Cripping Community: New Meanings of Disability and Community – Eliza Chandler

As a noticeably disabled “walkie” who frequently traverses the streets of my city, Toronto, I have a strong sense that ableist logic dominates and circulates (Clare, 2007, p. 127). This sense comes from the ever-present possibility, or indeed actuality, of being stared at, avoided, or commented upon when I am in every crevasse of public culture. This sense also comes from my knowledge that all noticeably disabled people I know share similar experiences. My sense that ableism floods dominant culture is further secured every time I notice stairs to a building without an accompanying ramp or elevator, with every heavy door I struggle to open, and every time I hear words like “crazy” or “lame” lazily appear in our everyday parlance. As someone working in the discipline of disability studies, I have a strong sense that disability is discursively produced through ablest logic under the “regime of truth,” wherein discrimination against disabled people makes sense; it is collectively tolerated and collectively responded to, if at all, with apathy (Foucault, 1980).

As a disabled person who embodies disability with a mixture of pride and shame (Chandler, 2010), who experiences disability as communally binding, culturally important, and even a desired way of living, I wish to tell stories that are not only of this flavour—stories flecked with discrimination, violence, and fear, stories in which disability is culturally produced as nothing more or less than a problem in need of solution—though there are many. Rather, I am concerned with how disability can be understood differently, specifically, how disability can be taken up as communally binding and desirable, and how communities bound together by disability—crip communities—can “crip” community. I use “crip community” to refer to any time that community is enacted through mutual motivation or desire to dwell with disability, a desire which is antagonistic to the normative desire to cure or kill disability. In order to think about how crip community can “crip”[1] community, I use crip as a verb. To crip is to open up desire for what disability disrupts (Fritsch, forthcoming).

As I have said, my research takes interest in how disability is done differently, communally. However, I recognize that crip communities do not, cannot transcend ableism. As ableist logic is pervasive, we cannot transcend the normative terrain in which ableism circulates. Crip communities, rather, occur within normative culture, “unworking” and reworking our understandings of community and disability in their enactments (Nancy as cited in Walcott, 2003). Therefore, in order to think about the possibilities (and also limits) for embodying crip identities and recognizing crip communities, I must first explore how we normatively understand disability and the normative cultural terrain wherein crip communities are enacted. I say this in tune with Stuart Hall, who urges that thinking about culture is absolutely central for crafting out political identities. For culture, he says, “constitutes the terrain for producing identity, for producing social subjects” (1997, p. 291).

Thinking with Katherine McKittrick, who uses “geography” to refer to “space, place and location in their physical materiality and imaginative configurations” (2006, p. x), I attend to the normative places and spaces we find ourselves in, or, as Hall puts it, to the terrain. In my dissertation research, I follow McKittrick’s use of geography in order to think through the “normative geography” of disabled people and people of the African diaspora; a geography which is most often one of containment, containing disabled and racialized bodies, as well as our cultural understandings of those bodies (2006, p. x).[2] People of the African diaspora and disabled people are “analogous” for the way that we both relate to our national “home” from the “contradictory social position of belonging and not” (Wittgenstein, as cited in Bannet, 1997, p. 655; Walcott, 2008). From this position of not belonging, diaspora and disabled people enact communities of alterity in which their identities can mean, and they can belong, differently. Diaspora and disabled people are also analogous in that the geography in which they do belong within the nation-state is often one of containment. These geographic containers—historical sites, such as slave ships, plantations, and asylums, as well as contemporary sites, such as institutions, prisons, government housing, ghettoized neighbourhoods, and the Canadian North, all of which contain racialized, disabled, and racialized disabled people—work to ensure that all other spaces are geographies of normativity—places without slaves, without “the insane”: geographies of safety. More than this, and again following McKittrick, such normative geographies are “infused with ways of knowing” or interpreting the humanity of those who are geographically contained in such spaces (2006, p. x); this “knowing” is enforced as such cultural containers become naturalized as the rightful place of belonging for disabled and racialized people within the nation-state.

