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Voices: The ableist slur in Lizzo’s latest single Grrrls was one of the first words I heard about myself

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On 10 June, Lizzo released “Grrls”, the second single on her latest album, Special, due to drop in mid July. A hip-hop icon who advocates fiercely for self love, I’ve always adored her unstoppable energy.

Yet within the first 12 seconds of this new track, she hollers “I’m a sp*z!” – before launching into a quintessential empowerment anthem, aligned with fun, friendship and womanhood. By this point, I’d frozen to the spot. It was a term I hadn’t heard for almost a decade, and it wasn’t a happy reunion.

Sp*z. Derived from the term “spastic”, it’s a harmful slur used against disabled people. Classrooms in the late 2000s reeked of it, along with the odours of Impulse body spray and greasy cheese paninis. What a sp*z, she’s a sp*z, he’s a sp*z. Used “their” rather than “they’re”? God, I’m such a sp*z.

It could be used in jest, an off-hand remark to refer to someone especially clumsy and inept, or just plain maliciously. Anybody who didn’t quite fit the mould got lumbered with it. Other commonplace insults included “retarded”, “deformed” and “spesh” (short for “special needs”). There didn’t seem to be any particular logic, other than assigning it to those who appeared to operate somewhat outside of the norm. After all, to be deemed “emo” in 2007, you only had to have your eyeliner layered on a little too thickly.

I was, in essence, 100 per cent that “sp*z”. It was one of the first words I heard about myself, largely due to stumbling about school corridors due to a lack of physical coordination, and facial expressions that possessed a twitchy, untameable mind of their own. Javelins didn’t just go spinning in the wrong direction, but were dropped straight on the ground like a dinner fork. Like many autistic women, I only sought a diagnosis upon reaching adulthood, at the age of 23.

For years, I was adamant to appear anything but disabled – largely because of the language I’d encountered growing up. Despite regularly tweeting anecdotes about my experiences, I’ve only recently begun to talk about it with loved ones and colleagues, and I’ve been met with an unexpected degree of suspicion. Comments like “you don’t look it”, “you seem fine to me” and the classic – “are you sure?” Or more recently, as I was assured by an old friend: “Mild, you must be very mild” – like I’m a rather specific brand of chicken korma.

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Having learned to minimise my visible autistic traits for the sake of social acceptance, I’m at odds with this. Largely because I know that 15-year-old me – who plastered on press powder and nicked Jane Norman bags from her sister’s wardrobe – would have longed to hear nothing more. It would be verification that she’d finally honed the art of Normal, that she didn’t appear the least bit strange or remotely unusual, and she certainly didn’t look disabled.

And to imagine that 10 years on, another disabled teenager will be standing at the sidelines watching her classmates heartily belt out Lizzo’s lyric makes me wince.

Over time, I’m slowly beginning to own my autism. As a writer, it’s odd to discover that your various singularities and particular perception of the world are suddenly in demand. I’m bizarrely encouraged to whip them out, in the same way I’d have once brandished a Barry M lipgloss. Perhaps naively, I’d even hoped things were beginning to shift.

Yet anti-disabled, ableist attitudes are alive and kicking. And for sure, I’ll be skipping the track. The fact it was spoken by an artist who champions inclusivity speaks volumes about the way ableism permeates our language, and how far we still have to go.

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