Tag Archives: words mean things

Recommended Reading for 18 October 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

The first two links were sent in by Penny at Disability Studies from Temple U! Thanks Penny!

Knitting Clio: Ableism and NARAL Pro-Choice America

via NARAL Pro-Choice America, which is running a pro-choice slogan campaign.  Here are the choices:





I voted for the first one — why?  Because using “insanity” to discredit opponents trivializes persons with mental illness — a group that already experiences social marginalization and oppression.

Media dis&dat: South Carolina woman with Down syndrome volunteers as teacher’s aide in special ed classroom (Extra Special Trigger Warning for description of exploitative labor practices passed off as Very Special Favors done by abled folk)

“She had been working at a fast-food place, but they were really taking advantage of the fact that she was disabled,” Masaki said. “So, I offered her a ‘job’ here.”

Brown’s unpaid job is to be a teacher’s aide in Masaki’s classroom. While the position is voluntary, Brown works like the two full-time paid teacher’s aides, Rita Evans and Wendy Usary. The paid aides help Masaki with the classroom teaching everything from potty training to table manners to play time to desk work.

Brown helps control the children and helps keep the classroom running the three days a week she’s there.

The following post, which made me so angry I really cried because I hate the world sometimes, was sent in by reader Blake:

NYTimes.com: Mentally Ill US Citizen Wrongly Deported (TW, because the title doesn’t even begin to cover how awful this is!)

A mentally disabled U.S. citizen who spoke no Spanish was deported to Mexico with little but a prison jumpsuit after immigration agents manipulated him into signing documents allowing his removal, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges. His lawyers say the agents ignored records showing his Social Security number, while prison officials wouldn’t tell concerned relatives what happened.

Health Behavior News Service: Kids With Chronic Illness, Disability More Apt to Be Bullied

The study showed that students who reported having a disability or chronic illness — no matter where they lived — were more likely to be experience bullying from peers than those who did not. For instance, in France, 41 percent of boys with a disability or chronic illness reported undergoing bullying compared with 32 percent of boys without. Gender, however, was not a factor — boys and girls were victims equally often.

In addition, when students with a disability or chronic illness were restricted from participating in school activities, they had a 30 percent additional risk of being bullied.

Garland Grey at Tiger Beatdown: The Problem with Policing Someone Else’s Mental Health

Marginalized people are particularly susceptible to having their emotions pathologized, partly because their experiences aren’t typical. When young queers are experiencing depression related to the stigma of their sexuality, people like Tony Perkins swoop in to point the blame at their sexuality, and not the stigma that they themselves are perpetrating. Women, queers, the disabled, people of color, political dissidents, atheists; all of these groups have a history of being labeled “insane” to control them.

If you’re on Delicious, feel free to tag entries ‘disfem’ or ‘disfeminists,’ or ‘for:feminists’ to bring them to our attention! Link recommendations can also be emailed to recreading at disabledfeminists dot com. Please note if you would like to be credited, and under what name/site.

Dear Imprudence: Just Toughen Up Already!

Oh, Ask Amy. You’re still on my shit list for your rape apologism, and yet, I keep reading your column. I admit it, I mainly do it so that I can find particularly awful pieces of advice to feature here.

This week, a high school student writes about a problem she’s experiencing at home:

Dear Amy: I’m a high school student and feel like I am being verbally abused by my brother, who constantly tells me that I don’t do things right.

For example, he criticizes me for not putting dishes away after I am done with them.

Whenever he criticizes me, he says things like, “You’re lazy.” Or he’ll say, “If you continue to make these choices then you probably won’t have the greatest path you can have in life.”

Whenever we get into an argument, he says he’s smarter than I am because I have a GPA of 3.85 and his is 4.3 (he’s taken AP classes).

His words hurt me and my self-esteem suffers, even if I know he doesn’t really mean it. I do believe he loves me for who I am, but this bothers me.

I don’t know how to handle this problem.

