Music has always been an important part of the human experience. It gives us the ability to share stories through rhythm, text and sound.
It also has the power to unite and divide communities. We see this happening through language, especially when it comes to racism, sexism, homophobia and disability.
Over the years, disability-related slurs have often slipped through the cracks because non-disabled people don’t see them as offensive. This is despite the fact that society often resorts to terms like “retarded”, “freak” and “spaz” to intimidate or demean people who can and cannot live with a disability.
Earlier this month, disability advocate Hannah Diviney called out the pop megastar Face and Beyonce for appropriating the term “spaz,” an offensive slur to describe people living with cerebral palsy.
Both artists have changed their lyrics, but not everyone is happy about it.
Some argue that Divini’s actions were a cynical attempt to elevate his advocacy platform.
Others accused her of racism.
Disability rights advocates of color have questioned why Divini was so quick to name the lyrics by black artists Face and Beyoncé, but forgot to highlight the problem of white artists using ableist words in their songs.
Ola Ojewumi, a double transplant survivor, wheelchair user and advocate for the rights of women, people of color and people with disabilities, believes Divini used white privilege to criticize black female musicians.
“Many well-intentioned white disability rights activists will still have to come to terms with their white privilege and racism,” she says. “I don’t agree with Hannah Divini’s statements, but I feel that the onslaught of criticism of Face and Beyoncé from advocates for white people with disabilities is rooted in misogyny and racial double standards.”
Ojewumi believes that Big Time Rush’s song Paralyzed – which was subject of discussion – has not been criticized by white disability activists in the same direct and critical manner.
She says that when giving people with disabilities a platform as experts, they need to take an intersectional approach. “Inclusion is more than just a body with a disability. Rather, it’s about our lived experiences and different identities,” Ojewumi says.
Diveney, who uses a wheelchair, says her decision to call out artists who appropriate the ability was “never about the person, it was about the swearing”.
“That’s why I was as loud as I was calls Eminem a few weeks ago,” she wrote on Twitter. “Interestingly, I was one of the few journalists who did this.”
Why do we use language?
Divini and Ojewumi agree that popular culture has a lot to answer for when it comes to society’s general perception of people with disabilities.
While Diveney has received significant praise from the disability community for holding the music industry accountable, she says others seem “increasingly frustrated” that she isn’t using her platform to make a difference on bigger issues , such as disability housing and employment opportunities.
However, as much as we’d like to think we’re careful with the words we choose, colloquialism is pervasive, and examples in pop culture are everywhere. You’ve almost certainly used some of them yourself.
Ableistic language is often found in slang we usefor example, calling something “dumb” or “lame,” or making a statement like, “I’m so OCD.”
It may seem like a casual snub or exclamation, but they do hurt.
It is possible that many people are not really aware of these internal biases and are not aware of the abilities expressed in their own everyday language.
But debates about the negative impact of words like “dumb” — a term that originally referred to a deaf person who had no use of language but is now used as slang for something rude, uninteresting or of low intelligence — have taken place in deaf and disabled circles for centuries.
Diviney believes that this problem is easy to solve.
“It doesn’t take much effort. We saw the Face and Beyoncé, how quickly they would record things and kind of course-correct,” she says.
“I feel like if you change the language around disability, you’re going to give people a chance to talk about much bigger, like, structural issues.”
Interestingly, not all languages have a word for disability.
First Peoples Disability Network Australia chief executive Damian Griffiths explains that the connection between language and disability is rooted in the mindset of Western society.
“There is no appropriate word for ‘disability’ in traditional language, which is evidence that disability has always been part of the human experience in Aboriginal communities,” he says. “We are leaders in inclusion and want to point out that disability labels are a Western medical construct.”
Ojewumi agrees, saying that “whiteness is so strongly associated with disability that disabled people of color are often excluded.”
She explains that those who do not have a disability are influenced by the way pop culture and the media present disability.
And she notes that Beyonceis used her platform to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities – a point that has been lost in much of the current debate.
“That’s why I applaud artists like Beyoncé. She has included models with disabilities… in her fashion campaign and music video. Pop culture shapes the world’s views of people with disabilities,” says Ojewumi.
“Whenever we’re portrayed, it’s never as a main character or as full human beings with emotions, relationships, careers, dreams and ambitions.”
Both Divini and Ojewumi received abusive messages on social media for speaking out.
For Diviney, appearing on Q+A to speak out about the use of profanity in her lyrics was an opportunity to address abuse online. She says she has has faced significant trolling since her first post.
“I’ve had people send me pictures [and] GIFs of people in wheelchairs being pushed and shoved off cliffs,” she says.
“I take it as a backhanded compliment to be trolled because it means I’m doing work that’s making noise and that I’m actually making a difference.”
While Ojewumi also received threats for speaking outshe says there are more important things to worry about, noting Canadian laws on medically assisted suicide contain insufficient protections for the disabled, or US laws that allow the legal exploitation of disabled children electroshock therapy in schools.
“I’m more concerned about global disability rights that go beyond language,” she says. “We, as a community, have bigger fish to fry than focusing on the mistakes of two black female singers who inadvertently used slurs.”