Overcoming disability – the ‘supercrip’

“one must either be a creature of the disability, or have transcended it entirely” (King 1993, p 72)

One of the dangers of doing work with disabled people is a tendency to make them into heroes, to portray them as not giving up, overcoming the odds, and being real fighting spirits – indeed, an inspiration to other disabled persons and able-bodied alike (the Nike ad springs to mind). This kind of mythology is defined as the ‘supercrip’ story by Eli Clare, who describes himself on his website as “White, disabled, and genderqueer.”

“one of the dominant images of disabled people, [is] the supercrip… [stories that] focus on disabled people ‘overcoming’ our disabilities. They reinforce the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind. They turn individual disabled people, who are simply leading their lives, into symbols of inspiration.” (Clare 1999, p 2)

Indeed, what may seem to be everyday activities like going to the lavatory, dressing or brushing one’s teeth, conditioned activities largely executed without conscious thought, can constitute a daily struggle for disabled people. Supercrip stories tend to focus on these struggles, the obstacles of medical impairment – the embodiment of disability rather than the fact of its social construction:

“Supercrip stories never focus on the conditions that make it so difficult for people with Down’s to have romantic partners, for blind people to have adventures, for disabled kids to play sports. I don’t mean medical conditions. I mean material, social, legal conditions. I mean lack of access, lack of employment, lack of education, lack of personal attendant services. I mean stereotypes and attitudes. I mean oppression. The dominant story about disability should be about ableism, not the inspirational supercrip crap, the believe-it-or-not disability story.” (Clare 1999, p 2)

Supercrip stories range from paralympians, through smiling Down syndrome models in charity images: “The nondisabled world is saturated with these stories: stories about gimps who engage in activities as grand as walking 2,500 miles or as mundane as learning to drive.” Clare’s point is that the stories focus on the disabled person’s attempt to overcome the medical condition to be assimilated within the non-disabled community, and this is seen as a heroic deed. This is all very well, but the point that is overlooked is that such a stance does little to change societal attitudes towards disability and disabled people; it merely reinforces the stereotype (normalcy is preferable, disabilities can be overcome, etc).

In the first chapter of Exile and Pride, Clare relates an episode of mountain climbing, where fear overcame his determination to keep climbing. This is used as a metaphor, an example to illustrate the difference between impairment and disability. Clare (mistakenly) quotes Michael Oliver for his delineation between the concepts of impairment and disability; this information is actually taken from the 1975 discussion between the UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation) and The Disability Alliance (as noted above) while Clare adds non-physical impairments to the list:

“Disability theorist Michael Oliver defines impairment as “lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body.” … [and] defines disability as “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical [and/or cognitive/developmental/mental] impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of society.”” (Clare 1999, p 5-6)

Clare personalises this differentiation between impairment:

“I lack a fair amount of fine motor control. My hands shake. I can’t play a piano, place my hands gently on a keyboard, or type even 15 words a minute… I have trouble picking up small objects, putting them down. Dicing onions with a sharp knife puts my hands at risk. A food processor is not a yuppie kitchen luxury in my house, but an adaptive device… I am not asking for pity. I am telling you about impairment.” (Clare 1999, p 5-6)

and disability:

“I write slowly enough that cashiers get impatient as I sign my name to checks, stop talking to me, turn to my companions, hand them my receipts. I have failed timed tests, important tests, because teachers wouldn’t allow me extra time to finish the sheer physical act of writing, wouldn’t allow me to use a typewriter. I have been turned away from jobs because my potential employer believed my slow, slurred speech meant I was stupid. Everywhere I go people stare at me… I am not asking for pity. I am telling you about disability.” (ibid, p 6)

This has to be one of the clearest definitions I have come across, and a damning indictment to anyone who has ever stared, become impatient, turned to an able-bodied companion… (aren’t we all guilty of at least one of the above?)

Clare points out an important shortcoming in this theoretical distinction – that emotionally, the disabled person knows no separation between impairment and disability: the disappointment, shame, anger and frustration are felt in the same way.

The idea that disability and achievement contradict each other is what underlies supercrip stories, and as such any disabled person who is seen as overcoming their disability is seen as heroic. When helplessness and disability are paired, Clare states, disabled people pay an awful price (nursing homes, deprivation of independence, physical and sexual abuse, employment discrimination). And this is where a paradox appears, since disabled people understand that on the opposite end of the scales to supercrip are located pity, tragedy and the nursing home:

“Disabled people know this, and in our process of knowing, some of us internalize the crap. We make supercrip our own, particularly the type that pushes into the extraordinary, cracks into our physical limitations. We use supercripdom as a shield, a protection, as if this individual internalization could defend us against disability oppression.” (ibid p 8)

This really is an issue that needs to be discussed and at least addressed, since many of my subjects are viewed as supercrips, even if they do not acknowledge the fact (all of the time). This is a really difficult area, since the myth of supercrip is in some way a motivating factor, but it also works as self deception – as Clare remarks: “I wanted to overcome my CP.”

In a poignant meditation on politics of identity, Clare enumerates some of the humiliating labels she has been taunted with: crip, queer, freak, redneck. Whether on the street, dressing to go out, or amongst activist groups who categorise rural working-class as uneducated bigots, these terms somehow define the person, since they are internalized – but who is Clare in her home town, and who is Clare in a transgender activist meeting, and who is Clare in a disability rights protest?

