By Molly Savard
April 2, 2013
Caption : Ableist words are so prevalent and normalized, they're barely detectable—and that's dangerous.     

In a 2010 episode of “The Big Bang Theory" one of the main characters, Sheldon, changed the numbers on his apartment building to hide from a woman. He explained the trick to his letter carrier, who replied, “Got your back, Jack. Bitches be crazy.”

Fans loved the line so much they viewed the scene almost 900,000 times on YouTube and created a cell phone ringtone. One commenter on YouTube called "bitches be crazy" the "best. sitcom. quote. ever."  Watch:

With more than three million viewers per episode, “The Big Bang Theory” speaks loudly to television audiences—but the language it’s using is ableist. Ableism assumes that a certain physical body type or mental capacity is superior or the default. Often slipping by in conversation and on television, it’s ingrained in our language and common perceptions.

Words like as “crazy," "lame," and "retarded," instead of “ridiculous," "pointless," and a thesaurus-full of others, stigmatizes people with disabilities. What's more, such language is often used to deride other marginalized groups.

“[H]ow the world is wired… may be invisible to those who do not have disabilities,” read the Web site for Stop Ableism Inc., a disability rights organization in Guelph, Ontario. Unless you are one of the roughly 56.7 million, or one in five, Americans who have disabilities, or know someone with a disability, you’re less likely to notice the “physical, attitudinal, or systemic” discrimination built into everyday life. Unawareness of ableism is everywhere, said Lydia Brown, a student, writer, and autism activist.

“There is a power structure that non-disabled people can ignore as a result of their privilege as able-bodied and neurotypical,” Brown told Campus Progress, “but which we as disabled people must confront for every moment of our existences.”

The prevalence of ableism in pop culture illuminates that privilege. Even critically acclaimed, socially conscious TV shows such as “Community” rely on ableist language. In a recent episode, the character Britta says love between guy friends is sometimes considered “psycho” a few minutes after she reassures another character that he’s “not being crazy.” On Fox’s “New Girl,” writers banked on the guaranteed laugh-getter “bitches be crazy." "Parks and Recreation" crammed the word in three times in a little over a minute.

And it’s not just TV: celebrities and others in the spotlight perpetuate the ableist paradigm. Taylor Swift defended herself in a Vanity Fair interview by saying she’s not “clingy, insane, [and] desperate” for singing about boys. Though she’s criticizing her critics for their “sexist” interpretation of her lyrics, she herself invokes a powerful history of dismissing women as being unsound of mind. News pundits often sling ableist slurs to undermine women politicians’ opinions and legitimacy. The idea of erratic, hostile, or “desperate” women is so recognizable, Jack’s mail carrier need only nod his head to express understanding, and millions of viewers nod along.

"We need to normalize human experience," said Patty Berne, executive director of Sins Invalid, a performance group centered on LGBT people, people with disabilities, and people of color—those usually under- or misrepresented in the media. Berne told Campus Progress that challenging assumptions can change conversation around ability, reminding people that those with disabilities are people too.

That's where language comes in. Words' definitions can change over time, along with their level of social acceptability. “Retarded” was first used in 1895 as a clinical term for delayed intellectual development, but it gradually took on an insulting connotation. Awareness of its taboo status is growing, but it still slips off well-intentioned tongues. The equally stigmatizing “crazy,” originating in 1566, has yet to land itself on the list of words to avoid. One reason is that its meanings evolved before the onset of modern anti-ableist activism, said Neal Whitman, a writer and independent linguistics researcher.

“How many truly link the meanings of ‘boring, or insipid’ to that of ‘unable to walk’? Even more so for ‘dumb,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘stupid,’” Whitman told Campus Progress. “There needs to be some kind of grandfather clause for words that developed their more general meanings before the age of ableism/sexism/homophobia awareness. Otherwise, speakers who might have agreed to rid their vocabularies of ‘retarded’ and ‘gay’ (in its ‘stupid’ sense) may just write the whole idea off as politically correct extremism and kookiness.”

The effects of hurtful language, though, are tangible. In a recent study on rejection, scientists found the brain’s response to emotional pain looks a lot like its response to physical pain. The words that are broadcast to millions of viewers, then, have the potential to do real damage. Refusing to give up words or acknowledge their power is a sign of privilege, said Brown, and activists often face criticism for their fight against oppressive language.

“I have frequently been accused of being hypersensitive, politically correct, and language-policing,” said Brown. “When non-disabled people insist that disabled people simply need to stop ‘being offended,’ they are ignoring the fact that we are not conversing as peers.”

Conversations about ableist language seem to succeed better through education than shaming. That's the goal of the "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign, co-founded five years ago on college campuses by Soeren Palumbo and Tim Shriver, Jr. to raise awareness about the word "retarded." It's since expanded to thousands of high schools, community organizations, and universities, and almost 400,000 people have pledged to nix the word from their vocabulary.

“We’re not a censorship campaign,” Palumbo said in a HuffPostLive segment on the fifth annual Spread the Word day. “We’re not banning any words. We are trying to educate people on the hurtful consequences that this word has.”

There’s hope for television, too. A recent episode of the ABC show “Switched at Birth," which features deaf characters, was told almost entirely in American Sign Language (ASL). It's a small step, but as Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s "On the Media," noted on HuffPostLive, “It’s an uphill battle.”

Until the media recognizes its role in perpetuating ableism, "crazy," "lame," and the like will remain go-to descriptors for anything undesirable. And for every few viewers laughing at a show’s ableist language, another will be alienated.

“It says that we don’t exist, that our voices don’t matter, that the oppression against us is fabricated at worst and nonexistent at best,” Brown said. “It says that we don’t matter.”

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