Choosing the right words, especially around disability, matters more than we might think

For people living with disabilities language is all the more powerful. It can both hurt as well as accord respect

Afghan women with mobility impairment consequences of polio participate in a wheelchair basketball friendly match during part of a polio vaccination campaign in Herat on August 23.  AFP
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Two years ago, I was awarded the UAE fellowship for the Carter Centre for mental health journalism, of which The National is the UAE organiser. As my topic was the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of disabled people, I set out to interview some of them, but little did I know of what awaited me. To my great shock, no one responded to my request and the more I persisted, the more that I realised there is something deeper behind this. When I asked one disability organisation as to why there is this lack of interest to participate, the answer was simple: distrust of how they might be represented by certain sections of the media.

In reality, it is not just the media; disabled people have often felt misrepresented and even insulted by the language used to describe them, across every field or industry.

“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 is so important, and dangerous, if used unwisely, as it can lead society into further ignorance or enlightenment.

Over the years, we have become accustomed to phrases such as he or she "lost" their battle with cancer, as though the person who died didn’t fight strongly enough, or they died as a "loser". It can be argued that such inference can come down to interpretation, but should we not consider how hurtful such phrases must seem to their loved ones?

Recently, there was an article in an English newspaper on a fashion blogger living with multiple sclerosis, portrayed as a victim, with words such as "MS sufferer", rather than "living with MS", "confined to a wheelchair" rather than "wheelchair user", and by describing MS as a "disease" rather than "a condition". These words might seem minor or irrelevant to some, but they carry an underlying message that is often absorbed by the reader and influences the way society addresses or treats disabled people.

One reason discrimination still exists across the globe against disabled people is the language surrounding disability. How can employers hire disabled people when for so long they have read that disabled people are "victims"? Is it any wonder that many mainstream schools reject disabled children because, again, they have been taught or have imbibed the message that disabled children are needy and a burden?

The problem gets amplified when celebrities use callous terminology.

Over the summer, there was backlash from the disabled community after both singers Beyonce and Lizzo recently used the term “spaz” on album tracks. And although both women reacted quickly to the backlash – Lizzo swiftly removing the offensive term after being called out by disability activists – it is baffling how the marketing or media management team behind her could not spot the derogatory term and check offensive language that would have prevented such an episode in the first place.

Soon after that incident, social media was ablaze by Beyonce's use of the word “spaz” in the song Heated, from her latest album Renaissance. Just days after its release, a spokesperson for Beyonce released a statement noting that “the word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced".

Like Lizzo, Beyonce listened and swiftly responded to criticism of the lyric. And while it is admirable to admit a mistake and apologise, unfortunately, in this case, the damage was done.

The average person might think, what is the issue, but the slang is derived from the word spastic or spasticity, that describes conditions in which the muscles of the body cannot be controlled, leading to movement that is not co-ordinated. Over the past few decades, the associated terms have entered popular culture as a pejorative to describe someone lacking in physical competence and are particularly hurtful for those living with cerebral palsy – a neurological condition where spasticity is a prominent feature.

Nor is this a one-off incident. Disabled people have been the target of discriminatory language and behaviour for a long time. A few years ago, a British TV show titled It was Alright In the ‘60s gave many music fans a shock, when it aired a segment that featured John Lennon mocking disabled people.

The clip was filmed at one of The Beatles’ performances, and in it Lennon urges the crowd to clap and stamp their feet, while making movements that have been described by one Twitter user as “distasteful learning disabilities impressions”. The Channel 4 programme is designed to highlight the ways in which the entertainment industry, and our ideas of what is acceptable, have changed over the years. This clip has been one of the most shocking yet. When a figure as well-known as John Lennon could mock disability, then people who idolised and still idolise him, may well copy his behaviour and believe it is permissible to do so.

Unfortunately, there are no dearth of examples.

Gal Gadot, the Israeli model and actress, tweeted a tribute to Stephen Hawking, the physicist, writer and cosmologist, when he died, which said, he's now "free of any physical constraints". As though professor Hawking was trapped in a constrained body. Imagine just for a second how someone with a similar disability to him must feel reading this? That regardless of all of professor Hawking’s achievements and education, he was still perceived as "trapped" in an unwanted body. It's just another example of casual ableism – which refers to discrimination in favour of able-bodied people.

Who can forget former US president Donald Trump ridiculing a reporter with a congenital joint condition that limits movement in his arms. "Now, the poor guy – you ought to see the guy: "Uh, I don't know what I said. I don't remember,'" Mr Trump said, as he contorted his arms in an apparent imitation of journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis. When a president of the most powerful country in the world could be so blase about humiliating a disabled people, then what hope do we have left for the society he represents?

Even a figure loved by many, the comedian Ricky Gervais, is guilty of the same ignorance. A few years ago, Ash Atalla, the producer of The Office, had said that the jokes Gervais made about his disability made him feel “a little bit uncomfortable”. Atalla uses a wheelchair after contracting polio as a child. While accepting a prize for The Office at the British Comedy Awards in 2001, Gervais joked that Atalla was the show’s runner. He also referred to Atalla as “my little wheelchair friend” and quipped that he was “just the same as Stephen Hawking, but without all the clever stuff”.

Gervais was one the first to defend Chris Rock, a fellow comedian, who earlier this year at the Oscars mocked the actor Jada Pinkett Smith for her alopecia, which is an auto-immune disorder that causes excessive hair fall. Rock was slapped by her husband Will Smith for his "joke". Yet Gervais failed to see the gravity of Rock’s words, in a live Twitter session, Gervais said: “Someone said it was joking about her disability. “Well I’m going a bit thin, so I’m disabled. That means I can park right up next to Tescos now.” He added: "And I’m fat. That’s a disease, isn’t it?" Gervais then joked how he should be able to apply for benefits due to his “disability”.

The question again rises: how can celebrities not realise their error? Surely there is a team of publicists that can direct them to what is wrong and right, even though it should be common knowledge? Would they have been so oblivious to such offence if it was aimed at other marginalised communities? Or is it that disabled people are an easier target?

Now some segment of society will fail to understand the effect of such words and behaviour on disabled people. They might say, "Oh, it's just a joke" or "You are being too sensitive" or too "woke". But how would they feel if it was directed at them? Or if other minorities were at the receiving end of such attitudes? Imagine being mocked, attacked or portrayed as a helpless burden. How can disabled people progress, develop and be respected if this is how they are treated and referred to by celebrities with large fan followings?

This must stop. Apologies are not enough. Claiming unawareness is not an excuse in today's digital world. The disabled community must be respected, just as every other community should be and it is the language we use that shows the respect we give people – or take away from them.

Published: September 08, 2022, 4:00 AM