Ableist language in the media

by Yazmin Macias / Sep 15, 2022



In this kid-friendly podcast, Worth Noting delves into hot topics in the world currently, bringing information about the topic to the front. This episode looks at holding artists accountable for using ableist language in their songs and the importance of their willingness to change the lyrics. 


This post has been lightly edited for clarity.  

Nicole: Recently, Lizzo and Beyonce removed harmful words from songs on their new albums after being pushed and encouraged by their fans. These changes in ableist language are Worth Noting.


Are you a big fan of Lizzo? Have you been listening to Beyonce’s new album Renaissance and dancing to “You Won’t Break My Soul”? If so, you’re definitely not alone. 


But while you were dancing, you might have missed a conversation about the language that was used in Lizzo’s song, “GRRLS” or Beyonce’s song, “Heated.” Both songs used a word that you might hear a lot in music, on TV, with your friends, or in the hall at school. The word is spaz and it is harmful. 


Now, it’s important to say that neither Lizzo or Beyoncé meant to use this word in a mean or ugly way, but no matter our intentions, when we use words that have harmful roots or origins, we can still do a lot of damage. 


Both Lizzo and Beyoncé are Black women artists, with a lot of fans. Their music reaches millions of people every day and so many activists in the disabled community thought it was important to let first Lizzo and then Beyoncé know how harmful the word was. 


Each of them decided to change the lyrics of their songs so that they no longer contained the harmful word. 





Lizzo even wrote a very thoughtful apology. In it, she said, 


“It has been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song “GRRLS”. Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language. As a fat Black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I overstand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally). I’m proud to say there is a new version of GRRLS with a lyric change. 


This is the result of me listening and taking action. As an influential artist I’m dedicated to being a part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world. XOXO, Lizzo.” 


Derogatory language or slurs are words that have a negative meaning or a negative origin and target a particular group of people. 


In this case, the word used in both songs is a slur that is harmful to people with disabilities. NPR explained that the words spaz or spazzing, “[Originate] from the term "spastic," which has historically been used to describe people with spastic paralysis or cerebral palsy. 


Often used in a derogatory way to describe people with disabilities, "spaz" or "spaz out" has also been used to refer to someone losing physical control or simply acting "weird" or "uncool."”


When non-disabled people —those without disabilities—use language like this, it can make disabled people feel targeted and attacked. There are many words and phrases like this in our everyday language that are harmful to or dismissive of disabled people. And when we use them —even when we don’t intend to be mean, we contribute to ableism— which is a negative system that affects every aspect of disabled people’s lives.  


Ableism makes it harder for disabled people to be treated as equal in our world. Because of ableism, your friend in a wheelchair may not be included in school sports that they’re very good at or a kid with cerebral palsy may not be offered an exciting opportunity at summer camp simply because they don’t appear able-bodied.  


Ableism could mean that the perspectives of deaf or blind kids are left out when adults are making decisions about programs that those same kids might like to be a part of. Not only does ableism make it hard for disabled people to access opportunities, ableist language exposes disabled kids and adults to bullying or laughter. When we say words that give the impression that disability is weird or wrong, we make it harder for disabled people to just live their lives and live in their bodies without being bothered. Have you ever had a slur or a derogatory word said to you? How did it make you feel? 


I want to pause here and remind you that Lizzo and Beyoncé are not the first or the only people to use ableist language. There are hundreds of songs and lyrics in the world that use derogatory language or ableist slurs. And it’s important to notice that before this moment, there hasn’t been a lot of pressure to get those musical artists, like Taylor Swift and others, to change their lyrics or remove hateful language.   


And it is probably because they are Black women who have faced harmful language in other parts of their lives, that both Lizzo and Beyoncé are more sensitive to just how hurtful slurs can be. Lizzo even mentioned this in her apology: she’s been called a lot of names and that experience has made her want to be better and make sure that no one else has to experience that. 


It’s important that Lizzo and Beyoncé took the steps that they did to acknowledge and correct their ableism. But they shouldn’t be alone. White and non-disabled artists who also have a huge reach in their own countries or around the world, have a responsibility to do their part to change their language. 


The Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, Vilissa Thompson, is a Black disabled writer and social worker and she had this to say about how we can be thinking about this moving forward:


Vilissa:  Hello Worth Noting podcast. I'm Vilissa Thompson, and I'm thrilled to be on this episode about ableist language. It is important for us to remember that each of us can do something to make the world around us better and to show care to one another. This means we can understand how certain words or phrases can hurt those in our community and what we can do to be more careful with what we say.


As a black disabled woman, I know that there are words that hurt me when it comes to who I am. Being a woman, black, disabled. And I do my best to not hurt others who are different from me with the words I use. 


Understanding how we navigate the world differently due to the many identities we may have, like being queer, trans, or disabled, matters. All of these identities shape how we experience the world we live in and the ways the world experiences and treats us. 


In my activism work, I focus on race, gender, and disability, because I know that not everyone knows or cares how the world treats us that can hurt or help.


In the case of Lizzo and Beyonce, it hurt to watch people talk about them in ways that made them feel less human, because they were Black women who made a mistake. Black women should be given the chance to correct the mistakes they make when it comes to language and it is on us to give such room of grace to allow that to happen. 


In my work, we say that it is important to trust Black women because black women are true leaders in the fight for justice and equality for all. If we are to say that we trust black women, then, then we must also trust them to listen to us when they may do something hurtful and then trust them to make up the mistakes done.    


Non-Black people are given chances to make up their mistakes. Black women deserve to same chance too. 


No one is perfect, but we should all do our best to be better each day. 


Lizzo and Beyonce provided great examples as to how we can do better when we learn better. That's the main lesson to understand from this moment that they were in the spotlight.





Nicole: Ableism is all of our jobs to fix. When we are careful with our language, we make the world safer and kinder for our disabled friends. 


Letting go of ableist slurs allows us to build a world where every single body and person feels like they belong. 


It’s not hard to change out harmful words that have become commonplace, for ones that are more inclusive. First, we just need to know what those words are and understand their history, so that we can understand why they are hurtful. 


So your homework is to do a little listening and learning. 


In our episode notes, we will include a list of ableist words and easy alternatives to them that we can use in our everyday conversations. You can also ask an adult in your life to help you search for similar lists and together you all can work on rewriting the language you use so that it is not ableist. 


If you hear a slur being used by your friends or at school, help your peers or even your teachers understand why language like that can hurt. 


The most important thing to remember is that we are all learning together and there is still room for everyone to grow and change. So even if someone tells you that they weren’t being mean intentionally, you can help them understand that even when we don’t mean to, our words can still cause harm.  


And hopefully, if we are all trying a little harder, we can take better care of each other in everyday conversations and interactions. 


I’m Nicole. And this is Worth Noting.