This is an entry for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I didn’t quite make it in April. I moved in May. I’m finishing the alphabet in June.
The ABCs of Autism Acceptance series has been picked up by Autonomous Press and will be published in book form, with additional material, in June 2016. Watch for it!
U is for Unity
“The point in history a which we stand is full of promise and danger. The world will either move toward unity and widely shared prosperity – or it will move apart.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Which direction have we moved since Roosevelt’s warning?
I look around me and see a world that is struggling to move toward unity but which still has a long way to go toward that goal. Compared with that point in history at which Roosevelt was speaking, we have made much progress in unity among people who are racially diverse, who adhere to diverse religions or no religion, who have different genders. We have passed ADA and work daily to enforce it. We have taken steps to address class and income diversity. Yet we see racial conflict daily and the United States is still a place where white people benefit, mostly unconsciously, from institutionalized racism. We still see battles between adherents of different religions, mistrust and discrimination against people based on religion — particularly discrimination directed toward Muslim Americans, mistrust and fear directed toward atheists (an academic study of public opinion found that more people would trust a known rapist than would trust a known atheist), employment glass ceilings for women and those of minority genders, ableism and abuse of disabled people both in institutions and homes, sheltered workshops where disabled people are paid pennies for their work, and the income gap is wider than it is been at any time since the Great Depression.
Autism acceptance demands joining the struggle toward unity. When I call for unity, I’m not saying that everyone should be the same as everyone else. I am talking about the kind of unity composer Felix Mendelssohn spoke of when he said, “the essence of beauty is unity in variety,” or the unity of George Herbert Mead’s declaration that “society is unity in diversity.” I am calling for an understanding of our interconnectedness coupled with a respect for human diversity in all spheres of our being, including, of course, neurodiversity.
In my experience, Autistic people and our allies are too often isolated from the larger disability community. Ari Ne’eman, co-founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the first Autistic person to serve on the National Council on Disability spoke of this separation in a roundtable discussion in 2012, saying:
I think we have a tremendous amount to learn from the larger disability world, and I fear this is something that autism does not do a very good job of. No one who had absorbed the lessons of Willowbrook and Pennhurst would think it was a good idea to build special “Gated Communities” to house autistic adults and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities. No one who knows the history of the Jerry Lewis telethon and the objections made by people with muscular dystrophy to being portrayed as pitiful, “half-people” by its star would ever conceive of something like the “I Am Autism” video. No one who knew the names Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann or Justin Dart and the history of all they accomplished for people with disabilities would ever doubt the meaning and importance of self-advocacy by and for us, instead of on our behalf. Yet, these are not things we think about or have even heard of in the autism world.
Things are slowly changing since Ne’eman made these observations, but still so much of the world of autism is isolated. Mainly it is Autistic academics and activists who are venturing beyond our borders, but the larger Autistic/autism community is opening to wider unity all the time. We are forging close alliance with others with developmental disabilities, particularly people with Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, but our connections don’t stop there. The larger disability community has battled an internal schism for years and the time is ripe for Autistic activists to join the fight against internal ableism. For so many years, many of those with mobility disabilities and other physical disabilities have said things like, “my body is impaired but my mind is strong and good.” This is a very understandable thing to say, but it created a climate unfriendly to those with neurological and psychiatric disabilities. The larger disability community is strongly challenging those attitudes now, though, and as a result there is increased unity among people of diverse disabilities, increased solidarity, increased ability for all of us to work together for the rights of all of us.
It is time for Autistics and our friends, families, and allies to join the larger fight. It is time for us to turn our attention outward and work to help others as we allow them to help us. We are all connected through the shared experience of disability. Our disabilities are different — just as each Autistic person has their own, individual experience of autism — but the stigma and social barriers we face are strikingly similar. Autistic people and the rest of the disability community have much to offer each other. But I think many Autistic people and their supporters shy away from working within the larger disability community because of fear of that word, “disabled.” That fear points to an internal division within the Autistic/autism community that needs to be mended as well.
