Let’s Talk About Ableism and Intelligence – Part 3 – A Challenge

Content Note: This series discusses ableist slurs. Many of them will be used in full. You are also allowed to use them in the comments only if it’s for the purposes of illustration and discussion. That is, you may use the words to talk about them. You may not use them as slurs in the comments. This note will be repeated on every post in this series.

So I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of laying out my argument. I strongly believe that “stupid” and it’s associated terms, as well as “crazy”, “insane”, etc are quite ableist, and that we should consider dropping them from our vocabulary.

What I thought would be fun is to offer a challenge to all of you. It’s based off of Ania’s own challenge she proposed back on her blog in 2015…

I have a challenge for all of my blogger friends. I want you to try and go one month without using the list of words below. For one month, in your blog posts and public opinions, I want you to not use these words. I will explain why. I will give you a reason, and regardless of whether you agree with me or not, I want you to try. For me.

I want to bring that challenge forward again, and extend it to everyone reading this, as well. Read Ania’s post. Read my last two posts. And, at the very least, consider giving it a try. For one whole month, drop every ableist slur from your vocabulary. Find other ways to say what you mean without resorting to these easy, lazy slurs. Then get back to me.

Why does it matter?

From Ania (please note that this was written back in 2015)…

The truth is that the concerns of the disabled community are often pushed to the side or seen as less important. Just a year ago there was almost a network wide outrage over being called on the use of ableist sentiments and words. It ended with one of the more dedicated and active disability and neurodiversity activists, who has actually created a lot of the accepted vocabulary of the neurodivergent movements, accused of being a troll. The concerns were ignored, a new network was launched, and little to no progress was made in improving the use of ableist language or sentiments in our community. The verdict was in. As one person famously put it: disability activism is not a real thing.

And then the whole thing was ignored. 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.

I seriously could just quote Ania’s entire opening preamble, but I think this is enough to drive the point home. If not, then please… read the whole thing.

And I especially want you, dear readers, and my fellow bloggers here at FtB, to really think about it and perhaps even take part in the challenge. It’s extra distressing for this ableism to come from people who are supposed to be “social justice warriors”. We’re supposed to be intersectional feminists and leftists. This is something we should care about. And yet as recently as yesterday, the word “stupid” showed up in the headline of more than one blog post on this network.

That really needs to stop being seen as “okay”.

So I very badly want everyone to at least attempt this challenge. For just one month, stop using “stupid”, “moron”, “idiot”, “dense”, “crazy”, “insane”, and similar words, and stop using the diagnostic names of actual conditions (“deaf”, “dumb”, “blind”, “autistic”, “schizophrenic”, “sociopathic”, “bi-polar”, etc) as slurs, as well.

Keep in mind that I’m not saying that you have to. I’m simply asking you to consider participating; consider challenging yourself. If you just can’t do it, then fine. You’ll have to come to terms with the fact that, for some reason, you are quite comfortable with using ableist terms, or you can continue to tie yourself in knots trying to claim these words aren’t ableist (when they demonstrably are)… and do all that while continuing to call yourself a social justice advocate… but if that’s what you need to do, then fine. Do it. I can’t, and have no interest in, policing your language.

That said, for anyone who does wish to engage with the challenge, I’ve compiled a bunch of links, and from those links a list, of things you can say instead of ableist slurs…

Let’s start with perhaps the most extensive list, from the Is This Ableism tumblr

Instead of “lame“…

Take “lame”. It’s not just ableist – it’s one of those adjectives that has lost all colour from overuse. A “lame joke” could be a pathetic clunker of a pun, or perhaps a gag that was already drained of freshness when our parents were young. A “lame excuse” is inadequate or unconvincing.

Instead of “crazy” or “insane”

Instead of “crazy” or “insane”: “that viewpoint seems extreme to me. Could you please clarify?” or “it seems like this is a subject that can bring up a lot of emotions for people. Let’s not try to hurt or attack one another because we are hurt ourselves.”

