Sunday morning, I stood in the kitchen scrubbing the egg pan, listening to my kids argue over baby dolls two rooms away, and I thought about all the kitchen sinks in all the restaurants I’d worked, chiseling burnt soup off of pots, spraying down plates, loading and unloading the dish steamer. I thought Everyone in the world must have, at some point, looked down into a sink at a dish like this and scrubbed the shit out of it. I felt solid for a minute, meditating on the shared experience of wet, annoying work. The pan was cast iron, and I’d left it out too long without soaking. I couldn’t use soap.
Then I realized that it’s possible there are many people in the world who have not worked a pan like this. Because of their gender, maybe, or because of the home they were born into. Maybe, too, because of the way their hands work, the strength of them, what some people might call an incapacity to lean the way I was leaning, to turn the brush, to dig the plastic edge against metal. I scrubbed until my fingers pruned, and I left the damn thing soaking on the counter. My eight-year-old daughter came in and looked at the pan. She sighed and told me, Those eggs are stuck really strong. Super strong, I said. I set the timer for fifteen minutes and returned, because I had to and also, because I could.
The etymology of the word strong is exactly what you’d expect: from Old English strang meaning powerful, severe, constant, violent and from German streng, meaning strict. The root words sound a hell of a lot like the way my family pronounces string in the deep south, which makes sense to me because the experience of gaining actual, physical strength doesn’t seem singular. It seems like a constellation of sensations. In order to become stronger, we have to damage our muscles a little bit, allowing our body to repair itself. That’s what a woman told me at the crossfit gym I joined two weeks ago. Damage and repair, she said. It’s good to hurt.
It’s good to hurt became a kind of mantra during one of the hardest workouts I’ve experienced so far, a round of ab exercises the trainer had us work through following the brutal, 30-minute workout we’d just completed. During the first workout, I felt something pop in my left leg during a deep squat, and the whole thing went numb. I kept going. I could still move my leg; I just couldn’t feel it as much. It’s something that’s happened since I was a child, the result of a spine deformity I was born with and subsequent nerve compression. I knew I could keep going, and I wanted to. But lying there during the second workout, I started to lose the sense of just what my leg was up to. I told it to bicycle kick and flutter kick. I told it to land on the floor so I could lift myself up in a sit up. I think it did everything I told it to do, but I couldn’t see it, for the most part. At one point the trainer came over to ask if I was ok. I have no idea, I said, wondering if this man had worked with a person whose body decompensated the way mine sometimes did and wondering if I had filled out the waiver at the beginning of the class differently, marking yes for physical limitations instead of no, if he would treat me differently. I told myself, No, of course not. I told my legs what to do.
The character, Bran, on Game of Thrones, is a disabled kid in a fantasy world where social success is defined by becoming royalty. In Bran’s world, services like special education teams and even public school are at least five centuries away. Bran acquires his disability when he is pushed out of a tower window in the first episode of the first season, resulting in a short coma and paralysis of both of his legs. When Bran wakes from his coma, Tyrion, a nobleman with dwarfism, designs a saddle that would allow Bran to ride a horse, a saddle for someone who cannot hold onto a horse with his legs. I’m not a cripple, Bran shouts, glaring at Tyrion. Then I’m not a dwarf, Tyrion says. My father will rejoice to hear it.
Because an antique world, even a world filled with queens and castles, dragons and winter zombies, must be governed by antique ideas. Or ideas that might seem antique to us now. Now, we may believe no father would rejoice – or become ecstatically relieved – to learn that his previously disabled child did not have a disability, after all. No parents would consider terminating a pregnancy due to a diagnosis of dwarfism or Down syndrome or because their baby would be born with missing limbs. No child who could previously walk would deny ownership of the label cripple once they have experienced paralysis. And, in our world, it is by no means necessary for people with disabilities to come together to share gear, to troubleshoot the medical system or social groups or even actual mobility. It is unreasonable to believe that two people with disabilities might have different degrees of acceptance or emotions about their diagnosis, based on their ages, their experiences, or even their passing moods. In this world, my coworker, upon seeing a picture of my five year old daughter on her second day of kindergarten, would certainly never blurt out, Oh, cool! You can’t even tell she has a disability in that one!
The word cripple comes from eorð-cryppel, eorð meaning something like of the land and cryppel meaning something like bent and distorted and also to creep. It’s a satisfying etymology because of the way cripple feels so historically constant. Both bent and creeping. When someone says cripple, it’s easy to imagine a body like that, even if we’re talking about a crippled criminal justice system or a crippled economy. We read the sentence, and in our minds, the whole institution is bent and creeping.