Within the Autistic community, there is a schism not terribly different from the brain/body schism the larger disability community is working to heal. Within our community, there are those who insist on only portraying autism’s strengths, who fear words like “disability,” who cling to the label “Asperger’s” which is no longer a diagnostic category and is in the process of fading into the past as a piece of medical and autistic history, not unlike other terms such as “dementia praecox,” “manic-depression,” or “sexual inversion.” Now that all forms of autism have been united under a single label, the main purpose (other than historical) of the word “Asperger’s” is to draw an “us vs. them” distinction within the neurotribe of autism. It is a “dog whistle” that speaks a code of “functioning labels” and supremacy. It is a way to say, “don’t mistake us for those people who wear adult diapers and a head-restraining device.” It is a way to maintain division within the community.
And division will not move us closer to unity.
And Autism Acceptance demands a call for unity.
Autistic people who say “different, not disabled” need to stop and think about the message they are putting forth. Because of their fear of being considered less-than, because of their fear of taking on the stigma fellow Autistics live with every day, because they are hovering at the fringes of activism and advocacy, trying to “pass” as non-autistic and focus only on Autistic strengths while often diminishing or dismissing Autistic needs, they are actively working to increase division in the community. Those who don’t have the privilege of passing, even for a short time, are left out of their description of Autism. In insisting that autism is not a disability, they drain the compassion of those who would otherwise want to assist and accommodate us. In insisting that autism is not a disability, they help make the overall movement of autistic advocacy and self-advocacy look like a game or a collection of lies — anyone who knows or is an Autistic person who cannot pass and requires accommodation can see right through that game and can see the harm it does to the larger Autistic community.
Autism is a difference AND a disability. Disability does not mean “incapable of anything.” It does not mean “less than.” It simply means having some condition that contributes to some limits in a person, both inherently (such as not being able to speak or not being able to recognize faces) and socially (such as being passed over for jobs because of a cultural lack of belief in the competence of a particular category of people.) When Autistic people face challenges such as difficulty in face-to-face conversations and social limitations such as only 15% of people diagnosed Autistic having full-time jobs at the level of which they are capable of working, autism is undeniably a disability. Arguing against the disability of autism is arguing against a united voice that advocates for the needs of all of us. Arguing against autism as a disability is arguing against our unity.
It is not just unity within and unity with the larger disability community that we are called to support. We need to seek unity with all marginalized people, all people who face oppression. We need to seek unity with People of Color, with people of all genders, especially transgender, non-gender, intersex, and other minority gendered people. We need to seek unity with everyone who suffers discrimination for who they are. It is in this way that we fight against a society that holds up a monolithic notion of “normal” and “perfect” that is oppressive to everyone, but especially to those who fall outside society’s “circle of virtue.”
It is only through seeking unity that we can protect other vulnerable and marginalized people and, in fairness, hope for them to protect us. Many people in our own neurotribe are multiply marginalized, so supporting the rights and needs of impoverished people, People of Color, people of diverse gender expressions and so forth, we are supporting and protecting our own Autistic siblings as well as reaching out to the larger community and working toward a realization of that interconnectedness all humans share. Seeking unity with all people helps build that just and prosperous society Roosevelt dreamed of. Seeking unity makes us all part of the solution, not part of the problem.
It is worth paraphrasing Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about Word War II Germany and persecution under the Nazi regime:
First they oppressed the People of Color
and I did not speak out
because I was white.
Then they oppressed the Transgender People
and I did not speak out
because I identify with the sex I was assigned at birth.
Then they oppressed the Psychiatrically Disabled
and I did not speak out
because I was not diagnosed with a mental illness.
Then they oppressed those Autistics Who Needed Round the Clock Care
and I did not speak out
because I was able to live independently.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
This is our lesson, this is our mission, this is our clarion call: unity.