Ableist Language and The Perpetuation of Mental Health Stigma


What is ableist language?

Ableist language is any word or phrase that devalues people who have a disability. Not to be confused with slurs, these words or phrases are often used inadvertently without realizing the potential negative consequences. In order to gain a clearer understanding of what ableist language is, consider the following examples.

• Your mother is a meticulous woman who likes to keep the house spick and span. You ask her why she is so “OCD” whenever she makes a fuss about the mess in your room.

• You say your girlfriend is “bipolar” whenever she experiences mood swings.

• When your friends had just committed a wild act, you say that they are “crazy” or “insane”.

Note that the terms “OCD” and “bipolar” themselves are not ableist language. The problem occurs when they are used liberally. For instance, OCD is not ableist when used in a sentence to refer to someone diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Meanwhile, the use of words like “crazy” and “insane” are ableist, regardless of how they are used.

The problem with ableist language

The use of ableist language may initially appear harmless. Everybody, including the speaker, listener and even individuals with the mentioned behaviours may not perceive ill intentions behind the usage of such terms. You may even have heard individuals using ableist language on themselves (e.g. “I am very OCD” or “I am depressed today”).

However, there is more to the use of ableist language. It lies at an implicit level. When such terms are used as synonyms to describe something negative, it is in fact attributing a negative connotation to the original meaning of the word or phrase (Disability Science Review, 2017). Therefore, regardless of one’s intentions, it is undeniable that such language indirectly refer to people with mental illnesses or disabilities as less.

Ableism and why it is harmful

While many people are aware of what racism or sexism is, ableism is a far less familiar construct. Ableism is also a form of discrimination and prejudice, towards people with physical and mental disabilities. The term ableist refers to an individual who endorses the view of ableism. People can become ableists intentionally or unintentionally (Tab, 2016). Even family members, friends and strangers with good intentions can employ ableist attitudes without realizing it.

Ableism includes:

• Use of language

• Prejudiced beliefs

• Discrimination in a variety of situations, such as in education and employment.

Why ableism is harmful:

• Ableism may be driven by contempt, which is a psychologically damaging emotion that may causes individuals to question their identity and self-worth (Schreiner, 2016).

• Normalizing the use of ableist language can contribute to social stigma towards people with physical and mental disabilities.

• The casual use of albeist language trivializes the difficulties and struggles that people with those conditions face.

• Ableist language impacts the self-esteem and confidence of individuals, which was associated with worse outcomes in schools and workplaces.

How to avoid ableist language

You may think that swapping out ableist language and replacing them with other descriptive words may seem like a small step. Indeed, it is a small step, but critical to a big change. Consider the following words which you may have used before, and other words which may instead serve as more accurate representations in speech.

Some use of the word Appropriate replacement words






















            Hyper focused 

          Lacking empathy

Ableism has been a subtle part of language that has gone unnoticed for decades. It is no surprise that it would be difficult to eradicate. It is about time that we correct our language, starting with ourselves. It is also important to refrain from dismissing or ignoring ableist language when we notice our friends or children using them. Instead, a gentle reminder would be befitting. Small decisions like these contribute to a collective effort to move us towards a society that accepts and celebrates differences.

References Schreiner, M. (2016, November 02). Contempt. Retrieved from

Article written with Tay Shi Ying. Shi Ying is a psychology undergraduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergoing internship with ImPossible Psychological Services.

Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil

About the Author

Haikal received his Master degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS), under a full scholarship awarded by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). Before entering private practice, he has gained much experience in both hospital and social services settings.

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