Tyler Trewhella and punk musician Mik Scarlet. Photo: Tumblr and courtesy of Mik Scarlet
We need to see more disabled people behaving badly. And no, I don’t mean blind people littering or wheelchair users shoplifting. I mean we need to see more disabled people behaving like everyone else. We need to see more disabled people smoking, drinking and sticking up a middle finger. More disabled people who are angry, bitter and abjectly un-inspirational – because frankly, there are a lot of us. So where have we all been hiding?
Dive into disability TikTok and you’ll quickly come across a certain kind of creator: They’re young, disabled and proud of it. They have a sarky comeback for every ableist comment. They do DIYs on how to pimp your wheelchair (if you put spikes on the handles, strangers won’t take it upon themselves to push you). They’re not averse to a good old-fashioned thirst trap, often featuring a bedazzled walking stick. Many have piercings and brightly coloured hair; most of them wear badges, studs and leather. Almost all of them joke about “ableds” and “smashing ableism”. Welcome to Cripple Punk.
Cripple Punk is an online movement of young disabled people who reject the rigid, unimaginative expectations placed on them by society: what they should look like, how they can act, what they’re allowed to say. At its core, Cripple Punk rejects “inspiration porn”: the idea that disabled people exist only to inspire and uplift non-disabled people. The movement was created for and by physically disabled people, and some of its members prefer to call it “Cr*pplePunk”, “CripPunk” or “CPunk”. (Though the word “cripple” is being reclaimed by some physically disabled people, it is still not comfortable for everyone. So in short, if you’re not physically disabled, you don’t get to use the term.)
The movement started in 2014 on Tumblr when a teenage Tyler Trewhella reblogged a Snapchat of themself with a walking stick, an aloof expression and a cigarette in their mouth: “cripple punk” read the caption. Underneath it they added, “i’m starting a movement”.
Almost immediately, they were flooded with comments: “WOW being handicapped is not something to be proud of, being healthy is a good thing and being handicapped is a bad thing”, read one anonymous message. “Maybe if you didn’t smoke, you wouldn’t need that cane”, said another. Tyler replied simply: “This is why we need cripple punk.”
And so the movement was born. Tyler sadly died in 2017, but their legacy lives on – not least, in Cripple Punk’s many members, who cite the movement as instrumental in their finding a community and embracing a disabled identity.
“Finding Cripple Punk [on Tumblr in 2014] absolutely changed everything for me,” says Tova, a 20-something from Scotland with physical, mental and developmental disabilities. “It was a complete paradigm shift in the way I see myself and others and disability.”
Tova shares snapshots of her life on TikTok, often tagging her videos with #cripplepunk. In a video thumbnailed “cpunk changed my life”, she explains how the movement made her realise that the pain she experiences while standing still is, in fact, a disability (and not something that makes her “lazy”). “I never allowed myself to take any kind of concession for my foot pain thing, because I thought ‘that's not a proper disability’,” she says.
In another video, she explains why she uses a mobility aid called a Flipstick; a walking stick with a triangular handle that folds, at the press of a button, into a seat. There’s nothing clinical about it: personalised with electrical tape, it’s now striped black and white and looks like a natural extension of Tova’s punk-goth style – not something you’d see in your nan’s nursing home.
She’d just started working in a shop, and worried all the standing around in the job would worsen her pain. When she found Tyler’s Tumblr posts about Cripple Punk, they gave her the confidence to start using her Flipstick at work: “They made me realise you can sit down in the shower if you want to. Or you can put a stool next to the counter while you cook if it makes you feel better… I thought, ‘fuck it, I'll just do it, because if this is going to be my job, I might as well be comfortable.’ It made me realise this is sort of like wearing glasses. Like, what's the point of being in pain when I don't need to be?”
Ash Murdock, an amputee with CRPS – a chronic pain condition – agrees that discovering Cripple Punk changed their relationship with mobility aids. “I’ve learned a lot about [the] different types. When I first became disabled, I had a hospital wheelchair and it was so bad for me and so painful,” they tell me. “I wouldn't have ever known that there were other wheelchairs if it weren't for other disabled people in this movement.”
Ash has become a familiar face within Cripple Punk, posting videos about the movement on TikTok and YouTube, and selling handmade Cripple Punk stickers on Etsy under the name Chaos Cripples. With mottos like “Hell on Wheels” and “Not Your Inspiration”, their stickers are a world away from the usual disability merch which, Ash says, is “inspiration porn-y” and “mostly made by abled people trying to profit off of us”. Stickers and badges are a staple in Cripple Punk, but their purpose is not merely aesthetic. “They’re a good tool to radicalise people,” Ash says. “Like, you put it on your wheelchair, somebody else sees it and they're like, oh, I didn't even know that was a thing.”
The Chaos Cripples logo, in fact, features Ash and a friend in their wheelchairs committing arson. “There's a bunch of medical bills and rejection for welfare letters and stuff like that flying around that we're burning because we want to burn the whole system down,” Ash laughs. “Obviously, in real life, that's a little bit more complicated. But we can fantasise about it in the form of a sticker.”
This isn’t the first time that disability activists have borrowed from punk. “There's always been this weird synchronicity between disability and punk,” says Mik Scarlet, a disabled punk and musician who has been involved in punk culture since the 80s. “I think the crossover was that being different made you cool. There was a real shift in what was beautiful.”
Before punk, he says, “I was the limpy kid who wasn't cool but then all of a sudden punk happened and I started wearing my caliper” – a metal brace – “on the outside so that people could see it.” In the early 90s, Scarlet wore it onstage as the frontman of Freak UK, a synth-based electronic punk band (“yes, our initials did spell fuck”). They supported Gary Numan, played often on TV and sold out venues like the Electric Ballroom, but “still couldn't get a record deal because no one wanted to sign a bloke in a wheelchair”.
Thirty years on, ableism is still everywhere. Cripple Punk, sadly, might never abolish it – but it might help us to bear its burden. As I meet more members of the movement, it becomes clear that Cripple Punk, really, isn’t about Tumblr or TikTok; it’s not about the clothing, the hair or the piercings. Cripple Punk is a spirit. A community. An attitude.
What does it say, exactly? In Tyler’s absence, we can take a guess. Cripple Punk tells us to be kinder – especially to ourselves but also to each other. It tells us it’s normal to have needs: there’s no shame in using assistive devices or in asking for help. It tells us we’re allowed to feel pride in being disabled – and we’re also allowed to get angry, protest, smoke cigarettes or commit arson in our art. It tells us it’s okay to show up, exactly as we are.
Against a pandemic that has cost thousands of disabled lives, in which the media has reduced us to our “underlying health conditions” and where the question “Who do we not save?” was, yes, genuinely entertained in a government meeting, Tyler’s words echo loudly: “To be disabled and not hate yourself for it is a profound act of resistance.” Cripple Punk, at least, lives on.