I am very happy to be here with you. I will make a quick introduction. Robert McRuer is a professor at George Washington University, in Washington in the US, and is a contributor and developer of crip theory. Christine is a critical thinker, writer, performance artist based in Stockholm. And me, I am Zafire, I’m an artist and sex educator working specifically with safer spaces and accessibility.
I would like you in the audience to be involved in this conversation. You can raise your hand, ask the person next to you to ask your question or tell your comment, or write a note and give it to me. I hope you are ready with some questions for us.
I e-mailed Christine and Robert and asked them what they would like to talk about so I will read their answers to inspire you.
Christine’s response: “The future, in Sweden and elsewhere, and how we talk about functionality, power and different bodies. What is about to happen, what do we wish will happen, and how do we get there.”
Robert’s response: “Thinking about how, why and when crip ideas, images and performances, and art and activism, cross borders, and how conversations about sex and sexuality have been central in that transnational sharing.”
My suggestion was also to talk about sex education because that’s the field that I mostly work with.
So that was a bit of inspiration for all of you for this conversation. First of all, I think that language is something that is very important to all of us. “Crip” as a word can be a noun, a verb and an adjective. It can be used in a similar way as the word “queer”. For me, that brings a lot of possibilities. Some people create an identity through the word “crip”, while some will use it to refuse an identity. I think that is a similar thing as what has happened with the word “queer”.
Maybe you could talk a bit more about the possibilities that the word “crip” has brought, maybe even for you personally?
There is a lot to say about it but first I want to ask you all of you, and Christine, about “crip” traveling across languages.With my own linguistic abilities, I’m aware of these conversations in Spanish where there are questions about which words that are not English imports that might function in similarily. Since Spanish is different in many locations, a word used in Spain might not work in South America. There is a debate about what word might function in Spanish. One word might be “cojo” which means “lame”, but it hasn’t had the same reclamation history as “crip”. I say “reclamation history” because crip is tied to ability impairment but at this point in English, and other languages, it has gotten much more expansive. I’m curious about Swedish. Partly because some of the conversations about crip in Spanish have come with the questioning: “OK, here’s a theory, like queer theory, that’s coming again from English, and that is somewhat imperialistic”. I think that people in Spanish-speaking contexts are certainly OK with the words “queer” and “crip”. I’m kind of curious about how they work in Swedish and what you think about that.
Would you like to talk a little about that?
Absolutely. It’s interesting to try to translate with words derived from Anglo-Sacco or American contexts to Swedish language and contexts. I talk about cripness as an identity and as a term, as a verb and an adjective, but I’d like to talk about “ability”, which has been catching on in Swedish now during the last years. The word “funktionalitet” in Swedish is something that everybody has. It is coming, and then we can talk about different privileges and possibilities that are tied to different kinds of abilities. There are attempts to create Swedish words or synonyms to “crip”, for example “lytt-teori”, where “lytt” is equivalent to “crip”. But it hasn’t really caught on, I don’t know what’s the case. Maybe part because how “crip” sounds, and also how the word has been reclaimed. In Swedish there is not yet a noun that works that way. We talk about “funkis”, which also comes from “funktionalitet” – functionality or ability, but it doesn’t have the same punch. So maybe that’s our quest here in Sweden, to try to find an equivalent.
Is there a question?
I have a question for Robert. I read in today’s program that you are doing handicap studies. What do you think about that word?
Is that what it says about me in Swedish?
Yes in the Swedish program is says “handicap studies” or “handikappstudier” and then disability studies.
In English it is a word we don’t use anymore, language is changing all the time, and “handicapped” outside of disability communities still gets used, like handicap parking but members of the disability movement wouldn’t use that term, and “handicap studies” doesn’t exist as a phrase in English. So “handicap” is seen as a kind of antique word in English. It’s interesting that these Swedish debates that we started to talk about don’t work in English. I think that what we were talking about functional diversity is similar to debates in Spanish where “diversidad funcional” is the preferred term amongst disability activists in Spain and Latin America as well. But when we’re talking about functional diversity in English, I think a lot of crip activists would say that we’re using “nice words”, but the Swedish and Spanish debates are very different. By “nice words”, English speakers mean words that make disabled people cringe. Words and phrases that disability activists tend to not like are those that have a tinge of “special” or a patronizing air to it in English, that it might not have in other languages. The debate doesn’t work in exactly the same way.
