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Differently Abled or Disabled? Which is Inclusive?

Discussing some common examples of microaggressive ableist language

By Dima GhawiPublished 29 days ago 6 min read

“Oh, wow,” I say, catching the interest of my friend who sits beside me. “Did you know that Australia is wider than the moon? That’s crazy, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know about ‘crazy,’” my friend says, gently poking me in the arm, “since that’s a historically ableist term, but that fact is definitely news to me!”

I laugh, nod, thank my friend for the correction, and resolve to use more inclusive in the future—such is the ideal response as we broaden our knowledge about common ableist microaggressions! This blog will focus on walking through common examples of microaggressive ableist language that many of us (myself included, if you couldn’t tell!) have unwittingly used in casual conversation throughout our lives. Note that this blog will not cover ableist slurs, as slurs extend beyond microaggressions into intentionally abusive language, and I thus do not want to minimize their impact by including them in a post that centers on microaggressions.

Ready to get started? We’ve got three broad categories to cover!

Specific Terms

We’ll kick this blog off with specific ableist terms to avoid and viable alternatives as we begin the journey of modifying our language to be more inclusive of people with disabilities:

Physical Disabilities

Rather than lame, which derogatorily refers to people with physical and mobility disabilities, instead replace this metaphorical usage with uncool, boring, uninteresting, and/or unexciting.

Rather than dumb, which derogatorily refers to “d/Deaf or hard of hearing people, people with speech-related disabilities, or people with linguistic or communication disorders or disabilities,” consider replacing this metaphorical usage with uninformed, ignorant, and/or silly.

Rather than deformed/deformity, which derogatorily refers to “people born with absent limbs, disfigurements, or other atypical appearances, or who later have amputations, burn scars, or other changes to their physical appearance that are stigmatized in society,” instead try simply describing the person’s appearance/visage/condition/etc. “Facial difference(s)” is also a common neutral and inclusive term!

Not so complicated, right? Out with one term and in with numerous others!

Mental Disabilities

Rather than crazy, insane, or “mental case,” all of which derogatorily refer to people with mental or psychiatric disability, instead try unpredictable, reckless, hasty, misguided, and/or wild.

Rather than idiot(ic), moron(ic), or stupid, all of which derogatorily refer to people with intellectual disabilities, consider replacing these words with dangerous, uninformed, risky, and/or reckless.

See, that wasn’t so difficult to walk through! Let’s move into some examples of microaggressive ableist phrases that require a bit more discussion to parse out their issues.

Turns of Phrase

“Just turn a blind eye to his obnoxious behavior.” “Oh, she’s so deaf to any constructive criticism.” “We conduct blind reviews of all submissions to our journal.”

The history of disability as metaphor is a lengthy one, and this figurative usage continues today in the above phrases and more. Blindness and deafness refer to specific experiences of disability, and to render them metaphors is to disregard the lived reality of millions of people across the globe. As such, consider the following linguistic substitutions! Instead of “blind/deaf to” or “turn a blind/deaf eye/ear to,” consider “willfully ignorant” or “turning their back to.” Instead of a “blind review,” consider an “anonymous review.” These substitutions prioritize the underlying meaning of the aforementioned without reinforcing ableist, microaggressive language in the process.

“They’re wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair.”

Let me ask a simple question: what about a wheelchair suggests it binds or confines those who use it? Similarly, what about a cane or crutches or braces suggest they limit or restrict those who use them? These devices are collectively known as “mobility aids,” and they accomplish exactly what this phrase implies: provide increased opportunity for mobility and freedom of movement for those who use them! As such, phrases like “wheelchair-bound” reinforce the ableist assumption that individuals with mobility aids are “restricted” rather than benefited by these aids. Instead of the above turns of phrase, then, consider using the following substitutions: a person who uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user, a person who uses crutches, and so on and so forth. It’s as straightforward as it sounds!

“Oh, she suffers from ADHD and autism.”

“Suffers from”? Who said ADHD and autism and other disabilities are inherently suffering experiences? In reality, many disabilities are not frequently associated with suffering (neither physical nor mental), and thus to assume they “cause” suffering is functionally ableist. This turn of phrase can be sufficiently replaced simply by “has”—“she has ADHD and autism,” “he has social anxiety,” “they have seizures.” I include the last example not to suggest that seizures are desired or painless experiences (those who experience seizures know they can result in pain), but rather to emphasize that destigmatizing disability means adopting neutral descriptors for all disabilities—no exceptions!

How are we feeling so far? Ready to dive into the final category of common ableist, microaggressive language that we can continue unlearning? Let’s go!

Euphemisms & Contextual

“Don’t say that, they’re not disabled! They’re just differently abled.”

The euphemism of “differently abled” is often well-intentioned, as it and similar phrases (e.g. “physically challenged” or “handicapable”) are ostensibly attempting to reduce stigma around disability. However, they often function as replacement terms for “disability” and “disabled,” when “disability” and “disabled” are not “dirty” or “impolite” words that shouldn’t be used. In fact, “disability” and “disabled” are neutral, inclusive descriptors of people’s lived experiences! As a society, we have been conditioned to believe that able-bodiedness is “right” and “normal.” The euphemism “differently abled” reinforces this idea, as it seeks to link all bodies to the notion of “able-bodiedness,” when in reality disability is everywhere! Disability is its own “normal,” and as such we have no need to avoid saying “disability” or “disabled”—again, these are neutral, inclusive descriptors, and we should absolutely incorporate them into our everyday conversations.

“Yesterday she was fine, but today she’s mad at me again. She’s so bipolar!” “Ugh, sorry I’m so OCD, I just need to have a neat desk.” “My favorite shirt got stained yesterday, I’m super depressed about it.”

What do all of these sentences have in common? Each of them uses “a specific disability diagnosis or name as a metaphor or hyperbolic representation of traits stereotypically associated with said condition.” In other words, each sentence uses disability as a shorthand to communicate an emotion/habit/experience/etc., and in doing so minimizes the lived experiences of people who actually experience these disabilities. Rather than referring to bipolar disorder as a shorthand for extreme shifts or indecisiveness, we should consider saying exactly what we mean—“indecisive,” “switching quickly,” “extreme differences,” and so on and so forth! The same logic applies to the other examples. We shouldn’t use OCD as a shorthand to describe someone being meticulous; we can instead say meticulous, focused, fastidious, and/or particular. Relatedly, we shouldn’t use depression as a shorthand for sadness (and especially to refer to a minor inconvenience); we can instead say upset(ting), sad(ness), tragic, and/or devastating. Again, this logic applies to any use of disability as a shorthand for describing elements of the human experience—we can simply describe what’s happening without comparing that experience to disability!

And there we have it: three common categories of microaggressive ableist language that all of us can begin replacing in our conversations today. Know, of course, that this blog is not intended to be comprehensive, as the reality is that ableist language pervades much of our daily lives simply because we have not been taught to recognize these terms and turns of phrase as ableist in the first place. All the same, I hope I have offered us a strong start to recognizing the seeming omnipresence of ableist, microaggressive language, as well as giving us the tools (and replacement terminology!) to begin dismantling this global issue!


Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization. Reach her at and


About the Creator

Dima Ghawi

Dima is an award-winning author and a three-time TEDx Speaker. Through keynote speeches, workshops, training programs, and executive coaching, she has honed a keen expertise in developing leaders to meet the demands of the global workforce.

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Comments (1)

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran28 days ago

    Hey, just wanna let you know that this is more suitable to be posted in the Psyche community 😊

Dima GhawiWritten by Dima Ghawi

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