Defining disability with crip theory
How to define disability has been of great debate for many years. On both the individual and communal level, ideals among scholars and disabled everymen have varied greatly, leading to a variety of contradicting thought processes, and finding a happy medium of acknowledging the uniqueness, individuality and complexity of the disability experience has been of great debate among scholars.
For decades, disability theorists have questioned the concepts that their predecessors created. In the 1970s, the social model of disability entered the scene and began a movement away from the medical model that presented disability as a personal misfortune. Since, the social model has been widely popularized in disability studies initiatives, reflected in its societal prominence and the emphasis on critiques of pervasive ableism throughout the United States. However, theorists like Shakespeare and Watson (2001) express concern with the movement and propose society abandon such ideals. Debates involving the two models have led to research into their origins as well as the emergence of additional theories and ways of thinking about disability, with the latest being crip theory.
Arising from the similarities Robert McRuer and Carrie Sandhal (2006) noticed between queer theory and critical disability studies, crip theory has developed to explore how societal pressures and norms around abilities intersect with the pressures and norms of gender and sexuality, but it represents more than that (CDSC). As queer theory does, crip theory revolves around the rhetoric regarding the normal and the abnormal -- the difference being that crip theory focuses on the disability community, not LGBTQ people (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013). Both terms, “crip” and “queer,” have been used for abuse and as negative epithets, but by claiming and appropriating the power of the terms, the disability and LGBTQ communities have reversed the meanings of the respective terms and embraced the associated stigmas (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013). This is the point; the terms are meant to be proactive. Crip is short for cripple -- which is generally regarded as a derogatory term for disabled people (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013). However, instead of being addressed as someone different, like orthopedically impaired, disabled people label themselves crip as a sense of pride (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013). Some experts have pointed out that self-identifying as a crip is a way to express one's disability without feeling shame, hiding it or actively pretending it doesn't exist (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013).
Identifying as crip also attaches one to a group, a movement and even a culture. Disabled people share a common bond of resilience and overcoming constant oppression that is deeply rooted in their history (Hopson 2019). But it's also about disabled people sharing art, music and literature about their experiences with disabilities -- claiming their disabilities as part of their identities; as one disabled person said, “we are who we are: we are people with disabilities” (Hopson 2019). And the more people invest themselves in disability culture, the more they will feel a sense of disability pride, discover shared experiences and rituals and establish community values, goals and identity (Hopson 2019). The more people invest, the more powerful the community will be, and outsiders tend to be more likely to become allies of communities when they have power (Hopson 2019).
What makes the disability community unique, moreover, is its diversity. Disabled people -- and therefore disability culture -- can be found in every part of history, stretch beyond every other cultural boundary and can be found in every part of the world (Hopson 2019). The disability culture is unique not only in its sheer geographic, cultural and temporal size but also because one can become part of it at any point, even suddenly, unexpectedly and involuntarily -- all it takes is one accident and one can become disabled and no longer fit in, in the nondisabled world (Hopson 2019). The crip culture and its development attempts to address this tendency to alienate or pity disabled people, which roots from the medical model of disability that presents disability as a personal misfortune in need of correction (Hopson 2019). There has been a call to fully emphasize and educate people on the social model of disability bed for it attributes the problems people with disabilities face to society, but disabled people have emphasized the need for a more accurate and detailed disability theory, including crip theory (Hopson 2019).
Crip theory could work as a replacement for the medical, social and social relational models of disability, as it embraces the best of each. Shakespeare and Watson argue that the social model is rooted in Marxism and materialism -- that it is broken beyond repair (Thomas 2010). In doing so, they say that it would be too complicated to try to fix the theory or fill the gaps and inadequacies of the model, proposing putting the whole thing to the side and starting over and therefore appealing to modern-day disability theorists (Thomas 2010). Their arguments not only differ from those who defend the social model, but directly reject the social model’s structural premise that people are disabled by society and not their impairments (Thomas 2010). They claim that impairments do play some role in people being disabled and embodied states do have relevance (Thomas 2010). Moreover, they describe that disability and impairment are different aspects of the same experience and occupy different spaces on the same continuum (Thomas 2010). But such vagueness cannot overshadow that disability, in and of itself, is a combination of biological, psychological, cultural and socio-political forces (Thomas 2010). It is this that Shakespeare and Watson use to convey frustration with the social model.
