Updated: Feb 17, 2022
noun [ C ]
When I started secondary school, the word “spaz” and “gimp” were being thrown around. Everything (or everyone) that was even a little out-of-the-ordinary was rendered “spaz”. These words were used in the same casual derogatory way that “gay” was. “Retard”, “downs”, “autistic” were pretty common too. Or “special needs” in a particularly wincing voice with a hard stress on the “s” sound followed by the “eeds”. This is based off my recollections: these words may still be in use or have been replaced by similar words.
I remember the strange self-identification I found in “spaz”.
The feeling of: oh, I’ve heard that word before.
Then, the second pin dropping: that word describes me.
In its school setting, the word had been divorced from its original medical meaning. At eleven, I was not so open about my physical disability. And when people did know about my physical disability, they didn’t know “spastic” was one of the words that came up in my appointments. Of course, the way it was said was incredibly different. Doctors inspecting the “spasticity in the fingers” never said “spaz”. They didn’t elongate the “z” sound like the “z” on a keyboard being held down for an eternity. It wasn’t followed by laughter. They were simply describing my body out loud.
A girl with a disabled older brother disliked people using these derogatory terms around her. So, no one did.
But I hid in plain-sight as the word “spaz”, “gimp”, and “special needs” were tossed around. It was similar to how I imagine closeted gay young people felt hearing the word “gay” used as a derogatory term. When I had to tread down to the closet-sized SEN room, people assumed that I was dyslexic. I corrected them by saying that I was not dyslexic but struggled to follow it up with what I was.
When people said the word “spaz”, it pinched, and I was ill-prepared for it.
I was almost certain that the other eleven-year-olds were not making the connection: spasticity > cerebral palsy > limp and reduced movement on left side > Scarlett. At least, no one called me “spastic” with a deliberate awareness of that connection. If they called me “spaz”, it was because they called everyone one.
Still, the origin of the word remained. The journey from the medical terminology to the playground insult existed. Many of the people using the word likely only had a vague sense of the origin of the word. Indeed, it is probably this vague knowledge that made using the word feel exciting. When the girl with the disabled older brother highlighted the meaning of the word, people treated it seriously.
Spaz, along with “retard” and “downs” became so imbedded in our language that its usage did not define the mean from the nice kids. It was used so casually, so flippantly. Not that I am saying that this made its usage okay.
Knowing this meant that I knew people were not directly trying to hurt me.
One time, a friend used it, and I said, ‘do you know, I’m genuinely spastic?’
She thought I was joking. I went into further detail but I don’t know if she was ever convinced.
Perhaps, there’s a badge to be made with the words “genuine spaz”.
However, it’s casual use still has consequences. It still pinches. Why is that words to describe difference can be appropriated so seamlessly into language to have a negative meaning? “Spaz” is not alone in this: it is one of many.
There is a theatre of renaming when it comes to disability. Neutral descriptive words get turned into insults. This forces us to find a new neutral descriptive word – in the full knowledge that it will probably become an insult in good time. It’s a chase. This has led to some interesting trends.
Even as a child, I thought “special needs” was a strange, performative term. (What does it even really mean? Who knows?) It is a term that avoided calling anything what really was for fear of causing offence. (Can’t I be special for something I’ve created? Rather than a womb-mishap?) It is a term that seeks to soften the blow but insults you by suggesting that there is a blow that needs to be softened in the first place. “Special needs” is riddled with memories of being patronised. When people used the words “cerebral palsy” or “disability”, I felt that no one was evading the truth. However, I should point out that whilst this is true for me, that doesn’t make it necessarily true for others. Some people may feel really uncomfortable with the word “disabled”. Ask and listen to the words people like to use to describe themselves.
As I’ve researched into Disability Studies, many have embraced the word “cripple”. A prime example of a medical term evolved into an insult evolved into a word that We All Know We Should Not Say. By the time I was in the playground, “cripple” was a word We All Know We Should Not Say. If you said it, you’d be in trouble.
On the other hand, if you said “spastic”, no one was necessarily going to bat an eyelid. So, for me, there is something thrilling about publicly reclaiming the word “spastic”. There’s something thrilling about saying this word belonged to me and my body first. When I reclaim the word, its use doesn’t pinch me. It’s not fair that other people took it and made it pinch me. Even in typing this, I can feel the able-bodied discomfort every time I type out “spastic”. Maybe its guilt. Perhaps it’s followed up by the quiet question, “isn’t that a bad word?”
It is hard to say what the solution is. Some words are too far gone for reclamation. When we watch documentaries about Victorian lunatic asylums, the recognition of its origin and our use of it today mainly occupies the space of “fun fact”. Is there any point of trying to save the word “lunatic”, to dust off decades upon decades of it being used as an insult, and reincorporate it into the language of mental illness? What about “idiot” or “crazy”?
It is likely that many of the words we use today to describe disability – that we see as neutral, descriptive – will not be in decades to come. My blog post might be blacklisted for being named after and its frequent use of bad words. What an exhausting process. Yet, I obviously can’t hold the tide of language. I can’t still the corruption of words to describe disability from becoming flippant playground insults.
However, we can try to remember the origins of words. We can try to remember who those words belong to. We can try to remember that even if we don’t think we’re saying “spaz” in front of a genuine spaz, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one there (or that someone who knows and loves a genuine spaz isn’t there). Even if there aren’t any genuine spazs there or in the general radius, it’s still important to stay away from these words. We don’t have to steal the language that is used to describe differences. I’ve used “spaz” because I was pinched by that but there are plenty of other words that have undergone this negative transformation. Your mind is probably buzzing with examples now – some you’ve heard, others you’ve used.
But this doesn’t have to be the way. There are pinch-free words. We can free the language of disability from this theatre of renaming: we can let it keep its words. We can leave the language of mental illness, sexuality, and gender alone too.
- Report on Tackling Homophobic Language
- A useful and interesting blog on Disability Language : How To Talk About Disability
- The depressingly enlightening rendition of "spaz" by the Urban Dictionary
- A piece by on the Scope Forum on the name change from 'The Spastic's Society'.