What is a supercrip?
I use the word supercrip a lot (though not as much as I used to) and it has a very specific meaning for me. For some people, the word supercrip just means a disabled person who is successful or heroic, but usually it has negative implications. Often the term refers to a media stereotype of a disabled person who “overcomes their disability,” especially by playing sports, and becomes an inspiring example for kids who don’t want to do their homework.
For me, supercrippery isn’t about how other people see me, but how I see and treat myself. My definition of supercrippery has to do with putting a non-disabled picture of success ahead of your own safety and happiness, including placing yourself in physical and mental danger so that you can resemble this picture as much as possible. For example, if you do things slower than average, you might decide to deprive yourself of sleep so you can be as productive as a non-disabled person. Obviously, making this decision requires you to have a lot of self-hatred and to feel that you don’t deserve to have your basic physical needs met because you are impaired.
I’m doing well now but when I am having more mental health problems supercrippery is a huge part of my life. This post actually isn’t really about supercrippery but I want to explain what it is and tell people that if these ideas are triggering for you or make you really upset, you might not want to read the post. The post is actually going to be about comparing disabled young adults’ life trajectories to each other, but I feel like this kind of ties in to supercrippery because it is usually comparing people to each other based on how well they fit a non-disabled standard of young adulthood.
Bella and Sandra
You know I love my fake names, so let’s have two disabled girls who go to the same high school. No one’s disability is exactly the same as someone else’s, but Bella and Sandra have many obvious things in common (I choose these particular traits because they make Bella and Sandra easy characters to write):
- They both are diagnosed on the autism spectrum
- At some point they both receive treatment for self-injury, anxiety, and depression
- Adults who meet them always comment on how intelligent they are
- but they get Cs and Bs in school, to everyone’s consternation
That was in high school. Over the next 7 years, this is what happens:
Sandra goes away to the best college she can get into, graduates in four years, and starts a career. (Let’s say she becomes a teacher and is working towards a goal of becoming a school administrator.) She lives a few states away from her family.
Bella goes away to the best college she can get into. In her first year, she takes a medical leave because of mental health problems, comes home to her parents, and never returns to that school. Six months after that, she starts occasionally taking classes at the community college. She completes a few classes but hasn’t earned a degree. She gets a job at the grocery store and at age 25, she is working at the grocery store and has no plans to move out of her parents’ house.
Most people who look at this situation will either make a judgment about disability, or about people’s moral qualities.
Judgment about disability: Sandra is more “high functioning” than Bella because she lives away from her parents, has a college degree, and has what’s considered a better job. Bella’s disability is more severe.
Moral judgment: Sandra is hardworking, brave, motivated, etc. and “overcame her disability” by putting in effort and really caring about living independently and having a job. Bella is unmotivated, directionless, lazy, scared of the world and of growing up, and is “using her diagnosis as an excuse.”
Moral judgment of their parents: Sandra has “tiger parents” who pushed her to succeed and didn’t let her use her disability as an excuse. Bella’s parents failed her. They babied and coddled her and now she doesn’t have the skills she needs to be an adult.
Actually, when I say “most people,” maybe I should say “me”--I’ve always compared myself to other young adults with similar disabilities, and I’ve always agonized over what makes one person more conventionally successful than me, and another person less conventionally successful. If they drop out of college and I don’t, is their disability more severe than mine or am I more dedicated than they are? If they work 80-hour weeks and I don’t, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be like that?
A few days ago, I realized why.
Seven Possible Reasons They Turned Out Differently
1. Sandra’s family is abusive.
Let’s say that in their first year of college, Sandra and Bella were both really stressed out, this triggered a depressive episode in both of them, and they both attempted suicide but were stopped by a friend.
Bella decided that she wasn’t ready to be a full-time student and live without the supports her parents gave her (meals, reminders about when to do chores and how to take care of her hygiene, help with scheduling doctors’ appointments, and emotional support). She decided to go home, focus on managing her depression, and try to identify and avoid situations where she might become suicidal again.