British medical sociologist Michael Bury largely agrees with the criticisms that Shakespeare and Watson propose, but he shapes his own theory. He calls it the socio-medical of disability and ultimately combines the social and medical models, arguing that disability is a “restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in a normal manner” (Thomas 2010). But he goes a step further and acknowledges that “disability is influenced by context and culture,” unlike Shakespeare and Watson. Scholars and disabled people themselves have confirmed that Bury’s perspective more accurately depicts the disability experience (Thomas 2010). Bury argues that medical sociology does indeed recognize the social aspects of disability -- that it does not individualize disability (Thomas 2010). He believes disability is more biological than social, and his main critique of the social model is that it over-socializes and over-politicizes disability (Thomas 2010).
These perspectives exemplify the complexities of disability, and, as Shakespeare and Watson note, its biological, psychological, cultural and socio-political aspects. These authors all, in some way, advocate for the social relational model from Finkelstein and Hunt. The social relational model provided the foundation for the social model, but never caught traction like its predecessor. Scholars argue that the social model is flawed in its details, but one must recognize that its main premise is in line with the main objective of disability studies: that society presents unnecessary challenges for people with disabilities, not vice versa (Thomas 2010). The social relational excluded some of the former’s flaws and ultimately paved the way for disability to be recognized as a social category throughout the world (Thomas 2010).
Whereas the social model advocates that disability equates to social oppression and blames society for disabling people, the social relational model recognizes disability as a form of social oppression as well as restricted activity (Thomas 2010). By constantly viewing disability as a restriction on activity, society wastes time on the specifics of disability on the individual level instead of recognizing that ableism is an oppressive issue like racism and sexism (Thomas 2010). It recognizes that the physical, environmental and social barriers associated with disabilities are intrinsically connected (Thomas 2010). For example, a business not having a ramp demonstrates how the social relational model better explains disability as a phenomenon as opposed to the social and medical models (Thomas 2010). In a case like this, the problem is individual (a wheelchair user does not have the strength or balance to use the steps), social (a wheelchair user may not have the help they need to overcome the physical barrier) and environmental (a ramp or elevator is poorly designed) (Thomas 2010).
It is the social relational model that provides significant opportunity for progress in the sociology of disability. Compared to the social model, it offers a framework for theoretical, empirical and policy-related work in the disability studies sphere (Thomas 2010). The social relational model provides a comprehensive way to evolve disability studies -- “a firm foundation for an enriched sociology of disability” (Thomas 2010). Such a shift from the traditional medical and social models not only because they are “broken beyond repair,” in the words of Shakespeare and Watson, but also because of their mere in completeness. The social relational model addresses that advocacy for the medical model have often been unwilling to acknowledge that disability is associated with systematic social exclusion (Thomas 2010).
The difference between the social and social relational models exemplifies the pervasive brokenness of society, and the lack of consensus on a worldwide model shows how nondisabled continue to be uncomfortable with the deviance of disabled people. It's an extension of how disabled people are expected to either mourn their disability or act as if they do not have a condition. Becker (1964) argues that individuals who depend on others to live risk not being seen as individuals at all, and because they are not the biological norm, they are cast as “broken individuals.” This is ableism at its core -- representing an effort to make disabled people not know themselves as valued individuals -- because if people don't think they are worthy, then they won't challenge the systems in place.
Hopson (2019) notes that the ultimate goal for disabled people is to end any theory or thought process that leads nondisabled people to devalue and underestimate them. This is mostly what unites the community because having a positive disability identity and sense of connection with the disability community is thought to help individuals adapt or cope with disability and the associated social stresses and daily hassles (Hopson 2019). In realizing their disability identity and the accompanying sense of self-worth, pride and awareness of ableism, disabled people must “claim” the identity instead of denying or masking it (Hopson 2019). Claiming crip presents one's disability identity as fluid, allowing for exploration -- voluntary and involuntary -- into the tensions of embracing disability as an identity and perpetuating oppressive narratives associated with categorizing disability (Abes 2020).