Last year, when I worked with adults who had had strokes that caused them to lose the capacity to associate words with their meanings, I thought about this often. What images do we associate with words that describe the human body? Words like cripple, mobility, deformed, disabled. Do we assign those words a form? And if a person has forgotten the image that they used to associate with a word like cripple, what image should a clinician use to teach them?
Roughly 20% of the population of the United States has a disability, but people with disabilities are a varied bunch. Legal disability categories range from physical disabilities to emotional, intellectual, psychological, and behavioral disabilities. Within those categories, there’s a lot of variability as well. Some people are born with physical disabilities like spina bifida or cerebral palsy. Some people acquire them during their lifetime, via accidents or degenerative diseases. Within each of those categories, the population is more heterogeneous still. Disabilities present differently inside of each body. Disabilities also interact with a person’s race, class, culture, family expectations, and gender. The Disabled is a term as vague and generalized as The Humans when applied to an individual person. We use such small words to try to contain a huge, and hugely diverse, population. Cripple. Disabled. Different. Bent and bound to the earth. But also: of the earth. Just like everyone else.
Years later in the timeline of Game of Thrones, Bran has changed in other ways, too. Without his mobility, he’s gained a kind of magic, as fictional disabled characters often do: the ability to see everything that has ever happened, as long as he tunes into it. In an episode late in season seven, Bran hands his sister, Arya, who is super skilled at murdering people with blades, a knife. He tells her to take the damn thing, that it would be wasted on a cripple.
Of course, she takes it. It’s an appropriate tool for her specific skill set, and besides, Bran’s value is not stationed in the material world; he is valuable because of his telepathic and unrealistic sight. Folks call this the “magical cripple” trope. I wonder if this trope is so consistent throughout stories, shows, and movies because when someone is physically disabled, we have a hard time figuring out just how they can develop as a person, or a character. How can they build strength if they’ve already lost it, or if they were born without it? What does it mean for a person with a disability to hurt, just enough to grow?
In my own life, I don’t know the answer to those questions. I don’t know where a person’s specific capacity to engage in an activity intersects with the way that we use inductive reasoning to understand a body: if a part appears weak or broken, we believe the whole thing is dysfunctional. I don’t know where my loss of sensation intersects with the way my body builds strength, but I do know that I can build actual, physical, not metaphorical, strength. I know that my strengths and my weaknesses, both metaphorical and physical, can exist at the same time, right beside each other in the space between my body and the world in which I live. I don’t know whether to call that space conflict or nuance, but I know it is a space in which all of us – not just folks with diagnoses – reside.
In this, more advanced, world, we call needs like my five-year-old daughter’s, special, and with that word, the need itself is separated from the class of needs that we might define as typical or even normal. Special needs are an outlier but they are certainly not seen as magical. They require more focus, more attention, more work, and more time. Special, which means both, better than usual, and, particular, unusual. Embedded in this word is a crux of the way we perceive people with disabilities in this country. The ways we push them hard into their own category, the ways we are both inspired by them and disgusted with them, the ways we dismiss them. But still, we use their words to describe our world. We use disability terms often when we talk about class. The subject of this column is social mobility and the title of this column references the saying, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, a wink toward the pervasive mythology of the American Dream: that we all start off the supposed race of financial stability at relatively the same place, that a person’s success is relative to the amount of work they put in. The physical image of someone grabbing ahold of their own bootstraps, standing up tall, and moving forward is central to the American economic ethos, or what it means to do work. To keep going. To be a good, hard worker.
On my daughter’s second day of kindergarten, her teacher sent me a picture of her small body at her desk, hand posed, crayon gripped, eyes focused on the page, yellow hair falling into her eyes. Below the desk, her legs leaned together, a little to the right, her braces bright purple above her rainbow sneakers. Before she started at this school, I went to a handful of meetings with her team. Her speech, physical, and occupational therapists, the director of special education, her teachers, the nurse. We talked about troubleshooting the way she would experience her classroom, focusing particularly on the time it would take her to transition between her wheelchair and her walker on the playground and the use of her iPad, programmed with a speech-generating app, during class time. We talked about the space in the classroom, the measurable distance between furniture and wall. The theme of our conversations, like all special needs teams at public schools, was access. We talked about these things in great detail, largely because they are important to me, because I had access to a graduate degree in a medical field. I asked questions and made suggestions because I was taught to do so. My daughter’s access is directly related to my capacity to advocate for her.
