Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Cripple-Punk: when existing is rebellion

Cripple-punk, Chronic-punk, C-punk. Maybe you’ve seen these terms around, maybe you haven’t. But what do they mean?

[image description: a digital artwork depicting user ogrefairy - a fat  light-skinned wheelchair-user with a “The Future Is Accessible” crop top, surgery scars on her knees, reddish-purple lips, thin framed glasses, a dark brown bob cut, and a floral tattoo on her wrist. She is giving a peace sign and a gentle smile while sitting in a manual chair that has been decorated with purple and black zebra patterned tape. Matching forearm crutches sit behind her backrest. The background is Art Nouveau inspired abstract pale purple with a floral wreath of princess lilies and has flowers that match those on her tattoo. The whole image gives off a gentle, soft tone with layers of maybe assertive resilience built in.]

Cripple-punk can be described in a number of ways: a movement, an attitude, a lifestyle. It is all of these things. Tired of being pitied, portrayed as weak, incapable, lesser, and tired of being treated as fragile adult children disabled and chronically ill people are fighting back. Part of this fight is the reclamation of the word cripple once used derisively for those with mobility issues; it is now being said with a self aware pride by the very people it refers to. “Yes I am a cripple. What’s your point?”.
Of course not everybody identifies with the word cripple. For many it is still a word that carries social stigma and negativity, and for others it just doesn’t reflect their personal situation. So then the terms  Chronic-punk and C-Punk. From this point forward I will be using the term C-punk inclusive of both cripple- and chronic-punk.

Let’s turn briefly to the history of punk itself. Whether you believe that punk was spawned in the clubs of New York or the streets of London, what is clear to all is that punk was a reactionary movement. Punk developed as a reaction to and rejection of the orthodoxy. It was a rebellion against the sociopolitics of the mid 70s and 80s. It embraced anarchy, nihilism, dada, socialism and did so with an unbridled and shameless energy and aggression. It was a challenge to everybody to embrace individuality and push against normality.[1]

Since its initial inception as a subculture there have been numerous off-shoots, and further subdivisions such as hardcore punk, post punk and even pop punk that grew organically out of the original punk scene. Later, the term punk was used as a suffix for a number of sub-genres and cultures which were about subverting, challenging and changing the status quo of a given theme. Thus was born steam-punk (subversion of Victoriana), diesel-punk (mutations of the early 20th century), cyberpunk (subversive sci-fi and near future), and more recently solar-punk (eco futurism) and afro-punk (referring both to the contribution of black people to alternative and activist movement AND to a variety of solar punk that is centred on African culture related to afrofuturism[2]). These subgenres are largely arts based, developing from literature in to art, music, lifestyle and “aesthetic”. [3]

[image description: a digital artwork depicting a black person with short black dreads on the top of their head that are died orange at the tips. They are wearing short gray shorts that show pockets and a white bikini top and white lipstick. She has artistic, white prosthetics on her left arm and leg that are decorated with orange day lilies. The background is pale blue with a floral wreath of orange day lilies. They are muscular and seem to be very confident.]

Now that we have a mutual understanding of punk, let’s think about C-punk. If punk is about rebellion, subverting the norm and individuality how does that apply to chronically ill and disabled people, after all people of all backgrounds can be disabled? While that’s correct there are common experiences shared by many people with disability and chronic illness. Disability is rarely seen in media and when it is it is often a feature of a storyline designed to generate sympathy or as a growing point for an able bodied character. When characters are disabled that is often the primary focus and the character is allowed little characterisation or identity other than their disability. This spills over in to everyday life for many people – people with disabilities and chronic illness are often forgotten about (as evidenced by many buildings and events not thinking about accessibility at all) or reduced to a stereotyped collection of their symptoms and abilities. In real life it is common for people to be ignored, talked down to or infantilised as if any single impairment is enough to strip a person of their faculties and individuality. There is a stereotype that disabled people are either meek and quiet, eternally grateful for the things they can do and any shred of recognition they can get or, alternatively, we are bitter and remorseful, struggling to cope with our limitations and desperately wishing we were able bodied. There seems to be some sort of shame or guilt from able bodied people that encourages them to hide disabled people behind the curtain, because they don’t know how to treat them. This is lodged in the idea that a disability or chronic illness makes us somehow “other” and reduces us to a small set of experiences specifically linked to our health. It forgets that even though disability or chronic illness may be a big part of our lives (and trust me I can spend hours talking about health symptoms and medical research) it is not the only part of our lives and really we are as diverse as any group of able bodied people.

