Philosophers tend to focus on the ‘tragedy of disability,’ the oppressions and exclusions faced by disabled people. There is good reason for this, inasmuch as disabled people must deal with systemic bullying, harassment, and discrimination. But if this is the only story that we tell about disability, then we are missing a big part of the picture. Disability theorists have written extensively on the positive aspects of being disabled – the joy, creativity, kinship, and other goods that come with disability. Many of us would not wish to be nondisabled, nor do we yearn for the company, attention, or validation of nondisabled people. In fact, from a crip standpoint, nondisabled people’s lives can seem rote, predictable, anxiety-ridden, and boring. As crip testimonies show, it can be a relief to be liberated from nondisabled culture, with its fixation on prescriptive life-stages and rituals, to be followed in a specific way and at specific times from birth until death. Crip culture stands in opposition to this culture, as a site of non-normativity, resistance, and playful world-building. In this sense, crip culture resembles queer culture, which is described by queer theorists as a site of non-normativity and opposition to the status quo.
In this post, I will draw on both queer theory and crip theory to illuminate why disability is not, as per the dominant narrative, tragic and terrible, but can be a site of joy, liberation, and solidarity. And I will explain why I think that it is nondisabled culture that needs to be transformed. The miseries of nondisabled culture are obscured by the figure of the ‘tragic cripple,’ which is defined by the absence or negation of personhood, citizenship, and other positive qualities (Licia Carlson 2021: 74). In comparison to crip negation, nondisability is elevated to a universal ideal, something desired by everyone and necessary for living a good life. This ideal contributes to the erasure of crip culture as a site of positivity and liberation.
Before laying out my argument, I should note that I do not purport to speak for all disabled people. In fact, I do not intend to write about individual experiences at all, but, rather, crip culture, which is a space of rebellion, non-conformity, and “criptiques” of normalcy. As Caitlin Wood puts it, crip culture is “a daring space of shameless flaunting” in which “we find fellow crips who affirm and reflect our originality and beauty back at us,” in which “internalized ableism begins to crumble,” and in which “uppity crips [defy] mainstream culture’s insistence on subordination and [do] it with style and humor” (2014: 2). My intention is not to describe ‘the disabled experience’ (per impossible), but to introduce people to crip culture, and to explain how this culture can be a source of liberation, inspiration, and hope, for anyone. More specifically, criptiques can be used by anyone to dismantle ableist prescriptions and pressures.
2. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality
“Queers are just better. I’d be so proud of you as a fag… I’d never have to worry. [But now], I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries! The world of heterosexuals is a s[ad] and boring life.” – Aunt Ida from John Waters’ cult film, Female Trouble, cited in Ward 2020: 124.
In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Jane Ward explains why the mainstream narrative about ‘the tragedy of homosexuality’ is not only incomplete, but backwards. While queer people and allies alike worry about the bullying, harassment, and discrimination imposed on queer people under the regime of compulsory heterosexuality, this fixation on ‘queer misery’ overshadows the many positive aspects of queer culture – the joy, creativity, playfulness, relief, and kinship that come with being queer. Indeed, queer kinship is a central (yet widely neglected) factor in many institutional arrangements, including social stratification. While straight people tend to assume that queer folks huddle together in straight spaces to avoid bullying and harassment – and this is, to be sure, part of the reason for queer self-segregation – another factor is that queer folks simply prefer each other’s company. In queer spaces, we can freely express and affirm our non-normative values, desires, and lifestyles, without feeling the need to explain or defend ourselves. Being in queer company brings safety and support, yes, but it also brings joy and camaraderie. (Indeed, this could be part of the explanation for the lack of full integration of queer theory into the philosophical mainstream: many queer people are anti-assimilationist revolutionaries who reject assimilationist politics and want to preserve queer-centric spaces).
Another problem with the dominant narrative of ‘queer misery’ is that it obscures and obfuscates the downsides of straight culture – the hyper-normativity, anxieties about fitting in, relationship troubles, and other trials and tribulations that come with being straight. Indeed, one of the reasons for wanting to avoid straight company is to avoid the spectacle of straight anguish – that is, “the entrapment, the disappointment, the antagonism, the boredom, the unwanted sex, the toxic masculinity, and the countless daily injustices” experienced by straight people, especially women (Ward 2020: 4). These miseries have a few sources, one being heteronormativity’s intersection with patriarchy, which places feminine subjects in a subordinate position, and another being heteropatriarchy’s construction of masculinity and femininity as oppositional subject positions, with different interests and ‘love languages.’ The binary gender matrix ensures that straight men and women will struggle to communicate effectively or make each other happy (which, Ward notes, is a lucrative situation for the straight self-help industry).
