The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Disability Archetypes: Supercrip

"Wow, that is so inspiring!" "She has truly overcome her handicap." "You are so brave!"

Do any of these exclamations sound familiar? They might, if you are a person with a disability who has been on the receiving end of "good intentions" that mask an unfortunately pervasive Western trope about disability and people who live with disabilities: Supercrip.

Supercrip is the Good Cripple taken to dizzying, perhaps nauseating heights, and chances are, if you've had any exposure to media depictions of disability at all, you have been exposed to this trope. Supercrip has been, in his and her various iterations, sunny, kind, overachieving, possesses a "can-do" attitude, and does AMAZING! and INSPIRING! things and can thus "overcome" his or her disability. Supercrip's personality traits overlap quite a bit with those of the Good Cripple, but above all, Supercrip's main function is to serve as inspiring to the majority while reinforcing the things that make this majority feel awesome about itself. In short: Supercrip provides a way for non-disabled folks to be "inspired" by persons with disabilities without actually questioning—or making changes to—how persons with disabilities are treated in society.

I can hear the refrain now: "But why is it bad if it's a positive stereotype?" Positive or not, it's still a stereotype. And because it is a stereotype—some would say cliché—many folks without disabilities use it as shorthand when telling stories about people with disabilities; how many times have we seen those human interest pieces on the news or in magazines about athletes struck down "in their prime" who are learning to walk again (and holding out hope and a "positive attitude" for the day that they can toss a football around again), or a person with one leg who is running a marathon? Or, hell, Christopher Reeve, who basically remade himself as the penultimate Supercrip after his life-changing injury—and, I might add, could reinvent himself in that fashion because he had the money and an existing famous-person platform from which to do so?

Disability activist and writer Lorenzo W. Milam expands upon the Supercrip stereotype in a passage from CripZen: A Manual For Survival: "Less obvious, but more hurtful, is what we call the Roosevelt Syndrome—scaling great heights, smiling…becoming SuperCrip, convincing everyone that there is nothing going on inside, nothing at all." Nevermind whatever anger, rage, sadness, or less-than-positive thoughts you may have; if you are a person with a disability, you are expected to be just a canvas onto which non-disabled people can project their need for "inspiration."

Now, there is nothing inherently ableist about taking one's inspiration from an example that another person has set; arguably, looking to others for inspiration is very human. It is when we collapse stereotypes into real-life expectations--or the individual into a representative for all people in her or his group--that such "inspiration" becomes problematic. Ergo, the Supercrip story is one of the only types of narratives about disabled people that receives plenty of airtime and page space. Supercrip cannot just be human; she or he must be superhuman and surpass not only her/his disability, but the realms of "normal" human achievement. Supercrip's inspirational currency is not at all about inspiring other people with disabilities; it is, rather, about inspiring non-disabled people. Supercrip allows some non-disabled folks to feel better about themselves; this is quite evident when it comes to statements like, "What an inspiration!" The implication with these sorts of statements is disturbing: if a disabled person can do superhuman things, what is the person who is being inspired—and who likely does not have a disability—complaining about, anyway? Supercrip has it so much worse because s/he is disabled, and s/he is doing amazing things in spite of those limitations!

Unfortunately for some PWDs, Supercrip is a specter; he or she is a ghostly reminder of what we will never be—but, as some like to remind us, we should remember that Supercrips do "amazing" things, so why can't we? Here's why: Most people—disabled or not—cannot run marathons, or play sports at a non-amateur level, or make advocating for stem-cell research into a full-time, publicity-garnering, and paying gig. However, some folks do not seem to realize this, and may deem it perfectly acceptable to dredge up the zombie-body of Supercrip, along with the magical, mythic Level Playing Field that supports her or him—and, by extension (and according to the non-marginalized) other people who have traditionally been marginalized.