“Whatever our relationships with these words – whether we embrace them or hate them, feel them draw blood as they hit our skin or find them entirely fitting, refuse to say them or simply feel uncomfortable in their presence we deal with their power every day. I hear these words all the time… At the same time, I use some, but not all, of these words to call out my pride, to strengthen my resistance, to place myself within community.” (p 11)

Solidarity in marginalization. Here is a perfect example of the Butlerian idea that identity is not fixed, and is not determined solely by the individual, but comes about as a result of the individual’s expression of particular traits and behaviours in a particular temporal and contextual location, the phenomena that work on the being to evoke an expressive response.

“Disabled people cast as supercrips and tragedies; lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans people told over and over again that we are twisted and unnatural; poor people made responsible for their own poverty. Stereotypes and lies lodge in our bodies as surely as bullets. They live and fester there, stealing the body.” (p 12)

The body that demands reclamation, that deserves to be reinstated, but what are the conditions for the recovery? Has anything changed in general attitude? Rhetoric is all very well, but what are the societal repercussions, if any? In this sense, in my opinion, philosophy and art production that do not engage in pragmatic and vernacular modes of discourse with the public serve to further alienate and exacerbate the position of the Other.

In a later article, Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies: Disability and Queerness, Clare expands on this idea of reclaiming the disabled body from the clutches of dominant paradigms (listed as medical, charity, supercrip and moral), which “all turn disability into problems faced by individual people, locate those problems in our bodies, and define those bodies as wrong,” going on to explain:

“The medical model insists on disability as a disease or condition that is curable and/or treatable. The charity model declares disability to be a tragedy, a misfortune, that must be tempered or erased by generous giving. The supercrip model frames disability as a challenge to overcome and disabled people as superheroes just for living our daily lives. The moral model transforms disability into a sign of moral weakness.” (Clare 2001, p 360)

Clare explains that the social model places disability outside of the impaired body and within “the material and social conditions of ableism“, declaring that disability is symptomatic of how society treats people:

“Disability activists fiercely declare that it’s not our bodies that need curing. Rather, it is ableism — disability oppression, as reflected in high unemployment rates, lack of access, gawking, substandard education, being forced to live in nursing homes and back rooms, being seen as childlike and asexual — that needs changing.” (p 360)

The social model forms the basis of disability activism in much the same way as the civil rights and feminist movements located the issue of social injustice in society rather than in any essential innate physical or cognitive differences. Despite the liberating cry of “Leave our bodies alone. Stop justifying and explaining your oppressive crap by measuring, comparing, judging, blaming, creating theories about our bodies,” Clare asserts that it is all too easy to lose sight of the internalised body-centred experiences that combine with external oppression; it is vital to consider these experiences when discussing the body. Being aware of an irrevocably different body, subjected to stares and hearing various insults and expressions of denigration from an early age, Clare says these experiences were internalised: “I stored the taunting, the gawking, the shame in my bones; they became the marrow. This was my first experience of queerness.” Clare declares that his first experience of queerness had nothing at all to do with gender or sexuality – and here is where the true meaning of ‘queer’ becomes apparent: ‘irrevocably different’.

Clare calls attention to the fact that identity is located and expressed in many different ways – our choices of community, tastes in food, clothes and music, language, work etc – but that it is also intrinsically linked to the (irrevocably different) body. Unfortunately, as Clare points out, bodily difference is not generally considered a cause for celebration, but quite the opposite: “this is one of the profound ways in which oppression works — to mire us in body hatred“. Thus, racism defines people of colour as “primitive, exotic or
worthless“, sexism declares the female body a “pliable object”, homophobia defines queer bodies as “perverse and immoral“, while ableism labels the disabled body “broken and tragic”. However, as Clare is quick to remark, very often the embodied differences are the result of external factors in the first place (speech impediments very often result from sexual abuse, cancers and other physical anomalies the results of toxins, as well as medical pathologies such as thalidomide).

Clare insists that refiguring the world is not just about changing the external conditions of oppression, but also radical change in the way one perceives one’s body – since this is the location of the oppression, it has the potential for becoming a storage site for the very oppression that one wishes to eradicate. The aim is not to make difference disappear, but to frame it and deal with it in a different context. This means accepting the body, since identities are inextricably linked to bodies, and reclaiming it as one’s own, despite or even because of the very differences which are the cause of social injustices that assault if from outside.

“We need to do this because there are disability activists so busy defining disability as an external social condition that they neglect the daily realities of our bodies: the reality of living with chronic pain; the reality of needing personal attendants to help us pee and shit; the reality of disliking the very adaptive equipment that makes our day-to-day lives possible.
We need to do this because there are disability thinkers who can talk all day about the body as metaphor and symbol but never mention flesh and blood, bone and tendon — never even acknowledge their own bodies.” (p 364)

In this way, Clare is revealing the fundamental shortcoming of the social constructionist approach to disability, which forms the basis for disability activism (and from which sprang the original draft of the ADA, which has also come under attack), that of placing the root of disability so far out of the bodily experience that it is almost denied currency. Clare advocates a different approach, somehow reconciling the social model with the bodily experience so that the impairment, which forms an integral part of the disabled person’s identity, is not denied but embraced and addressed accordingly.

Susan Wendell claims that supercrip tropes are reassuring to able-bodied people since they “reaffirm the possibility of overcoming the body” (1989, p 251); as she points out, most of the disabled heroes throughout history have demonstrated exceptional physical strength and stamina rather than accomplishments in other areas (with the notable exceptions of Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking). They are generally amputee or wheelchair athletes, and in contrast to most disabled people they are in excellent physical health. Although their achievements are beyond even the capacity of most able-bodied people, they typically have access to more financial resources and other support than the vast majority of disabled people, and as such they create an impossible ideal and increase the majority’s ‘otherness.’

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