While heterosexual miseries can be overt (e.g., domestic violence), they typically take subtler forms, such as worries and expectations about how a straight life should go. Ward notes that, when she was attending a school fundraiser hosted by “gay-friendly liberals,” she noticed that the conversations still felt very straight. This was because of subtle signs of straight misery, such as:
women complaining about their husbands, middle-aged couples chatting about how the school fund-raiser was their big night out that year, men making bad jokes to which women responded with halfhearted laughter, women in the bathroom trading information about diet and exercise, donors to the school being referred to by their shared last name (“let’s all thank the Petersons for their generous gift!”), the presence of many men I had never seen before because this is the only school event they show up for, “his” and “her” silent auction items, and more examples [of straight culture] I can’t recall (2020: 147).
Social expectations about the trajectory of a straight life are described by Sara Ahmed (2006) as part of a straight temporality, a timeline that guides straight people through a sequence of life events – dating, marriage, parenting, retirement, and so on – in a linear fashion. Departures from the designated path – such as queer love, polyamory, or extramarital childbirth – are seen as deviant and disorderly. Queer temporality, in contrast, is “off-center,” “slanted,” and oriented away from the well-trodden path (Ahmed 2006: 66). Ward notes that straight rites of passage are marked by highly-regimented rituals – for instance, the church wedding with the bride in a white gown, the groom in a suit, the tiered cake, the first dance, etc. The prescriptiveness and predictability of these rituals is precisely what makes them markers of a straight life. In fact, Ward believes that straightness just is a “fetish for normalcy,” whereas queerness is “a desire for the unexpected and counternormative” (15). Accordingly, straight temporality is comprised of a hyper-normal sequence of events marked by hyper-normative rituals. This is also what makes a straight life rather dull and drab. Whereas a “common straight critique” of queerness from the 20th century was that it was “too spectacular, too loud, too sexual, too confident, too animated, too exposed, and overall just too much,” when we reverse the lens, we see straight culture as “too passive, boring, unimaginative, and generally uninspired” (116).
Some of these considerations can be extended to nondisabled culture, which also involves sequential life events, prescriptive rituals, and punishments for deviating from the status quo.
3. Normate Culture and Normate Miseries
Disabled philosophers and allies alike tend to focus on the bullying, harassment, and discrimination imposed on disabled people under the regime of compulsory nondisability, which is, I should emphasize, a legitimate problem. But the dominant narrative of ‘crip misery’ tends to overshadow the positive aspects of crip culture – the joy, playfulness, creativity, kinship, and relief that can come with being disabled. These positive experiences play a role in certain institutional arrangements, including social segregation, which is a key structural feature of academic philosophy. Many philosophers have written about the role of ableism in the marginalization of disabled philosophers and crip scholarship, but relatively few have discussed the role of crip self-segregation and kinship in this state of affairs. Importantly, many disabled philosophers, including myself, simply enjoy and seek out each other’s company. I personally prefer to attend crip conferences, where I can mingle with other disabled people who share my values and lifestyle preferences, rather than generalist events. When I present at crip venues, the audience is less hostile to my crip ‘priors,’ which have been labeled as ‘ideological’ and ‘polemical’ in other spaces. Yet, as Robin Dembroff points out, the dominant philosophical “commonsense” is that of the “culturally powerful,” against which “the commonsense of the racialized, poor, queer, transgender, or disabled is considered philosophically irrelevant ‘ideology,’ ‘activism,’ or ‘delusion’” (2020: 403) This situation places crip theorists at a disadvantage when it comes to defending our testimony. Criptiques are viewed with heightened skepticism and resistance under the lights of philosophical ‘commonsense.’ When crip theorists present, we are automatically positioned as crip killjoys.
The narrative of crip misery not only negates crip positivity, but erases the downsides of nondisabled culture – the hyper-normativity, anxieties about fitting in, relationship troubles, and other trials and tribulations that come with being nondisabled. Nondisabled people are expected to try to conform to what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls the “normate figure,” a “hyper-normal” ideal that is epitomized in the “young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant…, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height…” (2017: 135). This figure is associated with a certain “normative life course,” which “suggests [that] one should transition from child to adult, find a partner, get married, reproduce, work, eventually transition from adulthood to old age, retire and die” (Ljuslinder et al. 2020). Meeting these benchmarks confers “an embodied form of social capital” (Garland-Thomson 2017: 135). The normate ideal is less appealing to, or compulsory for, disabled people, because many of us already exist outside of normate time, and are already exempt from the social capital that comes with normate achievement. Normate time is for nondisabled people, but, because it is based on an abstract ideal, its milestones are moving targets, never fully attainable for anyone.
