Call Me a 'Good Cripple' If You Must

Is educating others really so unfair and tiresome?

Article Highlights:
  • Labels like "Good Cripple" and "Bad Cripple" hinder efforts to have healthy conversations about disability in today's culture.
  • Building bridges can help cultivate inclusivity, even among people with disabilities.
  • All people must welcome others' differences and take responsibility for educating others to help create an environment of compassion and understanding.
by Deshae E. Lott, Ph.D. on July 1, 2010 - 5:32pm

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 3

Which are you? “The Good Cripple” or “The Bad Cripple”? Among some disabled advocates, we’re being asked to decide our “archetype” in a way that resembles the divide between the North and South during the Civil War. Perhaps we need not be so drastic.

Among some activist bloggers in the disabled community, the “Good Cripple” is a sarcastic label for any disabled person who does not project dealing with disability as the prime dynamic in her existence; who accepts bearing the additional burdens of disability as primarily a personal responsibility; and who does not view society as a thoughtless or deliberately antagonistic force operating against people with disabilities.

The “Bad Cripple” is an ironic label for one who understands and articulates that accessibility issues are the fault of society as a whole and the able-bodied in particular; who uses confrontation as her only tactic in the belief that it’s the only tactic that succeeds and who blames the “Good Cripple” for not being equally confrontational, because if all disabled people were loud and demanding, society would not permit accessibility issues to fester.

Certainly as a culture we must continue to develop ways to embrace disability healthfully, and those of us with disabilities need to be a part of defining what that means. But, the labels “Good Cripple” and “Bad Cripple” seem to take us at least four steps back.

An unhealthy dichotomy

In the early 1980s when I was young, there weren’t Barbie dolls and American Girl dolls with wheelchairs. I recall few strong models of women with disabilities. Instead, I recall the day in fourth grade when a member of my Brownie troop greeted me with a hug, a kiss and these unforgettable words: “My mother says I must always be nice to you because one day you’re gonna be in a wheelchair.”

Other social responses to me — like repeated scenes in which a child asked why I walked “funny” only to be shushed by a parent — have blurred together in my memory. For many people, it seemed, I had an unspeakable, tragic or ridicule-worthy condition. These situations no doubt still arise today.

Still, nowadays we can find children’s books that include service dogs or people with special needs and media images of people who use wheelchairs at work. Rarely is the word “cripple” used any more about those less abled in body.

Yet some with disabilities themselves employ these simple polarities and argue that progress depends on “the Bad Cripple.” Does it? Asserting that Good Cripples are passive and Bad Cripples are rabble rousers reduces again the complicated and rich nature of human existence and the many elements any life requires to engage well with its community.

Responding with joy

Bridge-building is a way humans can cross great divides and cultivate inclusivity. Even those of us with disabilities at times surely overlook healthful ways to connect with our fellow sojourners.

A few years ago, a Brownie troop leader asked me to speak to her group about architecture and disability. I agreed, in exchange for one promise: No adult would shush the young ladies about what they might ask or say in my presence. I took in props for my presentation: images of bicycles in front of ramps, trash cans under elevator buttons, steep ramps. I brought straws for snack time, telling the Brownies to pretend they could not lift their cups with their arms. I also asked the girls to pretend they could not raise their hands to indicate they wanted to speak and urged them to find alternative ways to try to get my attention.

I may have learned as much as the Brownies did that day. Having switched places with them, I saw how easily others could overlook subtle alternate means of communicating or seeking entry into a conversation. I did not always immediately recognize some of the girls’ creative attempts to secure the floor. The twirling of a straw, the tapping of a foot, the torso swaying side to side — well, I mistook these as fidgeting or maybe the need to use the bathroom.

These Brownies were very patient with me when I was slow to catch on. When I finally did, I had a new revelation of how difficult it must be for others to read my cues at times. Since my manner of self expression does not always fit into a recognizable mold and, beyond that, often changes when my body weakens further, I have grown to understand that other people may misunderstand me and that I often must take the responsibility for mitigating such misunderstandings.

The Brownies and I laughed together at my oversights, just as I have laughed with a friend who purchased wonderful theater tickets in the center of a third row — not a place my wheelchair could go. Similarly, a brilliant mentor of mine laughed with me when, in stopping to hold double doors open for me, he stood directly in my path between the doors.

Adaptation is a process. We can create a comfortable space for welcoming one another’s differences when we respond with joy — perhaps even with laughter — to the unusual situations brought about by these differences. When all parties remain open to learning from one another, nurturing and redefining become a possibility for each participant.

Santa got it right

I believe wholeheartedly in the Santa Claus who recruited Rudolph with the red nose. To me, the story is one of negotiations for communal edification.

As the story goes, Rudolph’s nose made him a social misfit with no means of participating in a community that laughed at him rather than with him. Santa suggests to Rudolph an innovative way to contribute to the social system in the North Pole: by lighting the way for Santa’s sleigh. Rudolph proves receptive to this possibility; rather than self-handicap, he embraces his new role. And all the reindeer learned to laugh and play with Rudolph, to love and welcome him.

Like Santa and Rudolph, we can show the way one personal encounter at a time. Santa, a visionary of social good, refused to be silent when he saw Rudolph ridiculed. But rather than chastise, he helped find a space that could welcome any difference into the system and make a better system in the process.

I try to follow Santa’s model, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief that at every moment we can create “an original relationship with the universe.” As a continuous learner, my pattern for creatively coping with denied access involves finding a comfortable space for my differences within social norms, seeking alternate routes for my life when barriers impede my path. But I’m not afraid to resist, confront, challenge or purge unnecessary limitations.

The key to our integrity and hopefulness rests in how we respond to the challenge of interacting with others. When models, labels, situations don’t apply to us, what do we do? Do we stay overwhelmed, isolated, disempowered? Or do we embrace our capacity for creative living, expressing our uniqueness in innovative, socially acceptable ways?

Deshae Lott believes bridge-building cultivates inclusivity.

I’m just not into the kind of self-deprecation and loathing that the double-whammy “Bad Cripple” connotes. So, call me the “Good Cripple,” if you must call me either.

To me, the “Good Cripple” will challenge others when opportunities arise, but will attempt not to alienate them. To me, the “Good Cripple” takes responsibility for educating others in ways that foster greater understanding, compassion and inspiration to support lifestyles far different from their own.

Is educating others really so unfair and tiresome? For those of us up to the task, can it not be another outlet for unique creativity and contribution? Happiness — like advocacy — is a choice, and the two can coexist.

Deshae E. Lott, Ph.D., of Shreveport, La., teaches online English courses for Louisiana State University. Lott, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, also heads a nonprofit, offering grants and scholarships to individuals with disabilities. For more, visit

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