Relatively recently, I was having a pretty basic discussion on Facebook about accessibility accommodations that can be useful for autistic kids, and those that have been useful for me. It was going alright, until someone who wasn’t originally part of the discussion replied to me saying (this is a paraphrase, not an exact quote) “You should stop calling autism a disability. It’s pretty insulting.”
Unfortunately, the sort of sentiment expressed in this response is something I’m seeing more and more. There are essentially two things that bother me about this, and I’ll discuss each of them individually. The first is the idea that autism is, somehow, not a disability. The second is that referring to someone as disabled is somehow offensive.
To begin, at the moment there seems to be a lot of silly debate going around about whether or not autism is a disability. I say silly, because it’s not really a matter up for debate. Autism is clearly a disability, and is defined so by multiple governmental and health organizations around the world. (It is, to the furthest technicality, a neurodevelopmental disability, though some have the fair point that atypical development as compared to the majority is not grounds to refer to said development as disordered, but that’s for another day.) Some people are severely disabled by nature of being autistic and living in a world not built for autistic people. To claim that autism is not a disability is incredibly invalidating to the struggles that myself and others experience daily. If you’re autistic and you don’t think your disabled, then you don’t have to identify yourself as disabled. That’s fine, all the power to you. However, I am disabled by virtue of being autistic, in some ways quite severely disabled, as are most autistic people. By making the claim that autism isn’t a disability, you’re, in a way, ignoring our daily challenges. I want people to know how they can best support and accommodate me, and part of this acknowledging that I am disabled. I ask that you please acknowledge the reality of our disabilities so that others can realize how best to support us.
You’ll notice that above I very specifically wrote out “disabled by nature of being autistic and living in a world not built for autistic people.” This was done to show how I support the Social Model of Disability. What is this, you ask? Well, in oversimplified terms, there are essentially two different ways of looking at disability: the Social Model and the Medical Model. The Social Model states that disabled people are disabled not specifically by their disability, but rather because the world is not set up to accommodate their differences. The Medical Model assumes disabled people are disabled as an intrinsic part of their condition(s). The Social Model says that society should find ways to be more accommodating of disabled people, the Medical Model says disabled people should change or seek some sort of “cure” to conform to society. The Medical Model treats a disability as an inherent deficit, the Social Model treats disability as a difference that is often challenging because society is not set up to accommodate said difference. To me, and most other disabled people, the Social Model makes a heck of a lot more sense. I bring up these differences because, at least to me, it seems a lot of the people arguing that “autism isn’t a disability” are stuck on the Medical Model of Disability. They’ll say things like “but autism comes with a lot of gifts” or “but autistic people are capable of living successful lives” or “but autism isn’t a bad thing.” Well, yeah. I agree with all of those statements, and I will absolutely to go on and on with these points. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a disability. Having a disability is not inherently a bad thing, and disabled does not mean incapable.
This leads me to the second thing that bothered me about that statement, and it is the idea that is is somehow insulting, or offensive, or whatever else to refer to someone as disabled. This idea, I believe, is based on a very stigmatized view of disability, and I think it is often unfortunately due to a lot of internalized ableism a lot of autistic people are carrying around with them. I’ve said it numerous times on this blog, and I will say it again: being disabled is not an inherently bad thing. Oh, sure, it comes with challenges, but a disability certainly isn’t a negative characteristic. It’s not something to be ashamed of in any way. What is pretty insulting is to insist that it would be bad to say someone has a disability just due to how much stigma that puts on said disability. Especially with something like autism, which many autistic people consider to be an integral part of their identities and personalities, to insinuate it’s such a negative thing to have a disability that it could be considered an insult is to put a serious stigma on said disability, and this can have dire consequences in society’s perception of disabilities.
I just wanted to write this as my general response to those who insist that autism is not a disability, and that referring to it as such is some sort of insult to autistic people. Statements like these are pretty rare, but I see them enough that I figured I’d write this.
Of course, I am absolutely not saying that every autistic person must identify as disabled. There are autistic people who don’t consider themselves to be disabled, and I’m not trying to tell them that they have to refer to their autism as a disability. What I am asking, however, is that no one tries to speak on this for every autistic person, and especially that no one equivocates referring to oneself or someone else as disabled as some sort of insult. It’s important to me that autism is recognized as a disability so that autistic people who need support can receive it and be better understood. It is also important to me that we remove the stigma associated with being autistic and being disabled in general, as I think this will go a long way in help bring about autism acceptance.