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Why I Proudly Call Myself a Crip, Queer Feminist

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I was diagnosed with a chronic illness in April of 2019. At least I think so, but part of my illness is memory issues, so I’m not sure. I learned about intersectionality and feminist theory beginning in August of 2019. I just began my journey with chronic illness and disability studies this year, and with that came crip theory. Don’t flinch at the word, it is mine, not yours. I will tell you what it means to me so you can read it without fear of offending. I am crip, and have become it just as I am queer and have become that too.

To start the process of explaining, this I pull from Susan Wendell’s “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability.” “I learned at first by listening to other people with chronic illness or disabilities; suddenly able-bodied people seem to me profoundly ignorant of everything I most needed to know.” The able-bodied world is not for me as it is for you. In a similar manner, the word crip is not for you as it is for me.

Queer theory takes LGBTQ studies and stretches it beyond the compartmentalization the mind is prone to. It is an attempt to take the history of queer men and women and make something of it in order to resist new cultural norms as well as those already in place. Crip theory does the exact same thing. Victoria Ann Lewis writes: “[b]oth ‘cripping’ and ‘queering,’ as interpretive strategies, spin mainstream representation or practices to reveal dominant assumptions and exclusionary effects.” Therefore, I say I am crip (as in cripple) but have also become it. It is more than the fact that there are debilitating impairments in my life and with my body, and it is more than the fact that I have generally learned to cope with them. I have adopted crip as a lifestyle in order to work to improve my life, but also the life of others.

The word “crip” is quite literally a shortening of the word cripple and, as Victoria Ann Lewis describes, “functions as an alternative to both the old-fashioned and rejected ‘handicapped person’ and the new, more formal terms ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with disabilities.’” I used to feel comfortable with labeling myself as “person with disabilities;” after all, I was a person before, and still am. Person before diagnosis. More than anything else I believe that is the goal of crip lifestyle and crip theory — I am beyond my illness/impairment/disability, but I am also it. Crip theory works to take back the word as we took back queer. It also works to upset the balance of whatever “norm” a crip exists in. We know that we are often excluded from mainstream representations and assumptions of whatever “normal” is. I know abled-bodied folks see my cane, pulse oximeter, obscene number of pills and wonder. No, not wonder. Stare. We see your stare, and often it causes us to wince.

In naming herself cripple, Nancy Mairs temporarily absolves herself of that stigma-backed wince by throwing it back on the able-bodied, gawking stranger:

“People… wince at the word ‘cripple’ as they do not at ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled.’ Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.”

We see you staring. I, like Mairs, enjoy the label crip for myself. And there is possibly one of the most important things about crip theory from an outside perspective. It is not a name for you to give me. It is not a name I can give to others. And it is more than just a name or label in and of itself. Just as you can queer concepts and institutions, you can also crip them. So, let us crip the institution of time.

Time is in fact an institution, meaning something that is practiced and established in our society. I grew up with the theatrical mantra “early is on time, on time is late, and late is cut” — cut meaning fired in this case. Here we can see time as a construct bending to the will of the theatre, and one may be able to call the time in the theatre “theatre time” or “theatrical time.” I experienced something similar when I played sports for several years. Crip time thus emerges as a construct devoted to those with disabilities or anything that may crip them. In essence, “crip time” is time allotted for those with disabilities or impairments to arrive late. From “Feminist, Crip, Queer” Alison Kafer shares:

“This need for extra time, then, might be not only about a slower gait, a dependency on attendants (who might themselves be running late), malfunctioning equipment (from wheelchairs to hearing aids), a bus driver who refuses to stop for a disabled passenger, or an ableist encounter with a stranger that throws one off schedule.”

Those with invisible illness or any impairment will likely recognize this phenomenon even if they never had a name to put to it. Put simply, crip time is the need for more time in order to promote an atmosphere of inclusivity and acceptance. Crip time may look like extensions on a paper, more time to take a test, not marking students tardy, and general flexibility. With my experience with chronic illness, I have learned that I never know when an episode (an increase of symptoms) will occur. It could be semi-predictable, meaning there is something leading up to an expected clash of symptoms (migraines, shaking, fever), or it could be completely incalculable.

I am an excellent student, or I try to be, but I cannot control the fact that I am not built like others. I do not know when illness will strike and as much as I can work ahead, prove that I am doing my best, I will “fail” compared to other students. I am not being harsh on myself, but rather being harsh on those that do not yet understand the value of cripping time. If you see a late assignment as merely a failure to keep to deadlines and therefore lack of time management, preparation or otherwise, I implore you to look deeper. Kafer continues: “[c]rip time is flex time not just expanded, but exploded; it requires reimaging our notions of what can and should happen in time.”

