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The Complexities of Reclaiming the Word 'Cripple'

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Language is fascinating. We don’t realize it when we’re speaking, perhaps, but every vowel we shape and every consonant we form are, by unspoken agreement, imbued with meaning. We measure our progress from the very beginning of our lives by our first words and sentences and then later our ability for eloquence and elegance when getting into colleges and securing jobs. Simply put: words have power.

Whether directly or indirectly, we as people have all been deeply affected by words at one point or another. It could be a stranger on Twitter calling us names, or a moving speech given by an inspiration of ours, or the more mundane—but no less important moments—in our lives: being told you are loved, or informing a friend how very much they mean to you. This is why the language we use in our lives matters, especially when discussing a subject like disability.

Slurs are used against every marginalized group of people, and the process of reclaiming such derogatory terms is a concept that has been—and continues to be—explored by the communities. It’s a potential way to turn the tables against those seeking to harm them, and a compelling way indeed.

The slur “cripple” is discussed at length in Joseph Shapiro’s chapter titled “Tiny Tims, Supercrips, and the End of Pity” from his book, “No Pity: People With Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.” Shapiro’s text is over two decades old, however, which is why a more modern take on language usage in conjunction with disability—among other marginalized communities—was something I sought as a touchstone for today’s views on slurs.

Gary Nunn’s “Power grab: reclaiming words can be such a bitch” talks about why reclaiming words is a worthwhile venture in the first place and lists quite a few examples of society having done so. These pieces were written in two different times in our history, about two decades apart, thus offering two differing perspectives on the reclamation of words for the disabled community and other marginalized groups. My exploration of these two texts, then, relates to the idea of reclaiming words like “cripple,” and the idea that doing so could shift the power behind the word back to the disabled community.

In one section of “Tiny Tims, Supercrips, and the End of Pity,” Shapiro discusses the importance of language in the portrayal and perception of disabled people in our society. “Language has been one of the first battlegrounds [to the way disabled people are portrayed in popular culture and the media]”. It is a battleground, in my opinion, as there is a constant war for both disabled and non-disabled people when it comes to how to address a disabled person. Words have power since they have societal connotations that are both conscious and unconscious. Based on both my own personal experiences of being disabled and society’s demonstrations of what a disabled person is allowed to be, disabled people are reduced to stereotypes and treated as such.

For example, a word like “cripple” might carry the underlying meaning of someone frail or disfigured, someone like Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol:” a young boy unable to fully live independently as he is disabled. Images are conjured of someone childlike and in need of fixing… a figure to be pitied and looked down upon. Tiny Tim is someone you don’t want to be or become, someone at the mercy of others.

Language, as defined by non-disabled people toward disabled people, reduces disabled people into woeful figures in need of help, or a cure, or (worse) something to be feared and avoided. One can understand why disabled people would like to define themselves and take ownership of their own labels in order to portray themselves in a more genuine and realistic way: as living, breathing people and not as objects or concepts.

One thing that Shapiro—who I’d like to note is a nondisabled man—does in his piece which is crucial to its value is his interviewing of disabled people to get their opinions of matters affecting them. One of the discussions about the reclamation of words was with Cheryl Wade, who is a fan of using the word “cripple” to describe herself. He explains, “Newly in vogue among some physically disabled people is the very word that is the ultimate in offensiveness to others: ‘cripple.’ ‘It’s like a raised gnarled fist,’ says Cheryl Wade, a Berkeley, California, performance artist, who likes ‘crippled’ because it is a blunt and accurate description of her body.”

This quote shows the dichotomy of slurs as both a harmful weapon against disabled people, but also a shield or a tool that disabled people can pick up themselves and hold in their own defense or wield with power. In taking back and changing the use of a word such as “cripple,” the disabled community gains control of the narrative and the meaning of the word, which in turn gives the power of the word back to the disabled community. It takes the hurtful, demeaning connotation out of the term and instead forms a new definition or association that is empowering. So instead of an oppressive construct, “cripple” becomes a symbol of self-respect.

However, this quote references the fact that some disabled people still find the word “cripple” extremely offensive. For some, this word is so deeply entrenched with derogatory connotations that it is filled with implications of disabled people being subhuman or useless. In the quote, Shapiro makes mention of the contrasting viewpoints held in the disability community about the interpretation of words such as “cripple.” However, it’s impossible to deny the imagery Cheryl Wade uses. To expand upon the metaphor of language being “one of the first battlegrounds,” Wade’s imagery of a fist—a weapon to fight with—is appropriate. The disabled community is fighting back against the imposed and unasked for non-disabled definition of the word “cripple.”

The relevance of this is that whether one is disabled or not, it is critical to always be conscious of the fact that supposedly reclaimed words like “cripple” might still carry echoes of a time when the word would be thrown in a disabled person’s face as an insult. More importantly, this use of the word “cripple” is a self-definition: while Shapiro asserts that language is key to society’s image of disabled people, it’s the disabled people who have the power to reclaim words and the power to choose which words the community reclaims.

