Disability and Representation » Verbal representation http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com Changing the Cultural Conversation Fri, 26 Apr 2013 15:06:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.1 Neurotypical Awareness: Reach Out Today http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/04/10/reach-out-today/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/04/10/reach-out-today/#comments Wed, 10 Apr 2013 13:35:30 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2351 neurotypical awareness 9

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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Neurotypical Awareness: It’s a Hard Road http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/04/05/its-a-hard-road/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/04/05/its-a-hard-road/#comments Fri, 05 Apr 2013 14:50:08 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2276 neurotypical awareness 7

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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Scapegoating in the Aftermath of the Sandy Hook Shooting: Yes, It’s Really Happening to Us http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/12/26/scapegoating-in-the-aftermath-of-the-sandy-hook-shooting/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/12/26/scapegoating-in-the-aftermath-of-the-sandy-hook-shooting/#comments Wed, 26 Dec 2012 05:00:14 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=1834 12224_389210427833158_1154294158_n









Despite a number of clarifications in The New York Times and on ABC News, NBC News, and CNN that Asperger’s is not a predisposing factor for premeditated violence, the spurious association of Asperger’s with the violence in Newtown, CT is still strong. In part, the media is responsible for not having clarified early on that yes, Adam Lanza shot 27 people and yes, Adam Lanza was apparently autistic, and no, one had nothing to do with the other. Such failures were rife. For example, in exploring a possible explanation for the shooting, Dr. Xavier Amador opined on Piers Morgan Tonight that people with Asperger’s are missing an essential element of humanity:

Well, actually, a symptom of Asperger’s, and this is one report coming out which may or may not be true, is something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety.

But the media’s response is only a symptom of a much larger problem. Its willingness to blame Asperger’s is a reflection of a cultural association between disability and evil that has lasted for centuries. As Colin Barnes writes:

Throughout the Middle Ages, disabled people were the subject of superstition, persecution, and rejection. Haffter (1968) has pointed out that in medieval Europe disability was associated with evil and witchcraft. Deformed and disabled children were seen as ‘changelings’ or the Devil’s substitutes for human children, the outcome of their parents’ involvement with the black arts of sorcery. The Malleus Maleficarum of 1487 declared that these children were the product of the mothers’ intercourse with Satan… Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) proclaimed that he saw the Devil in a profoundly disabled child. If these children lived, Luther recommended killing them.” (Barnes 2010, 21)

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century eugenicists picked up this connection between disability and depravity, believing “that there were genetic links between physical and mental impairments, crime, unemployment and other social evils” (Barnes 2010, 26). The linkage has come down to the present day in the pernicious belief that disability is synonymous with narcissism and anti-social behavior (Siebers 2011, 34-35).

I’ve read a number of comments online that suggest that autistic people and autism parents are overplaying the scapegoating of Asperger’s. People say that the mainstream media has issued its clarifications and that the problem is solved. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Once this iteration of the cultural narrative about disability hit the airwaves, it quickly took root among ordinary people. Giving life to a well-worn untruth while people are in a state of nearly irrational fear is a difficult thing to undo. To give you a sense of just how deep the damage goes, I offer the following examples.

On the Volconvo forum, one commenter refers to people with autism and mental illness as “broken-minded defects” who are “dangerous” and whom society needs to monitor and imprison inside locked wards:

comment from website








A commenter on a TIME article suggests that autistic people are “mutants” who need to be placed in “psychiatric facilities” and ultimately removed from the gene pool for the good of society:

comment on Time article










And then there was the person who started a Facebook page and called for the killing of autistic children. (To its credit, Facebook quickly removed the page.)

comment from facebook










This kind of scapegoating has begun the inevitable creep off the major news sites and social media and into the lives of ordinary autistic people and their families. Three friends have given me permission to share their experiences.

Here is the story told by my friend Sara, a woman with Asperger’s. While standing at the post office five days after the tragedy, she spoke to a woman, an Ivy League graduate, who said that Asperger’s — and Asperger’s alone — had caused the Sandy Hook shooting. Sara posted the following on her Facebook status:

sara 1














Another friend describes a situation in which a false belief in a link between autism and violence caused his wholly nonviolent autistic child to become suspect in the eyes of a relative:










Finally, my friend C describes a more frightening scenario. Her son J, who is 14 years old, had gone to Wal-Mart to look for a Christmas tree. He has Asperger’s and bipolar disorder, and people in his community are aware of his diagnoses. He was wearing headphones to block out sensory input, and, at one point, attempted to find a quieter place in the store. He had his hand on a price list in his pocket when someone who knew him went into a panic — a panic that resulted in the young man’s injury:













Like Trayvon Martin in his hoodie, the scary guy on the block appears to be, in the minds of some people, the kid with Asperger’s with his hands in his pockets. I’m just waiting for someone to suggest that, as Geraldo Rivera said about black men giving up their hoodies, young men with Asperger’s should wear pocketless clothing.