The main debate in English has been between “a person with a disability” versus “disabled people”. For some it is important to stress the person first. A lot of people use the words interchangeably but more radical English-speaking activists will often say “disabled people”, since disabled is a way of being human, and not something on the side, like a handbag.
That debate has been relatively alive in the UK. Person first-language is particularly stressed when we’re talking about psychiatric disability but people with physical disabilities tend to prefer “disabled people”. In the US, that is definitely the case amongst academics.
What do you say about calling a person physically, mentally or intellectually “challenged”?
The word “challenged” would be seen as a problematic word amongst most activists in the US but that’s different in different English-speaking locations. The UK uses for example “mental difficulties” but that doesn’t really work in American English. So there has to be a translation from English to English depending on the location.
The key question is: “challenged” by what? Certain abilities lead to systematic oppression. I think the translation of disability studies as “handikappstudier” in the Swedish program also reflects the discourse in Sweden where the hegemonic studies stresses the medical model. That is why crip theory can’t take place in those contexts, but rather within gender studies and such.
Are there direct translations of the words “handicapped” and “disabled” in Swedish?
I think the discussions have been very fluctuating in Sweden and language has been used as a tool. In the 90s, we talked about “funktionshinder” – disability in the environment – and “funktionsnedsättning” – impairment ability. Now we talk more about normative and un-normative abilities.
I just want to emphasize that we didn’t actively translate disability studies as “handikappstudier”, but rather wanted to speak about how crip theory has developed from what used to be called “handikappstudier” in Sweden.
I think that’s really telling of the language that’s present in Sweden right now, as well as the possibilities.
The development from crip theory in Sweden hasn’t much to do with this but we had a small seminar with people who weren’t really involved in academia, and it was called “lytt”-seminar, with “lytt” as one of those words that you can reclaim. That sort of went overboard. Crip theory today has not taken on within disability research, who themselves would say “handikappteori”. It has only been taken on in small areas within gender studies. The problem I see is that people come to crip theory from queer theory and think that the tools they already have are directly applicable here. I would argue that it’s not but I would like to hear your view.
15 years ago in the US, it was possible to do disability studies without having any ground in feminist and queer studies but I don’t that’s possible anymore. A whole range of activists, artists and writers have made it ethically impossible to work within disability studies without a deep connection to queer thought. That doesn’t mean that the tools are automatically interchangeable in both directions, but it means that the field has been driven by a lot of queer crips who have found the slipperiness of desire and simultaneously grounded in the sub-materiality embodiment with crip and queer coming together. They have found it incredibly generative for ways of thinking, living and being. That sort of answers your question, let me pass this to Christine.
With this kind of merging of feminism, and especially intersectional feminism, with ability is also what would create a genuine cripestemology, as people with disabilities have often been labeled with one sole identity. What’s lacking for me in disability research is an attempt to use crip theory in Sweden as situating embodiment for the researcher. I am situated all the time as a person with a visible disability and I try to situate myself in that experience in texts since I think it enforces my work as a thinker, but also since it is radically overlooked in other texts, especially by people who don’t identify as crip or who don’t have crip experience. I think that’s really the hinge to get over. If situating your experience was what everybody did in general it would be fine. As long as you state your position you can state your research claim and that’s a transparency I’d like to see.
Personally for me, as coming to a queer identity and a crip identity I’ve been guided by prominent trans people who, before I knew anything about crip and disability, showed me a kinship with the medicalized body, system and norms but also the experience of stigma and violence. They have also been interested in my research, including people with what we call “invisible disabilities” or neurological diversities, and trans people.
Thank you. I saw another hand. Is there another question?
