Why we need to pay attention to the words/narratives that surround disability

I was at a semi-swanky luncheon fundraiser for a disability organization yesterday. My mom invited me, because she knows important people, and who can really say no to wine at 11:45 am on a Tuesday, am I right?

The entertainment was a comic. Now, I’m slightly skeptical about comics in general, but I was willing to give this one a shot. Everything was going relatively fine until the moment, about ten minutes into his act, when he made a cripple joke (yes, he actually used the word “cripple” as a derogatory in 2014). For me, everything went downhill from there.

My first reaction was, “Does he not know his audience at all? Like, AT ALL, at all?” A disability organization had asked him to provide entertainment and he thinks it’s ok to make a crippled joke in the middle of his act? REALLY???

Now, some of you, dear readers, might be thinking, “But the name of this blog is called ‘mylittlecrippledheart,’ so how can you get your shorts in a twist when you are relatively ok with using the word cripple to describe yourself?”

And the answer to that one is that I am using the word as a form of empowerment. A stand-up comic (who was male, white, and heterosexual, by the way, so he had loads of privilege on his side) who uses the word “cripple” to differentiate people like me from everyone else on a Tuesday morning in downtown Winnipeg isn’t the same thing as me using the word to describe myself proudly.

*

I admit I can be a little hung up on language. As a previous English major, language surrounded me as I was taking my Bachelor of Arts. Oddly enough, it still surrounds me as I take my MA in Disability Studies. But, unfortunately, the language surrounding me in my studies now is full of negative connotations.

Which gives me a bit of a headache, to say the least, because – at my core – I am a lover of language. But when the language that is used most often to describe my disabled friends and I consists of some of the most derisive language aimed at dividing the disabled from, let’s admit it, everyone else considered “normal,” I can’t take that sitting down. (See what I did there? It’s funny because I’m sitting down almost 24/7; and it’s ok to laugh at those kind of jokes, really. And that is an instance where language can be used as empowerment, dear readers.)

So, I’m essentially a lover of language who cannot deal with the negative language surrounding disabled people. Which may put me at odds with myself, sometimes. But that’s ok, see. Because, also at my deepest core, I am a lover of juxtapositions (I am a nerd, after all). Contradictions are what make humans, human.

I’m not going to write a letter to the comic in question or the disability organization to urge them to perhaps err on the side of caution when inviting a comic to be their fundraiser entertainment, by the way. Some of you – maybe even most of you – might possibly think I should. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a disabled person, however, is that you have to choose your battles carefully; otherwise, you’ll burn out quickly. There’s so much that gets my blood boiling about how disabled persons – and marginalized people in general – are treated daily. If I were to write a letter, I’d possibly be regarded as a too-sensitive person who won’t be paid attention to because my concern would be about the representation of a minority group of society who hardly gets any attention at all (and when we do, it’s more than likely the wrong kind of attention).  And, truthfully, I have so much more going on in my day that I would like to put more positive energy into.

So, all I can really do is hope that someone comes up to this comic after he makes another cripple joke and says, “Dude, it’s 2014. No one uses the word cripple anymore – that’s not cool.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can also hurt me.
Stones and sticks break only skin,
while words are ghosts that haunt me. ” – Barrie Wade, “Truth”

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6 thoughts on “Why we need to pay attention to the words/narratives that surround disability

  1. i’m curious as to what your letter would say if you were to write it. i’ve been thinking about disability semantics lately too. especially words like ‘normal’, ‘healthy’, and ‘equal opportunity.’

    • I think I would actually try to avoid using those words you described. I’d instead just make the case that inviting a comic without adequately “vetting” him first is highly inappropriate, considering the function he was providing entertainment for.

      And just to clarify, I’d try to avoid words like “normal,” “healthy,” and “equal opportunity” precisely because they are so assumption-heavy.

      • exactly. i try to avoid them as well. that’s why i’m interested in how and why people use them.

  2. Kate, how on earth did other people at the fund-raiser react? I’m amazed that the “comic” wasn’t removed with a proverbial and vaudeville-ian hook from the sidelines …

  3. Pingback: Why I’m back/Why stories matter | mylittlecrippledheart

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