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Comments and Responses on "Culture as Disability"

alesnick's picture

Dear Students,

Please use this space to post comments, questions, connections, responses to one another. Happy snow!


egiffordsmith's picture

Enabling Rather than Disabling

On page 5 of "Culture as Disability", McDermott asserts, "When, how, and why: these are, of course, deeply cultural issues, and depending on how a physical difference is noticed, identified, and made consequential, the lives of those unable to do something can be either enabled or disabled by those around them." I found this quote particularly intriguing because it emphasized the idea that if a disability goes unnoticed or made consequential, like deafness in Martha's Vineyard, it does not have the power, or rather, we are unable to give it the power to disable. I liked this idea because it reminded me of the "people-first language" we try to use and promote at the camp I work at over the summer. While it is product of a larger movement in advocacy groups for people with disabilities, we try to model similar ideas at camp. To use "people-first language" means to distinguish people with differences (both with disabilities and without) by what we all have inherently in common - we are people. This reminded me of the ideas presented in "Culture as Disability" because while it does still acknowledge that people have differences or disabilities, it takes a step in the direction of enabling people rather than labeling them in a certain way that disables their ability to lead their own lives.

alesnick's picture

open-minded cultures?

I would love to learn about a culture whose character depended on openness to other cultures.  Let's look!

mkasahun's picture

Culture as Disability

As a recently declared Anthropology major and Education minor, I found this article to be the most relevant to my academic and personal interests. Culture is a set of rules or guidelines for behavior, but this article reveals that it can dibilitate people with "disabilities" who don't necessarily see themselves as having a disability. The Martha's Vineyard example stood out to me because McDermott/Varenne mention that with the high rate of inherited deafness in the community, sign language had been adapted into their culture. Years later, when people were asked to reflect on their experience living in a community with such a large deaf community, they couldn't recall who was actually deaf and who wasn't. The deaf community lived, work, and engaged in their communities in the same ways as the non-deaf. The people who lived in Martha's Vineyard did not view deafness as a disability because their culture had developed to accomodate to the demographics of their community, however, as mentioned in the article, tourists and reporters were so puzzled, they felt as though something had to be done to "fix" their "problems".

By emphasizing the importance of certain abilities (physical, intellectual etc.) we are also emphasizing the lack of it which culturally segregates those who society defines as disabled. McDermott/Varenne mention the prevalence of seemingly simple social structures like stairs and the implications it has on those who are physically unable to climb them. 

Overall, I found the reading rich with deep insight into the threads of our culture.

alesnick's picture

"threads of our culture"

As you point out, in the MV example, the deaf and hearing distinction was not culturally meaningful -- it didn't count such that people remembered it.  What are the implications of a culturally oriented read of disability for the classroom?

mkasahun's picture

I think several of the

I think several of the logistical issues that a "disabled" person runs into in society are symbolic of society's indifference toward disabled people. I mentioned earlier that MV points out that stairs for a handicapped person is a hindrance. But the existence of the stairs also symbolizes the way society outcasts handicapped people. The person cannot climb the stairs and thus is excluded from everything that floor has to offer.

A culturally oriented read of disability for the classroom would strip these same symbolic hindrances. As we read in the Mooney/Cole reading, Jonathan was teased because he had to leave his classroom to go to the "resource room" to practice reading. The resource room was meant to be a helpful space for Jonathan to develop his reading skills but in reality, it was a symbol of his "disability". Having to discontinue his class and walking down the hall to the resource room where students from the gifted program would taunt him is also symbolic of this.

Perhaps classrooms should invite learning differences and find more creative and inclusive ways of representing the strenghths of every type of student. Rather then shoving the students off to a separate room and making the disparities between the students blatantly obvious, instructors should find ways to incorporate disabilities in the classroom in such a way to obscure these differences just as Martha's Vinyard had for the deaf.

pamela gassman's picture

culture as disability

I really enjoyed reading this article and thought it brought about really important points. I would like to focus on the idea that "this article is not about disababled persons. It is about the power of cutlure to disable" (327). The idea that as a society we have allowed and supported a system of disability for one's own advancement or to deal with the unknown is intriguing to me. I think of our school systems and how so many students could thrive in a school if we lived in a culture that did not reject, but embrace. Our schools truly focus on what is wrong with students, and not what is right. This is not just commonplace to our schools but to our society in general, this can be seen in everything from politics to relationships.  

McDermott brings in an essentail view point about culture being what truly disables people, but is this too general of a statement? What about student's with intellectual disabilites or physical impairments? By saying it is the culture that impairs them (which is true in some aspects) are we negating or once again avoiding certain facets of thse students' existence? 

alesnick's picture

" not reject, but embrace"

What an important distinction.  I wonder if we can go a step beyond embracing what is right to simply embracing what is.  Your question about whether saying that culture impairs people who it defines as disabled negates or avoids their experience reminds me of our deficit/desire work in EL.

ajohnson's picture

Culture as Disability

At the start of the article, in the italicized heading, McDermott defines disability as inadequate performances on tasks that are arbitrarily circumscribed from daily life, thus posing the argument that disability is less on the individuals cognitive/physical ability but enforced by a cultural and society focus. He enforced this statement by saying that the culture that defines disability is not reproduced by one individual but by many members, culture innately is "polymorphous and multivocalic". 

There is not one institution or individual that shapes the view of disabilities, thus making it a collective responsibility to check not only our privilege as able bodied individuals but our perceptions of disability themselves. 

alesnick's picture

"a collective responsibility"

Yes!  The determination of disability, according to M and V, is a social accomplishment, not the inevitable labeling of an indidividual's deficiency.  So its deconstruction must also be social.  How do you think schooling could help people "check our perceptions of disability themselves?"

mfarbo's picture


"...the coherence of a culture is crafted from the partial and mutually dependent knowledge of each person caught in the process and depends, in the long run, on the work they do together” (McDermott 326).

