Before I discovered Cripple Punk - a term originating as an angry post on someone’s blog and transforming into a global movement for disability pride - it never occured to me that I could like my leg braces.
As a kid, I actively hated my braces. They were hinged, thermoplastic exoskeletons, moulded to each leg through a casting process so dull you could read my bored twitching in the finished products - the toe area loose from restless wiggling.
My early reasons for disliking them could hardly be considered vain. They chafed, they scratched, and the tight plastic meant sweat could not escape, my legs damp with fermented perspiration when I took them off after school.
But the moment puberty hit, and with it the tidal wave of body anxiety that tweendom brings, all I could think about was how bad they looked. And by bad I meant different - at that age, they’re synonyms. Anything which casts you as Other needed to be suppressed.
I stopped wearing braces towards the tail end of primary school. My muscle disease was mild enough that I could walk without them, and the blast of testosterone coursing through my lanky pubescent body at the time was the biochemical equivalent of daily steroid injections.
It was manageable, and I made it through the entirety of high school “passing” as abled - the irony being that, in trading the visual signifier of my disability, I felt the pain and exhaustion of my disease all the more.
It was the first time I saw my shame as something encouraged by an inherently ableist society.
It was also in my later teenage years that I discovered Tumblr, the uber-millennial blogging platform populated by the outcast social cliques of your average high school - the emos, the sci-fi nerds, the closeted gays and the try-hard indie kids with “alternative” music tastes. I was a healthy serving of all four, so naturally I spent most nights burning through my family’s monthly internet allowance on the site.
It was on Tumblr that I discovered the term Cripple Punk. My first encounter was in the form of a manifesto on the blog crpl-pnk.tumblr, a collection of points outlining core principles: “cripple punk is exclusively by the physically disabled for the physically disabled”, “cripple punk rejects pity, inspiration porn, & all other forms of ableism” and, most importantly to me at the time, “cripple punk fights internalised ableism & fully supports those struggling with it”.
Internalised ableism. This was the first time someone had articulated back to me my own body image issues within a broader political marginalisation. It was the first time I saw my shame as something encouraged by an inherently ableist society.
And what could be more punk than rejecting systemic shame and wearing disability with pride?
The hashtag #cripplepunk was added to hundreds, thousands of selfies by young, cool, punk disabled people. Clicking through this tag - on Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram - exposed me to people showing off their wheelchairs, canes and leg braces.
As I binged on these selfies, these pictures of proud young cripples, I began to unlearn the shame that stopped me wearing braces. It was a very slow shift, but in my second year of uni I started wearing them again, and I’ve never looked back - my gait more efficient and less painful than ever.
And even though I get odd or pitying looks from abled people, the newfound punk in me has the solution - give ‘em the middle finger.
Two weeks ago a sharp, cold pain shot through my chest when I heard about the passing of Tai - better known online as Tumblr user crpl-pnk, the creator of Cripple Punk.
It was shocking news for me to hear, but nearly as shocking was realising how affected I was. I didn’t know Tai at all. We’d never spoken. I didn’t even connect the name Tai to #cripplepunk until I saw the hashtag trending in honour of their legacy, a testament to how far reaching the term had become in the global disability community.
I can feel the collective eyeroll of baby boomers when I try explaining the importance of a hashtag. But social media is the only media we have - disabled people aren’t running networks, aren’t running Hollywood. For authentic representation we need to look to each other. That means having an ethos and a hashtag to organise around - a gift that Tai gave us all.
I didn’t know them, I didn’t love them. But I know and love myself better for their existence in this world, and for that I will always be grateful. Rest in power, Tai.
Alistair Baldwin is a writer and comedian, based in Melbourne but loyal only to Perth. For excellent tweets and #cripplepunk selfies, follow on Twitter & Instagram at @baldwinalistair.