Crip Politics? Just … No – The Feminist Wire

Crip Politics? Just … No

By Mark Sherry

I have spent most of the last 20 years working with two main groups of disabled people: brain injury survivors and people who’ve been the victims of disability hate crimes.  I’ve had the privilege of working with, talking to, and advocating alongside about 5000 people in that time, mainly in Australia and the United States. Among those people, I could count on one hand the number of people who call themselves “crip” or want to be called “crip” by others.

Those who do choose the term “crip” as an identity tend to be privileged people. “Crip” is the new fashionable term among disability studies academics. It has become particularly trendy among those whose focus is literary studies.  However, I think that if they spent more time with disabled people, and less time thinking about disability in terms of textual analysis and narrative, they would have a different perspective.

This is not hard.  Find the women at your local domestic violence shelter and ask if any have suffered a concussion or brain injury as a result of domestic violence.  Listen to their gut-wrenching, painful stories. Feel their pain. And at the end of it, ask them “Now, do you mind if I call you crip from now on?”

Go to a meeting of your local People First organization, where those with cognitive impairments meet and support each other. You don’t have to even ask anyone whether they would mind if you used the term “crip.” Just listen to the noticeable absence of such terms in their discussions. They will talk about disability politics – about rights, responsibilities, and relationships – but they won’t use such a trite, trendy cliché as “crip politics.”

Or go to the local homeless shelter. Get to know the people there over time, as they won’t trust you if they’ve never seen you before. Learn about their personal histories. You can bet they will have been assaulted; hate crime and homelessness go together. And if you want to find out whether they’ve had mental illness, be very careful how you approach the topic. These are vulnerable people we are talking about. Socially isolated, impoverished, and struggling for basic survival. Learn to appreciate their dignity. If you call any one of them a “crip,” it’s you who was lost dignity, not them.

Go speak with people who are applying (and have possibly been rejected for) Social Security Disability. Disability benefits are not evenly distributed among the community, which affects poor people of color the most. Go to one of the community agencies for people of color in Los Angeles and ask the people, “Are you a crip?”  You’ll offend every one of them.

Crip Politics

Presidential guards perform their ceremonial walk near prosthetics placed by Greeks with disabilities in front of the Greek parliament during a protest against new austerity measures on International Day of Persons with Disabilities in Athens. (Reuters)

That’s because the term “crip” has a long history – one that is racialized, classed, gendered, and gang- related. Being a “crip” is not a metaphor of being a ‘bad ass’ disabled person, as many privileged academics seem to assume. It’s an actual gang, and people who’ve made deliberate choices to avoid the violence of street life deserve respect and recognition for not being a crip.

For a privileged (usually White) disabled academic, calling oneself a “crip” might seem radical, if not trendy. But using such a term in the context of the safety of academia masks enormous embodied, classed, gendered, sexualized, racialized privilege.

This sense of using the term “crip” to mask privilege has struck me since I first heard the term in Robert McRuer’s book Crip Theory (2006). Realizing he was the only representative of queer studies and disability studies at an AIDS conference, he decided to “come out crip.” McRuer states “I came out as HIV-positive. I’m not, as far as I know, HIV-positive” (p.53).

It would have been far more powerful and ethical for McRuer to bring disabled people and those with AIDS alongside him to the meeting and to ensure that they had a place at the table. Or he could have organized a boycott of the meeting, given its exclusionary nature. But that would not have placed so much emphasis on “crip” as a performative practice. It would have demanded honesty, openness, respect, dialogue, and a recognition of privilege.

Privilege – that’s what the discussion of “crip” politics is always missing. It’s what so many academics have, and so few disabled people actually experience.

Being disabled is always fraught with danger. There is an ever-present danger of unemployment, poverty, social isolation, prejudice, violence, abuse, and hate crime. There is the difficulty of dealing with social welfare agencies and government bureaucracies, which exhaust and dehumanize you. Even if you get the disability pension, there is the ever-present threat of neoliberal cutbacks, or changes to social security policies that might see you lose your pension. People may spy on you to see if (they think) you are “truly disabled.”

