Disability and Humiliation
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.