Disability Culture

I’m just now finishing up a story for Inc.’s October 2005 issue, about a company called Habitat International that mostly hires people with mental disabilities, physical disabilities or both. I’ve written about disability issues before, but I’d forgotten that the 50 million people in the United States with a disability are actually the country’s largest minority group –there are more people with disabilities than there are African Americans or Latinos. (There are about 35 million African Americans and Latinos in the U.S.) And I’d also forgotten about the idea that once captivated me: "disability culture".

In a disability culture, people with disabilities have a group identity, almost like an ethnicity, that informs art, music, literature. If you are a proponent of disability culture, instead of seeing a mental or physical handicap as something to cure, or an obstacle to overcome, you see the infirmity as something to celebrate, in the way you’d celebrate a religion, a nationality, or an ethnic background.

I want to think about this for a while. It seems to me that there are a lot of positive aspects to this movement –it’s nice, isn’t it, that people who are Jewish and once felt ashamed of their religion, for example, can feel good about it, or people who once saw their race or ethnicity as an obstacle to success are now seeing it as a source of strength? But, on the other hand, if someone uses the glorification of their illness –and I’m thinking about mental illness primarily –to avoid taking their medications or seeking treatment, so that they can revel in the full flowering of their condition that they will then celebrate, maybe disability culture isn’t so nice– maybe it’s even dangerous? Do the benefits of "disability culture" outweigh the drawbacks, or not?

Interesting. Must find the book that I’ve had on my shelf for a few years about disability culture, called No Pity. Must mull further.


6 thoughts on “Disability Culture

  1. Alison, the mental and physical disabilities subculture must be the most heterogeneous group around, after Homo sapiens itself, of which we are a subset. It includes every race, religion, political bent, sexual orientation, blue collar and white, and every attitude imagineable. Indeed I wonder if we might not all be seen as suffering from one disability or another when science has wider eyes. And perhaps that is the point — accepting, loving and sympathizing with our neighbor as ourselves, because, ultimately, we ARE they. Yes! Why not celebrate our disabilities? They are often the very curiosities that cause us to transcend our own natural blandness. Yours, — Kevin

  2. I think that’s a good point that Kevin makes about disability being difference, helping us transcend our natural blandness. But aren’t some conditions that are diseases, and shouldn’t they be cured, or avoided, if possible?
    For example, there is this organization, The Icarus Project, http://theicarusproject.net/ which seems to argue that bipolar disease might not be something to be treated, but rather “a dangerous gift”.

  3. Alison: Congrats on the new site. Re disability culture, as you may know, it is strong among the deaf and hard of hearing. There are even opponents to cochlear implants because it might remove the person from the culture. Sign language also is considered by many as more than just an exercise in transliteration. As with most languages, there are things said — including jokes — that just don’t translate because they hinge on wordplay unique to sign language. I only know enough to be aware of the issue, but lots of literature I think on it.

  4. As an artist born into a family and subculture famous for bipolar genes, I feel strong sympathy for the attitude that a bipolar condition, if not too severe, can be a “dangerous gift.” The tyranny of American optimism insists that we must all be sunny team players with flat affect and submissive attitudes in order to maximize corporate productivity and harmony. Much creativity and vision spring from a more fermented place, which makes Americans uncomfortable. Our historically individualistic society seems to be evolving toward ever greater and blander conformity, or so it seems to an old coot like me, and to every European with whom I have discussed this disturbing trend. Let’s celebrate diversity and tolerate difference and return to providing everyone the chance to help this nation become the most productive society in the world because of our complex creative mix.

  5. “mental illness primarily –to avoid taking their medications or seeking treatment, so that they can revel in the full “flowering of their condition that they will then celebrate, maybe disability culture isn’t so nice”
    It is dangerous, but I do’nt think it happens. At all. Mentals who stop taking their meds do for a variety of reasons (feel cured, dislike side effects, aren’t monitored, can’t afford it, run out b/c of disorganisatoin, counter acted by other drugs etc), disability culture I doubt is one of them.

  6. For another interesting take on this subject, check out the cover story of The Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 2005. It’s about the depression of Abraham Lincoln– and argues that depression was an important source of Lincoln’s strength as a leader.
    It’s by Joshua Wolf Shenk, with whom I studied at the New School last fall. The article was adapted from his upcoming book on the same subject.

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