Reframing Our Language: Practical Strategies to Eliminate Ableist Phrases

A blind person faces the camera

Laying the Foundation: Embracing Allyship and Unlearning Ableist Conditioning

Our journey towards a more inclusive society necessitates introspection, learning, and unlearning. As we navigate these processes, we must clearly understand the social constructs we seek to challenge and the language we use to describe them. This blog post aims to serve as a resource to assist allies in confronting and dismantling ableist conditioning, ultimately helping us better support trans*, nonbinary, and gender-diverse individuals.

In our pursuit of allyship, one crucial aspect is understanding the key terms that describe the experiences of those we aim to support. These terms not only give us a language to talk about these experiences, but they also highlight the diverse realities that exist within our societies. To start, let’s delve into some of these terms:

  • Ableism: This refers to systemic discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. It’s deeply rooted in societal attitudes, structures, and institutions favouring able-bodied individuals. Ableism can manifest in many ways, from the overt exclusion of disabled people from public spaces due to inaccessibility to the subtle and often overlooked biases that sneak into our everyday language.
  • Allyship: Allyship is the active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating beliefs and actions, in which a person in a position of privilege uses their power to advocate for those in less privileged positions. It is about more than sympathy or charity; it is about striving for equality and justice by acknowledging and challenging one’s own privileges.
  • Trans*: This is an umbrella term often used to describe individuals whose gender identity does not align with the sex assigned to them at birth. It’s important to note that gender identity is deeply personal and can only be defined by the individual.
  • Nonbinary: Nonbinary is a term that describes individuals who do not exclusively identify as male or female. It recognizes the broad spectrum of gender identities beyond the binary system of male/female.
  • Gender Diverse: This broad term encompasses many gender identities that do not conform to traditional binary genders. It’s a testament to the rich diversity of human experiences and identities.

Understanding these terms is the first step in acknowledging the diverse identities and experiences around us. To tackle ableism effectively, we need to understand its insidious nature and pervasive influence in our lives. Let’s look at the concept of ableism in the next section.

Understanding Ableism: Its Ubiquitous Influence and Subtle Manifestations

Ableism, a systemic issue deeply ingrained in our society, tends to fly under the radar of our collective consciousness. This discriminatory mindset, which disadvantages and marginalizes individuals with disabilities, shapes our environments, institutions, and attitudes in many ways.

Physically, ableism manifests in the design of our built environments. Countless buildings and public spaces are constructed without consideration for accessibility, inherently excluding individuals with certain disabilities from full participation in societal life. For instance, the absence of ramps, elevators, or Braille signage sends an indirect message that these spaces are not designed for everyone, thereby perpetuating exclusion.

In the professional sphere, ableism rears its head through job discrimination. Individuals with disabilities frequently face bias during hiring due to unfounded assumptions about their capabilities or the accommodations they might require. This discrimination limits their opportunities and fosters economic inequity.

In media and popular culture, ableism is often masked under the guise of humour or artistic license. Disabled characters are stereotypically portrayed as objects of pity, inspiration, or fear, reinforcing harmful stereotypes rather than promoting understanding or empathy. This skewed representation significantly impacts society’s perception of disability.

In addition to these outward manifestations, ableism lurks in our everyday language’s shadows. Seemingly innocuous phrases like “I’m so blind,” “turn a deaf ear,” or “I’m such a spaz” have become common parlance. Yet, they subtly and persistently perpetuate harmful stereotypes about disabilities, insinuating that disability is synonymous with incompetence, ignorance, or deficiency.

Language has power. It shapes our thinking and our understanding of the world. When we carelessly employ such phrases, we inadvertently contribute to a culture that devalues and diminishes the experiences of individuals with disabilities. It’s imperative to scrutinize our language and rid it of ableist expressions.

The first step to dismantling ableist conditioning is awareness. But how do we cultivate this awareness, especially regarding our everyday language? Let’s explore this in the next section.

Identifying Ableism: Recognizing Ableist Conditioning in Our Lives

Ableist conditioning is an insidious product of societal norms that we often overlook. Like the grammar rules or cultural nuances, we unconsciously pick up, ableist language subtly finds its way into our vocabularies and becomes an entrenched part of our daily conversations. It’s woven into jokes, slotted into idioms, and even peppered in our self-criticisms, all under the guise of harmless expressions. Yet, no matter the intent behind these expressions, they contribute to a culture that devalues and disrespects individuals with disabilities.

But how do we begin to unlearn something so deeply ingrained?

The journey begins with self-awareness, an essential tool for acknowledging and addressing our biases. This means actively paying attention to the words we choose and how we communicate. Are we casually tossing around phrases that equate disabilities with negativity? Are we unconsciously using language that implies a person’s worth is tied to their physical or mental capabilities? Once we start listening to ourselves with intent, spotting these instances of ableist language in our speech becomes easier.

However, self-awareness isn’t a comfortable mirror to look into. Recognizing our ableist language patterns can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or defensiveness. These emotions are natural, but it’s important to remember that the aim of this process isn’t to induce guilt but to instigate change. It’s not about dwelling on past mistakes but learning from them to create a more inclusive future.

