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Week 11--Culture as Disability

Anne Dalke's picture
Hey, guys. Welcome back. So: what do you think of the claim made by McDermott and Varenne that cultures are inevitably disabling? What about the culture you've been studying this week?
Madi's picture

I thought this reading was

I thought this reading was very interesting. I had never thought that disabilities could be a construct of culture rather than a construct of fate. To have success, you need to have failure to compare it to. The only way I can see out of that is if no one compared themselves with one another. However, I had a problem with this reading. It's whole point was that cultures are inevitably disabling, but it really doesn't offer a solution. It just says that no matter what, someone is going to be disabled.
Anne Dalke's picture

the abling aspects of dyslexia

So much of our discussion of Culture as Disability was about the (inevitably) disabling aspects of culture that I thought folks might get a boost from hearing a counterstory, about the abling aspects of what is most often thought of as a disability. A recent NYTimes article, Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia, says that more than a third of the entrepreneurs in a recent study identified themselves as dyslexic:

"'dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills'...are extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems...more likely than nondyslexics to delegate authority, to excel in oral communication and problem solving ...Individuals who have difficulty reading and writing tend to deploy other strengths....They rely on mentors, and as a result, become very good at reading other people and delegating duties to them. They become adept at using visual strengths to solve problems."

One of the subjects in the study said, "'I get bored easily, and that is a great motivator...I think everybody should have dyslexia and A.D.D....I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence as a kid....And that is for the good. If you have a healthy dose of rejection in your life, you are going to have to figure out how to do it your way'....his limitations have endowed him with a 'razor sharp' intuition that allows him to ascertain within minutes of meeting people whether he can depend on them and what they would be good at in an organization."
ErinDoppelheuer's picture

my eyes.....

As I began to write in the forum, I scrolled up to see what other people had written and after writing a few short sentences I realized that I had basically written the exact same thing as carterian about Nunez, the eyes and the US.   thought that Nunez''s story was fascinating and intruiging and the most interesting part to me was about the eyes.  Nunez made fun of the culture for being blind, but the blind culture he had intruded wanted to take out his eyes because they saw it as wrong for his face, that eyes shouldn't be there.  This reminded me of the US and especially now with Bush and the war in Iraq and past events and how we like to go to other countries and tell them what is right and what is wrong. On a side note I found this quote about culture interesting "Culture is not so much a product of sharing as a product of people hammering each other into shape with the well structured tools already available.  We need to think of culture as this very process of hammering a world."


carterian's picture

Weekly Summary!

So, in class this past week we talked a lot about the definition of disability. We asked ourselves if every culture really is disabling? We came to the consensus that yes every culture is disabling and there is no way to avoid that because of the different wants that people have.

A culture for some people is enabling, but for others it is disabling. There is no way around that. Some students in the class were unsatisfied with the reading of the week because it only gave the problem, not a solution. We also found ourselves discussing the passage in which it say something along the lines of "no family;no orphans, no school; no learning disabilities" and so on. We decided that these weren't necessarily true, specifically the no school thought. We also discussed whether or not people grow from the disabling aspects of their life, such as being an orphan. Some of us thought that not having certain things is not too big of a deal because that is just how one would imagine their existence to be.

And then we talked about the disabling aspects of grades. We learned that some people really need grades to help them along and give them motivation, whereas other people find grades to be disabling because of the label they put on someone's intelligence.


merry2e's picture



Is it a NEED or a WANT???

Thanks for the weekly update...Meredith

hoope's picture

If disabilities are really

If disabilities are really only created by society, then should they not be treated?

anonstudent01's picture

The Greater Good?

