This week on our podcast, I talked with a couple different people about the power of reclaiming language. One of those people is disabled writer and activist Caitlin Wood. In her work, Caitlin often uses the word “crip.” In 2012, she wrote a super interesting column for Bitch on disabilities in pop culture called Tales from the Crip and, more recently, Caitlin edited the anthology Criptiques, a collection of essays by people with disabilties.
Caitlin talked with me about the word “crip” and its use. If you've never heard of crip culture or have been uncertain about the word, Caitlin provides some crucial background. You can listen to the interview below or read the transcript.
SARAH MIRK: So I'm hoping you can tell us about the word “crip” and why you use it to describe yourself and your work.
CAITLIN WOOD: Well, that's a really good question. So actually, in my intro to Criptiques, I say that “crip” is my favorite four-letter word in that it's profane to some, but to me, I love it. And I think it's a good descriptor for me personally. So language in disability is still a very hotly debated issue. So some people want to be called disabled, some people want to be called people with disabilities. It has been going on for decades, this debate. And there's theoretical models behind why people want to be called what they want to be called and issues of identity wrapped up in that as well. And so then, when the word “crip” came along–I certainly did not come up with it–and I'm trying to remember when I first heard crip being used. It was when I got into disability studies and kind of learned about this whole other disability culture and these rebellious disabled people that were doing all these really rad things that I had never been taught in school and didn't know anything about. And I really loved this idea of reclaiming this word. So crip obviously comes from “crippled,” which is, I hear the word crippled in relation to disability or anything, and I just cringe. But when I hear the word crip, to me, it's such a signifier of identity and culture, and it is a bad word in a lot of ways, and it has an edge to it. But it's also a really cool word, I would say, in that when someone I meet who's disabled refers to themself as a crip, I kind of know that they're down. It's like a way of, to me, I just assume that we're probably gonna be on the same wavelength in terms of politics and identity and disability culture.
What does the word signal to you, exactly? When you hear someone describe themselves as a “crip,” or when you say that yourself, what sort of identity do that project? Versus somebody using the word crippled to describe you. How are those two words so different?
Well, I mean if anyone called me crippled, I'd be really pissed off. And I did have one person really angry with me over the title.
Over Criptiques—the word “criptiques.”
Yes, over “Criptiques.” And it was a guy in Australia who found me on Twitter and said some really, really profane things, but it kind of made me laugh. But I also felt bad in a way because here was someone who is part of my culture and community but doesn't identity that way. And I think that's where within disability to me, crip signifies someone who is probably well-versed in disability politics and the stories about what's going on in the disability community, is probably well-read on topics of police brutality against disabled people and unemployment and just all of these issues that are so important and yet so ignored. And to me, it's just a signifier of community and culture and someone that I will probably enjoy talking with versus someone who sees their disability as shameful or something that needs to be overcome, which is so prevalent in the media. That's generally what you see within representations of disability. You're supposed to be inspirational and overcome your disabilities and all that versus a crip who is just we are what we are, and we're proud of what we are.
So, as you said, not everybody who is disabled uses the word “crip,” and some people find it offensive or shocking.
So why take on that fight? What, to you, is the power of using the word crip even if you know it's gonna ruffle some feathers?
I mean, no matter what you do in the disability community, you will ruffle feathers just because it's such a huge community, and it's heterogeneous. It's full of very different opinions and backgrounds because disability affects everyone and anyone in any culture. So there's gonna be, of course, dissent and disagreement. But one of my goals within the book was to reach people who perhaps have not had some of the same privileges that I have had in terms of access to disability studies articles and these amazing people that I've had the chance to talk with. So I really wanted to reach out to people who may have not had the same opportunities and just show them, hey, here is this super cool culture that you should be really proud of being a part of. There's awesome stuff going on, amazing artists and activists and writers who don't necessarily get the same publicity. But it was one of my goals to reach people and hopefully, they would read this and feel validated and feel a sense of pride in their community.
So for people who are reading right now who aren't familiar with a wide range of disability studies and have maybe never heard or used the word “crip” before, can you tell us a little bit more about its usage, how you use it, and in what ways it would be incorrect or ignorant or offensive to use the word crip?
Sure. Well, it's not for non-disabled people to use, I would say. I'm always, I get in trouble for my language [giggles]. I get in trouble for saying the word “disabled” because there's still this [sighs] very intense argument that we should be using people-first language, you know “people with disabilities” versus “disabled people.” To me, that does not describe me, and that's fine. You know, I feel like people should call themselves whatever they want to. But when someone tells me what I can and cannot call myself, I get very angry. And so “crip” is obviously a bit, as you said, I think shocking for a lot of people. It is not for non-disabled people to throw around, at least not in my opinion. I don't think that would be appropriate in any way. But I also would probably not say it in a workplace setting around non-disabled people. I feel like it's kind of meant for my community, and it's a word that has been reclaimed for us for reasons, and it's part of our culture, and it's a cultural signifier.
So clearly, there's your “Tales From the Crip,” which is a guest blog that was on Bitch Media, there's Criptiques, the anthology you edited. Where else have you seen the word crip show up?
So I wrote about Leroy Moore, who started Krip-Hop Nation, and Leroy actually spells it with a “k.” So I always spell it c-r-i-p. He spells it k-r-i-p, and that was intentional on his part to differentiate it between the gang, right? Because you think crip, Bloods and Crips.
So that's obviously something to consider, and he was using it way before I did. And Krip Hop has been around forever, and Leroy in particular has been a really important figure within the disability culture and has done incredible work on reporting on issues like police brutality and all kinds of things that other people just haven't looked at. I'm not sure when exactly it started. I would say my guess would probably be just somewhere along the disability rights movement, probably like the '80s or '90s when disability activists really were looking at language and looking at community. And I think it is very intentional that it's used as a signifier, like other communities who use reclaimed language do.
It's really interesting. And so when you get pushback for the language that you use, like you were saying, you often get in trouble for the language that you use around disability.
How do you respond to that, and does any of the feedback you get make you rethink the way that you describe yourself?
I like that you're like, “Annnd, no!” [laughs]
I've thought about this a lot, and I'm very comfortable in my opinions. I can appreciate other people not agreeing with me. That is fine, and I'm not here to tell anyone what they should call themselves. Call yourself whatever you want to. That is fine. But it does make me unbelievably angry when, especially when non-disabled people tell me what language I should be using. So especially because I'm like, have you read any of the articles about why people don't like people-first language? And they never have, and then it's infuriating because there are reasons for why I use the language that I do. I've thought about it a lot. I've read a lot about it. And at this point, it's like I'm kind of just even sick of talking about it and thinking about it. I got in trouble the other day with another disabled person who wanted to know why I didn't use people-first language. And it's just like, just the same stuff over and over when I think that language is important, and particularly stuff like this I find fascinating; however, it's like there's so many other pressing issues within the disability community that need to be addressed that I feel like this is a debate that's been going on forever. So I got in trouble for saying “disabled person” instead of “person with disabilities.” So if they knew that I say “crip,” like God forbid.
Related Reading: A New Webseries Upsets Pop Culture Portrayals of Disabilities.