A reason your kids need you to talk to them about their disability

Sometimes parents avoid talking to disabled kids about disability because they don’t want to make them feel different.

The thing is, it’s not actually possible to prevent your child from noticing that they are different. They will notice that they aren’t just like all the other kids. Partly because it’s obvious. Kids compare themselves to other kids, and to adults that they observe. Disability is as noticeable as the fact that some people are fat, female, tall, short, black, white, or whatever else. Kids notice differences. They will notice this difference too. And that’s ok.

They will notice that you are willing to talk about some differences, but not others. If you refuse to talk about disability, they will still know that they are different. They will just learn that you consider the difference unspeakable.

They will also notice what other people think about them and their disability.

People will stare at your child and make disparaging remarks. People will call them the r-word, and every other disability slur. They will say “special” and “special needs” with a sneer. They will make fun of your child for not being able to do things. They will say, or imply, that they would be able to do them if they’d just try harder.

You can stop some people from doing this to your child (and you should), but you can’t stop them from ever encountering it. They will probably encounter it every day. They will know that they are different from other people, and our culture will teach them incredibly destructive things about what that means.

You can’t stop your child from hearing what our culture thinks of disability — and if you don’t talk about disability yourself, your child will believe that you agree with it.

If you don’t talk to your child about their disability, the only words they will have for themselves are slurs they hear other people call them. You can give them better words, and better information.

If you don’t talk to your child about their disability, they will end up with a lot of misinformation about what their difference means. If you talk to them, you can tell them the truth.

Short version: Refusing to talk to kids about disability doesn’t protect them from feeling different. It just prevents them from getting accurate information about what their disability is and what their difference means. When kids who don’t know the truth about their disability face hate, they have little-to-no protection against internalizing it.

Stop using mental illness as an insult

So, there’s this pattern. People hear about someone doing a horrible thing, or being systemically abusive to another person, or being bigoted, or being generally hateful, violent, or evil, and then express their disapproval by saying things like:

  • She *needs help*
  • He needs serious therapy
  • I hope he gets the help she needs

And, that’s a horrible thing to say. Because mental illness is not the same as being an abuser. Having a mental illness is not a moral failing, and treating others horribly is not a mental illness. Conflating those categories hurts people badly.

Some people do need therapy, medication, or other forms of treatment. Some people who need mental health treatment are also terrible people, but that is not because of their mental illness. It’s because of their choices and values. And many abusers and other dangerous people are not mentally ill at all.

Many, many good people struggle with serious mental illness and depend on medical treatment. Similarly, many good people struggle with mental illness and have no access to treatment for various reasons (eg: lack of insurance, lack of safe providers, fear of losing their jobs due to stigma). These people deserve better than to have their struggles thrown up as a way to insult abusers.

Mental illness is real, serious, and horribly stigmatized. It is not the same as being an abuser, and it’s really important to stop equating the two.

It takes more than etymology to make a slur

Do you think words with etymologies based on oppression (like “idiot” or “hysterical”) but are no longer used that way now should be considered slurs? Do you think most people consider them slurs? I’ve heard some compelling arguments for why they should be treated like slurs, but I’ve also heard some good reasons for why they shouldn’t be, and it’s all very confusing.
realsocialskills answered:
I don’t think etymology is important. I think what’s important is how a word is used.
If something is used as a slur, then it’s a slur even if it has a neutral etymology. (People try to argue that the r-word isn’t a slur because it literally just means slow. Those people are wrong.)
If something is not used as a slur, then it’s not one even if it has an etymology based on oppression or hate. (For instance: “autism” has an etymology based on dehumanizing autistic people, but it’s not a slur.)
This gets complicated because sometimes people will claim that something “isn’t a slur anymore” even when it clearly is. If people the word is used against think it’s still a slur, then it’s a slur even if some people think they “don’t mean it that way”. (The g-word is a good example of this.)
I think that there are also words that are somewhat tainted by oppressive etymologies or connotations. It can be worthwhile to personally try to avoid using those words. (I avoid some, but not all, tainted words for that reason). But it’s dangerous to treat these words as actually being the same as slurs. One reason it’s important not to do this is that it causes serious problems for people with language disabilities. This is a good example of the importance of understanding the difference between personal piety and basic morality.