This reading was interesting, however I feel like it reaffirms a major societal gap that needs to be acted upon rather than analyzed further. Individuality has always been sacrificed for the good of the community at large, if one person stands out it disables smooth progress within the group. If someone today has a physical or mental disability, strong opposing opinions or something as small as a different hair style then the greater community finds a way to either change them or to separate them from the community so they are not obstacles of progress. The question we face is whether the disability lies with the individual or with the group. Are we doing a disservice to the child who has special needs by educating him to keep up with the standards of his classmates? Or are we in fact doing society a disservice by quelling original and abstract ideas, hiding those with "disabilities" from plain view and lowering defiant voices to join the group's muffled tones? I believe that culture disables itself, and although we may survive if we move as a group we are not in fact living.  

nmuntz's picture


No culture is perfect.  They will always have their own setbacks and disabilities.  The whole point of culture is to distinguish the differences between people, and is that always a good idea?  Every human being is 99% genetically identical to each other, but in that tiny 1%, we manage to all become individuals.  It's really very interesting that we try so hard to prevent discrepancies between people for their differences, when DNA wise, they are so small that if they were the chance of a disease or something, people would consider them irrelevant.  I think cultures are fascinating, but if we try and look at a global culture, the fact that there are millions of "mini" cultures seems to be a disability... but it could just be that I'm really tired right now and not thinking clearly!
Allyson's picture

This reading is very much

This reading is very much food for thought that I am sure will be will be well utilized in class. The idea that culture is inherently disabling in some regard makes sense to me. To me, the establishment and maintenance of a culture through exclusivity is a very distinctly human thing to do and most certainly not a bad thing. Where disability is bred is when humans come to the conclusion that, as McDermott and Verenee put it, “We have a culture, and you have a different one.” This boundary holds the potential to either breed contempt or appreciation for other cultures, it depends upon the context of the situation. And I look forward to hearing examples from the class later today.

Student 23's picture


What makes it so difficult for me to form an opinion about this week's reading is that, although the article makes many interesting points, it doesn't tell us what to think about them, or even how the authors think about them. There's no conclusion I can agree or disagree with!

Anyway, I do agree with that what is enabling for some is disabling for others, and the article does a very good job on elaborating this. Like the children with learning disabilities-- they suffer at the hands of what many "normal" children benefit from, an institutionalized form of education, and an emphasis on focus and specific skill.

When any of us to enjoy the benefits of our societies, we create obstacles for others. But those others, in enjoying their own benefits, in turn create obstacles for us. Culture, as the whole of the human experience, feeds on contrast. This is my personal philosophy: in order to really experience the good things in life, we must have something bad to compare them to.

Thinking about this reading brought to mind one of my favorite quotes, though it deviates a bit (read: a lot) from the main ideas of the article itself:

"The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if . . . the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm." (from Moby Dick)

hannahpayne's picture

I think that once a culture

I think that once a culture is established it automatically excludes some people. This is usually not an intentional goal but an inevitable one. To feel included in something is to exclude others. In this sense a culture is disabling because it creates boundaries in which people are either included or excluded. This division, when taken seriously, can lead to closemindedness and one way of thinking becasue other people's ideas are not taken into account if they fall outside the boundaries of one culture. 
I think that culture should fall more on a spectrum than the way people typicaly think about it. It should not be one or the other but a blend to different ideas and acceptances. In this way culture could be more inclusive and people would be more willing to see things in a different light. The problem is this would create weaker bonds of culture, less close-knit communities and would maybe make people feel like just another person. People like to feel included and to feel like they belong to something. If everyone in the world belonged would everyone feel included and special? I don't think so. I think culture is an important human trait developed to fufill this desire to feel like a part of something, even if it means that others feel like they don't belong.
ashaffer's picture

Something there is that does not love a wall

I think an interesting way of looking @ things is that people are always trying to connect with others. As a result, people look for common ground on which to connect. As a(n inevitable???) conclusion, others who do not share that common ground are exculded. In our search for finding a place where we belong and others with whom we identify, we (naturally???) create an ingroup and an outgroup. Isn't this ironic? Now, ideally, I think it would be a nice thing to create a systemwhere this situation is not an inevitability. My first instict is to say that this is not possible, but that is rather narrow-minded thinking. My next thought is that you might create this kind of situation, but it would not necesarily be a "culture"- it would fundamentally change it. I suppose it depends on what your goal is as to whether or not this is a good idea. If you have a task as your goal, the ingroup- outgroup scenario (where those who can accomplish the task are "in" and those who cannot are "out") may not be avoidable.
Paul Grobstein's picture

Changing cultures: where Paul was before thanksgiving

Looking forward to these discussions. See /forum/viewforum.php?forum_id=205 for some older thoughts on whether cultures HAVE to be disabling, and links in the sixth paragraph of /exchange/node/1478 for some more recent thoughts on how to reduce the problem.
jforde's picture

the difficulties of changing society

I found this reading to be interesting despite the fact that it overviewed aspects of knowledge that most of us are already know of since we experience it everyday.

