Image by K.Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #18: “Crippled” and “Paralyzed”

Generally, using the words “crippled” and “paralyzed” to refer to people with disabilities is impolite. However, they’re still being used to describe impairment, whether it’s in the media, daily conversations, or pop culture. It is not uncommon to encounter a news headline that reads something along the lines of, “Basketball team suffers crippling loss at semi-finals.” Some of us might hear our peers describe themselves as “feeling crippled” if they have a physical injury.

There’s no doubt that “paralyzed” and “crippling” have evocative value when they’re used as metaphors, but they’re problematic terms that support a culture of ableism. Ableism is a system of oppression based on the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to non-disabled people. This means that there are a set of institutions, cultural practices, and attitudes that discriminate against people with disabilities. Our society is constructed to be ableist as well as disabling. For example, a lack of elevators disables people from accessing the floors of a building. This says less about a person’s ability to climb stairs, and more about the way ableism is built in society. It’s ableist to use the term “crippled” because it contributes to the idea that people with disabilities are “less competent.”

Using the terms “crippled” and “paralyzed” also supports the construction of disability as outside of what is considered “normal.” Saying something like, “paralyzed by your beauty” is ableist because it’s being used to describe something unusual, or out of the ordinary. To use “crippled” or “paralyzed” in everyday language is to support the construction of disability as the binary opposite of what’s “normal,” good, or desirable. Other ableist binaries include regular/irregular, or healthy/pathological.

Using the term “cripple” undermines the material consequences faced by people with disabilities. It suggests that people who are physically challenged face only physical barriers, not social, political, or systemic ones. It supports the idea that any problems related to disability stem from the disability. According to disability studies scholar Simi Linton, being placed in the category of disability is what disqualifies a person from “normal” achievements, such as supporting themselves financially. In hiring practices, for example, there’s a tendency to fixate on what a person with disabilities can’t do. When we focus on what they can’t do, it makes it easy to justify things like paying them less, or not hiring them at all. Focusing on what they can’t do also shifts the focus away from what they can do, or how their disability could be accommodated. Disability is a label that categorizes certain people as “abnormal,” but that doesn’t mean that a disabled person is incapable of participating in society or doing work. That’s why meeting the accessibility needs of people with disabilities is important — it restores their individual agency to manage for themselves and contribute to society.

Not everyone falls under the disability category, but everyone is affected by ableism (though differently so). Our culture is one that makes people vulnerable to marginalization when they don’t fit into particular constructions of normativity, such as the able-bodied, heterosexual, white cisgender male. In this way, ableism follows the same logic as colonialism, racism, gender oppression, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. The circulation of the words “crippled” and “paralyzed” in our culture continues the oppression of many communities and people based on their identities.

In addition to looking at how ableism works in culture, it’s important to be mindful of how normativity operates in different spaces. While it’s one thing to see ableism in mainstream media, it’s another to see it in social justice movements. For example, a social justice march that covers many kilometers isn’t necessarily accessible to folks who use mobility devices! Building cross-movement solidarity in anti-oppression means being mindful of ableism. It requires that accessibility needs be met. If ableism and accessibility aren’t addressed in social justice movements, then what spaces will they be addressed in?

In general, accessibility means enabling all bodies barrier-free access to spaces. In terms of physical accommodations, this means ensuring that a space is accessible with ramps or elevators for people who use mobility devices. It also requires providing the appropriate signage to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

Like many terms that have been used to oppress people, “crippled” can be reclaimed as a form of resistance. In disability justice movements, “crippled” is being reclaimed by some people who have been oppressed by the identity category. There’s krip-hop, where artists with disabilities use hip-hop as a means to share their experiences. Cripple punks have also reclaimed “crip,” by fiercely rejecting ableism and other forms of oppression!

Use/Context Alternatives
That person’s a cripple. That person has a physical disability.
I’m paralyzed by indecision. I’m having trouble making a decision.
I hurt my ankle skimboarding and now I’m basically crippled. I got injured skimboarding and my ankle really hurts.
They were cripplingly shy when I met them. They were extremely shy when I met them
I was completely paralyzed. I was frozen, stunned, taken aback, surprised

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  • John

    Good suggestions, but stunned is also not politically correct and neither is shy (slang for homosexual.)

  • Problematic

    This seems somewhat problematic. I understand and fully support most of the articles in this series. It is completely unacceptable to use fag or dyke in any context. Using rape to describe trivial situations does trivialize a horrific experience, and reverse racism is clearly a ridiculous concept. I fully support these topics and several of the articles in this series, but I am worried about limiting the ways of expressing ourselves. The top three(and likely more) google hits for the definition of cripple express two possible meanings for the word: 1) a derogatory term for a handicapped person 2) something damaged or to damage/impair the functioning of something. Clearly the first usage is just as unacceptable as the usage of fag or dyke. However, it seems that there is still room to use the word for it’s other intended meaning. Moreover, looking at the etymology of the word I see that there are again two main agreed upon meanings: 1)to crook/bend 2)to creep(to move quietly as to be unheard)…..So yes, the term became problematic when it became derogatory. I am concerned however that avoiding usage of the term in the non-derogatory way gives the derogatory usage more power. If we reclaim the word, then the derogatory usage loses power. I would suggest that we could eventually reclaim any derogatory term, if used enough in a non-derogatory way, but the obvious place to start is with words that already have more than a derogatory meaning. Yes, it is important to be sensitive to issues such as these, but wouldn’t it be better to slowly reclaim words rather than to avoid them altogether? I feel that words that have a substantial(if not primarily) non-derogatory meaning is the perfect place to start!

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