Nancy Mairs: On Being A Cripple

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Nancy Mairs: On Being a Cripple

On Being a Cripple: Nancy Mairs

As a writer afflicted with multiple sclerosis, Nancy Mairs is in a unique posi­

tion to examine how the culture responds to people with disabilities. In

this essay from Carnal Acts, she examines the media's depiction of disability

and argues with her usual unsentimental candor tha t the media must treat

disability as normal. The essay was first published in 1987 in the New York


Nancy Mairs was born in 1943 in Long Beach, CA, and was raised in Boston. Although she describes herself as never being good at sports, she claims to have been a normally active child‚ Sojourner (233). She began experiencing the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis at 28, and was initially misdiagnosed with a brain tumor. At 29, she was correctly diagnosed, and has proceeded to live her life as normally as possible. She taught classes at Salpointe Catholic High School, the University of Arizona, and UCLA. Both she and her husband have retired, but continue to makes public appearances on the topic of grief and mortality (Biography). As she brings up several times during her essay, she has not allowed her disease to take over her life.

Mairs wrote, On Being a Cripple‚ Nancy in 1986, although it still very much applies today. We currently live in a time of intense political correctness. In the title of her essay, Mairs immediately breaks one of these rules, referring to herself as a cripple. She discusses the use of this word, as opposed to disabled or handicapped, and expresses particular disdain for the phrase differently-abled. While the general public may feel similarly about these issues, they are not often permitted to express it, for fear of being seen as cruel or thoughtless. Society today prefers to think of itself as more open and accepting as ever before. Although this is true, society still has further to go than it believes. As Mairs brings up, women in advertising generally fall into a basic mold, with several exceptions such as women selling laxative or laundry detergent, but she is never a cripple‚ Nancy (239). This is very telling, but it should be noted that we do occasionally see handicapped people (almost always healthy, just in a wheelchair) in passive roles in advertising. While overall, society works hard to accept disabilities, the topic is still pushed to the back. Buildings are now nearly all handicap-accessible, but people continue to stare at a person going down the street in a wheelchair. These problems have been continuous for many years, changing very little in the twenty years since this essay was written.

By speaking honestly and bluntly, Mairs gains the sympathies of her audience. She clearly acknowledges that she hates having M.S., but at the same time discusses how she continues with her life, working around her disease. In doing so, she wordlessly declines any pity. She also discusses two different women she knows, both with multiple sclerosis. One is bedridden by choice, the ...
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