The two opposing views of reclaimed words like “cripple” is further discussed in Nunn’s “Power grab” article: “That’s one of the problems with reclaiming concepts: not only do you have a set of people who don’t understand that the word has been reclaimed in the first place, so they continue to use it in the older negative way, but you can also have different understandings of what the reclaiming actually means.”

This quote shows the reasons why some people in marginalized communities might not embrace the usage of demeaning terms. One of these reasons is ignorance, in that it’s not known when a word has been reclaimed; there is no ad taken out in newspapers or worldwide cell phone alert that notifies the whole disabled community that certain words are undergoing a rebrand. The other issue that people have with reclaimed words is there is no council meeting about the new singular definition of a word. Therefore, if reclaiming words is to be effective, there must be some general consensus or—at the very least—an element of forgiveness if someone doesn’t like how the word is being used. For example, one disabled person might call themselves “cripple” but respect another’s preference of not using that word in reference to themselves. Respectful discourse is the key to successfully reclaiming words.

Reclamation of words is not a phenomenon unique to the disability community, which Nunn points out in his article. Other marginalized groups have done this, including women taking back the word “bitch” and using it as an affectionate label for friends, or the LGBTQ+ community reclaiming “queer” to use as an umbrella term to reference themselves. “‘Reclaiming words, when done effectively, is all about power,’ says Tony Thorne [curator of the Slang and New Language archive at King’s College London].”

As a marginalized person, having control of one’s own narrative is empowering since it allows for the community they are a part of to move towards self-definition. For instance, women have traditionally been labeled “bitches” by men who were threatened by the assertive behavior of women speaking freely or acting independently. Those in power hoped to use the term “bitch” to muzzle or shame outspoken women.

Another example is “queer,” which has been used against people that are or are perceived as gay as a negative term to label them as abnormal or Other. The use of language that was once employed to silence or dehumanize people is now being rectified by reclaiming words that were once harmful to the very communities they were used against. People of the LGBTQ+ community may use “queer” to talk about themselves and the spectrum of gender identity, with some members even shunning specific labels like gay or bisexual and instead only referring to themselves as “queer,” seeing it as a catch-all term for their sexuality. This shows that having control of one’s own narrative is empowering because a community can then, quite literally, define itself.

However, Thorne’s assertion that the reclamation of words “is all about power” cannot, as he says, be “done effectively” if the marginalized community in question is not on the same page. In lieu of a group chat of every marginalized person getting everyone up to speed on new definitions and thus discontinuing the “use [of a reclaimed word] in the older negative way,” we have to recognize that not everyone will agree to the terms and conditions of reclaimed words… and that’s OK. A disabled person, for example, has to be comfortable with other disabled people not being comfortable with reclaimed words, but nevertheless hope we can either come to some consensus or, at the very least, agree to disagree.

Unfortunately, it’s a conscious and constant effort to defy the previously prevalent definitions of words like “cripple,” “bitch,” or “queer.” The way “bitch” and “queer” have been reclaimed is that they have been built into our society’s vernacular and thus there doesn’t have to be much, if any, explanation as to why you just referred to your best friend as one of your “bitches.” As humans, we tend to take the path of least resistance when discussing difficult topics such as gender, race, sexuality, disability, and more, due in part to our discomfort with not being experts or having first-hand knowledge of these subjects.

This tendency to revert to the status quo is called being a “cognitive miser” in the field of psychology. In other words, we don’t want to think too much; we want to have information handed to us, as this is easier and requires less effort on our part. This is why a quote from Paul Baker, a professor of English Language at Lancaster University, explains the public’s discomfort with reclaimed words so well: “Control language and you control the society.” If people don’t care to think too hard about their language, they will follow what has come before without too much questioning, perpetuating stereotypes.

The idea then of being able to control society through linguistic means is not so much Orwellian, but instead is realistic in a society of cognitive misers. We don’t tend to think about word choice unless we are called out on it, whether by a culturally-forward friend or by an editor reading our essay. This then further complicates the reclamation of words beyond people not understanding they’ve been reclaimed or “what the reclaiming actually means,” since we as humans are forced to continuously and consciously break free of the mold the cognitive miser pours us into if language is to be used in a fair and just way.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of respectful discourse in the effort to reclaim words, something women and the LGBTQ+ community, it can be argued, have done with a great deal of success. In an ideal world, we would be both mindful of our word choices, but also not harshly punished for saying something wrong so that we could then be educated and guided toward a more comfortable dialogue for all.

Alas, we don’t (yet) live in this open and equal utopia. We live in one that allows the Other-ing of people that are different from the perceived and valued norm of being individual and independent. Our society fears pain and fears the loss of control that is thought to come with disability. A way to linguistically combat this notion is through the reclamation of words. “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.” In using the term in an affirming way, marginalized people are saying “screw you” to those who only see disability as something to be feared; basically, if you’re only going to see me as one aspect of my identity—as only my disability—then I am going to sprinkle my disabled confetti all over your parade of nondisabled fear.

