Accessibility and the Good Cripple

The Good Cripple archetype has been fascinating me lately, in part because I worked on several Bitch posts which involved this archetype and the ways in which it harms people with disabilities. The Good Cripple, of course, is the person with disabilities who never rocks the boat, never raises a fuss, never causes problems, doesn’t want to be a bother. The Good Cripple is stoic in the face of pain, cheerful in the face of adversity, and never, ever makes people feel uncomfortable with the very existence of disability. Good Cripples don’t confront or challenge.

It is my belief that the Good Cripple trope very much plays into accessibility issues. This is one of those situations in which both able and disabled folks have internalized values about disability because they have been consistently fed these values, and these internalized values feed into social attitudes, thus perpetuating the values. Oh, vicious cycle, how familiar you are.

For members of the able community, the Good Cripple is accepted as the “correct” model of disability. People with disabilities are expected to be models of patient suffering, cheerfulness, etc. In fact, there’s a subtle undercurrent which suggests that Bad Cripples do not deserve help or support. You need to be a Good Cripple in order to be entitled to social services, to charity (don’t get me started on charity), to being treated like you are a human being. This one dimensional model of disability, in which the person with disabilities is not actually allowed to have a personality or emotions, feels comfortable to able folk because it’s the model they are familiar with, and it’s the one which does not challenge their worldview.

For members of the disabled community, life is a series of constant reminders to be a better cripple. We shouldn’t make a nuisance of ourselves, we shouldn’t demand “special treatment,” we  should allow ourselves to be used for Special Learning Experiences, we should, above all, not cause any problems. We should not betray bitterness, unhappiness, pain, frustration, we should not have emotions which make other people feel uncomfortable. Definitely wouldn’t want to be…a bother.

So, how does this play into accessibility issues?

Great question.

Accessibility deniers can come up with a variety of creative reasons for refusing accommodations. It’s too expensive, it would take too much time, it’s ugly, it requires too much work, we don’t know how to do it, how many people with disabilities are there anyway, why should we be giving anyone special treatment, if we do this than everyone will be demanding that too, it’s not that important, it doesn’t matter, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, etc. One of the most telling excuses, though, is “well, no one brought it up.”

No one brought it up, we didn’t know it was an issue, no one said anything. Now, back in my more naive days, I thought to myself “this smells suspiciously like bull feces, and I know from bull feces.” In my more cynical maturity, though, I realize that it is literally true. There are a lot of cases in which no one is bringing up accessibility issues.

And that’s because of the Good Cripple paradigm.

People either don’t want to bring up accessibility because they have internalized the idea that they need to be Good Cripples, or because they don’t have the energy to get into a big fight about it. Everyone picks battles, and sometimes, the battle isn’t worth it. I’ll stop reading that inaccessible website because I don’t want to seem like a nuisance. I just won’t go to that business that I can’t access. I won’t ask for accommodations because that would be a bother, and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by bringing up accessibility problems. I just want people to like me and to be able to go about my business, so what if I have to engage in complicated detours to get my business done.

The bad cripples raise the stink. The bad cripples are the ones who point out accessibility issues, who call ahead before going places to see if they are accessible, who write angry letters, who force businesses to comply with at least the bare minimum of the law. The bad cripples kick up a fuss, a nuisance, make a mess. I wouldn’t want to be like one of them, attracting all that attention.

This, then, feeds accessibility deniers. They can rest content that they have done everything they have been asked to do, because the Good Cripple archetype ensures that they are unlikely to be asked to do much of anything at all. Or, if they are asked, it’s by one of those Activist Agitator types, and no one would fault the accessibility denier for not ceding to unreasonable demands from one of Those Types. You know the ones. The bothers. The Nuisances. The ones who can’t just settle down and accept the way the world works.

The ones who are Never Satisfied. Those Bad Cripples that just don’t appreciate how much is done for them.

And the cycle continues.

