Ableist Language and Other Everyday Assaults on Disabled People (or, Stop Talking About “People with Disabilities”!)

Language, a ubiquitous sociopolitical mechanism, operates intentionally and nonsubjectively, and can produce microaggressions whose effects are far-reaching. Language, Lane Greene remarks, is a genius system with no genius. “Bound by rules, yet constantly changing,” Greene notes, “language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge” (Greene 2018).

In systems of language, words and phrases are employed for specific purposes, to achieve certain aims and objectives. Linguistic microaggressions are thus intentional tactics. As one philosopher famously pointed out, intentional action always takes place under a description. Yet rarely can a subject be identified who initially put a given word or expression into circulation. In this regard, linguistic microaggressions are nonsubjective tactics.

Although philosophers of language, feminist philosophers, Marxist philosophers, and philosophers of race (which are by no means mutually exclusive groups) have not thus far claimed that language produces intentional and nonsubjective effects of power in Foucault’s (1978) sense, they have nevertheless long paid attention to how relations of power are produced in and circulate through discursive and linguistic practices. For example, feminist philosophers, philosophers of race, and other philosophers of language have articulated arguments about the ways that power constitutes, and is constituted by and through slurs, epithets, dog whistles, and so on.

The philosophical community has given these critiques of sexist and racist language considerable attention; nevertheless, many philosophers continue to contest, trivialize, and dismiss charges that philosophers of disability have advanced about ableist language in philosophical discourse. I contend, however, that the continued institutionalization and use of ableist language in philosophical discourse is a constant reminder of the marginalization and exclusion of critical philosophical analyses of disability from mainstream philosophy.

Indeed, language is a key site for the production of the microaggressions to which disabled people are subjected and is therefore a focal concern in the struggles in which philosophers and theorists of disability and disabled activists engage. For example, although policy makers, university administrators, and professional philosophy organizations (among others) continue to use the term people with disabilities, an increasing number of philosophers and theorists of disability (and disabled activists) regard the term as demeaning, a derogatory term that reinforces and reproduces an asymmetrical social relation.

Just as people are variously racialized through strategies and mechanisms of the apparatus of race but do not “have” races and, furthermore, just as people are variously sexed through strategies and mechanisms of the apparatus of sex but no one “has” a sex, so, too, people are variously disabled or not disabled through the operations of the apparatus ofdisability but no one “has” a disability. In the terms of the feminist philosophy of disability that I have advanced, to refer to someone as “a person with a disability” is to commit a category mistake (see Tremain 2017). 

Indeed, my argument is that the term people with disabilities and the correlative term able-bodied people are linguistic microaggressions that, in combination, continuously impute a pathologized identity to disabled people, naturalize the apparatus of disability, rendering it as a characteristic or property of given individuals, as well as naturalize the contingent social, economic, and political position that disabled people currently occupy.

My critiques of ableist metaphors and other ableist language in philosophical discourse have met with considerable opposition from nondisabled philosophers and even some disabled philosophers. Usually, their dismissals of, and disagreements with, these critiques assume that language and discourse are politically neutral purveyors of value-neutral information and facts, an assumption about linguistic and discursive practices that continues to dominate philosophy and other areas of the academy.

Foucault (1972) convincingly argued, however, that language and discourse do not innocently reflect, or “mirror,” a transparent, pregiven reality, but rather construct social reality as pregiven. As I have noted, feminist philosophers, critical race theorists, and Marxist theorists (and others) have pointed out, furthermore, that linguistic and discursive practices are primary mediums through which asymmetrical forms of social power are generated, sustained, and reproduced.

Although feminist philosophers and philosophers of language (among others) argue that linguistic and discursive practices contribute to the constitution of inequalities due to sexism and racism, many of them nevertheless engage in a form of ableist exceptionism insofar as they are reluctant to acknowledge or even refuse to acknowledge that these practices can be formative of, sustain, and perpetuate the inequalities that accrue to disabled people.

Ableist exceptionism is the term that I have coined to refer to the phenomenon whereby disability, because it is assumed to be a prediscursive, natural, and politically neutral human characteristic (difference, attribute, or property), is uniquely excluded from the production and application of certain values, beliefs, principles, and actions that circulate in political consciousness, as well as critical analyses thereof.

My claim is thus that philosophers (and other theorists, activists, and so on) commit ableist exceptionism—a microaggression—when they assume that the metaphorical and other use to which they put disability in language and discourse is politically neutral and innocent, although they politicize virtually all other speech acts, identifying them as value laden and interested. I think it would be very strange indeed if linguistic and discursive practices were constitutive of other social inequalities, yet somehow remained outside of, apart from, and indifferent to, the domain of disability and ableist oppression. In fact, ableism (and the forms of power with which it is co-constitutive) saturates language and discourse—both everyday and philosophical—and is reconstituted through them.

The ableist exceptionism in which philosophers engage is of course not limited to their production of ableist language and refusal to acknowledge how such practices are implicated in strategies of power. On the contrary, instances of ableist exceptionism are abundant in philosophy, including feminist philosophy. To take just one example, philosophers, including feminist philosophers, continue to contribute their writing in public philosophy to The Stone column of The New York Times, even though, as has been repeatedly pointed out, disabled philosophers and philosophy of disability have been systematically excluded from that venue, segregated to another column of The New York Times that publishes writing on disability that need not be philosophical,  nor analytical, nor in fact theoretical in any way.

The general assumption that underlies this segregation of philosophical work on disability to the Disability column of The New York Times is that disability is not appropriately or adequately philosophical for publication in The Stone, that disability is philosophically uninteresting, an assumption that (among other things) relies upon the naturalization and depoliticization of disability. I find it very difficult to imagine that (nondisabled) philosophers would abide the exclusion of considerations of gender, race, class, or sexuality from a venue in which philosophy is conducted in the way that the philosophical community continues to ignore the segregation of disability from The Stone. Indeed, I wish that philosophers who contribute to, read, and support The Stone in other ways would re-evaluate their ideas about who counts as the public.


Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.

Greene, Lane. 2018. Who Decides What Words Mean. Aeon.

Tremain, Shelley L. 2017. Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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