From Lizzo to Beyoncé, why does harmful language for disability persist?

Beyoncé listened and will change an ableist lyric. Many people, however, aren't so quick to change

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published August 2, 2022 8:25PM (EDT)

Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Field on April 14, 2018 in Indio, California. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella)
Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Field on April 14, 2018 in Indio, California. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella)

Disability pride month is over. You probably didn't even know it happened. You didn't go to any parades (there were no parades). You didn't buy any merch or notice any ads with brand sponsorship (there were no brand tie-ins, no companies proud to align themselves with the struggle for disability justice or pretend to for profit). And at the very end of the month came the disappointing news that yet another beloved musician had dropped a song with an ableist slur.

This time, it was Beyoncé.   

On July 29, Beyoncé released the album "Renaissance." Intended as the first part of a trilogy, it's also her first studio release since the groundbreaking "Lemonade" in 2016. While the internet and critics went wild, not all the responses were positive. The song "Heated," co-written by Beyoncé and Drake, among others, included a lyric with the word "spaz," an outdated word many find harmful. 

The word originates from spastic diplegia, a type of cerebral palsy: a group of disorders that impact a person's movement, posture and balance. But it's often used as a slur or taunt. It's also the exact same word Lizzo included in the original lyrics of her single "Grrrls," released just months ago. In both cases, the word was used as shorthand for a loss of control. 

Like Lizzo, Beyoncé listened and swiftly responded to criticism of the lyric. In Lizzo's case, mere days after the single's release, she changed the lyrics, re-recorded the song and launched the new version on her YouTube channel (and also issued a public statement). 

Meanwhile, Beyoncé announced through her publicist that her lyric would also be changed, though the new version has yet to surface. "The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced," her representative told NPR.

More nuanced aspects of the criticism of of Beyoncé's and Lizzo's lyrics include the fact that both artists are Black women, and the conversation should have been led by disabled Black women. Overwhelmingly, it was not. A harsher standard is applied to Black artists than to white artists, and some fear the quick changes that both Lizzo and Beyoncé made won't be enough to satisfy condemnation. Neither did many critics acknowledge the different history that the word in question may have had in the Black community.  

Why does harmful language for disability persist, even among informed people such as Lizzo, an advocate for body positivity? What are ableist words and phrases, and why are they bad? 

Why does harmful language for disability persist, even among informed people such as Lizzo, an advocate for body positivity?

It's just words. Stop being so sensitive. Yet the "just words" of ableism — the discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities — are actively harmful. They link disabilities with negative qualities. Saying someone is "tone-deaf" or that something "falls upon deaf ears" ascribes being inattentive, distracted and willfully ignorant to deaf people. "Turning a blind eye to" implies that blind people pay no attention. How would you feel if the way your body is or works had a constant association with bad things? 

Part of the problem with ableist language is that it dehumanizes. If you've often used terms that are degrading for disabled people, when you meet those people you're less likely to view them as human, as anything more than a slur. This is a glaring issue when the rate of violent crimes against people with disabilities is nearly four times higher than the rate of violent crimes against non-disabled people. More than 80% of disabled women have been sexually assaulted.

Across all age groups and education levels, disabled people are much less likely to be employed than non-disabled people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Disabled people live in poverty at more than double the rate of the non-disabled population. It's "just words," but how we talk about people contributes to our comfort with their status in society as less-than. 

If something is falling upon my (deaf) ears, I'm laser-tuned into it.

Ableist terms aren't only outdated but also woefully incorrect. As someone who's partially deaf, I pay more attention, not less. I have to: I read lips in order to communicate, and that isn't an easy skill nor something you can do without concentration. So, "falling upon deaf ears" means the opposite of what you might think it does. If something is falling upon my (deaf) ears, I'm laser-tuned into it. Many of my non-disabled friends call me the best listener they've ever known. As writer Hannah Diviney tweeted at Lizzo, Diviney's cerebral palsy means "unending painful tightness in my legs . . . 'Spaz' doesn't mean freaked out."

Ableist words aren't precise words. Rather than using exact and often better definitions, they fall back upon stereotypes of disability. The first word isn't always the best word, and "easy" doesn't necessarily mean "good." Take the derogatory original lyric of the Black Eyed-Peas' "Let's Get It Started," which was a slur, also in the original title, and which made less sense in the context of a song about partying without cares. In the same way that Beyoncé's and Lizzo's first lyrics didn't actually mean "wild," the oft-used "crazy" doesn't mean "carefree."

LizzoLizzo (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)Words matter and how they're used can not only impact a person's life but also improve a piece of art by thinking about it more deliberately. As Glamour pointed out, by Lizzo changing the ableist term to the lyric "Hold me back," which flows naturally in the song, "there's also a fair argument to be made that the new lyric is better even if the original line wasn't offensive." A chance to not be ableist is also a chance to be more conscious and creative, to get it more right. 

It's frustrating that ableist words continue to escape attention at present more than other kinds of harmful words, including sexist and homophobic language. So many disability slurs are still in common usage — in the mouths of celebrities, in papers of record. Discouragingly, slurs for disability are often used in apologies, articles, speeches and tweets about other kinds of prejudice: Bette Midler apologizes for "tone-deaf" transphobic tweet; the New York Times apologizes for "tone-deaf" racist article. "Jimmy Kimmel's lame apology for blackface" was part of the headline for a Los Angeles Times column published only in 2020.  

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The rest of that headline references what it "reveals about the comedy world," but what ableist slurs reveal about us is that we still don't care enough about disabled people to talk about them like people. With their swift corrective actions, Beyoncé and Lizzo are the outliers. It took the Black Eyed Peas a year to remove the slur from their song title and lyrics, which they have never talked about publicly. And then they won a Grammy Award for it.

A first move away from ableism doesn't take much: educating yourself, thinking about what your words mean. Beyoncé and Lizzo are taking it. When will everyone else?

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Ableism Beyonce Black Women Commentary Deaf Disability Lizzo Music Renaissance