Ableist language can have harmful effects on people living with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Here’s why it’s important to be mindful of the words you use.
Ableism surrounds us every day. In the past 24 hours, many of us may have even used a term that could be considered an ableist slur without realizing it.
Look at these examples of ableist slurs heard in pop culture and learn how to change our language to be better allies to the disability community.
The word “ableism” refers to discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.
Ableism perpetuates the false narrative that people whose bodies and minds are typically abled are superior and that anyone with a disability is inferior or “less.” Ableism often seeks to “cure” or “fix” disability.
Sometimes, ableism is direct and public, such as in buildings that lack braille or the Nazis mass murdering disabled people. Other times, it’s more subtle. It’s important to recognize ableism so we can call it out wherever we see it.
Ableist slurs are a common way we see ableism show up in pop culture. Ableist slurs are any words that reinforce the idea that people with disabilities are inferior. This kind of language includes words like:
You might hear these words in phrases like “you’re so retarded” or “he’s acting so bipolar today.” These terms can come across as hurtful because they can be associated with a person’s identity or challenges. They devalue people with disabilities.
We hear ableist slurs or microaggressions in pop culture all too often. Here are five examples.
When Lizzo released her song “GRRRLS” in the summer of 2022, the lyrics contained the word “spaz:” “Hold my bag, b****, hold my bag/ Do you see this s***? I’m a spaz.”
The word “spaz” is a slang term coming from “spastic,” which describes hypertonic muscles (muscle overactivity, resulting in uncoordinated movements). This term is offensive to people with cerebral palsy.
Members of the disability community — including disability rights advocate Hannah Diviney, who has cerebral palsy — tweeted at Lizzo to express their displeasure. In response, Lizzo released a statement announcing a lyric change, saying, “I never want to promote derogatory language… This is the result of me listening and taking action.”
The song was updated to “Hold my bag, b****, Hold my bag/ Do you see this s***? Hold me back.”
Beyonce made headlines in the summer of 2022 with her song “Heated” — but not in a good way. The song used the word spaz not once but twice, and the whole situation came up just a few weeks after disability advocates had called out Lizzo for doing the same thing.
A spokesperson said, “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.” Beyonce changed the lyrics from “spazzin’ on that ass, spazz on that ass” to “blastin’ on that ass, blast on that ass” on all digital versions of the song.
A week later, Eminem was the next musician to attract attention from the disabled community when he also used the word “spaz” in his song “Godzilla,” where he raps, “These chicks are spazzin’ out.” While the song originally came out in 2020, the accompanying album wasn’t released until this year.
Once again, Hannah Diviney led the charge. “Does no one listen when the disabled community speaks?” she tweeted. “Change the damn lyric. I’m tired.”
Eminem did not respond or change the lyric. In 2017, Eminem also received backlash for using the word “retarded” in his song “Walk on Water.” He did not change those lyrics, either.
The books and movies “A Christmas Carol” and “The Secret Garden” both use the word “cripple.” In “A Christmas Carol,” author Charles Dickens describes a young boy named Tiny Tim as a cripple. While the book was originally published in 1843, even modern movies still use this term.
In “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Colin is also called a cripple. Also, by the end of the story, he is miraculously cured — playing into another ableist trope that’s far too commonly seen in movies.
“How about a happy ending that involves us staying disabled? Is that so hard to imagine?” writes Marieke Nijkamp, an author who has a disability.
Instead of calling Tiny Tim and Colin “cripples,” future adaptations of these two stories could instead say simply that these characters have a disability or an injury.
“The Change-Up” is a comedy that came out in 2011 and starred Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman. In one conversation between these two characters, Reynolds says (referring to a young pair of twins), “Why can’t they talk yet? Are they retarded or something? The one on the left looks a little Downsy.”
Disability bloggers quickly called out the film on its extremely hurtful language. The Special Olympics asked Universal Pictures to apologize, saying, “People with intellectual and developmental disabilities deserve the same respect of their human dignity as everyone else in our society.”
When members of the disability community commented on the film’s and the studio’s Facebook pages regarding the issue, both pages removed the ability for followers to comment.
For people who live with chronic illnesses, terms and phrases like these can be extremely hurtful. Think about it: Would you like to hear someone casually use words that directly target you, lessening your value?
Studies suggest ableism feeds the idea that disability is negative and undesirable. For individuals who have a chronic illness or disability, hearing ableist slurs can even contribute to mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and feelings of inferiority or powerlessness.
Also, these slurs only scratch the surface of ableism. Ableism goes much further beyond simply language. There are many different types of ableism — such as hostile actions that are openly aggressive or benevolent actions that seek to “rescue” the “poor disabled person” — that occur on various levels of society (like the institutional level or interpersonal level).
People who experience ableism might have trouble accessing proper healthcare, good education, good jobs, living situations, and much more. Ableism can affect people physically, emotionally, socially, and in every other aspect of their lives.
The average English speaker knows around 40,000 words. With so many options, there’s no excuse to continue using harmful language. Use these alternatives in place of ableist words:
If Beyonce and Lizzo can do it, you can, too.
We’ve all been careless with the language we use. But once you know the ramifications that ableism can have, there’s no excuse. Next time you’re tempted to use a word like “cripple,” “spaz,” or “retard,” stop and think about a better alternative. Then take action to call out ableism wherever you see it.
Medically reviewed on January 18, 2023
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