“Cripping” Resilience: Contributions from Disability Studies to Resilience Theory





resilience, cripping

How to Cite

Hutcheon, E., & Wolbring, G. (2013). “Cripping” Resilience: Contributions from Disability Studies to Resilience Theory. M/C Journal, 16(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.697
Vol. 16 No. 5 (2013): resilient
Published 2013-08-20


Resilience is a well-explored topic in the fields of psychology and psychopathology (Young, Green, and Rogers), with roots in physics and materials science such as engineering (Tarter and Vanyukov). Resilience refers primarily to the ability of the individual to cope with risk, trauma, or adversity (Young, Green, and Rogers). More specifically, resilience describes the personal qualities, competencies, processes, or contexts that predict developmentally appropriate or “satisfactory” outcomes in individuals under threat (Masten; Kaplan; Tarter and Vanyukov; Shaikh and Kauppi). These definitions comprise the ecological approach to resilience, which outlines risk factors including: poor health, low socioeconomic status, or exposure to violence, maltreatment, or community-level trauma (Leshner; Masten; Rolf) and protective factors including: self-efficacy, self-esteem, academic competence, problem-solving skills (Kaplan), family cohesion, and social supports (Garmezy). The ecological approach attempts to provide a predictive model of such risk and protective factors, and their intersection (Sapienza and Masten; Riley and Masten; Corcoran and Nichols-Casebolt), in efforts to provide holistic support interventions to those deemed ‘at risk’ (Masten; Leshner; Luthar, Cicchetti and Becker). Although this is the most widely invoked approach to resilience, it has not been employed without critique (Ungar Constructionist; Masten; Luthar, Cicchetti and Becker; Young, Green, and Rogers; Kaplan; Hutcheon and Wolbring). In light of these critiques, we propose a ‘cripping’ of resilience — a re-envisioning of its conceptual boundaries, meanings, and utility.

What Is “Cripping”?

The word “cripple” has been used pejoratively to describe disability-identified people or those deemed by others to be impaired, as Barton describes in her analysis of disability discourses in Readers Digest. The term has also been used to describe an action/event/object/person which has been rendered inoperable, not useful according to its intended purpose, or weakened (for example, “he felt crippled by the thought”). ‘Cripple’ had been largely dropped from folk and expert lexicon until its upcycling and reclamation by activists and academics in recent years (Sandahl). According to organisers of the “Cripping” of Comic Con, the term “cripping” may be understood as a way for disability-identified people and their allies to assert control and social power:

By using the terms “cripping” and “crip,” instead of “cripple” or “crippling,” one may claim, strategically, that a host of well-meaning diagnoses, labels, treatments, options for intervention, and medical cures have the potential to be unwelcomed by — if not harmful to — the individuals they are designed to ‘help.’ 

The reclamation of the term “crip” has occurred, and is still occurring, alongside and in intersection with endeavours by other groups (Barounis; Clare; McRuer; Sandahl). For example, the term “queer” is being used fruitfully including for political purposes within (and beyond) LGBTQ communities (Butler; McRuer). As McRruer demonstrates in his theorising of compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory heterosexuality, these bodies of knowledge and political movements have potential to inform and disrupt each other (“Crip Theory”). And, much like the term “queer” has taken on new meaning in those communities, “cripple” is no longer just used by disability-identified people to re-shape injurious words and to describe themselves using language of their choice; indeed, it has accumulated additional political and analytical power.

Work by Judith Butler and Michael Warner on the word “queer” may illuminate these new uses as they relate to “cripple.” Warner notes that “queer” is used not only to describe a particular identity or trait of a person but as a verb to describe a resisting of “the regimes of the normal” (Warner xxvi). “Queering” is an always-changing and an often re-deployed “site of collective contestation and the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings” (Butler 228). In other words, “queer” depicts a critical orientation to the world, a positionality, and a process by which power structures and oppressive assumptions are revealed and disrupted. “Cripping” has taken on a similar flavour in disability studies. For example, Sandahl defines queering as “[spinning] mainstream representations to reveal latent queer subtexts [or] deconstructing a representation’s heterosexism” (37) and cripping similarly as “spin[ning] mainstream representations or practices to reveal able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects” (37).

