Is There a Disabled Culture?

By Barbara J. McKee

Feb. 2, 2002   

cul·ture (kùl¹cher) noun: The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other  products of human work and thought 

com·mu·ni·ty (ke-my¡¹nî-tê) noun: a. A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government. b. The district or locality in which such a group lives. 

I first joined the disabled community just five years ago. I have been a wheelchair user for 28 years, but I didn’t associate or involve myself with other disabled individuals. I have always been a part of the culture, but I was ignorant to the struggles and successes of most “crips” until I joined the community. 

As you can see by the above dictionary definition, culture is learned behavior, essentially forced upon an individual by their families, friends, and neighborhoods. Some of the behavior is genetic, passed on throughout family history. But the majority of a person’s behavior is shaped by human experience; the culture they grow up in. If a person is born in an impoverished area, they learn a behavior that enables them to live in their neighborhood. They also are taught acceptable behavior within their family. They may choose not to obey or agree to the behavior, but they learn it just the same. There isn’t a conscious choice to avoid the teachings of culture. 

However, belonging to a community is a choice. One is born into a culture, but is placed in a community until the individual decides to stay in that community, or choose a different one. Community doesn’t necessarily relate to physical living space. One can choose to be in the Catholic community, just as one chooses to be part of the black community. I may have some argument here comparing a religion to a race, but my point is this; culture is a by-product of birth and circumstance; community is a by-product of choice. I have known many minority individuals who refuse to be involved in their community, but are staunch supporters of the elements of their culture. 

This holds true for disabled individuals, regardless of when or how they became disabled. Learning to live with a disability exposes you to the culture. Depending on the severity or type of disability, we experience the world totally different from anyone else. We have our own language, music, housing criteria, and believe it or not, our own food. I saw a film entitled “Crip Culture” a bit ago, and in the film one gentleman who is a wheelchair user stated that the crip culture is real because we have our own food—fast-food drive-thru! I had to agree with him because any business, be it fast food, drugstore, or a dry cleaner that has a drive-thru will get my business. I hate lugging my chair in and out of the car. 

Disability culture is unique in the aspect that is crosses all economic, gender and race barriers. No one is considered exempt from becoming disabled. I have a good friend and poet, Dara McLaughlin, who uses the term “temporarily-able bodied”. Old age, disease, and accidents insure that those of the healthy sector will turn to the disabled culture for advice and direction. Only an untimely death will allow an escape from the inevitable. 

Disabled communities are more than marks on a map. Physical communities are mostly comprised of the elderly or severely disabled in assisted-living or nursing homes. However, there is a huge disabled community that resides on the internet. These people are very vocal, educated, and politically savvy, but are near or at the economic poverty level, or are unable to work outside the home. With these physical restrictions, we become invisible to mainstream society. What the politicians don’t realize is that we have more than enough time to read about the issues of the nation, discuss them on thousands of message boards, and write emails to our congress and senate to voice our opinions. We DO get out and vote, one way or another. 

The disability community, along with its culture, is a political sleeping giant that is starting to wake up.

McKee, who gets around in a wheelchair, is an Albuquerque writer, poet, performer and producer. She writes a column that runs in Insight & Opinion the first Saturday of every month.

NOTE: This article was available online at, but that link no longer works, and as of 12/13/07, no other link to the article was available.