Sandra’s friend encouraged her to take a medical leave, but he didn’t understand. She was extremely grateful to be at college because for most of the year, her family couldn’t hurt her; and because she was talking to them less, some of the things they had taught her started to unravel. She realized that the things they had done were really bad and weren’t things she had brought on herself. If she could live away from her family, she realized, she could fill her life with people who didn’t hurt her.
Sandra felt like if she went home she would get more suicidal, not less. She also felt like being away from her family was worth the risk of dying. So Sandra made her friend promise not to tell what happened, and she did the best she could to hide her depression so she did not get suspended from school for bad grades or being “a danger to herself.”
If it’s really dangerous or painful for someone to be at home, then that is a big factor in how determined they will be to live away from home. For example, if someone regularly forgets to eat and is in danger of starving if she lives on her own, it’s safer for her to live with her parents--unless one of her parents has tried to kill her. Then she doesn’t have any safe options.
2. Bella’s parents have more money.
Bella gets along well with her parents, but she doesn’t particularly like her hometown and dreams of living somewhere else. She also wants to be a vet tech and she is taking classes, but school is really hard for her. If she takes a full load of classes, it occupies so much of her energy that she isn’t able to spend time with friends, sleep and eat properly, and play music--things that are really important to her happiness and emotional stability. Instead, Bella is taking one or two classes a semester because that’s a better speed for her.
Sandra also gets along well with her parents, and also is not able to be very healthy or have a social life if she is a full-time student. But her parents struggled to support the family when she was in high school, and they can’t afford to keep supporting Sandra. She goes to a college that offered her a scholarship, and works in the summer to help pay for expenses the scholarship doesn’t cover.
Sandra feels like she works all day at college, struggling to keep up with her non-disabled classmates. She’s also really lonely; she has to say no most of the time when people ask her to hang out. She usually eats Doritos and coffee for dinner while studying in the library, and when she sees groups of friends walking to the dining hall together, Sandra feels like her life is empty. But she has to be able to do this--for one thing, her scholarship won’t pay for more than four years of school.
3. Their hometown is mostly white and Sandra is black.
At best, Sandra feels like an outsider because her family is one of the only black families in their town and she’s barely had any black friends. At worst, white people have threatened her. One reason college is exciting is because there are more people of color; she makes friends who share her experiences, she gets involved in anti-racist organizing, and she feels more accepted and safer than she did in her hometown. Even when she’s having mental health problems, she doesn’t want to go home and feel the way she felt there.
Sandra also really wants to be able to support herself financially and live independently so that after college, she can choose to live somewhere where she doesn’t feel scared and isolated. Sometimes it’s really hard for her to make it through the day, at college and after college when she’s working as a teacher. But it’s worth it.
Bella is white and does not have this concern.
4. Sandra falls in love.
In her first semester of college, Sandra starts dating a guy named Ed. She continues dating him for the first year of college. In her second year, Sandra becomes extremely depressed, and Ed ends up in the role of her emotional support person.
Sandra really doesn’t want to go home to deal with her mental health problems, because right now, Ed is the only thing that makes her at all happy. Ed loves Sandra but he isn’t super comfortable with being the only thing that makes her happy. He encourages her to at least try to deal with her depression even if she isn’t going to take a medical leave, and he helps her go to therapists, try medication, and do other things to improve her mental health.
When they’re juniors, Sandra and Ed start living together off-campus. Sandra has problems with multi-step tasks like cooking food and cleaning; and she also has dyspraxia which makes it hard for her to do some household chores. Ed understands this, so he always does the chores that Sandra can’t do. They work together to make charts and other reminders to help Sandra with multi-step tasks.
After college, Sandra and Ed get married. They move to the city that Ed is from, where his parents live. Ed’s parents love Sandra and treat her like their own daughter. They’re both teachers and Sandra often asks them for advice when she is having problems at work. Sandra tells them she is overwhelmed by the idea of finding a GP, dentist, eye doctor, etc. in the city, and Sandra’s mom finds them for her and even reminds her to make regular appointments.
