Guest Ableist Word Profile: Crutch

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

Sasha_feather is a science fiction/fantasy fan and anti-oppression activist. She is a contributor to Access Fandom

Dr. Kerry Weaver from the US television show 'ER', a white woman using a forearm crutch, text provided by Sasha Feather
Image: Dr. Kerry Weaver from the US television show ‘ER’, a white woman using a forearm crutch

Has anyone ever told you that you are using something as a crutch? Have you ever used this metaphor yourself as a pejorative?

What do people mean when they use this metaphor?

The metaphor implies that crutches are universally bad and that they prevent the user from moving onto the next stage of development.

There are underlying messages within this attitude that one should rely upon the self and not be using outside help or tools to deal with problems. All of this is ableist, and falls in line with similar prejudices against medications. If you cannot support yourself, well then, there must be something morally wrong with you: this is the message of our ableist society.

Crutches are assistive technology; they are tools. While it is true that tools can sometimes cause harm, tools are not essentially bad. I think most people would agree that tools are good things. Often tools such as crutches are the products of many years of innovation, design, engineering, and human ingenuity. People with disabilities often rely on tools more than fully able-bodied people do to help us navigate and live in the world. Crutches and canes are mainly useful for helping people to walk. They have other uses too. If you watch the US television show “House”, you might observe Dr. House using his cane for a variety of other creative purposes, such as a reaching device.

The metaphor of “crutch” can be reclaimed by using it as a positive metaphor. Some examples of this:

“I appreciated having creative projects to do as a crutch to help me through the grieving process.”

“I handed out fliers at a recent event. They were a good crutch for helping me go up and talk to people I don’t know.”

If you are looking for another metaphor to use for a tool that a person uses for a short time before moving onto the next stage of development, I suggest using “training wheels”.

15 responses to “Guest Ableist Word Profile: Crutch”

  1. Jesse the K

    Not only a trenchant analysis of the disabling metaphor, but an effective substitute: training wheels for the win!
    .-= Jesse the K´s last blog ..Quantum Entanglement: Fashion Emergency #33 =-.

  2. Anna

    I’ve really enjoyed the conversations we’ve had about this subject, Sasha. Thanks for being willing to write this up! :)
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Just a friendly reminder =-.

  3. Ang

    You bring up an interesting point about how people in general view assistive technology. It’s like how someone ‘having to be fed through a tube’ or ‘needing machines to survive’ is seen as the most dire, appalling and pitiable state imaginable. Well, screw that. I’m fed through a tube. I need a machine to survive. And I have to say that my life’s been a lot better with those assistive technologies than it would’ve been without. People see such things as limitations, yet a crutch is something that lets someone be ambulatory; a wheelchair is something that lets someone move around smoothly, and so on and so forth… I wonder how much of it has to do with people’s fears of ageing, and with ageism overall in society… intersection again, huh?
    .-= Ang´s last blog ..The ‘hello’ post. =-.

  4. Naamah

    One gets the “crutch” thing so much in reference to brain meds, lord. And I do, I shoot right back with “And just like you probably wouldn’t consider NOT using a crutch or a cane if you had an injured leg, I’m not going to consider NOT using my meds, thanks. And by the way, I will need these forever. Crutches, that’s sort of implying it’s temporary. It’s not. I’m comfortable with that, are you?”

    This particular one pisses me off so much, largely because of the implication that not only is the thing being called a “crutch” a sign of weakness in itself, which is of course a Bad Thing, but that actual crutches are not good and useful things.

    My left leg was injured a while back, and the pain it gives me is never going to go away, and will probably only get worse. I am looking FORWARD to having a cane or crutch or something, not just because I can whack annoying people with it but because it’s nice to know that if I am going to have pain, I will at least have a tool waiting for me to help me deal with that pain.

  5. Kaz

    This post is awesome! And, yeah, total agreement. Why exactly is a crutch supposed to be a bad thing, again?
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..You are now looking at an Officially Official Aspie (TM) =-.

  6. Sasha_feather

    Thank you for your nice comments everyone! Ang, great point about feeding tubes and machines. Often these technologies enable us, rather than disable us, and I like your point about ageism. Sometimes people think canes make a person seem old, or wheelchairs are OK for older people but not for younger ones. Often people equate illness and disability with age, when in fact a lot of younger folks have disabilities too, and some older folks do not. Your comment helped me think that through, so thanks.

  7. antarcticlust

    This is such a great post! I am an able-bodied person who used crutches for eight weeks to help a hip injury heal, and that experience was a huge Disability and Access 101 for me. So not only do crutches have positive/helpful/healing connotations, but I also remember them fondly because they opened my eyes about access privilege.

    I love the idea of reclaiming the metaphor and making it positive!

  8. Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.

    “. . . I can whack annoying people with it.”

    Yes! One of the better uses of my crutches and canes since 1959.
    .-= Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.´s last blog ..Disturbed patient, disturbing therapy by St. Cloud psychologist | StarTribune.com =-.

  9. Rosemary

    I like the training wheels thing, and you know, training wheels aren’t bad things, either. So even if people who say “you’re using that as a crutch” in the negative sense switched to training wheels, they’d STILL be wrong! So there. :P
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..2009 Fall TV =-.

  10. anthea

    Great post, though as someone for whom training wheels were a temporary stage on the path to the realisation that I never would ride a bike without them, I have mixed feelings about your suggested use of that term. I’ve blogged about it here
    .-= anthea´s last blog ..Training Wheels =-.

  11. Sasha_feather

    Rosemary and anthea, excellent points. Thank you! I like your idea, anthea, of “training” as being something where you work out what works for yourself and your own body, rather than going along the path that is assumed will work for everyone. What a great concept.

  12. Rosemary

    anthea – I was never able to figure out how to ride a bike. It’s strange how much shame can be attached to that, but there it is. I liked your post on the subject.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..2009 Fall TV =-.

  13. Jesse the K

    …and if we’re searching for a metaphor with the negative valence that Sasha’s critiquing, how about permanent scaffold. Scaffolds exist for repair or refurbishing. A permanent scaffold hides or renders pointless the thing it surrounds.
    .-= Jesse the K´s last blog ..With Glee! as a news hook, mainstream media acknowledges actors with disabilities =-.

  14. Sasha_feather

    I wanted to thank everyone again for the all the awesome comments here. Forward is such an awesome blog with awesome commenters! I really appreciated the opportunity to write this article.

  15. abby jean

    sasha – don’t forget our awesome guest posters!!

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