— Hurt Sister

Let’s be clear here. Hurt Sister is saying that what her brother is doing is actively hurting her. She cites that it’s a blow to her self esteem, and it makes her feel bad. She’s writing to ask for help. It’s worth noting that all over the world, every single day, people experiencing verbal abuse cry out for help, and they often get responses exactly like Amy’s:

Dear Hurt: A big brother riding you about not cleaning up the kitchen, or saying he’s smarter than you, is not verbal abuse.

People have different qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Your brother might have a better GPA, but you might be a compassionate friend (he sounds lacking in the compassion department). He might be good at chemistry but you might be good at languages, art or geometry. Your GPA would put you at the tippy top in my household (and most households).

Words do hurt. But they hurt less if you make a healthy choice to let the stuff roll off you that you know isn’t true. Your parents should nip this in the bud, but you shouldn’t leave your brother in charge of your self-esteem.

Evidently you never learned the comeback to petty sibling badmouthing. The next time he calls you lazy or dumb, you say, “I know you are, but what am I?”

All together now: Wrong! You know what is verbal abuse? Something that someone identifies as abuse because that person is experiencing it. There are definitely degrees of verbal abuse, but they are all abusive. This is a short letter. We don’t know all the details. But it seems to me, reading between the lines, that her brother is constantly hounding her, is constantly making her feel small and worthless, is constantly saying that he is better than her, is constantly reminding her that she is ‘not doing things right’ and, you know what? That can become highly abusive when you are hearing it over and over.

Especially if you are aware of how it is impacting the way you feel about yourself. Hurt Sister is not writing in to say ‘this is annoying and it bugs me,’ she is writing to say this hurts me and I want it to stop.

Amy’s response is the equivalent of the old ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ adage, with a side of ‘you shouldn’t let the things that other people say about you affect you.’ Well, guess what. Words hurt people. The things that people say about (and to) you affect you, whether you like it or not. It’s not always possible to make a ‘healthy choice’ to ignore verbal abuse, especially when you are a high school student, in your own home, a place that should be safe, and your family member is subjecting you to it.

Contrast this letter with this week’s Dear Prudence, where a reader writes in about being increasingly afraid of her husband because of verbal abuse and acts of violence. Here’s what Prudie said:

There is no excuse for the kind of assault he is inflicting on you…He sounds potentially dangerous, and just an arm adjustment away from punching your jaw instead of the wall. Stop apologizing and start packing. You may even need someone to accompany you when you get your things and tell him you will no longer live in fear in your own home…Nice line he spewed about not faulting him for your faults. Now he can contemplate how it’s his fault that your marriage is about to come apart.

Verbal abuse is abuse.  It’s abusive and it’s hurtful and, as Prudence points out, it can escalate to physical violence. I’m not saying that Hurt Sister is in physical danger from her brother, but I am saying that her feeling, that this is abuse, is valid, because she is experiencing it, and Amy should have recognised that and provided her with some assistance on addressing it, instead of telling her, basically, to toughen up.

There’s a prevailing and extremely dangerous attitude that verbal abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That attitude manifests in the way that people at all levels deal with abuse, from teachers handling bullying to human resource directors in offices with hostile work environments. If an abuser uses words alone to harm people, that abuser is far more likely to get away with it, and the responsibility for dealing with it will be placed solely on the victim. It’s the victim’s fault for being ‘too sensitive’ and not ‘toughening up.’

I’d hazard that a fair number of FWD readers have probably experienced verbal abuse at some point in their lives, and may even be experiencing it now. How many people are told ‘just toughen up’ or ‘just ignore it’?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Suggestions for Dear Imprudence features are always welcome in my inbox! (meloukhia at gmail dot com)

I Bet It’s Exactly Like That!

[Trigger Warning for descriptions of violent thoughts of self harm]

Oh, by now, faithful readers, you know where we are about to go. We are about to go on a little journey into my mind, the scary place that it is, where I open the floor to discussion about the ways that, once again! Stars and Stripes has managed to get so much so wrong. Because tonight, gentle readers, as I clutch the place that might be close to where my duodendum is and sip my Korean Red Ginsing tea, which the lady at the market told me might help my indigestion, I am reminded once again that I am my mental health are nothing but a metaphor to be co-opted at someone’s convenience!

