What can we learn from the Aboriginal perspective on disability?


I was talking with an Aboriginal friend with a disability about disability in Indigenous culture. It really isn’t a thing the way it is for us. 

When everybody is sharing the same life world and there are not so many that a community becomes layered and fragmented it is easier to see the diverse manifestations of being human as part of who ‘we’ are. 

There is evidence in the archaeological record going back a very long time of people dying at a mature age and with healed bones from crippling injuries. The conclusion is compelling – they were supported by their community even in a natural landscape which made no concessions for disability.  They were just ‘one of us’.

Likewise, neuro-atypical people were taken to be differently spirited – and even blessed. Some became shamans. Being different wasn’t a disabling matter. 

The power of belonging

In large populations we can categorize people and select for attributes, discarding from one category those who do not, or no longer, meet preferred criteria. They become dis-abled. 

Tribes and families don’t have criteria that can exclude a member unless it’s for severe misconduct. Otherwise, you are ‘one of us’ forever. 

It’s a sad thing to be reminded that war can be a guide to the better aspects of human nature. Here’s a quote from the Duke of Sussex, Patron of the Invictus Games Foundation:

“These Games have shone a spotlight on the ‘unconquerable’ character of servicemen and women, their families and the ‘invictus’ spirit. These Games have been about seeing guys sprinting for the finish line and then turning round to clap the last man in. They have been about teammates choosing to cross the line together, not wanting to come second, but not wanting the other guys to either. These Games have shown the very best of the human spirit.”

Evolutionary psychology reminds us that we are social creatures – our brains are wired to tribal. Even now we find stimuli in response to that instinct in family, friends, and membership of groups or communities. 

But we are also conditioned by the overarching culture of stratifying, categorizing, and excluding. We are induced to believe this is better than instinct. But the core of our well-being remains tribal. 

The Invictus Games remind me that men (and now women) have returned from war with disabled bodies and we have, as a culture, made no effort until fairly recent times to ensure they had access to the landscape we have made and modified. The defenders of our freedom have been denied the freedom to move freely in what they defended. And yet tens of thousands of years ago there was ‘one of us’ in a wild landscape aided to move around by the people among whom he belonged. 

Somehow, along the way of ‘evolving’ we have lost something.


Where people count for their humanity and not their utility they are not dis-abled or discounted. The standard logic of anthropology has been, for a long time, that Indigenous people were ‘primitives’ or ‘savages’. We stopped using that language in the 1960s. We started to be more concerned about disability inclusion soon after.

Contemporary neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are reminding us that our behaviours are grounded in natural inclinations. We haven’t evolved away from them. Rather we have ‘evolved’ more complex behaviours that have deflected and distorted our instincts and reflexes. We have emphasised utility over humanity and made distinction a matter of merit rather than accepting that difference still lives within the world of equality. We are all ‘us’.

My Indigenous friend reminded me that our ancestors lived inclusively, because that was their natural way and they did not have the imperative of utility forced upon them, even if we imagine their lives to be precarious. They still carried their crippled brother over rough terrain. We have only recently started making our built environment accessible. We are 100,000 years behind. 

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