Friday, June 18, 2010

Don't you wish your girlfriend was crip like me?

Disclaimer: The following post contains a lot of questions. I don't presume to have the answers to all of them, and I don't assume others will either. Rather, I am asking these questions and/or writing this post in order to start to some sort of dialogue. Enjoy.

I have a strong body.
I have a healthy body.
I have a (relatively) cute body.
I am intelligent.
I am funny.
I am creative.
I am kind.
I have Cerebral Palsy.

Why is it that the declaration of my Cerebral Palsy seems to erase all of the positive attributes I have listed above? Is this power of deletion all in my head?


However, if the negative sexual or romantic connotations of the phrase *Cerebral Palsy* are all in my head, then, I hypothesize that the many people with disabilities are suffering from the same affliction. (Note: I am not talking about all people with disabilities). I am basing my hypothesis on a highly "scientific" experiment I conducted on the popular dating site, OKCUPID.

Earlier today, I did a search under the term "disability". The number of profiles I read that contained any type of disability pride were few and far between. Instead, time and time again I read profiles that contained the following phrases:

"I am overcoming my disability."
"I overcame my disability"
"I wonder if I ever will find someone who will look past my disability"
"I am looking for someone who can look past my disability."
"I am looking for someone to accept me despite my disability."

As I read these profiles I began to feel more oppressed and then I began to feel angry. Not because I think the people who wrote these profiles were outrageous and wrong, but because I can relate to their sentiment. I know what it is like to feel like nothing more than a big, ugly, medical phrase. I know what it is like to *pray* that someone will be kind enough, to overlook my *phrase* and date me anyway; validate me anyway.

How oppressive is that thought process!

And yet it has been sustained in the collective "disabled" psyche for all these years? Why? How? Who is it benefiting? When did disabled people agree that their bodies were their enemies? I mean, those are the connotations attached to stating that the state of your body is something to be overcome. Or, at least that is what I hear.

In answering these questions one can state the rather obvious societal pressures such as the poor representations of disabled people in the media; or the lack of accessibility in public causing isolation among other difficulties; or stereotypical prejudices making finding employment difficult. However, I am not interested in these reasons, I am already extremely aware of them. I am not downplaying the effects of all of these pressures, they are just more of what I would call external forces on the disability community. What I am interested in, is the internal forces on the disability community. What I am interested in is the more difficult and complex question of what is the disability community doing (or not doing) that perpetuates these internalized oppressive thoughts in its members? For example, why is it that the disability advocacy community and rights movement is relatively small when compared to the number of disabled people in the world? Furthermore, why are many disabled people isolated from a community or unaware that a rights movement even exists?

When contemplating these internal forces (and trying in vain, to identify all of them), I became aware of a pattern I noticed in all the phrases I found on OKCUPID, that I typed above. All of the phrases contain the generally accepted term "disabled" and use it as either a noun or an adjective. This exemplifies the many (silent) negative connotations attached to the word. How come, then, it is still used widely both among the disability community and among society as a whole? Could this attachment to potentially harmful language be perpetuating internalized oppression? Would people have written the same things in their profiles if they identified as crips, and not as disabled? Somehow, I think not. The phrase " I have overcome my cripness" just doesn't carry the same tone. This primarily being because the word"crip" doesn't have the same tone and carry the same connotations as the word disabled."
Why is it then that only (what I would consider to be) a minority of disabled people are aware of this recent crip language and crip culture? Who benefits from such a large communication gap within a single group of people? How can we bridge it? Is changing our language one of the only ways we can delete the internalized power of sexual and romantic deletion, that come attached to our diagnoses? Will we ever reach a point where a diagnosis fails to be a relative descriptor? And where does the majority of responsibility for such change lie? Is it on the individual? On the community? On society? Are they all independent entities or are they interdependent?

P.S. I am writing all this when I am tired and feeling under the weather. Thus, it may come out sounding a bit circular and incoherent. However, all these thoughts and questions were spinning around in my head so I thought it best to write a post about it, however it may turn out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Here I am Baby, signed, sealed, delivered - I'm "Crip"

Subtitle or alternate title : What is "Crip", what does it mean, and why it is important to me.

The interconnection between labels and empowerment has been seen again and again throughout civil rights movements. For example, the reclaiming and redefining of the label "Queer" in the GLBT movement. Until recently the label "queer" was considered an extremely derogatory and creul slur agaisnt a GLBT person. However, in the new wave of the GLBT movement "queer" is now used by some as a political term or identidy, and/or by some to describe their sexuality. ( In the latter context, "queer" is an umbrella term that describes any identidy that is not hetereosexual.) In a similiar sense the disability community has been reclaiming the slur "cripple". (If you are not already aware the terms "cripple", "gimp" "dumb", "vegetable", "deformed", "retard", "midget"and "victim" are considered to be extremely offensive words and derogatory slurs.) The derogatory word "cripple" has been transformed into a label of empowerment (when used by people who identify as having a disability within this context). One offshoot of the reclaiming of "cripple" is the label of "crip":
In Simi Linton's book " Claiming Disability: knowledge and identity" she describes the phenomenom in the following way.
'In reclaiming 'cripple' disabled people are taking the thing in their identity that scares the outside world the most and making it a cause to revel in with militant self pride.' (Shapiro 1993, 34). Cripple, gimp, and freak as used by the disability community have transgressive potential. They are personally and politically useful as means to comment on oppression because they assert our right to name experience." (17)

