Phrases that you might not realize are ableist

Calling out ableist language is the first step to rehabilitating a disability non-inclusive environment.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC


Scrabble tiles spelling out Choose Your Words
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be “fixed” and are not equal to non-disabled individuals. The accepted and everyday use of ableist language is *one* piece of evidence that an environment may consider disability discrimination acceptable.

Recently, my employer established an inclusive language module in Microsoft Word, where documents can be reviewed for non-inclusive language. Because of the advocacy of the disability employee resource group, ableist language was added as one of the things highlighted and more inclusive language suggested.

ADHD / OCD / Bipolar / Schizophrenic (when not referring to the actual mental health conditions)

Use: Describes stereotypical traits of a medical condition in a person who doesn’t have the condition.

Issue: Generally used as an insult.

Substitute: Distractable, preoccupied, repetitive behavior


Use: Usually refers to a business meeting where everyone is invited to attend. Derives from the phrase “all hands on deck,” referring to shipping.

Issue: Not everyone has hands.

Substitute: All-staff


Use: Conveys that the user is restricted to a particular thing such as a chair, bed, or house.

Issue: Implies lack of control over one’s surroundings.

Substitute: uses a wheelchair, stays at home, stays in bed.

Crazy, Idiot, Moron, Insane

Use: All imply mental health or intellectual or developmental delays.

Issue: Uses a medical term to describe behavior unrelated to a disability.



Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022. UX Collective Author of the Year 2020. Disability Inclusion SME. Sr Staff Accessibility Architect @ VMware.