiring” for overcoming obstacles reveals the negative assumptions our culture has (and it also participates in what disability studies calls “inspiration porn,” when disability narratives are presented primarily to make able-bodied people feel good). Additionally, don’t draw attention to someone’s disability unless it is directly relevant to the topic at hand. Spotlighting disabilities that are not relevant to a story or argument reinforces the idea that those with disabilities are not the “norm.” This principle is good for writing in general–include details that are relevant and omit ones that aren’t, whether they are about someone’s disability, racial/ethnic identity, religion, etc. 

Consider Accessibility

Just as our culture defines “normal” as “able-bodied,” so it conditions us to imagine–implicitly or explicitly–an audience that is exclusively able-bodied. We are all, even those of us with disabilities, conditioned to write with such an audience in mind, but such conditioning erases those with disabilities from our imagined audiences. To best include disabled individuals in your audience, you must make your writing accessible to them. All readers need their content to fit within specific parameters in order to be legible. When your reader is your professor, they will tell you what those parameters are, including any of the accessibility options listed below. But if your writing will have a broader audience than just one professor–especially a public audience where you do not know precisely who will encounter it–it is crucial that you imagine the broadest possible audience, including those with disabilities. In those cases, covering as many aspects of accessibility as you can is extremely important.

Provide Alt-text

Alt-text is a description of visual material that can be read by screen readers, a technology that translates visual materials into audio description. All images included in a presentation, document, or social media post (including PDFs) should include alt-text. When crafting your description, describing every aspect of the image may not be necessary, so focus instead on what is meaningful or important. For instance, if the image is a toddler standing in a kitchen, it is probably more important that you describe her facial expressions (happy or angry or curious or crying) than the color of the cabinets. 

Provide Closed Captioning

If you are doing a presentation with an aural or audio component, such as on Zoom, Prezi, or Canva, be sure to enable closed captioning so that the aural components are translated into written text. If the presentation is recorded and available for later use, edit the closed captioning to be sure it is accurate, as auto-generated results often don’t catch everything perfectly. While closed captioning is used by those who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing, many more individuals use it if they prefer not to listen to the material, so closed captioning is key to making your work accessible to as wide an audience as possible. 

Consider Color Scheme, Font, and Design Choices

Not all writing will have the option to choose color schemes or fonts, especially if you must adhere to certain parameters (such as in MLA formatting, APA formatting, or branding for a certain organization). However, if you have flexibility regarding these areas, you should consider which color schemes and fonts will make your writing the most accessible. Studies show that warmer background colors (like creme, peach, orange, yellow) with a strongly contrasting text color have higher readability rates for those with and without dyslexia. Moreover, some sans serif and roman fonts (like Helvetica, Courier, Arial) rather than serif and italic ones increase readability as well. Lastly, in making design choices, consider sensory-friendly or low-sensory options rather than sensory-heavy approaches (like flashing images, abrupt transitions, and loud sounds).

Consider Content Warnings

Content warnings are not exclusively for the disability community but they are a great way to make your work inclusive. If your goal is to meaningfully convey your material to your audience, it’s important that your audience is prepared to receive it. Content warnings can help them navigate if and when they are ready to engage with your writing. Content warnings are often marked at the very beginning by “CW:” and then a list of topics the content covers. Some common topics for a content warning include rape, violence and trauma, child loss, self-harm or suicide, death, cancer, racial slurs, homophobic or transphobic language, and pornographic material. 

Be Responsive to Feedback and Revision

Since we live in a culture that is ableist, ableism shapes our thinking and writing, even when we are not conscious of it. Also, writing about disability can be complex, so it may not always be obvious how to best handle a situation, and you may make a misstep. These tenets are true for those of us with and without disabilities, though often those with disabilities recognize ableism more readily because of their own disability experiences. Therefore, it is important to listen to and be responsive if someone, especially someone with a disability, provides specific feedback and suggests revisions regarding the inclusivity and accessibility of your work. It is equally important that you speak up if you find a peer’s work not as inclusive or accessible as it could be. Together, they way that we write can shape a better culture around disability. 

Further Reading

“Critical Disability Studies,” Writing Commons, https://writingcommons.org/section/research/research-methods/textual-methods/literary-criticism/critical-disability-studies/

The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.

Goodley, Dan. Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. 2nd ed., SAGE, 2017.

Handbook of Disability Studies, edited by Gary L. Albrecht, et al., SAGE, 2001. 

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Snyder, Sharon L, et al., Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Modern Language Association of America, 2002.