The reading discussed how conformity creates a culture through beliefs, race or gender. This got me to think about the difficulties of changing a culture. The reading discussed people with disabilities and having trouble traveling in cultures that are not accessible to handicapped. However, such a change in a culture is easy enough. What is difficult is changing the thoughts and beliefs of a society to the point where it affects everyone and even changes the culture. Martin Luther King did not find this task easy. His struggle to create an entirely new culture which accepted African Americans shows that such a change needs to have enough people to apply force at the right time to create change. It only takes on person to create change, but the minimum amount of people to change a society is enough to cause everyone else to question the cultural norms.

BriBell's picture

I found this reading to be

I found this reading to be really interesting, but... I'm not sure how much I agree with it. Well, I do and I dont, but I feel like some of the things they are pointing out are fairly obvious -- different cultures clash. The majority culture sets the majority norms, making it seem as if the minority norms are not as...normal. I really liked the blind man's world story though, I thought it highlighted their ideas very well.

I'm not sure, though, what the authors are purposing we do about this culture as disability. They make it out to be such a bad thing, but offer no alternative -- to have absolutely no culture? Culture is inevitable, unavoidable. We create culture and in doing so we create disablities, but if culture is unavoidable, aren't disablities as well? I don't know. This reading pointed out a lot of really interesting ideas, but I'm wondering what is the (intended?) impact of this knowledge on the world?

Anne Dalke's picture

doing nothing to improve the world...and getting some sleep??

Last weekend (11/18/07), there was an interesting piece in the NYTimes Magazine about The Sleep-Industrial Complex that seemed to me another great example of "culture as disability":

Our peculiar preference for one well-organized hunk of sleep likely evolved as a corollary to our expectation of uninterrupted wakefulness during the day — as our lives came to be governed by a single, stringent clock. Eluned Summers-Bremner, author of the forthcoming “Insomnia: A Cultural History,” explains that in the 18th century, “we start overvaluing our waking time, and come to see our sleeping time only as a way to support our waking time.” Consequently, we begin trying to streamline sleep, to get it done more economically: “We should lie down and go out right away so we can get up and get to the day right away.” She describes insomniacs as having a ruthless ambition to do just this, wanting to administer sleep as an efficiency expert normalizes the action in a factory. speaks to our view that better sleep is primarily a requirement for better wakefulness — that we “sleep to succeed,” as a recent industry-financed release puts it. (This same report notes that “sleep deprivation currently costs U.S. businesses nearly $150 billion annually in absenteeism and lost productivity.”) And yet it’s this very view — that sleep is a bothersome means to an end, like eating enough Omega-3’s — that problematized sleep in the first place. It encouraged us to power through sleep as efficiently as possible or look for shortcuts.

The question then becomes--as several of you have observed--how to go about making ours a more enabling, less dis-abling culture. Getting a better night's sleep seems connected with reducing our obsession with productivity. I'm thinking here (as one possible intervention) of the Sabbath practices of orthodox Jews, the commitment to "do nothing to improve the world" for 24 hours....

akeefe's picture

Major and Minor

I’ve never thought of culture as a set of tasks before. I suppose that is what is appealing to me about this definition is that culture becomes an active process instead of a stagnant one. As much as the idea of disabling people disturbs me, I’m not sure what can be done about it. We could shift to culture to encompass more people…but it would only lead to casting out new ones. I’m not sure that I’ve mused enough on this topic to have a simple solution.