This gap between expectation and reality, desire and fulfillment, creates a culture of fear, anxiety, and disappointment. Indeed, according to Stacy Simplican, mainstream society is defined by anxieties about disability – becoming disabled, being seen as disabled, falling short of perfectionistic norms of human development. Simplican argues that society is centrally organized around “fears about physical bodily differences and the perceived failures of some bodies to attain [impossible] norms of perfection,” as well as fears “that disability will erode human capacities that are [perceived to be] essential to human flourishing and human relationships” (2015: 3) – that is, disability is seen as a threat to the realization of a normate utopia. These anxieties punish disabled people while compelling nondisabled people to follow a path of hyper-normalcy, even if it leads to a life of disappointment and quiet desperation.
Notably, straight time and normate time largely overlap, though the latter involves specifically medicalized dimensions, such as learning to walk (ideally, between 10 and 12 months of age), learning to talk (by 14 months), and reaching other developmental milestones, as well as finding a partner, getting married, reproducing, working for a wage, retiring, and dying in old age. None of these stages can be automatically assumed to be part of a disabled person’s life, given that many disabled people do not ‘develop’ in the prescribed way (e.g., some use a wheelchair or speak with a stutter); many do not graduate from school at the ‘correct time,’ or at all; most never hold a full-time job, marry, reproduce, or retire; and some will not live to old age. Within crip culture, these deviations from normate time are not inherently tragic or terrible, since normate aspirations are not seen as intrinsically or objectively valuable.
On the contrary, revolutionary queer, crip, and feminist philosophers often deny the inherent value of these ideals. Many reject, for instance, the compulsoriness and inherent value of breeding, procreative sex, and “straight parenting,” or parenting by two married breeders of a certain age in a certain domestic setting. (Park 2009). Many also rebuke the objective value and social utility of marriage, which they see as a patriarchal contract that subordinates women, protects domestic abusers, and entrenches inequalities of power (Card 1996). Many, too, deny the inherent value of wage labor, which, on a Marxist anti-work analysis, leads to worker alienation, exploitation, exhaustion, and social stratification (Russell 2019, Weeks 2011). These critiques reflect a broader tendency in revolutionary queer/crip feminism to reject the inherent value of (overlapping) hetero/normate ideals, as well as the notion of a ‘natural’ linear progression from one ‘achievement’ to the next. Not only are such life events not intrinsically valuable, but their compulsoriness and predictability can make them seem, from an external perspective, positively disvaluable. Conversely, being free from these demands can be seen as a positive good.
Admittedly, some of the more medicalized aspects of normate time – such as taking one’s first steps – are less likely to be accepted as mere subjective preferences. Yet not everyone desires or values such things. It may come as a surprise to some readers that cyrborg crips (or “cripborgs”) would rather use mobility devices than not, because these devices confer “transmobility…, the idea that disabled bodies actually have a greater array of options for mobility and movement, providing an impetus for creativity and imagination” (Nelson, Shew, & Stevens 2019). From a transmobility perspective, using one’s unassisted limbs is limiting and creativity-dampening. Some nondisabled people want to amputate their limbs to become cripborgs, though most are prevented from safely doing so. In terms of living to old age, some disabled people are fine with a shorter life expectancy, and some nondisabled people want to ‘live fast and die young,’ or favor quality over quantity of life for other reasons. In short, medical ideals like unassisted mobility and longevity are desired by most people, but not all, and they are not necessary for a happy, meaningful, or virtuous life. These attributes can be part of a good life, but they must be balanced against other values and goals that people have. For some, transmobility is more valuable than walking.
The dismissal of crip values is part of a broader dismissal of crip happiness, which, in turn, negates normate distress. Normate distress can be detected in mundane conversations in which nondisabled people fret over their health, weight, physical appearance, work schedules, deadlines, hetero/normate sex lives, wedding plans, parenting obligations, mortgages, retirement savings plans, and other normate expectations. These anxieties are all component parts of a ‘normal’ life, in which people compete to be hyper-normal. Meanwhile, I am largely indifferent to these pressures. I know that I will never breed, work a 9-5 job, go to the gym, achieve a socially desirable level of health and fitness, or fulfil other expectations that would mark me as ‘normal.’ This outsider status allows me to pursue my own goals at my own pace.
