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Avoiding Ableist Language: Micro-Assaults That Can Lead to Big Rifts

There are certain norms and standards of acceptable conduct at work that are so hard-wired in today’s workplace that it’s eye-popping to even consider their violation. For example, the business world was rightly aghast when Papa John’s founder John Schnatter used the n-word on a company conference call in 2018. The use of that language is far removed from acceptable dialogue, and Schnatter faced swift and widespread backlash internally and externally. Ultimately, he stepped down from his role as chairman of the board.

When Bad Language is Less Obvious

But many workers may be using other offensive language that is less obvious, because that language has entered the common lexicon. Speakers don’t even stop to think of the potentially offensive and hurtful words baked into certain common expressions.

There are abundant examples of this in ableist words and phrases casually used every day by people around the world, including in the office, says Sara Nović in an article for BBC Worklife. Nović, who is deaf, provides examples of headlines from around the world stating that certain issues, for instance—Nevada’s proposed gun safety laws, pleas from Ontario’s elderly and weather safety warnings in Queensland—have all “fallen on deaf ears”.

“This kind of ‘ableist’ language is omnipresent in conversation,” she says. She gives several familiar examples that many of us, unfortunately, may have to admit we have used:

  • Making a “dumb” choice

  • Turning a “blind eye” to a problem

  • Acting “crazy”

  • Calling a boss “psychopathic”

  • Having a “bipolar” day

The issue is more one of naiveté, as opposed to malice. Most people using these terms are oblivious to any potential offense they may be causing. When we take the time to step back and consider, though, it’s clear that each of these phrases is offense.

Avoiding “Micro-Assaults”

Nović refers to the use of such phrases as “micro-assaults. “For instance, ‘falling on deaf ears’ provides evidence that most people associate deafness with willful ignorance (even if they consciously may not),” she writes. But, while these may seem like minor slights, they can create major unintended, and largely unnecessary, impacts. They can, Nović says, “do real, lasting harm to the people whom these words and phrases undermine – and even the people who use them in daily conversation, too.”

Disability in America, as with many other parts of the world, is shockingly invisible to a large degree. By some estimates, one in four Americans have some form of disability, and yet those who utter explicitly ableist colloquialisms are often genuinely oblivious to the offense they may be causing to the people in the room, on the Zoom call, or even in a social setting.

Nović provides a good wake-up call for all of us. Now we just need to heed the call. Take this opportunity to be more conscious of how some of the common expressions you may be using could, however inadvertently, be causing offense to a valued colleague or friend.

Be inclusive!

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Are you tired of workplace diversity training that does not link to business? Are you tired of tactics that don’t drive business results? InclusionINC has inclusion training solutions and strategic consulting that link inclusion to employee engagement, productivity, innovation and retention, moving inclusion beyond tactics to a critical business strategy.


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