We’re still hung-up on these words. Just to add to Susanne’s story: when we had this seminar 10 years ago, we started to discuss the word “crip”. We called it a crip seminar first, and had a long discussion about what to call it in Swedish – we wanted to find a word and started to call it “lytt-seminarium”. Something happened when we were thinking about a Swedish word. It was kind of cool to talk about “crip” but it can be colonial to use the English term. It was cool with all these people from different areas, when you use the Swedish word, and they translate the context to a Swedish context. It’s important to find local words since it puts the activist in a more real situation – you can’t use the American or English societies as metaphors without looking at your own country.
Thank you. I want to say a few things that build on that. It’s important in linguistic contexts to have these conversations without assuming the outcome of them. When I think of Spanish conversations that I’ve had, there is both a recognition of the problems with using English terms such as crip and queer, and the discussion about possible Spanish words is valuable in itself. But sometimes English words function in new contexts in unexpected ways. It might be imperialistic or colonialistic but something else might also happen. For example, the Prague conferences on cripping development and neo-liberalism I mentioned yesterday were held in a Czech-speaking context and there is a range of Czech words that could be used to talk about those processes. But the aim of the conference was transnational and the organizers wanted to build alliances in post-socialist locations. The historically very situated language of Czech couldn’t do in that particular context. In Spain right now, there is a great crip group from Barcelona that has done some very slick sexual education and what they call post-pornographic material about disability and sex. It’s called “Yes we fuck” and you can find it online. They use the universal wheelchair symbol but with another figure in it, which makes it edgy and radical. With the non-gendered figure suddenly doing something supposedly sexual in the wheelchair becomes a puzzle of gender and ability, and what sexual possibilities might emerge from those. There is a lot of debate now that this film, “Yes we fuck” is available. Activists suggest that the word “fuck” in Spanish-speaking locations varies so much. In some locations you would use the word “cojer” which in other locations just means “to catch”, as in “catch a taxi”, which would be “fuck a taxi” in the first location. The movie ended up unifying Spanish-speakers. My point is that on one hand, one wants to be cautious of linguistic imperialism, but also that the goals of a movement might be broader than that.
You both mentioned art in your presentations. Why is art so important to the crip movement?
It’s also about the academics and all places of knowledge to which people with disabilities have not been permitted access. That’s very important to stress. Presenting yourself through art has become a way of theorizing your experience. In America, we see prominent crip theorists or writers but in Sweden they are very few and that has to do with resources and access. Art therefore serves as crip university. But it’s also about representation and gaze. As a crip, you are the center of a lot of people’s gazes – socially, medically, so it’s also powerful to advert gaze in that way, or to direct it to the abled-notion, or the able-bodied.
Do you want to add something Robert?
Art is also a space for imagining crip futures, and is making new forms that are about possible, livable worlds.
Would you say that there is an international community or art world?
I guess I will throw this to Christine too. It’s interesting because the “traditional” disability rights movement in the US and in the UK, have been focused on people with disabilities access to education, work etc., all very important things but nationally bounded. I was at an event several years back with Rose Marie Thompson who was talking about the Americans with disabilities act, and she said that it is so important that the keyword “disability” is in that act. I said that that’s true, that it’s nice that a civil right’s act has the word “disability” in its title. But there is also another keyword in it, “Americans”, which makes it a nationally bound document of rights for a closed group of people. Crip theory is about emigration and people who would never qualify for the Americans with disabilities act because of national boundaries.
You were talking about Lesley, and crip femme theories, and I was thinking of Loree Erickson who made a pornographic crip femme piece called “WANT” in Canada, and also the “Yes we fuck”-organization. The ideas are transnational and not appeals to one state. There are ways to appeal to the state for sexual rights but in general, the shaping of crip femme or sexual identity is something that needs to cross borders.
I think in the social model activism in the 70s and 80s in the UK, there was a lot of talk about the tech/IT revolution being a revolution for people with disabilities specifically. That has been important in creating an identity more than in terms of accessibility. I like what you called a “coalition of the left behinds”. It really happened online. Had I not been added to this Facebook group and had I not been approached by Lesley online, I would never have had a language for my identity, nor these possibilities. It’s also important as a base for activists that focus on austerity, cuts in disability rights and social welfare in general.
Thank you. We have a question from the audience.
