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.