Another replacement

Or “crazy”: it still has meaning, but it’s hopelessly vague. Outrageous, ridiculous, absurd, Kafkaesque – define the particular flavour of “crazy” that you’re dealing with, and you can find a much more vivid word. If it’s a person with complete wilful disconnect from reality, there are a million metaphors you can turn to without alleging mental illness.

Instead of “OCD” (used as a slur, obviously)…

  • finicky
  • painstaking
  • fastidious
  • particular
  • precise
  • scrupulous
  • conscientious
  • persnickety (it’s real word i promise)
  • accurate
  • meticulous
  • punctilious
  • exact

basically there are loads of really cool words out there, (persnickety!!) so you don’t need to appropriate OCD for your own use if you don’t actually have it!

Now, as for intelligence-based slurs (“stupid”, “idiot”, “moron”, “fool”, “blind”, “deaf”, “dumb”, etc)… I think this is where things get tricky for people. But there are alternatives.

Anyone remember the Atheism+ forums? Those are gone now, but I used to post there. Back when I received that comment on my old blog calling me out for my use of the word “stupid”, those forums were where I turned to first. I asked them whether or not “stupid” was ableist, and what not-ableist terms I could substitute for it.

“Willfully ignorant” was, is, and always will be the best replacement, not least because that’s what we really mean when we use any of those intelligence-based slurs. But even when you’re going after ideas, there are alternatives, although I already explored them in part 2 of this series

Instead, you could be constructive. You could say “that’s a bad idea, and here’s why” or “I think you made a big mistake there. You should have done this, instead” or “I don’t know if I like that choice. Here’s a better one.” Explain why you don’t like whatever it is, instead of just calling it “stupid”.

Don’t have the time to go into specifics? It’s still better to just say something like “nah, that’s a bad idea” or “you know what? No. I’m against that” and move on than to say “that’s stupid”. Even when you’re using it against ideas or actions or such, there’s still splash damage.

And there’s also… well… “wrong”, which ultimately is what we mean when we call an idea “stupid”. So… you could just call the idea “wrong”.

As for other terms (because why limit yourself)… one of the phrases I got from the Atheism+ forums was “shining beacon of…”. As long as you’re careful about how you follow that statement up, it can be a beautiful moment of snark.

Well aren’t you just a shining beacon of knowledge about evolution?

Well aren’t you just a shining beacon for all the world to follow?

Well aren’t you just a shining beacon of acceptance?

I actually rather enjoy it, although I don’t work it into my writing much, honestly.

There are lots of other suggestions, as well…

From Care2 (they have a lot of others, by the way, so I recommend reading the whole thing):

If you mean frustrating or perplexing – ”This is so stupid!” or “That’s retarded!” –consider:

1. Frustrating

2. Pointless

3. Annoying

4. Irritating

5. Obnoxious

If you mean to describe someone who’s doing something a little dorky – ”They’re such a spaz!” or “Are you retarded or something?” — consider:

31. Silly

32. Dorky

33. Cheesy

34. Nonsensical

35. Illogical

Anagnori has an extensive list, as well. I will go ahead and just quote the whole thing, but some here make a bit uncomfortable, although, for the life of me, I really can’t place a finger on why…

I’ve seen a lot of conflicting opinions over whether the word “stupid” is ableist or not. I’ve decided to err on the side of caution and stop using it. But it’s a difficult habit to break, so I’ve made a list of words to use instead. I’m posting it in case other people find it useful.

Referring to people:

  • asinine
  • awful
  • banal
  • clueless
  • fatuous
  • foolhardy
  • foolish
  • frivolous
  • gullible
  • ignorant
  • imperceptive
  • imprudent
  • inane
  • incompetent
  • inept
  • injudicious
  • insipid
  • irrational
  • misguided
  • misinformed
  • mistaken
  • naive
  • oblivious
  • obtuse
  • pig-headed
  • puerile
  • rash
  • shallow
  • silly
  • stubborn
  • thoughtless
  • uninformed
  • unreasonable
  • unwise
  • vacuous
  • vapid
  • wasteful
  • willfully ignorant
  • wrong

