What’s up Bitches!?
Ahem. I mean “Hello, distinguished readers of the Bitch community. Pleased to make your acquaintance. How do you do?” My name is Caitlin and this is my new blogging series, “Tales From The Crip.” I hope you enjoy it and that we can be friends. Or at the very least, be frenemies who engage in some stimulating conversations.
You might be asking yourself about the meaning behind the blog’s title. “Umm ‘crip?’ Bitch is hiring freelance gang members now?” This is where (if we were in person) I’d cradle you against my ample bosom, gently stroke your hair and whisper, “ssshhhhh… no.” Or maybe you’re already familiar with the term, with the disability community and movements about reclamations of oppressive language (i.e., bitch, fag, dyke, etc.). Maybe you’re like me, a disabled woman who enjoys making terrible puns about even more terrible TV shows from the early ’90s. To the younger readers who don’t understand the reference, I’ll tell you what I tell my mother: Google is your friend. Regardless of your background and experience with the disability community, I’m really excited to work on this series for Bitch, which will focus on (you guessed it!) disability, representation, and pop culture. I thought talking a bit about language and labels was a logical and important first step for the series as you’re stuck with me for the next couple of months. Please like me!
So we’ve established that I’m not in fact, part of a gang, (there goes my street cred). For my next trick I’d like to discuss why I love the word crip and why I use it as an identifier. First things first though, a little background info. The disability community is huge. At 10% of the entire population, we are the world’s largest minority group. Holla! Despite the vast numbers of people experiencing an impairment(s), there are serious social repercussions to belonging to this wonderfully diverse yet marginalized community: poverty, societal stigma, discrimination on just about every level, people not wanting to hire you because you’re disabled, lack of accessible housing, higher rates of abuse and violence, etc.) Can you go to the movies and see someone on screen who looks like you? I can’t. And at thirty years old, I never have. In short, gimpin’ ain’t easy.
Navigating an ableist world (ableism being just like any other gnarly -ism, denoting discrimination, prejudice, and negative attitudes, in this case toward people with disabilities) is a challenging, often exhausting experience if you’re disabled. There’s a considerable dearth of positive media representation for us crips, so nondisabled people frequently rely on antiquated stereotypes (which leads to bizarre assumptions about what life must be like for us, which leads to prejudice) to guide behaviors when interacting with a disabled person. Ableism is pervasive, infiltrating all aspects of culture, and notably: language.
The media, when writing about someone who is a wheelchair user, constantly uses the archaic expressions “wheelchair bound,” or “confined to a wheelchair”—terms that disabled people consistently cite as offensive, due to the extremely negative connotations evoked. As Eugene Emmer tried to explain to journalists, “A wheelchair user is not ‘bound’ to their wheelchair. There are no chains or shackles binding the wheelchair user. A wheelchair gives freedom to a wheelchair user. A wheelchair gives mobility and allows many wheelchair users to live high quality lives. But most importantly, the term ‘wheelchair bound’ is simply paternalistic. It is a way of talking down about a wheelchair user.”
In addition to the utter grossness of “wheelchair bound,” and “confined to a wheelchair,” there is a more loathsome descriptor that is occasionally (and recklessly) thrown out by ablebodied people. I’m talking about the “C” word. No, not C U Next Tuesday, but “crippled.” Few words cause me to recoil in the same manner that this one does. I experience the same kind of visceral reaction upon hearing it that I do when someone uses a racial or gay slur. Weirdly, some ablebodied people don’t seem to understand that labeling a disabled person as “crippled” might be considered full-on effrontery. And while I’m likely preaching to the progressive, feminist choir who makes thoughtful linguistic choices, it happens more often than you might think.
Enter le crip. Identity is fluid and complicated, much like disability. I proudly call myself as a crip because it makes me feel powerful. It takes a word previously hurled at me, making me feel ashamed, alienated, and unworthy and flips it on its axis. Crip gives me agency. Crip is my culture. Crip is my community filled with badass freaks and outcasts who are classified as abnormal by society and wear that designation as a badge of honor. Because we’re not trying to assimilate into a culture that doesn’t know what to do with us in the first place.
But crip isn’t for everyone. I have friends with disabilities who would never use that appellation. And I respect whatever label they choose to self-identify with because it’s up to each individual to figure out what descriptors are personally empowering and which ones are not. There will always be internal debate and disagreement on semantics, but ultimately we’re still part of the same community—the largest, and most beautifully unique community in the world.