Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Disability and Humiliation

When disability rights issues are discussed in the autistic community, some number of aspies always seem to insist—quite indignantly so—that they are not disabled because they are just as capable of taking care of themselves as anyone else. Indeed, they find the idea humiliating. They describe themselves as misunderstood geniuses, the next stage of evolution, etc., and vociferously assert that they have nothing whatsoever in common with any of those low-functioning disabled autistics, poor things.

Unfortunately, our self-proclaimed geniuses haven't grasped the simple fact that disability is whatever society decides it is. And at this point in time, society has decided that anyone who has an autism diagnosis is mentally disabled, period. If Albert Einstein were alive today, he would be described as suffering from a mental disability. No matter how much of a reeking pile of donkey doo that may be, one thing is for sure: we are not going to change society's attitudes by bragging about our university degrees and our standardized test scores.

Let's look at this from another perspective: What if, when you walked down the street, you sometimes found that people threw bricks at you and yelled racial slurs? Would you stand there and try to reason with them, arguing that they had made a mistake, that your skin color really wasn't very different from theirs and was prettier anyway?

Disability slurs are thrown at autistics all the time (and occasionally bricks, depending on what sort of bullies we encounter). The only way to put a stop to this bigotry is to dig out and destroy the root cause, which is disability prejudice. Telling the bullies to, in effect, go away and target somebody else—to find victims who fit their stereotypes more closely—is both cowardly and useless.

A while ago, I came across an ignorant blog entry that clearly illustrates why autistic civil rights issues are inextricably intertwined with the struggle against disability prejudice. (It's at davidberreby.typepad.com/usthemblog/2005/07/pride.html for those masochistic folks who want to slog through it.) The blog's author complains that the Autistic Pride movement demands extraordinary responses from "normal" people:

"Put simply, disabled people need help to get through a world made for the non-disabled. If they are to be accepted, not cured, then they have a right to that help. And that means they have a right to demand more time, effort and patience of you than the next person walking down the street. At some point, that demand begins to be an encroachment on your rights."

To illustrate his point, he uses the example of a physically disabled woman who needs full-time assistance, from a staff person named Carmen, with her daily activities. He writes that he found himself wondering:

"When did Carmen get to do what she wanted, instead of being another person's legs, hands and fingers?"

I'm presuming that this must be intended as a rhetorical question. After all, it's ridiculously obvious that Carmen is not an indentured servant and that she goes home when her shift is over, just like any other worker in any other job. Perhaps this author believes that no "normal" person would accept such work unless forced into it by poverty?

He then posits:

"...there must be some criterion by which we say, "your pride cannot come at the cost of another person's humiliation."

To be fair to the guy, he does acknowledge that this argument could be used to deny civil rights to any minority group:

"There were whites in the South in the 1950's who said they would be pained to share a lunch counter with black people; men who said a wife treated as an equal would leave them emasculated; social conservatives who say equal treatment for gay couples gives them pain."

But it's clear that he fails to grasp the implications of that comparison. White men weren't just "pained" when they had to interact on an equal basis with blacks and women. They had to deal with the shattering of their most basic assumptions about human society. All their lives, they had taken for granted that they were living in a white man's world and that this was the natural order of things.

Precisely the same attitude is expressed by this author when he writes about a world made for the non-disabled. He never considers the possibility that the world could be anything else—that his view of the world could be as much of a prejudiced social construct as the idea of a white man's world. Instead, he uncritically assumes that anyone who falls into a "disabled" category belongs, by their very nature, in a world other than the one he inhabits, and that any interaction with one of them is a "humiliation" for normal folks like himself.

I have to give the dude credit for describing his prejudices with such stark honesty, instead of hiding behind the usual bogus statistics about economic costs. When he talks about encroachment on the rights of normal people, he doesn't mean the use of his taxes to fund social services programs, or the cost of making buildings wheelchair-accessible, or anything like that. He's referring to the unwanted presence of interlopers in his nice comfy non-disabled person's world, an "encroachment" to which he reacts with an instinctive fear and rejection of The Other.

What we're dealing with here, to put it more bluntly, is raw caveman emotions. If it's not part of the tribe, you'd better grab your club and kill it.

Courageous civil rights activists, struggling against our inner caveman from one generation to the next, have expanded society's concept of the tribe so that it now includes people of various colors, religions, and ancestry. At the same time, however, society has become considerably less tolerant of anyone who falls into one of the fast-multiplying categories of disability. All those groundless primitive terrors about The Other have been translated into groundless corporate assumptions about dangers to the bottom line. Get thee hence, leper outcast unclean, lest a plague of locusts devour the tribe's gross national product!

Estee puts it very clearly in her post Because You're Worth It when she describes what diversity came to mean in our corporate-dominated world:

"diversity and tolerance were directly equated with global competition—the idea that we accept diversity, ethnic diversity specifically, as long as we can give it some economic value. Diversity, therefore, is acceptable only if it can contribute to society in the market economy."

In other words, when capitalism meets Cro-Magnon, the result ain't pretty.

(I have even less use for communism. The Chinese government's idea of efficiently dealing with its disability "problem" is through central planning for forced abortions of whatever categories of people its bureaucrats find undesirable. But that's a whole 'nother rant.)

For those who find any association with disabled people humiliating (and are therefore in serious need of an attitude adjustment) I suggest taking a look at Project Cleigh, which is about the degradation and humiliation routinely experienced by the disabled. Put your outrage where it belongs.

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  • Hmm, I've had rocks thrown at me plenty of times, but never bricks.