18 thoughts on “Accessibility and the Good Cripple

  1. I encounter this all the time.

    I ended up not being able to take the emotional stress of being in an offline community because of this dynamic. There was an autistic person there. He was more capable of doing daily living sort of stuff than I was. He wanted to live on his own. The services existed in the area to help him do that. But his parents instead started a group home and forced him to live in it while getting all weepy about how he would “never live on his own”. Like most people in such circumstances, he became incredibly passive. And his parents were very controlling. And they had lots of status in that community.

    I entered into that dynamic as an outsider and definitely a bad cripple. I didn’t put up with, you see, things like having loads of strangers grab my wheelchair without asking and hoisting me into the wheelchair-inaccessible building. (Good white middle class able bodied liberals, all of them, gack.) I didn’t let them tell me what to do. They told me I would really like this gimp who left the community years ago, who was “really into” things like access (they treated it as a hobby).

    And… Wow. The good/bad stuff. When those parents. Talked over my speech synthesizer loudly because they knew it didn’t have the volume to fight back. When I tried to talk about social justice issues. Because. It. Was. Upsetting. Their. Son. Omgwtfbbq. Can’t have that. Couldn’t possibly be that I brought it up because it upset me too and I wanted something done about it other than sitting around wallowing in emotions. Then they took me aside and told me how sad it was that their son could never do thus-and-such that I was doing with support despite less aptitude for it than he had. But of course they wouldn’t actually do anything, they would just sit there and obstruct him from achieving his goals while whining about how he would never achieve them. (And lest I think I was wrong about this, I ran it by several people who knew the family and they had the same assessment.) Oh and did I mention these were the particular strain of good liberals who think anger is a sin and every problem can be solved by sitting around having something similar to group therapy (which triggers terror and flashbacks for me) until the emotions are calmed or suppressed even if nothing has really changed?

    And it only got worse from there. Simply to show up brought my adrenaline through the roof, stomach felt like glass shards, head whirling. Which took a toll physically as well as emotionally. Until I just had to stay away. Couldn’t take always having to be the bad one just to achieve a fraction of the rights everyone else had by default. While someone else who had been emotionally bludgeoned into a kind of passivity all to familiar to me, was the good one because passivity is wonderful in disabled folks.

    Yes, I know the bad cripple dynamic well.

  2. The bad cripple in college lets her mom do some of the work.

    Last November, the heat was terrible in the room – fan, window, nothing helped. Sleep was impossible.

    So I called Res Life. “It’s 80 F in my room, I need to lay down, who do I call?” (I keep a thermometer in my room a lot because well I don’t know if it’s me or the room. So I knew the exact number.)

    I said I was sick, I had to lay down. I was told to fix it myself after getting the runaround.

    Cue super angry mom – I didn’t know this until today, but apparently they finally gave her the right number when she threatened to sic Disability Services on them. I can’t believe I forgot to use that.

    The bad cripple also annoys her TAB sister by asking things like “How do people in wheelchairs* get to class?” (Apparently one building is only accessible by steep stairs… and there are no people in wheelchairs (visible PWDs) at my sister’s school!)

    *I realize that people who use wheelchairs aren’t the only ones with stair problems, but keeping it simple is the best tactic.

  3. The good cripple college student –

    does not tell her roommate where to go when she complains about “sleep[ing] too much”

    sits in an uncomfortable chair for an hour or more because “it’s not that bad, I’ve been worse off” (and is worried about one class which doesn’t have room for a table for me to sit at when I’m having a bad day – I did that in one class last year – completely isolated from the other students, but I had some comfort.)

  4. Long live bad crips! May there be many more of them! Amanda makes the point that not only is being a “good Crip” bad for the person concerned, it also does huge damage to other disabled people, making the “bad crips” jobs even harder. I guess if we were all honest we could say that we have all been both at some time or other simply because it can be such hard work being “bad.” I do try to be as bad as I can though!

  5. @Liz and The Untoward Lady: Reminds me when there were deliberations about having a train line from Athens, GA to Atlanta. (For the non-USians, those are the home of the state’s biggest college and the state capital– and public transit options are limited, with the only options being 2 Greyhound buses a day and an airport shuttle that’s $45 each way.)

