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"On Being A Cripple", By Nancy Mairs

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“On Being a Cripple”, Nancy Mairs

In her essay “On Being a Cripple”, Nancy Mairs presents her audience with an honest inside view of her life and perspective as a cripple, a word she openly uses to define herself. She brings her world to us by discussing a wide variety of things including language, family, and humor, and how these all relate to her life. Through various stories and insights, she allows her readers to gain an understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities. She examines the public’s view of the disabled, as well as the views they have of themselves, and compares them to her own. She makes it clear that she is not to be defined solely by her disability. In discussing honestly her views, as well as through humor, Mairs opens up her essay to a wide audience. Not only does she reach out to the general population, but also allows others in her situation to consider themselves.

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” (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” 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” (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 other continuing to work and be active (241). She makes it clear that she would prefer to be seen as the latter. By using such honesty, she allows the audience to listen to her completely, without having to worry about whether or not she (or the reader) is being politically correct. They see her as she sees herself, and so are able to understand her.

Mairs also speaks to her fellow disabled people, subtly calling on them to take responsibility for their own happiness. She talks about the progression of MS throughout her life, and gives numerous examples of other people she knows who are also afflicted, and different ways she reacts to them. She ranges from the aforementioned two older women to another friend, Michael (243), providing her readers with a variety of people to identify with. Once she has them seeing themselves in the piece,

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