To “crip” is not just a conceptual or academic exercise of critique and disruption — it unfolds in the lived realities, daily practices, and performed identities of individuals and groups as they preserve Self and community. Carrie Sandahl alludes to these different dimensions of “cripping” in her examination of solo autobiographical performances by queer/crip artists: “[Cripping involves] the act of coming out as a crip queer, the public display of sexualized bodily difference, and the process of bearing witness to past and present injustice” (28). Margaret Price expands on this in her essay Cripping Revolution, where she contextualises “cripping” in a discussion of activism, privilege, and enacting alliance. She likens “cripping” to authentically attending to others of different standpoints and experiences, and to deliberation, exchange, and reparation across partnership (Price). Finally, in her online essay, Eliza Chandler describes “cripping” as entailing an “open[ning] up [of] desire for what disability disrupts.” The author uses the example of communities, which are are cripped when they are enacted in ways that recognise, interrogate, and unsettle entrenched understandings of disability and community.  This cripping occurs “through mutual motivation or desire to dwell with disability, a desire which is antagonistic to the normative desire to cure or kill disability”. These “cripped” communities re-think whom and what we can know — who our community members are, and who they are not. The author characterises these “cripped” communities as de-bounded, creative, and generative.

In sum, “crip” may refer to a person or a group of people (“I am crip, and belong to a community of crips”). It may also be used as a verb to describe a process of critique, disruption, and re-imagining, and includes an orientation and a way of living. “Cripping” is deployed and redeployed for political purposes as a way to re-imagine conceptual boundaries, relationships, communities, cultural representations, and power structures.  In cripping resilience, we do the following: (1) Resist the “regimes of the normal” prevalent in existing definitions of resilience; (2) Problematise who or what we can know as resilient; (3) Generate a “desire for what disability disrupts,” that is, suggest an understanding of resilience which embraces polyvocality, circumvents ability-centrism, re-understands “disability,” and which re-locates resilience to the level of relationship and community.

“Cripping” Resilience

A Critique

Scholars across disciplines have critiqued the concept of resilience as ill-defined and overly-tautological (Ungar Constructionist; Ungar, Brown, Liebenberg, Cheung and Levine; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker; Masten), as well as lacking in the predictive validity it claims to offer (Tarter and Vanyukov). Definitions of resilience are constrained by positivism, which Tarter and Vanyukov link to these definitions inappropriate grounding in the physical sciences. Due to these constraints, these definitions do not account for context or for localised notions of resilience, and do not provide opportunities for individuals to self-define as resilient or not resilient. Authors contend that definitions of resilience are plagued by hegemonic notions of healthy, normal, or valued functioning consistent with western, middle-class, ableist norms (Hutcheon and Wolbring; Hutcheon and Lashewicz; Tarter and Vanyukov; Ungar Constructionist; Young, Green, and Rogers). Indeed, according to Tarter and Vanyukov, the notion of resilience reveals an “enduring [American] belief that personal fortitude surmounts adversity” (86), perhaps best encompassed by the cultural identity of “survivor.”

A disability studies orientation is useful in elaborating existing critiques of the resilience concept and in proposing new ones. Firstly, we have noted along with others that popular definitions of resilience are largely individualised (Hutcheon and Wolbring; Ungar Constructionist; Prilleltensky and Prilleltensky; Young, Green, and Rogers). In this sense, thriving is seen as a concern for the individual, and resources for thriving must be recognised and acquired by individuals. These definitions ignore important aspects of lived experience, including: co-construction, community- or group-level thriving, and experiences of marginalisation/oppression in contexts of scarce power resources (Ungar Constructionist; Prilleltensky, and Prilleltensky). As Young, Green, and Rogers note in their discussion of d/Deaf children, “The individualization of resilience distorts significantly the life context of disabled children in which they may be seeking to be resilient” (47).

Next, these definitions are uncritically founded in rather fuzzy notions of ‘risk’ and ‘vulnerability’ (Patterson). We have suggested in other work that this is inherently problematic for those deemed ‘impaired’ (Hutcheon and Wolbring), largely because “disability” is understood as an inherent risk factor (Theron; Tarter and Vanyukov; Leshner; Rolf), and individuals are compelled to overcome this “disability” to divest themselves of such risk. As a result, the notion of resilience is seen to parallel that of the supercrip icon (Hutcheon and Lashewicz), which paints an individual as heroic or inspirational in light of his/her completion of either everyday tasks or “impossible” ones (Kama; Chrisman). Scholars have critiqued this depiction as harmful in its re-inscription of these individuals as vulnerable and their lives as tragic (Kama, Hutcheon and Lashewicz) while ignoring the harm done by culture, community, and environment. Analyses of the supercrip discourse have largely been limited to discussions of the supercrip in sports (Berger; Hardin and Hardin; Silva and Howe; Peers) or in cultural representations, such as media and other texts (Kama). However, we suggest that the notion of supercrip prevails via the everyday notion of resilience, and is made meaningful and consequential in its dispersion across multiple domains, situations, and everyday activities. Thirdly, existing notions of resilience are overly prescriptive in that they delineate socially and culturally sanctioned ways of functioning, while obscuring other ways of being in the world (Hutcheon and Lashewicz). For example, one popular criterion for “resilient” living is the accomplishment of life’s tasks independently. Indeed, this concept of resilience, one that is circumscribed by notions of “choice” and “independence” — has direct implications for those who require formal or informal care (Hutcheon and Wolbring). Related to this, definitions of resilience are ablest in that they are grounded in preferences for certain abilities and not others (Hutcheon and Wolbring). These definitions reduce resilience to demonstrations of competence (for example, academic achievement), which is consequential for all those who do not demonstrate socially acceptable competencies in socially acceptable ways, including those deemed impaired.