We need to start a discussion of cripping time in academia. That discussion needs to begin with a talk about trust. “Trust must be earned” is a common saying and has no space in a conversation about cripping time. Speaking from experience, I already do not trust my body and what it can do when. What I, and others like me, need others to do to combat that is to trust us as people.

There is a fear of disability; nobody wants to be disabled and face the struggles associated with impairments. Yet disability, crip, is inevitable; if we live long enough, we are all bound to be impaired in some way throughout our lives. We are only temporarily able-bodied. So, there is no reason to distrust disability, and even less reason to distrust those with disability. We are just as trustworthy as non-disabled folks; we just need more time to show you what we are capable of. Or even just more time to show up. In academia, we have created a non-stop work environment. There is deadline after deadline, and it is always recommended to be able to work ahead. Spoiler alert: there is hardly ever time to work ahead.

A lot of people in the Otterbein community learned that lesson this semester. With no breaks, we were being worked like machines; we had no time to recollect ourselves, recharge, or even take a nap. We barely had time to get done the things we needed to get done for the day, let alone get ahead. And I was ahead, for the first time since experiencing chronic illness symptoms, I was ahead. Until I crashed, and then I knew I would not be able to bring myself back up to the level I was at. Like I said before, I am a hard-working student, and I knew that this semester was going to be different and hard. It was far worse than I imagined, and not just for me and my crip friends — for everyone. We were in serious need of some crip time.

Disability in institutions/academia like Otterbein can be addressed in an equivalent manner that race and queerness have been addressed. Visibility is a good place to start. Work needs to be done to show students that there are others like them. Images of service dogs, mobility aids, and other services in use on campus show students with disabilities that they have the ability to access and utilize whatever they need to so that they can live and learn comfortably. We do this in order to show queer and BIPOC people that they have a space here, and so it is totally reasonable to ask for this on behalf of the crip community.

Crip folks also need to see that they have a space where they can ask for help and receive it, or at the very least get pointed in the right direction for help. This can mean working with crip time, as described above, or getting accommodations for their living/learning space (access to noise machines, elevators, accessible showers, AC, etc.); maybe we can dub this “crip space”? It is well known that students have diverse needs in order to succeed, and the university should be able to work to support that from providing silent spaces for test taking to providing elevators in resident halls.

A major unknown barrier is just that: the unknown. If a student is experiencing impairments and ableist barriers, then their education provider should be able to help provide access to a diagnosis. While disability service programs are helpful, not much can be done if there is no documentation of disability or chronic illness. Diagnosis can take anywhere from one doctor visit to years and years of doctor visits and no answers. I believe that academia gives a unique look into a person’s life and struggles and therefore can be used to help start the often-long process of diagnosis. However, I must reiterate, this can only be helpful and effective in a culture of trust. Professors must trust that their students are doing the best that they can and see that “failing” by certain standards may be a cry for help — even if it’s unknowingly a cry for help.

I hope I have begun to illustrate for you that disability is an intersectional battle. Obviously, crip people are also BIPOC, queer, impoverished, and varying in age, and crip people can be none of those too. This brings me to my next point: disability as a feminist issue.

Feminism is more than taking down the patriarchy in regards to the rights of women and we see that through feminists working for Black Lives Matter, to end poverty and hunger; we see it in queer feminism and now we must look at feminism and disability. You cannot call yourself feminist if on the way to a poetry-slam or conference you leave a colleague who uses a wheelchair waiting on different transportation. You cannot call yourself feminist if you do not fight for health care for those who cannot afford it, and very much need it. You cannot call yourself feminist if you work to climb the ladder of success, never realizing that your crippled friend cannot climb ladders in the first place. After climbing the ladder and breaking that glass ceiling, you can call yourself feminist when you create accessible ways for your crip friends to follow in your footsteps. Help us open doors we cannot yet reach.

I am a queer crip feminist. I am crip by manner of being chronically ill and cannot use my body to the expected “normal” capacity. I am queer by manner of not being straight and not fitting into the gender binary. I am feminist because while I challenge norms by simply existing, I work endlessly to challenge norms by deconstructing institutions and absolving constructs. Constructs such as time allowed for crips to exist, space allowed for women to take up, noise allowed to be occupied by a voice that is not the same as the one constantly telling us what we cannot be. I challenge institutions by forcing them to question what it means to be inclusive and accessible. I allow them the space, time, and noise to discover where they have gone wrong and find how they can make things right.

I am a queer crip feminist. I am a crip feminist queer. I am a feminist queer cripple. I am these words and I have become them in the way that they morph my life without me realizing it or realizing it so powerfully that they give me a voice to support 900 others. I have been given space to realize the metaphorical muscle that I lack physically so that I might exist intersectionally to fight the good fight. The fight for the queer, the cripple, the feminist.

Getty image by elladoro.

Originally published: February 11, 2021
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