“Good Cripple, Bad Cripple”–Why this Game Needs to Stop

If you ask, most everyone will tell you he or she has heard of “good cop, bad cop”–the interrogation method in which one person acts as the “heavy,” yelling, screaming, or intimidating, and the other person tries to cajole, bribe, or joke information out of the suspect. Most people would probably also say it’s easy to identify the good cop and the bad cop in these pairings, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting there is a bad cop. But what exactly is a “good” or “bad” cripple (language borrowed from Mary Johnson, as well as the disparaging bigots who still see people with disabilities this way–as “half-finished humanity” who are “naturally deficient.” Gag.)

I know this game. I’ve played it for 25 years–as the good cripple. You see, a good cripple–okay, I’m getting sick of this term. A “good” person with disabilities–is one who does not “whine, complain, or malinger.” One who does not insist on access because he or she knows what it would cost others, monetarily and otherwise. One who says she does not consider herself disabled, because to do otherwise is to give in to the stigma–but negates her own rights to a normal life as she is  in the process. One who goes along with what the therapist, the caseworker, the special ed teacher, and the VR counselor says, because to do otherwise is to be ungrateful.

Doesn’t sound like a pretty picture, does it? You’re probably telling me I’m crazy for playing such a game, and you’re right. The trouble is, for years, I didn’t know I was playing it. I thought I was being accommodating, and grateful to good people who wanted to help me. Let me explain what I mean.

I love theater, and have for years. I love the idea of putting on a costume and becoming someone different. I’m not a virtuoso, but I can sing. I have a whole playlist on my iPod dedicated to show tunes and movie soundtracks. I can act; I grew up memorizing and quoting the lines of Disney movies, chick flicks, and whatever else was around. And my accent list: I can do Julie Andrews British (“Oh, well, if we must, we must–spit spot”), Cockney British (“In ‘artford, ‘Ereford,…moind ‘is own business…”), genteel Southern (“oh, fiddle-dee-dee, git over it, Mama”), and several others. These include, but are not limited to Australian, Long Island, New Joisy, redneck Southern, Spanish, French, and a passable Irish.

But, but, but.

I can’t dance.

Well, let me amend that. I can dance. I love Zumba. I dance in privacy all the time. I had a very brief ballet career. But I can’t dance the way a person without a disability would. And when your school plays are all musicals, in which the lead characters must dance alone or in duets onstage, that means you (read: I) get consigned to the chorus line. I suppose it escaped my director that the chorus line’s main function is dancing. (And they say people with disabilities are the stupid ones.)

Now, please understand what I never asked theater directors for. I never asked them for leading roles. I never said, “Deal with my ‘bad’ dance moves or I’ll sue you for discrimination.” What I was hoping they’d give me was a real chance at theater. A role with real lines, not a part where I stood in a corner and said one thing. But I had a disability. That wasn’t going to change. I shouldn’t ask them to change.

Good cripple.

So, what would the “bad cripple” alternative have been? Well, according to anti-disability rights proponents, “bad” people with disabilities are ones who don’t play the game. They push for access beyond what’s “special.” They achieve independence in the “ritualized way” that therapists and rehab approves of. And they don’t ever, ever ask any part of society to change for them. So what if theater modifies its roles for other people? So what if the Tin Man can be a Tin Woman, or a white actress can play a role that’s specifically called “Spanish” multiple times in the script? So what if…well, anything? A disabled person is still a disabled person, and if she’s not content with corner roles, or playing an old person, then she’s “bad.”

Example #2: My university has a bus system for the entire campus. Some of my campus-mates use wheelchairs, so they need the buses with wheelchair lifts. I don’t need a lift, so I can get on any of the available buses as long as they’re not designated as “express”–as in, only going one place at a certain time. But one day, I get on a non-lift bus and have this conversation with the driver:

Me: “Madison, please.” (My dorm, located in a part of campus where it’s dangerous to walk).

Him: “Okay.”

30 minutes later, I’m still on the bus.

Me: (thinking he didn’t hear me): “Um, excuse me, sorry, but I need to get to Madison.”

Him: “Okay.”

(20 minutes later)

Me: “Sorry to bother you again, but I need to get to Madison.”

Him: “Well, that ain’t on my route, and this ain’t a handicapped bus, but I guess I can take you down there.”

Had I known better, I’d have taken the opportunity to report his sorry butt. Yet at the time, I didn’t know to do that. What he’d said, in my view, was not discrimination because the bus did not, in fact, have a wheelchair lift (which is what I assumed was meant by “ain’t a handicapped bus.” And did I mention bad grammar drives me crazy?) Discrimination, in my view, was overtly saying, “Don’t come on my bus, crip.”

Yet, that was essentially what this guy said, as I was informed later when asking the Disability Services office for advice on the incident. Wheelchair lift or not, students with disabilities did not have “special” buses–they were allowed on any campus bus. And to say otherwise was the equivalent of saying, “this ain’t a black/Asian/Hispanic/Jewish bus.”

Furthermore, as I have since figured out, kowtowing to these idiots is not acceptable, either.

How about you? Have you been playing “good cripple?” I’ m not talking about suing everyone for every perceived breach of access you see. I’m talking about giving up your rights so people won’t think you’re combative, non-compliant, or manipulative. I’m talking about playing society’s game: “If you don’t act disabled, we’ll treat you like a person. If you do–if you whine and complain–you deserve what you get.”

Game over!

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