Taking the Ableism Challenge

The excellent Ania Bula offered this challenge “for all of (her) blogger friends” – which I take to mean she isn’t expecting randos to participate.  So calm thyselves if riled, randos.  This isn’t for you.  The challenge in short: Do not use any ableist language in your writing for one month. This is not a challenge I am personally accepting because I’m trying to do it forever rather than a short time, and because she doesn’t know me. I’m a rando.

I mention and link it because it lays out the good case against ableism in writing – which in the atheist and skeptic communities is mostly synonyms for “unintelligent” and “mentally ill” being used as insults. A response article by the righteous and mighty Luxander Pickel is also well worth a read. Below are some choice chunks from both articles:

From Bula:

“The concerns of the disabled community are often pushed to the side or seen as less important… As one person famously put it: disability activism is not a real thing… For most people it was just not enough of a big deal… Every few months someone writes a post asking people to not use “crazy” as a pejorative, that gets summarily ignored…

And these things do matter. In the same way that racialized words perpetuate systemic racism, and the same way that racialized words can find themselves in the most seemingly benign words, ableism too is so prevalent as to be invisible.

The sad fact is that most ableist slurs are considered the soft swears, the use-instead-ofs. Want to insult someone in relatively polite company? Chances are you may reach for one of these as a stand-by. But words matter. Language shapes our perception and when we make disability an insult, when we make ability an insult, we are implying that there is something wrong with being that way. It adds to a system that treats people with disabilities as being less than human. In some cases people go so far as to imply that people with disabilities don’t have feelings or don’t feel pain. Moreover it creates a perceptions, a link between being disabled and being otherwise incompetent…

Cognitive ability is often an imprecise target of their criticism. Often what people mean when they insult cognitive ability is rather ignorance or a purposeful decision to ignore reality in favour of their own biases, an act undertaken as easily by highly intelligent individuals as by those who may suffer from cognitive impairments… Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Ted Nugent, Stephen Harper, may all be reprehensible human beings with bigoted ideas and some serious cognitive biases, but cognitively impaired or lacking in intelligence, they are not.

The people hurt when you use ableist slurs are often not the targets of your insults, …it is the people surrounding you who are influenced by the perception that you think cognitive ability is an indicator of worth. It doesn’t matter what your thoughts, or what you think your thoughts on the matter are, what matters is what others perceive your thoughts to be on the matter. If I can’t distinguish you from an ableist by your words, then you are being ableist. Even if you don’t mean to be.

This is a life and death matter. The cultural perception of my abilities directly impacts my ability to access care. The more people perpetuate this idea that disability equals incompetence, the harder it is to have doctors take me seriously when I say that something is wrong. The easier it is to excuse the horrible treatment of disabled children who are made to endure torturous treatments and have their bodily autonomy violated on a regular basis. The easier it is to ignore that 80% of people with disabilities will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. The easier it is to ignore that disabled children and even adults are murdered and abused by their caretakers.”

From Pickel:

“As atheists, we (myself included) sometimes hinge our worth as people on our intelligence. ‘How can religious people be so blind?’ is a common thought I’ve seen and had myself. ‘Christians are delusional,’ is another one I’ve seen far too often, and in fact have made more than one YouTube video attempting to debunk.

Basically, as rationalists, we pride ourselves on our superior intelligence and sometimes make fun of people who fall prey to seemingly obvious fallacious thinking. We use terminology like ‘stupid, delusional, crazy,’ to describe our incredulous feelings as to how people could possibly think those things.

I’m here to say that there’s absolutely no reason to throw disabled people and people with mental illness under the bus when we’re expressing our incredulity at the ridiculous ideas which others put forth…

I think it’s important to introspect on why terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘delusional’ create such a visceral response in ourselves. It’s because there is a long-standing stigma against neurodivergence, and an all-too-common dehumanization of people who live with those afflictions. These terms create the same effect in our brain as cursing, at least in my experience.

‘This guy is a fucking lunatic,’ makes the fun brain chemicals involved with cursing, and separates us from them in such a way as we can view them as less than full human beings. How could anyone who is a rational human being possibly hold these views? Well, they may be irrational, but that’s no reason to create a categorical difference in our minds which essentially renders them subhuman.

In short, there are deep-seated reasons why it feels so satisfying to call someone crazy when they hold views which are radically different from our own. It’s easy, and vindicates us as being Right, while they are Wrong. But there are unintended side-effects, and an implication that people who actually are ‘crazy’ are so different that they might as well not be people.”

