On why ‘cripple’ is a better term than ‘person with a disability’

Dear Reader : I feel that I should apologise in advance for this blog post, it shall be more ranty and manifesto-esque than proper critique.  Amongst the many problems I have with the social model of disability, one the biggest issues I have with it, is that it leaves no tools for disabled people to understand themselves.  By re-conceiving of disability as referring to those people who are oppressed by society on the basis of their impairments, it is difficult avoid the conclusion that the social model conceives of disability as ‘abnormal’.  Whilst one can appreciate why the original ‘framers’ of the social model did this, it shifts the responsibility for the appearance of disability squarely on society’s shoulders, society is to blame for my inability to walk to the shops, attend school and indeed have sex.  It is powerful stuff, and is a useful idea, one that I am grateful for, however I do have one quibble which I have alluded to in previous posts – what can the social model offer to help me understand my identity as a disabled person.  By advancing a definition of disability where disability is the social oppression of people with impairments, how can the social model answer question ‘What am I’?

 In all fairness, the social model never claimed to be able to answer this question, but it is natural to ask.  Disabled people are also human beings it may surprise some to know, we ask questions such as ‘How are we mean to live?’ and ‘What am I?’, when answering these questions it would be nice not to be stuck with an philosophy which conceives of ‘me’ as something abnormal, freakish and lacking ability.  As I asked in a previous blog post, if you are ‘gay and proud’ and ‘black and beautiful’ then you are ‘disabled and ____’ (One reader suggested ‘unbreakable’ and I like that, though it is difficult to find a term which is not condescending)  answers on a post card.

I do have a modest suggestion, modest because it will only apply to people with certain kinds of physical impairments.  We should re-introduce the word ‘cripple’ in everyday usage.  Rather than just conceiving of me as social oppressed due to my inability to do x – the term, ‘cripple’ gives me a positive description I can use to understand myself and describe myself to others.  I walk with a pronounced limp owing to my cerebral palsy.     As soon I leave the house I have to alter my position and posture, making tiny alterations every second.  Every movement of my foot, swing of the stick and grip on the stick handle has to be carefully co-ordinated.  Without fluidity in my walking, I am constantly planning every move.  I am always aware of my body as an object to be controlled, not really ‘part of me’, and yet – and at the same time – it is certainly ‘my body’ which I need to constantly reorganize.  The world, that is, my surrounding environment appears as something hostile, and something I am  part of, but certainly not ‘in’; it is an object which I must continually manipulate, as opposed to being a friendly place, somewhere where I feel at ease or at even at home. Within this hostile world, other people often appear as obstacles to be avoided, not just because I fear bumping into them and hurting myself, and others.  Even a hand offering help with shopping bags can appear hostile as it is an unexpected disruption to my ‘walking plan’.  It is to live in a world which assails the body and self, and I live in constant hope that my last adjustment will allow me to survive.

 In short, I walk in a crippled way.  Calling myself ‘crippled’ says far more about me, about how I engage with the world than ‘disabled’ and it is certainly far more accurate than ‘person with a disability’ – I am not ‘with’ a disability, my disability is not a part of me that can be removed with ease.  I recognize that some won’t see this as a positive thing, to them I ask, is defining myself as the end product of societal oppression more positive? 

The term ‘cripple’ has another positive effect for me, if it is used correctly.  Cripple is not a medical term, but a social one, referring to how I walk.  It re-unites my experience of my impairment with my disability.  I have never truly accepted that disability is entirely a social problem with a societal solution.  A world where I had complete access to all facilities is still a world where I would be in pain and limp.  The social model would determine this to be part of my impairment, I’m not so sure.  People’s reaction to my pain and my walking gait is a social experience, that look of pity or concern from across a corridor or on a crowded train does much to ‘undermine my psychoemotional wellbeing’ to borrow Carol Thomas’ terms given in a previous post.  Yet despite, its oppressive effects, it seems unfair, or at least unreasonable to try to prevent people from reacting that way, I mean it is only because they care.  We have to accept that there may be some things about our physical bodies – its crippledom as it were, which one could conceive of as disabling, but that a disability exists does not mean there is any remedy for it that society can or should provide. I am a cripple, to be a cripple is to be in pain and to try and avoid future pain.  Pain is bad, not to recognise it in others not to react with pity or concern is not a triumph of social modelism, it is pure psychopathy.  


So that is why cripple is better than person with a disability.  It avoids a rather depressing social ontology offered by the social model; I am more than the sum total of society’s reaction to my impairments.  It gives me a story about myself and my relation to others, providing me with a new mantra  – I am a cripple, therefore I limp! 


13 thoughts on “On why ‘cripple’ is a better term than ‘person with a disability’

  1. I have read this and now need to take a shower; I feel dirty, abused, seeing written down ideas that are a million miles away from the “framework” offered by UPIAS and Mike Oliver. When you buy a cookbook, do you seek to find a method to fix a car? Such a move would be laughed at; yet here we are with you employing the same methodology to the social model.

    The social model does not “blame” society for anyone’s inability to walk (crazy idea!); doesn’t see disability as “abnormal” (it is the dominant approaches that do this!) nor does it address all that is A – Z on impairment, disability, politics, etc. A model explores a given “problem” – thus the focus is on looking at why a given society – capitalist in nature – imposes ‘social restrictions’ on top of our experience of impairment. Breaking the causal link between the realities of impairment and the imposition of social restrictions isn’t the same as denying the individual experience of living with an impairment. The social model (cookbook) wasn’t developed to explore the world of impairment (broken car) – so why criticise it for not doing something it never sought to do?

