Language and Illness

One of my favorite readings thus far has been the excerpt from “My Life as a Cripple” because it was an example and application of what we had previously been talking about in class. Nancy Mairs’s blunt and straightforward tone made me feel surprised at first. The opening image she gives her readers is one of her in a bathroom stall; she is honest and uncensored when it comes to expressing how she experiences life with MS. This view of her illness is reflected in the language she uses to describe herself; she opts to call herself a cripple as opposed to handicapped or disabled. 

The fact that people wince at the word cripple exposes how we tend to obscure the illness with the desire to make everything seem nice and politically correct. This desire has led to the usage of ‘differently abled’, a word that, according to Mairs, describes both anyone and no one (Mairs 1). Thus, using these vague terms distances what is said from how Mairs experiences MS. I thought it was interesting that, while she calls herself a cripple, Mairs would never refer to anyone else as a cripple. Language has the power to shape how we view the world and ourselves which is why semantics is important when it comes to expressing illness. Certain words, like a cripple, are steeped in societal implications. How individuals use and understand language is influenced by the society and culture they live in but also their own individual experiences, like in Mairs’s account.

Mairs, Nancy. “On Being a Cripple.” University of Arizona Press, 1986, 1-10.