Your Disabled Friend Does Not Make You A Cripplewhisperer

One of the things that is most maddening to me about the disability experience in 2018, is the both vexed and vacuous area of inspiration pornography.  There’s so much to this topic, and a level of complexity that’s not often acknowledged, that I can’t do it justice all in one blog post, that would be impossible.  But as I started reading around the topic in preparation for a piece on it, I started noticing a trend amongst so many of the insp-porn propagators that I want to draw attention to it on it’s own.

If you push back against inspiration porn, one is consistently met with variations on the following response:

“I’m not being ableist in sharing this, my brother-in-law is in a wheelchair…”

It is striking how often one comes up against this response, if you even suggest that a meme is toxic, simplistic or just plain vomit-inducing.  I’ve never quite understood why this reaction continues to be accepted by so many, I’m all for diversity of opinion, but if your reason for claiming expertise in something is simply that you know someone affected by something – then that is not good enough.  Sure, it may give you an increased insight into an issue, but it does not give you the right to define what is ableist and what isn’t, at the expense of disabled people’s views.  Don’t deny me my legitimate view, simply because it makes you uncomfortable and forces you to reconsider yours.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but disability is one of the last areas where this kind of ignorance of those directly affected is tolerated.  For a number of years now, I’ve been a member of the Town Hall Gospel Choir in Birmingham, the majority of it’s members are black – it would be frankly unacceptable if I posted something that was racist, to then defend such a position by saying that I had a large number of close friends who were black and it would be equally fallacious if I claimed to be any kind of expert in issues of race and racism based upon a particular group of people I happen to know – but that is effectively what happens when someone retorts, “I have a friend who’s disabled”, or “But my Nan’s in a wheelchair and she says this is OK”.   Oh and by the way, if you ever think the three weeks you spent in a wheelchair or on crutches as the result of a broken bone or torn muscle grants you anything but the most rudimentary expertise in the disability experience, you need to have a very serious word with yourself, if you wish to argue on this one – or you can’t find those serious words – then I can think of a few to get you started…

The disability movement (if such a thing truly exists), is an extremely broad church.  For anyone reading this who’s posted such a meme and is worried about pushback, I should point out that the breadth of opinion is such that you’ll always find someone to support you.  There’s always a group of people who’ll take your meme in the way it’s intended as a positive uplifting thing that gives them a sense of empowerment.  And that’s fine.  That does not lessen or invalidate the fact that for someone like me, it may cause such rage that I’m in a mood to go out and kick a puppy.  I am not calling for a ban on inspiration pornography, I hope for a world in which such material is eventually regarded as quaint and obsolete, banning things in order to shift an opinion never works unless supported by copious amounts of evidence – and even then only maybe.  Next time you post such a meme, and you find someone like me pushing back at you, remember that your nephew’s friend’s workmate’s brother who you met once at a party in 2013 does not grant you the qualification of cripplewhisperer.  You don’t speak for all of us.  Neither do I, don’t use your bogus qualification to silence me.

It’s never acceptable now to use the reply “But I have black friends”, the fact that people still use a defence that essentially boils down to “I know someone who’s disabled” shows the levels of ableism inherent in our culture.  Stop doing it. There are legitimate and interesting debates to be had around the nature of inspiration as it relates to disability and around societal expectations.  Let’s engage in those, rather than people simply claiming expertise by association…

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5 thoughts on “Your Disabled Friend Does Not Make You A Cripplewhisperer

  1. Hey! That was a bit aggressive! I know you wouldn’t really kick a puppy, but I think you would really like to kick us today! Nobody is denying you your “legitimate view” on anything. You are using an example of someone posting something racist and then saying it’s OK because they have black friends. Are you saying that people are saying offensive disablist things and then justifying their disablist comments by citing their “Nan in a wheelchair”? I don’t think that’s what’s happening, somehow….

    If I cite disabled parents/nephew etc when I write to you, it is because I am trying to get across that I have loved ones in my close family who have difficulties with acceptance, friendships, equality of opportunity, steep steps, pain, rejection etc. And because I love them and know them and know how all this affects them, I also, to a very small extent, know how being disabled makes people feel mocked by the system and by people’s attitudes. I would never dream of saying an offensive thing about a disabled person and then justifying it by relationships with disabled people, any more than you would dream about making a racist comment and justifying it by your choir friendships.

    What exactly is the “disability movement” trying to achieve? And if it is an “extremely broad church”, what are its extremes and what does its moderate centre look like? “Equal opportunities” starts to look a bit shallow if you claim that a Down’s man who is unable to manage his own finances should have an “equal opportunity” to manage the till in a shop (by the way, a Down’s girl manages a till in our nearest M&S absolutely fine- I’m not ruling it out). But when you notice that the Down’s man has had such an inferior education because of his disability that he did not have the chance to learn to manage money, then that is cause for anger and change. If you notice that he can’t take up a job offer because he can’t get himself to work safely, then something can be done to support him,

    Because I push my parents in wheelchairs, I know how poor accessibility still is in many public places, and it makes me angry. Because I have a Down’s nephew, I know how short-changed he has been by attending mainstream schools, and it makes me angry. Because I have taught a profoundly deaf child in a mainstream school and seen her make good academic progress and learn to speak as well as sign, I am a passionate advocate for systems which make this possible.

