What exactly is disability culture? Some people believe that having a shared language, as many deaf people who use American Sign Language do, constitutes a shared cultural experience. Others in the disability community believe that having a culture has to do with a shared vision that people with disabilities will one day enjoy equal opportunity in the United States and around the world.
In the U.S. we tend to talk about culture but we’re often very independent when it comes to our daily lives. Sometimes I tend to think that there’s a down side to the American idealization of the independent and heroic person who "goes it alone". We have this John Wayne mentality even in the disability community. We tend to call this heroic and independent disabled person a "super crip" because this kind of disability activist exemplifies the classic American hero figure’s solo flight to save the planet while everybody else watches.
When I think about disability and super crip culture I’m inevitably reminded of a story my mother liked to tell about her father. It seems that one night in August her dad was fed up with the porcupines rocking back and forth in the rocking chairs on the porch of the family’s New Hampshire farmhouse. So in the middle of the night he stomped outside with his shotgun and took aim and fired in a general direction. The porcupines were unharmed and like all creatures in such a circumstance, they fled. They were amazingly fast.
It was 1938 and the family farmhouse was in the middle of nowhere. The sound of a shotgun raised no alarm. My grandfather took aim again and missed.
Then he spotted one of the creatures lumbering into the tool shed. He was beside himself with glee. He would make an example of one of them, by God!
He took aim inside that shed and managed to hit both the porcupine and a cast iron bean pot. That’s the nature of shotguns of course. And yes, there was a ricochet effect and my grandfather received a flesh wound on his scalp.
The flesh wound was a minor affair of course. And the porcupine passed away somewhere in that tool shed. All was forgotten for a couple of weeks.
Then my grandfather noticed the odor. The porcupine had died somewhere under the floor of that tool shed. It was necessary to pull up the floorboards and find the carcass.
And so he pulled up the boards one by one in a hot, airless shack that smelled of dead porcupine.
He didn’t find the creature under the first board, or the second or fifth or eighth plank either. He had to pull every last board.
This was the cause of family mirth of course. The man grew faint of pallor and whenever he would emerge for air he would speak in non-sequiturs. He would say things like: "whittle stick" or "granary rats" and no one knew what he was talking about.
I think that super crip disability culture works along these lines. My grandfather represents the heroic disabled person who refuses to ask for help. This is the American self made frontiersman or frontierswoman who will single handedly slay the porcupine or locate the corpse.
If my grandfather had asked for help the porcupine would have been found in half a day. And if he had asked for initial advice from the community, well, it’s likely that someone would have said that he could easily relocate the rocking chairs to a place beyond the tool shed. The truth is that the porcupines were the only rockers in that little community.
People with disabilities are quite often trying to relocate the porcupines just as my grandfather did. Sometimes it’s good to take thought for your local culture. Ask questions. Hold your fire. Listen to your community before fighting or fleeing.
And speaking of Disability Culture…