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Why This Common Slang Word Harms People With Cerebral Palsy

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“I drove all the way to the store and freaked out when I forgot my wallet. I’m such a spaz.”

“When I saw Harry Styles in concert, I totally started spazzing out.”

“My roommate just went completely spastic on me because she found ants in our apartment.”

“Spaz” is part of our vocabulary. Some of us use it every day. But just because a word is deeply ingrained in our lexicon, it doesn’t mean we should use it — and “spaz” and “spastic” are no exception.

Why take offense, though?  

Unfortunately, “spaz” — and its progenitor, “spastic” — have devolved into a far-too-easy way to describe people and things that are awkward, overly excitable, and uncool, but they also subtly denigrate people with cerebral palsy.

“Spastic” originated as (and still is) a medical term to describe spasms — especially spasms related to high muscle tone. Muscle tone refers to how tight or loose muscles feel, and high muscle tone is characterized by excessive stiffness. Medical professionals clinically describe this “high tone” muscle stiffness as spasticity, and spasticity is readily present in — you guessed it — cerebral palsy.

Over 77% of people with a cerebral palsy diagnosis have spastic cerebral palsy, which occurs when the parts of the brain responsible for muscle movement mistakenly signal the body to constantly contract the muscles. Spasticity can lead to decreased mobility, muscle twitching, and even pain, but contrary to the colloquial use of the words spastic and spaz, it doesn’t magically transform people with cerebral palsy (CP) into weird, uncool human beings.

As someone who’s living with cerebral palsy, I’ve seen the effects of spastic muscles — and the impact of the word “spaz” — firsthand. My tight muscles react to body sensations and even weather conditions, which often causes significant pain and discomfort and leaves me wondering how my body will behave on any given day. Not knowing whether or not my affected leg will tremble or my body will be in pain is inconvenient, frustrating, and on the worst days, downright infuriating. And similarly, hearing people use the word “spaz” to degrade themselves or others makes me seethe inside because they often have no lived experience of spasticity and don’t fully understand the impact of their words.

Many people with cerebral palsy — myself included — have heard the words “spaz” or “spastic” hurled at them as taunts or teases. Some have endured years of bullying with these words at the forefront, which has had lasting effects on their mental health. So when people casually use the word “spaz” to describe their friends, their pets, or themselves, it often reopens old wounds.

When I hear any form of the word “spaz,” I immediately feel my heart race and my breath grow shallow. My stomach becomes queasy as the impact of the word hits me, and I hope for the conversation I overhear to move in a different direction. I constantly debate whether or not to speak up about why “spaz” is such a harmful word, but I shy away, worried that if I tell others how I feel, I’ll be accused of censoring them, policing language or even being a “spaz” myself. So I remain silent, unsure how to explain that a word used so nonchalantly feels incredibly heartbreaking to me.

The obvious solution to this frustrating conundrum? We need to retire the word “spaz” from our vocabularies so the people it affects are no longer reminded of the emotional pain others have inflicted on them — and the physical pain they may feel daily. We need to educate ourselves — even when it feels uncomfortable — so that people with disabilities don’t feel pressured to explain the origins of such a loaded word. And we need to think before we speak and remember the communities our language could continue to harm if we rely on disparaging, derogatory phrasing.

The word “spaz” may seem innocent enough — until we delve into its origins and recognize the ways it makes light of cerebral palsy. “Spaz” should have no place in our everyday language, and it’s your responsibility to remove it from your vocabulary so that our society can begin to refer to people with CP in a respectful, edifying way.

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Originally published: March 23, 2021
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