    Anyway, during this process, the state Speaker of the House referred to this project as a “train from nowhere to nowhere”… thus insulting the residents of both Athens and Atlanta in one fell swoop. (And particularly any non-drivers who wanted to get between the two cities, myself included…)

  6. I needed to hear this. I try to be the “Good Cripple” – futile and energy-consuming, yes, but I have yet to overcome that internalized ableism – and, honestly, I can’t do it anymore. This is exactly what I needed to hear about becoming the “Bad Cripple”, and how this is not a bad thing. Telling authorities that the campus is inaccessible? Asking for extensions because I couldn’t get out of bed? Being “ungrateful” enough to wish that my university was designed with PWD in mind, instead of ad hoc modifications that may or may not work? These do not make a bad person – these make me a person with a disability.

  7. I am a bad cripple.

    My law school put in electric door openers on our newer building because I raised a ruckus my first year – I can’t tell you how many emails I sent, or how often I asked the dean if anything had been done yet. I made a nuisance of myself. And now I can get into that building unassisted.

    I’m not always that ‘bad’, and it wears me out when I have to do a lot of advocating, but…well, sometimes it works. And even ‘sometimes’ makes it worth fighting for.


  8. Thanks so much for this. I have been *bad* lately, ;), but brand new medical facilities shouldn’t be wholly inaccessible, even if they magically did pass an ADA audit, even if no wheelchair will fit.

  9. Well written!
    Reminds me of the old phrase, “Rarely do well behaved women make history.”
    Change a couple words and you have it – Rarely do bad crips make change

    I’m am neither – I do not have a disability but I worked with people who did for a couple of years way back when they weren’t acknowledged let alone given access. For me it became an issue of ‘sensitivity.’ If you choose to become unaware of someone else’s situation – and you then what good are you?

  10. I believe that the bad cripples are the ones that end up making life better for anyone out there living with a disability~if it weren’t for them speaking up things wouldn’t change for the better for the majority. The world would just keep on with their own lives and conveniently turn away from anyone else’s issues. My son is 15, soon to be 16 and has Autism. He is very independent and I am working towards him one day having a life on his own. Not for me, because it will be harder on me letting him fly~ but for his sake. Just because he has Autism, doesn’t mean he isn’t entitled to the same quality of life as anyone else. It has been a hard road at times, I have had to be his advocate more than his mother on occasion. I have no problem doing whatever is necessary though, you see I am most likely viewed as one of the “super angry moms” by administrators, teachers in the school system, and many others who have encountered us along our journey thus far in life. So, my hat’s off to all of you who won’t just settle into a passive role to make everyone else feel comfortable. You are all helping to pave a better road for anyone with a disability. Keep fighting the good fight~you truly are appreciated and admired for it~

  11. These observations are right on! I tend to try to advocate, but it gets exhausting and there are many times when I feel guilty for my advocacy. Accepting something for myself, getting my needs met, it just feels so selfish. And yet all I’m asking for is the ability to participate fully in life. It takes a lot of effort to remember that, especially when you add in psychiatric conditions.

  12. And then there’s a whole other dimension of shame and discrimination that has to do with mental rather than physical barriers: mental illness. To even admit our disability risks really ugly labels such as moral bankruptcy not just for us but for everyone around us. The stigma is almost overwhelming to keep silent.

  13. Thanks so much for this article, I am in Germany, autistic myself and have some other probs related to having had a brian hemorrhage.
    Public transport here is no problem they have worked on this, so I have a chance to get out of town at least twice a day (in contrary to not getting out there at all by train)
    Public buildings are getting better, too. Free choice of doctors still is a challenge for me though, since their practices are a sensory overload for me most of the times and when I had an appointment a day, I am drowned for the remainder of that day and the one following.

    So I tend to make a fuss out of every little thing, that I think, could be changed.

    Being a “bad” cripple has become second nature, since being the suffering victim of the big and very contagious disease called conformism did not fit me.

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