Harini is a student staff member at the Women’s Center and is also the co-facilitator of Between Women.
You have entered a chat with: Friend
1 message from: Friend
Did you hear what happened in class today?
1 message to: Friend
Yes! That girl just had a complete breakdown during her final, I can’t believe it!
2 messages from: Friend
Yes, oh my God!
What a schizo. I swear, she’s does this kind of stuff just to get out of taking tests.
2 messages to: Friend
I mean, she was upset, but do you think you should call her that?
I think she was just stressed out. You’re being kind of mean, don’t you think?
1 message from: Friend
Why are you being so sensitive? I was just expressing my opinion. Stop being lame.
Friend has left the chat.
Language policing is a heightened issue in the age of social media; communication has never been so accessible, but what can accompany the blend of different identities on one interface is thoughtlessness. All people seem alike on the internet, so it can be all too easy to subconsciously adopt the vocabulary of others, whether on the internet or in spoken word.
Those with mental illnesses and learning disabilities forge their own subculture among peers in person and the internet. A shared experience that dramatically impacts daily life is definitely something to bond over; but as with any marginalized group, there is a group with privilege that, knowingly or otherwise, co-opts the culture of the target group. Specifically, neurotypical people have a tendency to hijack mental illnesses and disabilities and use them as adjectives to describe themselves, more commonly described as ableism. Examples of this include claiming that you’re “so OCD” when your room is messy, or that having lots of energy makes you, “so ADHD.”
Do you know what makes you “so OCD?” Having obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Using mental illnesses and learning disabilities to describe traits and actions of neurotypical people only furthers stigma of already marginalized groups. People who seek professional help for very real issues can feel invalidated by their neurotypical peers, who portray mental illness, learning disabilities, and quirks as interchangeable. Neurotypical people regard mental illnesses and learning disabilities as an open buffet, where they can claim whichever parts are most appealing and leave behind the rest. Neurodivergent people do not have such a luxury: they are forced to live with all aspects of their identity.
Another way in which disabled culture is infringed upon is through “inspiration porn,” a concept in which a disability is exploited for the sake of inspiring able-bodied people. People with actual disabilities aren’t any different from those without, apart from that one aspect, but they seem to be the prime target for starring in any sort of inspirational campaign, as if saying, “if a person with prosthetics can be an athlete, why can’t you?” When the meaning of this sentiment is dissected, it appears to offer a challenge for able-bodied people, stating that anything a disabled person does, an able-bodied person should be able to match, if not surpass. The perceptions toward neurodivergent and disabled people are paradoxical in that able-bodied/neurotypical people view the former as a tragic form of inspiration, but also have no qualms about encroaching on their culture and needs.
People without ADD/ADHD take Adderall, a stimulant, to pull all-nighters when they forget to study for a test or finish an essay. Their abuse of the drug led to restrictions in attainment for those who really need it; a paper needs to be signed by the primary physician, which is delivered to the pharmacy, processed by the pharmacist, and finally the prescription is refilled. This has to happen every single time the medication needs a refill, all because neurotypical people claimed something intended to help those with a disadvantage they never experienced. What neurotypical people use to give themselves an extra edge in school, neurodivergents require to function on a level akin to them.
No, please. Stop.
Those with very real mental health issues and learning disabilities are given accommodations to level the playing field; so when neurotypical people steal elements of neurodivergent culture, those accommodations are essentially nullified. Stigma increases, illnesses are invalidated, and no progress is made in furthering mental health awareness.
Saying you’re, “so OCD,” to describe being a neat person demonstrates a staggering lack of understanding of what OCD really is. Substituting “OCD” with a physical ailment demonstrates just how nonsensical this is. “Oh, I’m out of breath from running. I’m so asthmatic!” Unless you have asthma, this just sounds ridiculous. So why say it with mental illnesses?
Having a mental illness isn’t a quirky personality trait; emulating a mentally ill or disabled person doesn’t make you a Manic Pixie Dreamboat (because infringement isn’t gender-exclusive). Being mentally ill simply means your brain chemistry is altered in a way that affects your daily life. The Women’s Center’s own Jess wrote a blog about why she vowed to stop casually using the word “crazy,” which has both ableist and sexist implications. The common use of the word “crazy” in labels is usually in conjunction with some aspect of femininity: Crazy Cat Lady, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, etc. The same goes for words like “insane,” “lame,” “crippled,” and countless other words that are believed to be innocently used because they’re not being used to describe a disabled or mentally ill person. The connotation still remains, and so does the implied meaning that these negative adjectives are traits describing or indicative of a differently-abled person.
If you’re neurotypical and an ally to those who are neurodiverse, you have a responsibility to stop doing this. Police your own ableist language and catch yourself if you’re about to say something along these lines. Using schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, OCD, etc. as an adjective to describe personality traits is harmful for myriad reasons. However, allyship is not limited to just fixing your own behavior. If a friend or family member speaks like this, use your privilege to correct them and explain the toxicity of their actions. Change begins on an individual level, but its effects can run deeper than imaginable.
For more information about ableist language and neurodivergent culture, feel free to check out these resources!
- University of Maryland is home to Multicultural Involvement Community Advocacy, a subsection of which is dedicated to promoting inclusive language
- A few examples of “inspirational/pity porn,” as mentioned earlier
- This post is a wonderful example of the seemingly innocuous language we’re often guilty of using in daily life