At the same time, though, one could contest that claiming crip feeds into ableist narratives that want disabled people separate from nondisabled people (Abes 2020). But as one expert said, claiming crip is “a way of acknowledging that we all have bodies and minds with shifting abilities and wrestling with the political meanings and histories of such shift” (Abes 2020). Advocates hoping to spread crip theory argue that in challenging disability identity, it also recognizes that disability politics are extremely meaningful for the disability community (Abes 2020). Crip theory should be considered the framework for disability identity -- and should shape how society views disability (Abes 2020). Cripstemology embraces the multiple ways that minds understand knowledge, crip failure and crip time (Abes 2020). In the education system, for example, crip failure shines light on the “productive potential in failing ableist educational practices by transforming failure into nonableist knowledge production,” Abes (2020) notes. It works as an extension of crip theory, valuing an autistic student’s knowledge for the perspectives it offers that others may not see instead of discounting the student's ways of processing and engaging with course material (Abes 2020).
Pulrang (2016) notes that “selected use of the word ‘crip’ or ‘crippled’ by people with disabilities is a conscious act of empowerment through ‘reclaiming’ a former slur as a badge of pride. ‘Selected use’ means we don’t use it all the time, in every situation. We exercise judgment in when and where it’s appropriate to use.” Crip theory interrogates and demands answers regarding able-bodied functioning, asking the tough questions, like “why is a perfect and functioning body better and more desirable than another -- what, exactly, is a normal body?” (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013). A disabled individual identifies as crip to openly address the stigma of disability instead of hiding it, pretending it's not there or feeling shame (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013). In doing so, the individual is not seeking tolerance but instead embracing and appropriating the stigma (Löfgren-mårtenson 2013).
Crip theory provides a way to describe how disabled people proactively cope with the three stages of deviance disavowal and normalization, which are fictional acceptance, the facilitation of reciprocal role-taking around a normalized projection of self and the institutionalization in the relationship of a definition of self that is normal in its moral dimension (Davis 1964). Davis (1964) notes that deviance is entirely socially constructed and involves power dynamics and self-interest, but is mostly defined by a false concept and contrast of normalcy. Deviance is a normal response to abnormal social conditions where deviant behavior is directly associated with chaos within the social system (Davis 1964). Disabled people go through the deviance disavowal process over time but this is defined by an initial and constant refusal to accept the deviant characterization. According to crip theory, disabled people should not only accept their deviance but embrace it (Davis 1964). Crip theory both embraces and combats these ideals by addressing Davis’ concerns about deviance, trying to make up for the large lack of the education and knowledge necessary to socialize, understand and respect people with disabilities, their cultures and their preferences (Davis 1964).
Crip theory approaches deviance with an emphasis on the normalization process. Advocates envision an environment where citizens -- disabled and nondisabled people alike -- become so accustomed to deviant practices from disabled people that it no longer feels “wrong” (Davis 1964). Throughout history, because the deviance of disabled people is often stigmatized, physically disabled people must be cautious and minimize the stigma to normalize themselves and their interactions with nondisabled people (Davis 1964). Crip time, which works to address how disabled people experience time, has become the primary way crip theory impacts disabled people on a daily basis (CDSC). It describes disabled people uniting and celebrating disturbing the norms, which is often used against the community (Abes 2020). Though the disability rights movement, community and culture is strong worldwide, it is especially prideful in areas where capitalist ideals rule (Abes 2020).