Crip Politics

While many people will share their life stories, their hardships, triumphs, and tribulations with researchers, very few would speak with someone who told them, at the outset, “I write about crip politics.” This shows a massive disparity between the newly-emerging language of disability studies in the U.S., and the lived experiences of disabled people.

The British social model has been criticized at length for its simplistic impairment/disability divide. People’s lived experiences, their identities, and their embodiment are far too complex for such a simple binary. But what has been forgotten, in the rush to move away from the British model, is that these concepts came from a deep engagement with disabled people. It was a disability organization which came up with the impairment/disability divide: the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation.

U.S. disability studies has no such community bulwark against which to measure its key concepts and terms. If a concept in disability studies – such as “crip” theory – can gain such wide usage in the academy alongside such disparagement in the community, there is a need to change the academy.

McRuer is right – nondisabled people can choose to call themselves “crip.”  Doing so is a performative act; and disabled people usually lack the social resources to control what their nondisabled peers do.

But claiming a “crip” identity as a nondisabled person is not a sign of being “radical.” It is a sign of being out of touch, of being privileged and feeling empowered to claim other people’s experiences as your own. This could be avoided if disability studies in the U.S. worked in closer partnership with a wide variety of disabled people in the community.

That is not to deny that some disabled people do actively call themselves “crip.” But a genuine engagement with the wide representation of disabled people in the community – those affected by blindness, deafness, learning disabilities, intellectual impairments, neurodiversity, brain injuries, and psychiatric symptoms – would show that very few disabled people in this setting identify themselves as “crip.”

So if the term alienates so many of the people it is supposed to represent, what is its attraction? Partly, there is academic trendiness: new lingo is always seen as a sign of intellectual growth. It’s also a second-wave phenomenon: the basic premise of disability studies (that disabled people have different experiences which are often ignored, sidelined, or excluded) has been fairly well established. Second-generation theorists want to develop new concepts, explore new fields, and challenge the canons of the first wave.

This is fine to a certain degree, but this particular form of identity politics is deeply problematic. It is inherently rooted in physicalism. Physical impairments are simply one among many; there is no justification for prioritizing a term associated with their embodiment and their politics as opposed to any other. The discursive links between “crip” and “cripple” are dense and difficult; but that connection could be widely made and would alienate people who do not have physical impairments. It would be akin to imposing a “survivor” discourse on all disabled people – it may work for some people, such as brain injury survivors, cancer survivors, and psychiatric system survivors – but it would not resonate with others, such as people with congenital impairments, sensory impairments, neurodiverse people, and so on. There is no ethical justification for imposing this mode of representation on people with quite dissimilar bodies, minds, senses, and experiences.

Crip Politics

People with physical impairments have long been at the top of the disability hierarchy.  It is through their advocacy and political power that the universal sign for accessibility includes the image of a wheelchair. This pedagogical move – to center disability theorizing around a problematic notion most closely associated physical impairment – is equally disempowering for the vast majority of disabled people, who do not have physical impairments.

It is important to remember, however, that it is not all people with physical impairments who have dominated the politics and representation of disability. Far from it. Once again, it has been a question of privilege. While male wheelchair users dominated (at least the early stages) the independent living movement, the concerns of disabled women (particularly around abuse, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and hate crimes) have been far less prominent on the disability movement’s agenda. The concerns of people of color who are wheelchair users (concerns which include police brutality, safe and affordable public housing, opposition to government economic policies which create ghettos) are still barely acknowledged in either the disability movement or disability studies.

The promise of the disability movement is one that should excite everyone with a passion for social justice and equality – it involves valuing human diversity in all its myriad forms, seeing the interconnections between us all, working to reduce the barriers that unfairly limit the rights of some people, and creating a world where everyone can access and utilize society’s resources.

