by Alisha Vasquez, Guest Editor
In this edition of BorderLore, we look at a culture that might be unfamiliar to many: disability culture. Those of us who are born disabled or become so later in life experience a reality that is relatively unique. But disability impacts people of every gender, sexuality, nation, race, and ethnicity, making the disabled community perhaps the most diverse cultural community. Yet it can be hard for us to find one another. Often a disabled person is the only person with a disability in their family, which can lead to a sense of isolation and solitude.
I thought defining “disability culture” would be no problem as I’ve been disabled since the day I was born. But the process of guest editing this issue of BorderLore and digging into what “disability culture” really means has led me back to memories of my five years on earth before surgeries, the ten years of surgeries to “fix” a congenitally short left leg, the 22 years on crutches and a wheelchair since, and I’m still not sure I have a complete answer. That may well be because disability culture means different things to those of us who live it.
The “medical model” of disability gave authority to doctors or other medical professionals but disregarded my own desires for my body. When I finally learned about the “social model” of disability, I began to recognize that my body is not a “problem.” Rather, the built environment and negative societal attitudes based on generations of discrimination are what impact my ability to participate in society fully and equally. Disability culture is a way of experiencing connection with another who has also been labeled “disabled.” Disability culture celebrates our ability to connect in our bodyminds with others like us, through shared struggle, humor, and humanity.
When we are misunderstood or miscategorized, it can be painful, tiresome, or just plain annoying. In my case, for example, 90 percent of the time that I go out in public when my scars are hidden (they are very visible if I’m wearing shorts or a skirt), a stranger will make small talk with me about how they, too, were on crutches once “for three months. So, hang in there!” Sometimes I just smile and nod; other times I give a blank stare. When I’m feeling particularly crunchy, I just shame them with the truth. “I’ve been on crutches for 32 years, and I find my sticks liberating.”
My “crip” everyday, of course, intersects with all the cultural affinities that exist in my world. “Crip” is a self-identifier that many disabled people—and only disabled people—have reclaimed from its root, “cripple.” I have learned to understand the world as a crip, Chicana, mama, knowing that I cannot fragment parts of myself, for I am not one identity without my others.
This vantage point, which is my lived experience, puts me squarely inside “disability culture,” a “culture” shared by other disabled people, despite the specificity of our immediate circumstances. In our culture, while we may share similar experiences of judgment or mistreatment from those outside, we also share insider-knowledge, vocabulary, historical triumphs, medical trauma, jokes, and humor. We might pay similar attention to the slope of a sidewalk or be similarly sensitive to another’s emotions or aloof to them while celebrating neurodiversity. We might similarly scare others with our unique bodies. We might share laughs over things those outside of our reality might not find funny.
It is this culture that we begin to explore in “Cripping BorderLore.” By giving a window into the specific and shared experiences within disability culture, my hope is that our insights will create respectful curiosity, paused understanding, and fervent action from our readers so they too can fight ableism.
As guest editor, I acknowledge that the disabled people in these stories have luck and access to resources, which have enabled us to share glimpses of our worlds with you.
Stories in this issue:
Yes, Disability Is a Culture, an essay by Naomi Ortiz
How Many People Have Prayed for You? Naomi Ortiz and Alisha Vasquez talk about disability culture, accessibility, and finding liberation
Trust & Tianguis: Hermandad with Raul Pizarro, a profile of the California artist by Alisha Vasquez
Alisha Vasquez is fifth generation Tucsonense whose Chicana-krip-queerish bodymind exists intersectionally. Alisha credits street kids, punk rock, community activists, her mama, and those without official titles as her greatest teachers. She is the Social Media Administrator for the Southwest Folklife Alliance, Co-Director of the Mexican American Heritage and History Museum in Tucson, and mama to her three-year-old daughter, Athena.
Image description of cover photo: Alisha, a smiling Chicana with dark hair and light brown skin, stands on crutches, wearing a colorful Mexican dress, red shoes, and red lipstick.