Either way, it has made me look at my education differently. In some ways, it seems I dream of getting good enough grades, to go to a good enough college most of my life. I remember deciding in fifth grade, a major and a minor. (both have since been discarded). Yet, did I really understand then what college was, what good grades meant? If disabling/enabling culture could be partially credited for my experience, how young must academic culture stretch?

As to my culture, I wrote about New English Bingo. I’m have trouble finding the disabling feature. There are cards designed for the blind, there’s a board of the numbers in the front, so being deaf isn’t a big deal. The only one I could think of was if you were just exceedingly unlucky. Everyone in the Bingo community would have a small ritual or tradition you could perform to fix you, but when it comes down to it, it’s just luck anyway.

Alison R. Mouratis's picture

A little tune from society himself...

“When does a physical difference count, under what conditions, and in what ways, and for what reasons?” I immediately thought of the case that Anne showed us where the girl in India was born with extra limbs and organs, but the fact that she looked like a Hindu goddess made the village where she was born worship her. To them she was not “disabled” at all—in fact, she was especially abled and gifted. This also relates to the first story of Nunez; to him these blind people were disabled and he thought he would have a clear advantage by living in their village, when in fact he became the disabled one. This article, and this story in particular, made me think a lot about the idea of a population and of the terms ‘majority’ and ‘minority.’ In the Country of the Blind, the blind people were majority of the population so it was not seen as a disability. Are people who fall under a minority category automatically disabled, whether that’s being blind, crippled, or even African American?

Then I started thinking about non-physical disabilities? What if today, being gay were considered a disability? Maybe it is! If so, has the LGBT community formed a culture that others would feel and appear disabled in? I was asking Meredith the other day what would happen if a heterosexual couple walked into the lesbian bar that she spoke of in her paper. Would they be accepted? Would they be “the odd ball” in the bunch? Even then, she talked about how even within the LGBT community there is discrimination and segregation. “In every society, there are ways of being locked out. Race gender, or beauty can serve as the dividing point as easily as being sighted or blind.”

Alison R. Mouratis's picture

A Summary of Last Class (November 15th, 2007)

We started class with a story from Anne; she had been having dinner with her son and his girlfriend, Katie, when Katie offered to take them to see her cadaver. Of course Anne accepted because its clear she loves a good adventureJ Once they got their, Katie began to describe all of the parts of the body that she knew, but Anne did not see the body in the same way Katie did. While Katie was proud of all of the medical knowledge she had, all Anne could think about was the interior of the person—their soul, perhaps. Anne could only see the human side while Katie could easily look past it to the medical side. It was interesting to see the array of reactions: some looks of disgust; some wide-eyed-eager-to-learn-show-me-to-the-body looks; and some looks of those still deciding.

         Then we started talking about a poem that Anne had posted. We discussed how we felt that the poem’s meaning was that the nature of reality is chaotic and storytelling tries to find a pathway within the chaos. Many people felt strongly about it, saying that the lines about how “stories are lies” and “stories are impossible” just didn’t make any sense. Calling a story a lie is perhaps going to far. And to say that stories are impossible…”If they’re impossible, then how can we create them?” asks Al. Anne continued, “ I interpreted it differently, I think. I took it to mean they are impossible to figure out because they can be so chaotic.”

         We read two papers—one from Audra and the other from Meredith on their own particular cultures. Audra’s was written in the second person making the reader an active part of the story, yet at the end of her paper, many people responded by saying they felt very excluded from her paper—and her school. It was written in an almost fairytale way with everything being perfect and happy, but at the end, the entire class went right to the underside of this culture, or the dark side. Very interesting. With Meredith’s paper, we discussed a lot about the LGBT community (which isn’t even a community within itself at all, apparently). Anne finished class by asking, “What makes a culture?” Only a couple people had the guts to take a stab at it: Krista said, “Within a culture, there is an unspoken or tacitly known agreement.” We then discussed that this may be true, but in order for that to work, everyone in that community must be aware of this “tacit” knowledge.


