What does it mean to be a member of the Disability Community?

Before the rise of the Disability Rights movement, many people with disabilities were isolated from each other or stuck in disability-specific silos that really did not afford them the opportunity to be exposed to people with other disabilities and their experiences. As the movement began and evolved, there was a greater sense of the need to come together as a people, to combine our voices and our efforts as a group, as a community.

As Disability Policy emerged and developed through the 1980s and 1990s, it appeared as though the new cadre of leaders were developing something more than a philosophy based on the needs of their specific disability, but rather a more collective push towards solidarity and a unified movement for ALL people with disabilities. In No Pity, Joseph Shapiro described it as a “hidden army” of people who have an instinctive understanding of the stigma of being disabled. Either they had a disability themselves, or someone in their family had one. The ranks of this army were vast, given that more than one in seven Americans had a disability that would be covered under the ADA.” (Shapiro, 1993)

How do I become a member of the Disability Community?

Having a disability automatically makes you a member of the disability community. Whether you choose to embrace that as part of who you are, is what determines if you are an active member or not. It means that you recognize your disability and celebrate it as one part of who you are. In doing so, you are then able to find commonalities with others of similar experiences and backgrounds and similar and different disabilities. Because people are not always born with their disabilities, it is possible to become a member of the disability community during any part of your life.

What if I don’t always agree with what’s going on in the Disability Community?

Being a member of the Disability Community does not mean that you always have to get along with or like other people with disabilities. It does not mean that you can't disagree, in fact, what it does mean is that you have a shared respect for each other’s experiences and feelings which as a result, allows you to further develop yourself.

What is Disability Culture?

As a result of the disability rights movement and disability history bringing people with disabilities together, it also led to the development of a culture. The feeling of sharing a common experience is the initial sign of something more than just coincidences and experiences, but a deeper level of kinship. Any time people with disabilities come together, whether in hospitals, schools, camps, protests, workshops, or at conferences.

"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 and 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." (Institute on Disability Culture, 2001.)

How did Disability Culture originate?

Disability culture emerged as a result of the oppression we, as people with disabilities, face on political, social, economic, and cultural levels. It’s kind of like the Force described in the Star Wars movies; something that binds us, penetrates us, and allows us to celebrate who we are.

The functions of a disability culture (Gill, 1995)

  • Fortification: definition and expression of our value as a community that gives us energy and endurance against oppression
  • Unification: The expression of our beliefs and heritage in cultural activities brings us together, gives us support, and underscores our common values
  • Communication: Our developing art, language, symbols, and rituals help us describe to the world ands to each other who we are as a people
  • Recruitment: The expression of our culture is a positive thing and encourages people with disabilities to “come out” and join the community, integrating their disabilities into their own identities, and making them feel like they belong.