But that promise will not be possible if disability studies, or disability advocates, attach themselves to a discourse that so many disabled people find alienating, even oppressive. “Crip” politics may be a trendy terminology among privileged academics right now, but disabled people cannot afford the luxury of gambling on jargonistic fads to secure themselves social justice.

“Cripistemologies” may be appealing for academics who are interested in the power of a performative utterance and the viability of transgression. But imposing such an epistemological framework on disabled people is the height of disrespect. They don’t agree with it; they don’t want it; they (generally) find it oppressive or offensive.

This is the value of grounded research: millions of disabled people who would love to share their stories, to talk about what it is like to struggle at school, to share what it is like to be relentlessly bullied, or to discuss their worries about finding or keeping romantic partners. Millions more would love help in getting a job, or getting a better job. Others are desperate to find suitable, safe, housing, and would gladly share their stories about finding housing in return for assistance with applications, or help finding a better place to live. This – ideally – is the promise of disability studies. That it can be a positive force in the lives of disabled people, sharing the resources that are available to students and faculty with a community which is impoverished and socially excluded. That conception of disability studies – as an active agent for social change and equality – will not come easily. There will be serious resistance to it, from those with vested interests in the disability community and in disability studies. But that must be the challenge before us.

So, the next time I am exhausted from the community advocacy I do – with victims of hate crimes, or with brain injury survivors – and someone starts talking with me about “crip politics” – please understand when I say “Just … no.”


McRuer, R. (2006) Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability,  New York, NY: New York University Press.


Mark SherryMark Sherry is a brain injury survivor and Associate Professor of Sociology at The University of Toledo. His community advocacy has been focused on brain injury and disability hate crimes. His most recent book, Disability Hate Crimes: Does Anyone Really Hate Disabled People?, was published by Ashgate in 2010.  Prior to that, he had published If I Only Had A Brain: Deconstructing Brain Injury with Routledge in 2006.


  1. Sarah Einstein

    November 23, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I’m deeply confused–or perhaps troubled–by the penultimate paragraph, which seems to suggest a capital exchange: that the ultimate promise of Disability Studies is best realized when those persons with disabilities who “share their stories” would be paid/rewarded/something with “assistance with applications, or help finding a better place to live.” I’m afraid I don’t understand how this is not 1. an obvious commodification of the voices or persons with disabilities and 2. an argument against systems change in favor of helping some, but not all, persons with disabilities. I would love clarification. I hate disagreeing with allies in what is a long and difficult struggle!

  2. katerina kolarova

    November 23, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    First, many thanks to Feminist Wire for bringing several pieces on disability studies and disability politics. As a feminist disability scholar myself, I really appreciate that FW opens itself to new intersections and alliance-work. As much as I appreciate the offer to problematise the cultural currency and capital DS as a field is gaining, I cannot not comment on Mark Sherry’s piece, or rather his condescending tone and disrespect towards different politics and theoretical vocabulary. It is not the content of his argument, per say, that I want to address here (though I do find the argumentation over-simplistic, unjust and foreclosing further conversation). Rather, I take issue with Sherry’s ethic and location. Sherry critiques “privileged” academics for assuming the voice of, speaking for and over disabled people. Yet, this is precisely what he does. He opens the article by claiming to have worked with over 5000 disabled people and by implication, talking for them and on their behalf in a way that merely authorizes his own voice.
    He appropriates the “metaphoric” women suffering from domestic violence and by doing so, he participates in a long history of gendered symbolic violence that carries its own hurt and violence, turning women into objects of discourse.  Closing by “So, the next time I am exhausted from the community advocacy I do” only underwrites the rather frail ethical footing of the article. Despite the fact that he sets out to deconstruct the privilege of (some) white male authors, Sherry speaks precisely from this privileged position. Is this the feminist work?
    I do value discussions about different politics and different framings, especially as we, as activists and academics, see disability studies taking a transnational/global turn. We will need to explore the different ways that disability experiences are being articulated and politicitized in different locations. Yet, I would call for respect for and recognition of different politics and different approaches, we need all of them.

