Super-crip Narratives and the Burden of Disability

In the academic discipline of Disability Studies, one of the topics in discussions of disability narratives and the social construction is disability and the so-called “super-crip narrative” or super-crip stereotypeThe super-crip narrative follows a familiar pattern of documenting the experience of the individual who achieves great things in spite of a disabling condition. Usually great emphasis is placed on their “positive outlook” or optimism and sold to the public as a “feel good” story. See, for example, much of the recent coverage of Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, known for his high tech carbon fiber prosthetic legs and childhood amputations as much as his running times. Other examples include historical figures like Helen Keller and FDR, or, more recently, Christopher Reeve.

One of the primary critiques of the super-crip narrative is that it emphasizes the idea that people with disabilities should be smiling, good-natured, and docile about their experiences (aka “The Good Cripple”), even when those experiences are painful, frustrating, and the source of a great deal of unhappiness. These stories tend to reinforce the expectation that people with disabilities should be grateful for any assistance they receive, no matter how limited or patronizing. They also put undue pressure on people with disabilities to “overcome” their disability— as though living with a disability weren’t difficult enough!— or, as in the case of a condition like autism, they suggest that disability is always paired with an extraordinary skill or talent. The Supercrip Narrative can also stand in the way of accommodations for people with disabilities, implying that “overcoming” is a matter of will and that accommodations are unnecessary, or that one should be nothing but grateful for any accommodation, no matter how small. Basically, the super-crip narrative says, “if you can’t overcome your disability, you’re not trying hard enough.”

While I am opposed to the sort of patronizing narrative designed to be an inspirational story that makes able-bodied people feel better about themselves, I still feel myself drawn to stories that highlight the achievements of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, whether these stories are of “overcoming” or simply being. For example, I was interested to find out that Shannon Boxx, one of the members of the US Women’s Soccer Team, has lupus and Sjogren’s disease. Her story—both her bravery at revealing her diagnosis, and her commitment to continuing her soccer training despite the disease— is inspiring to me, as a fellow lupus patient.

I know I speak for many of us diagnosed with disabling chronic illnesses when I say that diagnosis, treatment, and the day-to-day experience can feel like the slow dismantling of your hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Suddenly things that seemed easy (or that required little thought or effort) become nearly impossible. On a good day you may find yourself making choices between, say, exercising, doing chores, or seeing friends. On a bad day you have to decide if you have the energy to take a shower or even get out of bed. Often pride gets in the way of revealing how terrible you feel (I know I would be lost without my DermaBlend concealer!). On those hard-to-get-out-of-bed days, reading about someone like Shannon Boxx helps me to feel something other than hopeless resignation that I will never achieve the things that I have set out to achieve in my life.

So how do we make room for stories about illness and disability that offer hope to those of us with similar experiences without enforcing the expectation that we be happy, compliant, inspirational figures to alleviate the guilt of those who are not (yet) ill or disabled? Certainly the move away from terms like ‘handicap” and “cripple” and toward people-first language has helped. But there’s still a great deal of misunderstanding and animosity toward people with chronic illnesses and disabilities—no need to look any further than the politic discourse in the US surrounding access to healthcare.

I think part of the responsibility is for those of us who struggle with disabilities and/or chronic conditions to document our experience in an honest and straightforward way, and to educate others about the destructive power of negative stereotypes. Stereotypes about psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders and “hysterical” women continue to delay the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases in both men and women (it took seven years from the onset of her illness for Shannon Boxx to receive her diagnosis). Well-meaning friends, family, and even doctors suggest things like brisk walks, therapy, and prayer. This is unacceptable.

The average person encounters disappointment and unhappiness in his or her life, and no one expects that person to remain smiling, grateful, or “inspirational” even in the face of great hardship and suffering. Why should the experiences of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses be any different?

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