These prevailing attitudes have created a culture in which people may be ashamed to use the very adaptations, aides, medication and devices that actually help to improve our quality of life. There is a certain amount of stigma attached to using a walking cane, or crutches. Being a young person wearing joint braces encourages questions from perfect strangers and should you reveal they are for a long term condition, pity or disbelief. People are scared to take medication especially for anything relating to mental health or neurodivergence, but also things like pain relievers for fear of looking “weak” or of “giving in”. [4] Additionally, due to our current socio-political situation (in the UK and US at least) there is a fear that if you reveal you are disabled or chronically ill then you are faking it for benefits, scamming the system or simply put lazy.

Conversely and somewhat surreally there is also the (thankfully shrinking trend) of photographers and film makers using the trappings of disability – such as wheelchairs, crutches, hospital beds, and mental health stereotypes – as a backdrop and props for their shoots and films when they want to appear “edgy”[5]. In fact medical paraphernalia has been a stalwart of shock and horror media since the 19th Century, and shockingly the attitude and acceptance of this is only just beginning to change. Once again this “others” people who are actually disabled or chronically ill turning their daily lives into a boogie man or piece of set dressing. In some cases it may lead to people choosing (or being forced to in some cases) to hide their disabilities in order to avoid bullying, harassment and stigma.

C-Punk therefore encourages people who are actually disabled to embrace their disabilities and to show the true face of disability and chronic illness. If the social norm and status quo is to shame and hide and to strip disabled people of their individuality, then it is a punk act to wear a neck brace proudly, to decorate crutches, to be seen, to say “I am here, I am disabled, and I am just like you.” .

[image description: a group of five individuals of varying gender presentations. They are a variety of body sizes and are dressed in a mixture of styles. One individual is using crutches, one using a walking cane, one appears to be wearing wrist braces and a fourth is wearing headphones. The background is lilac with a wreath of pink and lilac orchid flowers. The title of the piece is "My MentallyIllPunk Famiy"]
It subverts the trend of humble gratuity to both accept and acknowledge ones illness but also to talk out about the difficulties we face. At its most simple C-punk is an aesthetic that does not hide or diminish disability and chronic illness and encourages acceptance or even pride rather than guilt or meekness. But for many it is more than that. It is a socio-political statement and a movement. As long as disabled people aren’t seen as individuals it is easy to dismiss and ignore their rights, ignoring accessibility laws, harassment, the stripping of benefits in a manner that the UN has seen fit to condemn[6]. By, in true punk fashion, making a scene, shouting out being seen and being heard cripple punk forces those who have previously brushed aside the reality of disabled people to view us as real people; real people just like them who may, just possibly be deserving of fair treatment.

In some cases the aesthetic of C-punk bears resemblance to the original punk looks: it is certainly popular with people like myself who are brightly haired and tattooed. But it is not the preserve of the alternative millennial (yes I am 32, yes I am a millennial, I was 15 in 2000) simply being openly, honestly and unapologetically disabled or chronically ill in public is an act of defiance and punk rebellion in our society. Not accepting shame, belittling, lesser treatment or discrimination is a radical and punk act.

Not all who confidently and unashamedly live their lives with disability or chronic illness will label themselves as C-punk and some may have never heard of the term(s). But in a world where existing as a minority is a radical act, they are acting in the spirit of C-punk just as much as those who bear the label. When you see somebody embodying the principles of C-punk, take note: realise that not giving in to outdated stereotypes and pressures is a choice and not always an easy one. We are not your inspiration but we are to be recognised.

All illustrations are by Ogrefairy at Ogrefairydoodles on Tumblr and are used with permission

[note: If you do experience shame, doubt, frustration and other negative feelings about your chronic illness or disability that's ok. It doesn't make you any lesser or any less C-Punk, at least in my eyes. A week does not pass by where I do not feel some frustration or inadequacy over my own health. You aren't alone, you still matter.]

[1] https://unireadinghistory.com/2013/09/04/punk-politics-and-youth-culture-1976-84/
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/dec/07/afrofuturism-black-identity-future-science-technology
[3] There are long debates to be had about how relevant the “punk” suffix is to a number of these subgenres and many arguments about the validity and actual definitions. That goes far beyond the scope of this particular blog post.
[4] See this great article on disability as “inspiration” in which a lot of value is placed on “overcoming” your personal difficulties, preferably without the aid of medication. https://www.abilities.com/community/inspirational.html
[5] http://www.kaltblut-magazine.com/editors-pick-elizaveta-porodina/
[6] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/government-spending-cuts-human-catastrophe-un-committee-rights-persons-with-disabilities-disabled-a7911556.html

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