Barack Obama Hears a Who
Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.
And the elephant smiled. "Do you see what I mean?
They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.
Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who
About four months ago, I wrote a post endorsing Barack Obama for president. At that point, his campaign hadn't made any statements about autism; I based my judgment on Senator Obama's overall appreciation of human diversity and his willingness to enter into dialogue with people from different cultures in general.
When I looked at the barackobama.com website again in July, I found that a brief discussion of autism had been added to the healthcare issues page, Creating a Healthcare System that Works. On that page, the Obama campaign advocated improving autism research, declared that we should increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and stated that "the government and our communities should work together to provide a helping hand..."
Although most people (myself included) would agree that these are good policy ideas, I also found, to my dismay, that the page contained some unfortunate language of the "epidemic" variety. After I talked it over with another pro-neurodiversity Obama supporter who was similarly concerned, we decided to contact the Obama campaign and ask that the language be edited to show more respect for autistic citizens.
We sent an e-mail to a state campaign leader describing our concerns and why we felt the language was offensive. In response, he sent us a personal reply promising, "I will reach out on your behalf about the offensive paragraph," and further describing Senator Obama's views on disability rights as follows: "You are right that in his heart and philosophy, he believes all people not only have the right to be engaged but we need them for democracy to flourish."
Shortly thereafter, we checked the campaign's healthcare issues page again, and we found that the word "epidemic" had been removed. In addition, "disorder" had been changed to "condition," a reference to "Americans affected by autism" had been revised to "Americans with autism," and several other changes that we requested had been made.
Is the Obama campaign's discussion of autism, as it now stands, an unequivocal endorsement of neurodiversity? No. The page gives a bit of a nod to the mercury crowd, in that the preceding paragraph is a promise to reduce mercury pollution in the environment. "As diagnostic criteria broaden and awareness increases, more cases of autism have been recognized across the country," the website states, reflecting the view that actual autism prevalence has not changed; however, it also characterizes autism as "a profound mystery" in need of more research into "root causes."
All in all, though, the page shows the careful choice of words that might be expected from a political campaign seeking to find the common ground on a controversial issue. And that in itself—the recognition by a major national political campaign that many different perspectives on autism exist—is a major step forward for the neurodiversity movement.
Now it's time for neurodiversity supporters to get more involved—to take this change of momentum and run with it! The Obama campaign has shown that it is willing to listen to the concerns of the autistic population; it's our job to keep those concerns in full view by getting large numbers of autistic volunteers actively working on the campaign in all parts of the country. Our first priority should be getting every autistic adult registered to vote (in some states, 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the date of the general election are allowed to vote in the primary election; we need to get these teens registered too).
As the old adage goes, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." The curebies have been getting a disproportionate share of attention in the political arena just because they have made more noise. Let's get busy and outsqueak 'em!