(Photo of Stephen Kuusisto with his second guide dog Vidal, together in an autumn field.)
Donald Trump has entitled his new book “Crippled America” and if nothing else he’s done those of us with disabilities a big favor. I know, speaking for myself, I’ve been casting around for a disability slogan for years and now, voila, the Donald has worked his magic. That Trump doesn’t mean what I want him to mean doesn’t matter at all—he’s given me a “Don’t Tread on Me” bona fide gimpy flag and I’m going to wave it from now on.
Disabled people adopted the term “cripple” around twenty years ago, largely as a way to be both performative (I’m not dis-abled, I’m something more complex) and to express collective solidarity much in the manner of other historically marginalized groups. I’m not “differently abled” I’m a god damned cripple and you better get used to it.”
In her classic essay “On Being a Cripple” Nancy Mairs who has MS writes:
I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.” I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People– crippled or not–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 are a nation of some 65 million disabled and you better believe we’re tough customers. The law says we have equal rights, but long before the ADA veterans and maimed workers fought hard for the chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Maybe we wince. But we are keen fighters. Always have been. Always will be.
Trump’s metaphor is a Tea Party fiction: America is hobbled, not what it used to be, dependent on government, weak in the knees, no longer able to sit up and take nourishment. Not only is this untrue about our nation’s general health and economy, it’s a slur on wounded warriors, human rights activists, disabled children who expect to grow up with good educations and actual prospects, the elderly who need help adjusting to limited vision or arthritis. The 65 million disabled are a large constituency and you better believe we can face the truth of our existences squarely. We don’t need one more book that uses disability as a pejorative symbol.
Trump will say he doesn’t mean it that way. I say he does. Not long ago I was denied entrance to a restaurant in New York City because the doorman said my guide dog couldn’t come in.
Turns out, you guessed it, the joint was owned by a conglomerate belonging to Trump. Sure, it’s always a mistake to impute policy or motives from one ugly incident. But if the Donald can call America crippled I can at least state with some confidence the man has very little awareness of what it’s like to live out here, where those of us with “the conditions” must necessary swagger.
I raised a stink about the restaurant. They initiated employee training. If Trump wants to lead the whole nation, the land of warriors, he better learn who he’s talking to. As Nancy Mairs says:
Cripple” seems to me a clean word, straightforward and precise. It has an honorable history, having made its first appearance in the Lindisfarne Gospel in the tenth century. As a lover of words, I like the accuracy with which it describes my condition: I have lost the full use of my limbs. “Disabled,” by contrast, suggests any incapacity, physical or mental. And I certainly don’t like “handicapped,” which implies that I have deliberately been put at a disadvantage, by whom I can’t imagine (my God is not a Handicapper General), in order to equalize chances in the great race of life. These words seem to me to be moving away from my condition, to be widening the gap between word and reality.
Trump has, alas, widened the gap between real cripples and reality.