  3. Katie

    November 24, 2013 at 12:22 am

    As a disabled, autistic woman from a poor/working class background who has learning and psychiatric disabilities and works within the realm of disability studies, occasionally using the term “crip” to describe herself and her work, I must congratulate Mark Sherry on flattening my existence into a convenient binary of academic-disabled person. Of course, such errors in representation are to be expected; as Sherry notes, privileged academics do so struggle with conveying the lived realities of disabled people.

  4. Corbett Joan OToole

    November 24, 2013 at 1:33 am

    Thank you Mark for a refreshing challenge to existing limitations in Disability Studies. While I embrace the term “crip” on a personal level, your article gives me pause about how my use of that term, even when limited to myself, embodies my own white, physically disabled privilege.

    • John Kelly

      November 25, 2013 at 9:40 pm

      I join Corbett in my appreciation of this article. I have noticed something similar, that non-physically disabled people don’t use the term. But at least in my social circle of mostly physically disabled folks, we use the word all the time. And while we’ve been in academia, we are not now. It’s my fun in-group term.

  5. Matthew Smith

    November 24, 2013 at 4:57 am

    The term crip comes from cripple, which always was a term used to refer to people who are physically disabled, not people with learning difficulties, which is why you won’t hear it at a People First meeting – it’s just never a term they’ve associated with themselves. And in most parts of the world the Crips gang has never operated, so people will use it freely without considering that association.

  6. Carolyn Tyjewski

    November 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    As a woman who is blind, has TBI, otherwise and multiply disabled lesbian that has been involved in activism both within the Disabled community and other minority communities, it would appear to me that Sherry misses a large chunk of historical facts about society. First, most people within any given minority community (particularly towards the beginning of that community’s move towards civil rights) tend to believe, like the larger society, the negative things said about them, towards them, etc. Even after a civil rights movement takes place, the societal beliefs tend to be believed by those both in and outside of the minority community. It is one of the many reasons why, for example, African American police officers will also racially profile. In regards to disability, what we know about those who survive accidents, for example, that leave them quadriplegic is that it is not uncommon for that individual to, initially, feel depressed and “less than” but, over time, become less so. In fact, studies show that they rate their quality of life at the same level and the non-disabled rate their quality of life. So, it is not surprising that the grand majority of the people you meet in support groups don’t think well of themselves or their situations… they’re in support groups. Further, this group is not likely to be involved in the Disability Civil Rights Movement. History demonstrates that most people weren’t involved in the commonly referred Civil Rights Movement, are not involved with the movement towards Gay Marriage or LGBT rights, etc. However, unlike people of color and the LGBT community (more the former and less so the latter), one is less likely to see a dislike of self based on a disability identity. Even some within DS have admitted to these feelings prior to the moment of their work (ex. Rosemarie Garland Thomson). So, a little historical and sociological knowledge and context goes a long way.

    As for naming, different people within all communities (particularly minority communities) have different opinions about different names that float around within the community. I, for example, refer to myself as a Blind Dyke and, many are horrified that I call myself that. This does not mean I call others that or that I feel it is appropriate to do so. At the same time, what we know (again, based on social movement history) is that many communities take a “negative” name and reclaim it in some form or fashion as part of the community’s effort to change the status quo. For example, the reclamation of “queer,” “Black is beautiful,” etc., were all reclamation projects that many, within these respective communities cringed at but they served a political purpose.

    This is not to discount the criticism of McCruer’s behavior (his performance); it is a blackface of another form. Robert should know better but, well, he likes performance. And, well, literary analysis is his field; so, it stands to reason he does things related to literary theory. In other words, it makes no sense that a professor of English would or should do sociological research anymore than it makes sense for a sociologist to act like he knows what literary theory does…. I understand and agree with the criticism of Robert (believe I’ve told him before) does not give one license to act, equally, like the fool. There is a way to do DS without performing disability, as McCruer does and most within DS do just that — a good chunk within the field are disabled by the way (one should really avoid able-bodied assumption). While I’ll be the first to admit (and have been one of the first to scream — been yelling at them for over a decade) that DS stays way too white, upper class privileged in its examination of the subject matter, one should probably think about one’s positionality and what socialized beliefs one swallowed in order to write this piece in a manner than denied several known sociological concepts that explain people’s behaviors with regard to their socialization and their perceptions of their own community and personal identity/experience.