Hello. I wanted to ask about intersectionality and alliances that you have been talking about. What do you think about the possibilities and risks in using crip as a position not necessarily connected to disability? As an example: thinkers in the US have written about blackness or queerness being a cripped position.
I think it can be really useful. The disability movement in Sweden right now is about forming alliances. Both the movement and the people it forms alliances with need to be aware of these intersecting points of privilege and power. Adding on identities and new groups claiming the word “crip”, which rhetorically works, has to be done with an awareness of privilege and power and with a creation of accessibility for people who you wouldn’t maybe imagine in this space. I think the academic use of the notions of intersectionality are very useful, especially in critical race and critical disability studies in Sweden. The historical intersection – the earlier understanding of disability and a race is very prominent, with race biology, genetics and forced sterilization as a practice that intersected between race, sexuality and disability.
In the American context, crip theory does have an Afro-American context and history as well. It’s easy to say that the two terms are two autonomous paths – crip in a disability sense and crip in an afro-American sense, where “crip” refers to one of the most prominent afro-American gangs based in LA but functioning nationally. I argued in Crip theory and in the keyword entry in the book Keywords for radicals that you can’t absolutely separate them because the history of the LA Crips history is somewhat saturated in disability. No one really knows where the word came from but some of the apocryphal stories indicate that the founder had a disability, and that other members of the gang walked in certain ways in solidarity with him. Other stories suggest that various members used canes. Whenever there has been a truce between the gangs in LA, it has almost always been centered on the body and community. After the 1992 LA riots, the Crips demanded HIV-ids, education and care in the community. That is a disability demand. One always needs to be cautious about how the term is traveling and being appropriated, but also be open to how it can be used in new ways and what kind of work it could do in new contexts.
On Youtube you can find a crip dance that is interesting in terms of choreography.
One thing that crip theory does that is akin to queer theory is that it un-does and un-makes. Obviously, one can be straight and do queer theory but in some ways, you can’t since if you take queer theory seriously it un-does your relationship to sexuality and desire in ways that makes straightness as a compulsory sexuality an impossible and unsustainable position. Crip theory should work similarly in the un-making of compulsory ableness.
Fantastic possibility! Yesterday you mentioned crip washing. Could you and Christine develop that?
That was a term that Melania Moscoso in Spain put forward to specifically look at disability-friendly imagery and rhetoric that was being deployed by the really harshly conservative Partido Popular in the right-wing government in Spain. At the same time women’s rights and abortion rights where being limited. She suggested that the happy family-multi culturalism that was put forward as a vision of inclusivity in the Spanish national context and included disability was obscuring the disarming of other rights. I think the term can be used to split disability itself so that those disabilities often put on display, e.g. in the Paralympics, can obscure what is happening elsewhere. Outside the Paralympics stadium in London, disabled protestors protested the games and the deaths being caused by the French company Atos that declared people fit to work. That company was actually one of the sponsors of the Paralympics. It was crip-washing with the games happening on one level and people’s lives on another.
Thinking about Atos gives me chills. I think that crip-washing in Sweden can happen on a more official state-level but I don’t think it does that much because we are not considered profitable in Sweden. There is no profit in allying yourself with people with disabilities. My experience is that it happens in academic settings. A certain flare is added by adding people with disabilities. That is happening a lot. Yesterday you mentioned Jens Rydström and Don Kulick. I was in a seminar discussing crip theory with Don Kulick this spring. What stuck to me was the opinion, coming from the audience, that it’s so good that we have the word “funkis” or “crip” because it’s so sexy. This is very speaking of the crip-washing situation in Sweden. As you say, genuine needs of human rights issues can be over-shadowed, because we now have a edgy, sexy and queer term. I think the exact comment was that it’s nice that we can talk about ourselves in a sexy way because otherwise we only talk about ramps and accessible lifts. Then I feel that you missed the point… That’s the kind of crip washing that is happening, with the rise of a more centered disability or crip perspective which is sometimes considered as exciting and sexy.
Do we have any comments or further questions on crip-washing from the audience? We have 15 minutes left of this conversation so raise your hand if you want to say something.
What are your hopes for the future regarding crip theory and practice?
