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!
|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|