The stunning level of irrationality and fear being leveled at people with autism is tremendous cause for concern. In the face of this scapegoating,  autistic people and autism parents are countering with positive images of autistic children and adults that show us as full human beings — ordinary, extraordinary, beautiful, and proud. To see these images, please go to the following Facebook pages:

Autism Shines
Autistics, Not Monsters
Disability and Representation

Let’s spread the word to end the scapegoating. And let’s keep doing it, now and always, wherever and whenever we can.

Note: I invite you to share your experience in the comments. If you write about something that one of your children has experienced, please use pseudonyms for yourself and for all concerned. Thank you.



Barnes, Colin. “A Brief History of Discrimination and Disabled People.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 20-32. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Christopher, Tommy. “Piers Morgan Quack Says People With Autism Lack Empathy: ‘Something’s Missing In The Brain’.” Mediaite, December 14, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.mediaite.com/tv/piers-morgan-quack-says-people-with-autism-lack-empathy-somethings-missing-in-the-brain/.

Facebook. www.facebook.com. Accessed December 24, 2012.

— “Autism Shines.” http://www.facebook.com/AutismShines?fref=ts. Accessed December 24, 2012.

— “Autistics, Not Monsters.” http://www.facebook.com/AutisticsNotMonsters?ref=ts&fref=ts. Accessed December 24, 2012.

— “Disability and Representation.” http://www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation. Accessed December 24, 2012.

Falco, Miriam. “Groups: Autism not to blame for violence. CNN, December 19, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/17/health/connecticut-shooting-autism/index.html.

Fox, Maggie. “Asperger’s not an explanation for Lanza’s Connecticut killing spree, experts say.” NBC News, December 18, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/18/15994353-aspergers-not-an-explanation-for-lanzas-connecticut-killing-spree-experts-say?lite.

Gilman, Priscilla. “Don’t Blame Autism for Newtown.” The New York Times, December 17, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/opinion/dont-blame-autism-for-newtown.html.

Nano, Stephanie. “Experts: No Link Between Asperger’s, Violence. ABC News, December 16, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/experts-link-aspergers-violence-17987339#.UNj7VHfLBQG.

Rochman, Bonnie. “Guilt by Association: Troubling Legacy of Sandy Hook May Be Backlash Against Children with Autism.” TIME, December 19, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/19/guilt-by-associationtroubling-legacy-of-sandy-hook-may-be-backlash-against-children-with-autism/.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Volconvo. “Kindergarten isn’t just about identifying colors, shapes and sizes anymore.” http://www.volconvo.com/forums/society-rights/43038-kindergarten-isn-t-just-about-identifying.html. December 14, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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Words Flow From My Fingers: In Defense of Social Media http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/12/09/words-flow/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/12/09/words-flow/#comments Mon, 10 Dec 2012 03:30:33 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=1462

[S]poken language is privileged over textual language. This privileging of one sense over another is not natural, as Rousseau argued, but arbitrary. — Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, page 67

I’ve recently been reading Lennard Davis’ Enforcing Normalcy, and I’ve been thinking a great deal about what he has to say about the privileging of speech in our culture. The bias toward speech is nowhere more apparent than in the doomsday predictions that people engage in regarding the impact of text-based social media. It seems that you can’t pick up a newspaper or, ironically enough, read articles on the Internet, without hearing someone bemoaning the rise of social media and its allegedly destructive impact on human interaction, conversation, and civilization itself.

Sherry Turkle’s New York Times piece, The Flight from Conversation, is representative. Ms. Turkle writes that we have substituted “connection” for “conversation,” and that our online communication is a mere shadow of real human interaction:

FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters…

And we use conversation with others to learn to converse with ourselves. So our flight from conversation can mean diminished chances to learn skills of self-reflection. These days, social media continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect.

