On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs | Personal Narrative Review

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Nancy Mairs, in her essay “On Being a Cripple,” challenges the negative perceptions of disabilities and cripples by speaking candidly about her own experience as a person with multiple sclerosis.

The essay is an honest and raw reflection on how society views disabled people and how she, as a disabled person, sees herself. The essay offers insight into the world of disability and brings to light the struggles that disabled people face daily.

The Definition of Disability

In “On Being a Cripple,” Nancy Mairs challenges the narrow definition of disability and argues that disability encompasses a broader range of limitations. She explains that people with disabilities have different abilities and needs, and the definition of disability should be more inclusive.

In the essay, Mairs argues that disability should not be limited to visible impairments, such as the inability to walk or see. There are also invisible impairments, such as chronic pain or cognitive disabilities, that affect a person’s ability to function daily. In fact, many disabilities are invisible, and people with such disabilities face unique challenges that are often overlooked.

The essay further elaborates on the concept of disability by distinguishing between different types of impairments. Here are some examples:

  1. Physical impairments: These are impairments that affect the body’s ability to function properly. Examples include paralysis, loss of limb, or chronic pain.
  2. Sensory impairments: These are impairments that affect a person’s ability to see, hear, or communicate. Examples include blindness, deafness, or speech impairments.
  3. Intellectual impairments: These are impairments that affect a person’s ability to learn and process information. Examples include developmental disabilities or learning disabilities.
  4. Mental health impairments: These are impairments that affect a person’s emotional and psychological well-being. Examples include depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

Mairs challenges the common belief that disabled people are defined solely by their limitations. Instead, she suggests that disabled people are defined by their unique experiences and abilities. For instance, a person with a physical impairment may have exceptional problem-solving skills, or an intellectual impairment may have amazing creativity.

Society’s View of Disability

Mairs notes that people with disabilities are often treated as objects of pity, reinforcing the idea that they are helpless and unable to live fulfilling lives. This negative perception of disability can create a cycle of dependency, where disabled people are viewed as burdens on their families and society. This, in turn, can limit the opportunities available to them in terms of education and employment.

Mairs further explains that society’s negative attitudes towards disabled people can lead to discrimination and exclusion. For instance, she shares how she was once denied a job opportunity simply because of her disability. This experience highlights how negative attitudes towards disability can have real-world consequences and can limit the options available to disabled people.

Another issue that Mairs addresses is the lack of accessibility in public spaces. She points out that many buildings and public spaces are not designed with disabled people in mind, making it difficult or even impossible for them to navigate these spaces. This lack of accessibility can further isolate disabled people and limit their social participation.

Mairs emphasizes the need for society to change its attitudes towards disabled people and to view them as equals rather than as objects of pity. She challenges society to recognize the unique strengths and abilities of disabled people and to provide them with the support they need to live fulfilling lives.

Emotional Toll of Disability

Mairs’ essay highlights the emotional toll that disability can have on a person and the importance of acknowledging and addressing these emotions. She encourages society to recognize the emotional impact of disability and to support people with disabilities to help them lead fulfilling lives.

The author notes that grief is one of the most challenging emotions she has dealt with. She grieved for losing her physical abilities and the life she had known before becoming disabled. This grief was compounded by the fact that she had to deal with it alone, as society often does not recognize the emotional impact of disability.

Mairs also speaks about the feelings of isolation and loneliness that can come with disability. She explains that being disabled can make it challenging to connect with others, as people often do not know how to relate to someone with a disability. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can profoundly impact a person’s mental health.

Another emotion that Mairs discusses is anger. She explains that she has felt anger towards herself, others, and society for the injustices and limitations she has faced due to her disability. She highlights the importance of acknowledging and expressing these emotions, as they are a natural and valid response to the challenges of disability.

The essay also emphasizes the importance of finding joy and meaning in life despite the challenges of disability. She shares how writing has been a source of joy and purpose in her life and how she has found ways to adapt and enjoy the things she loves despite her limitations.

Importance of Language

In her essay Mairs highlights the crucial role that language plays in shaping our perceptions of disability. Mairs argues that the language we use can either reinforce negative stereotypes or challenge them, and emphasizes the need to use language that recognizes the humanity and diversity of disabled people.

Mairs critiques the language commonly used to describe disabled people, which she notes often reduces them to their disabilities and reinforces negative stereotypes. She points out that terms like “handicapped” and “wheelchair-bound” emphasize the disability over the person, and can contribute to negative attitudes towards disabled people.

Instead, Mairs suggests using language that emphasizes the person first and the disability second, such as “person with a disability” or “person with a visual impairment.” By doing so, we recognize that disabled people have unique experiences and identities, rather than just their disabilities.

Mairs also challenges language that implies disability is abnormal, such as the term “able-bodied.” She suggests using the term “non-disabled” instead, which reflects the fact that disability is a normal part of human diversity.

However, Mairs also acknowledges that language can be empowering, and shares her own experience with the term “cripple.” She explains how reclaiming the term has allowed her to reject the negative stereotypes associated with it and assert her own identity as a disabled person.

Overall, Mairs emphasizes that the language we use to describe disability is not neutral, but can profoundly impact how disabled people are perceived and treated. By using language that recognizes the humanity and diversity of disabled people, we can challenge negative attitudes towards disability and promote a more inclusive and accepting society.

Final Remarks  

In the conclusion, Mairs reflects on the challenges of living with a disability but emphasizes that disabled people are capable of leading fulfilling lives. She calls for society to change its attitudes towards disabled people and to view them as equals rather than as objects of pity.

Overall, “On Being a Cripple” is a powerful and thought-provoking essay that challenges our perceptions of disability and encourages us to see disabled people as individuals with unique strengths and abilities.


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