    I really get angry when I read utter nonsense about the social model written by lazy cripples who fail to do their research. The social model approach wouldn’t see you as ‘a person WITH a disability’ as you describe it, so why introduce a red herring? Nowhere is there a critique of the social model; only a twisted set of misinformation and falsehoods.


  2. ” The world, that is, my surrounding environment appears as something hostile, and something I am  part of, but certainly not ‘in’; it is an object which I must continually manipulate, as opposed to being a friendly place, somewhere where I feel at ease or at even at home. Within this hostile world, other people often appear as obstacles to be avoided, not just because I fear bumping into them and hurting myself, and others.  Even a hand offering help with shopping bags can appear hostile as it is an unexpected disruption to my ‘walking plan’.”
    As you know, I can identify completely with this post…I just haven’t thought about it this way for I lack the philosophical training it required I believe to interpret my experience as you have yours throughout this post and in particular in the excerpted paragraph, which blew me away btw with its universality. I can see now with clarity that I lacked previously why my work was impacted you so, and now I can say that the feeling is mutual!


  3. Limp long and prosper!

    The nature of our environment is constructed, disadvantage, be it banal, or otherwise, is cemented in its construction. However we must realise that the battle once had is not over, and what the social model championed was not ‘being disabled’ but rather ‘being free’, and in that being free to be oneself, choosing ones identity. This was the case then, and it is true now. The social model perhaps needs to evolve.
    In my consideration, as an individualist, the person, rather than the group, is and ought to be able to identify themselves as they see fit. In society today one needs permission to be disabled, if ones impairment, physical or otherwise, is not sufficient to be gauged on the range of consideration, embedded within the given scale, then you do not merit consideration as disabled, you are ‘other’, subject to a non-disabling condition. Weather you ought to be considered such or not is a matter for often semantically driven and often humiliating arguments. This is more often than not linked to the access for support, money or aid in living with conditions which the individual finds disabling, rather than the group. Is it then a question of how far we gauge this scale? Or rather the criteria we set amidst it?
    The broad distinction of disabled and non, of entitled and non, seem to cause a degree of confusion, or perhaps subject to a level of conflation. The social model itself was conceived as a challenge to the existing ideas of its time, and to challenge the closed system. With the contemporary absorption of it into the system, both as governor and limiter to conception and ideals, we risk losing the struggle for understanding, surrendering at perditions gate our own identity for he succour that acceptance brings.
    Once the ‘disabled’ struggled for recognition against an institutionalised system that denied the rights of access and consideration, that commoditised the disabled in cash terms, and eliminated the identity otherwise. Now the struggle appears to be against the strong institutional constraints and definitions offered by that which once championed the disabled. Does this model need to evolve?
    We must not stifle the creative, intellectual voice that challenges our own conception of who we are, but rather champion it. We, I, You and It, must evolve, consciously, deliberately, and honestly. Rage against the machine if you will, but recognise when you are an unwitting cog in that machine?

    Limp long and prosper!


  4. After a friend was arrested for using the word ‘crippled’, I have sought to redefine the word to be more socially acceptable. I’ve always used it as a term of endearment, not offense. Speaking from experience, when someone is comfortable enough to use the word ‘crippled’ around me, they’ve reached the point of no longer seeing me for my disability, but rather who I am as a person. As a comedian, I use the word to help people let their guards down. Some like it, some don’t. But at the end of the day, I’m being true to myself.. and being myself means being crippled.


  5. I can’t believe I got to the end of this article without reading any mention of Ian Drury. Defining himself as a raspberry ripple was his way of repossessing his experiences. The sense I got reading this article was exactly the same, of someone seeking to put himself at the heart of his narrative rather than trying to fit himself to someone else’s perspective.
    That’s why I enjoyed it so much.


  6. Yet again another article that is challenging and thought provoking LP, (or should I say Michael?). I have always loved playing with the “bad” words around disability. I had a band called Freak UK, partly as I liked reclaiming the word Freak and partly as the initials spelt FUK. I had a pile of T-shirts when I was young TV type that had logos on like Freak, Spaz God and Cipple. Even thought I spend some of my time teaching rooms of people, all desperate not to offend the next disabled person they meet, the right words to use when talking to and about disability I do like reclaiming cripple. It has a nice aggressive confident feel to it. But to me the root is that these are words that describe us, so we should reclaim all of them. And then throw them back in the faces of the A.B. Bi-peds who oppress us with their deeds and words. If we make words our own then they can’t hurt us with them.
    I always wish I could tell the next person who asks me how they should refer to disabled people “call us what you like, just give us equality”.


  7. I was wondering how you feel about people who may have a mental illness using the word crippled (eg crippled by anxiety, depression)… I feel that it makes the word negative again & that often times, the people using it have never had it used against them in a negative way. Thoughts?


    • I guess I think the following (I’ve had experience with depression) if you are so depressed that you retreat from the world can’t face going outside then you might not want to use the term. but sometimes to communicate to others how bad your situation is so you can get help you have to paint a picture – crippled helps then. There are days when I have ‘crippling pain’ I cannot walk. What else might I call it but crippling?


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