Thus, one of the reasons I decided to start this blog is because of the complex power dynamics hidden within language. What we say, and what we choose to label ourselves as, colors our self worth and thus our understanding of our identity within society; whether it be concious or not. Language is extradonarily powerful. In short, it can assign worth to an object and/or devalue an object in as little as one sentance. Framed within this context, one can see how important it is to carefully contemplate how one chooses or agrees to label oneself. I believe, that when a group of people are denied the right to name their identidy, a most complex power dynamic is set up. It is almost as if they are denied the right to have an identidy seperate from the oppressor or the group that is doing the "naming". They are constantly seen as to be in relation to the dominant group,; not an independent or empowered group within itself. Basically, the politics surrounding the language of their "naming"- "others" them before their experience or apparent differance can be fully realized. Although, I am not sure of the process or power dynamics of "othering", I would argue that a large dominant group of people labeling a smaller group of people, may be the first step or one of the first steps in the process of becoming the "other".

Therefore, I am declaring my state of rebellion agaisnt being the "other" and the beginning of my process of becoming a "crip".

I walk with a limp. My left foot turns inward and when I am tired or sick, I almost entirely walk on the side of it. Due to my CP, my muscles are tighter and I could be described as walking on my toes. I function independently in almost all areas of my life, but I do need help going up and down steps that don't have a railing. Unfortunately, I have spent a better part of twenty five years trying to hide it by limiting my public activities to things I know will not accentuate my "walk".

How oppressing.

Where did I get this idea that I must hide and apologize for the very human imperfections of my body? How did I come to embody the narrative that how I move and/or look is not valid or acceptable enough for public display? I do not know the exact answer to this, and even if I did, it is not something I could coherantly explain via a blog post at midnight. However, I do believe that the beginnings of my harmful embodied narrative started with the labels of " disabled" and "Cerebral Palsy".

Since I can remember these labels have been attached to my name - mostly in a medical context, and occasionally in a social context. Equally if not more important, they are some of the primary labels I have used to describe myself, my identity, and my experience. When deconstructed I can see that the very nature of these labels degrade my identity and experience in that they compartamentalize it to such a great extent. For example, for better or worse, I understand the descriptive term 'disabled' as a way to describe me as nothing more than my physical parts. Physical parts, that by the very definition of the word, can never live up to their "intended" or "normal" function. Physical parts, that by the very definition of the word, are less than, as in they are less than able. Furthermore, the constant labeling of "Cerebral Palsy" although useful in some medical settings for diagnostic reasons served as a reminder that I have this imperfect body, whose worth is entangled in terms other people use to describe it.

It is difficult for me to fully describe this lived power dynamic, so I will try to use the following example. Imagine how a body image and body politic may change if every time an overweight woman went to the doctor, she was referred to as the ' woman with fatness'. Imagine also that her body fat was often measured to gage an adequete increase in her weight in order perhaps for the doctors and to effectively suggest methods that may make her life more "normal". Finally, imagine that the woman was one of the only visably overweight women wherever she went and her identity was often connected to her fatness. For example, people may revere her for living such a "normal" life despite being fat; she may be considered a "fat inspiration"; and people may ask her "how come you are "fat" what happened?"

Just by pure life experience through labeling, one can see that not only is this woman's identity rooted somewhat in her "fatness"; but it is also rooted within the context that her "fatness" should be changed or normalized.

How oppressing.

Now, consider if the woman were to say "I am not a woman with fatness, I am just fat! This is my body type and nothing is wrong with it; we all have different body types - and mine is fat - stop trying to sanititize me into non existance."

Could that small change in language trigger a change in identity? Could that small change in language trigger a change in power dynamics with the dominating or "naming" group?

I say "Yes it can!"

The labels "disabled" and "Cerebral Palsy" - attached to me by other people - describes a very compartamentalized, medical, and physical version of my experience; that is in a sense very, very "othering". While the label "Crip" loosely describes my body type and a community of people with whom I share lived experiences. There is no value or medical judgement attached to "crip". It is not seen as a prescription for a harder life or social awkwardness. "Crip" just is. Just like some people are brunettes, some people are "crip" - and the label ends there without any added judgement, apology, or connotation.
I, therefore, believe that by "cripping" language and labels such as "disability" I (and we) can change the process of being "othered" and internalizing the "othering". Because even though I am very new to this, to me, "crip" is not an "other"; "crip" is "crip".