Bella would like to move away from her parents--they’re nice, but they annoy her sometimes and she really wants to live somewhere that isn’t so hot in the summer. But how can she possibly do that when she can’t even make a bed by herself and often gets confused when trying to cook basic meals? What if she moved far away and her job was too hard and she didn’t know anyone and didn’t have anyone to talk to? What if she was too stressed out and confused to ever find a doctor or remember to make appointments, and she got really sick and didn’t even know about it until it was too late?
She wants to do it, but she just can’t.
5. Bella is really happy living with her dad.
Sandra likes her parents just fine.
Bella and her dad are extremely close; they have long conversations about absolutely every subject, and they share a lot of the same interests and values. She even thinks he might be Autistic too. Bella’s mom left when Bella was three, so she and her dad have had 15 years to learn to function as a unit. As Bella got older, her dad encouraged her to help out around the house and things gradually developed so that they both were taking care of housework fairly equally, each doing the things they were best at.
It was really important to Bella to do well in college. Everyone said she was super smart and she wanted to defy the negative expectations people had of her because she was Autistic. But when she went to college, it was really hard for her to live in a dorm instead of living the way she was used to, and the workload was too much for her. She started having panic attacks and shutting herself off from her new friends, and when she started to fantasize about killing herself, she knew she had bitten off more than she could chew. She needed to go home and be in her regular house and spend time with her dad, who she could talk to about what had happened and figure out when she would be ready to go back to college.
But after going home and after a long time of trying to be ready, Bella realized that she wasn’t ready and didn’t want to be. She loved her town. She still had some good friends who lived there--and her best friend was her dad. She didn’t want to move away from her best friend just because adults weren’t supposed to live with their parents. She and her dad got along well and were a good household. Now that she had decided what she wanted, Bella tried to think about what, if any, plans she should make for the future.
Bella has decided that she wants to work part-time at the grocery store; it gives her days a good structure and she meets new people. She also is taking classes so that she can have a higher-paying job in the future, but she isn’t pushing herself that hard because there’s no immediate need. But if her dad becomes sick or disabled when he’s older, Bella wants him to be able to keep living in their house and not have to go into a nursing home if he doesn’t want to. He’s always supported her choices and she wants to be able to support his.
6. Sandra is a supercrip.
When Sandra was a kid, she could tell that people thought less of her because she had disabilities. They didn’t expect her to go to college and they didn’t expect her to be able to drive and they didn’t expect her to be able to live on her own, or get married, or have a high-paying job. Sandra hated the way those people looked at her and she grew up feeling like the only way to be a worthwhile person was to accomplish all the things they thought she couldn’t do.
When Sandra is in college, she puts her academic success ahead of everything. So what if she works slower than the other students? She’ll just stay up all night several nights a week so she can get work done. She doesn’t really need to eat regular meals either. She doesn’t deserve to eat regular meals if she can’t do as well as the non-disabled students.
Sandra avoids talking to her parents because they always get really worried. They ask her if she has any friends, if she likes the campus, if she’s taken any time off from schoolwork to just relax. When Sandra explains that she doesn’t have time to do that because she’s not as smart as the other students, her mom asks Sandra to come home for Thanksgiving. They’ll pay for it. But Sandra wants to stay at school over break so she can get ahead on the reading.
Sandra’s mom says she really just wants Sandra to come home for a while so they can take care of her and she won’t have to be so tired and stressed all the time and can get some sleep. Sandra tells her mom that she is fine and she’s 19 now which is old enough to act like an adult. If I’m 19 and can’t be an adult, I don’t deserve to be alive, she thinks to herself. This is Sandra’s mantra.
Sometimes Sandra thinks about killing herself a lot. She’ll wake up feeling like it is going to happen that day. But she would never tell anyone about this, because they would force her to take a medical leave. Sandra would rather die than not graduate college in four years. So she might as well keep going whether she dies or not.
