Does My Disability Pride Scare You?

Nondisabled people are often extremely uncomfortable around expressions of disability pride and culture. The very idea that disability confers membership in a specific community, and is about more than a particular physical, cognitive, or intellectual impairment, seems deeply frightening and sometimes alienating. Disability is viewed as inherently isolating, an unrelenting tragedy; that people might not only accept it but take pride in it, and find fellowship and community through it, upends everything people think they know about disability, totally changing the paradigms people are accustomed to.

Disability is a complex social and political identity, and disability pride is only one aspect of disability culture. Not all people with disabilities participate in the disability community, let alone get involved with pride movements, and they are not wrong or bad people for not being interested. They’re simply different people, who experience disability in their own way; there is no hierarchy here, no one right way to ‘do’ disability that everyone must follow in order to be considered a member of the club. All people with disabilities deserve dignity, the right to be treated as human beings, respect from the people around them, no matter what their personal relationship with disability may be.

For some of us, our personal relationship includes membership in our own community. It is a place with a common language filled with jargon and slang and argot that are ours alone, and sometimes specific to particular impairments, not just disability in general. Spending time with wheelchair users with paralysis can be a very different experience than hanging out with autistic people, just as being in a group of mixed disabilities will also result in a different experience, because these people are all individuals and they share varying commonalities.

It is this language, this commonality, that can contribute to what I think of as ‘crip space,’ the place where you can relax because you are around other disabled people. Living with disability can make you an object of constant scrutiny in the case of people with evident disabilities, or can create struggle for people with less apparent disabilities who continually need to weigh the risks and benefits of ‘passing.’ To come out is to be able to request accommodations and articulate the problems with a situation that might not be readily apparent when everyone is assuming all participants are nondisabled. To come out is to expose yourself to considerable risk and stress because suddenly you are disabled and everyone needs to look.

To relax with people with disabilities is to fall into your own space and your own environment. Nondisabled glimpses into that space can be scary because nondisabled people aren’t meant to be there. We make jokes. We are sarcastic and sometimes bitterly sardonic. We use reclamatory language and tease each other and do all the things that nondisabled people think they aren’t ‘allowed’ to do. And they’re right—they aren’t allowed to do them, because these are things reserved for crip space, things that need to be negotiated with individual people with disabilities on their own terms. One person may identify as a crip, another may not, especially outside crip space, where it is not so easy to navigate the world.

With membership in a community based on marginalisation can come a certain sense of pride. We are surviving. We are doing things. We are holding fast to each other. We are a community, and we will work together, we will fight together, we will live together. For the disability community, where life and death are not hypothetical matters, these bonds can be especially tight. We are the ones who have fought to free ourselves and each other from institutions, who have lobbied to protect people from abusive ‘carers,’ who have rallied ’round people in need to make sure they get the treatment they need to stay alive.

And some of us do take pride in that. We are unashamed of that and it scares nondisabled people, this pride, this happiness, this fierce joy in crip space and, yes, sometimes this fierce joy in being disabled. Which isn’t to say that all people are always happy about disability all of the time, but that some people do not brood over how disability is a tragedy and they long for a cure. Some people are more focused on their lives and on sharing time with people they love and respect; which means sometimes they’re loving their bodies and minds and ways of being, and other times they’re frustrated and wanting to cry because something isn’t going right and feels like things will never go right.

Just like nondisabled people, except that for us, these emotions come with occupying loaded bodies and minds, with carrying the weight of society on our shoulders in addition to processing our own emotions. Under those conditions, it’s hardly surprising that we would gravitate towards each other to build support networks and friendships, to be proud, and that sometimes we would enter rooms you can’t go into and close the door, a reminder that there are spaces we need to be in that are not for you, because they are not your spaces.

That this bothers and troubles so many people says much about contemptuous attitudes when it comes to disability. How could we possibly have a common community, a shared language, our own goals and priorities that differ from those of the mainstream? How could we possibly have our own political and social goals, our own interests, our own place in the world? Surely, disability must be a world of living in a bubble and longing to break through it to the outside world, right?