Of additional interest in such discussions are the ways in which labels of “resilience” and “non-resilience” are inherently political and used for social containment. In work by Theron, non-resilient adolescents were seen to have “reneged on self-actualization” (317); those deemed non-resilient were portrayed as deviant choice-makers. It’s also been noted that existing definitions of resilience lie dangerously parallel to a “survival of the fittest” mantra (Newhouse), which has potential to invoke and support eugenics discourses. Definitions and applications of resilience, then, are rife with dichotomies, such being vulnerable versus being “normal” or versus heroically overcoming that “at-risk-ness”. In cripping resilience, we treat these dichotomies as inadequate. We problematise the notion of “normal” which remains an unacknowledged and naturalised state of being, much like whiteness or maleness, and which paints other states of being as pathological or deviant. We also point to the ways in which labels of “resilience” or “non-resilience” are applied unevenly, often in alignment with ableist, middle-class, colonial, and neoliberal agendas.

Given the limitations of the ecological model with its positivistic foundations, theorists have pointed to the value of meaning construction (Patterson; Ungar Constructionist) and navigation of significant events across the life span (Gilligan; King, Baxter, Rosenbaum, Zwaigenbaum, and Bates; Young, Green, and Rogers). Michael Ungar Constructionist proposes a constructionist approach to resilience which defines resilience as, “the outcome from negotiations between individuals and their environments for the resources to define themselves as healthy amidst conditions collectively viewed as adverse” (Ungar Constructionist 342). The author acknowledges resilience’s hegemonic origins, and advocates for an approach which accounts for localised, contextual, and culturally sensitive definitions of resilience. This work aims to account for differences in understandings of and expressions of resilience in individuals and groups.  (Ungar Constructionist). However, we view certain elements of this definition as limiting. For example, what constitutes “adverse conditions” must still be identified and agreed upon, and this has historically been done by an uncritical audience. In this definition, resilience is related to contextual, but largely normative, ideas of health. Not only this, resilience is still an outcome, as opposed to process, to be achieved by individuals, as opposed to groups.

Another emerging branch of research on resilience takes its cue from social work and sociology.  This branch describes resilience as, “active decision-making, resistance to structural conditions, and survival” on the part of disenfranchised groups (Shaikh and Kauppi, 166). In this vein, resilience is inextricably linked to empowerment and self-advocacy, and is derived from conflict and oppression (Goodley). Goodley contends that resilience, in such cases, “resides in the space between structure and individuality” (334). Relatedly, resilience is relational, as it is derived from relationships and constructed in collective meaning-making. Additionally, according to Goodley, resilience is complicating, in that it problematises notions of normalcy, disability, and incompetence. Goodley describes important elements of a cripped understanding of resilience — elements which problematise notions of normalcy, and which locate resilience within relationships and groups. Worth noting, however, is this orientation’s emphasis on empowerment and “giving voice” — particularly in light of critiques of notions of “empowerment” as competency-based (e.g. self-efficacious gaining of control) (Aujoulat, Marcolongo, Bonadiman, Deccache)) and as part of entrenched power relations which render individuals passive to begin with (Peers, “Disempowering”; Aujoulat et al.). Also of importance is scholarly work on the potentialities and possibilities within ontological states of vulnerability (Burghardt; Gibson; Shildrick) and acts of silence (Scott). This scholarship troubles the persistent cultural imperative to “be loud” and to “give voice.” It follows, we suggest, that the equation of resilience with empowerment ought to be viewed with a critical eye.

A Re-Imagining

“Cripping” resilience involves more than recognising its historical foundations, critiquing its shortcomings, and adopting another approach. It involves re-imagining its meanings, boundaries, and utility. To begin such discussions, we draw from literature on indigenous notions of resilience, wellness, and disability, which have been largely ignored by mainstream literature and popular discourse to-date.

