Cripple in Cambridge – Week 5
Yes, that’s right, I call myself a cripple. ABBI BROWN explains her controversial title.
‘You shouldn’t call yourself a cripple.’
I’ve been told this twice recently, once in relation to this column, and once during a champagne-fuelled debate with a friendly man called Jason at 6am in a hotel lobby somewhere in Bristol. I can’t remember my argument in the latter case, partly because of the champagne, and partly because I was simultaneously attempting to prevent the champagne-buyer (who had introduced himself as a c***, and duly transpired to be a c***), from bottling Jason. But it’s a comment which has been playing on mind.
‘Cripple’ is not a nice word. Were an able-bodied person to use it with reference to a disabled person, I would undoubtedly take offence. As my fellow crip Andy Mills says, when strangers call us cripples, ‘it implies that the only thing that they see about you is that you’re disabled. It’s like they’re saying “You’re in a wheelchair. That’s the only thing about you that I want or need to know.”
Even when able-bodied people use it in reference to themselves – after an injury, for example – it makes my skin crawl. So why have I called my column ‘Cripple in Cambridge’, and why do I think that’s okay?
For starters, I am a sucker for alliteration, and ‘Mobility impaired individual in Cambridge’ would just not have had the same effect. But there’s also a bit more to it than that.
The disabled community has, in recent years, reclaimed the word ‘cripple’ in much the same way as many minority groups have reclaimed similarly derogatory terms for their own use. A Google search of ‘cripple blog’ will reveal dozens of disabled writers choosing to claim the word for themselves.
Amongst my friends with OI (osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones), ‘cripple’ is often used as a term of affection. We are a generation brought up on political correctness, and sometimes it’s important to say, yes, I’m disabled; yes, disability is something it’s ok to talk about; yes, I’m on wheels, but you can still say ‘let’s go for a walk’ and I won’t sue for discrimination.
One of the problems people have with the word ‘cripple’ is that it implies inferiority. I like to think that, in calling myself a cripple, I am making a distinction between my mind – which works hunky-dory, thank you very much, unless you’re asking me to take a numerical reasoning test prior to a job interview, in which case no, no, no – and my body, which just doesn’t.
The London Paralympics were incredibly important to disability sport in Britain, and to wider cultural perceptions of disability, but one of their more irritating legacies was this idea that a disabled person must feel some kind of obligation to be proud of their disabled body.
I am not ashamed to be disabled. There are many ways in which being disabled has changed me for the better, and I am truly honoured to be part of the nutty but fabulous OI community. I am proud of how my body adapts to its constantly changing situation (showering with one arm and one leg? No problemo!) and grateful for the people who help me along the way.
That doesn’t mean there should be any shame in admitting that my body doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to. I’m happy the way I am but, given the choice, I would much prefer a body which didn’t hurt all the time, or hands which could play the guitar without breaking, or legs which could run.
Calling myself a cripple is my own way of making light of a situation which, all too often, takes itself too seriously. Being told I shouldn’t use the word is akin to being told that being disabled isn’t a problem, that I should be as proud of my broken body as Paralympians are of their medal-winning physiques. Well, I’m not, but I am proud of my mind.
And I’d like to think that most people are wise enough to know that one doesn’t have to be defined by the other.