McKittrick’s entanglement of humanness and geography begs us to attend to how racialized and disabled people’s placement in such geographic containers is dependent upon a particular understanding of their humanness, namely the denial of it. That disability is culturally understood as the denial of humanity is also discursively evident and discursively perpetuated. Person-first language (“people with disabilities”) is used by the Canadian government to refer to “us,” and bureaucratically perpetuated as the nomenclature of political correctness.  “People with disabilities” is a phrase that is meant to distinguish itself from, as Tanya Titchkosky writes, the “relentless parade of insults” historically associated with the language of disability (2000, p. 128). Following Titchkosky, we can see that disability is understood as a condition that prevents, or at least significantly jeopardizes, one’s recognition as human and, therefore, we must remove “disability” as far away from “people” as possible. “Disability” and “people” become separated by a “with”; we are people despite our disabilities. Person-first language, then, makes people.

Ableism, to be sure, is pervasive. And although stories of how ableism is felt and how it persists are not necessarily the ones I want to tell, I believe that these are the stories with which we must begin. Again, I follow Hall (1997) when he says that we cannot think about how identities are constituted without thinking about how social subjects are represented. We know that disability is represented in a myriad of ways and by a myriad of social functions as a problem in need of a solution. And I can tell you as a disabled person who is communally connected to other disabled people, that disability is not experienced as a problem, by everyone, all of the time. To recognize that my experience of disability does not match its representation is, first of all, likely not surprising, but also not reason for me to disengage with how my embodiment is represented. As Hall says, “culture lays the terrain in which identities are formed” (1997, p. 291). And, given that ableism informs our cultural sensibility, the pronouncement or arrival of disability identities and the enactment of crip communities with disability as their binding tie, is not yet recognized as sensible (Titchkosky, 2002).

Disability identities and crip communities are formed despite of or maybe because of disability’s pervasive cultural understanding as a condition to be cured or killed.[3] In the beginning of this article, I cited my experience on the streets as one of the ways that I strongly sense or, I would even hazard, that I “know” that ableism circulates. My experience is also one of the ways that I sense/“know” that disability is done differently, communally. I experience crip community in different ways, in different places, and with different people. But for this article, as I do in my research, I wish to focus on how crip community is formed through unstructured enactments. I attend to the emergence and experience of community through enactments for I believe that such attention explicates how crip community “crips” community. This is to say that rather than being tied to a structure, institution, or common identity, crip communities are structured by and through communal enactments. In other words, they happen anytime people come together through the common desire to dwell with disability. In this way, crip community can be enacted anytime, in any place, with anyone, disabled or not.[4]

In the preface to his book, Community, Zygmunt Bauman writes, “Out there, on the streets, all sorts of dangers lie in ambush; we have to be alert when we go out, watch whom we are talking to and who talks to us, be on the look-out every minute” (2000, pp. 1-2). In the space of the streets, enactments of disability as violence lie in ambush. The geographies of the street may feel unsecure, unsteady, hostile, and even unfamiliar. In these inhospitable spaces, I may feel unwelcomed, undesired, uncommon. I expect these enactments of disability as violence, but I don’t know when or where or how they will occur, and, in this sense, they “lie in ambush.” Because being on “alert,” that is, expecting the enactment of the normative meaning of disability, feels so familiar, when disability is enacted otherwise, when I feel that people are drawn to me by a desire to dwell with disability, it feels different. In these communal enactments, I feel safe; I feel comfortable; I feel desired; I feel secure, I feel differently from how I commonly feel when I am in the normative terrain, whether or not I am being ambushed or anticipating being ambushed by a normative enactment of disability.