    You used the word “cripplewhisperer” about people who may be doing their best, trying to listen to you. Is anyone who is not actually disabled themselves automatically guilty of “inspiration porn” in your eyes? This would be every bit as offensive as the racism you rightly condemn.

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    1. “You are using an example of someone posting something racist and then saying it’s OK because they have black friends. Are you saying that people are saying offensive disablist things and then justifying their disablist comments by citing their “Nan in a wheelchair”? I don’t think that’s what’s happening, somehow…”

      I hate to be the one to disillusion you, but too often this is what is happening, ableism is so ingrained in much of society that I’ll credit many with not having the intention to be so, but nevertheless this defence happens over and over again. If you cite things that you have experience with, i.e. your experience as a carer/helper/support then that’s fine – but too many go overboard and think that their experience in supporting someone with a disability, or sometimes merely knowing one at a distance gives them the right to define what is acceptable in disability culture and what is not.

      I use the term ‘cripplewhisperer’ not in reference to listening as such, but in the sense of a horse-whisperer who seems to have an innate understanding of these things that we can’t always account for.

      As to the broad church. I would say in brief that it’s extremes are total adherence to the medical model of disability at one end, and total adherence to the social model at the other. I would say there are very few ‘moderates’ within the church, most in Western culture would tend towards the social model very strongly, though some (like me) would call for a closer examination of this model, as there are areas that it doesn’t address fully or satisfactorarily.

      Is someone without a disability automatically guilty of inspiration porn? I’m not sure, I think it depends on the underlying message of the meme or story – I would also stress very strongly that some of the worst perpetuators of inspiration porn are disabled themselves. It is the wider culture and expectations of disability that need addressing in order that this be altered. I’m not saying it’s necessarily as bad as the racism (to me intent is important when considering ‘guilt’), but the analogy is something I stand by because the nature of the defence offered is the same. It negates a criticism based upon the person having an acquaintance with a particular trait.

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  2. I’m worried that you seem to be setting up (in your writing) some antagonistic, opposing positions in society when in your reported experience there is an entire rainbow of thought around disabled people- that’s why I asked about the “disability movement”. You accept that this “movement” is hard to define, and indeed your description of “social model” and “medical model” at opposite extremes makes me think it is a theoretical movement which is not particularly helpful to anyone. After all, for non-disabled people as for disabled, are not medical and social considerations equally necessary? I would have thought a disability movement would be basically about rights (to employment, education, health, access and freedom from discrimination and bullying). I would have thought publicity, media attention and blogs like yours would effectively broadcast your message about these. You mentioned racism (a battle largely won), but maybe a look at the changing public attitudes around gender and LGBT might be more helpful right now: I’ve mentioned the brilliant work of Stonewall before.

    What is “acceptable in disability culture and what not”? Is not culture something that unites all of us? Do you have a definition of where “disability culture” does not include everyone? It seems to me this would be limiting and isolationist. If the “disabled” were to agree on what they wanted from the “abled”, wouldn’t that be about fundamental values such as respect, inclusion, accessibility, good medical support, adequate funding according to need, etc? And don’t we all deserve those? So many of us are disabled in various ways (ageing for one) that we should be fighting this together, not calling names.

    I know what your word “cripplewhisperer” means and I find it hurtful and divisive. It’s a clever, emotive word, but I doubt very much whether anyone uses the word “cripple” any more, so it accuses a lot of innocent people of using or thinking a hateful term. We can play about with words and we constantly change the most offensive- I’m told “special” (special needs) is now an insult in some playgrounds, but what really matters is changing attitudes: how can we all become better, more supportive, more inclusive human beings towards every kind of difference?

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    1. I shall try and answer your various points in order…

      If I’m being antagonistic, it’s in part due to the fact that I’m tired of ‘playing by the rules’ on this one, there are acceptable norms for how one talks about this and if I’m stepping over those then that’s not something I’ll lose any sleep over.

      As to the social model vs. the medical model, those words mean something slightly different in this context, the rights you describe as what you envision the disability ‘movement’ as, is broadly in alignment with the UK strong social model of disability – as I’ve written previously, this model has some excellent pluses but there are some areas (particularly around impairment and identity) that it has caused to become taboo. This blog is merely me documenting my personal experiences, if attitudes change because of it then fantastic, but that is not something that I feel responsible for – though if my writing causes people to think then so much the better. LGBT rights and activism is another strong parallel which you correctly hilight, though I’d argue most strongly that if you think the battle over racism is largely won then you are misguided in that opinion. In terms of public messaging then yes up to a point, but in terms of matters societal and structural then we have miles to go…

      It is not for me to say what is acceptable or not – I can only offer opinions, if you disagree then that’s fine. As Stephen Fry has said, taking offense is not an argument against a position. I do believe that there are large areas of disability culture that purely involve the disabled, because of a level of shared experience – in the same way that we might talk about different cultures defined by ethnicity, or the culture within the LGBT community. There can be overlap between cultures certainly, and hopefully that will broaden understanding, but I believe it’s impossible to understand the totality of an experience which you do not share.

      I’m sorry that you find the word cripple offensive and divisive but as noted above (and you’d probably agree), taking offense is not an argument against a position or statement. Again if you think the word cripple and others like it aren’t used any more then I hate to be the one to rid you of that illusion.

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