The Disability Alphabet: C Is For ...

Disability Thinking … The Disability Alphabet
“C” Scrabble tile logo with caption Is For …

I’m covering just one this time, since there is more than enough to be said about it to fill one blog post …

Cripple / Crip

Definitions

Dictionary.com:

* Offensive - a term used to refer to a person who is partially or totally unable to use one or more limbs.

* an animal that is similarly disabled; a lame animal.

* Offensive - a person who is disabled or impaired in any way: a mental cripple.

* anything that is impaired or flawed.

* a wounded animal, especially one shot by a hunter.

Do follow the Dictionary.com link because there is a detailed “usage note” that discusses the historical and current acceptability of “cripple,” as compared with “handicapped,” “physically challenged,” and “disabled.” While it presents a fairly up to date analysis of these terms, it deems “cripple” simply offensive, and doesn’t mention disabled people using “cripple” as a reclaimed term of irony or pride. Which, as you will see, is an interesting ommission.

Wikipedia:

A “cripple” is a person or animal with a physical disability, particularly one who is unable to walk because of an injury or illness. The word was recorded as early as 950 AD, and derives from the Proto-Germanic /krupilaz/. The German and Dutch words /Krüppel/ and /kreupel/ are cognates.

By the 1970s, the word generally came to be regarded as perjorative when used for people with disabilities. *Cripple* is also a transitive verb, meaning “cause a disability or inability”.

Wikipedia does discuss disabled people reclaiming the word.

Wikipedia also says that the street gang “Crips” got the name “when members started carrying a cane which gave the impression they were crippled.”

Common Uses

It’s possible that “cripple” and “crip” generate more feeling and conflict in and around the disability community than just about any other term. The conflict centers on two opposing uses of these terms.

  1. “Cripple” is a derogatory term, a slur against disabled people, such as when a non-disabled person refers to or directly calls a wheelchair user “a cripple,” or when a disabled person dejectedly refers to themselves as “a cripple.”

  2. “Cripple” is a term of pride, self-confidence, and an enjoyable transgression for disabled people, as when disabled friends working together to assert their pride ironically refer to themselves as “cripples” or “crips.” The disability blogger Smart Ass Cripple uses the same principle to project an irreverent and, paradoxically, empowered take on disability. #CripTheVote is doing something similar, too. This turning a negative term into a positive is known as “reclaiming.”

These two opposite uses are further complicated by a third category, the everyday use of “crippled.” On the surface, they have nothing to do with disabled people ... as when we call a broken down vessel as a “crippled ship,” or when we say that their ability to carry out a project has been “crippled” by some circumstances. There’s always an implied negative view of disability in these, but it’s always distant enough that people can credibly deny they mean anything derogatory. And like other off-topic, causal uses of slurs, some feel it’s important to call it out, while others think it’s not a big deal.

Problems and Misunderstandings

First there’s the classic misunderstanding or dispute that hangs around other “reclaimed” slurs. “If you can call yourself a “cripple” or “crip,” why can’t I call you one?” This is easily answered. It’s the same reason it’s okay to use certain kinds of jokes or terms of endearment within your immediate family, but not in front of strangers or directed at your boss or coworker. But the objection persists, sometimes from people who sincerely don’t understand and view it as a double standard, other times cynically, as a rhetorical weapon to discredit disability culture and activism more broadly.

On the other hand, some disabled people truly just can’t stomach any use of “cripple” because it brings back traumatic memories of being taunted and explicitly discounted. Some disabled people are unaware of or confused by “reclaiming,” but plenty of others understand it completely, and simply don’t care. “Cripple” is just too painful, no matter what. They feel that whatever benefit comes from calling yourself a “cripple,” with pride or a little smirk, isn’t worth the continued use of a nasty, insulting term.

This points to another, broader divide that will come up a lot in this Disability Alphabet series ... the gap between people who view language as concrete and neutral, with fixed meanings, and those who see language as constantly evolving and inherently political, as a legitimate tool for social change. If you treat words as fixed and literal, then it doesn’t make sense for “cripple” to be anything but mean. But if you view language as a tool, then it can be quite tempting and exciting to use its negative power for a contradictory and more positive good.

Another problem with “cripple” and “crip” as a term of pride for disability culture is that it doesn’t seem to cover the whole, diverse disability community, even though the way people use it increasingly suggests that we want very much for the word to be inclusive. Deaf people are in some sense disabled, but can they call themselves “crips?” How about blind people, autistic people,or people with intellectual disabilities? Again, if you view words as evolving, then “cripple” and “crip” might well be a term we can all embrace. If not, its more specific reference to physical disabilities may limit the ways it can be used.

Suggestions

I think “reclaiming “ words can work as intended, but it doesn’t always work well enough to be useful. So I would approach using “cripple” or “crip,” for any reason with caution and care, even if you yourself are disabled. And I think when you do, it’s a good idea to explain why you use the term, what you mean by it, and how your using it fits into the historical context of the word.

That’s what Alice Wong, Gregg Beratan and I did when we chose #CripTheVote to represent the Twitter conversation we started about disability in politics back in 2016. After using the hashtag for awhile and fielding some occasionally pointed questions about it, we posted an explainer. It still sums up how I, personally, feel about what “cripple” and “crip” mean to me as a disabled person: #CripTheVote: Notes On Crip.

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