Recall my earlier description of the verb “to crip”: to open up desire for what disability disrupts. Crip communities disrupt the assumption that we can “know,” unquestionably, who our communal members are, and therefore, who they are not. We assume that communities are bound by members who share the same or similar identities. However, the unpredictable and ever-shifting character of disability requires us to consider its identity as also instable. As Hall asserts, “one thing identity does not signal is a ‘stable core’ of the self, unfolding from beginning to end through all the vicissitudes of history without change” (1996, p. 1). In crip community, one member may experience their disability as progressing or as a “becoming” (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004), an ever-shifting embodiment that allows them to relate to their community and their communal others in different, never stable ways. Another may not currently be disabled, or currently be disabled in a particular way, and become disabled, or become disabled differently, either with time or through an accident. Another may have a disability that comes to them one day or moment, and leaves the next, ever-returning and ever-leaving. Still, another may be disabled and not be easily identifiable as such. And in community motivated by a desire for disability, disability can be an “inter-subjective experience” that is, enacted between two members, one disabled the other not, owned by no one, cradled by both (Weiss, 2008, p. 4). Disability teaches us that just as embodiments shift, so, too, do our communal experiences and relations.

Ableist logic circulates, it is pervasive within the normative terrain, and traversing this terrain through an embodiment that is so often recognized as a problem in need of solution can be uncomfortable, even dangerous. However, as poet Dionne Brand tells us, “different geographic stories can be told,” and through them, we can achieve a different “sense of space” (Brand quoted in McKittrick, 2006, p. xxvii). I propose that crip communities, as we make them, are spaces in which we can create and perpetuate new stories of disability and new ways for disability to matter. More than this, attending to the ways that crip communities “crip” community, and to be open to that which disability disrupts, can unwork and rework how we ‘know’ community and how we understand communal structures beyond and against iterations of them as assuredly knowable, predictable, identifiable, or constant. Instead, we can imagine community as fleeting, boundless, and productive. Crip communities, unstable as they are, can open us up to new ways of understanding what it is to be crip and what it is to be in community.

End Notes:

[1] My use of the word “crip” extends from disability studies scholar Robert McRuer’s articulation of “crip theory,” which, for him, allows for the creation of a new world in which crip and queer identities are central (2006).

[2] I regret that I don’t have the space now to go into this intricate intersection. But briefly, following Wittgenstein, I think about how these geographies are analogous. Wittgenstein writes, “Analogy is not just an mage, an extended simile, or the juxtaposition of objects of comparison” (1997, p. 655). Rather, in a Wittgensteinian sense, “analogy” imagines both the objects and the terms of the comparison to be instable, in constant flux (1997, p. 655). Given that, and as I hope to demonstrate later, crip identities as well as what McRuer (2011) has recently termed “cripistemologies” (used to refer to the ways we know, talk about knowing, and do disabled ontologies/disability in people), are unstable. Given that I imagine disability and diaspora identities and communities to be in constant flux, as is my developing work comparing disability and diaspora identities and communities, I think “analogy,” in this sense, is quite fitting.

[3] This article focuses on how disability communities are formed in the midst of a culture in which disability is not desired. For writing on how diaspora communities are similarly formed in subaltern spaces, providing sites of belongingness for racialized people in the midst of a culture in which immigrants are not desired, please see: Mercer, K. (1994). Welcome to the jungle: New positions in Black cultural studies. London: Routledge; and Walcott, R. (2003). Black like who? Writing black Canada. Toronto, Insomniac Press.

[4] In my attention to communal enactments I mean to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. This is how I experience community (as one who desires and therefore probably seeks out or interprets in favour of this experience), not how I expect everyone does or should.

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Eliza Chandler is a PhD candidate in the Sociology and Equity Studies in Education department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Working predominantly in Disability Studies, her work cuts across diaspora studies, critical race theory, feminist theory, critical geography studies and cultural studies. Her dissertation, A geography of disability: From containment to community, pulls from these various disciplines in order to map the normative geography of disabled and racialized people from slave ships and plantains, to institutions, to mental health care centres, to government housing. Through this critical mapping, Chandler’s research seeks to reveal how the geographies understood as the rightful place of belongingness for disabled and racialized people are intertwined. Following this exploration, her research suggests that diaspora and ‘crip’ communities offer spaces of alterity in which disabled and racialized people can belong in the midst of a culture which does not welcome them as desired citizens.

Chandler holds a doctorial fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and is a Senior Doctorial Fellow at New College, U of T. She teaches courses in Disability Studies at New College and at OISE/UT. This research is generously supported by SSHRC funding.

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