Referring to ideas or things:

  • absurd
  • asinine
  • awful
  • banal
  • baseless
  • dull
  • erroneous
  • fallacious
  • false
  • fatuous
  • foolhardy
  • foolish
  • frivolous
  • ill-advised
  • ill-considered
  • illogical
  • imperceptive
  • imprudent
  • inaccurate
  • inane
  • indefensible
  • injudicious
  • insipid
  • irrational
  • laughable
  • ludicrous
  • misguided
  • misinformed
  • mistaken
  • naive
  • nonsensical
  • obtuse
  • outrageous
  • pathetic
  • pig-headed
  • pointless
  • preposterous
  • puerile
  • rash
  • ridiculous
  • senseless
  • shallow
  • silly
  • simplistic
  • substandard
  • thoughtless
  • trifling
  • trite
  • trivial
  • unfounded
  • uninformed
  • unreasonable
  • unsound
  • untenable
  • unwarranted
  • unwise
  • useless
  • vacuous
  • vapid
  • waste of time
  • wasteful
  • worthless
  • wrong

I want to finish this up with the closing to Ania’s challenge…

This is not a comprehensive list of ableist slurs, nor should it be taken as such, but it is a step forward. One month of having to think a little more creatively about insults and what it is you are really trying to say.

I’m even willing to bet on it. Let’s make it a competition. Name a forfeit if you like, and put up your own collateral. Just for one month, think of ableism and avoid using these words in your posts. And if you won’t participate in this challenge: Tell us why.

And who knows, perhaps at the end of that month, you will understand why we ask you to avoid using these words, in the same way you understand why you shouldn’t use other oppressive language.

I really think this might be a good exercise for at least some of you. It’s an exercise I’ve been undertaking for a couple years, now. And as hard as is it is, it’s worth it.

Please… at least give it a try. Try removing ableist slurs from your vocabulary. See if you can be more creative, and less ableist, in the process. It’s worth trying, at the very least… isn’t it?

Please note that I am currently working on commenting guidelines for my blog. They will include asking that very many slurs, including these ableist slurs I’ve just discussed in this series, not be used unless you are directly discussing the slurs. Consider that guideline already in place.

Also, please remember that I know I can’t police your language. I can’t tell you how to speak or how to write. Take this series as a suggestion. The challenge, though highly recommended, is not mandatory. I certainly don’t want any laws passed on this. I just want you to think. That’s what I’m asking. Just… just think about it.


Thank you.


  1. says

    Interesting series. I am not disagreeing with anyhting, but it seems to me it could be boiled down to “do not use slurs, those cause splash damage, use acurate descriptors instead”. However even that is not easy and clear cut.

    I am doing my best to avoid ableist slurs, although the language barrier makes that sometimes difficult to parse. For example one of your recommended words “inane” has no equivalent in my native language except the same one that translates as “stupid”. Similarly “silly” translates as either “stupid” or “crazy” etc.

    Part of the confusion abou these words in their use in online fora might stem from the fact that internet is a multinational community and languages simply do not parse 1:1 with each other and with English.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    You ask everybody here to distinguish between the person and that person’s expression -- but, particularly in the case of religion (but also other ideologies), many persons identify so strongly with what they say that they appear totally unable to perceive that distinction.

    So everybody ends up talking past each other, the level of offense remains the same, and nothing has improved except possibly the range of vocabulary. (Which, if used for euphemism, soon becomes synonymous with whatever ruder expression you would’ve used but for feeling persnickety about potential splash damage.)

  3. says

    Sorry Pierce but… what do you mean? I’m not sure I’m understanding your argument, but if I am… couldn’t that same argument apply to other slurs (like racial slurs, gendered slurs, transphobic slurs, homophobic slurs, etc)? Why is it not a legitimate argument against them, but an entirely legitimate argument in favor of ableist slurs?

