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!