Let me give you a little background here, because the only online version I can scrape up is this e-version of the print edition, and while WAVE found no accessibility issues with it, I am not going to guarantee that it will be accessible to everyone or accommodating of everyone’s needs. It is, however, a way around their habit of not putting all of their content in their online version (and also allows deployed troops to access the daily paper as well). The front page has the story’s picture, of a white male soldier in Army Green uniform: a light green collared shirt, black tie, green jacket with various awards and pins, a black belt, a black beret, holding a rifle with a bayonet affixed to it. The text on the photo says “Model soldiers [break] Every detail counts when you’re trying to join the storied Old Guard”. The actual article starts on page 4 if you are so inclined to read.

The Old Guard is a ceremonial guard that headquartered out of Fort Meyer, VA, and performs most of its duties in Arlington National Cemetary, similar to the Navy’s Ceremonial Guard, in that they perform many military funerals daily with the cleanest of precision. Their military bearing is expected to be above and beyond that of any other in their branch of service. Their uniforms are expected to be ridiculously perfect, with exquisite attention to the finest aspects of the details, not missing a single loose thread or even a speck of lint. A scuff on your shoe could set you back a week in training. They stand grueling hours at “attention” (The Navy’s Ceremonial Guard does this while holding the business end of the rifle and keeping the butt parallel to the ground for hours, I do not know about the Army’s Old Guard. Full disclosure: I once and briefly dated a guy from the Ceremonial Guard). Everything you know about military bearing is wrong when you arrive for duty, and it is re-taught to “look better”, including the way you turn, march, stand, dress, and press your uniforms (you are even issued special dress white uniforms that are made to withstand the repeated ironing in the Navy Ceremonial Guard).

Do you see what I did there?

I was able to give you some brief background on the very strict regulations of the Old Guard and the Ceremonial Guard without using ableist language. I didn’t once have to compare soldiers or sailors who are required to iron their uniforms exactly right, or who are trained to notice when their medals are one sixteenth of an inch off from the proper dress line to someone who actually obsesses over things like drinking bleach or shoving cork screws in her eyes. Or what it would feel like to jump from a fifth floor balcony.

Because these, my gentle readers, are actual obsessions. They actually intrude on your thoughts and disturb your life, and are really very upsetting, I can assure you. They make you do things, like pull out your hair, burn yourself with a curling iron, wash your hands again and again, and pick at the little imperfections on your skin. Yes sometimes you even iron your uniform again and again and again because you just can’t get it right and double creases are the End of The Universe as We Know It, but it might be because you are certain that if you stop then you are going to iron your hand, not because your Leading Petty Officer is going to chew you out (or your whole division, I mean, does the article expect me to believe that the entire Old Guard has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Because that is not on the application!) but maybe because you recently thought that you might do something very harmful to someone you loved if you stopped holding that iron very tightly. Even if your LPO has put the fear of Cthulhu in you.

Being part of an elite military unit who is honored to be charged with memorializing the fallen and handing flags to their loved ones* or escorting the President or guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a pretty powerful thing, I am sure. The end result of the intense training, of the weeks and weeks of repeated inspections and physical demands, might very well leave some people with OC tendencies or maybe even OCD outright I suppose — I am not a doctor I don’t know and I don’t pretend to know every experience — but it isn’t the same as living with a condition that sometimes (OK, often) inhibits your day to day ability to live, interact, and (here’s the important one) do your job because you are busy carrying out compulsions to get the damned obsessions out of your head.

Yeah, getting worked up over a uniform inspection? I bet it’s exactly like that!

Only, I’ve been there and done that and bought the cheap t-shirt (hell, I’ve been the OC girl who has had to prepare for uniform inspections!).

It isn’t anything like that at all.

