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Stop Using Intelligence-Based Insults If You Care About Disabled People

Content warning: uncensored ableist slurs.


For the majority of people on the internet, intelligence-based insults are a must-have if you want to survive the battlefields that social media tends to harbour. Almost every online space I’ve entered usually results in a battle of perceived intelligence. Sooner or later, even formal and respectful conversations between activists can turn into competitions of who can infer that one is ‘stupider’ than the other.

Insults that are hinged on attacking someone’s perceived intelligence are ableist because they reinforce ableist norms of behaving and acting. Anyone who isn’t fast, efficient and full of energy is branded as lacking intelligence, and this specifically targets disabled people.

In reality, perceived ‘intelligence’ has nothing to do with someone’s right to have their humanity respected, and intelligence-based slurs such as ‘stupid’ have a long history of being used to dehumanize disabled people.

This is a major problem in almost all activist spaces, especially as someone who is both neurodivergent and mentally ill. I’ve found that even in communities of LGBT+ people, people of color, women, people of size etc., intelligence-based insults are still widely used. It doesn’t matter where I go; even spaces that are seemingly aware of social justice issues generally omit disabled people from their activism.

Despite this, I know that many abled people just don’t know any better and don’t have the information to better themselves in their allyship to disabled people. Indeed, I’d like to believe that the majority of abled people don’t wake up wanting to harm us. Thus this article is for those people.

First of all, ‘intelligence’ doesn’t actually mean anything. While it’s commonly recognized as a group of things (e.g. memory, knowledge, speed), these all aren’t actually correlated at all. If I were to propose to you that someone is intelligent, there isn’t one specific idea of what that person might be like. Do they have a lot of knowledge? Are they well read? Are they able to process information quickly? Can they speak multiple languages? In reality, there is an infinite amount of things that being ‘intelligent’ can indicate.

Furthermore, the majority of people can be viewed as ‘intelligent’ in some ways, but also ‘unintelligent’ in others. For example, I have quite a large vocabulary and I’m continually improving my lexicon by reading texts in a variety of genres and forms. To some, that might signify that I’m ‘intelligent’. However on the flip side, I’m both somewhat ‘slow’ at processing information and communicating it, and I also have a stutter. To some, this would elucidate that I am in fact ‘unintelligent’ (by ableist standards of ‘intelligence’). Therefore, ‘intelligence’ isn’t really one specific thing, and is ultimately insignificant in determining someone’s value for their humanity.

Moreover, intelligence tests have ableist roots. When creating the first intelligence tests, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon weren’t actually just trying to measure intelligence; rather “mental retardation in school children”. They wanted to identify children who needed extra help in schools, particularly those who had disabilities, and distinguish them from children who were perceived as ‘normally intelligent’. Despite this, Binet and Simon still called it an intelligence test, essentially associating being disabled with being unintelligent and creating an ableist hierarchy of ‘intelligence’ that remains to this day. This has had severe ramifications.

During World War I, intelligence tests were used to evaluate and assign Army recruits to their tasks. However, these supposed intelligence tests weren’t a measure of ‘intelligence’ but rather a familiarity with American culture. As a result, these tests reinforced ableist (and oftentimes racist and xenophobic) views and values, all in the name of supposed ‘intelligence’. Additionally, at the end of the First World War, IQ tests were used to screen immigrants as they entered the United States at Ellis Island, resulting in many inaccurate and harmful generalizations about entire groups of people. This led to ‘intelligence experts’ urging Congress to enact immigration restrictions, and influenced the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.

Thus ‘intelligence’ as a concept has ableist (as well as racist and xenophobic) foundations, and has been used for centuries to justify ableism. Not only are slurs such as ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ dehumanizing, but they also uphold the ableist hierarchy of intelligence established by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon with their first intelligence tests. Insulting someone based on their perceived intelligence isn’t creative nor is it productive, and it definitely isn’t something an ally to disabled people does. While I understand how normalized and common it is to resort to intelligence-based insults, respecting the humanity of disabled people must come first.


Feature Image from Leafly

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