Word ‘cripple’ has proper place in English language

Was it really necessary to use the word "crippled" in your (June 6, Review-Journal) column?

As a person with a spinal cord injury and deeply affected by paraplegia for the past six years, I find myself offended. I looked up the definition. Obviously, the most common definition of the word is "pertaining to someone with a less than fully functional limb." Also included in the definition were "to make useless or worthless" and "a medically outmoded and politically incorrect term that implies a serious loss of normal function through damage or loss of an essential part of the body."

You put the word alongside the words ridiculous and egregious. When most people consider the word crippled, they picture someone in a wheelchair. I am not useless, worthless, ridiculous or egregious!

Life with a disability is hard enough without the word "crippled" being an acceptable part of our common vocabulary. Why don’t we just evolve a little, and not use it anymore?

— C.F., Las Vegas

This letter generated conflict in me, and it took a few days of pondering to clarify exactly what I was grappling with. I’m caught in a collision of three of my most passionate values: meaning, compassion and justice. Blanket that conflict with my desire to be socially well-mannered, and you have a puzzle occupying my mind.

The good manners part is easy. You’d have to be reprehensibly ignorant not to know that it’s ill-mannered to point to people in wheelchairs and call them "cripples." The same goes with turning the verb "retard" into the noun "ree-tard," or turning the noun "color" into the adjective "cuh-lurred" to describe folks descended from Africa and India.

But it’s never merely an issue of decorum. Winking and nodding at overtly disparaging or violent rhetoric fosters and fuels injustice. And certainly people with handicapping conditions of body and limb have faced grim injustice and social prejudice.

In my lifetime, this injustice was quite unlike the injustices advanced upon, say, racial minorities or homosexuals. These latter groups were — in some cases still are — reviled simply because they are not-Anglo and not-heterosexual. The central injustice to people with handicapping conditions is that they were ignored. Rendered invisible. The very architecture of public buildings and restrooms proclaimed that people with handicapping conditions did not exist, or at least that it didn’t matter if they existed.

Let this surprise you: The Americans With Disabilities Act has been in effect only these past 17 years!

My value of compassion is where it starts to get fuzzy for me. Yes, compassion rightly contains empathy and sensitivity. But, for me, compassion also includes high expectations. Specifically, the most compassionate thing I can do for you or for me is to expect radical responsibility for developing the power and authority of selfhood despite personal limitations or social injustice.

I’m saying that, just because I’m offended is not quid pro quo evidence that what has happened is itself offensive. It might more be the case that my over-sensitivity has crippled my critical thinking. When that happens to me — and it does, I’m here to tell you — I always hope that someone has the compassion to pull me aside and tell me to take a breath and get hold of myself.

And then there is the issue of meaning …

C.F., does your dictionary really include definitive pronouncements regarding which words are politically incorrect? Yikes. I tremble at the thought of future dictionaries, what, listing words in red that we’re no longer supposed to say? Yes, my dictionary observes "archaic" uses of words — but, politically incorrect?

No way to sugarcoat this: I have no moral or intellectual respect for such a "dictionary."

By crippled, of course, I meant "disabled or impaired." As in, the Green Bay Packers was crippled last year by injuries to the defensive line (we sucked). … The crippled aircraft descended 2,000 feet toward an emergency landing. … The woman came to see her husband as emotionally crippled — unable to participate in real intimacy.

C.F., your letter invites me to evolve, and to evidence my evolution by striking the word "cripple" from the English lexicon. With the same due respect your letter graciously extended to me, I must tell you I would consider abiding your invitation a devolution — of language, of meaning, and my desire to convey respect to you.

Originally published in View News, June 23, 2009.

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