There are a variety of rhetorics that can be used to exclude our special needs children from being accepted in and taking part in society. The function of these rhetorics – these ways of referring to and marking out our children (and indeed, disabled adults too) – is to keep the “unpleasantness” of disabled existence away from the tidy, safe mainstream world. It takes something people recognise as different and undesirable in a more general context, attaches it to the disabled population, then draws the conclusion that there is good and moral reason to exclude the disabled, whilst not appearing to be saying the less palatable statement that different bodies and different minds are unacceptable merely because they are different.
For example, there’s dehumanizing language, that operates by assigning a lack to our children otherwise required for membership to humanity (eg empathy); sometimes the dehumanizing language is more direct “..it’s like the child isn’t there at all.” Another example is language that denigrates our children as something deserving of ridicule (and used to make “normal” people feel better about themselves and their abilities); the word “retarded” is an example of this.
But one that I hadn’t much come across or given real though to until recently, appears to be becoming more popular. It’s another way to separate out our children as “other”, as unwanted, as undesirable within society: To mark their very existence, and their nature, as “criminal.”(I’ll be making my comments most directly about autism since that’s the disability I’m most familiar with due to my son, but the points clearly extend beyond autism, to other disabilities.)
The association between autism and criminal behaviour got a very public airing thanks to Assange, in his opinion that all hackers are a little bit autistic. An idea seemingly (and superficially) supported by the large number of media stories both here and overseas that almost inevitably refer to a hacker’s autism (or more often, Aspergers). Another too-loud voice was added to this criminal association by the astounding ignorance of a strongly anti-vaccine individual, who publicly states that “All the school shootings by the children in the USA are by autistic children.” Locally too, there was a lot of talk about the autistic criminal mind, surrounding the case of Arie and the lightbulb he attempted to steal post the Christchurch Earthquake.
It should be obvious that in every one of these instances broadly linking autism and crime, that there are serious problems with over-reaching, unsupported generalizations, ignorance of how the law operates, or out-right factual error. But it doesn’t take much for new anti-disability rhetoric to start-up and take hold. And while the word “retarded” and more obvious dehumanizing language is under attack, the unfounded labeling of autistic people as inherently “criminal” allows another avenue for attack and separation.
Another way in which the disabled are linked to the word “criminal,” is arguably even more disturbing, because it goes to their very existence. It is quite typically expressed by this statement I came across only today on a discussion I was following on facebook:
“The money to help the “special needs” children doesn’t just come from the Min Education – it comes from us (you, me, next door neighbour – usually real people paying tax). If Janet and John [randomly chosen names] have a special needs child that is terrible, if they continue to breed and have another, that is criminal. My “normal” children didn’t get any special breaks…”
So the very fact of having our children – their very existence – is deserving of the label “criminal;” as in evil, thoughtless, deserving of social condemnation. The parents who allowed the child to come into the world, have done something horrible, and the parent should feel ashamed and blameworthy. By that reasoning, I should have been sterilised after my first child turned out “wrong.”
The commenter is saying more directly, that it’s expensive for society to look after high needs individuals, so having such children is irresponsible and deserving of blame. Note that this isn’t seen by the commenter as a reason to critique the funding priorities of society or government, and neither is it seen as reason to encourage people to give more time and money to charity. No, it’s just a failure by the parents of such children, that’s a much easier problem to identify and “fix.”
Similarly the equation of autistic people with crime: It would be more complicated to point out that the disabled are far more likely to be easy victims of crime than to commit crimes, and that crimes committed against them will often go un-noticed and / or unpunished due to their inability to understand what has been done to them or to speak out about it; or that they are frequently poorly represented and poorly understood within the legal and criminal system which again makes them easy to “catch” and easy scape-goats (sometimes of crimes they didn’t even commit). No, it’s much easier and tidier to label them as “other”, as “criminals”; abhorrent and negative things we’re better off without in society, things that drag down the “normal” law-abiding people. And it’s easier not to treat them as individuals, but as representative of all those given the label of “autistic” (for example).
This rhetoric lets “normal” people feel superior, by accident of birth. It makes “normal” people feel safer too: “all we have to do is identify the disabled and keep them away from us or stop them existing at all, and normal people’s lives will be that much better.” The disabled are an easy group of people to identify and blame when things go wrong, not least of all because their ability to fight back with actions and words is much less than other targets in society. It is easy to group them together in the first place – either by label or by appearance – and to emphasize how different they are from the “norm”, rather than how much the same we are.
The word “criminal” comes loaded with both legal and moral implications; it packs a punch. When used to group together and separate out the disabled, so that the disabled can be treated as unwanted by mere fact of their existence, the punch it packs is itself… criminal.