MedHums 101: What is Crip Time?

‘Crip time’ is both a theory and a practice – and a conception of living with illness that many patients bring to their healthcare interactions, says Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril.

Crip time is always also cripping time. Just like “crip”, the identifier some disabled and chronically ill people choose to reclaim from the slur “cripple”, crip time is both descriptive and active. Crip time accounts for the extra steps it takes someone to get to work because of having to disassemble and reassemble their wheelchair. As someone with chronic fatigue, when I calculate the hours I need to rest in order to make it to a social event, that is me living in crip time. As Alison Kafer says,”rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds” (Kafer 2013). It is the difference between taking the affordances of our environment for granted (Dokumaci 2023) and having to deconstruct every step from getting out of bed to reaching for a morning coffee to factor in pain, dizziness, stiff joints, migraines, or any number of other symptoms. To crip time is to experience a non-normative relationship to linear, chronological time, development, and progress. It means creating alternative ways of navigating an ableist world. In short, crip time is both a theory and a practice, a way of existing according to an alternate durational logic for many disabled people. And, as such, it is an important concept for the field of medical humanities because it reflects a conception of living with illness that many patients bring with them to their healthcare interactions, often (always) creating some friction with biomedical understandings of disability as a lack and ideas about “quality of life”.

In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Kafer (2013) weaves crip time with queer time using Jack Halberstam’s engagement with disability and illness in In a Queer Time and Place (Halberstam 2005). Kafer identifies three aspects of queer time that can be useful to an analysis of crip time: “strange temporalities”, “imaginative life strategies”, and “eccentric economic practices”. I will adopt these categories to carefully craft my offering on crip time to you.

Collage image from a zine on a pink background. Text snippets read: "At the end of the world", "Mass grief happened", "Life has deep implications in care webs", "time of mourning songs", "disabled land". Images are abstract and floral.
Page created during zine workshop. Chase Ledin, 2023.

Crip time as strange time

From queer people “making community in relation to risk, disease, infection, and death” (Halberstam 2005) during the 1980s-90s HIV/AIDS crisis to a medical humanities professor writing from her sickbed after contracting long COVID (Callard 2021), “sick time”, or the time of illness, is very strange. It forces us, sometimes violently, to attend to the here and now and to reckon with uncertainty at both a deeply individual and ultimately communal level. Ellen Samuels (2017) writes about crip time as grief time, as vampire time. We can think of the process of “falling ill”, of a more-or-less defined Before and After that causes us to grieve who we were, who we thought we would become, and the lives we will never live. For many, this process also involves the liminal space of pre-diagnosis/prognosis. Waiting to see a doctor, being shuttled between specialists, waiting for test results, getting inconclusive results or no one knowing what the next step is; all of this is crip time. In many ways, I experience the strangeness of crip time as a terrifying taste of eternity because it wrenches me out of the social and conventional scripts about time and life. Crip time is immanence.

One learns to live in crip time or learns crip time. By that I mean that every disabled person develops or acquires hacks to navigate the uncertainty of crip time. We all become risk assessors and masters of project management for our own energy and pain tolerance reserves. But no one can master time, and crip time is no exception. I have been sick for over 20 years and none of my coping strategies are foolproof. The strangeness of crip time offers the opportunity to develop much knowledge, but the most important lesson is that we are always learning.

A collage page from a zine. Handwritten text reads: "I think I'll carry on". Image is an old-fashioned print of a butterfly in a frame on a pinkish background.
Page created during zine workshop. Anonymous, 2023.

Crip time as generative time

It would be a mistake to think of crip time only in terms of its sad or negative aspects. Crip time may be grief time and vampire time, but it is also dreaming time (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018, 2022). When you are bedridden, you have a lot of time to dream. You have to organise all of your basic needs (food, water, human interaction, hygiene, pain management) from a very vulnerable position, and this requires a lot of creativity. There is a reason why so many disabled people fared very well during pandemic lockdowns. This is what we trained for. Accounting for crip time affects the ways we organise as a community, be it for political action or to host a party or dance performance. Embracing crip time means letting go of “abled panic” (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2022) when technology fails, when certain deadlines are missed, or when someone’s access needs change. In my experience, if you want a disabled artist to contribute to your podcast, you think outside the box and you use the necessary resources to make it happen. Instead of giving up because the process is inefficient, non-standard, or slow, you honour your commitment. If you are on a production schedule, you factor this process into your timeline. This is crip time as generative time.

