ID: Scrabble letters spelling out “Learn."

How to Avoid Being Accidentally Ableist in Your Writing

Content note: I will be mentioning some ableist words, for educational purposes.

Because I am a sensitivity editor for ableist terms and themes, I often get asked this question from writers who want to avoid ableism (without nuance) in their work: How can I stop using ableist phrases?

Let me begin by saying that I, too, am learning all the time. I have even been recently corrected for using an ableist term in a WIP of mine. It slipped past the goalie, as one says, because I didn’t know it was ableist. So, this post is about taking the steps for us to improve—it’s not my assuming I know all the things.

Because I don’t know all the things.

Shocking, isn’t it?

That’s ableist? Really?

We have so many words entrenched in our everyday language, which many of us don’t realize have roots in ableism. Most often, these words have been used to mock or marginalize folks with mental illnesses or who are neurodivergent. Words like crazy, idiot, stupid, moron. We also have words that mock those of us with mobility issues. How many times have we heard that’s so lame? I’ve said it too, many times, I’m ashamed to admit. We often use it to describe something that we find dull or boring, but you know what? I am technically lame, and I feel I’m kinda awesome. So, this argument is invalid! 🙂

There’s good news, though. Using English as an example, I can say we have a lot of words we can choose from as substitutes for the ableist ones. Here are some references you can check out:

(* with thanks to Amanda Leduc for sharing these resources during her FOLD workshop about accessibility and creating a safer space)

All it takes, in my experience, is a willingness to learn, and to practice, practice, practice! Changing language that is so ingrained takes time, for all of us, and language is always evolving, so it’s okay if you didn’t realize something was ableist. An attitude of compassion and the motivation to keep growing is what will come across to your readers and fellow authors.

And it’s not just abled, neurotypical folks who are accidentally ableist. Anyone can be. We all can take action to do better!

Ableist Tropes

Have you ever come across an autistic character in fiction who is a white male, is a savant, says they don’t understand empathy, avoids looking at anyone, and might speak in a repetitive manner? While autistic folks can have these traits, not every single one of us acts exactly the same way. I, for example, am a cis woman, so hyperempathetic that I apologize to my plants when I prune them, will often look at you directly (many times because I can’t hear and read lips but also because I like observing people), am not a savant in anything at all (Does eating cake count?), and while sometimes I stim myself to a calmer place by repeating words, I often do that when alone.

We are not a monolith.

And folks who might have the same condition, like MS or fibromyalgia, don’t necessarily experience their disabilities the same way either. From reading stories written by Blind authors and authors who have low vision, as another example, I’ve observed a wealth of variety of lived experiences.

There’s no “one way” to be.

Interested in reading more stories from authors who are disabled, d/Deaf, Blind, neurodivergent, Spoonie, and/or they manage mental health?

  • Artificial Dividea collection of short fiction by authors who are Blind or visually impaired, edited by Robert Kingett and Randy Lacey
  • Nothing Without Usa collection of short fiction by authors who are disabled, Deaf, neurodivergent, Spoonie, and/or they manage mental illness (Nothing Without Us Too will be released later this year!). Edited by lil’ ol’ me and Talia C. Johnson.
  • Check out the Spoonie Authors Podcast, produced by Dianna Gunn. She interviews authors in the disability community!

And here’s a series on the the Spoonie Authors Network called Disability Tropes 101, written by Speculating Canada’s Derek Newman-Stille. Derek explores some of the common tropes found in fiction.

Start with the desire, then keep going!

It really does begin with the desire to want to do better. And as authors, the more we care about representation, the more widely-read our work can be appreciated and enjoyed. Also, outside of writing, it just helps make the world a nicer place to dwell in.

Remember, a lot of disabled folks have been really pushed mentally during this pandemic because of eugenics-based messages. One way to change the narrative and recognize us as humans who are worthy of living, is to appreciate our opinions, respect our identities, and weed out language that is so often used against us.

Thanks to all of you who are on the path to caring about what words you use! I, for one, really appreciate it.

Closeup of me. I'm a white woman with bobbed silver hair tucked behind my ear. I have a youngish face. I'm wearing a grey tee that has in old English font: "Hmmm..." Geralt of Rivia

Cait Gordon is a Canadian autistic, disabled, and queer author of speculative fiction that celebrates diversity. She also co-edited Nothing Without Us with Talia C. Johnson, a 2020 Prix Aurora Award finalist for Best Related Work that has thrice been part of a disability studies syllabus at Trent University. (The submission window for Nothing Without Us Too is currently open until Jan 31, 2022!) When not fine-tuning manuscripts, Cait advocates for disability representation and is the founder of the Spoonie Authors Network.