Embracing Difference: Native American Approaches to Disability

Most U.S. progressives share the view that the destigmatization of “disability” is a positive thing. Translating that vision into widespread social practice, however, is proving difficult to do. The U.S. mainstream has much to learn from Native American communities, many of which have lived experience with non-stigmatizing approaches to differences in community members’ talents and abilities.

“Native American concepts of difference are informed by the interdependent structure of traditional Native American communities,” the author writes. Credit: Native American Health Center.

Western knowledge systems establish opposition concepts such as day/night, good/bad, and able/disabled. These dichotomies form the basis of Western social hierarchies by establishing certain identities as superior and others as inferior, and they shape how people with disabilities are defined and treated within Western communities and institutions.

While there is no single, unified Native American culture, language, spirituality, or way of being, it is generally accurate to say that Native American worldviews do not adhere to this same dichotomous logic structure. Instead, they focus on an interrelatedness of all things. It is useful to draw generalizations such as these in order to illustrate how Native American approaches to disability offer a counter-model to Western approaches. Before I proceed in contrasting these two approaches, I would like to ask the many distinct and unique Native American communities’ forgiveness for the generalizations made in this article.

Native American Concepts of Talent and Difference

Within Native American worldviews, all aspects of the universe are generally seen as connected in a mode of spirit or energy beyond dichotomy or hierarchy. Each being can be thought of as a tripartite self with mind, body, and spirit. While each component is of value, the spirit is often understood to be the most significant, as it is the enduring element of self and is always whole and connected to other spirit beings. Because the spirit is always whole, there is no designation of some people as able and others as disabled. A difference or damage in the body does not indicate damage to the spirit, nor does it limit communication between individuals. Even individuals who cannot communicate verbally can communicate with others who are trained to do so.

Native American concepts of difference are informed by the interdependent structure of traditional Native American communities. Individuals within these communities traditionally understand themselves in terms of their position in the community and the responsibilities that are associated with that position. For example, a person might think of herself as a daughter, granddaughter, mother, sister, friend, and community participant.
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