Finally! Reflections on the C Word

Friends, I’ll wager that the record-breaking blizzard of this past weekend put a grin on the face of every kid in New York. I’m grinning too, but the snow is only peripherally responsible for my glee. Truthfully, the following sentence in Monday’s New York Times gets the credit for my euphoria:

“The biggest winter storm in New York City history — destined for lionization as the Blizzard of ’06 — buried the region and much of the Northeast yesterday under blowing, drifting, thigh-high snows that crippled transportation and commerce, knocked out power and disrupted life for millions in 14 states.”

Well, I’ll be! The media is using the word “cripple” appropriately.

This reminded me of an e-mail I received a few years ago:

“Hello. I’m in my forties and, for most of my life, I’ve used a wheelchair to get around. Over the years, I’ve seen (or should I say heard) many words attempting to describe me come in and out of vogue. First, I was a cripple. Then I was crippled. Then I was special. Then I was handicapped. Then I was disabled. Then I was challenged. Then I was differently abled. My question is: What term do you consider preferable? And, honestly, what difference does it make?”

Here’s how I replied:

If your first question were in a multiple-choice format and the possible answers were:
a) a cripple
b) crippled
c) special
d) handicapped
e) disabled
f) challenged
g) differently abled

I’d choose:
h) none of the above

Why? Because I think words matter, and they shape our attitudes in more ways than we’d care to admit. Take the word “cripple.” The most appropriate use of the word “cripple” that I ever came across spanned the front page of my local newspaper: “BLIZZARD CRIPPLES THE CITY.”

“Finally!” I remember exulting. “Someone figured out what ‘cripple’ means!” And what is that, pray tell? Brought to a standstill. Stopped in its tracks. After all, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Old English root of cripple is creep. I don’t know about you, but my disability – although severe – has not stopped me in my tracks.

And in case you think my word critique is a symptom of over-sensitivity, check this out: The dictionary defines the verb, to cripple, as “to deprive of capability for service or of strength, efficiency, or [get this] wholeness.” Well, if that’s what cripple means, they’ve got the wrong customers if they think the word applies to you or me.

Now, on the other side of the spectrum, we’ve got “special.” Unlike “cripple,” “special” sounds like a compliment, doesn’t it? Don’t make me laugh. Turning to the dictionary once again, we find “special” defined as “distinguished by some unusual quality; especially being in some way superior.” Yes, that does sound like a compliment, but is paralysis, or mental retardation, or deafness, or blindness a form of superiority, in and of itself worthy of a compliment? I certainly don’t think so. Of course, neither is it a form of inferiority, worthy of an insult. What we have here is a euphemism, the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. Well, I don’t know about you, but since my disability is neither offensive nor unpleasant, I find the euphemism offensive and unpleasant. (Of course, the same critique applies equally to “special,” “challenged” and [shudder] “differently abled.”)

This leaves us with “handicapped” and “disabled.” They are, by far, the least problematic on our multiple-choice list. The more politically correct word these days is “disabled,” why, I’ll never know. Think about it: You tune into the radio’s traffic report and you hear, “Avoid the Tappan Zee Bridge; a disabled tractor trailer has caused a 90-minute delay.” Now think again: You turn on the news and you hear a political commentator remark, “Joe Brooks may be short, fat and bald but he never let those drawbacks handicap him in the mayoral race.” The way I see it, if something (say, a tractor trailer) is disabled, it can’t budge. If something (say, a horse) or someone (say, you) has a handicap, it (or you) may be working against resistance or proceeding more slowly, but it (or you) will get to the finish line.

What about “none of the above”? Well, if I had to fill in that blank, I would use your very own words. Take a look at the opening sentence with which this correspondence began: “I’m in my forties and, for most of my life, I’ve used a wheelchair to get around.” What did you do here? You avoided what I call definitional labels (words that define a person) and opted for a functional label (a word that describes how that person functions).

At the crux of all this is the difference between the verb “to be,” which defines what a person is (a cripple, special, handicapped, disabled, challenged or – heaven help us! – differently abled), and the verbs “to do” or “to have,” which describe what the person does (gets around with a seeing eye dog, walks with a limp, uses crutches, reads at a second-grade level, communicates in sign language, etc.) or has (a disability, epilepsy, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, multiple sclerosis, etc.).

At the risk of sounding like some ivory-tower philosopher, I’d like to tell you why definitional labels leave a bad taste in my mouth. In a nutshell, the moment we use the verb “to be,” we have created a verbal equation. What mathematical symbol can replace any form of the verb “to be”? The answer, of course, is the equal sign. So when we say, “She is a cripple” or “He is an epileptic,” we are creating an equation of sorts:

She = cripple
He = epileptic

And the way equations work (if my memories of elementary school serve me right) is that whatever is on one side of the equal sign finds its complete match on the other side of the equal sign. You can say, “2 + 2 = 4” but you can’t say, “2 + 2 = 4 + 1.” So if we say, “She is a cripple,” there is no room (philosophically speaking) on the right side of the equation to include “and a gourmet cook, a mother of three and a high school principal.”

A word of warning: This model works for me, but it doesn’t mean that I never use words like blind, deaf, mentally retarded or even disabled and handicapped. Those words are perfectly fine, as long as I haven’t forgotten the person linked to them. For example:

• My neighbor, David Ross, is mentally retarded (yes).
• The mentally retarded are represented on our block (no).
[Instead: Some of our neighbors are mentally retarded (yes.)]

• My boss, Cheryl, is blind (yes).
• The blind should be hired at our firm (no).
[Instead: Our firm should hire blind people (yes).]

This correspondence intrigued me to no end and, like a pebble tossed into a lake, it took me to ever-widening circles of contemplation concerning the words that shape my world. One thing was clear: Nouns are the essential ingredients of definitional labels, words that restrict our identity to one thing only. Nouns are the enemy.

Just a few days later, an absurd – and obscene – memory resurfaced that only reinforced my militant opposition to nouns. The year was 1962. The month was May. The city was New York. I was sitting in a yellow school bus, the kind equipped with a hydraulic lift and absolutely no shock absorbers. My public school’s Health Conservation [read: segregated] class was on its way to the Museum of Natural History. After battling traffic for over an hour, the bus driver pulled into the parking lot and headed for the museum’s rear – and (surprise) only accessible – entrance. Before he had a chance to turn off the ignition, a museum guard rapped authoritatively on the bus’s windshield and pointed to a far-off sea of yellow where school buses apparently had to park. Full of self-importance, our driver slid open his window and bellowed in the most mellifluous Brooklynese, “I gotta pock here. I got wheelchairs!”

I was only 10 years old, but I knew something was dreadfully wrong. Was I a cripple or was I a wheelchair? Decisions, decisions.

I close with a more recent memory. The year was 2003. The month was May. The city was New York. My husband and I had just attended a dazzling concert at Carnegie Hall. As we proceeded from the lobby to the sidewalk, a man several feet in front of us said to his companion, “Let the wheelchair pass.”

I smiled and said, “You mean, ‘Let the woman in the wheelchair pass.’”

The man retorted, “Well, you’re a part of it.”

“No,” said I with an odd mix of gratitude and glee, “it’s a part of me.”