*I want to also point out that the article, for those of you who aren’t able/don’t want to read it via the e-reader the requirements for Old Guard: Must be 5’10 or taller, must have combat experience, blah blabbitty blah. Nothing like another exclusionary Old Boys Club for the military, so they can sit around and pat each other on the backs about how Awesome! they all are. I might note, out of some Branch Pride that the Navy Ceremonial Guard frequently wins the Joint Service competitions and they have *gasp* women in their guard.

Oh, and those people receiving flags? Always widows. Always. Way to erase anyone else who might be a surviving loved one of a fallen troop, there S&S, Army, and anyone else involve. UGH!

Dear Imprudence: Sexual Assault By Any Other Name

The 24 April edition of Dear Abby led with this letter:

Dear Abby: I am an average 17-year-old girl with a big problem. A few days ago, my cousin’s boyfriend touched me inappropriately. It took a few seconds for me to realize what was happening and stop him. I got up and left the room.

I don’t want to tell my mom because she shares what we talk about with other people. I don’t want to tell my cousin because she loves her boyfriend, and if I ruin this for her, she’ll never speak to me again. I have seen her do it with other people.

My cousin visits my house every day with her boyfriend. I have been leaving for hours so I won’t have to see him. Please help me. What other option do I have besides telling somebody? — Staying Silent in Guam

Dear Staying Silent: You have two options. You can remain silent and let your cousin marry a man who has so little self-control that he would not only hit on another woman, but one who is a close relative of hers. Or you can tell your parents what happened so your cousin can be warned, and possibly save her from a world of heartache later on. Please be brave and do the right thing.

What I find fascinating about Abby’s response here is that she doesn’t name, identify, or discuss what happened to Staying Silent. The response is framed as ‘you wouldn’t want your cousin to marry a guy who would cheat on her, right?’

As opposed to ‘you wouldn’t want your cousin to marry someone who commits sexual assault, would you?’

Hrm, I wonder why that might be. Here we have a girl who describes being ‘touched inappropriately’ and says that she is afraid to talk to someone about it. I feel like a supportive and helpful response would name what happened—sexual assault—and provide the reader with resources such as referrals to sexual assault crisis centers or organizations like RAINN. Staying Silent did have another option; talking with a counselor instead of a family member about what happened, and maybe talking with the counselor about a way to bring this event up with her family.

Instead, Dear Abby didn’t address the actual event which occurred and informed Staying Silent that she should ‘be brave’ and ‘do the right thing’ by telling her parents. Refusing to name sexual assault is one of the reasons it is so hard to address. Calling sexual assault ‘hitting on’ someone makes it that much harder for a victim to identify it in the future; when Staying Silent is groped on a bus, is that being ‘hit on’? How about when she’s pressured into unwanted sexual contact by a partner?

How monumentally unhelpful.

Staying Silent, if you’re out there and you happen to be reading this: What happened to you was sexual assault. It was not ok. Some resources you might find helpful are the Guam Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence and the Healing Hearts Crisis Centre, both of which offer counseling services.

Guest Post: Storytime

Cara is a feminist writer who blogs at both The Curvature and Feministe. She likes The Beatles, vinyl records, and social justice, though not necessarily in that order.

The first time I saw someone say in a progressive space that it was ableist to use the word “lame” as a pejorative, I thought they were ridiculous. Honestly, I’m telling you right now. I did. I thought all of those things that you most commonly see argued whenever someone is called out on using the word or one like it. It’s not used like that anymore. No one is thinking about disability when they use the word lame. That’s not what it means. It just means bad, and it’s especially useful because it not only means bad, but also bad in a kind of pathetic and sad way … and no, I’m not going to think about what that certain connotation of the word means when it’s a word that also can be used to refer to a disability because it’s not used that way anymore, so it doesn’t matter.

I didn’t make an ass of myself publicly and argue as much. But I thought it. A lot.

And so I didn’t stop using it right away. I didn’t stop, because I used the word a lot, and because I liked using it. And I didn’t want to stop. And I thought that the reasons to stop were silly.