This quote really resonated with me in regards to the discussion we had in class about our class culture. In order to succeed as a culture, we all have to understand that we come from different backgrounds which is clearly highlighted in our class aspirations because so many of them pertain to past experiences/where we come from. Similarly, it needs to be a safe space which was demonstrated when a classmate expressed that we all needed to listen to one another and not interrupt while at the same time finding something to agree with what the other person said rather than just sharing your own opinion. She said this because she felt comfortable enough to share what she was thinking. Working together is a key component of this and was demonstrated in class the other day because we discussed in small groups our progress so far and then in a large group discussion. Analyzing our progress is only going to help build our culture to make it the best it can be. 

alesnick's picture

"depends on the work they do together"

So interesting -- while M and V highlight this work as in a sense unconscious, unplanned, you point up how the work we did was an instance of very conscious, deliberate culture creation.  What are the implications of this distinction for work in schools?

I Hate SNOW's picture

Institutionalization of Disabilities in American Education

McDermott raises the idea that culture has the power to disable, and that disability is defined as an incapacity to navigate adversity. The groups who put themselves in power are problematic because they "are arrogant to think [they] know better than people in other cultures... and foolish to not appreciate...others in their own terms." These groups' views on culture boil down to the instinct and insight observed by them as outsiders, but what is often misunderstood is that culture is just a "particular version of coherence" crafted by a community of individuals. McDermott notes in this article that disability does not relate to intellectual or physical impairments but to the points of separations in cultures from aspects like "race, gender, or beauty." The greatest issue with this separation is how it has been institutionalized in American Education. I found his argument about the impact on children's experiences dualistic: "there are only two ways for a person to be." To put it more clearly, there is a factory line approach to issues-- Students are categorized, and if anything is seen as 'wrong' then they are made 'disabled.'This method can be seen back when immigrants were being inculcated with American values in public schools back in the turn of the twentieth century, but it continues with today's focus on diagnosing and more importantly medicating students with learning disabilities, like ADHD, to normalize their behavior.

alesnick's picture

"points of separations"

yes -- good connection to historical examples.  i wonder in fact whether it is a property of cultural belonging to struggle to perceive the experience of others in their, rather than the perceiver's, own terms.  How could schools teach people to recognize better how culture works? Should they?

Serendip Visitor's picture

Culture as Disibility

The idea that people cannot communicate with others weather that is because of a language barrier or a cultural barrier. While I take a bit of offense at how he uses learning disabilities and cultural disabilities in the same context when I believe that they are two very different problems within our societies, I do agree that how we negatively view and isolate people with these disabilities is a demonstration of an arrogance withing our society by those who are not labeled disabled. I think that his argument would have been better if he had more focused on more possible solutions to this problem. As to the argument that he brings up on how there are only two ways for a person to be in the education system is a very interesting point that needs too be better discussed with relation to the varying degrees and I believe that more research should be put into the subject.

alesnick's picture


I appreciate your voicing a skeptical read.  Would you say more about what you see in the text of the unwelcome joining of cultural and learning disablities? I read M and V as saying they're actually all cultural -- in the sense of created as meaningful differences via the process of cultural maintenance. 

student's picture

I thought that this article

I thought that this article was so accurate about how we look down up people of other cultures as if they are incapable in understanding life as well as we do. It made me think about how were are so hindered by our culture by making us exclusive yet, we do not truly chose our own culture. We are prideful about a group we never chose to be a part of.

alesnick's picture

pridefulness and choice

interesting!  i wonder how often belonging is accompanied by a belief in the superiority of that to which one belongs.

ksheehan's picture

Two sentences in this article

Two sentences in this article really stood out to me: "Failure is always ready to acquire someone" and "If social structuring processes in American must be fed by repeated identifications of failure in school and school-like institutions, then American education will continue acquiring people for its positions of failure."

I'm wondering what an American education system that doesn't do this would look like. Specifically, I'm wondering about this idea's implications for curriculum, testing/evaluation, and the role and responsibility of the teacher.

alesnick's picture


i am so glad you are wondering this!  what images of possibility come to mind?  to my mind comes something like an artists' studio/invention lab/dialogue space/library (for creating as well as consuming texts)/community center/health clinic/child care and family fun center all in one.

Samantha Plate's picture

That second line stood out to

That second line stood out to me too. It reminds me of the strive for a perfect bell curve. I had a teacher once say that if everyone is getting A's and B's on their tests than they're doing something wrong and the test is not hard enough. The strive for the perfect bell curve requires thAat most students do "averagely" (i.e. a C) and that an equal number get A's and F's. This is an awful thing to strive for since many consider success an A and failure an F. THere is much more to education than grades and I agree that it would be interesting to see how an education system that focused less on grades, or atleast encouraged everyone to do well without reserving spots for failure, would work.

alesnick's picture

ringing the bell (curve)

The example of the bell curve is useful here, as it is clearly an arbitrary choice to set that up as an artiber of grading or good teaching.  Have you encountered alternative models, such as grade-free schools and colleges, and radical spaces like Summerhill?  This would be a great teaching project.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Any Cultures that aren't Disabilities?

The idea of looking at culture as a disability that prevents us from understanding people of other cultures and appreciating how much they know in their own terms is a really interesting one. I'm thinking about how certain cultures pride themselves on being "open to new ideas" such as the "melting pot" of America. The US is supposed to be full of freedom and more welcoming towards immigrants and new cultural fusions than many other cultures out there - and yet the US definitely has this disability! Are there any cultures out there that are so open-minded that they do not have this narrow view of other cultures? Or is this just the way it is until we can shift our view and understand our culture as a disability?

- Sara T

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