COLUMN: Language is inherently political — and sometimes, ableist

Inspirational and motivational language has utilized ableist metaphors that have contributed to the devaluation and dehumanization of people with disabilities.


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Abigail Ruhman is a sophomore majoring in journalism, sociology and women’s and gender studies at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.

If you imagined society as the human body, language would be the cells. Words create, maintain and facilitate the structure of society, but words that diminish people’s value can also destroy or threaten society – just like dangerous cells.

The use of language and words allows people to participate in the world around them in new ways, but language also has the power to construct images or stereotypes about people in marginalized communities. However, that language isn’t always obvious to people outside those communities, which means it can be disguised and treated as non-threatening.

When it comes to ableist language, people without disabilities have taken creative liberties with phrases and terms that do not belong to them. These metaphors function in different ways, but their existence encourages the same result: devaluing the members of the community and taking away their humanity.

The different functions of these metaphors work to oppress the community for the sake of another. For example, last semester I received a treat bag with, what was supposed to be, an inspirational quote. The quote read, “There is no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs.” The author, Zig Ziglar, is a motivational speaker and author.

This quote was meant to push me to take a more active role in my success, but in reality, it was taking something that facilitates accessibility and demonizing its use. Ziglar positioned the use of a mobility aid as oppositional to success. By doing this, he links people of different abilities to failure.

Sami Schalk, an associate professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, examined the use of ableist metaphors in feminist writing in a 2013 article, published in Disability Studies Quarterly. Schalk explained that metaphors depend on a shared understanding of the thing being referenced. Despite metaphors being “essential speech acts,” not everyone has a shared experience of being blind, deaf, etc., meaning that the metaphor depends on an assumption that not everyone has.

Ziglar’s use of ableism is easier to spot than other forms of inspiration often used as calls to action. Schalk emphasizes that pointing out ableist language is not meant to police language, but to show how it is received or decoded. While Ziglar’s intention wasn’t inherently ableist, his message was.

It isn’t just Ziglar and a few others who fail to consider the impacts of their language. There are a lot of inspirational phrases and calls to action that exclude people with disabilities. Phrases like “speak out,” “step up” and a variety of others are commonly used as calls to action, but they create an image of the ability to be successful as a byproduct of not having a disability.

While using ableist insults is awful and needs to be stopped, the subtle use of ableism in language meant to inspire or motivate links failure to choices. This excuses the oppression and consistent inaccessibility present in society. There’s a reason that the quote, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude,” is so popular. Scott Hamilton, a figure skater who survived a cancerous brain tumor, turned this quote into his own personal motto. Finding motivation by treating the oppression experienced by other communities as an attitude problem isn’t inspirational — it contributes to the devaluation of human lives.

If inspirational language erases the obstacles created by society for people who have a disability or a mental health issue, it is ableist. Language allows for creativity, but it would be irresponsible to claim that language can be apolitical or objective in nature. Words can make it harder for marginalized communities to stand up for themselves. Using ableist language only causes more problems for people with disabilities.

Inspirational language that depends on ableist narratives to have an impact actively participates in the dehumanization of an entire community. People shouldn’t have to prove their worth to get others to respect their identity. By implying that people with disabilities are less capable of being successful because they can’t do it the way that society expects means being complicit in hurting people with disabilities.

Using ableist language as inspiration only adds more work to people already fighting for accessibility and equality. If the only obstacle between someone and success is a staircase, the problem isn’t the person at the bottom of the stairs — it’s the people who designed the building.

Edited by Bryce Kolk |

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