Autistic Future
March 24th, 2018

On Self-Respect

Respect as verb, as action rather than feel­ing, has been a hot top­ic in neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty cir­cles late­ly. This is because of a prob­lem of dis­re­spect which becomes more appar­ent as Autis­tic voic­es are includ­ed in dis­cus­sions of the issues that affect us more and more. Peo­ple are com­ing to under­stand how impor­tant it is to include Autis­tic peo­ple in dis­cus­sions of the issues affect­ing us. This is a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment, the result of years of advo­ca­cy. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, out­siders don’t always prac­tice that inclu­sion in the right ways. There are grow­ing con­cerns about undig­ni­fied tokenism and even exploita­tive labor prac­tices. While this set of issues isn’t some­thing we brought upon our­selves, no one else is going to fix it. We will be treat­ed with respect to the extent that a crit­i­cal mass of us demand it. That is espe­cial­ly impor­tant to remem­ber with April just days away.

The prob­lem of dis­re­spect shows up in a vari­ety of ways. It can take the form of expect­ing Autis­tic or oth­er­wise dis­abled peo­ple to vol­un­teer where nondis­abled peo­ple are or prob­a­bly would be paid to per­form the same kind of role. It can take more sub­tle forms, like push­ing Autis­tic peo­ple to do things almost no neu­rotyp­i­cal would be will­ing to do, mak­ing exces­sive demands on Autis­tic peo­ple’s time, dis­play­ing, rather than gen­uine­ly involv­ing, lis­ten­ing to, and uti­liz­ing the skills of Autis­tic peo­ple, or fail­ing to abide by basic, pro­fes­sion­al norms where Autis­tic peo­ple are concerned.

These kinds of occur­rences are increas­ing­ly com­mon as nondis­abled peo­ple work­ing on dis­abil­i­ty issues learn the phrase ‘noth­ing about us with­out us’ faster than ableism erodes. Not all unpaid work is exploita­tive or ableist. There is a seem­ing­ly end­less amount which needs to be done to give dis­abled peo­ple a bet­ter lot in life in this soci­ety. Some orga­ni­za­tions are tack­ling impor­tant issues with help from vol­un­teers, and the vol­un­teers often find the expe­ri­ence per­son­al­ly or pro­fes­sion­al­ly reward­ing. Not every request for advice from a par­ent of a new­ly-diag­nosed child is a bad thing. Some­one needs to be giv­ing that advice. We need more dis­abled peo­ple in pro­fes­sion­al roles relat­ed to dis­abil­i­ty. Some­one has to do the work. Oth­er­wise, it will nev­er be done.

That said, there are bet­ter and worse oppor­tu­ni­ties to work on dis­abil­i­ty issues, on a paid or vol­un­teer basis. A job or a vol­un­teer posi­tion where Autis­tic peo­ple’s skills are uti­lized, where we work on the same terms as every­one else, what­ev­er those terms may be, is a good thing. Agree­ing to work in dis­crim­i­na­to­ry con­di­tions is not. If nondis­abled peo­ple are being com­pen­sat­ed, hav­ing their trav­el cov­ered, or allowed input into impor­tant deci­sions, dis­abled peo­ple who don’t advo­cate for like treat­ment are rat­i­fy­ing ableism. We nev­er deserve to be treat­ed dis­re­spect­ful­ly. We nev­er deserve to be under­stood as less than full, equal per­sons. How­ev­er, when we acqui­esce to unequal sta­tus, we can hard­ly be sur­prised when it does­n’t change.

Equal­i­ty, as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, is rarely giv­en as a gift. It is usu­al­ly only avail­able to those who stand up and take it. This is impor­tant for us all to remem­ber as we wait for April to start because April is full of both oppor­tu­ni­ties and pit­falls. Autis­tic peo­ple who are known as advo­cates in their com­mu­ni­ties would do well to remem­ber their self-respect as they make their final deci­sions about things like speak­ing engage­ments. There may be some real oppor­tu­ni­ties for advo­ca­cy, for par­tic­i­pa­tion in deci­sions that affect us, for mak­ing ‘noth­ing about us with­out us’ a reality. 

How­ev­er, agree­ing to make that speech or write that blog post for free while neu­rotyp­i­cal par­tic­i­pants are paid or to serve as a token or self-nar­rat­ing zoo exhib­it is demean­ing. Demean­ing our­selves hurts our cause more than the atten­tion could pos­si­bly help. When we don’t treat our­selves with respect, oth­ers see that and real­ize dis­re­spect, or even exploita­tion, is some­thing we are will­ing to accept. This April, let’s be care­ful to avoid inad­ver­tent­ly invit­ing oth­ers to deal with us as less than ful­ly human. Self-respect isn’t suf­fi­cient to win jus­tice and equal­i­ty for Autis­tic, and oth­er­wise dis­abled peo­ple, but it is nec­es­sary. The first step to win­ning the respect of oth­ers is respect­ing ourselves.