    All that said, before one lays judgement about a field, one should really understand what the field does in its entirety. DS is not rehab or therapy — which tend to promote the status quo (that disability, and, thereby, disabled people, are wrong and must be fixed) — anymore than African American and African or Ethnic Studies is the study of how people of color are inherently wrong and in need of fixing. DS, like these other minority studies fields, studies the subject based upon the notion that disability is not the problem but, rather, that society’s behavior toward disabled people is the problem. In other words, the grand majority of the field examines things like institutionalized discrimination, hate crimes, laws and public policies, economics, etc. that are designed in a manner that specifically and negatively impact disabled people. And just like other minority studies fields, DS also does literary analysis; it is, after all, an interdisciplinary field.

    Yes, the field does not do enough work that complicates these issues in a manner that takes into account things like race and, admittedly, some don’t because they think that mysogyny is the “worse” thing and/or ablism is the “worse” thing (or a combination of the two). And, yes, these professors need to be corrected, to put it mildly. However, in order to help with this correction, one must actually know what one is talking about before one speaks. Discussing strictly Robert’s work and the handful who do performance theory as if it is representative of the entirety of the field says more about what one doesn’t know than what is wrong with the field.

    Without a doubt, there are problems with the field (I can’t think of a field that isn’t without an abundance of classism, racism, sexism, etc.) AND, in order to make the criticism have some teeth, one needs to have the knowledge to do the critique…. As a professor, one should know better than to write something so incredibly uninformed.

  7. Rachel

    November 25, 2013 at 1:32 am

    Thank you for this article, Mark. I am a disabled person who serves disabled people who are homeless and hungry. I am constantly aware of the divide between my work in disability theory and culture as a graduate student, and my work out in the world with people whose needs go far beyond most of what I read about in disability studies. It’s not that I don’t respect and enjoy what comes out of academia; I do, very much. I love your work; I love McRuer’s work; I love a great deal of what I read.

    The problem is that the divide between DS and the people I serve is so very deep and wide. The folks on the street need accessible housing, accessible workplaces, reliable support staff, food, clothing, medical care, refuge, safety, and respect, respect, respect. I am not seeing their needs articulated very much in DS. I find this divide to be more important than terminology discussions. I don’t care if people call themselves crips or people with disabilities or anything else. I care about what their lives look like when they’re done describing themselves.

  8. Rob Spirko

    November 25, 2013 at 2:50 am

    While I disagree with some of this article, for reasons that previous posters have mentioned, I think it can serve as a valuable challenge to academics to think through how their work in disability studies connects to activities that will help people.

    One key area that hasn’t been mentioned is teaching. To add to what Carolyn said above about minority studies fields, one contribution that disability studies can make is to educate people, disabled and non-disabled alike, about the issues facing people with disabilities, and help them reconceptualize what they consider as “normal.” I’m in literary studies myself, and you can see that cultural work going on in a number of classes in our department on gender or ethnicity in literature.

    Of course, many academics with an activist bent want to see our teaching as activism. And that can be a little too easy to do–it’s easy to get self-congratulatory and convince yourself you’re doing more than you are. Teaching is not activism, and it is not advocacy. But it is an important component of the total package, along with scholarship. To my mind, it helps create the conditions under which people can become activists, advocates, and allies. And scholarship informs teaching, activism, and advocacy. Seems to me like we need it all.

    So, yes, by all means, enjoin us to produce scholarship and teaching that lends itself to helping advocates and activists. Prod us to disseminate that scholarship in forms that are more accessible (in every sense of that word).