Nunn’s piece brings a similar example of a term once used to ridicule women: “suffragette.” The modern usage of the word brings to mind women in petticoats, fighting for the right to vote in a time when the mere idea of such a thing was laughable. “Suffragette” has been so successfully rebranded that most don’t even know of its initial intention to be used as a derisive title; the power of the word was so completely shifted to the ladies of the movement that no one would even think to use it as a slur nowadays. The hope then for some in the disabled community is that a word like “cripple” can over time lose the negativity associated with it and become a term used with pride. Shapiro’s usage of the word “militant” when referring to self-pride has a potent undertone; perhaps, with enough work, the word “cripple” can become akin to a bullet in the gun on the battleground of disability rights, just like “suffragette.”

It is my belief that reclaiming words such as “cripple” could be a step forward for the disabled community, just as “suffragette” was for the women’s rights movement. There is certainly a coalition behind the reclamation of “cripple” as seen in Cheryl Wade’s championing of the word in Shapiro’s piece, and the much more recent use of the word by disabled tweeters with hashtags like #CripTheVote, acknowledged on air by news anchor Jake Tapper in November of 2020.

Likewise, there is another way of referring to disabled people that has been seen as the pinnacle of politically correct phrasing, officially called “people first” language. In his chapter, Shapiro believes—along with some of the disabled people he interviewed—“person with a disability” is the most acceptable way to refer to a disabled person. However, both I and others I know in the disability community hold the opinion that “people first” language works against disabled people. If, as Shapiro says, using “person with a disability … emphasizes the individual before the condition,” why do we have to state they are a person first? Must we remind the speaker that oh, yes, this “person with a disability” is, in fact, a person, and not, I don’t know, a plant or some other inanimate object with a disability? Shouldn’t it be a given that of course, a disabled person is indeed a person?

Before, I drew comparisons between how marginalized communities such as women and LGBTQ+ people have successfully reclaimed words, so I would like to apply this “people first” language to them. Would saying “person with breasts” or “person who has sex with the same sex” be just as acceptable to both those within and outside of those communities? I’d argue no, as it seems to only allow the marginalized to be synonymous with one aspect of their identity, in a harmful and monolithic way. This is counterintuitive to the idea that reclaiming words allows a marginalized group to possess “militant self-pride” through the use of language. Both Nunn and I, as members of marginalized communities, would agree it’s better to use reclaimed or in-the-process-of-being-reclaimed words in all of their imperfect glory than to tiptoe around with language that requires a reminder of other people’s humanity: “Owning any insult that could be thrown at you will render the term null and void, your skin thick and hard and yourself empowered and lighter.”

Those fighting for the disabled community to be seen more realistically recognize the power of language. Both Nunn and Shapiro understand the concept of reclaiming language as a possible few inches gained on the battleground of progress. Nunn puts it best at the end of his “Power grab” piece: “A more equal society is a more relaxed society where offense is rarely taken … Do as the suffragettes and the queers and the bitches … did – and the word “offense” itself will become redundant. We can but dream.”

The intention of this essay was to explore the idea of whether power can indeed be shifted back to marginalized groups, but I am still unsure if there is an answer. If the reclamation of language makes those in the disabled community feel “empowered and lighter,” then that would seem to indicate that power has been shifted back, at least to those who are part of the consensus in reclaiming a particular word like “cripple.” But maybe reclaiming language is a concept that doesn’t have to be this or that-ed; there can be those who embrace the usage of the “gnarled fist” of  “cripple” with glee, while others should be allowed to disregard the term should they wish to do so.

Representativity is also a trap we must be careful not to fall into. It may be slightly uncomfortable, but talking to disabled people about the way they want to be described is the most sensible and sensitive way to live. If you are a non-disabled person, recognize you are the one with the power in a given situation. Collectively, you have used language to shame or shun disabled people, so try to be less offended if you’re called out on how you talk about disability. Don’t let the cognitive miser in you prevent respectful discourse that can go a long way in ensuring disabled people feel comfortable around you.

The original word that sparked the idea behind this essay—“cripple”—may never be something that will be acceptable (in my opinion, at least) to have a non-disabled person call a disabled person… but that’s OK. We should be mindful of the language we use when referring to others, particularly marginalized others, but so long as we try to be respectful and always open to discussion, that’s what matters.

Reclaiming words is important to some and less so to others within a marginalized community, so I suppose it is both a venture that is effective in shifting the power back to those that have very little say and also a deeply personal and optional decision to make as an individual. On the battleground of disability rights, the reclamation of words is just one of many weapons to be used.

Getty image by Flavijus.

Originally published: January 31, 2021
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