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October 17, 2005 | Read comments | Post a comment

The "S" Word

The "S" word is Spazz. Like the "N" word which we are not supposed to use, it is in turns hated and used with pride.

British tabloids last week were gleefully reporting the "outrage" of UK disability rights groups ("campaigners," they're called) over the introduction of the Colours wheelchair model

From the ever-outrageous tabloid The Sun:

The chair’s US manufacturers chose the name without realising it was a tasteless term for spastic....Makers Colours In Motion insist the word means "wild" or "crazy" in California, where the firm is based.
Well, not quite. I don't think that any gimp in CA or anywhere else thinks spazz means "wild" -- and as for "crazy," here we go again with offensive words that nobody means to offend with. As for Colours not knowing the "implications" -- well, read on.

Not to be outdone, Glasgow's Daily Record jumped into the fray as well.

The controversy's in fact not new -- it's just that the 'bloids have finally noticed. Back in July BBC4 talked with Colours president John Box (read the transcript here) and some folks in Britain's disability scene.

Crip activist Mik Scarlett told BBC4's Peter White,

I've been involved in the media and Disability Now for like nearly 15 years and in that time we have changed our name from disabled people, to people with disabilities, to people that are less able, differently able, back to people with disabilities and now we're disabled people again. In that time nothing's changed but we've had a good 10-15 years arguing over what to call ourselves.... We spend so much time worrying about whether we're called spazz or crip or mong or whatever and no time at all pointing out to society -- call me what you like, but give me an equal rights law that works, give me a job, give me an access to the building - and I don't care.
Scarlett keeps telling White that names aren't that important, and that, after all, Colours is run by a disabled fellow.

Margie Woodward, with SCOPE (the group that ironically used to be called the Spastics Society before it got disability-rights religion) , keeps insisting against Mik S's protests that words do matter.

"Language underpins people's attitudes," Woodward insists, "and if we still reinforce at this present time negative words, especially for children, especially in the playground, especially for wheelchairs and equipment that manufacturers are exploiting on the back of disabled people enforcing discrimination and disability issues...." Well, you know how talking on the air is; not too coherent. Read the transcript.

During all this, Peter White slips in this point: "It's quite a subtle argument in a way isn't it?"

We have the crips defending Spazz and the nondisabled being outraged by it... and who is right?

And what about the show I'm Spazticus? That's part of this same "reclaiming" thing, isn't it?

The question for me is this: Can crips reclaim words like "spazz" in a culture and an environment that doesn't have a clue that this is what's going on?

Let's face it: when Ns reclaimed the "N" word, it was big news.

Is this big news? Does anybody even know this is going on? If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

And has anyone in the U.S. let out a peep one way or the other about the Wheelchair Spazz?

A later-in-the-day update from Yours Truly: The redoubtable Lady Bracknell takes on the Spazz controversy today as well (great minds and all, y'know) on Ouch. Read her here. .

Posted by mjohnson on October 17, 2005 02:06 PM


How about "TABs" or "Ablism"?

Context rules. Some of us don't think it should be important but won't for a minute claim it isn't. I have no idea if rappers' reclamation of "their" word is long-term hurtful, I guess for some it is, others not so much. Tupac Shakur chides someone for saying "nigger" saying that he says "niggah" (spelt out in both cases) and it's fairly clear that he had a deep understanding of the issues but chooses ridicule over outrage.

I try to think of how MaryFrances treated it and I don't think she hesitated to publicly utter things that the rest of us tread more lightly with on our feelings that someone might be rightfully offended.

I guess I take most umbrage with stuff like the piece "The Politics of Spoiled Brats" in which outrage is expressed over the chutzpah of PWD via ADA demanding that; e.g. a golf club be "forced" to provide appropriate swivel-seat golf carts.

Every time I think that perhaps it's a wasted effort to object to "wheelchair bound", I also think of several generations of Africcan-Americans who, like our DRM cohorts to be stung by the indignities of which labelling is clearly a significant part.

A classic conundrum and one that illustrates how far we have to go when the prevalent response to appeals to reporters to read the AP style book is: (paraphrased) "how can a retard by offended by being called a retard?"

In a classic satirical piece we used in The Committee (a long-running revue in San Francisco) an actor playing a boy scout who has just helped a blind man cross the street asks him "did anyone ever tell you you were a nigger?" There's a few layers there.


Posted by: William Loughborough on October 17, 2005 03:57 PM

There was some hoo-ha about it on Wheelchairjunkie when John Box first posted there: Colours Wheelchair. Interestingly, the first person to protest the "spazz" label was a Brit.

But maybe a group of wheelchair users is not what you had in mind when you said "anyone in the U.S." :-).

Posted by: Katja on October 18, 2005 09:44 AM

Katja writes,

But maybe a group of wheelchair users is not what you had in mind when you said "anyone in the U.S." :-).

Ahem. I did NOT mean that (smile) -- I meant I didn't KNOW about it... Looks like I better start frequenting Wheelchair Junkie. Lots goes on over there, I think.

Posted by: Mary Johnson on October 18, 2005 12:36 PM

Scarlett's point is a juicy one. By focusing so much on wordplay - do we run the risk of spending so much time debating what we're called we miss addressing larger issues, such as employment, getting in and out of buildings, etc. or do debates over labels raise our issues in non-direct ways that enables a largely non-disabled public consider issues they may otherwise avoid?

Beats me.

As probably the only person who has screened "I'm Spazticus" in the U.S. and facilitated a talk back session afterwards, I was struck by the overwhelmingly positive response to the program.
Which was, it is probably worth mentioning, comprised of mostly disabled people -- or whatever term Mike Scarlett prefers this week.

At our screening, descriptive titles were not an issue. Most people seemed relieved the program was, without a doubt, genuinely funny without the least bit of condesention toward the disabled participants.

Fair enough. For a comedy program, the question "is it funny?" should be central whether disability is involved or not.

Perhaps the most striking thing about "I'm Spazticus" was that by putting a bullseye on interactions between disabled and non-disabled folks "Spazticus" seemed to highlight the common silliness and humanity shared by us all.

Inspiring? You bet. And for once it was for all the right reasons.

Posted by: Lawrence Carter-Long on October 18, 2005 03:19 PM

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