How to Change Your Ableist Vocabulary

Emily Perry-Musgrave
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Emily Perry-Musgrave

Artist & Writer at Under The Art House
Northerner with a passion for lingerie, art, guinea pigs and sarcasm.
Emily Perry-Musgrave
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I’ve only recently become fully aware of ableist language. The hardest part for me has been realising that phrases such as “crazy” or “stupid”, which were phrases that I used to use at least daily, were contributing to the problem of the negative connotations surrounding mental illnesses and disabilities. I found it harder than I expected to change my vocabulary, as I didn’t realise just how much I used ableist language until I began to change. As someone who experiences mental illness and disability, I’m ashamed that I had been contributing to a problem such as ableism which I should have been working to fight.

How to Change Your Ableist Vocabulary

Many people still don’t understand the impact of using certain words in everyday contexts as they seem so ‘normal’ in our lives. Many of these words are still used regularly on TV, in magazines, and on social media to the point where some have become numb to the consequences of their use. Obviously, phrases like “retard” are now completely outdated and offensive which is fantastic, but there is still a lot of work to do with how much ableist vocab everyone uses.

Honestly, the easiest way to understand which words you should no longer be using is to simply listen to those that these words affect and take on board what is considered offensive and why. I think part of the way people can begin to understand the weight of those words is also to refer to them as slurs. Sometimes it can be as easy as replacing using the slur as an adjective and just saying what you actually mean.

To help, I’ve created a list of common phrases that you may not realise are ableist slurs and some alternatives for them. Let me know if you have any more in the comments!

Here are a few examples of ableist vocabulary and how you can change your language:

Crazy/Mental/Insane – Wild, illogical, not thinking, intense, amazing, wicked, unreasonable, ridiculous, overwhelming, exciting, absurd

eg. “That is absolutely mental” can be changed to “That is absolutely ridiculous”

eg. “Don’t stick your dick in crazy!” can be changed to “I am a misogynistic arsehole with no respect for women”


Lame – Gross, awful, inadequate, cringey, disappointing

eg. “What a lame joke” can be changed to “What an awful joke”

eg. “I can’t believe how lame this club is” can be changed to “This club is disappointing”


Crippled/invalid – poorly, uncomfortable

eg. “I feel like such an invalid today” can be changed to “My back/muscles/head hurts and I feel poorly”

eg. “That yoga left me feeling crippled” can be changed to “I can tell how much exercise I did during yoga”


Stupid/slow/idiot – Frustrating, annoying, irritating, pointless, counterproductive

eg. “You’re acting like such a stupid idiot” can be changed to “Your behaviour is really counter-productive”


Deaf/blind – Change your phrasing

eg. “Sorry, what? I’m so deaf today!” can be changed to “Can you repeat that? I couldn’t hear you”


Schizo/psycho/bipolar/OCD – unpredictable, changeable, difficult, unreasonable, complicated, tricky, puzzling

eg. “This filing system is making my OCD go crazy!” can be changed to “This filing system is really unorganised, it’s making me so frustrated”

eg. “The weather is so bipolar today” can be changed to “The weather is so changeable today”


Other phrases that are offensive:

  • Referring to selling an organ for money eg. “I need to sell a kidney to pay for that!” The reality is there are many people out there who need transplants. Making light of that situation is insensitive and thoughtless.
  • Calling something/someone inbred. Those who are victims of inbreeding are victims of abuse and it shouldn’t be used as an adjective.
  • Using the phrase “heart attack” in a hyperbolic sense. Eg. “You gave me a heart attack!” Nothing wrong with simply saying you’re shocked. It can save a lot of painful memories/feelings for those who have closely experienced heart attacks.
  • “I look like I’ve had a stroke” Same as above. Think before you speak.


Not seeing an ableist phrase on the list and it’s alternative? Share in the comments!

Emily Perry-Musgrave
Emily Perry-Musgrave

Northerner with a passion for lingerie, art, guinea pigs and sarcasm.

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