“Wow, that is so inspiring!” “She has truly overcome her handicap.” “You are so brave!”
Do any of these exclamations sound familiar? They might, if you are a person with a disability who has been on the receiving end of “good intentions” that mask an unfortunately pervasive Western trope about disability and people who live with disabilities: Supercrip.
Supercrip is the Good Cripple taken to dizzying, perhaps nauseating heights, and chances are, if you’ve had any exposure to media depictions of disability at all, you have been exposed to this trope. Supercrip has been, in his and her various iterations, sunny, kind, overachieving, possesses a “can-do” attitude, and does AMAZING! and INSPIRING! things and can thus “overcome” his or her disability. Supercrip’s personality traits overlap quite a bit with those of the Good Cripple, but above all, Supercrip’s main function is to serve as inspiring to the majority while reinforcing the things that make this majority feel awesome about itself. In short: Supercrip provides a way for non-disabled folks to be “inspired” by persons with disabilities without actually questioning—or making changes to—how persons with disabilities are treated in society.
I can hear the refrain now: “But why is it bad if it’s a positive stereotype?” Positive or not, it’s still a stereotype. And because it is a stereotype—some would say cliché—many folks without disabilities use it as shorthand when telling stories about people with disabilities; how many times have we seen those human interest pieces on the news or in magazines about athletes struck down “in their prime” who are learning to walk again (and holding out hope and a “positive attitude” for the day that they can toss a football around again), or a person with one leg who is running a marathon? Or, hell, Christopher Reeve, who basically remade himself as the penultimate Supercrip after his life-changing injury—and, I might add, could reinvent himself in that fashion because he had the money and an existing famous-person platform from which to do so?
Disability activist and writer Lorenzo W. Milam expands upon the Supercrip stereotype in a passage from CripZen: A Manual For Survival: “Less obvious, but more hurtful, is what we call the Roosevelt Syndrome—scaling great heights, smiling…becoming SuperCrip, convincing everyone that there is nothing going on inside, nothing at all.” Nevermind whatever anger, rage, sadness, or less-than-positive thoughts you may have; if you are a person with a disability, you are expected to be just a canvas onto which non-disabled people can project their need for “inspiration.”
Now, there is nothing inherently ableist about taking one’s inspiration from an example that another person has set; arguably, looking to others for inspiration is very human. It is when we collapse stereotypes into real-life expectations–or the individual into a representative for all people in her or his group–that such “inspiration” becomes problematic. Ergo, the Supercrip story is one of the only types of narratives about disabled people that receives plenty of airtime and page space. Supercrip cannot just be human; she or he must be superhuman and surpass not only her/his disability, but the realms of “normal” human achievement. Supercrip’s inspirational currency is not at all about inspiring other people with disabilities; it is, rather, about inspiring non-disabled people. Supercrip allows some non-disabled folks to feel better about themselves; this is quite evident when it comes to statements like, “What an inspiration!” The implication with these sorts of statements is disturbing: if a disabled person can do superhuman things, what is the person who is being inspired—and who likely does not have a disability—complaining about, anyway? Supercrip has it so much worse because s/he is disabled, and s/he is doing amazing things in spite of those limitations!
Unfortunately for some PWDs, Supercrip is a specter; he or she is a ghostly reminder of what we will never be—but, as some like to remind us, we should remember that Supercrips do “amazing” things, so why can’t we? Here’s why: Most people—disabled or not—cannot run marathons, or play sports at a non-amateur level, or make advocating for stem-cell research into a full-time, publicity-garnering, and paying gig. However, some folks do not seem to realize this, and may deem it perfectly acceptable to dredge up the zombie-body of Supercrip, along with the magical, mythic Level Playing Field that supports her or him—and, by extension (and according to the non-marginalized) other people who have traditionally been marginalized.
The myth of the Level Playing Field holds that American society gives everyone—no matter what their background or present circumstances—equal chances to succeed, and that most of the problems that marginalized groups have traditionally faced have already been solved. All folks have to do is work hard, have a good attitude, and their success will be imminent! Therefore, if there’s a Level Playing Field, there is no reason that people with disabilities can’t do superhuman things and succeed. Of course, the Level Playing Field is not real (hence its mythic status). Yet, many people who are effectively not marginalized regularly tell those who are that they, too, can “make it” if they just work hard and/or visualize their success. And so Supercrip remains the exception that many abled folks like to bring up; using similar logic, non-fictional Supercrips throughout the ages—along with many other people from marginalized groups who have “made it”–supposedly “prove” the existence of the Level Playing Field.
Like the titular character of the classic ’80s disaster Weekend at Bernie’s, Supercrip has been dragged around for far too long, and the joke that comes with this dragging-around is deeply unfunny, though the majority that keeps telling this joke hasn’t yet realized it. It’s time to let Supercrip rest.