Language is dangerous. Writers have always known this. As Edward Bulwer-Lytton said, “The Pen is mightier than the sword.” All of us have heard the phrase, but I think few of us tend to give it much weight. Words, whether they are written are spoken, have a lot of power. They have the power to create change, to inspire, to empower; but they also have the power to destroy, to break down.
In college, I began using the word cripple to describe myself, mostly for shock value. It was an ice breaker in a way. I thought that maybe by calling myself a cripple it might put others at ease, they wouldn’t be so worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. But I also started doing it because I was sick of the word disabled. To me disabled is the nasty word, not because of its definition, but because the word disabled implies that there is something less about me, something I am not, or cannot. It compares me to everyone else, and with those odds stacked against me, I’ll never come out on top.
The word cripple, though traditionally frowned upon by the politically correct, has a similar definition to the word disabled, but when I use it I don’t feel as though I am being compared to someone else, or judged by some ridiculous standard. Plus, it has the advantage of making people a little uncomfortable. This is only fair if people are going to ask me personal questions in public or tell me that if I pray hard enough or try hard enough I will be normal, because that makes me uncomfortable.
I am not the only person using this terminology to describe themselves. Some choose other words like Gimp, Crip and Spaz. I don’t think we do it for humor. I think it comes from two main places: the feeling of solidarity and the empowerment that it gives us, and secondly, it’s our way to fight back against the politically correct and the language that has been deemed acceptable when talking about “people like us”.
People without disabilities think that there is shame in being disabled. They try to lessen the blow by coming up with phrases like “handicapable”, “differently-abled” and “disABILITY”. They did it for us, the people with the disabilities, so that we wouldn’t feel left out or ashamed; but, I (and most of the other people I know who have disabilities) am proud to be a part of the disability culture. My Cerebral Palsy has never shamed me. What has shamed me is the way other people have reacted to it. When my principal and teachers decided I was "too sick" for the ropes course in 5th grade camp and sent me home, I was ashamed. When my teachers kept me inside at recess on field day, I was ashamed. When my mother, only one trying to be helpful, cleared a path for me in a crowded room by shouting, “She’s handicapped!” I was ashamed. My disability caused none of this shame, people did. Of course, it wasn't until I began to hear words like 'gimp' and 'cripple' and 'spaz' used by people with disabilities and began using them myself, that I realized it.
The funny thing is, as I have gotten older, I’ve noticed that even words you mean to use positively can turn against you. Ever since I was a teenager my other friends with CP and I have been using the word spaz with each other. It is a perfectly appropriate term considering how jumpy and spastic we all are.
But recently, I was with a friend looking at some pictures on her facebook page and I noticed that in her captions she often had written something like: “This is a great picture of all of us, except Liz, she looks like a spaz.” At first it didn’t bother me because in a few of the pictures, Liz did look like a spaz. But then I noticed that a perfectly lovely picture of Liz would have the same type of caption. My friend had sad Liz looked like a spaz in EVERY picture. So then I got a bit upset and asked my friend why she was being so mean, was she jealous? (because Liz is beautiful, there is no denying that.) My friend got upset and called me a hypocrite. And she was right.
The thing is, I didn’t feel like she was using the word in a positive way anymore. She had used it the way kids who weren't our friends had used on the playgrounds of our childhood, to make Liz separate, or less. Sure the rest of us could be pretty, but Liz, she was a Spaz.
Words are tricky bastards.
So maybe I don’t want to use any of them anymore. Maybe I will just take the disability out of the equation all together. It’s never been that important. Sure people will still compare my body to theirs, they might still want to know why, they might still think of me as less and they might use my differences is a reason to disregard me, and put me aside. That sucks for them, because I am Awesome. I really am, ask my friends. I can see them having this conversation from now on:
Poor Sap: So what’s up with that friend of yours anyway? Friend: Which one? Poor Sap: The one in the wheelchair Friend: Oh Melissa? She’s Awesome.