Spaz is an unacceptable term

Khoi Vinh blogged a few gripes about the iPad this morning. So far, so what? A blogger who likes Apple gear blogs about his use of Apple gear. Who cares? I probably wouldn’t have, were it not for the last sentence of the following paragraph (reproduced in its entirety to give context):

Among features that the iPad does share with the iPhone, the ability to undo actions seems more rote than useful. As a gesture to invoke the Undo command, shaking a handheld device the size of an iPhone is clever and workable. Shaking a much larger device like the iPad is awkward at best and violates one infrequently violated but nevertheless important law of good user interface design: don’t force the user to look like a spaz in order to use any given feature.

Now, I’m aware that the US and the UK are divided by a common language, and that the term “spaz” is (or so I’m informed) less offensive in the US than the UK, but it still brought me up short. So I decided to check it out.

The Merriam Webster dictionary includes the following in its definition of “spaz”:

Etymology: by shortening & alteration from spastic slang : one who is inept : klutz

and from the definition of it’s longer form “spastic”:

1 a : of, relating to, characterized by, or affected with or as if with spasm [a spastic patient] b : characterized by hypertonic muscles [spastic cerebral palsy]

Whereas the Oxford English Dictionary includes the following in its definition of “spastic”:

adjective 1 relating to or affected by muscle spasm relating to or denoting a form of muscular weakness (spastic paralysis) typical of cerebral palsy, caused by damage to the brain or spinal cord and involving reflex resistance to passive movement of the limbs and difficulty in initiating and controlling muscular movement (of a person) having cerebral palsy 2 informal , offensive incompetent or uncoordinated

which certainly seems to support the theory, at least partially.

The thing is though, it was written on the (global) internet, by someone with a global profile and readership. Which is only the first part of the issue.

Saying what you mean, and meaning what you say

By choosing that particular word, the intent of the sentence changes from urging those in charge of implementing features to avoid making it awkward or uncomfortable to use said features to not making the user look silly or stupid. By equating spasticism with looking stupid it not only perpetuates the stereotype that those with physical disabilities are automatically lacking in intelligence, but puts a clear separation between those with and without a physical disability of that type, something which the individual has no more control over than the colour of their skin or eyes and seems to indicate that they are less.

Now, I really don’t think that Khoi would be so blunt as to say publicly that he thinks that those with physical disabilities are somehow less than he is (or look stupid) because of their condition (regardless of whether he actually thinks that or not), but that’s how it comes across.

Knowing your audience

In the time it's taken me to do some work and find a few minutes to write this post, a few comments were left that resulted in Khoi revising his original post.

Mei (no link) had the following to say:

I need to point out to you that your use of the word spaz ( presumably, an abbreviated form of or derived from ‘spastic’) may not go down too well with your readership in the UK where people are terribly PC…or at least some quarter are. Just so you know.

which was closely followed by Netscape (no link either) saying:

Yeah “spaz” is definitely not a cool thing to say in England.

Which, unfortunately, makes it seem like it's just oversensitivity from a small group of people, and therefore not to be worried about, an impression borne out by the revised sentence (emphasis mine):

don’t force the user to look like a fool [original euphemism deleted in deference to British sensitivities] in order to use any given feature.

I'd been pretty prepared to give Khoi the benefit of the doubt until I saw his response:

Mei: Thanks for pointing that out and my apologies to U.K. readers for inadvertently using an offensive term. I’ve altered it in the text above. Too bad, I was mildly proud of that joke even though it’s probably not that politically correct here in the States either.

It’s not acceptable anywhere, these days, to consider someone to be “less” because of the colour of their skin, so why is it acceptable to use someone’s other physical characteristics as a form of insult?

It's not political correctness gone mad.

It's a fundamental issue about how someone in a position to design interfaces views the potential users of those interfaces. If we categorise people with disabilities into a "them" category that's separate from "us" (either consciously or unconsciously), we do their needs a massive disservice. More than that, if someone of Khoi's stature in the community gives the impression that it's ok to do so, it just perpetuates the problem and prevents us from moving on to the place where we really should be.

Leading and following

Rather than being angry, I’m more just disappointed that someone with the reach that he has would use such a term without thinking about how it would be received by the totality of his audience (and then compound that error by responding in the way that he has).

It’s relatively easy to build up a reasonable sized audience and by extension, a reasonable influence, but as influence grows, so does the responsibility of that person to use that influence in a good way. We do ourselves a disservice as an industry if we don’t, as we become more successful and knowledgeable, try to share the best of that knowledge and understanding of the field that we are in with those who are still learning.

Just because we can blog quickly and without great thought doesn't mean that we should. It may take longer, or sometimes mean we don't blog at all, but it's really important that we include taking such care as the part of the cost of doing business.