Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Courage to Resist

Originally posted November 2005

When retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from law school in 1952, with an excellent scholastic record, no law firm would hire her to work in what was generally considered to be a man's profession. She spent several years as a stay-at-home mother before she started working part time in a prosecutor's office, without pay. That was the only way she could gain enough legal experience to go into practice on her own. At that time, an offer of unpaid work was not seen as discrimination or exploitation, but as a magnanimous grant of an opportunity for work experience that would not otherwise have been available to a woman.

Although the passage of equal employment laws has given rise to a society in which women are no longer treated with such condescension, the same cannot be said of neurological minorities. The National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and its apologists are resorting to the same tired old argument to defend NAAR's abusive use of institutionalized autistic adults as a captive workforce to stuff solicitation envelopes. They're trying to spin it as a wonderful opportunity for mentally disabled sufferers to participate in the workforce.

On a similar note, there's a Canadian outfit called Mission Possible (the name alone is pukeworthy) that represents itself as a placement agency finding work for people with Asperger's syndrome. This slimeball organization takes advantage of desperate and depressed young autistic adults who have been repeatedly rejected in job interviews because of discrimination. Its clients pay through the nose for the privilege of being placed in envelope-stuffing and other menial jobs. It also offers ridiculously overpriced workshops on resumes and interview techniques.

Mission Possible spreads bigoted stereotypes among the employers it contacts, almost certainly ensuring that they will never hire an autistic applicant for any skilled or professional position. For example, its website tells employers that "suitable jobs" for its clients include "most tasks that are systematic, routine or repetitive in nature" and gives a list of simple clerical jobs it considers suitable. It declares that reception duties are unsuitable (presumably we're too weird to be seen in the front office?) It also advises employers to avoid hiring aspies for "jobs that require a lot of judgment or decision-making skills."

Now let's shovel that steaming heap of bullshit out of the way and take a look at the truth: We are the same race that produced Archimedes, Newton, Einstein, and many other brilliant thinkers. We created a large part of today's advanced technology. Many of us are researchers, engineers, professors, artists, musicians, writers. You can't walk from one end of NASA's main facility to the other without bumping into an aspie rocket scientist (or more likely, several of them).

To put it bluntly, we don't need anyone tossing us their scraps. What we need is civil rights, equal opportunity, and respect for our diversity.

I want to clarify one point: I'm not suggesting that all volunteer work is exploitation. Volunteering can be a very good way to gain useful skills while contributing to the community. There is a huge difference, though, between community charitable involvement and pointless drudgework. If you are an unemployed aspie, don't let some patronizing social worker bully you into a dismal job-training program for the "mentally impaired." Instead, find your own niche, something that fits your interests and your social values. Call or e-mail your local chapter of the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or some other group that you admire, and ask them about volunteer positions. Become a literacy tutor at the library. Ask the school district if you can mentor an autistic child. The world is full of possibilities; they're yours for the taking.

Justice O'Connor had an extraordinary career. Her success was not so much because of her keen intelligence and analytical skills (although she possessed these in abundance) but, rather, because of her perseverance and refusal to give in to social pressure. No doubt there were other women of her generation who, although equally intelligent, lacked the strength of will to resist the insidious cultural messages that their brains were inferior, that they would never be able to contribute anything of value to the workplace, and that they had no choice but to be dependent on others for their entire lives.

The courage to resist oppression is rare indeed.

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