Why Disability Tropes Matter: Supercrips and Accommodations

Last year at FWD/Forward, I wrote about the role that the good cripple archetype has in accessibility and accommodations denials. The idea that people with disabilities should be meek and quiet and grateful for what they have plays directly into why it can be so difficult to get accommodations. Either you must be a good cripple and not ask for them, because it would be a bother, and you’d hate to do that. Or you ask for them and they are denied because you are not being nice and nonthreatening:

The bad cripples raise the stink. The bad cripples are the ones who point out accessibility issues, who call ahead before going places to see if they are accessible, who write angry letters, who force businesses to comply with at least the bare minimum of the law. The bad cripples kick up a fuss, a nuisance, make a mess. I wouldn’t want to be like one of them, attracting all that attention.

There’s another disability archetype that plays an important role in discussions about accommodations, and that is our old friend the supercrip, covered excellently by Annaham at Bitch Magazine:

Supercrip has been, in his and her various iterations, sunny, kind, overachieving, possesses a “can-do” attitude, and does AMAZING! and INSPIRING! things and can thus “overcome” his or her disability…Unfortunately for some PWDs, Supercrip is a specter; he or she is a ghostly reminder of what we will never be—but, as some like to remind us, we should remember that Supercrips do “amazing” things, so why can’t we?

Supercrips often say that they don’t need accommodations. They got by without them, why can’t you? People who ask for accommodations are whiners who just want society to cater to their every whim, unlike the good people with disabilities, who know that all we want is to be treated like everyone else. Accommodations, you see, are ‘special treatment.’ The supercrip says she doesn’t need more time to take a test because she’s able to deal with her learning disabilities, so everyone else should. The supercrip says it’s not necessary to have an interpreter, he can lip read. The supercrip doesn’t need ‘special’ seating, she runs marathons.

As individuals, all of us negotiate our need for accommodation on a personal level. People with the same disability may not need the same accommodations. People may choose to address various disability issues in different ways. When disability is allowed to be an individual identity and disabled people are not taken as spokespeople for a whole big group, this is not really a big problem. An individual disabled person can ask for accommodation and receive it, or can indicate that an offered accommodation is not necessary. The end, and everyone can move on.

But in a world where each disabled person is taken as a representative of the whole and the voice of the least inconvenient disabled person is believed to be the best authority, the supercrip has very real and very dangerous consequences. Because, suddenly, you are an object of comparison. Someone’s friend with the same disability didn’t need what you need, so why are you asking for it? People with that disability don’t actually need that accommodation. I know, because someone told me so.

There are a lot of complex issues bound up in the identity of the supercrip, and one of the hazards of it is that, whether you are willing to be used this way or not, you will be used as a weapon to beat other people with disabilities. Some supercrips definitely feed into this, as is evident from the way they talk about disability. They frame it very much as a personal problem that can be overcome with enough effort and they make a point of stressing that they owe their success to not being ‘coddled’ by petty things like accommodations. They suggest that other people with disabilities are not toeing the line, and it’s ok, you can ignore them, really. Tough love.

Other supercrips, though, are just natural outliers who happen to be disabled. Not every nondisabled person can be a star athlete, and we don’t take Olympians as evidence that everyone should be able to complete incredible feats of athleticism. But incredibly accomplished disabled people? They are taken as evidence that other disabled people are failures. If they weren’t, they could be running businesses and sailing around the world and competing in athletic events and doing other fantastic and amazing things. Even though many of the disabled people actually doing these things point out that they had to work very hard for them, and they also had some natural talent and skill, and family support, just like nondisabled people who have the same accomplishments.

These supercrips are used against their will as evidence that the rest of the disabled community is filled with slackers. So-and-so can work, why can’t you? You complain about having to finish a paper, but look at how much work this disabled athlete puts into competitions! You whine about pain when you take the measly walk from the couch to the toilet and then shuffle back again? What’s wrong with you?

The supercrip is used as evidence that people don’t need accommodations, they just need to try harder. That, in fact, denying accommodations is perversely for the good of the person with the disability—you see, if you weren’t coddled along, you’d be able to have some self determination and do something that matters in the world.