Cripple - Redefining A Word

By Alice Mander

Disability language can be tricky. Alice Mander discusses some of the issues around how we use language.

When respectful adults ask what the title of this column is I have begun to expect the same reaction: a raise of the eyebrows, followed by an uncomfortable “oh!”.  This reaction started to have me doubting myself- was the use of the word “cripple” really just too shocking and off-putting to have as the title of a column which is supposed to be accepting and educating?  And the thing is, I totally get most people’s reactions to the word. It is, without a doubt, one of the most offensive words you could call a person with a disability. The word “cripple” is tinged with the memory of scary sidekicks in black and white movies or the painfully mopey boy in the Secret Garden. It’s the word which can be used as a weapon against those with disabilities by those without. And it is for that reason that it can be so powerful for the disabled community to reclaim and use it if they choose, yet it still remains a weapon when those outside of the disabled community use it against us. 

"Using a word which was once used against a minority group by a dominant majority can be empowering- more, it can be a sign of pride and solidarity."

Using a word which was once used against a minority group by a dominant majority can be empowering- more, it can be a sign of pride and solidarity. And, yet, it is an idea which is troubling for some. So, for the sake of legitimising the title of this column once and for all, let me simplify it for you. Firstly,  if I hear “it’s unfair if they can say it but I can’t!”. You will hear, “Inequality is also unfair, honey”. Secondly, imagine this: You’re at a party with your girlfriends, and a seedy drunk guy you’ve never met comes up to you and says, “Sup, my bitches”. But, come on girls, it’s okay because you say it to each other all the time and in, like, an ~empowering~ way. 

Yeah. It’s not okay. It’s not “just a joke, bro”. 

While not everybody with a disability is the same (*shock*), it’s a pretty safe bet that if you don’t have a disability you shouldn’t really go around using harmful language and calling people cripples. It may be different in your friendship group (and, I reiterate, I can’t speak on behalf of everyone with a disability) but, as a rule of thumb, stay away from language that has a harmful history. And that includes describing your mate who twisted his ankle in Dakota as a cripple because he’s using crutches for a week. He’s not. He’s just an idiot. 

Language can be a niggly little issue for the disabled community. When I was on a school placement at a special education school, we were encouraged to use the word “impaired” rather than “disabled”. Similarly, some use the very politically correct term “differently abled” or “difable”. I used to be in this camp- believing that the word “disabled” didn’t describe me because I wasn’t really not able I was just “different”, and I wasn’t really disabled because I didn’t fit my narrow perception of disability. Even now, I still tend to refer to myself as a “person with a disability”- using what is known as ‘person first language’.  

But, really, why am I so afraid of outwardly claiming that, yes, I am disabled? Is my fear of boldly stating “I am disabled” rather than “I have a disability” really just a manifestation of my inability to accept who I am due to a deep rooted sense of internalised ableism which is a by-product of a discriminatory society which taught me subconsciously not to be proud of my disability and that I am not wanted or valuable to my community because of it? 

Introspective shit, man. 

But, really, the message of this is quite simple: just don’t be a dick. Listen to what language people with disabilities use for themselves, and respect that. Nice and simple, really.

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