Done being erased: Reclaiming the word ‘disability’

Disability Culture Month cements disability as a form of identity at Mizzou.

Sophia Martino, president of the Mizzou Disability Coalition. Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri
Sophia Martino, president of the Mizzou Disability Coalition, wants Disability Culture Month to help change attitudes and actions with regard to disability. Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri

By Theo Schwinke

Mizzou’s inaugural Disability Culture Month seeks to persuade the campus community that disability is nothing to be ashamed of.

“‘Disability’ is a very powerful word,” said Mizzou junior Sophia Martino, president of the Mizzou Disability Coalition, a student organization that aims to educate on disability as a form of diversity, advocate for accessibility, and facilitate volunteer opportunities.

“The disabled community is so powerful and enriching,” Martino said. “It is so important to celebrate the individuals with disabilities and the strides taken to make our community accessible.”

In past years, Mizzou has observed Celebrate Ability Week each September. It recently occurred MU Disability Center director Ashley Brickley, however, that while the name “Celebrate Ability Week” came from good intentions, it had the inadvertent effect of erasing disability.

“I didn’t want to erase disability at all,” Brickley said. “I want to help people understand that disability isn’t a bad thing, that I can be proud in who I am  — which is really empowering and healthy — while also really challenging people to rethink how our culture views disability.’”

“Disability inclusion is super important, especially on college campuses, because it introduces students to a culture they may not normally be exposed to,” said senior Kennadie Long.

Long, who has multiple chronic illnesses, had very little experience with the disability community before college. “I struggled to find my place when I moved to Columbia,” she said. “After four years at Mizzou, I have had the opportunity to explore disability culture and find my home within the disability community.”

What is ‘disability culture’?

To disabled graduate student Ryleigh Murray, who also works in the Disability Center, “disability culture” means being able to discuss disability openly and freely in public.

“Historically, disabled individuals have been sheltered and tucked away from society and not celebrated for their differing shapes, their speech, or appearance,” Murray said. “Now disabled bodies are being shown on runways, TV and in movies, and are being normalized into our culture. While we have a long way to go, it is important to note the milestones that have brought us to this moment.

As the name indicates, Disability Culture Month expands Mizzou celebration of disability to an entire month — the better to highlight Mizzou’s unique history of disability inclusion.

“Instead of having one week to celebrate the broad differences that are incorporated in ‘disability,’ we are able celebrate and see all differing perspectives — from people of color, multi-marginalized communities, to apparent and invisible disabilities and many more,” Murray said.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, most Disability Culture Month events will be virtual. The Mizzou Disability Coalition will host a panel discussion on disability via Zoom on Sept. 15. A virtual accessibility walk, highlighting accessibility issues on the Mizzou campus, will take place Sept. 29. The annual State of Accessibility and Lee Henson Awards Ceremony will take place Sept. 30. More events will be posted at

“I want the Mizzou community to learn about the disabled community during Disability Culture Month,” Martino said. “Knowing about individuals with disability and the culture that surrounds them can change the way others see and act.”