Autistic Future
May 28th, 2018

The Crucial Question

The world of dis­abil­i­ty spends a lot of its time argu­ing about seman­tics. This has been par­tic­u­lar­ly true of the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty, some­times to an unpro­duc­tive degree, though it seems to have been less of a prob­lem recent­ly as oth­er events and con­cerns have occu­pied our atten­tion. Peo­ple who say the wrong words some­times still mean the right things. They still want self-deter­mi­na­tion for dis­abled peo­ple. Peo­ple who use the right words don’t always do what we would wish. ‘Neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty’ seems to be slapped on every­thing these days, regard­less of whether or not that thing is in keep­ing with the prin­ci­ples which came with the term in its more con­tro­ver­sial days. Seman­tics are a fair­ly weak pre­dic­tor of how a giv­en per­son or orga­ni­za­tion will think or act. How­ev­er, there is one seman­tic tell which remains very good at unveil­ing attitudes.

When a dis­abled per­son has a prob­lem relat­ed to ableism, whether in the sense of entrenched, sys­temic inequal­i­ty or indi­vid­ual prej­u­dice, observers often com­ment on the predica­ment in one of two ways. They either say some­thing like “I would­n’t want that to hap­pen to my loved one” or “I would­n’t want that to hap­pen to me.” This pass­es so quick­ly that it eas­i­ly goes unno­ticed, but it tends to be incred­i­bly reveal­ing. Which of those things a giv­en per­son says almost per­fect­ly tracks how much com­pas­sion and social mod­el cre­ativ­i­ty that indi­vid­ual is going to bring to address­ing the prob­lem. Those who imag­ine them­selves in the posi­tion of the dis­abled per­son are almost always the ones who ‘get it’ and will do more to solve the problem.

This may be because the dif­fer­ence between those two state­ments is far more than seman­tics. “I would­n’t like my loved one” to endure a giv­en bad expe­ri­ence demon­strates a kind of detached sym­pa­thy. It shows the under­stand­ing that the thing that has hap­pened is not enjoy­able for the per­son going through it. “I would­n’t want that to hap­pen to me” sounds sim­i­lar at first glance, but it is a dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent state­ment. It sig­ni­fies a will­ing­ness to iden­ti­fy with the dis­abled per­son, maybe even an under­stand­ing of how nor­mal and uni­ver­sal dis­abil­i­ty is. This more empa­thet­ic per­spec­tive tends to go hand-in-hand with under­stand­ing that dis­abled peo­ple are peo­ple who want the same kinds of basic oppor­tu­ni­ties in life that oth­ers do.

That respect for our per­son­hood is essen­tial to the safe­ty of dis­abled peo­ple. It dis­tin­guish­es the peo­ple who are on our side as we seek jus­tice and oppor­tu­ni­ty, even if we dis­agree on some issues, from peo­ple who are fun­da­men­tal­ly opposed to our well-being. Under­stand­ing us as equals tends to mean feel­ing injus­tices per­pe­trat­ed against us vis­cer­al­ly. That may be the rea­son which of these lit­tle turns of phrase are such an effec­tive tell. Seman­tics and ide­o­log­i­cal puri­ty some­times con­sume too much atten­tion in the move­ment for dis­abil­i­ty rights and dis­abil­i­ty jus­tice, but words are some­times impor­tant because they can reveal attitudes. 

Again, this can tran­spire in sur­pris­ing ways. The peo­ple who use the most cut­ting-edge jar­gon and pre­ferred ter­mi­nol­o­gy are not always the peo­ple behav­ing ways Autis­tic and oth­er dis­abled peo­ple pre­fer. Some­one can stum­ble over words or use the wrong ones because of a dis­abil­i­ty, because of not hav­ing the time or resources to learn the lat­est and great­est right words, or for any num­ber of oth­er rea­sons. Some­one can artic­u­late an ide­ol­o­gy per­fect­ly, in pre­cise­ly the right terms, and remain unwill­ing to live out what the words and ideas mean. A sim­ple turn of phrase that demon­strates the abil­i­ty to see us as suf­fi­cient­ly human to iden­ti­fy with us is far more reveal­ing. What­ev­er else there may be to teach a giv­en per­son about dis­abil­i­ty issues, it demon­strates the basic grasp of our human­i­ty which is the essen­tial pre­req­ui­site to becom­ing an ally.