Super crip is a term used in the disabled community for heroic, exceptional people with disabilities in the public eye. For example, several amputees have strutted their mechanical stuff on Dancing with the Stars recently. One national media outlet described the inspirational spectacle this way: “Double-amputee Amy Purdy … hasn’t let her disability slow her down.” Because I am also an amputee, friends and acquaintances have mentioned the show, suggesting I watch it. I know they find the courage and persistence of the showcased super crips inspirational for their own lives and hope that I will, too. However, there is a hidden message in there which was actually spoken aloud to me recently: “If they can dance at a world-class level with prosthetics, why don’t you walk better?” It was a TSA agent, swabbing my artificial leg for explosives, who took the opportunity to describe an incredible dance performance to me this past month. She followed up by asking if I was a very recent amputee, and when I told her I lost my leg to cancer about 30 years ago she articulated the question others have unwittingly implied. If amputees can be runway models, Olympic athletes and dance stars, then why have I let MY disability “slow me down?” Why do I limp, walk stiffly and occasionally fall?
Surely, most people don’t actually think about this angle when they recommend the programs they have enjoyed. I think there is a generic quality to their appreciation – if a person with an acute disability can accomplish such a feat, then other people can accomplish their own dreams through hard work and an optimistic attitude. It’s my own internal voices which compare me to the outliers, but I still don’t really enjoy the experience. It feels a little like asking an overweight person if they watch Biggest Loser.
So, I want to take this opportunity to explain what I cannot say in the moment. Every amputation is different. Every amputee is different. In fact, every disability of any kind is different. I lost my leg near the hip joint, and all the soft tissue was removed from the stump and replaced with tissue from another part of my body. That means I have little leverage to lift and move my prosthesis, and I don’t have the musculature to do it well, either. In addition, I have only recently succeeded in using a suction socket because I have so little surface area to which it can be attached. That means my prosthesis must be simple and light or it will pop right off! No heavy bionics for me, and even if I had a terrifically expensive carbon fiber athletic foot, I wouldn’t be able to manipulate it.
But I am SO grateful! My prosthetic leg is a good friend. Not as comfortable or flexible as the one God made, yet an incredible blessing which has allowed me to live a full life in so many ways. Before my prosthetist found some new material (thank you, NASA) and creatively structured my latest leg, I had to wear a belt around my waist to keep it on, and I suffered numerous abrasions and infections over the years. But I am pain-free most of the time now, and I never think (anymore) about the things I can’t do. I enjoy the ones I can.
How would I like you to respond to this post? Well, if you have a personal experience of disability or the super crip phenomenon, I’d love to hear your thoughts. My intention is not to heap guilt on anyone about things said to me in the past, but simply to raise public consciousness about the continuum of ability of which we are all a part. Share your Dancing with the Stars story with the teenager who doesn’t think they can make the soccer team or the employee who is falling short of their sales quota. But consider your audience when you think about sharing it with disabled acquaintances. If you know me well, I’d love for you to ask me what I think about the show you enjoyed. If you don’t know me well, if, for example, you work for the TSA, then maybe stick to the weather.