So yesterday I was sucked into a discussion about the term “spaz”. That’s why I hate social media: I don’t want to waste time and energy and happiness dealing with silly people… ops, things, but I always end up getting angry and wanting to punch people and not saying anything because fighting with people makes me anxious and sad. So this time I tried to have Alex discuss with people and let it be but things escalated and I got angry and wrote a bitter, slightly mean comment about ableism. Funny thing is, I had been wanting to write a post in a long time but didn’t know what to write about. And now I do! Thanks to able-bodied people thinking they know better than disabled!
So, apparently, “spaz” is a word which is used to mean “hyperactive” or something like that in a “neutral” way. “Neutral” is in quotes because well, even if it is used with no intention to offend someone, it is an offensive word. It takes the spasticity a person with CP has and turns it into a derogatory term based on how a person with CP walks, often implying that the person is also mentally challenged… which is mostly not true.
I have to admit that I used it, too, when I was a child. At the time, it was normal to go around limping, crooked, tongue out, bent arms and hands, making strange sounds and saying things like: “Sono una bambina spastica!” (I’m a spastic child). I had never ever seen a child with CP, had no clue what I was doing but I knew pretty well what I was implying is that I or someone else behaved as a challenged person (especially in a mental way). If I remember correctly at some point my parents told me not to say it but I don’t think I understood why. Still, people would use also “Down” or “mongoloid” very lightly and they still do.
Which, to some degree, I think is normal. We don’t really know we are doing something wrong. And it is just so normal to use those words that we don’t even think there could be something wrong with that. “Everyone uses it, so it must be ok”.
The big issue with this conversation is that some people, despite Alex explaining that as a spastic he found it offensive, decided to justify its use. One said that people nowadays are “sensitive PC types”, like being a decent human being now is uncool, too PC. Another said that people should grow a backbone, like being offended because a disability is ridiculed is something to be ashamed of. When did standing up for minorities become being weak? She also told Alex that the pain he was in because of that word being used was the same the woman who first used “spaz” (in a naive way) was feeling because people pointed out it was offensive. So not only was this person saying Alex has no balls, she was also telling him how he was feeling… like she could even imagine. Or like it is anyone’s place to tell others how they feel. Not even my psychotherapist does it…! 😛
But it is even more offensive if an able-bodied person tells a disabled how they feel or should feel. That’s ableism at its best. Those people were schooling a person with a disability on how he should feel and live his disability. Which they clearly did not know anything about… or cared to know. This woman even told him that for sure people would not be offended. Did she ask any person with CP? ANY? Because we did, we actually asked some people if they thought “spaz” is an offensive term and guess what? They said yes.
Yet, it didn’t matter.
These people decided they were right despite being proven wrong. One even tried to say that since it is used in the medical field as an adjective then it can’t be offensive. Also “retarded” is used in medicine yet I think that almost everyone knows that you should NOT go around calling people that… Of course, the origin of the name is medical, it’s aseptic and free of prejudices (well… kind of, see how even doctor say it?). But people who have no clue about medicine started to use the word as a derogatory term and it became part of our vocabulary.
Also “handicapped” is part of our vocabulary and it’s offensive. Yet I’ve read people write that it is not. Able-bodied people advocating for the use of “handicapped” because they decided it was ok to legitimize its use in order to help people with disabilities…?! But if we just care to look around and open our eyes, we would see all the campaigns (usually around the time some big sport events involving disabled athletes take place) being done about the use of better words than “handicapped”, terms that focus on the person first and then mention the disability. If there is the need for such campaigns which are designed by people with disabilities… maybe it is because they do get offended if called “handicapped” and would be happier if other words were used…? Why should we still decide to dismiss it?
It’s kind of like being white and going to a person of color and telling them that they should be ok to be called “nigga” because they decided so. “It is to help you! The more we use it, the more it will be accepted!” Which might make sense but seriously: languages are wonderful and have plenty of words. And if a word is not there, we just invent one. How is it possible that we can’t simply use an alternative which is not offensive? By choosing to use a word we now know is derogatory, aren’t we just offending even more? Aren’t we just saying that we don’t care about their feeling, that we don’t care about their rights, for example, that of being heard and not discriminated?
The “backbone growing” woman said that words are not important. They are. Words are what we use to communicate and to shape the world along with actions. Words are what we can use to educate other (hello!) and to make the world a better place. Words hurt and one shouldn’t need to grow a backbone if people were simply more caring and attentive. Words are what we teach our children so that they won’t go around telling they or others are “spaz”… and then maybe ending up marrying one just like me! Words can lift others up, can make them feel good and accepted. Words can be inclusive. Words can even tear down architectural (and not only) barriers because if we listen, we can use the words we are told and put them into action.
I think we, as able-bodied, have the enormous power to change the world for people with disabilities and in general, to make the world a better place. I won’t say that it would benefit us because who knows, we could become disabled anytime soon. That is true but I think it’s also one of those things that don’t really sink in until you experience them, like “you’ll see when you have children” or “when you’re old” or “don’t drink and drive because you could kill others” or “get a cat, you’ll be happier”… I will say that it would make us better people. Caring for others, being open, being part of the world as much as possible among the most beautiful things a person can do. And it doesn’t take that much. We are used to thinking that changes require too much time, too much effort, too many people and maybe it won’t even work so why bother? Because we have ears, we have words, we have feelings, we have each other. Let’s change something together.