Please note: This post makes use of the term “cripple” in reference to individuals with disabilities. I am using it here as a reclaimed term, used by those within the CripplePunk movement in order to challenge societal views and expectations of persons with disabilities. I understand many have issues with this term and its history as a slur. For that reason, the CripplePunk movement has adopted c*punk as an alternative. — Also, please note the links in this piece may contain explicit language and possibly triggering accounts of ableism and discrimination.
This semester I have had the privilege of taking a disability studies class at my college. As a person with disabilities, I am very excited to have the opportunity to see what scholarship is out there, learn more about the history of the disability rights movement, and offer my own experience into the discussion.
For our midterm evaluation we were asked to reflect on an event, text, or representation of disability in American culture. It is my pleasure to present this post as my midterm project, presenting the movement of radical self-representation in the disabled community, known as CripplePunk.
Many of the readings in our class thus far have focused on the history of the movement, modern struggles with access and accommodation, and societal expectations of individuals with disabilities. One things I noticed in many of these readings was that lack of representation and misrepresentation contributed greatly to many of the issues.
One of our first readings for the class was a short essay on “Diversity” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. The piece focused mostly on the origins of discrimination against disabled individuals. One suggestion was that disability is antithetical to the idea that anyone can lead the perfect life with enough hard work. That you can do everything right and still have the circumstances of life (or accident or illness) ruin that plan. That disabled individuals serve as memento mori to the able bodied, reminding them that death and disease and disability could be right around the corner. To that I say, I am sorry my existence reminds you that one day you are going to die. Except I’m not. I’m not sorry at all. Because that way of thinking is ignorant and prejudiced and holds that disabled lives are at all worth anything less than those of able bodied individuals.
This idea of disabled individuals as frightening and uncomfortable reminders extended into the book “Extraordinary Bodies” by Rosemarie Thomson. In her first chapter, Thomson discusses the representation of disabled characters in literature. It does not take long to think upon the hunchback, the witch with a can, the grotesques, the freaks, to understand the literary trope of using disability as a character trait, rather than an actual lived experience. The gap between representation and reality also moves in the other direction as well. For example, Tiny Tim is never naughty like other children. The tragedy of his disability erases any chance of him acting like a normal child, otherwise he would lose the hypersympathy his character is meant to inspire.
So where does that leave disabled individuals and representation? Especially younger disabled individuals who may be looking to celebrities, television, film, literature, and social media for people like them, people who understand their experiences.
Newer shows such as Breaking Bad and Switched At Birth have done an alright job of representing disabled characters as character traits beyond their disability and having full, dynamic lives. However these shows have still fallen prey to using disability as a plot device at times.
In modern America, individuals with disabilities have to make use of hypervisibility,using humor, charm, etc to mitigate awkwardness and make able bodied individuals more comfortable in their interactions. In a society that places so much focus on individual responsibility, disabled individuals must be constantly fighting, working constantly to overcome their disability, must be a cheery, inspirational presence, must maintain constant vigilance, lest they be seen as bitter, selfish, or lazy. They are expected to to perform at maximum capacity at all times, maintaining the ideology that, even though they have disability and impairment, they can do anything able bodied individuals can do, if they just try hard enough.
Enter the CripplePunk movement.
A quick Google search, or exploration through the #cpunk #cripplepunk tags on tumblr, will produce a flurry of selfies, poetry, and rants by individuals who have taken up with the moniker “cripple punk”. This content, almost entirely generated by individuals with disabilities, aims to raise awareness and visibility of disability and to dismantle societal expectations and standards for disabled individuals.
An article recently published in brokenpencil, authored by Sidney Drmay, an independent magazine, entitled “Up the Disabled Punx: trash the pity party, CripplePunks rise up”, helped find the origin of the movement. According to the magazine, the movement arose from a selfie posted to the tumblr account ffsshh.
The image depicts a young disabled individual, with their cane visible, smoking a cigarette, with the caption “cripple punk”. After posting the selfie, the user was flooded with negative responses – Drmay noted that “commenters believed they had the right to assume that Tyler’s smoking and their disability were somehow related and judged them accordingly.”
Tyler received a series of messages claiming that if Tyler “didn’t smoke [they] wouldn’t need that cane”, that being handicapped was not something to be proud of, and that there was no sympathy “for cripples who make themselves worse”.
“If you really cared about disabled people, you wouldn’t cherry-pick the ‘good ones’,” Tyler wrote back.
Fellow disabled tumblr users coming to Tyler’s defense. Users started posting their own selfies, tagged #cripplepunk, to show support to Tyler. From here sprung a movement.
CripplePunk (also known as cpunk)
A movement that is exclusively by the physically disabled for the physically disabled, started on tumblr. It’s about rejecting pity, inspiration porn, & all other forms of ableism. It ejects the “good cripple” mythos.
Cripple Punk is here for the bitter cripple, the uninspirational cripple, the smoking cripple, the drinking cripple, the addict cripple, the cripple who hasn’t “tried everything”.
Cripple Punk fights internalized ableism & fully supports those struggling with it. It respects intersections of race, culture, gender, sexual/romantic orientation, size, intersex status, mental illness/neuroatypical status, survivor status, etc. Cripple Punk does not pander to the able bodied.
The site also displays a list of rules for the those participating in the movement – including: involvement is not conditional on thinks like mobility aids and levels of function, individuals do not need to identify with either ‘cripple’ or ‘punk’ in order to participate, able bodied allies may only ever amplify the voices of the disabled and may never used uncensored slur, etc.
This movement actively fights against the idea of that disabled individuals must always be doing all that they can to get better and be as ‘normal’ as possible, must be happy and hopeful in those efforts, admonishes the use of disabled individuals (especially children) as inspirational tokens, and greatly supports disabled pride.
It fights to take back “can’t” – letting disabled individuals set their own limits, without facing judgement that they’re not doing enough or trying hard enough.
It supports individuals who use alternative self care methods, such as one woman who uses tattooing to mitigate her chronic pain.
It creates an environment, a community, in which all disabled individuals are celebrated and understood, not just the ‘good’ or inspirational ones.
So where do we go from here? Where can this movement take us?
Although fairly young, the CripplePunk movement has already inspired many spin-off movements, seeking similar aims, many claiming home under the CripplePunk umbrella.
Once such movement is #hospitalglam. This movement, focusing mostly on chronic illness and other such disabilities that require increased medical attention and hospital visits, brings light to a place no one really talks about: the hospital room.
As this young woman notes,
The first image is a shot from when I first started posing, a series where I mostly alternated laying on the exam table and curling up in a ball. This is how I was feeling … I was scared, I felt alone, and I very much was trying not to start crying and run away.
The second image is me pumping myself up, trying to force myself to find strength through form.
For me, both are a very valuable part of how I experience my disability, and how I interact with the medical world … These images are me finding a reason to stay and work through something…
It is this radical self-representation that will help propel the disability rights movement into the 21st Century, as even those who are too sick to join the protest, who are kept out by inaccessibility, who are unable to stand before the laws and institutions that keep them from justice, are able to tell their stories through these movements.
Edit: Previously this post said that Tyler’s tumblr was defunct. This is not the case! You can follow them at their new url. Also, it has come to my attention that the UrbanDictionary definition was taken directly from Tyler’s blog. I have noted that credit in my post, and encourage you all to give credit to Tyler, not UrbanDictionary.