Bella doesn’t have this attitude; she feels like she deserves to sleep and eat regularly, and she would definitely rather take a medical leave than die.
7. Sandra is extremely beautiful and charismatic.
This gives her an advantage because a lot of people really want to spend time with her and do things for her.
Bella is an average girl with average charisma and can’t “overcome her disability” because she doesn’t receive all the support that Sandra does.
And so on.
Golly Sandra, you’ve grown up really crazy
When I was in a Sandra #6 situation, I would get super angry at disabled people who took leaves from school. Like, I would hear about someone I didn’t even know taking a medical leave because they had a panic attack and I would be like, “Fuck him! I almost killed myself this morning and I still went to class even though I was crying too hard to see the Powerpoint.” I would start being mad at the person for doing something that I thought was weak and immoral. Didn’t they know that they should try to do things as well as everyone else?
Obviously being mad at people for taking a medical leave isn’t a sign of a really well-organized mind, but I don’t think I realized until recently how disorganized that anger was. The reason I was fixated on these people wasn’t because they were doing something bad, but because they were doing something good. They were caring about themselves. Even if they prioritized a non-disabled version of success a whole lot, there was a certain extent of suffering that they weren’t willing to go through. They didn’t feel like they deserved to die for being disabled--or if they felt like that, at least they knew they were wrong.
I wasn’t feeling superiority, I was feeling inferiority--I was jealous of them. They valued something more than looking “normal,” being “smart,” hitting “milestones” at the same age as non-disabled people. Maybe they had friends at home so they wouldn’t be isolating themselves from everyone if they couldn’t stay at school. Maybe their parents wouldn’t be disappointed in them and say they should have worked harder, been more organized, taken medicine they didn’t want to take.
I’m hesitant to write about this the way I am, because of the power dynamic. People like Bella are judged so much. People see it as a failure for a young adult to live at home, and for a disabled young adult, living at home can seem like the fulfillment of lifelong low expectations. But in every scenario I wrote, Bella is making really good decisions. She may not be a success if the goal is to imitate a non-disabled person, but she is prioritizing her happiness and safety and she has goals that she can accomplish without ruining her life (and imitating a non-disabled person will make your life empty even if it doesn’t kill you).
In the supercrip scenario, Sandra isn’t making a ton of sense, but in a lot of the scenarios she is making good decisions too. In some of the scenarios she isn’t receiving adequate support to make it through college or live on her own, but going without support is the lesser of two evils. In other scenarios, like the one where she falls in love with Ed, Sandra is really lucky and support falls into her lap, so she loses nothing by living away from her parents.
In most of the scenarios, Bella is able to live with her parents because she has an advantage that Sandra doesn’t have--she is white, she has more money, her parents aren’t abusive, she doesn’t hate herself, etc. In other scenarios, Sandra is able to live away from her parents because she has advantages that Bella doesn't have. If Sandra and Bella are still friends at age 25, maybe Sandra is jealous of Bella because she feels like Bella had more choices. But Bella is probably pretty jealous too because society judges people like her and wants her to feel worthless. She also doesn’t have the freedom that Sandra has.
Depending on the scenario, one of them can often be considered better off than the other, but only a few of the Bellas and Sandras are really happy with their lives. This is because, bar extraordinary luck, a lot of people with disabilities like Bella and Sandra are not considered to be entitled to support in living. They have to choose between living in bad physical and emotional condition so they can be free (and seen as a success), or living with parents, or getting in a relationship with someone who is willing to help them, or just ragequitting the whole thing.
The choice they make is determined by a whole lot of factors, and two people with exactly the same abilities can make totally different choices without either of them making a bad choice.
(I wrote this post in July and didn't end up posting it because I wanted to nitpick it but I ended up not doing that. My friend had said that in my posts, I presented all the Bellas as really smart for choosing to stay home. I know there's plenty of bad reasons to drop out of college but I don't really feel the need to enumerate them because dropping out is so stigmatized and everyone assumes it's being done for a bad reason, while disabled people who graduate college are idealized.)