Creativity and Working Around Ablest Language

Given that one of the novels I'm working on, The Sun Runners features a major character who becomes an amputee, I thought it wise to pay a sensitivity reader to look over my manuscript to ensure that I wasn't being offensive or condescending. For those who don't know, sensitivity readers are an increasing feature of the professional fiction writing industry, as they help catch and prevent incidents where we authors, writing in our ivory towers, make a hash out of other people's cultures and experiences. And as our society is changing and developing rapidly, this includes uses of terms that may have seemed perfectly acceptable back in our day, but are basically slurs now.

If you think we're too sensitive in this day and age, I ask you to recall my post entitled Yesterday wherein I note that while many of us (myself included) often yearn to go back to years before when times were simpler and we all knew what's what, the fact is that for many people, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and more, yesterday was not better than today, because they were expected to just take the crap dished out by the establishment and shut up about it. The fact that they aren't willing to do so today and are calling people out about it is a good thing, because why should anybody take that sort of crap? Why should anybody be seen as less than who they are? And if being called to respect equality feels like oppression to you, that's your privilege talking.

My sensitivity reader generally liked my story and my portrayal of the amputee character. She did note some word usages that I had to change. What surprised me was the number of incidences of ablist language in my manuscript where I used terms that derogatively referred to mental illness. (Content warning for the sentence ahead) Phrases like "are you crazy/nuts/insane" recall put-downs of people with mental health issues, and it's increasingly being considered a slur. Note this article in Penn Medicine News for more details.

The issue is, there are people with mental health issues that are commonly referred to in these terms, and these same terms are often also applied to bad people - villains, antagonists, and so on, and these terms are too often used to make people with mental illness feel less human than what they are. Think for a moment the number of slurs out there that attack people with physical ailments and impairments. Are these at all acceptable? Good people, I think, largely say these aren't so, so why would we use similarly loaded and derogatory terms against people with mental ailments and impairments?

So I support the call to change our vocabularty so we don't use these words as often as we do, and let me say that, in writing, this is a challenge. Because when you are dealing with antagonists or accomplices acting outrageously in action scenes, there is a strong, strong desire to respond with a phrase that basically says "are you operating under a set of parameters that differs from objective reality?"

But that's no excuse. Indeed, it should be an opportunity to get creative. Especially in science fiction, a properly placed idiom not only adds colour to the scene, it builds the world you are trying to create. Which is why, when one of my characters asks the lead character if she is operating under a set of parameters that differs from objective reality, she says, "Are you oxygen-deprived?"

I will toss this out into the world. Hopefully, it does its job without demeaning classes of people. And it might give your science fiction story a bit more colour as well. We'll see.

You're also welcome to use the "are you operating under a set of parameters that differs from objective reality?" line as well. Possibly at Trump supporters.

(Update, Thursday: it has been brought to my attention (thank you) that oxygen deprivation within the womb is a cause of cerebral palsy, so maybe don't use that term so casually. Hmm... Back to the drawing board...)

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