By Kyle Callen
.@Callen_Kyle: “The story of “Click-Clack” isn’t one of passive victimization; it’s a story about my evolving personhood.”Tweet
It’s a Saturday afternoon in September 2020. I’ve just caught the last play of the local college football game, and am looking for an excuse to avoid being productive. My mom comes in and says she’s running to Walmart with my dad and sister, providing me the perfect opportunity to get out of the house. Plus, I’ll be able to use my wheelchair for a while as we shop, which counts as exercise for the day in my mind!
So, we’re about an hour into our family outing, our faces covered to protect ourselves and others in the store from COVID-19. I’m busy whipping past everyone in my wheelchair. For some reason, my comfortable “strolling” speed is about twice as fast as most “abled” people seem to walk (no judgment — just an observation).
We eventually end up in the snack section of Walmart. My mom and I decide to grab a box of Cheez-Its. I laughingly say to my sister, “There was a kid in my high school everyone called ‘Cheez-It’.” I honestly have never known the exact reason — though I’m fairly certain its origins weren’t kind.
Right about that moment, one of my own high school nicknames suddenly comes back to me:
“Click-Clack.” I look over at my sister and chuckle. “Hell, I remember my friend Cody calling me ‘Click-Clack’ because of the sound my braces made as I walked down the hallways.”
Anyone who’s ever worn a hinged ankle-foot orthosis or AFO knows that it makes a loud snapping sound, and that orthotists’ attempts to silence the snapping eventually prove futile. Back when I was a little kid in the mid-90s, they put a rubber stopper on the bottom part of the AFO, where the two hinged parts meet on the back of the ankle. Within the first day, the glued rubber stopper would inevitably pop off, and you’d be as noisy as ever as you limped and/or waddled along. Later, when I was in my teens, they tried putting a cloth-like pad where the rubber stopper used to be, and within about a week, the pad would disintegrate. Thus, whether or not you find “Click-Clack” to be cruel nomenclature, it’s a pretty damn accurate description.
Anyway, as I reminisce about my former alias, my sister’s face becomes flushed with indignation as she declares, “You’re lucky we weren’t in school together; I would have punched that guy square in the face!” To be fair, a part of me does feel somewhat touched by my younger sister’s response to “Click-Clack.” She and the rest of my family have always been a great support system for me through all the surgeries, recoveries, and other difficulties of my disability, whether they be physical or emotional. And, as I’ve begun immersing myself in disability studies over the past year or so, my sister in particular has very much encouraged and taken an interest in my journey as a disabled person and scholar. Indeed, I consider my sister to be one of the most genuine advocates and allies to my empowerment.
Still, I can’t help but laugh at how offended she is by “Click-Clack.” As we continue to peruse all the junk food, I lightheartedly try to defend my old pal Cody. I explain to my sister, “We were friends!” That’s what friends do in high school – see who can jokingly be the biggest jerk and make the other laugh. However, no matter how much comedic spin I put on it, my sister simply doesn’t seem convinced that “Click-Clack” is cool. Half amused and half confused by my sister’s reaction, I find myself repeating: “Cody was my friend!”
I know what some people might say: Cody was never really my “friend.” Cody was simply a “bully,” and I was simply a “victim” of his mean-spirited amusement. To me, this sort of argument jibes well with most stories about disabled children within popular culture. There always seems to be a “bully” character: a “bad guy” who despises and torments the disabled child for being “different.” On the flip side is a “friend” character, or “good guy” who, out of some mixture of sympathy and curiosity, learns to love the disabled child and defend them against the cruel world. Elizabeth Wheeler has described this pop culture trope as “the disabled child as educational toy,” whereby the disabled child merely serves as a plot device to make the “friend” or “good guy” a better person.
When thinking about this common, knee-jerk perspective, I find myself reflecting on my relationship with Cody during my formative years in our small Oklahoma town. Our friendship was pretty much like any other teenage friendship. I was about 16 or 17 when I first met Cody in my geometry class. I can still remember his long blonde hair (always in a ponytail) and chin beard that made him look a bit older than the typical high schooler. He was a grade ahead of me and had a laid-back but rebellious air about him. Cody was the kind of guy that wouldn’t necessarily cause much disruption in class, but made it clear he wasn’t about to take crap from anyone.
I distinctly remember one of the first interactions Cody and I had, long before he felt comfortable enough to dub me “Click-Clack.” I was sitting in geometry with my best friend Clint – a big, strong, football player type. Clint and I had been friends since second grade, and it was well-known that Clint would not hesitate to stand up for me. Indeed, on numerous occasions, I’d have to intervene to keep Clint from unleashing his wrath upon some idiot, or I’d be right beside him having to explain to some authority figure why something “went down.”