Similar to movements in the disability community, the concept of resilience has been invoked so as to counter the persistent negative stereotypes and perceptions of indigenous groups across Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, among others (Long and Nelson; Fast and Collin-Vézina; Goodley). Perhaps as a result of this inclusion of different interest groups in scholarship on resilience, researchers have called for more culturally-informed notions of resilience (Ungar, et al., Distinguishing; Andersson and Ledogar). McGuire–Kishebakabaykwe suggests an incorporation of indigenous knowledge and worldviews into definitions of resilience, particularly in light of the marginalisation of the histories, experiences, cultures, and languages of indigenous peoples in social theory, research, and practice. For some, indigenous knowledge constitutes a binary opposite of so-termed western knowledge. For others, such as Battiste and colleagues, indigenous knowledge provides a discourse that complements and fills in the gaps of Western knowledge(s), education, and scholarship.

Fast and Collin-Vézina, Tucker, and Kapp describe key components of resilience in indigenous peoples, which include self-government, cultural and spiritual renewal, and connection to community. McGuire–Kishebakabaykwe points to traditional ideas about place as integral to understanding indigenous resilience. Land-based knowledge, knowledge practiced on/embedded within the land, is tied to individual identities, spiritual development, and relationships with others.

In addition to incorporating these elements into ecological approaches to resilience, we take indigenous understandings of wellness and disability to be key in shifting our understanding of resilience. For example, the Navajo believe in the notion of walking in beauty, or “traveling a path through time in harmony with the universe” (Kapp 589). This necessitates an acceptance of individuals as they are, in whatever life stage they may occupy, with whatever ability sets they have, with the understanding that they are exploring and fulfilling their place in the universe. As Kapp states in his cross-cultural analysis of Navajo tradition and Western conceptions of autism, this is of particular relevance to people diagnosed with “disability”.

The Navajo traditionally…believe that all people will develop into adults to fulfill their predetermined identities, [and as a result], the people unable to perform typical adult responsibilities are perceived as in a state of becoming on the brink of adulthood. (590)

Related to this, the Navajo understand “productivity” differently from Western cultures. As they do not value work for its own sake, nor do they promote the “get ahead” mentality, they do not fault people who have challenges with typical workforce skills (Kapp). Additionally, this community embraces alternative conceptions of “autonomy.” They hold no particular expectations regarding when, within the lifespan, transitions to self-sufficiency and subsequent offering of support to others may come about. Both this and the philosophy of walking in beauty may be fruitful in circumventing the inappropriate conflation of resilience with notions of competency and developmental achievements. Concepts of reciprocity in relationships, belonging as members of one’s family or community, and self-determination and self-governance, are also central to Navajo belief systems, which mirror the continued pushes by disability rights activists to foreground interdependence and self-determination as opposed to (in)dependence (Kittay, Jennings and Wasunna). These understandings of wellness, we propose, are useful in ‘cripping’ resilience, as they appear to avoid pitfalls in existing definitions, including unnecessary prescription, ability-centrism, and reliance on false dichotomies. In this way, resilience might be understood as a process of a community’s and individual’s becoming, not as an outcome to be achieved or a set of competencies to satisfy. Additionally, resilience becomes an opportunity for individuals and communities to dwell in difference, and to connect and belong in new and creative ways.

This re-conceptualisation of resilience to include indigenous knowledge systems is not just an exercise in re-jigging. Indeed, it “can create helpful ideas and practices for the current decolonizing efforts in Aboriginal communities” (McGuire–Kishebakabaykwe 127). Drawing from this, we would suggest that indigenous knowledge systems may contribute to efforts by disability studies scholars, activists, and disability-identified community members to “decolonise” the lives and relationships of those across the ability spectrum. Of importance is the compatibility of indigenous notions of resilience with polyvocality and with recognising diverse ways of being in this world: “[Navajo philosophy] appreciates the mystery of life rather than absolute knowledge, thereby enabling flexibility to multiple truths” (Kapp 588).

Concluding Remarks

The above critiques, along with the contributions from indigenous approaches to the topic, lend themselves to a re-contouring of what we understand to be “resilience.” In this essay, we have put forward a cripped conceptualisation of resilience, which unsettles regimes of normalcy, troubles who and what we can know as resilient, and creates communities which are not bound by the abilities, skill sets, or the protective traits which individuals and their communities supposedly possess. Instead, this notion of resilience generates desire for communities which support individuals as they navigate and occupy their place in the universe, and indeed locates resilience and responsibility for its cultivation at the level of community and relationship.

We conclude by suggesting that the following be considered key elements of resilience:  (1) Understanding resilience is a process, desire, intention, or orientation to the world, rather than a trait, set of skills, or end result; (2) Acknowledging that resilience does not reside within individuals but rather within relationships and communities; (3) Utilizing the concept of resilience for purposes of de-colonization, for creative and generative purposes, as opposed to colonization, social containment and prescription. 


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Author Biographies

Emily Hutcheon, University of Calgary

Emily Hutcheon is a MSc student in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies program, Faculty of Medicine University of Calgary

Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary

Gregor Wolbring is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Stream of Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, Faculty of Medicine University of Calgary