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Challenging Ableism in Aotearoa

Language isn’t meant to alienate us; it’s meant to help us understand one another.


Language is a tool we use to make sense of our feelings and environment. When we verbally describe the things, experiences, and people around us we are also assigning value to them and that value impacts how we interact with each other.

Ableism is defined as discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities, based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. It can manifest as an attitude, stereotype, or an outright offensive comment or behavior. When it comes to language, ableism often shows up as metaphors (“My boyfriend is emotionally crippled!”) jokes (“That comedian was hysterical!”), and euphemisims (“He is differently abled.”) in conversation.

You may be surprised to learn that these responses are a form of discrimination. People use ableist words and phrases everyday without realizing the harm that they do. Ableist language influences us in three ways:

  • It reveals our unconscious biases
  • It makes us internalize harmful biases about disability 
  • It stigmatizes already marginalised people 
Almost one quarter of New Zealanders identify as disabled. This includes people with physical, sensory and learning disabilities, and some people with chronic mental and physical illnesses. You might know more disabled people than you think – some disabilities are invisible and some people may choose to not share them publicly. Most people assume being disabled must be inherently bad, and it sure can be tough, but probably not for the reasons you may think. Societies ableism, and its default prioritisation of non-disabled people, is the true disability.

Using ableist language doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a person. But, if you have the privilege to change your vocabulary for the better, then why not try? Here are some tips to consider if you want to consciously change your vocabulary:

  •  Acknowledge the disability around you.
  • Learn! - Educate yourself, and don’t rely wholly on others to teach you. Being open to challenge your previously held beliefs and why you hold them in the first place. 
  •  Don’t make assumptions about someone’s identity.
  • When you make a mistake, genuinely apologize - This isn’t about your opinions; it’s about how the other person feels.
History shows us that language and communications evolve. This means we have a lot of room to create vocabularies that are more empowering and inclusive — ones that address historical injustices and make everybody feel welcome and seen.