As we get used to being shortchanged on conversation and to getting by with less, we seem almost willing to dispense with people altogether. (Turkle 2012)

I find these paragraphs absolutely fascinating in their alarmism. False assumptions abound: that one cannot have a text-based conversation that “unfolds slowly;” that text-based media causes us to “dumb down our communications”; that text-based media makes us less self-reflective; that one cannot build trust with people unless one speaks to them face to face; and that social media causes its users to become narcissists who wish to “dispense with people altogether.”

I will certainly grant that there are people who use social media in lightning-fast ways that don’t allow for nuanced conversation, that run rampant over self-reflection, and that erode trust. All one has to do is glance at the comment thread of any major news story and it becomes quite apparent that the Internet gives anyone the ability to say just about anything in as offensive a way as possible. But to say that textual media itself creates this kind of dumbed-down, offensive speech is to get the causation wrong. People have always said highly offensive things to and about one another, but now that anyone with an Internet connection can make it public (and create a permanent record of it), we think it’s a new phenomenon. I’ve been absolutely shocked by the level of racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism I’ve seen on the comment threads of major news sites, but I shouldn’t be. They have always been present in our society. Before the advent of the Internet, I just couldn’t hear someone in another state say something abhorrent because I wasn’t face-to-face with him.

It’s not the medium that creates the shallowness, the bigotry, and the ignorance. The medium just makes them more apparent. And yes, that’s depressing, but it’s not a sign that the world is in more of a mess today than it was yesterday.

Of course, if one looks past the cesspool of the comment threads of major news sites, one can find a plethora of very nuanced, very sensitive, and very supportive conversations that happen online. In fact, a number of people find substantive conversations through email and social media welcome and meaningful because these kinds of conversations simply aren’t available to them in their everyday lives. Many people find themselves isolated in their local communities: LGBT people, genderqueer people, disabled people, parents of disabled kids. In many places, there simply isn’t much support on the local level for people in minority communities, particularly if you live outside the major cities.

Social media serves to erode this isolation. In fact, it can have an empowering impact on people’s lives. I live in a small town in rural Vermont. I don’t know many disabled people locally, because the place I live is so sparsely populated. For disabled people, finding disabled peers is crucial, just as for people in any other minority, because we share common experiences, common perspectives, and common concerns. We see similar injustices and we experience similar levels of outrage about them. We get sensitivity and understanding from one another regarding verbal and physical pacing, the content and amount of speech to use, the kinds of barriers we find in public spaces — sensitivity and understanding that are often absent in our experiences of our nondisabled peers.

In my small town, I know half a dozen disabled people, and I value their friendship immensely. But if I weren’t connected with the larger disability community online, I would not feel the sense of belonging in the world that I do. I would not have learned so much about the political and social nature of disability, and I would not have gained so much insight about how to adapt to disability, about how to be proud, about how to advocate for myself, and about how much support I can give and receive. When I’m struggling with an issue, I can post a Facebook status and have a thorough-going, nuanced, supportive conversation. I can email an online friend and gain perspective that might elude me with an able-bodied person who does not share my experience. I can have conversations that go on for days, in which each party takes plenty of time to reflect in silence and to craft a response that speaks to the heart of what is going on.

One of the most painful things to me about the privileging of verbal communication is that verbal speech is not my native language. Because I come across as being an articulate person, most people do not realize how much of an effort it is for me to speak. I have to gather almost all of my energies to do it, and I need a great deal of time to recharge afterward. Speech is my second language; I will never feel completely at ease in it.

My first language is text. At three years of age, I had only been speaking for six months, but I could read anything. I don’t remember ever learning to read. My mother told me that I saw her reading one day and asked her what she was doing; she explained to me that each letter had a sound and that the sounds made words. From that point on, I learned to read like other children learn to speak — not with rote lessons and phonics exercises and vocabulary lists, but intuitively. I knew what the words meant; I knew their relationship to the words I could hear; I knew how to put them together and roll them around in my head and see the sentences take shape in my mind’s eye.

Words flow from my fingers the way that speech flows from the lips of speaking people, the way that words flow from the hands of Deaf people, the way that rhythm flows from the hands of a drummer.