Allison Fink's picture

Culture as Mind Numbing

People, myself included, tend to put each other in categories based on whether they are good or bad at something compared to everyone else and to themselves. I find it moving to think about how blind people can be when they think that they have a right to decide whether a person has something wrong with him and that they have a right to try to change it according to what they think is best. After all, they don’t really know what the person knows. I kind of agree with the point made in the beginning of the article that labeling someone as disabled can make the person’s “problem” worse. How can a person function if she is constantly told that no matter what she does it will always be wrong, because there is inherently something wrong with her? She might as well be told that she should give up trying to be self reliant. Cultures also make some people think they are competent because they succeed while others fail. It’s easy to become complacent this way. Whereas what if they compared themselves to the standards of what could be done, but no one has yet? And what if in schools and other institutions, people competed with themselves, rather than each other? Something that Anne said that stuck with me is that no one can give you a grade on your life. That is, there is no set formula for that. What if it were the same for school? I believe that at Hampshire College, for example, students don’t get grades- they get written evaluations that assess how much they’ve improved, what needs work, etc. Grades, with their limitations, are simply out of the equation. And at the same time, it would be good for students themselves to be conscious of their own striving to improve by their own standards by writing self-assessments.

akerle's picture

The Man


There were many things about this reading that I found interesting however, it wasn't really groundbreaking in its analysis.

I mean, humans have been utilitarians since the very begining. There is no doubt that the will of the individual is sacrificed for the will of the group.

Now whether this is good or bad- I couldn't say.

What is interesting is how this reading highlighted a psychological...quandry.

A great deal of my very interesting intro psych class deals with diagnosis of illness- what is abnormal or wrong. Being a true child of the 'political correctness' era I squirm at these classifications. So after class one day I approached my professor and asked her whether these definitions were really necessary. She told me that in her personal experience people compared their life with those around them and wanted 'normalcy' which she, in turn, helped them to find. In the end- despite their differences- people willingly succumb to conformity.

Ultimately- the desire to be an individual- is quashed by the will of the group. It is all well and good to complain about society being 'disabling' and that 'the teacher just doesn't understand my childs need to express his emotions' but all the happy-clappy understanding bs has no relevence to the survival of the group.

So if this 'groupthink' mentality ensures the survival of the species- who is really more disabling? Society or the individual?

redmink's picture

For LD’s, my previous

For LD’s, my previous thought was that something was wrong with their certain gene, and yet they should not be degraded.  I now think my thought was too one-dimensional after reading the part where it says “all the people in his class, the teachers are involved at various tiems in recognizing, identifying, isplaying, mitigating, and even hiding what Adam is unable to do; if we include his tutors, …, the number of people found contributing to Adam being highlighted as LD grows large.” The LD culture is not defined only by people with LD’s but also by people who contribute to them being as LD’s. 

This week’s reading was so practical.  It was eye-opening to encounter three ways of thinking about culture and disability.  “Being in a culture is a great occasion for developing disabilities.”  The following to demonstrate the fact that “without a culture we would not know what our problems are” was striking to me:

without a money system, there is no debt; without a kinship system, no orphans; wihtout a class system, no deprivation;without schools, no learning disabilities; without a working concept of truth, no liars; without eloquence, no inarticulateness.

Yes, I hear peple pitying on North Korean children.  They pick up anything eatable in garbage, and steal foods in market.  They don’t know what democracy is.  I felt bad for them, too.  However, despite all those physical sufferings, they still admire their dictator and look in the frame of his portrait hung up in wall.  Reading the story of the blind and deaf, I felt it was not a right idea to pity them(North Korean children) as if we were priviledged because it is possible they would pity us in return.  In their culture where democracy is not tuned, that ideal which dominates our culture would be unnecessary…

This reading was a start of my change in perception and attitude.  It striked me who once was thinking one-dimensionally. 

Audra's picture

I had mixed reactions to

I had mixed reactions to this reading. I can see how culture can be construed as disabling, but the article fails to address the opposing effect-- culture as enabling. For every scholastic failure, there is a success. As one of the successes, I am miffed that the anthropologists denounced my skills as nothing more than a construct to help others fail for someone's dastardly political gain.

