This past weekend, I found myself walking into the the Brooklyn Academy of Music and staring up at a poster of a man with thalidomide-stunted limbs awash in bold primary colors.
I’d only heard about Cripfest a few days before, but had felt compelled to attend, not least because it had been organized by ONEOFUS, a radical production company run by American Horror Story: Freakshow’s Mat Fraser and artist Julie Atlas Muz. Billed as a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Cripfest brought together British and American activists, comedians, actors, dancers, musicians, and burlesque performers from across the disabled community for an all-day program of art, laughter, and solidarity (and nudity, lots of nudity!). As Fraser explained in a statement on the Cripfest website,
“Over the last 25 years since the ADA was passed, I’ve watched disabled artists mature, attain fantastic professional heights of accomplishment, and soar with their work creating brilliant, often game changing art. Why then in mainstream arts productions, do we mostly only see portrayals of disability that don’t reflect this reality? In that time many incredible disabled artists & their creative partners have made work, careers, reputations, and sometimes waves, producing work that shows our reality and thus all of Society, refusing to accept the stubbornly outmoded & negative media imaging of disabled people, but instead remould our understanding of Disability in our Society, fashion it into the vibrant, exciting, and inclusive World that we strive to live in, as we continue to critique, laugh at, and highlight the Disability experience.”
As I’ve mentioned here before, Fraser’s work on American Horror Story and the show itself (warts and all) had a profound effect on me, and I felt a tiny electric shock every time I glimpsed Fraser working the room or flashing a cheeky grin to someone. I never did suck up the courage to bop up and tell the nattily-attired Englishman just how much his work for disability awareness and crip pride has meant to me, but I did meet some incredible people, get to see The Spazms (Fraser’s new punk band with Eric Paluzak, who’s known better as Velvet Crayon) and UK comedian Laurence Clark’s biting riffs on being called “inspiring,” and avail myself of a blueberry-lemonade cocktail called the Gimp Guzzler (my friend Kristen preferred the chocolatey Inspiration Porn).
Everything from the cocktails to the dedicated wheelchair charging station made it clear that this was a safe space with a sense of humor about itself, and you may have deduced from its title that the word “crip” was a prominent part of the event. As tends to happen with words that’ve been used for centuries to disenfranchise, abuse, or outright kill off minority populations, “cripple” is controversial term within the disability community, and is largely seen as a pejorative, insulting term by many disabled individuals. “Crip,” though, has echoes of the LGBTQIA community’s takeback of the word “queer”—a reclamation, a transformation of an insult into a badge of pride. Not everyone in the disability community accepts the word or identifies as a crip, but personally, the word electrified me.
See, disabled people aren’t meant to address our disabilities, because it makes other people feel uncomfortable, and god forbid our existence inflicts a few minutes of awkwardness upon someone else’s day. My own disability is relatively minor but very visible, and whenever I refer to myself as a cripple, whether in jest or in moments of frustration, people recoil. They cannot accept it—they argue. When they respond with “No you’re not! You’re beautiful!” or “You know, it took me months to even notice,” I know that it’s well-intentioned, but honestly, it pisses me off. It’s like they’re offering me a cookie, saying “Oh, you’ve done such a good job of looking normal!” and I can’t help but wonder: Why can’t I be beautiful and crippled? And really, who says I’m all that concerned with looking pretty—wouldn’t it make more sense to compliment my typing skills, since I’ve got less fingers than the average writer?
True, I saw a lot of gorgeous people proudly waving the crip banner at this event, and hell yes, it was hugely empowering, but the way society anxiously reassures happily fat-identifying women that they’re just “curvy,” or tell some black women that they don’t “act black,” or tell disabled women that they’re “still beautiful” smacks of condescension and robs us of crucial parts of our identities.
While I was thinking about all this, I ran into my friend Kyle at the bar. He’s a fixture of the NYC metal community, and we share an interest in suspension and body modification, so it was nice to come across a familiar face in such an unfamiliar setting. He has cerebral palsy, and often uses crutches or a wheelchair to get around (I wish I could find a better photo of his last wheelchair suspension, but this one gives you an idea of how rad it looked). I decided to ask him how he feels about the word cripple.
“As George Carlin put it, I don’t go for the softening of words, you know what I mean? I like for things to be called what the fuck they are. I think cripple encapsulates something in its raw form. A lot of times, people will get to know us, and they may be friends or they may be relatives, but a lot of what we may get into as far as conversation about what we actually fucking deal with on a daily basis is surface-level shit. I feel like a lot of it is softening for other people’s comfort,” he explained.
“But ‘cripple’ completely covers a lot of the bases of the hardcore shit that we may deal with—whether it’s procedures, or medicine, or emotional things that we may go through in just dealing with society—so I appreciate calling things what they are. For me personally, as someone who’s into hardcore, heavy music, I like a hardcore, heavy term. So for myself, I’m all about it! When I fuck around with my other disabled friends and we joke, we’re real about shit with each other, and it definitely helps me deal with it better, knowing that I don’t have to hide things from my other friends who are also disabled. We can call it what it actually is and actually get humor out of it, rather than it being this taboo term. I think it’s kind of silly to take offense at something because of society’s connotations, when the original form of the word was just meant to be what it is. It is what it is, that’s it.”
I also spoke to José Alaniz, who is a former journalist and the program director for the University of Washington’s disability studies department. Alaniz writes on disability in Eastern Europe and in comics, and hopes to make bridges between cultures and the disabled and non-disabled communities. His thoughts on the word “cripple” circle back to the reclamation efforts that define so much of Cripfest’s mission.
“Cripple is an outdated term, and it’s a term that’s disparaging for many people; it’s like handicapped, which has also gone out of fashion. People try to reclaim the word, of course, with things like crip—so you can talk about somebody being a crip, and that’s like the way people use the word “queer,” where those people are reclaiming it,” he tells me. “That’s what Cripfest is all about. It’s about embracing your cripness, though some people don’t use the word crip, they use disabled or person with disabilities. It’s a very identity politics kind of model. One thing we talk a lot about in disability studies is how, for most of human history, disabled people were either monsters, or they were gods or representations of gods: they were wonderful beings, or they were terrifying beings, or they were beings to be pitied.
“And none of those models is really human. It’s only in the modern era, and really only since the 1970s, with the rise of disability rights, and in 1990 with the ADA, that you’ve begun to have this movement of people who embrace their differences—their physical differences, their mental differences—and where being a crip or being disabled is just about embracing your humanity. It’s about demanding to be taken as an equal, as a human being—which is what we all are—and trying not to be ashamed of difference. Everybody’s beautiful. You’re beautiful. It’s cool—we’re all beautiful!”
This time, being called “beautiful” didn’t bother me. The thought of being beautiful because of—not in spite of—an abnormality or injury or disability is still new to many of us, but it matters so much. That’s probably why the overall vibe at Cripfest was so joyful. Disabled people aren’t monsters, or magickal beings, or actors in anyone’s inspiration porn—we’re just trying to love ourselves and live our fucking lives. Thanks to the ADA and events like Cripfest, it’s getting a little easier.
Kim Kelly is a writer and music journalist based in New York City. She’s currently an editor at Noisey, and freelances for The Guardian, Vice, Spin, Rolling Stone, and more. Her favorite things in life are black tea and black metal.
Top image via Mat Fraser Twitter. All other images via Kim Kelly.