Disability Culture: A Fact Sheet

Dr. Steven E. Brown, Co-Founder of the Institute on Disability Culture, in the United States, briefly describes the history and themes of disability culture. (Las Cruces, NM: Institute on Disability Culture, 1996). Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs3/brown96a.html.

Copyright ©1995, Institute on Disability Culture, All Rights Reserved

The modern disability rights movement began more than thirty years ago during the 1960s. People with disabilities around the world successfully challenged dominant social stereotypes. In the United States, Ed Roberts, a post-polio, ventilator-using quadriplegic, broke American educational barriers when he became the first person with such a significant disability to attend college. Roberts entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1962. During a lifetime of fighting for equality for people with disabilities he became an international representative of human rights and overthrowing oppression.

But Ed did not act alone. At Berkeley, other significantly disabled individuals enrolled and coalesced into a group they named the Rolling Quads. Providing a sounding board for each other, the Rolling Quads quickly determined that their life experiences shaped a common, group understanding of the condition of disability.

People with disabilities recognized that they shared a similar, but unique, history based on common perceptions about disability. An overwhelming need for political change dominated all other endeavors because a legacy of oppression remains the most profound trait of our history.

Political activism became the most visible arena of disability rights into the 1970s and 1980s, with organizations such as inc leading to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, but other avenues of expression also developed. A significant discussion about language and its meaning raged throughout the 1980s in a relatively new outlet: the disability press. Magazines like MAINSTREAM, the DISABILITY RAG, and the older ACCENT ON LIVING, discussed these changes in published articles written primarily by individuals with disabilities.

One of the most important results of these debates was a (r)evolution in the perception of disability from weak and discounted to strong and valued. A traditional antipathy to identification as an individual with a disability turned into pride in both individual and group strength.

The pervasiveness of this change affected multiple constituencies. Grassroots efforts, such as the development of independent living centers, organizations that believed in street protests, especially ADAPT, and groups representing a variety of constituencies, like People First, reflected the movement's roots. Academic interest best personified in the multi-disciplinary Society for Disability Studies, formed in the 1980s, offered analytical approaches.

One way to approach the cultural characteristics of people with disabilities is through isolating historical facts and myths into positive and negative groupings, such as those that follow:

Weakness   Strength
Sickness   Wellness
Incapacity   Ability
Isolation   Peer Support
Alienation   Identity
Institutionalization   Integration
Oppression   Resilience
Victimization   Choice
Devaluation   Pride
Inability to act "normally"   New ways of doing things

A reaction to these and many other historic negative perceptions have led people with disabilities throughout the world to awaken to our positive attributes. In the process we began to recognize that we have many reasons to be proud of who we are, both as individuals and as a group.

When we realized that as a group we have many common traits and experiences, we began to investigate the possibility that we were indeed a distinct culture. Like other cultures, our own is most visibly demonstrated through the work of diverse artists of various disciplines.

In the United States, the San Francisco Bay Area of California has birthed the most prominent artists, such as performance artists like Cheryl Marie Wade, Wry Crips Women's Theatre, and Frank Moore; dancers Bruce Curtis and the Axis Dance Troupe; and playwright Neil Marcus. But it may be musicians, such as Cleveland's Jeff Moyer, Canada's Jane Field, and England's Johnny Crescendo who signify the worldwide development of the Disability Culture Movement.

All of these individuals and groups represent the tip of an enormous iceberg called Disability Culture which might be defined in this way:

"People with disabilities have forged a group identity. We share a common history of oppression and a common bond of resilience. We generate art, music, literature, and other expressions of our lives, our culture, infused from our experience of disability. Most importantly, we are proud of ourselves as people with disabilities. We claim our disabilities with pride as part of our identity. We are who we are: we are people with disabilities." (Brown, 1996)

More in-depth analysis and descriptions of the Disability Culture Movement may be found in Steven E. Brown, INVESTIGATING A CULTURE OF DISABILITY: FINAL REPORT (1995). For information about this and other publications write Institute on Disability Culture, 2260 Sunrise Point Rd., Las Cruces, NM 88011 USA, http://www.dimenet.com/disculture