But I couldn’t say it the same way anymore. Every time I said it, every single time, I felt a jolt, a little jab in my spine, a little pain in my heart, a little tightness in my throat. It wasn’t because I thought I was being a “bad progressive,” because frankly the popular opinion among progressives was that using the word was fine and those who disagreed were wrong. It wasn’t because I realized that my brain was connecting pathetically bad things with disability, because I still didn’t feel like it was. It was because I had seen people say that when I used that word, it hurt them. And not only that it hurt them, but that it hurt them systematically, that it harmed them, and that the harm was oppressive.

I didn’t stop saying “lame” or any other word like it because I had a light bulb moment and realized the social connections between the different meanings of the word, and how there really is a reason that “lame” doesn’t just mean bad but uniquely and pathetically bad, when people with disabilities are so commonly portrayed as pathetic. In the end, I’m not entirely sure that it matters when or even if I started believing that. Because it’s not why I stopped.

I stopped because I didn’t want to hurt people. I stopped because I didn’t want to engage in what I claim to advocate against. I stopped because people told me that it was doing them harm when I did it, and because it hurt me to realize that that hadn’t initially been enough. I stopped saying the word because I realized that it was enough.

When it comes to a lot of language that is offensive to marginalized groups — the kind that is exceedingly common and even generally accepted by most progressives, including the types who take pains to correct someone for calling something “gay” or “retarded” — I have to say that I have difficulty getting angry at an average person who uses it. That, of course, comes from a position of privilege, and a position of having been the person who didn’t know any better about 10,000 times. When it comes to most of these words, I am privileged. These words tend to not denigrate me as a person, my humanity, my existence. It is a privilege that I can say “they don’t know any better” and politely inform them otherwise, that I can give them the benefit of the doubt that they will try their best to not do it again. I’m not saying that I expect otherwise of different people, or that anyone else is wrong to get angry at someone who “doesn’t know any better.” At all. That’s just me.

But. When it comes to people who I know know better, who I know have been informed, who I know have been exposed to the harm that certain types of language can do, common though it may be, and then still not only use it, but use it so frequently that it seems like it’s almost on purpose as some kind of gross defiance … I don’t know quite what to think. But I do know it makes me really, really angry to see.

And it makes me wonder about their progressive credentials, not because I can’t believe that they fail to see the exact theoretical reasons and linguistic history as to why the word is one they should stop using. But because they know they’re harming people, people more and differently marginalized than themselves, no less … and just don’t seem to care.

This post originally appeared at Cara’s Tumblr and has been cross-posted with permission.

Disability is not your analogy

The book we’re reading at present in the online bookclub to which I belong (Radical Readers, go check it out!) is The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. I almost threw it across the room when I reached the following on page 233:

The historical censorship of discussion about sex has left us with another disability; the act of talking about sex, of putting words to what we do in bed, has become difficult and embarrassing.1 […] What you can’t talk about, you can hardly think about – a crippling2 disability.3

nooooOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHhlafoaidygpkj

Gentle readers, welcome to hearing about one of the things in this world of ours that shits me the most.

Disability is not your cute fun analogy. You know why? Disability is its own thing all by itself. Disability is a part of many people’s lives and identities, it’s an experience in the world, a political one, a personal one, a sensitive one, a serious one. It is not a sweet little term you can charmingly appropriate for whatever other purpose pops into your head.

When people use ‘disability’ in that manner, (‘I’m really bad at cooking! It’s like a disability or something.’ ‘[Component of society] is [bad effects] to the extent that it’s like we’re all disabled.’) to me it conveys a good deal about how that person thinks of disability and the unthinking contempt with which they regard disabled people.

For a start, it displays a fundamental lack of understanding as to what disability actually is. Disability is not a silly compartmentalised quirk that you get to pull out and put away as you see fit. It is long term or permanent, it is a life experience, there are all manner of internal and social factors involved. In a strange way this kind of usage has a delegitimising effect on the disabled identity, as though it’s not really a serious thing, or it’s so broad a term as to be available for use in talking about all kinds of other experiences. It’s not an attempt at kinship or understanding; it takes away meaning.