  4. says

    I’m not sure I’ll be able to do this in my day to day life, but on here I’ve been making a conscious effort not to use “stupid.” Awhile back I used it within the context of an act in a title, and I’m pretty sure someone (can’t remember who) did the blog equivalent of subtweeting me about it. It hasn’t been that hard, though there’s been a handful of times where I had a hard time coming up with an alternative.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Nathan @ # 3: … couldn’t that same argument apply to other slurs …?

    In principle, it could; in practice, I think it applies more to ableism.

    As a kid, I heard “MR” used as an insult years before I learned it was bureaucratese for “mental retardation”; my younger friends have told me of “special needs” as a schoolyard insult.

    To some extent, “gay” went through the same warpage, as did “homo” before it; gender, ethnic, etc insults have pretty much remained the same. Since we all make mistakes (and even more often have others perceive us as doing so), verbal attacks for mental or physical failings get spread around much more universally -- and so (I suspect) “acceptable” euphemisms get absorbed into verbal abuse sooner and more widely.

  6. says

    My blog is unique because it is a work of fiction. But I have been thinking about the character’s word choices I will keep your posts in this series in mind.

  7. says

    William Brinkman @ #6…

    You taking this challenge would actually be even better because your blog is a work of fiction. It’d be incredible to see how you navigate writing while avoiding all ableist slurs. I already think you’re a great writer… pulling this off would only make you even better than you already are.

  8. khms says

    The basic idea seems reasonable, but your replacement terms don’t really sound convincing to me. For one, they lack any of the emotional impact that are often the sole reason people use those terms.
    Then, I’m not convinced the replacements actually say what I’d want them to say -- and worse, it turns out the attempt to find replacement terms actually discriminates against people with a smaller English vocabulary.
    And last, sometimes those meanings you tell us to avoid are exactly the meanings we want to convey -- for example, the idea that to the one using the term, a particular behavior looks to only be explainable as some serious kind of mental problem. In effect, you’re telling us that that is something we should never even try to communicate, and I have problems with that attitude.

  9. says

    khms @ #8:

    You do realize that your entire argument can be used to excuse the use of any slur, right? White people using the n-word, straight people using the f-word, anyone using the r-word… hell, that’s one of the arguments men use to justify using misogynistic slurs.

    The basic idea seems reasonable, but your replacement terms don’t really sound convincing to me. For one, they lack any of the emotional impact that are often the sole reason people use those terms.

    That emotional impact comes at the expense of other people. It’s punching down. So maybe you’re going to have to find a new way to create an emotional impact.

    Then, I’m not convinced the replacements actually say what I’d want them to say --

    They are replacements because they specifically do say what they mean. If your intent is to be ableist, well… I can’t help you, there, but you should probably examine why you want to do that…

    -- and worse, it turns out the attempt to find replacement terms actually discriminates against people with a smaller English vocabulary.

    Yeah that’s bullshit. It’s exactly why I found alternate words and phrases. I’m very happy to help in that regard, as well. And FtB (my blog included) is compatible with text-to-speech programs.

    Just like there’s no excuse for racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc, there’s no excuse for ableism.

    And last, sometimes those meanings you tell us to avoid are exactly the meanings we want to convey — for example, the idea that to the one using the term, a particular behavior looks to only be explainable as some serious kind of mental problem. In effect, you’re telling us that that is something we should never even try to communicate, and I have problems with that attitude.

    Oh! You have a psychiatry degree? What level are you? Bachelor’s? Master’s? PhD? I didn’t realize that you were qualified to diagnose someone with a disorder from the DSM.

    Because if none of that is true, then yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you, because doing that without the proper qualifications and without your patient being protected by Doctor-Patient Confidentiality is ableist. So unless you are qualified and have a practice, you very much should not do that.

  10. John Morales says

    Nathan, I alluded to you in a post about your challenge elseblog, because I thought it would be confrontational and unwelcome, but since you were so assertive towards khms, I venture here to mention I think you’ve been a bit unfair.

    Specifically, what motivated me was that, though you’ve been dismissive, you haven’t actually critiqued their position; you’ve merely asserted that if it is an excuse, then it can be generalised. That’s not a refutation.


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