Society, including and especially social movements and communities, is in a constant state of change. If groups fail to change and adapt, they stagnate, lose relevance, and die. The process of change is almost always uncomfortable, fraught with strife, but ultimately valuable. This is notably true for disability communities.
We as individuals are different. Our disabilities, social backgrounds, and degrees of privilege vary greatly between us, even if we are united by the common experience of disability itself. And, like with most people and opinions, disagreements arise. In the realm of disability, you find differences in opinion over:
- which goals we should be working towards, and
- the meaning of ‘disability’ itself.
A lot of the disability community’s quarreling and disharmony seems to boil down to the difficult transition between one era of our history and self-perception and the next. Movements advocating for disability rights may seem brand new to some, including both non-disabled and disabled people learning about disability culture for the first time. However, modern stances and approaches to disability can be traced to the practices, assumptions, and approaches of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Here are 3 broad examples of ways disability culture has changed over the last 60 or so years:
Higher expectations, less willingness to compromise
For a long time, disabled people accepted an initially-unspoken and, later, codified “agreement” of sorts:
We would insist on modest efforts from individuals and society-at-large to improve accessibility and expand our rights and responsibilities. But we would, to an extent, self-regulate our demands, limiting them to those understood to be “reasonable” in terms of difficulty, cost, and how much our accommodation needs might impose on others.
40 to 50 years ago, this agreement helped expand millions of disabled people’s freedom and opportunity. It also helped destroy the assumption that disability was a prison.
Today, this agreement is still in effect, but its boundaries are being challenged. Many of the underlying assumptions are no longer quite so readily accepted by disabled people. Rights and physical freedoms that were rare and revolutionary for disabled people in 1960 – like the right to attend a “regular” school, or the ability to eat at a restaurant – are now seen as the bare minimum.
Disabled people are also increasingly asking why so much responsibility put on us to prove a need for “reasonable” accommodations. These questions include:
- Why are the procedures for asking for test accommodations in college, or for modest shifts in job duties at work, so bureaucratic, adversarial, and humiliating?
- Why, exactly, are the boundaries of what’s “reasonable” for disabled people to expect located where they are?
- Why are expectations developed in 1990 still assumed to be the outer limit of disability rights, rather than a starting foundation to build on?