Disability culture is large, diverse, and exciting. It's also hard to get a handle on. Cheerful, optimistic news stories and Facebook posts about disability life aren't always helpful to actual disabled people, or even ethical. And angry, militant protests and Twitter threads are sometimes exactly what is called for in certain situations. Disability discourse is made up of specific, substantive ideas and issues that can be rationally communicated, interpreted, and evaluated. But knowing the content of disability culture isn't always enough to understand precisely what you're looking at. A recent trend in popular language might help. Maybe we need to look for something like 'disability vibes.' Without taking this particular buzzword too seriously or literally, the idea of different disability communities and viewpoints having their own distinct "vibes" may still help both observers and participants better understand the complexity of disability culture. Here are some of the most common and distinct disability culture "vibes" ... For some disability communities and disabled individuals, disability life is mainly about the pursuit and belief in medical prevention and cures as the answer to the problems of disability. This includes, for example, people with spinal cord injuries who are heavily invested in medical or technological breakthroughs that hold out the hope of someday walking again. For others, it means committing to grueling physical therapies in the hope of some other major or marginal improvement in their particular disability.
These 'Medical Vibes' also include messaging and belief in self-help and recovery concepts and regimens. There is an emphasis here on overcoming the physical, mental, and emotional impacts of disabilities. The focus is mainly on individual self-improvement, less so on physical, social, and policy barriers that affect broader disability communities. While specific ideas, actions, and goals differ, 'Medical Vibes' tell us that disability can be overcome – and maybe if you work hard enough — cured and erased. On the other hand, these medical vibes can also deliver less uplifting messages – that disabled people are sick and broken, or that If your disability isn't better yet, it's because you haven't tried hard enough. 'Charity Vibes' are hard to miss. For many people, especially non-disabled people with little connection to actual disability communities, disability culture, if it exists at all, IS basically charity. For a long time, both literal charities and the vibes they both use and generate dominated disability culture. They still do to an extent. Specifics vary, but broadly speaking, 'Charity Vibes' come from the deliberate strategy and unconscious habit of using pity for disabled people in any appeal to action. Early and influential examples include the original 'March Of Dimes' to cure Polio, and the old-school 'Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon' for Muscular Dystrophy. Both were massively successful by at least some measures. And they arguably generated a kind of general goodwill towards disabled people. But for many disabled people, the price in exploitation, condescension, and humiliation was always too high, and today is just embarrassing. The 'Charity Vibe' still exists and is still used, but is now viewed much more critically.
On the other hand, there is subtle difference between a disabled person authentically sharing their own story of hardship to ask for help – and their being used by non-disabled people as part of an organized and possibly lucrative media campaign. People with disabilities sometimes also use at least a hint of 'Charity Vibes' in advocacy campaigns, like when calling attention to poverty and lack of needed services. Individuals with disabilities also increasingly use online fundraising services like GoFundMe, which can feel more honest and less exploitative because disabled people themselves decide how to shape their appeals. But justified or not, it's still trafficking in a similar sort of 'Charity Vibe.'
Either way, the 'Charity Vibe' tells us that disabled life is really hard, deprived, and often sad – and asks for help. Unfortunately, disgust and pity vibes tend to be there too, suggesting that disability is a tragedy, and that others should be grateful not to be disabled too.
One more empowering angle on disability life is to focus on disabled people's individual achievement, in work, financial independence, academics, art and creativity, entrepreneurship, athletics and other understood measures of success. A large portion of popular discourse on disability consists of praising disabled people who have good jobs and happy families, live in nice homes, and present a reassuring image of normality and professional polish, despite their disabilities.
This is common and distinct enough to qualify as 'Achievement Vibes' – in which conventional, middle-class success is assumed to make the strongest case for disabled people's equality and value. Along with it comes an implied message that every disabled person should be able to achieve at least this much. And if a disabled person can do something really amazing, like win Olympic medals or acting awards, then other disabled people should at least be able to achieve more modest, everyday goals.
Of course there is also a less weighty version of the 'Achievement Vibe' where disabled people simply celebrate their own achievements without implying any larger messages or ideologies. This can include disabled people sharing their successes, great, small, and in between, with friends and family on Facebook, or a disabled activist on Twitter celebrating an advocacy victory, or just a well-earned vacation.
'Achievement Vibes' seem to reassure us that disabled life can be rewarding, and that the disability community has plenty of positive role models to emulate. At the same time, the 'Achievement Vibe' can feel more punishing, suggesting that a disabled person who isn't working, successful, and happy must not have the right attitude. And because popular images of mainstream middle and upper middle class success are still predominantly White, male, and heterosexual, disabled people of other races, genders, and social classes are often left out of these narratives of disabled achievement and acceptance.
This is probably the most intense and contentious of disability culture's various 'vibes.' The 'Advocacy Vibe' includes two main kinds of effort, often running parallel to each other, but occasionally overlapping too:
Advocacy – in which disabled individuals fight for their own specific needs and rights, on mostly a small, local scale. It includes examples like a quadriplegic making the case for home care to live independently, a paraplegic campaigning for accessibility at local restaurants, or a parent fighting for educational support for a learning disabled child.
Activism — or advocacy on a larger, more long-term state and national scale. It's people with disabilities fighting for better laws and policies, for big changes that can make life better for whole disability communities, not just themselves. It includes public protest and behind the scenes persuasion for things like increasing funds to reduce home care waiting lists, defending the Americans with Disabilities Act from efforts to weaken it, or urging more aggressive enforcement of Special Education laws and regulations.
The 'Advocacy Vibe' also includes journalism and other content – especially produced by disabled people themselves – in both mainstream and social media, exposing and explaining the problems and unaddressed injustices of disability life. It's about what is not right, not uplifting, not inspiring in the world of disability. It includes the growing number of disabled journalists, working freelance and on the staff of newspapers, magazines, and TV news networks. And it's disabled authors and ordinary, unaffiliated disabled commentators, all advancing critical disability thought and discourse through books and everyday social media.
The 'Advocacy Vibe' asserts that all is not well for people with disabilities, but disabled people are working on it. At its best, it encourages people to join the fight. And it's based on the idea that in order for the disability community to progress to a better future, it first needs to acknowledge the worst of what's happening to disabled people, both individually and as a community. Of course, this emphasis on harm and injustice can turn positive advocacy sour. The 'Advocacy Vibe' in disability culture is never far from concluding that, 'Everyone hates us, every system is rigged, and no progress is ever real or lasting.'
Using the loose, semi-serious concept of "vibes" doesn't disability culture. Disability culture really is to a great extent a collection of feelings and reactions – some consistent, some contradictory, constantly shifting and overlapping, all of them quite authentic.