Cw: ableism, slurs, Holocaust mention in link

Cripple
/ˈkrɪp(ə)l/

noun
dated, offensive 

  1. A person who is unable to walk or move properly through disability or because of injury to their back or legs.

1.1 A person with a severe limitation of a specified kind.
‘an emotional cripple’

You may have heard of a particularly contentious collaborative event coming up. Ben Riddle, Perth slam poet, is performing his set titled ‘A Cr*pple Who Is Whole’ as a collaborative effort between Leisure and the Access Department. An unlikely partnership, but one with the admirable aim to encourage more discussions on campus surrounding mental health to break down the stigma and ignorance unfortunately still so prevalent. However, many have taken issue with the slur in the title – ‘cr*pple’.

Funnily enough, every person in defence online of the poet’s use of the slur in his title is startlingly ablebodied, mentally ill or not. Arguments that ‘cr*pple’ is for anyone with a disability (and just FYI, the disability community does recognise mental illness as a disability) have surfaced. However, in this context, the word has been co-opted by ablebodied people who don’t understand the complicated but negative history associated with it – ‘cr*pple’ is a slur that has actively been used to disparage physically disabled people. Its uninformed usage only serves to perpetuate ableist narratives.

A person with a disability who decides to self-identify as ‘disabled’ or ‘cr*ppled’ understands the sometimes painful and traumatic history of these words, knows the social model of disability, ‘person first’ language (that is, ‘a person with disability’ as opposed to ‘a disabled person’), and takes pride in their disability identity. Disabled folks who identify with these words tend to share a “strong sense of disability pride and deep involvement in disability activism and culture”. My self-identification as a disabled person isn’t a sign of self-hatred or ignorance of disability history – by reclaiming  this term, it empowers me.

But see, those who choose to reclaim slurs still use them cautiously. Sometimes other people have painful connections to these same words that empower us, so we use them when appropriate. Slurs are slurs because they remind marginalized people of the power dynamics that surround us.

And sure – people are free to use whatever language to self-identify, to some extent. I’m white, so I don’t get to reclaim the slur ‘n*gga’. A heterosexual person doesn’t get to reclaim ‘q*eer’. Those are words and histories of negativity and persecution we dare not cross.

Listen. I’m a person with a sensory disability – one with a community, a unique language, history, and culture. I am disabled, yes, but even I know that the word ‘cr*pple’ is not for me. The Oxford English Dictionary clearly states that the definition of the word is based in having a mobility or physical disability. It’s not for me to use to identify with, despite my deafness. And it’s certainly not for you to use it for your neurodiversity, or to defend it when other ablebodied, mentally ill folks do.

I’m not trying to slam anyone. This event is a commendable attempt to start the conversation of mental health on campus. I appreciate how disabling mental illness can be, and I applaud the poet for sharing his story. Could it have been approached a little differently, in a way that doesn’t potentially alienate people with disability, by changing the name or supporting a poet who can discuss mental health without using ableist slurs? Absolutely. Can it be used as an opportunity to start the conversation of disability on campus using positive language not so uncomfortably tangled in impairment rhetoric and a harrowing and deadly history? Absolutely.

EDIT (14/4/18) –  The Guild Access Collective has since withdrawn support for the event after stating “the department recognises that it is not appropriate for able bodied people to use this kind of language.”

Laura Bullock | @deafgirlclub

Laura is a proud deaf lesbian. They don’t have time for your ableist bullshit.