Using it for an analogy appropriates the experience of being disabled. It takes the experience without permission or proper respect and only in part, meaning everything gets skewed. This sort of thing tends to leave out either the dimension of social oppression (as with the cooking example) or the impairment (the ‘we’re all disabled’ example). And it’s always used to say something negative: it’s setting up disability as the go-to reference for bad things. In short, using ‘disability’ for an analogy shows a lack of connection with disabled people’s experiences of disability.

Appropriating chunks of people’s lives is always going to be a not very good idea. When this is done through specifically saying something negative it goes to a whole other level. It’s about some people taking experiences belonging to other people’s lives and using them for easy, unaware reference.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone]

  1. Right folks, the primary, analogy-worthy characteristics of disability are difficulty and embarrassment, let’s all go home.
  2. CRIPPLING?!
  3. What is particularly spectacular about this passage is that it appears shortly after the book’s one page addressing disability.

Quick Hit: Parenting and Ableist Language

A few weeks ago, I went out to dinner at a local restaurant, and I happened to run into one of the owners on my way out the door. I’m friends with the owners, so I stopped to chat for a minute. She (I’ll call her “Susan” for the purpose of this story) has a young son (“James”), and somehow, the topic of language came up. We were discussing cuss words and the process of teaching kids to navigate language and learn what sort of language is appropriate in which settings.

“It’s fine if James says ‘fuck’ at home,” Susan said. “But not stupid. That’s not a nice word. We don’t say that word. Ever.”

Gentle readers, my little black heart briefly turned bright red with delight. She went on to list all of the other ableist language they don’t use at home, and how they explained to James that it wasn’t ok; not least because they have family members with disabilities, so James actually interacts regularly with the people those words are weaponized against.

I like that, from the start, Susan and her husband are teaching James that words mean things, and that they can be dangerous. They’ve told James that when he’s mad at someone and is tempted to use one of those words, or he wants to describe something with one of them, he should think about what he’s trying to express. And they’ve told him to speak out when he doesn’t like the way someone else is talking, which has apparently led to some interesting playground interactions, with James telling kids that “our family doesn’t use that word!”

I’ve interacted with James a few times and I always really enjoy it, and I realized that this is one of the reasons why. He chooses his language carefully and thoughtfully, far more so than other people, and he’s very good at describing things accurately. And he’s one of the few people I can comfortably be around in part because I know that he’s not going to be parroting exclusionary language around me because he’s learned it from his parents or school friends.

Interactions like this give me hope for the next generation, even though I know it’s an uphill battle.

Ableist Word Profile: Moron

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post

Today’s word: moron! As in “what a moron, I can’t believe he forgot to change the filters,” or “she’s such a moron,” or “we had the most moronic discussion in class today.” Moron is another in the long list of ableist words which have their roots in the idea that certain types of intellectual ability are more valuable than others, and, as a bonus, it has a history in a diagnostic context as well. Today, people usually use it when they want to insult someone who lacks knowledge or who is behaving in a way which they deem “stupid.”

Again, it’s interesting to note that this word often comes up in contexts in which the person being insulted lacks knowledge. Someone who hasn’t done the reading for class is called a moron. Someone who hasn’t graduated high school is called a moron. Someone who is not as intimately familiar with an issue as other people are is called a moron. It gets to this idea that knowledge=intelligence.

Fun fact: This word entered English in the early 20th century, from the Greek for “foolish” or “dull.” It was almost immediately appropriated as a diagnostic term by, I kid you not, the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, used to refer to adults with a “mental age” between eight and 12 and an IQ of 51-70. (Hey, did you know that the IQ test is deeply flawed because it was not actually designed to measure “intelligence,” despite the name?) This put them, incidentally, above “idiots” (a “mental age” below six) and “imbeciles” (“mental ages” between six and nine).

