On Being a Cripple – Nancy Mairs

Intention: In this piece, Nancy Mairs describes her Multiple Sclerosis and her resulting disability as an integral piece of her identity. Candid and personal, the piece is a refreshingly honest look at disability in the modern world.

As part of her arrangement, Mairs begins the piece with an anecdote of falling into the toilet and laughing at herself in comfortable solitude, remarking that she’s glad no one is there to dote on her and help. This gives the piece a personal element right from the start– it establishes Mairs as a witty, unequivocal narrator. A simple story gives personality to the abstract concepts of disability and the tricky politics of being disabled in public.

The straightforwardness of this essay reminded me of “Oh Hey! It’s Alyssa,” a narrative comic by disabled cartoonist Alyssa Andrews. This comic discusses our treatment of disabled folks as inspirational objects, which Mairs also discusses in the ideas of “good cripple vs. bad cripple” and her vow to have MS and do it well.


Mairs and Andrews also share the view that it’s foolish to insist that abled and disabled folks are fundamentally the same. The placid, soft blanket of a statement, “You’re just like me” is a form of erasure– much like the “How inspiring!” attitude, it’s detached from the hard, uncomfortable truth of disability. It keeps abled folks feeling like good friends and allies without having to deal with uncomfortable covert prejudice or address the facts of their privilege.
-Olivia Short
More than just an account of her life, Mairs uses this essay to encourage the reader to change how they view people with disabilities, and to emphasize how her struggle with multiple sclerosis has shaped her identity, but that she is much more than the disease.
Mairs has an incredible appeal to pathos in this piece with her honesty about her familial relationships. She describes how great it is to have her family still treat her relatively normally and how much she appreciates them. She doesn’t neglect her creeping doubts though, and shows herself in a very vunerable light, and admitting  that a small part of her still doubts her family truly likes her. Doubt is a very human emotion, and Mairs’ candor draws one into the story and causes the reader to form a strong connection with her.
There a particular quote in this piece that I love, with Mairs stating “But I’ve been limping along for ten years now… ….George and the children are still at my left elbow, holding tight” , which provides a great image of a physical struggle and of the support she received, but is also a metaphor for the challenges she’s had throughout the years. George and her children have had to support the author more than just physically helping her walk, as mulitple sclerosis has affected Mairs’ social life as well as her bodily ability. The metaphor effectively presents the reader with the idea that she heavily relies on her family for support, and provides a specific visual of something that she struggles with.
Mairs’ arranges the piece so the reader can easily contrast the positives in her life with her creeping doubts. There are light-hearted  descriptions of ordinary, but overall good things her everyday life, with dashes of humor, but she is unafraid to bring up the serious struggles she faces and her worries about truly belonging, even to her own family. It’s easy for the reader to see both sides of her life, building a pretty realistic image of what it’s like for some disabled people in day-to-day life.
—Maria Busken
Mairs utilizes appeals to authority throughout her piece. By likening doctors to priests, Miers builds up the importance of doctors to a multiple sclerosis patient. In appealing to the authority of a priest, Miers accomplishes three things. First, Miers establishes the social status of this “priest” as being much higher than that of a lay person. The doctor is then raised on a pedestal of perfection as result, and held above the possibility of human error to the patient. Second, Miers shows that like a priest, a doctor is a guide to the patient’s salvation. Much like how a priest is supposed to guide a  person to lifetime and oneness with God, a doctor is supposed to guide a patient to a lifetime of happiness and health. Third, by turning this doctor into something of a priest, the patient believes he is not prone to error. A patient desperately wants to believe that the human responsible for curing them of their disease is not going to make a mistake in doing so. By using this priest’s authority, the reader now understands why “an MS patient roves from one [doctor] to another, searching for the “good” doctor who will make him well.”
While Miers uses an appeal to priests to describe the view of a doctor to a patient, she utilizes a strong use of symbolism and personification to describe the view of a patient to a doctor. When she describes how many doctors have difficultly interacting with patients, she talks about how their “disease in its intransigence defeats their aims and mocks their skills.” Miers showcases how doctors view their patients as their disease. This personification shows how directly this disease causes these doctors to be frustrated and intimidated because while they are thought to be “healers,” they cannot cure their disease. Seeing patients is a painful reminder to these doctors that they are not the “priests” they are thought to be, and they reflect it in their patient care.
Miers describes how she herself experiences this phenomenon. “When I push myself up from my seat in the waiting room and stumble toward them, I incarnate the limitation of their powers.” By describing herself as a symbol of the limitation of their powers, Miers accomplishes two things. First, Miers gives insight to why doctors view multiple sclerosis patients the way that they do. By saying she is a “limitation,” something that strikes fear into the heart of every human being, she shows what a negative connotation MS patients have to doctors. Second, by using herself as a the symbol, Miers bolsters her ethos.
 -Sarah Braunstein

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