Ellen Samuels uses the term crip time to describe “a flexible approach to normative time frames, like work schedules, deadlines, or even just waking and sleeping” (2017). Disability “is time travel”; it “has the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings.” Samuels notes that crip time can lead to disorientation and frustration, but it can also lead to joy and liberation: “I tend to celebrate this idea of crip time, to relish its non-linear flexibility, to explore its power and its possibility.” When Samuels lost her full-time job, she was initially disoriented and distraught, but she soon came to embrace crip time and the freedom that it afforded her to focus on her writing: “I loved it. I loved the rhythm of reading and writing and thinking and I realized that this time was also my time, even though it was hard, even though other people didn’t get it, even though I was alone.”
Similarly, Shayda Kafai describes her transition to crip time as “a joyous explosion, a liberation of feelings,” and “a place of abundance and rootedness [in kinship with] disabled, queer of color [peers]” (2021: 42). Kafai describes crip kinship as one of the advantages of being disabled; “in crip-centric liberated zones, we persist, grow, and feel relief” (41). Kafai attests that crip culture gave her permission to “take up space…, break open and be seen and held in community as [her] truest self” (42). When we leave normate time, we also leave normate space, entering a crip space-time continuum, a zone of crip liberation. Being disabled can mean being socially disvalued and oppressed, but it can also mean being liberated from normate culture, free to craft a life outside of perfectionistic norms, in community with other misfits.
The dominant narrative of crip misery diverts attention from both crip joy and normate misery. From a crip perspective, nondisabled people are not doing so well. Their daily anxieties about achieving and maintaining a normate body and lifestyle can seem sad and desperate. Their normate conversations, presentations, and publications can seem tense and tedious. Their compassion for disabled people can feel like a veiled attempt to reassure themselves of their own happiness and to camouflage their own miseries. Perhaps they could benefit from interactions with disabled people that take them out of their (not too comfortable) comfort zones. Perhaps they could learn about themselves from crip commentary.
4. #NotAllNondisabledPeople and Other Qualifications
Following Ward’s example, I will make some important qualifications on the foregoing remarks for purposes of clarification. First, I in no way mean to suggest that all nondisabled people are sad and boring. Many nondisabled people are happy, creative, and playful. My criptique applies to normate culture, which demands certain investments, sacrifices, and identifications from nondisabled people. Not every nondisabled person is equally susceptible or subservient to these demands.
Second, not all disabled people are happy about existing outside of normate space-time. There are definite (especially material) disadvantages to being excluded from normate institutions, like the wage economy. My comments, however, are not about individual disabled people, but, rather, crip culture, by which I mean (using Kafai’s description) a “liberatory zone,” in which disabled people “can exist and thrive liberated from the oppressions that relegate our daily lives [in normate spaces]” (p. 41). It is this zone that is relatively free from normate drudgery, in which disabled people find crip pride and positivity.
5. Do Nondisabled People Want to Be Liberated?
I recently co-authored (with Filippo Contesi and Philosophers for Sustainability) a pledge to make philosophy events more accessible, sustainable, and inclusive by offering an online option. So far, this pledge has fewer than 200 signatures. This makes me wonder if nondisabled philosophers understand their own situation. Some will assume that I created the pledge for the sake of disabled philosophers, who crave nondisabled people’s validation, acceptance, and help. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. As should now be clear, I co-authored the pledge for the sake of my nondisabled colleagues, who could benefit from exposure to criptiques and crip creativity. I felt bad for those nondisabled philosophers who are stuck in a normate time loop, rehearsing the same old platitudes about crip misery and normate flourishing ad infinitum. I wanted to let nondisabled philosophers enjoy some crip fun and friendship. If my nondisabled colleagues are not interested in the invitation, then I wish them the best, but I worry for them. I worry that they will continue to theorize in a normate vacuum, fret over unachievable ideals, struggle to meet ever-looming deadlines largely of their own making, and suffer the myriad other indignities and inconveniences imposed on them by their own culture. This thought is depressing, but one can only do so much to help and uplift other people.
Meanwhile, disabled philosophers couldn’t be happier than when congregating in crip-centric liberatory spaces, where we can enjoy each other’s company and affirm each other’s values and aspirations. Crip culture doesn’t need nondisabled people’s company any more than gay bars need more straight patrons. Indeed, many of us actively seek out crip spaces precisely to escape from the spectacle of normate anguish. This isn’t to say that we will never participate in normate events, but these probably won’t be our favorite experiences. Yet most of us are willing to share our liberatory criptiques, if our nondisabled peers are interested in receiving them.
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*I am grateful to Sofia Jeppsson for commenting on an earlier draft of this post.