Let's Make Ableist Audits a Thing

Freshly revised paperbacks after my ableist audit.

CW: ableist language

A while back, I read about a service that offered sensitivity readings of your books so you could ensure you were not using sexist, racist, and ablest language that would be offensive to your readers. Of course it was expensive and might not be in the budget for many indie authors already paying for professional editing and book covers, but it made me think about how easily it is to let insensitive language creep into your manuscript if you aren't mindful of the types of words and phrases you're using. I knew one area that I was less versed in among these issues was ableism. It was only over the past year that I had begun learning about how problematic ablest language is and started recognizing words that were hurtful or offensive to other people like "crazy," "insane," "stupid," "crippled," etc. You can see a more exhaustive list of these words here, as well as several suggestions for alternative language: http://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html

I remember thinking about that and realizing it was very likely I had used many of these kinds of words in my books without thinking twice about it, so I put doing my own ablest audit on my list of things to do. Unfortunately that item sat on the backburner for several months, while I also worked on removing those kinds of words from my own everyday vocabulary (which I still haven't fully succeeded at doing yet). I think I had also completely underestimated just how much ableist language I had been using in my writing. When I finally sat down and started doing searches in my first book for some of the more obvious words, I was surprised and embarrassed by just how often I had used these kinds of words.

In The Departed, the first book in my The Departed Series, I found:

  • 26 instances of "crazy"
  • 3 instances of "insane"
  • 4 instances of "dumb"
  • 10 instances of "stupid"
  • 2 instances of "nuts"
  • 2 instances of "blind"
  • 1 instance of "psycho"

There was no copy and paste replacement for each of these words. It all depended on context and whether they were in dialogue or part of the narrative. Ridiculous, asinine, bizarre, and outrageous came up quite a bit as good alternative, but there were some sentences that had to be completely rewritten. In other cases, I just deleted the word and treated it as just another unnecessary adjective. I can't say definitively that I succeeded at removing everything that is potentially problematic, but Ctrl F is your friend and makes finding words like these pretty easy. Being an indie author also gave me a major advantage. I was able to re-upload my eBook and paperback versions onto Amazon with ease, and my updated books were available within just a few days after waiting for Amazon's approval process. Traditionally published authors would have to jump through significantly more hoops to get their work changed, and they would be completely dependent on whether their publishing house was willing to put out a new edition. My guess is that most of them would shoot these kinds of revisions down because they would be inconvenient and not considered cost-effective.

After I finished updating The Departed, I did the same thing for the second book in my series, The Sainted. Since I had been more aware of the issue of using ableist language when I wrote this installment, I was sure I would find less instances, but that wasn't the case at all. I had about the same amount as I had put into The Departed. This just showed me how deeply these words are a part of the common vernacular and how much harder I needed to work on removing them from my vocabulary. I know I can't even guarantee that they won't show up in the forthcoming third book in the series The Deceived. However, I can make sure I check myself ahead of time and do my own audit before I upload it and put it for sale in the Amazon store.

I want to say sorry to any readers who've read my books before I made these changes. I want to do better, and I want to encourage other authors to do this too. It's worth it to take the time to understand how these kinds of words can be harmful, and we can make our books more inclusive when we work on removing them from how we tell our stories. I think this is especially important for those of us who write for teens.