Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

That Wheelchair Analogy

You know, the one that claims autistic self-advocates exist only because the Internet enabled us to interact with others and that, without our computers, we would have very little ability to express our views. Mike Stanton used this analogy in a recent presentation about the Autism Hub, which he posted on his blog, stating as follows:

Computers have been described as “wheelchairs for autistics.” The analogy holds good. Computer technology and the internet have empowered many who would find normal face to face interactions extremely difficult. They can build web sites, write blogs and create videos.

It's a fair observation that many (although not all) autistic self-advocates are more comfortable using the Internet than communicating face to face. And the Internet certainly has made it much easier to share opinions and to build cultures and communities worldwide. However, it does not logically follow from these two broad factual premises that autistic people inevitably would have extreme difficulty advocating without computers.

The wheelchair analogy assumes that face to face communication is the "normal" way of interacting with people and that the written word is a less efficient substitute used by those who lack "normal" communication abilities. With all due respect, that hasn't been true since Gutenberg invented the printing press. The written word—whether or not it is on a computer—holds tremendous power to challenge entrenched social assumptions and to bring about far-reaching change.

Why is it, then, that autistic self-advocates are only just now becoming noticed in our society? I believe this can be attributed to a convergence of several changes and cultural shifts in recent years. The definition of autism has been greatly broadened, thus increasing the number of people identified as autistic. As a consequence, we have more potential advocates and more public awareness of autism than ever before. Disability rights activism has created a more receptive climate for autistic self-advocacy. And more generally, the views and concerns of minority groups are not routinely ignored to the extent they once were.

Not all that long ago, if a person did not have "normal" speech and body language, or did not belong to the "right" ethnic or religious group, or was not male and heterosexual and a property owner, it was simply taken for granted that the person had nothing worthwhile to say. These prejudices still exist, of course, but not as strongly as in the past.

Autistic people have been making coherent, intelligent, meaningful statements—both in spoken words and in writing—about our world and the value of human diversity, for many years, even before there was a separate and distinct category of "autistic people."

Society just wasn't listening.

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  • I agree with most of what you say, but fail to follow how this works:

    "The wheelchair analogy assumes that face to face communication is the "normal" way of interacting with people and that the written word is a less efficient substitute used by those who lack "normal" communication abilities."

    Wheelchairs are not "less efficient" at all things. There is a reason that wheelchair racing, for instance, is separate from racing on foot, in sports events. It's because wheelchairs go faster.

    There are at least as many misplaced norms about how to get around, as there are about communication, and that segment reads like using (without questioning them) the misplaced norms about getting around, to make a point about misplaced norms around communication. People who use wheelchairs obviously find them a more efficient use of our bodies than walking is, or we wouldn't use them (even if for people whose bodies work differently than ours, they're less efficient).

    Other than that I agree with most of your post and don't have a lot to add. Except to note that I am one person, like you mentioned, who finds many aspects of face-to-face interaction easier than text-based Internet interaction. Although, if I have to use language, text is best. I just prefer not having to use or understand language at all. (There are elements of the Internet that can be used that way too, but most elements still rely a lot on text. And I prefer using senses the Internet doesn't always provide for.)

    By Anonymous Amanda, at 11:49 AM  

  • Hi ABFH
    You wrote
    The wheelchair analogy assumes that face to face communication is the "normal" way of interacting with people and that the written word is a less efficient substitute used by those who lack "normal" communication abilities.

    I do not assume that. Somewhere on Amanda's blog there is a post about "the chair impaired" that suggests wheelchairs can sometimes be an advantage. I have just been thrilled by the Paralympics where athletes made far more effective use of their wheechairs, artificial limbs etc than I can do with my "able-bodied" body.

    For people whose preferred means of communication is written rather than spoken or visual rather than verbal, access to the latest information and communication technology has made it easier it get their message across. Whether people are "listening" more is another question.

    By Blogger mike stanton, at 11:50 AM  

  • Amanda & Mike: It looks as if my post wasn't as clear as it should have been. I was not saying that wheelchairs are always less efficient or that I thought Mike was assuming them to be.

    My point was that the wheelchair analogy equates a person who prefers the written word but lacks a computer to a person who needs a wheelchair but does not have one. And I don't think this is an accurate comparison because the Internet enables everyone to get their message across more easily, not just those who prefer the written word.

    Before computers existed, the written word was not necessarily a less efficient form of communication. It depended on the circumstances.

    By Blogger abfh, at 1:43 PM  

  • Oh dear there is a grand statement, "society was not listening"

    Well perhaps they were because I was out there in the service of a greater disability cause before I knew I was autistic, and although I had a lot of opposition I cannot say absolutely that no-one was listening, especially since I used my particular autistic talents for detail and perseveration in compiling directories and databases, which for a time were the only comprehensive local disability information available in my town. So lots of people were "listening" in so far as they used this information.

    You seem to be implying that the only autistics who count are internet savvy autistics or even self aware autistics, We have been contributing and being listened to since time immemorial in so many ways.

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 4:24 PM  

  • Larry,
    No autistics existed until 1931 so cut the time immemorial crap.

    By Blogger Foresam, at 4:49 PM  

  • Hi ABFH

    perhaps i was being over sensitive. I have taken a bit of criticism this weekend and thought, Oh no! Here we go agauin."

