At the beginning of this month, I submitted an article to an online site for the first time – an article that was very quickly rejected. The story was for themighty.com and I knew that I was running the risk of rejection because of its language, a bit politically incorrect, maybe even harsh to some. It wasn’t meant to be harsh, however, just honest. Perhaps, I didn’t make myself clear enough – or perhaps they were just rejecting everything this month. Since I’m not afraid to be controversial in my own blog, I’m sharing the story with you…
I remember the first (and only) time that someone called me a cripple to my face. It was an early summer evening in front of my great-aunt’s house, when I was about seven or eight years old. I was alone, sitting in my manual wheelchair on the sidewalk, probably waiting for my sister as I was too weak to propel the chair myself, and a boy was walking along the same sidewalk in the opposite direction. When he saw me, he looked at my skinny body in my little wheelchair and said, “You’re a cripple.”
And I laughed at him.
I would like to say that I laughed bravely in the face of bullying… but, that wouldn’t be a true description of my laughter or of the situation itself.
My thoughts were the unkind ones. I thought how stupid this boy was that he didn’t know that a cripple was someone that hobbled about on a crutch, like Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A cripple was not someone like me who, having spinal muscular atrophy, a quasi-kind of muscular dystrophy, couldn’t walk at all. I was handicapped – not a cripple. Obviously. And, so, I dismissed the boy with a roll of my eyes.
But, I never forgot that day.
As for the boy’s thoughts, I can’t know what they were. I won’t say that I was bullied or called a mean name by him, because I don’t really know what motivated his choice of words. Perhaps, he was intending to reduce me to a thing, to demean and ridicule me by calling me a cripple. If so, then, shame on him. Or… perhaps, that was the only word that he knew to describe someone who used a wheelchair. I could have been the first fellow child that he had ever seen who couldn’t walk and he found that moment so surprising – and alarming – that he said it out loud. If so, then, there is no guilt or shame to be placed on the boy.
As for the word “cripple” itself, I was right about the technical meaning. For clarification in this article, let’s look at the definition, as a noun, as found in Merriam-Webster online:
1 a sometimes offensive : a lame or partly disabled person or animal
b : one that is disabled or deficient in a specified manner – a social cripple
2 : something flawed or imperfect
That day on the sidewalk, I got smugly stuck on the definition of a word, so much so that, now, lost to my memory is the tone and expression of the boy who used it. And that’s too bad. For, what matters isn’t so much the words that people say, but why and how they say them. Any word – even a socially acceptable and committee-approved label for someone who can’t walk at all – can be used to belittle, dismiss, or hurt a person. It matters not whether a dictionary calls that word “sometimes offensive” or not.
Sometimes, we might take offense at a word when none is intended. And, sometimes, we might laugh in the face of an intended offender and take away his power to offend.
If I had said anything in response to that boy, I probably would have said, in my superior-little-girl way, “I’m not a cripple, dummy, I’m handicapped.” Per definition, “handicapped” would have been a more accurate word to describe my physical condition. However, looking up that word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary today, you will discover that it also is listed as “sometimes offensive.” It wasn’t when I was a kid in the early 1980s. The word itself didn’t change, but people’s thoughts about it did.
When “handicapped” was inexplicably falling out of favor, just a few years after the sidewalk incident, while I was at an event for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, I was told that I was handi-capable. And I rolled my eyes again. “Please,” I thought to myself, “Handi-capable? Really? What is so wrong with not being able to walk that we have to invent some dumb word to make people feel better?”
I still feel this way. (Though, I probably shouldn’t use the word “dumb.”)
The word “disabled” then became an acceptable word by society, with “physically challenged” holding court for only a short while. The thinking then turned to whether one should say “disabled person” or “person with a disability.” Discussions and debates will continue to continue about what to call someone like me.
My preference? Well… I kind of like “crippled.”
Let me explain. In my opinion, “handicapped” is good, as people play the game of golf with a handicap, while “disabled” is not so great, because players on the disabled list don’t get to play in the basketball game. “Physically challenged” was always lame. (Yes, I said “lame.”) Running a marathon, climbing Mount Everest, or training to become a Navy Seal – these are physical challenges. Not being able to make basic physical movements is not a “challenge” – it’s simply not being able to physically move.
“Crippled,” however, is a wonderfully descriptive word. You can just see it, can’t you? You can see me all crippled up in my wheelchair. True, my legs and arms are more than “partly disabled,” but, like a crippled airplane, I cannot fly. My legs, arms, back, and neck are crippled. They cannot do the things that these body parts are designed to do in humans, like, respectively: walk, lift, keep my organs from getting crushed, and hold my head up. That’s me. I’m crippled.
And, yes, the word does seem to evoke a tender sense of pity. Although I used to hate pity, I have come to see the compassion within pity and understand that compassion is one of the greatest gifts that can be given and received. The problem with pity is when the compassion of the heart that provoked it is crusted over with patronization (“Aw, you poor little thing”) or hardened up by a fear of, or disdain for, anything less than ideal (“What a shame… What a waste.”) Compassionate pity never belittles, for it sees the suffering other as a human being of equal worth, practicing the Golden Rule: “Treat others the way that you want to be treated.”
We should really have a sense of compassionate pity for everybody, because… well… we are all crippled in one way or another. Remember the definition? “Something flawed or imperfect.” Who among us isn’t flawed or imperfect? Some of us just have imperfections and flaws that are much more obvious than others, and, sometimes, more detrimental to survival.
I’ve been told that the real problem is not in calling someone “crippled,” but in calling someone “a cripple.” This, I am told, is reducing a person to a thing, to something other than a person. But, oh… do we not do this to people every day? Not just people with disabilities, physical or mental, but all people, in general and in particular? Through our speaking and our interactions with them, we reduce human beings to objects of lust, pleasure, gossip, profit, hate, ridicule, or contempt. We fail to see each other as equals and to have compassion for one another in our flaws and imperfections.
Nobody is immune.
I don’t believe that I reduce myself by describing myself with nouns. Aren’t you, right now, a reader? Am I not a writer? So, what’s wrong with being a cripple? I sincerely want to know. I pose to you, reader, the question that is the title of this article: May I call myself a cripple?
Will you, who may, like me, have a disability, feel offended or demeaned if I call myself a cripple? If you are comfortable enough with yourself that I can use this word for myself without hurting you, then I shall do so. But, if doing so does real harm, then I want to know so that I don’t add pain to pain.
I know who I am in my heart and, compassionate with myself, I strive to be honest about my flaws and weaknesses. It is with this same compassion that I strive to relate with others. Call me a cripple, a writer, a Catholic, an American, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, an amateur genealogist, a mediocre singer, a good listener, a perfectionist, a procrastinator, a phobic, or a wit. Just don’t call me afraid of the truth. Because that’s one thing that I am not.
Finally, to that boy on the sidewalk, now a grownup like me: forgive me for judging you and dismissing you without knowing you. You were right: I am a cripple. And, if you had been able to get to know me, then you would know that I’m also pretty amazing.
© 2018 Christina Chase
Photo: me as a little girl © Dan Chase
Although crippled by disease, I am fully alive in love. I write about the profound wonder and terrible beauty of life while living with physical disability and severe dependency. Unafraid to ask life's big questions, I was briefly an atheist and considered other religions before finding, in God's choice to intimately share our humanity, what it truly means to be fully human. A revert to the Catholic Faith, I blog weekly and have written a book called It's Good to Be Here.