Not Just About Barriers
It’s certainly true that many people encounter major problems in their daily lives because of unnecessary barriers in their environment, and this is indeed a large part of what we call disability. However, in my view, it is not just about barriers. There is another complicated dimension that involves cultural attitudes and value judgments about the significance of particular barriers and difficulties.
Consider this anonymous comment that was made on one of my old posts, addressing autistics who do not consider themselves disabled:
Just as many people in the disability rights movement seem overly focused on certain common physical injuries to the point of forgetting about people with other disabilities that can't be fully accommodated with a wheelchair ramp, many people with specific disabilities seem to be jumping ship, and declaring themselves not disabled... The problem, for me (a plain, ordinary cripple) is that it seems to be accepting all the bad ideas about what being disabled actually means. The logic seems to be "well disabled means there's something wrong with you, and you're not really capable of functioning without accommodations and assistance." I can function perfectly well in modern society with a pair of crutches I buy with my own money and no need for ramps, elevators, special parking, Social Security, Medicare, accommodated testing, or a personal assistant, and yet if I denied I was not disabled on these grounds, I'd be laughed at. Declaring your difference is not a disability but mine is, suggests there's something bad about being someone like me that you don't want.
As this commenter describes, certain kinds of people get automatically lumped into the sociological category of disabled people just because of their appearance, regardless of whether or not their environment presents any significant barriers for them. The commenter may be completely comfortable with her crutches and may have no problems going wherever she wants to go, but society classifies her as a disabled person on the basis of a categorical assumption that using crutches always equates to having major difficulties.
I see the same sort of assumption underlying the claim that all autistics are disabled. While many of us do face significant barriers in everyday life, others have been fortunate enough to find or construct fairly comfortable niches in society (and no, that doesn’t mean we are “cured”). Here, too, a categorical assignment to the disability category is being made because of a label based on appearance—even though the concept of the autism spectrum has been in clinical use only since 1994. Did millions of people worldwide suddenly become disabled when a few psychiatrists got together and added more paragraphs to the DSM? If so, what does that say about the nature of disability in today’s society?
Joel, with all due respect, I’m going to decline your invitation to embrace my identity as a disabled person. I recognize that there is a tremendous amount of disability prejudice in our society, it is often directed at autistics, and political solidarity among oppressed groups is essential to fighting back against prejudice and discrimination. Still, I don’t regard disability as an intrinsic part of my identity—not when my social assignment to that category can be so easily changed with a few keystrokes by a committee of psychiatrists. My goal in writing about disability is to deconstruct and tear down the prejudices that allow a privileged group to be arbitrarily defined as “normal.”
To make myself clear, I have no intent to deny or disparage, in any way, the disability culture; many people find it to be a very meaningful part of their identity, and I respect their cultural identification. My personal outlook, however, is similar to that described in a blog post by Anne C. regarding her view of transhumanist culture; she writes that although “transhumanism” is a useful label for certain social and political concepts that she finds interesting and that need more discussion in our society, she does not see herself as having a cultural identity as a transhumanist.
I do identify with the autistic culture, which overlaps to some extent with the disability culture—but in my view, that has nothing whatsoever to do with diagnostic categories and has very little to do with social barriers. Rather, it has to do with growing up in the sort of family where it was OK to love books, and to wander around exploring the mysteries of nature, and to have strong interests and chatter about them to anyone who came near, and to try on different schools like items of clothing to see if they suited, and to imagine alternative configurations of just about everything, and to plan earnestly how to change the world, and to take university courses because they seemed fascinating rather than because a career checklist demanded them. This is an ethnic minority culture that is very real to me and is well worth the strongest efforts to preserve; and if society doesn’t find it useful or practical, that just means society needs to be taught more appreciation for differences.