By 1922, “moron” was being used as an insult, and it was subsequently dropped from diagnostic use. We use terms like “developmental disability” or “intellectual disability” today to refer to people who formerly would have been diagnosed as “morons.”

Henry H. Goddard, who kindly translated the Binet test into English so that it could be abused to reify intelligence, introduced “moron” into diagnostic use. He also happened to think that people who fell under this classification should be institutionalized, sterilized, and effectively erased from society. (Incidentally, Goddard wasn’t a total jerk, he was also one of the people who pushed for special education in American schools, providing access to education for people who were previously deemed unschoolable.)

Soooo…knowing about the origins of this word, do you still want to  use it to describe human beings? As an insult? I thought not. Every time people use words like “moron,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “feebleminded,” they are hearkening back to an alarmingly recent time in which people were diagnostically labeled with these terms, and that labeling was used to justify heinous abuses. That may not be the case anymore, but the legacy lingers, and so do the social attitudes which supported the belief that people with disabilities were not fit for society.

“Moron” is most definitely ableist, not only because of its history in a diagnostic context, but because of the implications it carries about valuing certain brains over others. This, again, is a word which is tricky to eradicate from one’s word usage because of the ways in which it is used. People use “moron” because they want to insult someone’s intelligence. To stop using this word, you first have to rethink the way you think about “intelligence,” and think about what you actually want to say when you use this word.

Ableist Word Profile: Spaz/Spak

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post

Spaz/spak, both derived from “spastic,” come with a lot of variations. Someone may be said to be a “spaz” or a “spak,” for example. Someone who is behaving erratically is spazzing or spakking out. “Don’t spazz out,” people say dismissively when someone is reacting to a situation in a way which they think is extreme. There have also been proposals to use “spakking up” or “spakface” to describe what we and many others have been referring to as “crip drag,” in which actors without disabilities portray people with disabilities on stage and screen.

These words pop up in some surprising places; doing some research for this AWP, I even found a model of wheelchair called a “Spazz.”

So, what gives? “Spastic” is a word from the Greek, derived from a root which means “drawing or pulling up,” used to describe people who experience muscle spasms. The word dates from the late 1700s, and began to be used in the 1800s to describe people with spasticity. Spasticity can be associated with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions. “Spaz” as a slang term popped up in the 1960s.

To the layperson, someone with spasticity might appear clumsy or inept, because of the muscle jerks and clenches which characterize spasticity; folks with spasticity can have difficulty walking, talking, and so forth because their muscles are not entirely under their control. Thus, it’s not too surprising that people started using “spaz” to refer to people who appeared clumsy, because, you know, why just call someone “clumsy1” when you can use an ableist slur instead?

The word is also used to describe erratic or “crazy” behavior, such as “flipping out,” along with some characteristics of neuroatypicality such as awkwardness in social situations, saying things which appear random, not following a conversation, or simply being “geeky” or “dorky” in the eye of the observer. I’ve also heard the word used in reference to epilepsy, most recently on everyone’s favourite television series, Glee.

Both “spaz” and “spak” have clear ableist roots because they’re shortened versions of an actual diagnostic term. They shouldn’t be used to refer to “spasticity” at all (unless, of course, as self identification by someone with spasticity) and they’re definitely not appropriate as slang terms to refer to people without spasticity. The implication here is that spasticity makes someone worthless, inept, awkward, laughable, useless, etc., and “spaz/spak” have become umbrella terms to refer to a wide range of human behaviour.

Because these words are used in so many different ways, it’s hard to come up with a list of recommended alternate uses. I suppose I could try, but I’d go on for hundreds of words. This is another one of those cases in which it’s worth examining what, precisely, is meant by referring to someone as a “spaz” or “spak” or what one is trying to convey when someone is said to be “spakking out” or “spazzing out.”