Abes (2020) argues that crip theory highlights how people with disabilities represent the strongest counterpoint to capitalism: what about those who are unable to work -- are they worth less? They cite that scholar Jim Overboe, who has cerebral palsy, considered his disabled body as a crip body directly opposing and challenging normal bodies idealized by capitalistic societies (Abes 2020). People with disabilities, he says, are not deficient, and the crip theory can be used to realize that the disabled body is a place of becoming, reflection and productive (Abes 2020). He views his muscle spasms, which are generally considered a negative attribute, are productive parts of his crip identity (Abes 2020). He argues that this is one of the pillars of crip theory: reclaiming the disabled body as a celebratory part of body politics (Abes 2020).
Scholars have described crip time as follows: “rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds” (CDSC). However, Abes (2020) emphasizes that crip time is not only an area for disabled people to value and that people without disabilities must recognize it as well. It's about empowering disabled people and viewing them as the experts on disability issues (Abes 2020). While it could mean creating access notes for public or open events and spaces containing accessibility information to allow disabled people to escape and avoid spaces if their needs are not met, it's about rejecting the simple definition of disability (Abes 2020). Crip theory is valuable because it recognizes that “disability is an identity that may begin with a medical definition but is then transformed by intersecting systems of oppression” (Abes 2020). This is closely related to the ideals of the aforementioned social Relational model of disability in recognizing that disability is a major part of one's identity, but not the entire part (Abes 2020).
At its core, crip theory is about centering the voices of people with disabilities and other vulnerable or oppressed groups. Nondisabled people must participate in crip time by listening to disabled people in the creation of events and policies, in community spaces and in literature (Abes 2020). This would allow disabled people to have the power to begin conversations about revising ableist definitions of disability (Abes 2020). Abes (2020) notes that other recent social movements, namely the LGBTQ community's push to regularly include gender pronouns in introductions, provide a framework for a more fluid definition of disability that would address changing access needs. It is small steps like this that can begin to change the narrative for people with disabilities, and normalizing conversations about access and other disability issues can help to lessen disabled people’s dependence on others (Abes 2020).
Scholars, doctors and other professionals must realize and reflect on the fluidity and diversity in the disability community. In discussing these professions which often consider themselves progressive, Abes (2020) emphasized how “practitioners must educate themselves about the fluidity of disability and intersectional ableism to hear and hold space for students as they navigate the complexities of oppressive systems that simultaneously define and erase their identities.” Disability justice and interdependence require continuous reflection, whether it's about considering who is missing from planning committees, events and curriculum or constantly rethinking and evolving the historically-rigid concepts of identity, knowledge, relationships and development (Abes 2020). Institutions must work to create environments that recognize the infinite meanings of disabilities and the variety of intersecting social identities (Abes 2020). This is what crip theory highlights: disability is not a monolith (Abes 2020). Honoring the diversity of disability fosters coalition building. Furthermore, including disability justice as part of practices that support crippled student development theory will increase accountability for students and universities, and this will also be reflected in greater society (Abes 2020).
While disabled people self-identifying as crips is not new, the rise of social media has made it easier for the community to unite around the term and the ideals of crip theory. Pulrang (2016) notes that the “#CripTheVote” movement on social media -- originally centered around getting people with disabilities to vote and improving the accessibility of polling places -- unites people around disability pride and is a rallying cry to abandon the older, incomplete models of disability. He says the phrase is like saying “rock the vote,” and it sounds interesting and hard-edged (Pulrang 2016). Pulrang (2016) says, “We know what the social model of disability is, we are familiar with ‘person-first’ language, and we take pride in our disability identities. Calling ourselves ‘cripples’ isn't a sign of self-hatred or ignorance of disability history -- it's quite the contrary.” Indeed, crip theory is a matter of disabled people self-identifying, as well as society realizing that two things can simultaneously be true: one's disability is the cornerstone of their identity and one's disability does not define them.
Abes, E.S., & Wallace, M.M. (2020). Using Crip Theory to Reimagine Student Development Theory as Disability Justice. Journal of College Student Development 61(5), 574-592. doi:10.1353/csd.2020.0056.
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Pulrang, A. (2016, March 29). #cripthevote: Notes on "crip". Disability Thinking. Retrieved October 27, 2021, from https://disabilitythinking.tumblr.com/post/141898253352/cripthevote-notes-on-crip.
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