    By Blogger mike stanton, at 5:37 PM  

  • MIke

    My sympathy, but maybe not too much:O

    They say that reflection is good for the soul and I must say that that nebulous (that is to me incomprehensible) social reasoning I keep coming up against unawares seems to have hit you, but in reverse.

    Hope you had a good time in London. We expect a thorough briefing of course:)

    By Blogger Alyric, at 7:27 PM  

  • Larry wrote:

    You seem to be implying that the only autistics who count are internet savvy autistics

    No, actually, the whole reason I wrote this post was to disagree with the view that the Internet is necessary for autistics to "count."

    And yes, some people in the past were listening, so it was perhaps too broad of a statement to say "society was not listening." However, to the extent that autistics were assumed to have nothing useful to say, those who made that assumption were not listening.

    By Blogger abfh, at 7:56 PM  

  • OK, let me be a bit of a contrarian here, and suggest that the internet has indeed been a significant factor in the rise of autistic self advocacy.

    Not because of styles of communication, but because of dispersed geography and numbers.

    Let's take the incidence of autism as 1:150. If you're going to college perhaps you'll take 5 different classes, with a total of 600 different people (at most) in your classes. That would mean that statistically speaking, there would be 3 other autistics that you would interact with on a regular basis.

    Assuming that you identified each of the other three, these particular people might have markedly different strengths and challenges than you do, as well as different views on what is important to advocate for.

    So what I'm saying is that although autism is relatively common, it's still rare enough that the internet, with it's unique ability to unite people from all across the globe that have similar views, serves as a grand facilitator to people that wish to form interest and advocacy groups.


    By Blogger Club 166, at 9:21 PM  

  • I agree with Joe. It's not that that the internet has made it possible for me to communicate with others (I've had a long career in jobs that primarily involved verbally communicating with people). The internet has made it possible for the first time for me to "meet" and read about people that I have some things in common with; synaesthetes and people with AS. The fact that the internet provides a measure of anonymity helps too. Even synaesthetes are cautious about revealing to people that they know socially offline that they have the condition. It was only through books and the internet that I first found out about AS and synaesthesia. Anyone who has a rare condition, be it medical or neurological, will tell you that the internet is a great gift as it enables "freaks" to network and share with similar "freaks". My biggest obstacles to interacting with other people face-to-face are a lack of interest on my part, and my many parenting and childcare resposnsibilities. In many ways books and the net are better sources of information than "live" people anyway.

    There's also the point that it is impossible to interact or learn from with others who are similar to yourself if you do not know why you are different. There are so many people who reach middle-age or old age before they even find out they are on the spectrum. I think it's a plain damned scandal that for most of my life I've thought I could well be the only person of my type in the whole world. We have to put a stop to this commonly-beleived idea that there are only two different types of people in the world; the normal and the abnormal.

    By Blogger Lili Marlene, at 12:26 AM  

  • Joe: Okay, that's true enough, but the advantages of the Internet are equally available to other groups. To pick a random example, if you wanted to form an international group of Corvette fanciers, that's much easier in the Internet era than at any time in the past. However, it would be absurd to suggest that computers are like wheelchairs for Corvette fanciers.

    I'm not disputing the usefulness of the Internet in itself, but only the wheelchair analogy's implication that autistics (and not other groups) lacked the ability to engage in effective advocacy before computers.

    Lili Marlene: I completely agree that depriving people of useful information while calling them "abnormal" is ignorant and harmful. The Internet does indeed provide a valuable public service in enabling people to find more information about others like themselves (although, as with anything else, there's usually a lot of garbage to sift through).

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:34 AM  

  • Computers have certainly enabled me to more easily advocate for myself! Without the Internet, I wouldn't have access to near as many opinions from other autistics. I have trouble with transportation--no car, no license--and if it weren't for the Net, I wouldn't even know I was autistic, much less have met a couple dozen more autistic people face-to-face and a couple hundred online.

    The huge pool of information, plus the big advantage for people whose written language is twice as good as their spoken language really means that not only can I communicate better now, but I can do that uniquely powerful NT-like thing called "networking".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:24 PM  

  • ...I'm not disputing the usefulness of the Internet in itself, but only the wheelchair analogy's implication that autistics (and not other groups) lacked the ability to engage in effective advocacy before computers. ...

    And I didn't mean to support the wheelchair analogy. Just to point out the great facilitating power of the internet to link far flung voices from "niche markets" together.


    By Blogger Club 166, at 8:59 PM  

  • The internet has been very helpful, no question.

    First of all, I'd say that the reason more autistic people are identified nowadays is largely due to the internet. I don't think we're looking at a coincidence of timing.

    Without the internet you wouldn't have the Autism Hub. You'd still have books, like Through the Eyes of Aliens, but how often would these kinds of books by autistics get published? You get the point.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 9:35 AM  

  • Joseph, how often did books by gay activists get published when they were arguing against being labeled as mentally disordered?

    Although the Internet makes group identification and civil rights advocacy much easier, there was plenty of effective activism going on before people had computers.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:21 AM  

  • I wouldn't be surprised if a large percentage of Gen Y, presumably 99.5% non-autistic, finds it easier to communicate online vs. offline, simply because it's a big part of modern culture. Whether text or face-to-face is easier depends on a lot more than neurology.

    By Anonymous formerly_reform_normal, at 2:38 AM  

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