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Beyoncé, Face and the Power of Language: How the Lyrics of the Able Rekindled a Century-Old Debate


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.

Human rights activist Hannah Divini accused artists of using obscene insults in their lyrics.(Submitted by Hannah Diviney)

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.


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