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Anyone who says, “it’s just a word” is forgetting that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” forgetting that words wound more deeply than any knife could. Mortal flesh heals quicker than an immortal soul, and that soul is what has the potential to be hurt in a word.

People use words so much, so often to elevate, to promote…and debase. Through racial, ethnic and disability slurring, contempt and prejudice are revealed.

And people are wounded.

With time, people heal to the point in which some want to pivot, they want to snatch that word that once hurt and bounce it on a blacktop, throw it back against a wall with their own arms, hurl at those that once used it against them.

So we see “nigger” used again. White people can’t use it; and not all black people claim it. But it’s back, in all forms of it’s ugly self: nigga, niggaz, nig. It’s a word that is redolent of abuse, a word that has been made ugly by being marinated for so long in a vat of hate.

“Cripple” and “Gimp” are shades shy of the hate but are light years ahead in pity, shame, helplessness and disenfranchisement. These words too are being reclaimed by many in the disability community. “Gimp” is all over the place, as is “Crip” – “Wry Crips”, “Crip Couture”, “Queer Crips” are a few. There is a great explanation about the Crip-Reclaiming on the blog, Crip Confessions.

I get what is going on, I do. I get it from my gut. I get that people need to call themselves what they feel comfortable with, label themselves as “a flaming turd” if they so want. Do it.

But what I want the people that are fiercely fighting for a right-to-reclaim to understand is that there are a legion of parents of kids with disabilities out there that are striving with every fiber they have to make the world a kinder place for their children. They are waging a peaceful war with their communities, schools, churches and other areas of worship to have their children treated with dignity and respect. For their children to be given the opportunity to learn and contribute in an atmosphere of integral inclusion.

There are also countless people with disabilities that are engaged in promoting ‘people first’ language – you know, promoting the idea that people with disabilities are in fact, people. first and foremost, people.By reclaiming old words of derogation, pity and disenfranchisement, it’s that much harder for someone to stop someone else from saying “cripple” – “but she calls herself a crip!” they retort, pointing to the girl who has “CRIP CHICK” emblazoned over the back of her wheelchair. Try as one might to compare it to “nigger” and that reclamation, it just doesn’t sink.

And speaking of that reclamation: how would it feel to be a black parent trying to install a sense of pride in their children’s heritage, to continue with this (never ending) battle of racial discrimination and prejudice and have this word whipped out and re-used by people of influence? I simply cannot imagine it would be pleasant, inspiring or invigorating. Many black people in the US want to be called, “African Americans” – how can it feel to be pushing for that and then have “nigger” racing the airwaves, on the street? Have one’s kids coming home, chanting a rap about the “niggaz”… ?

“Crip” and “gimp” is no different in my mind.

I wish instead of reclaiming old words that have ugly histories and promote confusion, we’d just stick with people first language and let bright new words enter our vocabularies. Let the old words die. All of them. Even while bounced in the act of reclaiming, in the wrong hands, they still hurt. That seems to me to be a sign they should simply be buried.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. I have to agree with you on this. I realize that “crip” and “gimp” *have* been reclaimed for some people and groups, so I don’t think about it much when I hear those words used self-referentially among people in the disability community. Like you, I really don’t care what people choose to call themselves, or why – it’s not my business – but I do question how we can create truly inclusive societies when these terms are still floating around. This is one of the best posts I’ve ever seen on this, by the way – I’m off to share it! 🙂

  2. Grace Carpenter says:

    I started to use “gimpy” to refer to my hemparitic arm ( because there really isn’t a good word that conveys the nuances I’m describing. I think. I think the only time I’ve heard “gimpy” before was something about a veteran’s “gimpy” leg–until I had a stroke.

    Thank you for making me think about this word. I’ll keep trying to find different (and better?) words.

  3. I really appreciate this post and your perspective. The business of the words we use to describe people and groups is fraught with complexity. I love what you write about parents and their desire for a world where their children are treated with dignity and respect. This is the goal of the non-profit I work for, Kids Included Together- we are striving for a world where children with disabilities are welcomed and supported in their communities. We are teaching child care and recreation providers around the world how to create meaningful inclusion, and language plays a role. We find that because the providers don’t know what language they are to use and they have limited comfort in talking about disability, it is a barrier. It is a barrier to their communication with families and with other professionals. For a long time we taught person-first language, as we found it helped support dignity and respect and reduced stereotypes when the child care provider could think of the child as “Tommy, who has Down syndrome” and not “the Downs kid.” Now we are sharing both person-first and identity-first and, as we did before, always asking them to use the child’s name and not refer to the disability unless it is necessary to do so. What I don’t want is for people to become so confused and hesitant about the “right” language to use that is becomes even more of a barrier to authentic inclusion. What I love about your article is the emphasis on thinking about the next generation as we consider conceptions of disability and the language we use to describe it. Thank you!

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