How do I talk about ableism without losing friends?

Dear Alice,

I have an invisible disability and I'm really getting into disabilities activism. Even in liberal circles ableism is still pretty accepted and this upsets me. However, when I try to educate people around me, it sometimes goes awry. I had one friend get upset when I called her out for using the word "retard." Another got upset when I pointed out that her Facebook post of inspirational people with disabilities (that just showed people with disabilities doing normal things) was a little offensive and tried to tell her about "inspiration porn." I get that using the word "retard" is normal as is "inspiration porn." I just don't think it should be.

I know my friends are caring, socially conscious people. I expect people to be a little upset, but ultimately I would also expect them respect the fact that it's really not OK to objectify people with disabilities in the way that inspiration porn and the use of words like "retard" do. What I want to know is how do I point out that people are expressing a harmful social bias, without having them get so upset that they write me off as an over sensitive concern troll?


Nothing about us without us

Dear Nothing about us without us, 

It’s great that you want to help inform your friends about why their actions may be offensive. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s not your job to educate them constantly. Your friends may need to be more open to listening and learning. However, if you do choose to engage in a conversation about ableism, there are different ways you may prepare for and approach the discussion without coming off as “an over sensitive concern troll,” whether it be with friends, family, or strangers—read on for more information! 

Ableism refers to bias and discrimination against people with disabilities, often rooted in the belief that non-disabled people are better or more capable than those with disabilities. Ableism is ingrained in American culture and shows up various ways such as the lack of accessibility in different physical spaces, the use of certain words in everyday language, and through inspiration porn. 

Inspiration porn is the objectification of people with disabilities through “inspirational” stories circulated in the media. Some examples of inspiration porn include videos where someone with disabilities gets asked to prom or rises from their wheelchair at their wedding. Some people find these stories offensive because they may portray people with disabilities as pitiable and disability as a problem to overcome. Instead, it will be more helpful for society to address negative attitudes and societal shame towards those with disabilities and reduce barriers to accessibility. 

As you mention, even the most culturally sensitive and socially conscious people may make mistakes. When correcting others’ language, the approach you take may bring about a respectful conversation amongst friends, or cause well-meaning people to feel like they’re being accused and singled out. That said, there are a few aspects of your approach that you may want to consider: 

  • Knowing how to frame the conversation: It’s okay to not know what to say all the time. That said, you may choose to practice some talking points beforehand, so you feel more confident discussing the topic should the opportunity for a conversation present itself. Depending on your audience, you may consider sharing your perspective by telling them your story and why the language or action is hurtful to you and others. Using a personal story may help people be more understanding. 
  • Tailoring your approach to your audience: 
    • Friends: When speaking with a friend, you might try using a friendly tone to avoid sounding like you’re talking down to them. You may also consider sharing that you’d like to have this conversation out of respect for your relationship with them, and the relationships you may have with people with disabilities. 
    • Authority figures: When it comes to authority figures, erring on the side of courtesy and respect may be your best bet, so consider asking to have a private conversation with the person or people. 
    • Strangers: Your safety comes first when choosing whether or not to have these sorts of conversations with a stranger. If you feel safe in the environment and you know you’ll likely be spending time with this person long-term, you may choose to begin a conversation with them. 
  • Preparing for disagreement: Although there may be no disagreement, you may feel more prepared if you think about potential counterarguments to your points. If there’s a disagreement, you might start by listening to what they have to say so you can try to understand why they disagree. Then, if you feel safe and comfortable, you may consider providing additional points highlighting the harmful effects of using the r-word or of sharing inspiration porn. 
  • Offering resources: To provide more support for your points and offer your audience another perspective, you may follow up your conversation by offering some resources so they can learn more about disability justice and how to talk about disability sensitively on their own. You may also offer alternative words and phrases that they could use to get their original point across. 

List adapted from Special Olympics and Spread the Word 

For more tips on communicating effectively, consider checking out the Communicating and Relating fact sheet in the Go Ask Alice! archive. Engaging in these sorts of conversations may at times feel challenging or emotionally draining. That’s why it may be beneficial for you to set aside additional time to take care of yourself. You may also consider meeting with a mental health professional to have someone to talk through these situations with. They may be able to help you navigate any feelings that are coming up or could come up. Kudos to you for trying to increase the knowledge and awareness of those around you, and best of luck as you continue to refine your approach!

Last updated Sep 01, 2023
Originally published Mar 22, 2013