Nancy Mairs’ essay “On Being a Cripple” reveals the raw emotions and truths of suffering from an illness, specifically multiple sclerosis. One of the most powerful sections in Mairs’ essay describes semantics and her choice to call herself a cripple, rather than disabled or handicapped (1). Mairs explains how such euphemisms broaden “the gap between word and reality” of her illness (1). Identifying as a cripple better captures Mairs’ experience with MS, but it also symbolizes her resistance to the societal delicacies concerning sickness.
Mairs’ self-conscious point of view allows her to explain how she addresses her illness and why the “verbal garbage” society uses is not sufficient to describe her “calamitous disease” (1-2). Mairs recognizes her differences from others and acknowledges her losses, refusing to employ language, such as “differently abled” that misconstrue the reality of her suffering (1). In denying these euphemisms, Mairs is working towards reclaiming her illness story as her own. She disregards the fragility of others who choose to shadow the authentic experience of MS with comfortable language that merely serves to reassure themselves.
Mairs explains that “society is no readier accept crippledness than to accept death…” (2). It is easy to assume that those who suffer from an illness would prefer more inclusive language. However, we oftentimes fail to acknowledge that this same language diminishes an individual’s experience with illness and confines their narratives to what society deems acceptable. Mairs wants people to know that she “can face the brutal truth of her existence,” which ultimately gives her more agency and ownership of her illness (1). Mairs, along with others who experience suffering, deserve the right to define it completely and without reservations, and how they choose to do so should influence the language we use when discussing illnesses.
Mairs, Nancy. “On Being a Cripple.” University of Arizona Press, 1986, 1-10.