A collage page from a zine featuring the words "When it is to hard for me to be here in the world I go to this place I know...". Images include planets, the sea, boats and fishes.
Image created during zine workshop. Joan Meyer, 2023.

Crip time as crip refusal

Cripping is not something essential to disabled people. When Robert McRuer coined “crip theory” (2006) as a cross between queer theory and critical disability studies, he made it clear that one does not need to identify as disabled to do crip, to be cripping. To relate to time cripply, or to live in/with/through crip time requires certain commitments. Because my bodymind is chronically ill and experiences episodic flare ups and semi-unpredictable ups and downs, I see my timely existence as a refusal of compulsory productivity. My crip self cannot be understood by the measure of constant progress and increased labour efficiency; I am illegible to capitalist logic and, therefore, useless to capitalism (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2022). Crip time also refuses a certain kind of access, the kind that assumes disabled people want to be included in environments without having to change anything meaningful about their dynamics. In an educational and professional setting, my number one need (also known as “accommodation”) is flexible time. This usually baffles the very kind manager or Disability Services Officer because it is not a request that can be met with a technological fix (e.g. a laptop, an ergonomic chair, or assistive software) or increased DEI training. There are limits to pushing deadlines and I am still evaluated based on how many articles I can publish in a year. Living in crip time would mean rethinking our parameters for waged labour. Therefore, within crip time we can find crip “life strikes” and the refusal to let living-to-work be the measure of our worthiness and dignity (Smilges 2023).

It is not possible for everyone to refuse all the time. To live in crip time does not insulate us from the real material, political, and social realities of the world we live in. Yet, crip refusal is an important and generative tool in our effort to hack our way to a more just world. After all, crip time is our time. It is not “how to make up for lost abled time”. With every refusal we open a portal, a sliver, a crack that shows us that an alternate reality is possible. What Smilges calls “access thievery” is both a mundane and radical act: the act of taking what we need, taking the time we need, without waiting for it to be offered, without asking for permission (2023). The more comfortable you become living in crip time, the more adept you become at rewriting the rules of living.

A closing note: extra time

Beyond crip time, some scholars and disabled people also affirm the existence of mad time and trauma time to acknowledge and analyse the temporalities of psychosis, depression, PTSD, and other mad conditions. As with any definitions, there are advantages and drawbacks to using “crip time” as an umbrella concept; it can be useful for organising purposes, but it can also flatten the diversity of disabled/mad/chronically ill/debilitated communities. Therefore, I offer crip time to you, not as a one-stop portal into understanding disabled temporalities, but as an addition to your anti-ableist toolkit.

About the author

Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril (she/her) is a disabled philosopher of disability. Holding a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Aberdeen, she is bravely moving through the tides of academia and working on mass disablement and scholarly podcasting. You can find her work at www.elainagauthiermamaril.com and www.massivelydisabled.com. Élaina has been living in crip time since 2002.

References

Callard, Felicity. 2020. “Very, Very Mild: Covid-19 Symptoms and Illness Classification”. Somatosphere: Science, Medicine, and Anthropology (blog). https://somatosphere.com/2020/mild-covid.html/.

Dokumaci, Arseli. 2023. Activist Affordances: How Disabled People Improvise More Habitable Worlds. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Halberstam, Jack. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. Sexual Cultures. New York: New York University Press.

Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. 2018. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

———. 2022. The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Samuels, Ellen. 2017. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time”. Disability Studies Quarterly 37, no. 3. https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v37i3.5824.

Smilges, J. Logan. Crip Negativity. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2023.

‘MedHums 101’

Our ‘MedHums 101’ series explores the key concepts, debates and historical points of the critical medical humanities for those new to the field. View the full ‘MedHums 101’ series.

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