Every instance of recognizing and correcting our language choices is a step towards undoing our ableist conditioning. It’s a commitment to respect, inclusivity, and allyship. In this ongoing journey of growth and learning, awareness is our compass, guiding us away from harmful habits and towards more empathetic communication.

This newfound awareness makes us better equipped to change our language and behaviour. In the next section, we’ll delve into strategies to help us replace ableist language with more inclusive alternatives.

Fostering Change: Strategies to Undo Ableist Conditioning

Acknowledging the presence of ableist conditioning in our lives is the initial step toward creating a more inclusive society. However, it is in our actions that real change begins to take shape. As we endeavour to unlearn ableist behaviours and adopt more inclusive ones, it can be helpful to adopt specific strategies. Let’s explore a few:

  • Reflective Listening: This is not simply a passive act; it requires active engagement. Pay close attention to the words and phrases that make up your everyday language. Do you see ableist phrases cropping up regularly? If so, correct yourself out loud whenever you notice them. This can feel strange initially, but it serves a dual purpose. It acknowledges the error (an essential part of unlearning) and verbally commits to change. Over time, this conscious self-correction encourages the development of inclusive language habits.
  • Empathy-Building Exercises: Developing a genuine understanding of the experiences of individuals with disabilities can offer powerful motivation to expunge ableist language from our vocabularies. One way to cultivate this understanding is through exposure to their narratives. Seek out and absorb literature, documentaries, podcasts, or personal testimonies that provide insights into their lived experiences. Always remember to respect boundaries and the emotional labour of others when engaging in discussions about these experiences.
  • Seek Alternatives: As you work to eradicate ableist language from your speech, it can be helpful to find and use non-ableist alternatives consciously. For example, if you say, “I’m so blind,” when you miss something, consider saying, “I overlooked that.” Instead of labelling something as “crazy,” you might describe it as “surprising” or “astonishing.” Actively searching for and using these alternatives helps you break free from ableist language and enhances your linguistic expressiveness.
  • Educational Resources: Knowledge is an indispensable tool in the quest for change. Make a conscious effort to seek out and engage with resources that broaden your understanding of ableism, disability rights, and inclusive language. This can include academic articles, books, documentaries, or even webinars. Engaging with various materials deepens your understanding and equips you with the knowledge needed to be an effective ally.
  • Active Allyship: Allyship is not a passive state but an active practice. One way to manifest this is by involving yourself in initiatives or events promoting disability rights. This can range from amplifying the voices of disabled individuals on your social media platforms to volunteering your time with organizations dedicated to disability advocacy.
  • Constructive Conversations: By engaging in open, respectful conversations about ableism and the importance of inclusive language with those around you, you can spread awareness and encourage others to join the journey of unlearning ableist conditioning. These dialogues can spark introspection and change, amplifying the impact of your efforts.
  • Mindful Media Consumption: Media plays a significant role in shaping societal perceptions. Critically evaluate the media you consume. Are they perpetuating harmful stereotypes about disabilities or promoting understanding and empathy? Choose to support creators and outlets that represent disability respectfully and inclusively. This can encourage more positive, inclusive narratives in mainstream media.
  • Practice Inclusivity: Actively practice inclusivity in your daily life. This can include checking that your events are accessible to everyone, ensuring your workplace upholds inclusive policies, or even just being mindful of the accessibility of public spaces. These efforts, while seemingly minor, contribute to a more inclusive society.
  • Ask for Feedback: If you’re comfortable and the other party is willing, you can request feedback on your use of language from individuals with disabilities in your social circle. This direct input can offer unique insights and facilitate a more personalized understanding. It’s essential to respect their boundaries and remember that it’s not their responsibility to educate you.
  • Support Disability Rights Legislation: Advocacy doesn’t stop at interpersonal interactions; it extends to the societal level. Support policies and legislation that protect and uphold the rights of people with disabilities.

Unlearning is not a process that happens overnight. It takes time and continuous effort. Be patient with yourself during this journey, but also remain consistent and committed to the changes you’re striving to make. Remember, it’s not about achieving perfection but about making consistent progress.

Changing our language habits is a significant step, but becoming a better ally requires a broader set of actions. In the next section, let’s explore additional proactive measures to enhance our allyship.

Enhancing Allyship: Actionable Steps

In striving to be an ally to disabled trans*, nonbinary, and gender-diverse individuals, we must acknowledge that our efforts must extend beyond mere adjustments to our language. True allyship requires active and consistent efforts to understand, support, and advocate for these communities. The aim is not just to refrain from causing harm but to actively contribute to creating a more inclusive, equitable, and empathetic society. Here are some actionable steps that can guide us to become more effective allies:

  • Promote Inclusive Policies and Practices: Advocate for developing and implementing policies and practices that promote inclusion in various settings – from workplaces and schools to public facilities and services. This can involve pushing for necessary accommodations, advocating for equal opportunities, or challenging discriminatory practices.
  • Support Authentic Representation: Work towards promoting genuine and diverse representation of disabled trans*, nonbinary, and gender-diverse individuals in media, politics, leadership roles, and other influential sectors. Representation should be about visibility and giving these communities the power to influence decisions and policies that impact them.
  • Fund Supportive Organizations: Provide financial support to organizations directly working with and for disabled trans*, nonbinary, and gender-diverse individuals. These could be nonprofits, advocacy groups, or service providers. Donations, fundraising efforts, or even regular patronage can significantly help these organizations.
  • Provide Emotional Support: Emotional support can go a long way. It could involve standing up for someone who was discriminated against, listening to someone who needs to share their experiences, or being there for someone during challenging times.
  • Educate Yourself and Others: Make a conscious effort to educate yourself about the experiences, struggles, and strengths of disabled trans*, nonbinary, and gender-diverse individuals. Use what you learn to educate others and challenge harmful stereotypes or misconceptions.

