The "supercrip" trap
October 5, 2009
It’s time for careful review of some previous topics. Over the past two years, I introduced you to some people with disabilities who have done some pretty cool things.
Recently, I told you about Angela Madsen, a paraplegic who rowed across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. I told you about Phamaly, a professional theater troupe composed entirely of performers with disabilities.
I previously introduced you to Sarah Will, a paraplegic monoskier who won 12 gold medals in the Paralympics and is in the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
I’ve written about Sally Conway, who has MS and uses a wheelchair, and who is the director of the ADA Technical Assistance and Mediation Programs with the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice in Washington D.C.
Why do I continue to tell you about these individuals with disabilities who are doing cool things? Because our society continues to stereotype people with disabilities as always being fragile, helpless objects of pity who are doing nothing worthwhile and who are totally dependent on others and social security.
It is my hope that as you get to know some of the people I know, you will begin to realize that many people with disabilities are independent, vibrant, active, involved people who are doing some pretty cool things.
There is a danger here that I must warn you about. Please, don’t fall into the “supercrip” trap. “Supercrip” is a word some people with disabilities use to describe the phenomenon of society tending to see people with disabilities who are doing cool things as being people who have “overcome” their “tragic” disability to somehow become heroic.
Then those who hold this “supercrip” viewpoint turn toward the next person with a disability and expect them to perform in the same amazing fashion. Surely this other poor person will also “overcome” their “tragic” disability and do something really cool as well.
I’m going to throw myself into this fray. I shall use myself as an example. I am a monoskier and handcyclist and sometimes I am seen as a “supercrip.” Here’s the deal. I haven’t “overcome” my disability. I just learned how to manage it. Most of us do learn how to manage our disabilities. It’s not that big of a deal. Secondly, my disability is not “tragic.” It’s annoying at times. It’s been a problem at times. But it’s not a tragedy. I have not overcome anything tragic. I’m just living my life.
Some people see my monoskiing as heroic. No. I’m just doing what I always did. I was a skier before MS and I’m a skier now. All I’ve done is switch equipment. My new equipment is kind of cool, but it doesn’t make me heroic, unless you see every able-bodied skier as being heroic. I’m just doing what everyone else in Summit County does. If you see me as heroic because I do normal things, you are missing the point. People with disabilities do normal things.
Then there’s the danger that if I use a wheelchair and I’m doing this super cool thing called monoskiing, then everyone else who uses a wheelchair should overcome their disability and monoski as well. Guess what? Some people with disabilities don’t like snow. That doesn’t mean they failed at “overcoming” their disability. They just have other interests. Don’t pressure them to have the same interests as me.
Most people with disabilities who monoski or handcycle are just average skiers and average bicyclists. There are a few like Sarah Will, who won Paralympic gold medals, who are extraordinary. But most of us are blessedly average.
Sandy Lahmann, a previous Frisco resident now temporarily lost on the Front Range, can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.