I have nothing to add. These are my thoughts exactly (expressed more eloquently), and I’m familiar with the circumstances that informed their conclusions.  It’s the underpinning of my comment policy.  If you catch me messing up, let me know.  I know we aren’t going to get this overnight, but we can do it.  Stop using ableist language, please.  It matters.



  1. silverfeather says

    I happened to be lurking around on Skepchic when this issue came up and wow – there were some comments over there that really opened my mind. After challenging my initial knee jerk reaction (it was a bad one) I realized that the people talking about the harm of ablelist language such as “stupid” were completely right. I absolutely love seeing this start to be discussed seriously in more places and find its way into more comment policies!

    I still screw up the language sometimes, but I’m working on it. Thankfully, when typing I can choose my words even more carefully through the magic of proofreading and the backspace key!

  2. Great American Satan says

    It’s definitely easier to manage doing blog posts and comments than it is in spoken language around the house. I think practicing out loud might be helpful though. I haven’t been great about it lately.

  3. LicoriceAllsort says

    I don’t have a blog but decided to take up the challenge on FB and in spoken language. I agree that a good goal is to try to do it indefinitely, but I like the idea of being conscious about the effort for 4 weeks to try to establish new habits. I will say that I got drunk/riled up in a conversation over the weekend and failed miserably—intelligence slurs appear to be the area where I need the most work. Back on the wagon.

  4. Caroline says

    Hi Satan, I read a very interesting interview just yesterday on Democracy Now with the author of a new book . The book is called Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Adam Cohen is journalist and lawyer, previously member of The New York Times editorial board, former senior writer for Time magazine. He’s the co-editor of TheNationalBookReview.com. It was a very interesting article and I thought someone talking about ableism might want to read it. I have not taught myself to do links yet but I think it would be a good source.

    Good luck with the new blog. I have enjoyed and learned from your comments in the past and am looking forward to more .Thanks for taking the challenge.

  5. Caroline says

    I have also decided to just have a no name calling rule. Say what you mean and mean what you say the best you can. Clarify if asked or if you can think of a way to say it better, do so. I also try to think of why I feel what I feel and say that. ” I am exasperated with you and think this conversation is futile, we have gone over all the points and I am through, ” or “I am offended at what you wrote because you dehumanized me and/or this group and etc. It takes more work and time but I find I learn a lot that way so it can be a worthwhile process.

    I recently had to have a chat with myself about calling myself a baby for being a crier. I had to look at the category of people we call baby and see how I was not one. I am an adult who cries a lot. It happens.Humans cry. Babies are people who are between 0 and toddler. Sounds elementary I know……

  6. Great American Satan says

    Thanks for the info, Caroline. I don’t think I’m ready to abandon name-calling, but I might in the future. 🙂

  7. says

    Is talking about medical conditions you have no clue about a related issue? I’m thinking of people who shame diabetics for drinking sugared sodas…………

  8. Great American Satan says

    On my blog, never shame anyone for anything they consume, even if it’s heroin sprinkled glass shards, but especially if it’s food or beverages of any kind. I might edit out anything that looks like diet talk or negative stuff about people’s appearance, certainly blaming or shaming people for health problems. Still feeling things out.

  9. smrnda says

    As someone who has actually been delusional (I have schizo-affective disorder) the use of the term ‘delusional’ to describe people who are really just subject to the same cognitive biases as everyone in the population does tend to annoy me. It’s not just that the language targets me or, but by using a clinical term incorrectly misinformation about both mental illness and cognitive biases become even more pervasive. Being truly delusional isn’t something you can willingly snap out of, the way that with a degree of effort someone can examine their biases. And if the argument is ‘well, I’m not using the term clinically, but in an everyday usage’ – in that case, use a different word, if only for the sake of clarity.

    Oddly enough, I don’t really react negatively to ‘crazy’ as it hasn’t been a clinical term in a very long time, but I do avoid using it myself.

  10. Great American Satan says

    Thanks for commenting on your experience. It’s good for people to do that because it shows why thinking about ableism is important. You never know who has had what problems, and how they could be affected by sloppy insults.

  11. says

    Wow, color me flattered. =] I don’t think anyone’s ever called me “righteous and mighty” before. I’m in the same boat as you, I try not to make those remarks at all, so taking a challenge isn’t really much of a challenge for me. Good to see others on board!

  12. Great American Satan says

    🙂 Thank you. I just realized I’m using the name u used on FtB and should I change Pickels to Ponds?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.