What you keep in mind when you talk about crip experience and disability, is that it is as much a question about representation, epistemology and creating knowledge and understanding. It’s also about redistribution of resources, justice and accessibility. I would like to see justice for people with disabilities in Sweden as well as the future making space for disability, as Alison Kafer writes about in her book. I would like us to elaborate what a crip existence and epistemology is, and what knowledge can be reached from different kinds of bodies and positions. If we get there, I think it will also influence the system of justice. First, we would have to make a shift in power – structurally as a state, but also socially and culturally. In an aimless society, crips don’t have the possibility to frame discussions or needs. So I want a shift in power so that we can discuss the importance of different embodiments.
Thank you. I want a lot of the keywords Christine mentioned for the future – redistribution of resources, justice. I will use a queer example when thinking about what I want from a crip future. When Lisa Duggan wrote The Twilight of Equality, she wanted to examine neo-liberalism and talk about how queerness was actually in the heart of it. That book put forward the notion of homonormativity and how some gay and lesbian lives are not marginalized, but useful for the architects of neo-liberalism. Instead, they benefit from that system. Gay and lesbian existence was no longer testing the system but upholding and sustaining it. At the same time, other queers where even more marginalized, according to other queer theorists. I think that Duggan’s book wanted to place queerness in the center of conversation about neo-liberalism but it ended up only being read by a bunch of queers. That’s what I want with my book too – I want us to talk about how central disability is to what’s happening in Spain, Greece, the UK and elsewhere. I fear that these conversations about disability and crip community get marginalized. People will be saying that “we’re talking about austerity, disability is a side-issue”. For the future I would like to see disability not as an add-on but as a central part of the epistemology from the start.
Thank you. Any additions from the audience about the future? Do you agree with everything said?
I would like to hear more about putting crip theory in the center in the future.
Do you want to start?
To center notions of ability in general, as well as vulnerability and physicality. I think what neo-liberalism has successfully done is to create a discourse system that says that we don’t have bodies, that we only have abilities and aspirations to fulfill. The real cross-reality of living with a physicality that is an outcast in that system is overlooked. So it is also about going to the physical experience to begin to talk about disability when we talk about all kinds of economic processes, but also to center disability in other marginalized groups. There is an interesting study that talks about people with disabilities that are Sami – the indigenous people of Sweden. What is the disabled or queer experience in a indigenous group in Sweden? Centering a disability perspective is about physicality but also about different marginalized groups and their perspectives. To try to pressure a discourse is hard. The hegemonic discourse of neo-liberalism is so solid as a way of understanding the world. But I think it is possible to put pressure from underneath and challenge the neo-liberalism we are living in.
To extend the conversation through feminism as both a success story and something that can urge us to caution. As a success story, what I mean is that for most people in this room, as a critical thinker, you have to think about gender. Feminism as been successful in reshaping our ways of thinking to the degree that if you’re talking about neo-liberalism, you have to think about how it effects women or marginalized gender subjects in general. But feminism can also be a sign of danger. A) a lot of big boys in critical theory proceed to talk about economy and globalization without thinking at all about gender. B) Feminist success in the US has coexisted with attacks on women’s rights and bodies. So what I would like to see for disability studies and specifically crip theory is the capacity to think about disability and bodies. But we have to think about the danger of not being heard in an ableist culture and remember that people with disabilities are still subjects to both marginalization and attacks against their bodies both in medicalized and non-medicalized settings.
Thank you. We have a couple of minutes for a few last questions.
Ableism is interesting because it carries this very neo-liberal narrative about the super-crip who not only overcoming physical disability but also creates a gap where people with disabilities can be successful as entrepreneurs within a neo-liberal strategy. They are successful as sort of autonomous vehicles creating profit and reinforcing the ableist notion of overcoming, and being inspirational. We need to investigate this discourse of structure more in Sweden. It is not a possibility that all disabled people would like. It is often presented to people with my own kind of ability – mobility impair. People will say that “you could be a great lecturer, go around and use yourself and your ability as market space”. I think that idea is an alliance with the neo-liberal idea of creating your personal brand.
Thank you for sharing your smart thought. Big applause!