The myth of the Level Playing Field holds that American society gives everyone—no matter what their background or present circumstances—equal chances to succeed, and that most of the problems that marginalized groups have traditionally faced have already been solved. All folks have to do is work hard, have a good attitude, and their success will be imminent! Therefore, if there's a Level Playing Field, there is no reason that people with disabilities can't do superhuman things and succeed. Of course, the Level Playing Field is not real (hence its mythic status). Yet, many people who are effectively not marginalized regularly tell those who are that they, too, can "make it" if they just work hard and/or visualize their success. And so Supercrip remains the exception that many abled folks like to bring up; using similar logic, non-fictional Supercrips throughout the ages—along with many other people from marginalized groups who have "made it"--supposedly "prove" the existence of the Level Playing Field.

Like the titular character of the classic '80s disaster Weekend at Bernie's, Supercrip has been dragged around for far too long, and the joke that comes with this dragging-around is deeply unfunny, though the majority that keeps telling this joke hasn't yet realized it. It's time to let Supercrip rest.

by Anna Hamilton
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Great article, but...

...your Friendly Neighborhood Pedant is here to tell you that "penultimate" does not mean "the absolute ultimate," it means "next to last." Normally I wouldn't interfere like this, but that word actually makes what you're saying right there quite the opposite of what you would like to say!

Still, a very well-written and thought-provoking piece here.

...three years later...

No it's being used correctly. The "ultimate" is the abstract concept itself. Penultimate is the closest a real person can come.

Faking It

<i>Or, hell, Christopher Reeve, who basically remade himself as the penultimate [sic] Supercrip after his life-changing injury—and, I might add, could reinvent himself in that fashion because he had the money and an existing famous-person platform from which to do so?</i>

And, let us not forget, a wife to act as caregiver (which may have contributed to her premature death). Even so, I don't think he made but one, or maybe two, more movies the entire rest of his career. Part of the super-crip gig, therefore, seems to me to involve a great deal of denial of reality, both on the part of the super-crip and of the non-disabled public. And us, too, come to think of it, when we buy into the model and beat ourselves up for not achieving it.

For example, Roosevelt, another rich man, had an easier daily schedule--even in the White House--than I do (I'm a polio survivor, too) so when the public looks in awe at all he did, they don't realize that he actually didn't do that damn much! Plus, he never let anybody see him in a wheelchair in public and he even pretended he could walk and stand on a number of occasions--all of which may have aged him prematurely and contributed to his early death of pneumonia. He liked to wear his braces outside his pants for comfort and convenience, but he would never do that in public either. So what did he really overcome, and what did he just hide or buy? Not dissing him, or Reeve either, mind you, because society requires that we do these things in order to partake in its benefits on its terms. But just saying, that archetype/emperor has no clothes.

Sadly, I doubt the supercrip

Sadly, I doubt the supercrip will ever go away completely; it's one of the oldest continuing tropes in western literature/culture (see: Tiresias, the blind seer, and all the others who gain special powers associated with an injury/disability). Getting to the point where it's recognized as a stereotype would probably do a lot of good, though.

This is very well written

This is very well written and i could not agree more. I don't know why, but i've never really looked twice at Supercrip stories other than to roll my eyes at the sap who wrote the article wherever i found it. That bit you said about the diasabled becoming a canvas for others to project their need for inspiration- that really woke me up. Thanks.

"Supercrip’s inspirational

"Supercrip’s inspirational currency is not at all about inspiring <i>other</i> people with disabilities; it is, rather, about inspiring non-disabled people."

This is where you had me. It was a light-bulb sentence for me.

There's this video going around ( of a disabled man and his ~inspiring~ journey to overcoming his disability. As someone similarly disabled (for different reasons, but a bad back and severe, deteriorating knee condition have left me in a wheelchair), the video hurt me, badly. I've been struggling so hard to accept the reality of my disability, and people without mobility impairments think it's okay to cheer the hell out of this guy to me, to tell PWDs like me that this is ~inspirational~? It baffled me, until I read this. Now I get it. It's not about inspiring other people like that man--it's about inspiring people to overcome completely unrelated obstacles, because they've never been in his shoes.

I really can't express enough how much seeing this spelled out meant to me. I needed to read this, thank you.

I find myself revisiting this

I find myself revisiting this in light of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal this year. His status as a cancer survivor was always touted in a way that made him out to be the ultimate supercrip. I wonder what it means now that we know that he cheated to achieve that, that he needed to dope for him to be able to do that.

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