Monday, 5 August 2013

It's not just a word.

This is a part ranting, part polite post to ask people to consider not using ableist language such as 'spazz' 'spack' etc. I've noticed on twitter (and elsewhere) a lot of people using this word, and then when challenged, they claim they didn't realise it was a nasty, horribly offensive word. 

In case you're unaware, 'spazz' and 'spack' are abbreviations of the word 'spastic'. Spastic is a descriptive word used to describe a type of cerebral palsy. I myself have spastic cerebral palsy. It means my muscles are affected by spasticity. Spasticity refers to an unusual tightness and stiffness to muscles, it usually occurs because of brain damage. Spasticity means that muscles become difficult or even impossible to use. It can cause pain because muscles that are tight and stiff can ache and become uncomfortable. It also inhibits function because if muscles are tight and stiff they permanently shorten, this can mean that joints are held in a flexed (bent position) therefore limiting their usage. That is what spasticity and spastic means. 

I can't remember the first time I heard the words 'spack' or 'spazz' or when I even realised they were derogatory terms used to describe people like me. I know I was a child though, because I remember hearing them in school and feeling like I'd been kicked in the stomach. I think I may have realised when kids in school used to do impressions of 'spacks' and I realised they were holding their hands in the same way my hand was. Luckily, I was very rarely called a spack or a spazz to my face. That wasn't to say I wasn't teased because of my cerebral palsy, I was. I was called peg leg Jim throughout my primary school years because I wore a splint on my leg and had a limp. 

I've had people say to me when I've challenged the usage of these slurs that it's just a word and that I don't have the right not to be offended. All I can say to that is that, it's easy for people who are not emotionally affected by such words to say that. As a disabled person, I'm acutely aware of the ableism in society and the barriers I face. To me, the fact that these words are thrown around freely is another barrier. These words have negative connotations and are used in a negative context. People apparently use these words to describe acting like a fool, or being socially awkward, or for being clumsy and dropping things. I don't think my spastic cerebral palsy means I act in this way, or if I did, I don't think my CP is to blame. It's not too bold to suggest that people using such slurs to describe these things could lead to people having negative assumptions about my condition which could impact upon life experiences for people with spastic cerebral palsy. 

Please don't think I'm policing language or whatever, I'm not, I just wanted to say my piece. I've spent a lot of my time talking to others with cerebral palsy and a lot say that they hate this word and that it upsets them. I've spent a long time keeping my fury about these words locked up. I used to feel ashamed and embarrassed when people use these words around me, it made me feel like my cerebral palsy was something to be ashamed of because I knew these were negative words and therefore that must mean that having cerebral palsy was shameful, something to be embarrassed about. Language is powerful, it's emotive, it impacts on people. It has consequences, such words aren't 'just words'. I get that people might use these words and not realise what they mean, I do. That's partly why I've written this to help people understand the origins of the word and to help them understand why some people will be hurt by their usage. 


  1. Great post. I have challenged people before on using a variety of unacceptable words to describe people and often get a response of "Well it's what we have always said" or "I don't mean it as an insult".
    If you don't call people on it, they continue unchecked to hurt people, unintentionally or not. x

  2. Great article

  3. Interesting article. Keep up the good work.

  4. Hi Amy, It's tricky as non-PC words are used in different contexts. The Ch4 programme: "I am spasticus" could be seen as an attempt to identify with people with CP or as more insulting caricature. I see your point, spasm is such a painful experience the effect is doubly infuriating. Francesca Martinez describes herself as "wobbly" or "neurologically inconsistent" here
    It's a puzzle how we can counter the 'negative assumptions'. I say 'we' because I'm strongly in favour of inclusion. Yes, tell us how it feels and that you want to be seen as a person not a condition. I'm all for inclusion in education and work. It may be disheartening to see the extent of prejudice but anger is a powerful motivator to keep fighting. You can't educate everyone and language has a way of escaping constraint. We all need to be brave and treat each other as human beings.

  5. Very interesting to have someone of your intelligence able to express clearly how you feel. Being at the other end of the life scale I can understand how you are feeling. well done you,& thank you. Hope, X,know you will help many other people as well as yourself.