NELA recently adopted a new Acceptable Use Policy governing the use of the NELA Exchange resources, like the Open Forum. One goal in adopting that new policy was to foster a more inclusive and welcoming environment on The NELA Exchange. Part of the new policy prohibits the use of slurs or epithets in posts, including in quotations and attachments. Members can share resources and cases quoting slurs and epithets off the Open Forum via direct emails. But because reading and hearing those slurs upsets, harms, and offends people, NELA chose to prohibit using those slurs and epithets on The Exchange.
Many of those slurs and epithets are obvious, some call them by their first letters. Those words can be shocking to hear. The community agrees that several words are slurs and epithets that should not be used. We recognize or feel the harm those words can cause and do not use them.
But other words that hurt people lurk in the open. Many of us use them frequently. Pejorative terms for disabilities, particularly related to mental health, come up almost daily on the Open Forum, often negatively to express disagreement with opposing counsel’s position or a judge’s ruling. We use those words to mean wild, weird, disturbing, unsophisticated, obtuse, unenlightened, or evil.
Some words may not be slurs and epithets in every context. The Open Forum illustrates this. Several posts include “deaf” or “blind” in discussions of ADA issues. But those words are also used as synonyms for ignorant or uneducated.
We don’t equate most ableist terms to slurs or epithets. There is different history and context that makes certain words more hurtful and shocking to read or hear. But part of that history and context is our collective lack of awareness about and attention to the systemic discrimination against and marginalization of people with disabilities and similar lack of awareness about the hurt that some words cause.
A few resources are linked below, we encourage you to read them and to further your education on disability issues and ableism. There are many articles discussing specific ableist terms and alternatives to them. There are also articles describing the history of discrimination against people with disabilities like Dr. Douglas Baynton’s Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History (2001), and the Disability Rights Movement. Because these articles contain ableist terms themselves, we are not linking them but you can google them or email a member of NELA’s DEI committee who can provide more resources off The Exchange. Many Disability Rights organizations provide trainings and education programs to law firms and other groups. Because we often represent people with disabilities, it is important to be sure that the people around you – the other lawyers in your firm and your staff – know what ableism is and how to take steps to mitigate ableist harm. If you organize CLEs, host a speaker who can educate your association’s members on ableism.
We can also learn from each other about taking ableist language out of our vocabulary. If you note someone using language you believe may be harmful or not a best practice, we encourage you to kindly educate others. But for learning to happen, it is important that this is done in a way that does not belittle or insult the individual who may not realize the harm that was caused.
We’re lawyers. We can be more mindful of the language we use and intentional and creative with our word choice. The judge’s ruling is baffling and unsettling. Opposing counsel is a buffoon or an energy vampire. NELA’s Annual Convention is on another planet. Your discovery plan is so ridiculous it just might work.