Research shows that factors like a family’s income, a child’s race, first language, or disability status has a significant impact on how well they can access education in public schools in the United States. The data tells us that non-white kids from lower income families, particularly those who speak a language other than English at home and who have a disability historically have lower scores on standardized tests and lower graduation rates. The idea behind special education services in this country is: if a kid is given the right amount of support at school, they will have better access to their education, they will do better on the classwork and tests and have a higher likelihood of graduating high school. The idea is something like: equality is achievable.
The focus on access starts early for many kids like my daughter, kids who were born with a diagnosis, kids whose parents know how to seek services. A lot of time, money, and attention is placed on kids with disabilities. School districts call these elements resources, and many states and districts have a matrix they use to determine how many resources are allocated to a specific child. It’s an economic matrix, a cost-benefit value system. How many (or few) resources do we need to create the benefit of equal access to education for a specific child? Or how valuable are the resources for a specific child? Or even, how valuable can we make a specific child to the matrix of our society? If we lived in the Game of Thrones world, our education system wouldn’t hand a knife to Arya; it would try to find a way for Bran to use it because defending one’s body is super important in their world. In our world, embedded in the allocation of resources is the way that our society defines individual success. That is, most stereotypically: having a high paying and fulfilling job, having a family, having the capacity to buy things.
If class is the imagined straight line, the hierarchy, few of us are born on the same starting point, narrowing the field of people who have a real shot at making it. Women begin in an altogether different place than men. People of color, people who immigrated to this country, people who are queer, and people who are disabled start differently. Our identities and how we are seen give us a different experience of the world with different degrees of opportunities, from birth. Some of us “move” faster or slower based on the ways our actual bodies are perceived by the people around us, by the historical and current inequalities of our bodies and families and cultures. And because of our individual personalities and experiences.
But class isn’t a straight line because class, if applied to the population of a country, follows the lines of bodies inside of that population. Class isn’t even a hierarchy. It’s not a series of thinning atmospheres. Class, to me, is an ecology of intersecting value systems. The value systems are based on identity, experiences, and the ways we are perceived. Some people might roll their eyes at this idea, call it identity politics, but my politics are about precision or understanding the precise ways in which our bodies interact with the worlds we are born into. And if I’m right, the questions shifts from how can a person be mobile inside of class? To: what does it mean, or is it even possible, to be (metaphorically) mobile inside of class?
I don’t know how to answer these questions either, but I think it’s important to hold onto the question, to ask and keep asking. There’s a kind of slowness that’s often associated with people from lower classes and people with disabilities, in general. A creeping perhaps. A way of staying low to the ground. A way of moving less often. Of course, that’s a bullshit way of seeing disabled folks and working class or working poor folks. But it’s still there. At the very least, it’s inside of the words that we use to describe class movement, and people with disabilities themselves, the way we feel we must work so much harder to give them access, to lift them up so they can learn how to live in the world, right next to their non-poor, non-disabled peers.
I’m not arguing against working toward access. I believe in it. I make a living supporting it. I’m not arguing against the existence of class mobility. Certainly, class is a fluid experience. I’m not even arguing against the word cripple, which gets right under the skin of many people. I’m not arguing for PC language. I’m arguing against the images we link with the words that we use. The ladders. The hierarchy. The way we’re supposed to imagine ourselves climbing, working harder and faster and climbing, always climbing. What if we started off thinking about the values embedded in experiences that are traditionally labelled unfortunate.
Instead of thinking about all the cool shit we believe is wasted on these folks, what if we celebrated the resilience often built into a child from a working poor background or the real, not magical, strengths and resilience kids with disabilities have, right alongside their diagnoses. The code switching skills a single, working parent develops between running professional meetings and working on homework with their kids. Or even: the layered multitasking skills of folks who work more than one job, folks who deal with customers on a regular basis, folks who throw their bodies into their jobs because that is the skill they’ve identified themselves against, and it’s the one that brings the most money into their lives. What if we didn’t imagine ourselves climbing out of the elements of our bodies and lives that appear weak. What if we were cool with staying where we are, finding a way to reside inside and celebrate this supposedly slower, but also nuanced and dynamic, space.
Asha Doré, Rabble Nonfiction/ Hybrid Forms Co-Editor, is a writer and a mother of three, originally from Florida, currently living in the Pacific Northwest.
Header Image: Creative Commons, detail of image, modified.