One of the most interesting objections to this series, for me, has been the idea that it is “taking words away,” paired with a great deal of resentment about being asked to consider language usage. On the contrast, I think that the series adds words to the vocabularies of readers, because it forces people to articulate and clarify what they actually mean. Instead of leaping to a handy ableist slang term for something, people actually need to think about what they want to communicate, and find a word for it. Maybe I’m just a word geek, but I think that’s really fun, personally, exploring new words to use.

Perhaps readers can come up with some suggestions or examples of replacements to “spaz” and “spak” they’ve started using or encouraging others to use below.

  1. Fun unrelated etymology fact: Clumsy is derived from a Middle English word which refers to being numb with cold.

No, Actually, “Eat a Sandwich” is Not “Feminist Activism”…

…and I’m going to tell you why.

Because the policing of women’s bodies, whether you are being cheeky, or saying it to a plastic doll, is not cool. It’s hurtful and not useful, and has no place in feminist discourse. Can we move past that point? Huh? That’s a pretty Kindy thing, IMNSFHO.

‘Kay.

Moving on.

*The rest of this post is going to use some harsh language that describes my experiences/anger/frustration with Anorexia and Bulimia. I am direct and vulgar and sometimes a little flippant with how I describe my past behavior, and that is how I survived it. This may be triggering to some people. I also swear. A lot.*

There is a point when you are struggling* with an eating disorder that you might find yourself thin. Perhaps painfully thin. Maybe dangerously thin. You know this. You are aware. You haven’t avoided solids for this long, or barfed up all of that dinner you were pretending to enjoy without realizing what this means to your body. You might have some misunderstandings about what your body is actually needing…but you pretty much know.

In fact, everyone knows. All anyone can fucking talk about is how good you look now that you are so skinny…but wait…you just passed so good and have moved into too skinny…(because there is never good enough…too fat or too thin you will never be in)

Seriously, girl, eat a damned burger.

Or a bacon sandwich.

Eat something.

Because, you know, it’s that easy.

In fact (shifting voices), the only thing that anyone said to me that wasn’t so fucking insulting that I didn’t want to scream was “I am not going to insult you by saying how much harm you are doing to yourself because you are a smart girl and I know you know, when you are ready, I’ll be here”.

I watched all the shockudrama’s that were meant to scare me because ZOMG my STOMACH could RUPTURE and I was DOING THIS to MYSELF!

*for shame*

I saw Tracy Gold and the mom from Family Ties and countless others on the after school specials during school and I fucking knew.

How could I not? I knew what the result was…that was the damned point.

And I knew I was sick.

I. Didn’t. Care.

And that was scarier than anything…that I felt helpless inside my own body to stop it.

Eat a fucking sandwich.

As if I wouldn’t just throw it back up.

As if that bottle of ipecac wasn’t in my glove box.

As if I wasn’t really good at tearing it into pieces to make you think I was actually eating it only to drop some and crumble some and throw the rest away…

No, I wasn’t embarrassed of letting you hear me pee…the water running was a cover for something else…

Eat a fucking sandwich.

Tumbling around inside my head…as if it never occurred to me to do.

As if I had the power to just eat that fucking sandwich.

The hurt and the denial and the lies…and shit yelling at me just didn’t help…

Because who the fuck carries sugar packets in their purse?

And do you know when that shit started?

When I was a teenager.

We shouldn’t infantilize teenagers by saying “b-b-but they don’t get that this message isn’t aimed at real people”.

Bullshit.

Teenagers are people…with feelings…

And if anyone can tell you about what it feels like to hurt because you sit outside the socially accepted norm of appearance, it is another teenager…

being told to just eat a sandwich isn’t that funny if you are dealing with body issues

and burning yourself with a curling iron because you don’t know what else to do…

Eat. A. Damn. Sandwich.

It’s not funny or witty or clever or great new empowering activism.

It’s awful.

It’s hurtful.

It’s waking up in your own bile.

And it is possibly terrifying the hell out of someone.

Unpack that one.

*I don’t like to use “struggle” any longer when discussing disability. My experience with EDs was a struggle. There is no other word in my vocabulary, which spans a few languages, to explain it. I struggled, fought, and am still not sure I have won this one.