The impact offensive language has on the disability community
Words can be more powerful than weapons – they can break or make a person. Very often, the offensive language and words someone uses can also indicate their character.
Our writer, Raya Al-Jadir, shares some of the ways society and high-profiled people have used derogatory terms and how it has impacted the disability community.
Please be aware that this article includes language that some people may find offensive.
“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going”, Rita Mae Brown, the American feminist writer once said.
This is precisely why language can be a dangerous tool if not used wisely, as it can lead society into further ignorance or enlightenment, depending on the words.
Negative language describing impairments and conditions
Over the years, we have become accustomed to sentences such as, “He or she ‘lost’ their battle against cancer” as though the person who just died didn’t ‘fight’ strongly enough, or they died as a ‘loser’ – how hurtful must it be to their loved ones?
I recently came across an article about a fashion blogger living with multiple sclerosis (MS) in a well-established newspaper. The words that were used in the article turned the successful fashion blogger into a ‘victim’ and a source of ‘pity’.
It used the words and phrases “MS sufferer” rather than living with MS, and “confined to a wheelchair” rather than a wheelchair user, and described MS as a “disease” instead of a condition.
These words might seem minor or irrelevant to some but they carry a message and meanings that will be absorbed by the reader and influence the way society addresses or treats disabled people.
Using offensive language in song lyrics
This is precisely why there was such a backlash from the disabled community after both Lizzo and Beyoncé recently used the ableist term “spazz” on album tracks.
Although both women reacted quickly to the backlash, with Lizzo swiftly removing the offensive term in early June from the song Grrrls after being called out by disability activists.
The lyrics were: “Hold my bag, bi**h, hold my bag…Do you see this sh*t? I’m a spaz”. It is rather baffling how Lizzo or the big team behind her could not spot the derogatory and offensive language that was being used.
Over the past few weeks, social media was once again set ablaze by Beyoncé’s use of the word “spaz” in the song Heated – a title co-written with Canadian rapper Drake and forming part of the multi-award-winning artist’s latest album Renaissance, which was met with critical acclaim on 29th July.
The song was released with the lyrics “Spazzin’ on that ass, spazz on that ass.” Just days after Renaissance‘s release, a spokesperson for Beyoncé released a statement on August 1st noting that, “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.”
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So, like Lizzo, Beyoncé listened and responded quickly to criticism of the lyrics. In Lizzo’s case, mere days after the single was released, she changed the lyrics, re-recorded the song, launched the new version on her YouTube channel and also issued a public statement.
While it’s an admirable trait to admit your mistake and apologise, unfortunately, the damage has been done – words hurt and that hurt will not evaporate. You can say something hurtful in 10 seconds, but 10 years later, the wounds can still be there and it can impact an individual’s mental health.
The average person might question what the issue with using such a slur is, but ‘Spazz’, the slang, is derived from the word spastic or spasticity. This has its origins in medical terminology to describe conditions in which the muscles of the body cannot be controlled leading to uncoordinated movements.
Over the decades, the associated terms have entered popular culture as a pejorative to describe someone lacking in physical competence. It is particularly hurtful for those living with cerebral palsy – a neurological condition in which spasticity is a prominent feature.
This is not the first time that the word has been used in recent hip-hop or pop lyrics. G Perico and Remble released a song in 2021 called Spazz, while Lil Baby included a track with the same name on his 2018 release Harder Than Ever.
This was also the case for Lil Durk in 2018 with his album STTS III and Lecrea, who included the song on his 2012 Church Clothes mixtape.
Key Glock released Spazzin’ Out in 2019 and Kid Cudi included the song CuDi Spazzin’ on his 2008 A Kid Named Cudi album.
Other acts who’ve used the term in songs include:
- Method Man – Spazzola
- I. – Spazz Out
- Lady Leshurr – Spazzing
- Fredo Santana – Spazz Out
- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 – Spazz Out 2
- Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus’ band the Jicks – Spazz
- Waka Flocka Flame – Spazz Out
- Yo Gotti – Spazz Out (Intro)
- Riff Raff (with Travis Barker) – Spazz Out
There are even several artists who’ve used the term as a stage name, including Spazzy D, Lil Spazz, Spazz and Spazzkid.
Here, the question forces itself – how do stars with such caliber not have someone on their team who might look over their lyrics for any potential issues of this kind?
Would they have been so oblivious to such offensive language if it was aimed at other marginalised communities? Or is it that disabled people are more of an easy target?
This ‘slur’ debacle has continued. This time rapper Eminem used the derogatory term on his new album. Godzilla. The song that contains the slur was originally released in 2020, but the album it features on only came out last week, just days after Beyoncé’s lyric change.
Sadly, while the disabled community was celebrating Disability Pride Month, the likes of Lizzo, Beyonce and Eminem were setting a different tone amongst the wider society, one that I believe will set disabled people back 50 years.
Celebrities making verbal abuse and hurtful jokes about disability
Noel Gallagher recently joined in with this atrocious trend. He came under fire for comments he made after attending Glastonbury Festival this year, and was “vile” by disability charity Scope.
Noel made the comments while reflecting on his time at Glastonbury on The Matt Morgan Podcast. The former Oasis star detailed how he used his pass to get onto a platform to watch Jamie T, not realising it was the disabled viewing platform.
He then joked about the idea of assaulting someone in a wheelchair by tipping them out of it so his son could have a seat.
Noel also quipped that he might tell someone in a wheelchair they “can walk” and to “rise” after touching them on the forehead. “I gotta say, those disabled cats have a great view of everything,” he continued.
Do any of these so-called celebrities realise that this is a form of bullying or verbal abuse? Do they not know how hurtful and cruel such words are?
A few years ago, golfer Tiger Woods’ comment on his performance at the 2006 Masters, given in a CBS interview, received widespread condemnation in the UK. He stated, “I was so in control from tee to green, the best I’ve played for years… But as soon as I got on the green, I was a spaz.”
Therefore, it is not a new trend nor is it a one-off incident, it is something that has been consistently cropping up for many years and it must stop!
Apologies are not enough, claiming unawareness is not an excuse in our digital world. Most importantly, the disabled community must be respected just as other communities are.
What are your feelings on people using offensive and hurtful language, such as “spazz”, “confined to a wheelchair” and “disease”? Share your thoughts in the comments box or on Facebook and Twitter @Dhorizons.
By Raya Al-Jadir
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