An Attempt to Understand the Frontier of Discrimination

Social exclusion, Discrimination

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My son sits at a frontier of discrimination, because of his autism. People know they shouldn’t be judging him based on his genitalia or sexual orientation, his skin colour, his religion (or lack thereof), country of birth, or even his physical limitations (if he was wheelchair bound or had lost an arm). (Whether people actually act in accordance with that knowledge is an important but separate question). But when it comes to his autism – to his mental disability and the myriad of ways that it manifests – people don’t think that belongs in the same category as a discriminatory issue. They see his autism as a real reason to treat him worse or judge him in advance. I’ve known this for a while, but have struggled to find explanations of why this is the frontier of discrimination.

I’ve seen plenty of pieces point out that this discrimination is happening, and that its consequences are severe. I’ve seen pieces talking about the change that needs to occur (such as affirmative action programs). But I haven’t seen explanations of why this is the current frontier. Over time I have developed some personal views about this.

I do not think mental disabilities are just “the next step” in fighting discrimination; I don’t think it’s coincidental and not meaningful that the next major discrimination issue appears to be mental disability. In fact, I think that mental disabilities sit at the frontier of discrimination, partially because of the very ways in which discrimination against other aspects of a person have been fought. Which is to say, the rhetoric used to fight sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc, is what has helped to create this stumbling block for mental disabilities.

There are two major lines of rhetoric that have been used to reinforce human equality, and to distinguish when we should be ready to treat people as lesser than the rest of humanity. The first is the idea that no matter the skin, sex, etc, of someone, their minds are the same as our own in vital ways. For example, that a woman or a black man has the same ability to reason and feel as the white man. The second is that when looking to judge someone’s morality or worthiness, we cannot take into account that which the person cannot control and had no say over. (The same notion that is reflected in much of law.) So we mustn’t think less of people because of their skin, sex etc; they had no say or control over that. Instead we must turn our attention to their words and actions, from which we can truly gleam their character and humanity.

Someone with a mental disability – such as my autistic son – is going to fall foul of both approaches of combatting discriminatory words and actions. Under the first type of rhetoric, it actually looks like his mind and his emotions operate differently than the “norm,” those differences marking him out as something “other” in some important ways. (It is under this line of thought that attacks on autistic capacity for empathy equates with attacks on equality and humanity, an issue I wrote about recently.) Under the second line of rhetoric, he (and people like him) also fall out of favour, since the very words and actions which people are meant to judge him by – the things which, unlike skin colour or gender, he has control over  – are hard to access or interpret because of his autism. And at times those words and actions do not have the level of control behind them that we normally presuppose people to have (think of stimming and echolalia, particularly in young autistic children).

When it comes to physical disabilities – as opposed to purely or primarily mental disabilities – the cause of the different actions or communications is usually highly visible. So it is easier for people to observe and comprehend that certain behaviours are beyond the individual’s control (so if they knock you while waiting in line you’re not going to harangue them for being rude). But autism is often called an invisible disability, for a good reason. Though it does affect an individual in a wide range of ways, the cause is not written on their body or in their faces. My son looks just like anyone else (only immensely cuter of course, cause hello, he’s my son).

There are two paths forward then, if I am right about these rhetorics being problematic for assessing and understanding people like my son, in ways that otherwise lead to unjust discrimination. The first is to keep the rhetoric – that the things that bind us in humanity is our reason and emotions for example, and that we should judge people by their words and actions rather than things they have no control over – and educate people to better understand how conditions like autism affect the presentation of these things. Which is to say, that what looks like an inability to reason or feel, is a misinterpretation or over-simplification of someone with autism. Or that the actions and words that confuse and upset other people (the tantrums, seeming rudeness etc) are not as fully in control as you may presuppose for others, or again are being misinterpreted.

The other approach you could take is to change the rhetoric. So that the focus is not on the mind and emotions of humans, or on the blameworthiness of people (only judging and holding them responsible for things they control), but instead something perhaps more universal. Such as the mere fact of being a human, regardless of what form that humanity takes. This sounds attractive and enlightened but is a problematic solution since the focus on reason and emotion actually fits into a wider rhetoric of respect and good treatment of animals (which feel pain, and certain animals like primates being able to reason in ways that we recognise and value as humans). Also, the focus of judgment linked to what we can “control” does ground the understanding and treatment of those who break the laws set in place to allow us to live together in societies (think of theft and murder). The question of control also affects us in our everyday interactions in relevant ways, as we actively (and should) choose to have people in our lives who treat us well and care about what happens to us.

So I think there remain (at least some) good reasons to focus on reason, emotion and what we have control over, as factors in the explanation of why and when we shouldn’t discriminate against others; the better option would seem to be educating people about the complexities of mental disabilities and the different ways in which humanity in all its forms expresses itself and experiences the world.

This approach would also lend itself towards a shift in rhetoric away from “disability” and more towards “difference,” as a natural corollary of an enhanced understanding of there being more than one way to be in and take part in society. I do think there is still room there for understanding that disability still exists – that there are certain aspects of being a human that are severely affected and usually for the negative in various physical and mental conditions – but they would be shifted away from grounds for discrimination, towards grounds for compassion, accomodation, assistance and support.