I also didn't understand the whole political reasoning behind the culture as disability theory: how does it help politicians/ society to create these arbitrary, solely disabling measures of worth? This question was not answered in the reading.

One example in particular made me a little wary. Page 8 says "without a kinship system, no orphans". My first reaction to this was "What? Are they saying it's better to not have families because some people end up orphans?" I love my family, and while I sympathize deeply with people who don't have families, I cannot wish that nobody had a family to make orphans happy.

While the American education system creates failures, it also facilitates sharing knowledge in a predictable fashion. While familial systems cut out those children who don't have families, those who do can grow the deepest emotional connections of their lives. While my high school can exclude everyone outside of its 100-person bubble, those in the bubble feel safe and warm and fuzzy inside. I'm sure Bryn Mawr can be exclusionary-- people with Y chromosomes are discouraged from attending right off the bat, and anybody not okay with weird traditions probably wouldn't be well suited for it-- I'm so happy here it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

merry2e's picture


Or would it be Culture as Enabling? I hate it when I can't get a word...sometimes the brain doesn't work the way I want it to!


Culture as...

Culture as...???

(I am still contemplating) :-)

calypsse's picture


I've been having quite an interesting week to talk about eyes and culture. As I read this essay I also (casually) came across a movie were the main characters gouge out the eyes of their employer, that and the reading have made me look in the mirror every 10 min to check if my eyes are still in place...

Now, about the reading, I agree with the idea that culture places a great emphasis on performance, when you are not able to adapt to a particular standard of your culture you are somehow considered disabled. It was interesting to considered a new approach to physical impairment and culture, but then again disabilities come in all forms, I for example have a serious social disability that would probably not even be considered as one if our culture did not place such emphasis on social interaction.

carterian's picture

I thought the story of

I thought the story of Nunez to be really interesting, mostly the part where the people of the culture he has intruded upon want to take out his eyes because they see it as an error on his face. This really made me think about how the U.S. and other nations like to go into other countries and tell them what is right and what is wrong. We, symbolically, may be cutting out their eyes.

There are so many things that I view as wrong and as a disabling feature of cultures. I see cock-fighting as a disability, I see the treatment of women in many middle-eastern cultures as a disability and so on. But these are aspects that make these cultures. Within each culture there is a definitive right and wrong, and I find it interesting that we take action with such conviction without really thinking about the difference in culture.

merry2e's picture

mental illness and culture

I found this reading extremely powerful especially after our discussion in class last week about the US and THEM. (I promise I DID NOT read this article ahead of time!) I agree with the Culture as Disability concept, though, I am still trying to grasp the habitus>inhabitus connection and how McDermott and Varenne’s stand on Bourdieu’s ideas on social reproduction theory are a bit confusing...

Regarding culture as disability…it is time that our society looks at this issue.  I know for myself I have been a witness to culture disabling several people in my own immediate life, not only affecting the person themselves, but indirectly affecting those who are family members, loved ones, and friends. For example, my mother who was labeled “mentally ill” when I was a young child, lived in the shadow of her diagnosis and under the stigma of society. After her diagnosis, my mother, not having the ability to relate to others in the ways that were deemed “normal” by cultural standards, could not hold a job, became more reclusive and began to become despondent. Doctors considered this, once again to be a part of her illness, without taking into account that, once she was labeled “mentally ill” was when her life actually began to deteriorate. Her friends who found out about her no longer felt they should associate with her. Her family members walked on eggshells around her because she was “crazy.” My mother became a product of our culture, our culture as disability. And not only did she suffer, her family friends, children, and society as a whole suffered for not knowing the gifts she had to offer. She became a product of our culture and then was dependent on society to take care of her.

Society will continue to suffer if we continue labeling and putting people in categories. I see it almost everyday when my child comes home and hands me her tests with grades on them, and sometimes does not want to show me. Until we teach our children and our children teach their children to break the chains of labeling, our culture will continue to be disabling.

I wanted more info in the reading about how are we suppose to change culture as disability to perhaps, culture as ability?