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This page is a list of some words and phases to avoid that are less commonly known to be harmful, with brief explanations of why they are harmful. For the sake of brevity, I’m not including things that are more commonly known to be harmful. Because finding alternative language can be an important part of changing language use, I have also listed several possible replacements for each term.

For those looking for a fuller discussion of ableist language in particular, I recommend “Ableism/Language” by Lydia X. Z. Brown (Austistic Hoya). This is a comprehensive glossary of ableist language that includes a lengthy list of non-ableist alternatives. One of the great things about this resource is that it is a living document that incorporates feedback from disabled community members.

Content warning: The list below contains offensive terms, language, and slurs.

 

Digital artwork of an extensive set of brass gears and parts such as could be found on the inside of a particularly intricate clock. This is meant to invoke the idea of things working away out of sight.

Digital artwork of an extensive set of brass gears and parts such as could be found on the inside of a particularly intricate clock. This is meant to invoke the idea of things working away out of sight.

 

Racial slurs and other derogatory racial terms:

  • This includes derogatory words for mixed race people, such as half breed. Please be aware that the word mulatto ranges from acceptable to slur based on region.
  • In addition, some slurs, such as g*pped, are less commonly known. It is important to be aware of these words so that they can be avoided. The Racial Slur Database is a useful tool for this learning process.

Pioneer/pioneering when used to mean being the first to do something:

  • Using the word pioneer to mean something positive is a problem because many of the historical pioneers engaged in genocide and thus are not people we want to hold up as positive examples to emulate.
  • Alternatives: Trailblazer, inspirational

Crusader when used for something positive:

  • Crusaders and the crusades are part of a history of violence and religious intolerance and are not something we want to hold up as a positive example to emulate.
  • Alternatives: Champion, reformer

Being low on the totem pole:

  • This phrase is based on a misunderstanding and trivialization of the deep cultural meaning of totem poles.
  • Alternatives: Bottom of the heap, low in rank

Pow-Wow when being used for something that isn’t the Native American ceremony:

  • This is a culturally significant ceremony and should not be trivialized by using it as a word for other types of gatherings.
  • Alternatives: Meeting, gathering, discussion

Walkabout:

  • This is considered to be a disrespectful term for an important tradition in Indigenous Australian communities.
  • Alternatives: Excursion, trip, spiritual journey

Lame:

  • Lame refers to people who can’t walk or walk with pain or difficulty due to an injury, illness, or chronic condition.
  • Alternatives: Frustrating, silly, ridiculous

Dumb:

  • Dumb means being unable to communicate verbally. Most often it is used to refer to deaf people, but it applies to a broad range of disabilities that affect speech.
  • Alternatives: Ignorant, impulsive, silly, frustrating

Duh/der/derp:

  • These words are originally sounds meant to mock the sounds that people with intellectual disabilities are stereotyped as making.
  • Alternatives: Of course, obviously

Crazy/mad/nuts/insane/coocko/loony:

  • These are derogatory terms for people with mental illnesses that are based on outdated, harmful stereotypes.
  • Alternatives: Wild, extreme, odd, offbeat, weird, strange, zany, eccentric, irrational, peculiar, unconventional, quirky, uncommon, unusual

Drive me crazy/nuts/insane:

  • This phrase is based on negative stereotypes about mental illness.
  • Alternatives: drive me up the wall, frustrating

Stupid/fool/idiot/imbecile/daft/moron:

Being deaf or blind as a metaphor for being unable or unwilling to perceive something:

  • When a disability is used as a metaphor for something negative it sends the message that having that disability makes a person lesser.
  • Alternatives: Ignorant, willfully ignorant, deliberately ignoring, irrational

Handicapped/crippled:

  • These are offensive terms for people with physical disabilities.
  • Alternatives for referring to people: Physically disabled person, person with a physical disability, person with a mobility disability
  • These terms are frequently used as metaphors for objects, systems, and ideas that don’t function well. Using a disability in this way sends a negative message about what it means to be disabled.
  • Alternatives for metaphorical use: Broken, messed up, nonfunctional, frozen, stuck

Fatso/tub/lump/lazy/gluttonous and other insulting ways of talking about fat people:

Using fit or healthy to mean thin:

  • This implies that fat people aren’t fit or healthy.
  • Alternatives: Thin, skinny, lanky

Prostitute or whore as a metaphor for degradation:

  • This promotes stigmatizing ideas about what it means to be a sex worker.
  • Alternatives: compromised, corrupt, sell out, degraded

 

2 Responses to “Words and Phrases to Avoid”

  1. Bryan says:

    So I’ve decided to include a few little people in my game since the accessibility guide is including them. “Dwarf” is the medical term and they prefer “little person”, but I’m stumped on where to find good resources. Maybe you could ask one of the consultants?

  2. FayOnyx says:

    Bryan,

    Thank you! It is a good point that I haven’t provided a comprehensive resource for respectful language about disability on this page and I have fixed that (see the introduction at the top).

    I’m not sure what your question is exactly, but, in general, when I’m trying to find out information on disability I’ll google it first (including the word “ableism” in the search can make it easier to find discussions by disabled people). I also go to disabled community spaces where discussion and questions are welcome (certain facebook groups, discord communities, or on twitter) and ask. For more information on lived experience, I recommend YouTube, which has a great community of disabled folks making videos on ableism and their lived experiences.

    At some point I’m going to put together an article about researching disability, especially lived experiences, as this is an important topic.

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