Wrestling with Ableist Language

Graphic from UU Congregation of York

Not Done Yet!

Whoops. I just realized that my business name uses ableist language. Aurgh. I just heard someone talking about using “walking together” as a sermon title. Dang. I heard from my dear friend that, yet again, our organization picked a theme that included “standing” in the title.

Did not the UU movement just embrace a commitment to undoing ableist language? But that one vote this last Summer didn’t finish the project. We have years of tried and true metaphors to catch, examine, and release. We have language passed down to use from our heritage. We have habits and we have internal resistance to overcome.
Please tell me that you are finding ways to sing, work for justice, explore, move and develop spiritually without restricting that to people who can “stand” on the side of love or “walk” a spiritual path. (The UU justice organization made the change from “Standing on the Side of Love” to “Side with Love”. Jason Shelton, the author of one of our favorite hymns made the change from “Standing on the Side of Love” to “Answering the Call of Love”… we can all be inclusive too!)

Walking and Rolling on Our Own Paths

And of course… each person can and should use whatever metaphors they want in personal conversation. I’m talking about hymns in worship, the names of organizations, slogans, newsletter titles, etc. places where one is representing more than just yourself… Where a higher standard applies. (As far as individuals, your approach and choices may vary based on context-it is cool to pay attention to the words you use, but I’m not here to shame you for your choices. We all have days when it is all we can do to use words at all, much less examine them for inclusivity. The less marginalized your identity, however, the more important it is to consider the experience of he marginalized folks.)

Let me be clear here. I did not say (and would never say) you should purge such language from your vocabulary. But good grief. A major slogan that represents our justice aspect of our movement? A significant hymn? The name of a congregation? The go-to metaphor for rituals? The title of your newsletter or CUUPS group? Heck no! That’s a completely different thing from using a variety of metaphors in daily speech. We don’t need to “police” personal conversation. We DO need to be mindful of using ableist language in official and high profile contexts.

And… I find the experience of searching for new metaphors and different language to be freeing and exciting and fruitful. I personally am happy to monitor my language for body-based metaphor and make thoughtful choices. YMMV.

Updating Beloved Prayers and Songs and…

I have a prayer that has been incredibly important to me that I still want to use only referred to daughters. So I changed it to sons and daughters. Then I became aware of how that excludes gender non-confirming folks. So now I don’t use it in worship… waiting to see what might unfold there. Mary Kroener-Eckstrand, who is a DRE, mentions that “Our UU youth often use the phrase “siblings in spirit” in one song in place of sisters and brothers…” I love how our youth lead us in many of the invitations for more compassion! (See the prayer below. And your suggestions are welcome!)

I’ve been sharing a worship service called “living like a tree” based on Betsy Rose’s song “Standing like a Tree” so I talk about using that as a mantra and invite the congregations to use “living” instead of standing… and to feel how that works as a mantra…

And I’m owning the fact that I didn’t realize that my own business name was ableist until I began writing this (I’ve been using “Listen to Heart Song” for four years now. It is time for me to find a better, more resonant, and more inclusive business name. I welcome your suggestions!) I’m by no means perfect. But I have found that engaging these questions makes me a better person.
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  • Thank you for taking the time to write this. In a, to me, gentle manner you have addressed a rather sensitive topic. Living in a area that while it tolerates this new look on sexual identity, it is definately not on the fore front of the discussion. This means that much of the struggle goes on else where only trickling in as it is accepted by the larger cultures around. A rather interesting phenomenon. I mention this because while I knew of the non binary people in my area it wasn’t until I had attended a festival that I encountered non binaries and realized how much gender plays in language. One of the biggest hurdles for me is the use of pronouns (his/her, Mr./Mrs, sir… etc). I was brought up to use certain ones as a way of expressing honor or respect which one is generally picked based on visual or audible cues. It is a rather in grained behavior pattern, so much so it is probably one I won’t break. While I do know that expressing respect and honor is more than special words, I have felt more respect from a “foul” mouthed sailor than a “proper” worded person, words have a power of their own. In my job, even if my tone is off, using words that mean honor and respect make it easier to apologize for the non verbal lining up. In other words they have a place. To me this highlights the daunting task of changing the language, because those words that encompass honor and respect are very binary gender based.

  • Walter

    “We have years of … metaphors to CATCH”,
    Yeah, hard, isn’t it!

    “… through every land by every TONGUE…”
    it is pervasive

  • JA Myer

    I wonder about all this. Where I work, it’s filled with wonderful people of all shapes kinds and abilities and we seldom have a conversation about words. We do have a common distain and rejection of the word “retarded” but that’s really the only one that comes to my mind. My coworkers who use wheelchairs say “can I walk with you?” The lady born without sight says “see you Monday!” We all wait happily for each other no matter how long it takes a walker to get from one place to the next. We practice kindness for one another religiously every moment of every day. What I’m trying to say is; who really is the UUA doing this for? Themselves perhaps? And that is ok. It’s just that the most important part is “love” and its not whether you stand on the side or merely side with love but just that you love unconditionally one another. I don’t mean to be that guy, but I just help but wonder. peace and love everyone

  • WanderingDruid

    I’ve got some mixed feelings about this…

    I certainly agree with the principle that we should do an effort to be inclusive, but is stopping to use certain words the solution to that? The problem I see with that is that there are so many things that are problematic to someone, somewhere, that you risk ending up with a very poor language if you have to stop using all of those.

    And to be clear, I am not speaking from the perspective of the privileged majority here. I am not disabled, but I am speaking from an LGBTQ point of view (asexual). There, too, it is the case that any symbolism that relates to sex, genders, relationships, motherhood,…will be perceived as painful or alienating to some people.

    Yet, many of the things that are problematic for one percent of the population, will be very strong metaphors for the other 99%, and I think it would be a pity to lose all of that in the process.

    So my alternative suggestion would be that, indeed, we carefully watch the language and symbolism that we use, and, where our word choice can be problematic to some, we try to provide an alternative alongside the original word (i.e., ‘standing’ or ‘listening’, then a sentence that has a similar meaning but does not use these words, or a gendered and then a non-gendered version of a symbolism).

    My expectation is that this would achieve the intended goal, even in an improved way, that we actively train ourself to try to look at the world from more than one perspective, as we are constantly reminded that not everyone is the same. Let us celebrate our differences and the richness that brings, rather than end up with something very bland by trying to not step on any toes.

  • WanderingDruid, I agree that simply removing terms, metaphors and restricting language will leave us bereft of the richness of art and meaning. My invitation, which I hope I made clear, is to consider the words we use, to notice when a word is a convenient overused harmful metaphor and to look for alternatives and more creative ways to enrich and deepen the art of communication. Your invitation sounds exactly along those lines. I think that as you find more accompanying metaphors you will discover that you can drop some of the alienating terms. Welcome to the adventure! 😉

  • Yup! 🙂 We forgive ourselves and each other and begin again!

  • Nicole,
    Thanks for the time and attention you give to learning about the world around you and to offering respect and honor to the people around you. That is a beautiful thing. It has taken me years to use “they/their” instead of the reflexive he/she and I still have to pause. But it is getting easier. And really, as long as I’m trying I think I’m doing OK. 😉 We are never always going to be perfect for all people in all situations. We are only going to be able to do our best and try to pay attention to the person who is right here with us right now. Love and blessings!