In high school, I began allowing those closest to me to call me “crippled,” both as a source of insider humor, and as an indicator that such individuals were in my “circle of trust.” One day, as Clint and I were chatting to avoid the tedium of our coursework that fateful day, spouting “crippled” this and “crippled” that to each other, Cody decided he’d try to chime in with his own, “Yea, you d*** crippled!”
Clint and I stared at him blankly, but with intensity. Clint replied with an antagonizing, “What the f*** did you just say?” As Cody began to emphatically express his sincerest of apologies, Clint and I slowly turned to one another and immediately burst into laughter, and cautiously, so did Cody. From that day forward, it was understood that Cody had earned a foundational level of trust with me and my friends.
Cody and I were never exactly “best friends,” but he became someone I felt at ease with as I navigated the often-harsh social spaces of our high school. We bonded over our mutual appreciations for football, classic rock, and dark humor. Moreover, I always felt we shared a commonality regarding our respective “place” within our high school’s social hierarchy. While both of us were relatively well-liked across a wide spectrum of different cliques, neither of us were especially popular either. We bonded over swimming just a little against the mainstream.
Cody, Chad, and I took a media class together. We spent much of our time having good laughs and making dumb videos for our largely asinine assignments. Once, our group was tasked with making a couple of videos for incoming freshmen demonstrating the rules in our high school handbook. To show the “ills” of drug use on campus, we pretended to get high behind the school as Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” played in the background. We addressed bullying in our next video by, ironically, beating up our friend Chad. For the video, Chad wore a hot dog suit he borrowed from his job at Sonic – which we viewed as beautiful symbolism for hatred against those deemed “different.” What made it all so perfect was how much the rest of the class misunderstood and unanimously hated our group’s videos. All we could do was laugh and say “well, they clearly just didn’t get it.”
Within this context of togetherness, at some forgotten point in time, Cody came up with my nickname of “Click-Clack.”
Whatever teasing Cody directed my way usually felt like it was all in good fun. I never felt like the object of Cody’s pity. He never really seemed uncomfortable with my disability, at least not like some other kids who would act “fake nice” to me, speaking in that proverbial hushed and ever-so-slightly slowed tone, afraid to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.” At times he might have been a bit too comfortable making my disability the focus of his attention and ribbing. Still, I always felt like Cody was talking to me like a real human being, like he would any other guy, while both acknowledging and engaging with my subjectivity.
Maybe I’m being overly nostalgic thinking back on my friendship with Cody. Maybe I should be more angry about “Click-Clack.” I certainly can’t act like being called “crippled,” “Click-Clack,” “Forrest Gump,” or other charming nicknames have never hurt my feelings. There were times when someone called me those things and they felt different; more mocking, more hateful, no longer “mine” to empower myself, but “theirs” to put me down in my “place.” Therefore, I won’t argue that Cody wasn’t being ableist to a certain extent. But I reject the idea that I was simply a “victim,” and that Cody was simply a “bully.” Such an understanding is far too simple, lacking all the nuance and complexity that often defines any human relationship, blurring the line between “bully” and “friend.” And, even more so, such an understanding robs me of my agency; the agency Cody often gave me in our friendship, and the agency I exercise in defining what that friendship meant to me.
.@Callen_Kyle: I’m thankful I’ve been given opportunities to see my disability in entirely new ways; it’s become an identity I can take pride in as opposed to some stigmatizing characteristic I’m obligated to mitigate.Tweet
So, while I acknowledge that “Click-Clack” wasn’t the most politically correct high school nickname, I can’t help but laugh at it, largely because I’ve outgrown it. As I look at my life now, I’m thankful I’ve been given opportunities to see my disability in entirely new ways; it’s become an identity I can take pride in as opposed to some stigmatizing characteristic I’m obligated to mitigate. But, looking back, I’m not incredibly embarrassed or offended by “Click-Clack.” To whatever extent its origins were cruel, ableist, and by extension oppressive, it also represents a relationship that gave me power and a voice during a time in my life when I often didn’t feel I had those. In the end, the story of “Click-Clack” isn’t one of passive victimization; it’s a story about my evolving personhood, and it’s mine to tell.
This article was published with permission by Kyle Callen. It is copyright of the listed author and may not be distributed or cited without written permission.
Kyle Callen is a PhD student in the sociology department at the University of Oklahoma. His research areas include social theory, sociology of knowledge, sexualities, identity, Native American Studies, and Disability Studies. As a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and a physically disabled person, his work on both Native American socioeconomic disparities and disabled experiences contribute to a larger research agenda of discovering new theoretical insights into the complexities of marginalization and empowerment within society.