Disability Ain’t for Ya Dozens (or Demons): 10 Ableist Phrases Black Folks Should Retire Immediately

Talila "TL" Lewis
6 min readMar 1, 2017
Black and white drawing of a ship packed tightly with Black African people. The words read: Plan shewing the stowage of 130 additional slaves round the wings or sides of the lower deck by means of platforms or shelves (in the manner of galleries in a church) the slaves stowed on the shelves and below them have only a height of 2 feet 7 inches between the beams and far less under the beams.

Black folks of the African Diaspora in the “United States” got jokes for days.

Humor, wit, rhymin’ & signifyin,’ and all around hyper-creative silliness is part and parcel of Black Joy, Black Culture, Black Resistance and Black Love.

May our humor never abandon us; nor us it.

That said, on this last day of February 2017, I am writing to implore my community to be more mindful of our ableism for the rest of this year and in all the years that meet us — even as we battle for our crowns.

I begin with the most basic of affirmations:

Black Disabled people exist.

Black Autistic people exist.

Black Deaf people exist.

Black DeafBlind people exist.

Black Mad people exist.

Black Depressed people exist.

Black Chronically Ill people exist.

Black Veterans with PTSD exist.

Black Youth with CPTSD exist.

Racism and intergenerational trauma exist; and thus so too do Black Disabled Descendents of enslaved African peoples.

I begin here for three reasons:

  1. This is our truth. Our past, present and future truth.
  2. Naming our whole humanity gives credence to our breath and existence; and honors the full humanity of our ancestors who endured immeasurable terror to bring us forth.
  3. Uplifting this truth is how we end violence against Black children & save Black lives.

Ableism in our communities takes many forms. Let’s see, there’s:

Ableism as religious retribution, absolution or abomination.

Ableism as pity.

Ableism as disgust.

Ableism as “weakness.”

Ableism as inspiration.

Ableism as “actin’ up.”

Ableism as “actin’ out.”

Ableism as euphemism.

Ableism as “disrespectful.”

Ableism as bars, wordplay & punchline.

All of these are dehumanizing and deadly; and each perpetuates racism and Anti-Black violence in ways that you probably have never considered. But we must.

Anti-Blackness and ableism are inextricably linked in large part because “intelligence” was manufactured by racist-ableist eugenicists, and in other large part because capitalism and elitism have only served to solidify this mythical notion and its related perceived white superiority and Black inferiority in the hearts and minds of even those of us who know it to be false.

Here is what I know to be true:

Violent uprooting of African bodies from African communities was disabling; the Middle Passage was disabling; theft of our native tongue(s) was disabling; every aspect of enslavement was disabling; white terror was and is disabling; Jim Crow was disabling; forced sterilization is disabling; breaking your children before the cops get a chance to is disabling; unyielding fear for loved ones’ safety is disabling; forced familial separation is disabling; forced institutionalization (including mass incarceration) is disabling; racism is disabling; generational exploitation of our bodies, intellect and resources is disabling; forced housing, income, water, food insecurity is disabling. Importantly, before all of this, there were Black Disabled people.

Although anti-Blackness and white supremacy have made many believe that Black Disabled/Deaf people don’t exist and that there is something dishonorable about the existence of Black Deaf/Disabled people, neither could be further from the truth.

The Truth is that disability has been with us, in us since the beginning of time. Disability has held and kept us. It is in our marrow, in our blood, our sweat and tears. Disability does not make us less than, it makes us who we are.

Ableism and anti-Blackness are the enemy.

Disability is our kin.

While the world has convinced itself and the Black community that disability is a bad word and a bad circumstance. It is neither. Disability and Blackness is pride. Disability and Blackness is innovation. Disability and Blackness is brilliance.

Disability and Blackness are part of the identities and lives of most of the Black community in the “United States.” This is why true liberation calls for a certain kind of dismantling that leaves neither oppression untouched.

This brings me back to the theme of this piece: Regardless of the type of ableism you espouse, your ableism is anti-Black and violent. So when we support ableism, we also are supporting anti-Blackness; and vice versa.

The Black community is well known for our jovial nature, our tendency to use words that we think are less demeaning for family members and relatives with disabilities, and for invoking religion in response to revelations. Turns out that none of this uplifts our people’s humanity. Not only does it contribute to stigma and discrimination against Black/Disabled people, but these make it that much more difficult for Black people to be loved, cherished and at peace within our own communities. Moreover, it perpetuates the violent oppression visited upon us by white people.

What we know is that people with disabilities are disproportionately represented in Black, brown and indigenous communities. We also know that Black Disabled people are disproportionately represented in suspensions, expulsions and arrests in schools; forced institutionalization; mass incarceration; and and police violence.

Our words, thoughts and intentions carry weight. We must take care not to contribute to stigmatization, discrimination, isolation, incarceration and genocide of Black/Disabled people.

Below are some of the phrases that I hope we all will retire today with helpful links to guide you on your journey to understanding disability justice as racial justice:

1. “Special,” Special needs, special cousin, special anything.

There is no such thing as “normal” and no such thing as “special needs.” There is just interdependence. Read more from the late Ki’tay D. Davidson.

2. Handicapable, Differently-abled, diffability, mentally challenged, etc.

Contrary to popular belief, not saying the words disabled/deaf/autistic/wheelchair user/etc. is offensive. Euphemisms are harmful and disrespectful. They presume that disability is inferior. It is not. Read more from Meriah Nichols.

3. Slow, dumb, stupid, idiot, imbecile, r*etarded, etc.

These words are rooted in racist-ableist violence and should never ever be used. Read more from Lydia X. Z. Brown.

4. Disease is not your metaphor, hook or jab.

You can be witty and funny without perpetuating ableism. Try it out sometime. Read more from Cyree Jarelle Johnson.

5. Hearing impaired, they do that hand stuff, etc.

The proper terms are Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled and Hard of Hearing. Sign language, or, if you are referencing a specific sign language, use the name of that language: American Sign Language; Lensegua, etc. See/read more in Indian Sign Language from Alim Chandani.

6. Cray; cray cray; crazy; insane; etc.

Annually over 50% of the people killed by cops are people with psychiatric disabilities (these victims are disproportionately Black and people of color). These kinds of words are not funny and they further stigmatize people with mental illnesses — who more often than not are the victims, not perpetrators, of violence. Read more from the Harriet Tubman Collective.

7. That ain’t nothing but the devil; that depression is a demon, fast and pray about it; I’ll pray for you to be delivered from . . . ; he is just testing you; be in the word, etc.

This is dangerous and deadly. Stop it. Read more from Darnell Moore, also review the #BlackSuicide on Twitter.

8. Suffering from . . .

People are not “suffering from” disability/deafness. People are simply autistic, disabled, deaf, etc. Don’t place value judgments on other people’s existence. People could be living with a specific disability, but you are not free to declare disabled folks to be “suffering from” anything. This goes back to honoring the whole humanity of all of us. Please take some time over the next year to learn more about disability pride, deaf pride, disability justice, disability solidarity, etc.

9. Crackhead, drunk uncle, etc.

Addiction is a disability. People with addiction disorders/disability need support & love, not ridicule. Learn more.

10. Any other ableist puns, jokes or religious phraseology.

This is your free space. It’s here so you can fill it with any other terms that are ableist, audist, sanist, etc. & stop using them.

May we be more generous with unconditional love, more affirming of disability and all manner of identity intersections found in Black communities; and may we mind our words and reign in our own violent words and actions to honor and protect our own.


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Talila "TL" Lewis

abolitionist organizer-attorney uniting communities & struggles by grounding movements in disability justice | @behearddc | @talilalewis | www.talilalewis.com