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"Stupid is a bad word!"

I think I was in kindergarten when my mom first taught me that "stupid" was a bad word. This was my first exposure to the kingdom of bad words, which meant repeatedly saying "stupid" and calling everything "stupid" made me a super cool rebel child. As I grew up, I became more and more desensitized to the word, and it became a regular part of my vocabulary. And most people around me said that no, stupid is not actually a "bad word."

Looking back on it today, I think there's a lot of truth to what my mom taught me when I was in kindergarten, even if she didn't have this specific lesson behind it. "Stupid," along with a great number of other words that have been ingrained in the language of casual conversation, are actually microaggressions of ableism (ableist language) or just straight up ableist slurs.

Before I go into ableist language, I want to address some of the criticism I will undoubtedly receive, and say: no, I am not trying to take away your free speech -- I'm just trying to advocate for thinking about word choice more carefully. And maybe you're going to roll your eyes at the end of this piece and say that I'm just being "too PC," and that's fine, since my being "too PC" really means I'm trying to say something in the least harmful way. Moreover, language is inherently political. "Both as individuals and as larger social and cultural groups, it is self-evident that the language we use to express all sorts of ideas, opinions, and emotions, as well as to describe ourselves and others, is simultaneously reflective of existing attitudes and influential to developing attitudes. As a side note, it should be obvious to most readers that political correctness has little, if anything, to do with basic human decency and respect for others, and my primary concern is, in fact, basic human decency and respect for others." (1)

To begin with, "stupid" is an ableist phrase as it "refers to people with intellectual disabilities (i.e. "in a stupor"), implying that a person is only valuable if they are neurotypical or traditionally "intelligent." Often used synonymously with "stupid," the word "dumb" actually has a disability-specific history: it was referred to people who cannot speak, Deaf people or people with hearing impairments. (2) Here is a list of alternatives to using "stupid/dumb/retarded," some of which include: ignorant, foolish, silly, misguided, thoughtless, illogical, pointless etc.

Another ableist word that I often hear thrown around is "lame," implying that something is boring or does not deserve attention. "Lame" is historically used to refer to people who had trouble walking; it is ableist because it implies that difficulty walking is an inherently negative thing. Using "lame" sends the message that disabilities are so bad that they can be used to describe all bad things. This phenomenon is a lot like calling something "gay" in the place of a negative adjective, which is not ableist but homophobic.

"Lame" is actually derived from an Old English word that literally means "broken." Similarly, the term "crippled" is also used to describe how something as broken. "Crippled" is actually a slur against disabled people -- "it describes them as broken. And disabled people are not broken." (3)

Here is a glossary of ableist phrases (including crazy/insane, which I also hear a lot) and some non-ableist replacements towards the bottom of the page.

To quote Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg:

"When a critique of language that makes reference to disability is not welcome, it is nearly inevitable that, as a disabled person, I am not welcome either. I might be welcome as an activist, but not as a disabled activist. I might be welcome as an ally, but not as a disabled ally. I might be welcome as a parent, but not as a disabled parent. That’s a lot like being welcomed as an activist, and as an ally, and as a parent, but not as a woman or as a Jew...
Moron — and related terms, like imbecile and idiot – may no longer be used clinically, but their clinical use is not the issue. They were terms of oppression, and every time someone uses one without respect for the history of disabled people, they disrespect the memory of the people who had to carry those terms to their graves." (4)

The last thing I want to say is that ableist language is only one facet of ableism, that ableism is not merely "not-saying-certain-things." My last quote is from a page on, whose link can be found as the first cited source:

Ableism is not a list of bad words. Language is *one* tool of an oppressive system. Being aware of language -- for those of us who have the privilege of being able to change our language -- can help us understand how pervasive ableism is. Ableism is systematic, institutional devaluing of bodies and minds deemed deviant, abnormal, defective, subhuman, less than. Ableism is *violence.*

Cited sources:

  2. Same as above.

Further readings:





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