Today I came across a very interesting article on the New Zealand Herald site, written by Mike Lee. It’s entitled “Naming gay All Blacks marks sexuality, not talent.” The concerns raised in it closely parallel the concerns I have about the multitudes who have been promoting Alexis Wineman to win Miss America, merely on the grounds of her autism.
The argument runs along these lines: Whether it’s sports, or beauty pageants, or any other area of competition or employment, what matters is how well someone performs at the tasks necessary to succeed in those endeavors. When we instead turn our attention and ask others to do the same, to sexual orientation or disability, we are treating those considerations as if they are relevant and important, in the same way that we beg everyone who discriminates to not do: We are saying “look, this person is different” when what we should be focusing on and praising is the talent and achievements themselves. Whether someone has a disability or other difference is entirely their own business and shouldn’t be treated as fodder for public consumption, particularly when it’s not relevant to the excellence (sports ability, beauty) at issue in a competition.
Furthermore, to bring attention to the difference, marks the person out to have to perform better than their counterparts. As Mike puts it: “Rather than being judged on their ability alone, they might be scrutinised more closely and be under immense pressure to perform even better than average in order to avoid accusations of reverse discrimination.”
The ideal, instead, would be to recognise and respect individuality. To praise a person’s excellence in their chosen field, quite independently of whatever labels they carry around. To not belittle their achievements by saying “well, you’ve done quite well, for a black man” (or whatever the difference), when instead we should be celebrating what they have achieved in and of itself (ie, not merely despite the barriers they faced).
If someone’s achievement is all the more remarkable because of their disability, that is interesting and noteworthy, but it doesn’t mean we should constantly structure the person’s achievements in that light.
(I couldn’t help but wonder too when I saw all the claims that Alexis was the first Miss America contestant to have autism. How do you prove such a thing? What about those who went before her and didn’t try to use their autism to some sort of advantage or to garner more attention, and simply competed on their merits in the contest? What about those who came before her who had autism but no confirmed diagnosis, are they less worthy of public praise than she is? When I think about this, I feel very uncomfortable with her using autism to grab the spotlight, I’d have been more impressed if she’d acknowledged that many people have autism without having a diagnosis and that these people are all around us anyway; the whole “look at me, it’s important that I win because I told the world I have autism” thing doesn’t sit well with me. I realise I’m in a minority here.)
But – and it’s a big but – do we not have to adjust our ideals (that people be seen as and treated as individuals), to take account of lived reality? In a world where discrimination occurs, does it not make sense to try to counter it with reverse discrimination? And in a world where disability and other differences are very real barriers to equal opportunity achievement, should we not openly support and identify those who have overcome those barriers to be able to compete with those who didn’t face the same barriers? Hold them up as something for similarly affected people to aspire to, and to reveal to the rest of the world that difference is not as relevant as they think it is to personal achievements?
I’m torn about this one (I broached the issue not long ago in a post on autism pride too). For me, it’s a question of whether we act like we live in the world we want everyone to reach – one where individuality matters more and labels are not seen as defining the entire person – or whether we act in constant acknowledgement of all these barriers that currently exist (but not modeling the actual contextual irrelevance that people should show towards the difference). Furthermore, do we adopt the very rhetoric we’re arguing against – the one that tells us what you’re born with really does matter to your worth – and just turn it on its head by saying it matters because it makes you better, rather than the status quo of making you worse?
This is where I currently stand: I want people to treat my son in the ideal sense I aspire to. I want them to recognise and respect his individuality. I don’t want them to obsess about his autism, though I would like them to recognise its relevance in various situations (such as providing consideration to his challenges so that he can still participate in society, in much the same way we allow for wheelchairs to all public buildings. But in an ideal world these considerations would be a natural part of how systems and buildings etc are set up; with an eye to the simple reality that humans are complex and very varied beings.) I want to be consistent with my expectations: That other people should not treat someone as more or less worthy by accident or birth, so neither would I. To me, that’s a matter of personal integrity.
If my son gets to the top of his chosen field, and wants to share the fact that he has autism with the world, that would be fine by me. If he doesn’t share that he has autism though, that’s fine too. It’s not something to be ashamed of, or some special blessing, it’s just part of his lived reality, it’s a “fact.” He is not obligated to the rest of the world – or to the autism community – to share this fact. If he does remarkably well in his life but doesn’t do well by “normal” standards – lets say he can live independently but can’t get any sort of job or have a long-term relationship – I’d be happy to celebrate and recognise what he has achieved in light of his limitations, but he’s still just who he is either way. It’s his life, and he’s doing the best he can, and it’s his story; it’s not “inspiration porn” for the rest of the world.
But then what am I doing with my blog? How does my blogging fit into the fact that I want to treat him as the complete and complex individual that he is? I like to think I protect his identity here by not revealing my own, so some of these issues are not as major as they might otherwise have been. But the fact is I do write for a world where autism is misunderstood and our stories need to be heard to help change that. Isn’t that the inverse of the ideal I want to act within? My blogging has been taking a slightly different tact lately – such as in my piece I mentioned earlier on autism pride, and in my other recent post on telling strangers he has autism – so perhaps ultimately my blog too will reflect this growing recognition.
Is there not though, a relevant difference between a mother celebrating her own son’s achievements, and me celebrating the achievements of a complete stranger merely because they have autism?
Clearly I have more questions than answers. But I think they are questions worth asking (for me if no one else!) If you want to share your own views on these matters, and why you hold those views, I would be grateful for the insights.