09 November, 2009


The Autism Society of America website has a section of its website devoted to professionals, relatives, and people with ASDs describing themselves (which is really cool, for the record). In one profile, a teenager with Asperger's makes the statement that "every human being has some awkwardness and, in that sense, people with AS and autism need to be seen as part of the larger human cycle instead of as 'disabled.'"*

Oh, how cute! What's wrong with this picture? This kind of attitude arises in conversations among people who have "invisible disabilities," because not everyone considers "invisible disabilities" to actually really be disabilities. And I respect that, which is why I'm using quotes--which for the record I normally don't do, I consider myself a disabled person and "invisible disabilities" to just be invisible disabilities, without the quotes, but I don't want to imply that if someone with an ASD or whatever doesn't call themselves disabled, I'm going to jump on them and yell "YOU'RE DISABLED ADMIT YOU'RE DISABLED." It's none of my business how someone else identifies if they are not insulting anyone.

The thing is, the attitude in the quote above is insulting someone.

So, here's the thing: we get in these conversations, people with ASDs, mental illnesses, learning disabilities, chronic pain and chronic fatigue. And because we aren't stereotypically disabled, it does end up being up for debate: are we really disabled? Do we consider ourselves disabled, do we identify as disabled? Because for us it ends up being a choice, whereas for a person who can't walk, deciding whether or not to identify as disabled is like deciding whether or not to identify as having brown eyes. It's not an idea for them, it's a fact.

But sometimes we, these people who get the chance to decide to call ourselves disabled or not, end up saying some inspirational thing, like:

"You know, my depression doesn't define me; I am able to cope with it. So I'm not disabled."

"You're only as disabled as you feel."

"I don't feel disabled."

"It would be negative thinking if I defined myself as disabled."

"People with AS and autism need to be seen as part of the larger human cycle instead of as 'disabled.'"

I had to use that kid's quote again instead of making up an equivalent one, because it is just a perfect example of something that is really insulting without meaning to be. This quote sets up "part of the larger human cycle" and "disabled" as if both things cannot be true about one person. Which is all very well for him and me, if we decide that we don't consider ourselves disabled. But a person in a wheelchair doesn't have that luxury, he is visibly, inarguably disabled--so, um, what are we saying about him?

And also, how does this visibly inarguably disabled guy feel about his life? Well, I guess, if it is logical to say "I don't feel disabled," then there is a certain way disabled people feel, and I guess it is about feeling limited. So we know that a person in a wheelchair feels limited. And we know that it is "negative thinking" to think you're disabled, so being disabled is inherently negative, so we know that our hypothetical wheelchair guy feels not just limited, but actually bad. We also know that "you're only as disabled as you feel," which I guess means that it is this guy's fault he has to use a wheelchair? And, finally, we know that if you aren't defined by your impairments, you're not disabled, so the fact that this guy is disabled means that he isn't successful, that his life is controlled by his condition.

I'm not in any way trying to say that people actually mean to communicate all this horribly untrue stuff. But the thing is, disabled just means qualitatively impaired, so when you're trying to explain why, despite your qualitative impairments, you don't identify with the word disabled, and then you try to say that being disabled is about feelings and being incapacitated and not being "part of the larger human cycle"...well, when you do that, you're insulting the people for whom the word disabled is an inescapable part of who they are.

*(I usually feel awkward when I quote people on my blog and then proceed to rip apart their quote. What if they're noodling around on the Internet and find what I wrote? So I feel compelled to say that I'm sure the author of this quote is very nice, and in fact I enjoyed reading his piece of writing and identified with it quite a bit and found a lot to admire in his view of his life.)

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