    If the argument is that “crip” turns people off of scholarship, and is thus not useful from your point of view, then that’s a fair point. Let’s have a discussion on reclamation vs. offense. But it seems like this piece is more invested in setting up an “us vs. them” dichotomy, pitting the authentic, virtuous, and non-academic (with a few noble academic champions) against the “vested interests” smoking cigars in the boardrooms of disability studies. I don’t buy that picture.

  9. Jesse the K

    November 25, 2013 at 10:19 am

    I come from community activism and self-study. The genius of disability rights is, as Sherry puts it, valuing human diversity in all its myriad forms, seeing the interconnections between us all, working to reduce the barriers that unfairly limit the rights of some people, and creating a world where everyone can access and utilize society’s resources.

    I personally deal with physical, cognitive, and mental impairments. For me “crip” reinforces the notion that “disability really means wheelchair (or visible physical impairment, at least).” In recent conversations with disability studies scholars, I’ve heard “psychocrip” and “headcrip” proposed as more relevant names for those of us with mental impairments.

    It is hard enough for people to crawl through their internalized disablism to reach a disabled identity, where they can make use of, or even think themselves deserving, accommodation. I reject “crip” as a reclaimed term because it increases the divisions among us, along existing fault lines.

    • Rob Spirko

      November 26, 2013 at 12:21 am

      Your criticisms of “crip” seem like good ones. I’m curious if anyone can articulate a pro-“crip” argument, an argument in favor of reclaiming the word.

      • Carolyn Tyjewski

        November 26, 2013 at 8:09 am


        Anyone who has been part of the Disability Civil Rights movement for any length of time can tell you the argument has been around (and the term used) since at least the late 1980s. The Ragged Edge had several essays within its publications during the early 1990s; I believe New Mobility had some as well. There’s Crip Zen and at least one other book out by Milan (although I can’t remember the name). Pushing the Limits and a whole host of other collections of disability literature (i.e. Disabled writers, poets, etc.) have articulated rationale for reclaiming the word in one form or another.

        While, personally, I’m not sold on the argument that reclamation projects work, the logic behind the project is the same regardless of the group (and/or term) being reclaimed. So, whether we speak of the reclamation of “queer” or “crip,” the reason or rationale for the reclamation project is the same.

        Someone who believes more firmly in this than I do can probably explain it better than I but the idea is to change the group’s perception of self as well as the rest of society by refusing to see the word as a put down. “We’re here and we’re queer,” for example, was used to say, basically, we aren’t ashamed of who we are and not ashamed to claim the name society wishes to use deride/shame us. Reclaiming “crip” could be seen as doing the same type of action. And, just like the “We’re here and we’re queer” movement did, many within the community we’re upset by the use of the term because they still felt shamed by the term and felt it reinforced (rather than questioned) the meaning.

  10. Sal

    November 25, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    so…just to be clear…. “the lived experiences of disabled people” does not include those who identify as crip–especially if they’re finding a way in the academy? others have said it better in response to this article–but thanks for your own ironically exclusionary piece m.s.

  11. John Kelly

    November 26, 2013 at 11:35 am

    It’s an in-group term, and use of it implies a critical understanding on the part of the speaker, that the person is up to speed on disability both as a social construct and a fun identity to embrace. My take away though is to critically think about its usage in any venue where it might be taken as a global term, and not to use it as a way to exclude people who have not thought about disability in the way I have.

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  13. Jennifer Bartlett

    December 22, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve never met a person with a disability who enjoyed societal privilege. Frankly, this article reads a bit like ableism. Particularly the word “affected” which is just one stop from “affected.” I understand that some people view disability as a tragedy. but since this is the voice we hear most often, I don’t understand how it fits into a forum about empowerment.

  14. Jennifer Bartlett

    December 22, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    I am not that well-school in Disability Studies. But,. from what I have leaned, MOST people in that discipline are able-bodied, teaching able-bodied students about medical based issues. How does the word “crop” fit in?