I want to conclude by saying that this is simply what the title says – an attempt to understand – I do not think I have figured it all out or got all the answers (far from it). I’m just trying to make sense of what my son and my family has gone through, and place it within the rhetorics I have heard across my life-time about why and when discrimination is unjust. Even as I pause pre hitting “publish” I can see certain little changes or refinements I’d make if I were to tackle this topic again, but I’ll be hitting “publish” all the same because I see this post as a good starting point towards what I’m trying to figure out. I would, as ever, be interested to hear your own responses and thoughts.

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9 Responses to An Attempt to Understand the Frontier of Discrimination

  1. Jim W. says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve written. The invisibility of my daughter’s autism sometimes make her behaviors seem more jarring.

    Regarding your son’s cuteness, perhaps it’s also an indicator of autism. I don’t know of the existence of any data from double blind scientific testing, but we visited Pittsburgh’s reputed “THE” doctor for autistic children on Tuesday, and he diagnosed her with ‘chronic extreme cuteness’.

    I told him I knew for certain there was a direct causal genetic link, but no cure was being researched.

  2. Tsara says:

    Cheers Jim! My mom always said that one of the things that kept her going with my autistic brothers (I had four) was their crazy cuteness! And now as a global expert she sees this ‘cute’ symptom most of the time. All four of my own boys are beautiful to me but it is my two youngest (who are both sprinkled with autism symptoms) that have always drawn ridiculous amounts of attention because of their adorableness.

    Having said that, I think it is also true that being so cute and crazy was why the outside world let them get away with plenty and then when they hit awkward adolescence the world did an about face. Now that they weren’t so ‘cute’ they were also treated with a bit more cruelty. Okay, I’ll be honest, a lot more cruelty. Must have been very hard for my once-adorable-still-socially- challenged awkward teenage brothers.

    I love this blog for pointing out that seeing a disability as a ‘difference’ is lovely but we don’t want to pretend that there aren’t challenges for some that others are not able to comprehend. I am one of those boring ‘neurotypicals’ that was lucky enough to grow up in a large, broken brained family. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that my family wasn’t just being dramatic or asking for attention, they truly found certain sounds, or temperatures, or colors, or textures painful! They were different…. and challenged in ways I simply wasn’t.

    Thank you Linda, for starting this conversation. It’s more than a little bit important!

  3. Jim W. says:

    Cheers Tsara, (I don’t really understand that greeting, but, when in Rome. . .plus it seems very cheerful and warm, so it can’t be TOO scary )

    A very serious issue, on that “lighter side” topic is, in fact, just exactly how much my daughter gets away with by being cute. Regardless of her developmental delays, she’s extremely aware of exactly how far she can push one group of care givers relative to another. When her TSS is with her. . . she’s by the book, doesn’t step out of line, calm, attends to task. With her grandparents (and even us). . . LOOK OUT!

    The drawback is. . . people don’t push her to perform because she’s just so golldarn cute! It’s a dilly of a pickle, because I want fun, playful time with her, but I also want her to attend to task, focus, and behave.

  4. Tsara says:

    Well Jim, I love that you called me out on the ‘cheers’ greeting! I have no idea why I said that and wondered for awhile about it after posting my comment… funny!

    It’s a strange truth that adorableness can be a real problem. Not the cuteness itself of course but… well, we get it. I doubt you will have too much of a problem though because you know what you want. My mom says ‘You get what you keep your eye on’… I love that! So keep your eye on your cute, playful daughter and also her ability to attend to task, focus and behave. Catch ya on the flip side! (Tee hee!)

    • Jim W. says:

      I just assumed you were from another land (other than the one in which I’m currently living). I used to do a lot of business with a Welshman, who would start and end conversations with “Cheers”. I loved it. But when I would say “Cheers, mate!” it felt awkward and unnatural, like I was pretending that I too was a Welshman, or Australian, or something other than what I was. So I stopped doing it.

      When you said cheers, I responded, and then immediately thought. . . what if she thinks I’m a Welshman. . . what if “cheers” is some sort of welsh version of the Masonic handshake or pass-phrase, that, upon utterance automatically conveys to the receiver. . . THIS guy knows the secret. I thought. . . what if she starts spouting all sorts of OTHER Welshnesses and I’m sitting here floundering until she realizes I’m a fraud and says, “You’re no Welshman! FRAUD! FRAUD!

      So I was trying to convey that although I like “cheers” as a greeting. . . I’m not authorized to use it.

      I liked the video. Is that your mother?

  5. Tsara says:

    Ha Ha! Yes that is my mother, and as she mentioned we are Canadian. So…. don’t say ‘eh’ unless you are prepared for an onslaught of Canuck phrases! I am living in Texas now so you may also want to refrain from any ‘y’all’s’ or ‘howdy’s’!!

    Linda, I hope you don’t mind that I shared the video. Not one of my moms best but it mentioned ‘You keep what you keep your eye on’ which I had referred to. Hugs!

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