By: Cara Liebowitz
Over the years, I've faced a lot of backlash for choosing to call myself a cripple. I've had people flinch every time I say it. I've had people try to convince me to use all sorts of alternatives. I've had people act like the word was a personal insult to them. To them, mind you. Not to me.
And here's where we get into the root of the problem of language policing: When you are a member of an oppressed minority, privileged people run your life. Privileged people decide where you go, how you're going to get there, and if you'll be allowed in once you're there. Privileged people make decisions that can quite literally end your life. Oppressed people have very little power to determine their own lives. The one area we DO have power in is in the language we use to refer to ourselves. And when you refer to yourself with a word like "cripple", you take it back from the privileged. You are refusing to let them control you. That is a daring, subversive, political act. It may just be a chink in the walls that surround us, but it is a chink, and we can expand that chink, stick our fingers in it and pull until the walls come tumbling down. When you police our language, you are not an ally. You are helping to build the very barriers you claim to help dismantle.
Being privileged is inherently self-centered, whether we mean to be self-centered or not. Society caters to our needs, gives us jobs and food and roofs over our heads. Just by the nature of being white, I don't have to fight for things. I do have to fight because I am a woman and because I am disabled, but by nature of my skin color, things are inherently easier for me. There is no argument there. If I wasn't white, if I wasn't straight, I would have a hell of a lot harder time of it. I know this.
Do you think I'm ignorant of the power that words like "cripple" and "freak" hold? I am all too aware. Now that I am a student in a Disability Studies Master's program, I am learning more about the history of my people, and how those words were used to destroy us. I do not use the word "cripple" out of ignorance; rather, the opposite. I use it because I know the power of words far too well. If I call myself a cripple, I have taken the wind out of my oppressor's sails. I have diluted the power of their weapon.
So, no, I will not stop calling myself a cripple. Because a cripple is what - and who - I am. Until the word doesn't sting, until words like that aren't thrown like knives in our faces, until no one remembers those days anymore - until we have reached that point of evolution, I will keep using the word cripple, and the word gimp, and the word freak. And if you consider yourself an ally to me, to my community, you will not tell me what language I can use to refer to myself. If you consider yourself an ally, and if you police my language, you are not an ally. You are doing it wrong.
For all those who try to tell me what I can call myself, remember that I wear my identity like a neon badge of honor. I am a fucking cripple and I am fucking proud.
A little about Cara: she has cerebral palsy and uses a variety of mobility aids (and sometimes none at all!). In her freshman year of college she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety which she manages with medication. She has my Bachelor's degree in Education and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Disability Studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies. An activist at-heart, Cara is involved with several disability related organizations on and off campus. You can read more of her work on her blog, The Crazy Crippled Chick (where this post was originally published).