    Nice entry, and doubly interesting since I recently tried to have a debate on the subject.

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 3:46 PM  

  • As far as "inner caveman," it's interesting to note that the archaeological evidence shows that even cavemen valued some of their disabled people enough to provide needed assistance to them, including some who would not have survived to adulthood without extensive assistance. Which points to at least an ambivalent attitude towards us back then, as well as the attitude that we do belong (at least some of us, in some circumstances) going that far back.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 4:14 PM  

  • And as far as these jobs go, it's interesting to me that this guy thinks that our staff are degraded by working for us.

    There are many other jobs where, for the duration of your shift, you're not doing what you want, but what your boss wants. It's rare that people have a job where they are not told (sometimes exactly, sometimes more broadly) what to do.

    If he's complaining about our staff being degraded by having to work for us, shouldn't he complain also about secretaries, programmers, janitors, waiters, and all the other people who aren't doing exactly what they want on their shifts? What about people who work in hospitals? If he ever needs surgery or something, is he going to complain about how degrading it is for the people who bring him food and water?

    The biggest problem for our staff is frankly crappy wages, not the job description. A lot of people love the work but won't take it because they want something that pays better.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 4:22 PM  

  • Crappy wages, definitely.

    I pushed myself beyond my ability to work more often than I should have, because I needed to have money to pay bills and rent and whatnot, when I was working with autistic kids. But I felt badly taking the pay I did, though I was (and still am, I expect) worth the top end of the pay scale for people in that field.

    There was also a lot of emotional/mental strain for me that was unrelated to the money issue.

    I rarely get to do whatever I please at my current job, but I like it a lot. And it pays well enough (and requires less of a time commitment) that I have time for doing whatever I please for a fair amount of the time. I even still work with a kid or two.

    By Blogger Jannalou, at 12:08 AM  

  • I work as a Home Health Aide, and I recall a young man I used to visit, a very angry young man. He had been in an auto accident, and was made a quadraplegic. I took me awhile to figure him out - it wasn't self-pity that made him such an unpleasant and abusive person, but self-loathing, because he was now "one of those people" whom he had looked down on before his accident. I learned that he was prejudiced against all such groups. In fact, the only reason *I* was there was because he wouldn't have any (N-words) in his house. (The vast majority of aides in my agency happen to be black, so the agency had sent me, to satisfy his requirement.) When he told me that, I quit him on the spot, called the agency, and told them I was leaving.
    I remember walking to my car as I left, thinking of the irony of his situation. That maybe one day he would learn the meaning of "Judge not - lest ye be judged."

    By Anonymous Clay, at 1:51 AM  

  • Ballastexistenz -- yeah, the guy definitely has weird ideas about what sort of work is degrading.

    I was wondering how he would feel if he ever had a medical problem that required the care of a proctologist.

    Might have a hard time finding his ass, though...

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:04 AM  

  • I'm currently paranoid so I'm going to irrationally assume that your critique of Chinese communism is a response to my advocacy of socialism in a previous column. Anyway, 'communism' in all 'communist' countries has only ever been state capitalism, and in China its ever more 'normal' capitalism. The same priorities exist in all these countries whatever form of capitalism is practiced - how to marginalise people who cannot be easily exploited as wage labour.

    By Anonymous rocobley, at 5:58 PM  

  • Sorry meant to say 'completely paranoid'.

    By Anonymous rocobley, at 5:58 PM  

  • rocobley wrote:

    "I'm going to irrationally assume that your critique of Chinese communism is a response to my advocacy of socialism in a previous column."

    No, I didn't think you were a supporter of the Chinese government. I added the paragraphs about caveman-style capitalism after reading your comments and Estee's article, and then I decided I probably ought to clarify that I wasn't in favor of caveman-style communism, either.

    I agree with you that China bears no resemblance to the democratic socialist countries of Europe (although I wouldn't describe them as paradise for the disabled either).

    China is well on its way to becoming a subsidiary of Wal-Mart.

    By Blogger abfh, at 6:10 PM  

  • I wouldn't describe European countries as democratic socialist at all! To me, socialism has only ever properly existed during two points in history. In the year or so in Russia between the October Revolution of 1917 and the civil war that destroyed everything, and around 40 years earlier, in the Paris Commune of 1870. But there you go - I am a hardline revolutionary! Incidentally, in the early years of the Russian revolution, so I am told, disabled kids were co-managing their schools with their teachers.

    By Anonymous rocobley, at 6:13 AM  

  • Quote from original post
    "we are not going to change society's attitudes by bragging about our university degrees and our standardized test scores."

    Well, this "bragging" may not change society's attitudes towards disability, but it might make people think twice about advocating for the eradication of autism.

    I don't have any problem at all with aspies and auties mentioning their academic achievements or IQ scores or other forms of achievement, talent or creativity. Why hide the truth when the curebies are "flat out" trying to paint a very negative picture of autism?

    For years I have been certain that there is a link between autism, or autism genes, and high intellectual ability, and I don't just mean savant skills. My belief is based upon personal experience in a family that has autists and smart people and smart autists in it, and also stuff that I have read and heard. I have been informed that there are kids with autism and Aspergers diagnoses in the gifted ed program offered at our children's school, and selection for this program is by objective testing.

    After reading this Wikipedia entry about characteristics of the gifted I'm wondering to what degree does the autism spectrum and the MENSA crowd overlap:

    By Anonymous Lili Marlene, at 4:50 AM  

  • There's a difference between mentioning something and saying, "This is why people like me are worthwhile, see, we're not like THOSE people, nope!"

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 9:29 AM  

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