Think pieces

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Disability culture

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By Robyn Hunt

Culture is complex. It concerns a person's values, traditions and beliefs, behaviours, customs and artefacts. These are shared with other members of a community or society. It is the way things are done in a particular group or community. This is the basis from which we deal with the world and each other. Culture is learned from one generation to the next.

Race, ethnicity, gender, age, education and socio-economic status all contribute. A person can belong to several cultures at once.

New Zealand is bi-cultural, acknowledging the Treaty relationship between Tangata Whenua and the Crown. It is also described as multi-cultural because people from different countries and cultures have settled here.

The existence of disability culture is a relatively new and contested idea. This is not surprising given our negative history. But an important role is emerging for disability culture as the celebration of our uniqueness. A cultural movement can bring positive change of attitude, systems and laws through shared ways of seeing the world and through action.

Disability culture offers a new framework of possibility and choice. It is about visibility, pride in who we are as whole individuals, and as a group, in all our rich diversity. It gives us the space to pursue our individual and shared goals.

Elements of disability culture are:

  • A shared history of oppression
  • Reflections on our unique, complex and rich life experience/s
  • The forging of a group identity
  • The creation of new and positive values
  • Celebrating and emphasizing the enabling aspects of living with disability
  • A commonality forming the basis for change
  • A common understanding of disability etiquette, language and values

A twenty first century disability culture is not a rigid ghetto. It is a strengths-based movement rooted firmly in human rights and the social model of disability.

Not all disabled people want to belong to disability culture. That is fine. “Mainstreamed” younger disabled people may have little contact with the wider world of disability. Until they encounter their first real barrier to their life progress they may not realise there are advantages in associating with other disabled people.

We already have disability culture in NZ. Our first celebration of Disability Pride was by the Public Service Equal Employment Opportunity community in July 1989.

And the achievements of the Deaf community, who are strong in their Deaf culture, language and heritage, model cultural strength. A maturing and more united disability rights movement and the growth of disability arts are all evidence of an evolving disability culture.

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