Column from September 2, 1999
How Dare I Call Us Crip?
Copyright 1999 by Laura Hershey
Lately I have been getting some flak about this web column - and it hasn't all been about the content. I expect occasional criticism of my statements and ideas. But this time it's about the title, "Crip Commentary" - specifically, the word "crip."
Some readers tell me they're very offended by this word. They compare it to derogatory terms for other minority groups, including the n-word, that awful racist term.
A few readers have even questioned my sincerity, and the integrity of my activism. One person wrote to a listserv: "I don't think it makes much sense for a person to be an 'activist for civil rights' while defining herself as a 'cripple'." He said that my use of the word "crip" was hypocritical. He concluded: "Laura, I think you should decide between being 'crippled' and striving for equality because you can't do both."
For the record, I don't defined myself as a "cripple." Calling my column "Crip Commentary" implies (though does not state) a "crip" identity. These are two different words. Related, but different.
I think some critics worry that my column's title will authorize nondisabled readers to start calling us "cripples," and treating us as inferiors. One person wrote, "I don't want others to get the mistaken idea that it is okay to view me as others allow themselves to be viewed."
I do understand her concern. I don't want my fellow citizens thinking of me as part of some strange, separate category called "cripple."
But I don't want them to pretend my disability doesn't exist, either.
In any case, I don't think "cripple" is as horrible a term as my critics have made it out to be. It's certainly not equivalent to the n-word, which was and is deliberately used by racist whites for the sole purpose of denigrating Black Americans. There is no positive or even neutral use of that word anywhere in history. It's true that some African-Americans now use it, within their own circles, in an effort to take away its hateful, hurtful power. But its historic development and use is clearly oppressive.
"Cripple," on the other hand, has a more respectable past as part of the English language. The 1913 edition of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines "crippled" as "deprived of the use of a limb, particularly of a leg or foot." That's about as straightforward and neutral as you can get!
The term "cripple" originated from the Old English word "crepel" or "cripel," meaning one who could not walk, but must creep. Therefore, Webster's defined "cripple" as "One who creeps, halts, or limps; one who has lost, or never had, the use of a limb or limbs; a lame person; hence, one who is partially disabled."
In literary usage, too, the noun "cripple" has often been fairly value-neutral. For instance, I found this quote from James Joyce's novel The Dubliners: "The children of the avenue used to play together in that field - the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters." Of course, one could argue that little Keogh shouldn't be singled out for description as a "cripple" - but the term isn't used cruelly, and being called a "cripple" apparently hasn't led to exclusion or segregation. There Keogh is, playing with all the other "children of the avenue"!
At some point, though - probably sometime in the early 20th century - the word "cripple" did start to acquire some oppressive connotations. The medical profession and various auxiliary do-gooders took it over, creating (for example) "crippled children's" societies and hospitals. In Hollywood movies, "cripple" became an epithet - usually preceded by either "helpless" or "bitter."
But this history lesson wouldn't be complete without mentioning a truly extraordinary linguistic phenomenon - the disability-rights movement! When people with disabilities started fighting and writing, started speaking for ourselves, started issuing declarations of independence - then the words used to describe us would never be the same again. We stopped being "patients" and became citizens. Our "special needs" became civil rights.
Even the word "cripple" was transformed - into crip. (And, sometimes, back into cripple.) crip had a different feel: It was short and harsh and uncompromising. It was and wasn't "cripple." It reminded us of our history, but it took us forward. crip transcended our past subjugation by making fun of an old-fashioned word.
We began talking about "crip power" and "crip pride" and "crip cool." We started writing and reading and arguing about "crip lit." We debated the existence and the nature of "crip culture." We'd head across the country to a protest - or across town to a rock concert - in a lift-equipped "crip-mobile."
It works partly because it sounds both sarcastic and strong, and because it's a fun word to play around with. We talk affectionately about our "crip buddies," and we have "crip leaders" that earn our admiration, while we scorn "supercrips" (trying to prove their own normalcy with macho stunts and/or ostentatiously rigorous lifestyles) and "career crips" (those who climb political or corporate ladders at the expense of the rest of us).
Another good thing about "crip" is that it defies the well-meaning efforts of the euphemizers. You can't blur us out of existence with your nice-sounding meaningless phrases. We know who we are: We're not "people with differing abilities / physical challenges / etc." We're crips!
Nancy Mairs, an outstanding poet and author who has multiple sclerosis, unabashedly refers to herself as a cripple. She's very conscious of language, and of the need for respect and equality. Her book Waist-High in the World: Life Among the Nondisabled is one of the best disability memoirs I've ever read. She didn't write that book to be inspirational, or to make nondisabled people feel more comfortable with disability. She wrote it to tell the truth. For her, "cripple" tells the truth of her experience and identity. For me, crip does.
Click here to order Nancy Mairs'
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