Words are powerful. I’ve been in awe of words since I was a small, mostly non-articulate child with sensory processing issues, and I have remained enamored of their power as a hyper-verbal adult. As a rhetorician in graduate school, I studied the rhetorical connection between words, images, thoughts, and stereotypes. My master’s thesis focused upon cognitive metaphor — how we make sense of things we do not fully understand by connecting them metaphorically with other thoughts and images. This is all to say that I am aware of the power of specific words, including the term ‘disability.’
I am aware that there are those within the Autistic community that don’t consider Autism a disability. Many of these people argue that neurodiversity is merely a “difference.” Although I do not want to point to any one person, to avoid public shaming and embarrassment of those individuals, I did recently read that one of my Autistic siblings has been speaking to the non-disabled community regarding barriers to employment faced by Autistic people — barriers that are, indeed, very real — and the resulting discrimination, announcing that employers and society-at-large should not view Autism as a disability. I find this rhetoric disturbing at least, and dangerous at most.
The concept of Autistic abilities is further complicated by an Autistic relationship with its own burgeoning cultural consciousness; the primary disabled culture; and the dominant, normate culture.
The broader field of disability studies teaches us that disabilities is a tricky concept encapsulated in a one term. There exist several disabilities that are or can be envisioned as difference from a typical and powerful majority of others — in this case, difference between the Autistic (non-neurotypicals) and the alltistic (neurotypicals.) The concept of Autistic abilities is further complicated by an Autistic relationship with its own burgeoning cultural consciousness; the primary disabled culture; and the dominant, normate culture. But there are other disabled cultures with similar considerations: the d/Deaf culture, for example, also possesses a rich culture of pride connected to their sensory abilities and linguistic differences. Many Deaf individuals also feel as if they are not technically disabled. Some Deaf people identify as linguistic minorities rather than disabled.
Like the term ‘disability’ itself, the community is a large umbrella.
I worry that some within my own community, the Autistic community, are distancing themselves from the broader disabled community. Disability studies scholars have long pointed out connections between the misogynistic and racist rhetoric and the implication of disability. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson illuminates in her book Extraordinary Bodies, women have often been compared to the disabled, “sometimes to denigrate women and sometimes to defend them.” This kind of question — the questions that asks the marginalized person to either distance themselves from one community and empower themselves, or to trouble the very notions of the meaning of disability and accept that all marginalization and dehumanization is wrong — is a classical Catch-22. Before women’s enfranchisement, women were told that they were too unstable (disabled) to vote. What choice did these women have? To distance themselves from disabled people might have led to agency; however, it also would have required them to affirm that disabled people in some way deserved their disenfranchisement. In short, it was a question with only one answer; it pitted one marginalized community against another, rather than allowing the focus on the real problems.
Certainly, the disabled community must encompass many people, many diagnoses and bodies. Like the term ‘disability’ itself, the community is a large umbrella. We have our differences, and we face different challenges, oppressions, and barriers to full participation; however, it is not our bodies, neurologies, or diagnoses that unite us. What unites us is the result of misconceptions regarding disability — the resulting ableism. If the Autistic community, or any other co-community within the larger disabled umbrella, distances itself from the broader community — claiming that our disabilities are not real disabilities — we say something disparaging about our disabled siblings, some of whom have other disabilities in addition to Autism, Deafness, and other strong identity-pride disability movements. We allow our non-disabled audiences to continue to believe that disability is always equivalent to a bad thing, a thing that must be avoided, and above all that disability is a reasonable excuse for discrimination. The real enemy is not our disabled siblings, fellow sufferers of structural, societal ableism. The real enemy is ableism.