Nothing Linear About It
Yes, it's true that the efforts of past generations of disability rights activists have helped to close down some institutions, pass anti-discrimination laws, and bring about other social changes that directly benefit people today. And it's also true that explaining our differences to others leads to more understanding of the broad landscape of human diversity. The analogy to other civil rights movements falls short in some respects, though, because disability—unlike race or gender—is a very fluid concept that shifts its boundaries constantly as the prevailing view of what makes a "normal" person changes.
In particular, when we're talking about the autism spectrum and anti-autistic bigotry, there has been no epic generational struggle to overcome an ancient prejudice against a minority group. The concept of the autism spectrum was written into the DSM-IV in 1994; before that, most people who are now considered autistic did not have—or would not have had—any disability labels. Very few of the parents and grandparents of today's autistic children grew up being spoken of as mentally disordered, however similar their cognitive development might have been to that of their children. Perhaps they were bullied for being nerds, told that they were lazy or weird because they couldn't do some apparently simple tasks, or criticized because they had to struggle to find a suitable employment niche; but they were seen as part of the "normal" majority nevertheless.
To fight effectively against the sort of bigotry we're facing today, it's not enough to put it into the historical context of disability prejudice. Although this history is indeed useful to know, we also need to understand that the ugly attitudes we're confronting have arisen, to a large extent, out of a recently constructed and profit-driven agenda. We are not just fighting against historical ignorance, but also against sophisticated marketing campaigns that cleverly exploit society's fear of differences.
Right now, at this very moment, anti-autistic prejudices and stereotypes are being deliberately created by psychologists who profit from behavioral programs; by psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies seeking to increase demand for medications; by researchers trying to attract more grants; by purveyors of fad diets and dietary supplements; by publishers and journalists who have found that there's a lucrative market for wildly exaggerated stories of doom and devastation; by nonprofit organizations whose leaders draw bloated salaries and wallow in luxurious perks; by politicians with lackluster records who think they can get more attention and votes by promising to combat a terrifying epidemic; and by other assorted parasites who jumped on the gravy train. And when they've sucked our families dry, they'll gleefully move on to the next tragic disorder du jour.
It's not enough just to argue that society needs to be more aware of disabilities. Yes, it certainly does, but we have to get to the root of the problem, which is the prevailing idea that disabilities are unfortunate ailments suffered by someone else. The fact is, every human being on the planet has differences and quirks that could be redefined as tragic afflictions tomorrow, if it became profitable to do so. We're all going to be at risk until we transform the culture into one that accepts disabilities and different abilities as a normal part of life, rather than dreading them as the opposite of normal.