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What is Disability Culture?

For many people, the words “disability” and “culture” don’t go well together. Because the medical model of disability is the dominant narrative for understanding what it means to be disabled in society, the idea that disabled experiences are cultural experiences is often very strange.

Disability cultures are simply entire cultural spheres of how people socialize and build community around their shared experiences with disability (either in general or with specific disabilities).

For example, the past two decades have seen the enormous growth of Autistic culture, the culture centered around the experiences and norms of autistic people. Aspects of Autistic culture include specific terminology (such as “stimming” and “autie”), cultural artifacts (such as social interaction badges and stim toys), technologies (such as use of AAC devices and noise-canceling devices), and distinct modes of communication (including nonverbal communication and specific linguistic patterns in language).

A much more widely known example of this phenomenon is Deaf culture. (Many Deaf people do not identify specifically with the term disability, though there are also Deaf-Disabled people and Deaf people who do identify with disability, as well as the fact that there are many shared experiences between d/Deaf people and Disabled people.) Deaf culture is also centered around certain social norms, terminology (such as “CODA,” child of a deaf adult), technologies (such as CART captioning), and linguistic norms (the centrality of manual languages–in the U.S., American Sign Language).

Other examples of specific disabled communities that have their own distinct cultures include, but are not limited to, the culture of little people, the culture of blind people, the culture of disabled queers, the culture of disabled people of color, and the culture of people with cerebral palsy.

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