Say The Word: Disabled

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One in four adults in the U.S. are living with a disability, but you wouldn't know it given the lack of representation in the workforce, Hollywood, and media coverage. On the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Voices of Disability celebrates the real stories — not the stigmas or stereotypes — of this dynamic and vibrant community of individuals.

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I was born and raised in the great state of New Jersey. “Stupid” and “crazy” were two of my favorite words. I dreamed of being stupid rich and living in a crazy mansion down the shore. I now realize that both words are ableist, and I have chosen to excise them from my vocabulary.

Image description: A quote that reads, "My cerebral palsy is not my date to the party."

Ableism is when people are dehumanized or discriminated against due to their disability, or when disability is stigmatized, stereotyped, or pitied. Ableist language uses terms associated with disability to mock, insult, or degrade everything from the weather to politicians. “Stupid” is often used flippantly to derride bad decisions, to admonish oneself for a mistake, or to shame someone for their lack of smarts. “Stupid” is also a slur deployed against people with intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and neurodivergence. While it can be used as a positive, the word itself conjures pain for those it has so often been used against. “Crazy” is the blanket insult for any and all mental health issues, whether treated or untreated. It is also a favorite go-to for misogynists seeking to silence women who dare challenge their power. “Crazy” is used to excuse racism, violence, and a plethora of other bad behavior. Like its “stupid” counterpart, it can be used to describe something cool, but the word choice remains inappropriate because it makes light of actual debilitating health issues. I have made it a goal to avoid ableist language in my stand-up comedy and in my writing. I do not always succeed, and when I get it wrong, I learn from it. My glossary of words to avoid expands daily.

PHoto: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images and Leigh Vogel/Getty Images.
Image description: Maysoon Zayid sits in front of a microphone wearing a green dress with pale pink polka dots while performing comedy. Her name, Maysoon Zayid, appears in black text below her.

I have also expunged euphemisms from my dictionary. “Differently abled” and “special needs” had to go. They are infantilizing. Our needs are not special. They are life-saving accommodations. It’s time for society to let go of feel-good alternatives and just say the word, “disabled,” loud and proud. The debate over whether to use person-first or identity-first language (PFL and IFL, respectively) to describe the disabled community is more complicated. Those who prefer PFL claim it humanizes us by reminding folks that we are people first. The identity-first camp believes that disability is an integral part of who we are, not a sidebar. Person-first language is currently the default, and I believe it should not be. My cerebral palsy is not my date to the party. I am never without it, therefore I am a disabled diva, not a diva with a disability. There are some in the community who still prefer “people with disabilities.” That is their choice, and they should not be condemned for it.

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A perfect illustration of the harm caused by ableism is the conversation surrounding the current occupant of the White House. One of Donald Trump’s most infamous trespasses was when he mimicked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s spasticity. He has also mercilessly exploited Joe Biden’s stutter by framing it as dementia. When #WaterGait and #ShufflesTheClown started trending worldwide following a speech at West Point by Trump, the Twitterverse excused its own ableist language by insisting it was karma. Those who joined in insisted that he had so often ridiculed others’ abilities that he deserved to be roasted on the same spit. Yet, ableism doesn’t just hit the target at which it is aimed. Taunting Trump because he couldn’t hold a glass of water with one hand and bumbled  down the ramp at West Point is an attack on every disabled person dealing with mobility issues. Ableist hashtags do nothing but distract from his administration going to court to strip Americans with pre-existing conditions of their access to healthcare. 

Trump’s mental health, intellectual ability, and physical prowess have all been questioned and chuckled at. I’m here to tell you one thing: It is exhausting for the disability community. Diagnosing someone you have never met when you’re not even a doctor is ableist in and of itself. Scapegoating Trump’s mental health for his abject failures excuses his choice to be racist and misogynistic. As far as the world knows, Donald Trump is not intellectually disabled. He commits horrible acts because he wants to, not because he doesn’t know any better. Labeling him as moronic or dumb unfairly paints those with intellectual disabilities or neurodivergence as being dangerous when in reality, they face more violence than their non-disabled counterparts. 

Photo: Courtesy of Maysoon Zayid.
Image description: Comedian Maysoon Zayid stands in front of a microphone wearing a satin blue dress with bright orange flowers as she performs stand-up comedy.

Incontinence also needs to stop being the butt of jokes. There is no shame in wearing Depends, and doing so does not disqualify a person from being a successful leader. Memes mocking Trump’s size are also a form of ableism. Seeing him in an ill-fitting tuxedo juxtaposed with Danny DeVito as The Penguin from Batman, reminds fluffy folks like me, those with eating disorders, and people whose medical conditions cause weight gain that not being svelte is considered worse by their fellow Americans than Trump’s calamitous handling of the COVID crisis. It is ableist and inexcusable. Ability should never be used to bully even the most deplorable among us.

I am a comedian. I grew up watching Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Andrew Dice Clay. These legendary entertainers used every slur in the book and coined some new ones along the way. When I became a comic, I channeled my idols. At my very first open mic, I slut-shamed the Virgin Mary. My routines were riddled with violent language I thought was funny. The one word I wouldn’t dare utter on- or off-stage was the N-word. I knew the weight and violence it possessed. Everything else was fair game. I did not learn I was wrong until woefully late in my career. 

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Pedophile jokes were my specialty until one night, after a set, an audience member confronted me. She said that she was having so much fun until something I joked brought back her darkest, most violent memory. That critique changed me. I chose to cleanse my comedy of hate, not because the government was censoring me or because I feared being cancelled, but because my job is to make people laugh. Hurling invectives that invoked trauma at my audience did the opposite. Instead of sacrificing a few for the laughs of many, I decided to make my shows inclusive. That meant getting rid of all hate speech, including ableism. Like racism, bigotry, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ+ language, ableist rhetoric is never acceptable, but context matters. I have been called the R-word a lot. If I am telling a tale about when that slur was violently hurled at me, then I may say it. Outside of those specific jokes, I have no right to say that word. Even though I am disabled, if I use that slur in a derogatory fashion, it is still ableist.

I want audiences at my stand-up performances to have a blast, not be triggered by my lobbing of smears. Triggering is not funny. Those who use it to belittle people with opposing opinions erase the devastating realities of PTSD. In the United States of America, the First Amendment protects our right to use ableist speech. The U.S. Constitution does not allow the government to jail a comedian or any citizen for being offensive. If an audience wants to skip a show that is full of venom instead of humor, they also have an inalienable right to do so. The law allowing you to be awful doesn’t mean you should be or that there will be no ramifications for spewing bile. Words matter. Strive to be best.

This content is currently unavailable. Check it out from your desktop or on our web app!

Voices of Disability is edited by Kelly Dawson, a disability advocate who was born with cerebral palsy. She has spoken about her disability on the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend, and written on the subject for Vox, AFAR, Gay Mag, and more. Find her work at kellymdawson.com

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