Hierarchies of cussing

I’ve never understood which swearwords are worse than others. It’s only in very recent years that I’ve heard people saying that the c-word is the worst of all. Before that I assumed the f-word was the worst swearword. Is there a pretty specific hierarchy of severity?
realsocialskills answered:
It depends on the context.
There are different kinds of swear words:
  • Profanity based on religious concepts (“Go to hell”, “Goddammit”)
  • Sexual or scatological swears (“Fuck off”, “shit”)
  • Then there are slurs that derive their power from invoking hatred of a particular group (eg, the n-word, the r-word, the t-word and the g-word (I don’t like to spell out slurs – if you don’t know which words I mean, send me a message and I’ll tell you).

There is also some ambiguity:

  • Sexual swears have substantial overlap with misogynist or homophobic slurs
  • Telling someone to “fuck off” generally isn’t a slur, but telling someone they need to get laid often is
  • Calling someone a bastard or an SOB tends to not be meant literally or intended to invoke stigma associated with being born out of wedlock. But it definitely has origins as a slur and is often still intentionally used that way. It’s the kind of swear word that is highly context dependent – in some situations it’s considered a fairly mild swear; among people who are regularly called those things as slurs it is *not* mild
  • In the US, calling someone the c-word is a misogynist slur. I’m not sure that’s the case in other parts of the world.

Which type of swear word is considered more severe is heavily context-dependent:

  • In secular culture, religion-related profanity is generally considered the mildest. That is not necessarily the case among religious people.
  • Slurs properly *ought* to be considered the worst words, but they tend not to be. For instance, you can say them on television without bleeping in the US, but you can’t say most of the sexual and scatological swears
  • But some people aren’t offended at all by “fuck”, but are extremely offended by slurs (that might be behind people’s reaction to the c-word).

A lot also depends on how the word is being used. There are a lot of nuances. For instance, here are some variations on the uses of scatological, sexual, and profane swear words:

  • Saying a word by itself to express frustration or pain is one of the more mild forms of swearing (eg: dropping something on your toe and exclaiming “fuck!”). This is generally considered acceptable for adults, although the range of words considered acceptable varies.
  • This is generally not considered acceptable for young children; the age at which it becomes socially acceptable depends a lot on where you are
  • Using a cuss word to describe someone or their work is considered more severe (eg: “That’s a shitty piece of art.”; “People who think that’s ok can just fuck right off”)
  • Actually saying the word to someone you think it about directly is the most severe form of swearing, generally speaking (eg: “Fuck you”.)

These words can get really complicated and confusing, and the rules are different in different places. It’s not just you – it’s confusing and context dependent.

Avoiding slurs is not about sanitizing language

Cussing is important. Here are some uses:

  • Expressing boundaries in forceful language
  • Expressing emphatic contempt
  • Expressing distress

Sometimes it’s ok to insult people. Sometimes it’s important to be rude.

Slurs aren’t part of this, though. It’s not ok to insult someone by comparing them to an oppressed group. It’s not ok to insult someone by referencing their membership in an oppressed group.

Lists of things to say rather than “that’s so gay” or “that’s so r-word” tend to be long lists of big words that are clean and polite. They shouldn’t be, though. There’s no moral obligation to use long words. There’s no moral obligation to always use clean language.

The problem with slurs is that they help to keep marginalized groups marginalized. They hurt innocent people, and they hurt guilty people in ways no one deserves.

So, when the situation calls for cussing at or about someone, use swear words. Don’t use slurs.

About avoiding slurs

There are a lot of slurs that are so ingrained into English-speaking culture that people who say them don’t always realize that they are slurs.

  • People say them without meaning them as slurs, but they still hurt people
  • Because people also say them as intentional slurs
  • And it’s not usually obvious which is which
  • And even when people genuinely don’t mean it that way, hearing slurs about your group all the time hurts
  • Also, sometimes the people who are using the slur don’t know that the group it’s about actually exists
  • Being erased to the point that people only know about the stereotype is also really horrible


  • Often when people in the target group point out the slurs, people react badly
  • Instead of apologizing and fixing it, they get angry and hostile
  • And often behave in really humiliating (or even dangerous) ways towards the person who pointed it out
  • Reacting that way is fairly similar to using a slur intentionally
  • You can’t actually invoke a trope related to the slur without also invoking the slur in ways that hurt people it’s used against
  • Even if you would never react that way, people in the target group don’t know that when you say the word.

I’m a bit uneasy about saying those words, so I’m not going to include any examples. (I’m not sure that’s the right decision, but that’s what I’m doing for this post). But if people these words are used against want to reblog with comments or send asks, that would be very welcome.