Allyship is a continuous process of learning, unlearning, and action. It’s about being open to feedback, recognizing our mistakes, and taking steps to rectify them. It’s a commitment to doing our part in making the world a better place for everyone.

Resources for Further Learning

Educating ourselves is a fundamental part of being an ally. Below is a curated list of resources that provide a wealth of information and perspectives about disability rights and allyship:


  • “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
  • “Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century” edited by Alice Wong
  • “The Disability Experience: Working Toward Belonging” by Hannalora Leavitt (Canadian Author)
  • “Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability” by Robert McRuer


  • “Ableism 101: What It Is, What It Looks Like, and What We Can Do to Fix It” on
  • “How to Avoid Ableist Language” on
  • “Why Accessibility Is a Feminist Issue” on Shameless Magazine (Canadian Source)

Online Resources and Blogs

  • The Disability Visibility Project: An online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture.
  • Clayre Sessoms Psychotherapy: This is a shameless blog self-promotion; I think you will find my Disability Justice posts informative.
  • “Crippled Scholar” Blog by Kim Sauder: A Canadian Ph.D. student in Disability Studies who blogs about disability rights and representation.


  • The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF): A leading national civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities.
  • The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL): The longest-running national cross-disability, grassroots organization run by and for people with disabilities in the U.S.
  • Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD): A national human rights organization of people with disabilities working for an accessible and inclusive Canada.
  • ARCH Disability Law Centre: A specialty community legal aid clinic dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of people with disabilities in Ontario, Canada.


  • “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” on Netflix: A groundbreaking documentary about a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities that helped ignite the disability rights movement.
  • “Good Trouble: The Disabilities Episodes” Podcast: A series exploring the lives and activism of disabled people of colour.
  • “Accessing The City” Podcast: A Canadian podcast exploring urban design and accessibility.

Respecting these resources and the communities they represent is a fundamental aspect of responsible allyship. Each of these resources – a book, an article, or an organization – is the result of the time, effort, and lived experiences of individuals who are part of the disabled community. Using these resources as a tool for learning signifies that you value their contributions and are committed to understanding their perspectives.

However, it’s also essential to recognize that these resources do not grant you an automatic pass into spaces designed for disabled individuals. These spaces serve as safe, supportive environments where disabled individuals can express themselves freely, share experiences, and find comfort in the community. They are not meant for outsiders to enter without explicit invitation, regardless of their intent.

As we engage with these resources, we must remember that the journey of unlearning ableist conditioning and learning to be an effective ally is ongoing. It’s not a destination but a path that we must commit to walking every day. It requires continuous self-reflection, education, and action.

Further, we should be prepared for the fact that we will make mistakes along the way. What matters is that we take responsibility for our errors, learn from them, and use them as stepping stones toward becoming better allies. This involves being open to criticism, listening to the voices of those we aim to support, and making necessary changes to our behaviour and attitudes.

In the process, we must strive to better ourselves not only in terms of our understanding and actions towards disabled individuals but also in how we approach people from all walks of life. Intersectionality teaches us that oppressive institutions are interconnected and that we must consider all aspects of identity – such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation – when combating inequality. Thus, our pursuit of dismantling ableism should align with our efforts against discrimination. This comprehensive approach will lead to a more inclusive, empathetic, and just society.

Conclusion: Continuous Learning and Allyship

As we conclude this exploration into the pervasive issue of ableism, we must remember that our journey toward better allyship doesn’t end here. We’ve discussed the different facets of ableism, the subtle ways it manifests in our language and offered some tools to help dismantle these harmful patterns. We’ve highlighted the importance of standing in solidarity with disabled trans*, nonbinary, and gender-diverse individuals and provided resources to expand your understanding further.

But allyship isn’t a static state—it’s a dynamic, ongoing process. As allies, we’re tasked with continuous learning, self-reflection, and the commitment to improve. Remember, change starts with awareness but is cemented through consistent action.

By committing to these changes, we contribute to a more inclusive and understanding society and encourage others to examine their language and behaviours. Doing so brings us closer to a world free from ableism—a world where everyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, can genuinely thrive.

Remember to continue listening, learning, advocating, and amplifying voices often silenced or overlooked. The journey toward a more inclusive society is long, but with consistent efforts and persistent allyship, we can all play a role in effecting positive change.

Thank you for joining us on this journey, and let’s continue striving for a more understanding and inclusive world together.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

Related Posts