In the past few months the weather has been oscillating randomly from chilly sweater weather to summery heat. Just last Friday I woke up to dreary drizzle, and by the time I had gotten out of class a few hours later the sun was out and shining and the puddles of rain were quickly evaporating in the afternoon heat.
It’s hard to miss such curious weather patterns, and people haven’t been shy in expressing their opinions about it. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone call the weather “bipolar,” I’d have enough money to pay those people to stop equating mental illness with natural phenomena.
Let’s talk about words for a moment. Words have power. Remember the old childhood saying, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It’s very clear now that this childhood saying no longer rings true. Words do hurt, even words used without the intention to harm.
The problem with ableist language – words or phrases that intentionally or unintentionally target people with disabilities – is that is it has become so ingrained in our speech that we do not recognize the actual harm that it does. Worst still, we’ve become so desensitized to this type of language that we don’t even notice it. It becomes a natural part of our speech, which leads to the proliferation of it in casual conversation.
However, ableist words, no matter how innocently or flippantly they’re used, are still deeply insulting to people with disabilities. Doing so reinforces dominant assumptions about what disabilities are, reduces people to their disabilities, and reduces disabilities to jokes. It’s just one of the many forms of ableism, which can be defined as discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.
I have bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 5.7 million American adults, or 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population, are affected by bipolar disorder every year. It’s a serious mental illness that causes those affected to cycle between manic and depressive episodes that can last weeks. Last time I checked, the weather cannot experience mania-induced hallucinations or suicidal ideation. And yet, people still continue to use that word to describe things like air mass and the angle of the sun.
Let me clarify that I’m not calling for a ban on these words or encouraging censorship. However, I am asking for people to consider their word choices, and think about why they use the words they do. I’m not blaming anyone; like I mentioned before, these words get tossed around so often they seem normal. And I bet not a lot of people know all the symptoms of bipolar disorder, or just how taxing it can be to live with it.
In the case of ableist language, something as simple as educating yourself and others can do a lot of good toward creating safer, more inclusive language. There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language at your disposal. Ultimately, it’s up to you which ones you decide to use. But not taking the opportunity to at least consider your actions and choices? Now that’s crazy.