And yet, the mode of communication in which I am most effective is seen as a threat to human interaction and mutual care. Such concerns are not new. As Lennard Davis points out, the eighteenth century saw the rise of solitary reading as a leisure time activity and the diminution of public performance as a  communal past-time. Davis writes about the rise of textual media in a way that resonates into the electronic age:

Writing and reading became the dominant forms of using sign language, the language of printed signs, and thus hearing readers and deaf readers could merge as those who see the voice of the words….The very nature of political assent, through the silent decoding of reading, became a newly ‘deafened’ process that did not require adherents to gather in a public place, that did not rely on a vocal response to a rallying cry. (Davis 1995, 62)

Much like today’s social media platforms, which allow people separated geographically to unite in political causes and find like-minded souls, reading in the eighteenth century enabled people to gather together with fellow feeling in the privacy of their own living rooms. Over two hundred years ago, the response to this shift was a “fascination with conversation” that was, in fact, “a kind of cultural nostalgia for a form that was in the process of becoming anachronistic” (Davis 1995, 63). The parallels with Sherry Turkle’s encomium on verbal conversation could not be clearer.

Those who privilege spoken language do not recognize its limits, nor do they see the potential for human belonging that social media provides. Last year, I found the following moving words in a comment on my Journeys with Autism blog from someone who called himself invisible:

I can’t believe the tears I’ve shed today….

I recently lost my dearest and best friend. Each of us found a connection that we had never had with another person. We instinctively understood and accepted each other. I’m in my late forties. I never felt like I was a part of the rest of the world, I thought that’s how everyone felt. I just accepted that nobody would understand me, that nobody would ever see the real me. That is, until he came along…

I read a few things that you wrote, and it was like I was reading my own thoughts… I just keep crying. Are there really other people like me? Is this possible? (Journeys with Autism, February 2, 2011)

This man had felt so alone in his life that he believed that only one other person could see him and understand him, and he was in despair because he had lost that person. And then he read the words on my blog, and he wept for joy that there were others who felt as he did — not just me, but so many of my readers.

For many, many people in this world, being seen and being understood is a rare occurrence in their local communities. The Internet and the social media it makes possible bring people together, from all over the world, who have felt isolated in the places they live. The friendships that I have made online are just as real, just as loyal, and just as profound as those I have made face to face. And when I do meet up with my online friends face to face, we talk as though we’ve known one another for years.

Because, in fact, we have.


Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London, England: Verso, 1995.

Journeys with Autism. “On My Solitary Way.” http://www.journeyswithautism.com/2011/02/02/on-my-solitary-way/. February 2, 2011. Accessed December 9, 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. “The Flight From Conversation.” The New York Times, April 21, 2012. Accessed December 9, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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More on Making a Mockery of Disability http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/10/27/more-on-making-a-mockery-of-disability/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/10/27/more-on-making-a-mockery-of-disability/#comments Sat, 27 Oct 2012 17:20:50 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=1220 I was planning to move on from the issue of Tony Attwood’s mockery of disabled people, but in the comments section of my last post on this issue, Karla provided more details about other parts of his presentation. One in particular grabbed my attention, because I think it’s such an excellent example of everything that is wrong with mocking disabled people. Karla writes about Attwood’s words:

He made 1 joke about Britts and 2 about NTs. Other than that it was all out laughing at autistic people….

At one point Tony talks about a married ASD couple. He talks about how they are in their house at night quietly reading and the neighbor stops by to bring them some nice snack and introduce himself (<—- here the NT neighbor is set up as the “good” guy offering gifts and introduction). Then Tony gets into his “acting mode” and gets wild eyed and starts to freak out as he explains… The ASD couple are quickly running through the house turning off the lights and ducking behind the chairs. Tony ducks behind the podium to act out the bit. (<—— sets ASD couple up as the assholes at worst, a stereotype at best) At this moment the entire room is laughing validating that this behavior is NOT okay by any sort of social standard.

Let me be clear: Attwood does good work on other fronts, but this kind of performance, coming from a person in the center of the culture about people at the margins of the culture, is offensive.

Let’s look at what’s being mocked here: a need for quiet and rest. For an autistic person to be quiet at night, after a long day of social pressure, sensory stimulation, and overcompensation, is an adaptation to a disability and a form of self-care. A lack of this kind of self-care results in stress, physical pain, exhaustion, burnout, meltdowns, and depression. I can attest from long experience that it is an absolute necessity to have time alone and in quiet to recharge. It is exactly the same as a diabetic needing to test his or her blood sugar regularly, or a person with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair in order to conserve energy.

How is the exercise of self-care in the face of disability something to laugh at? Should able-bodied people make fun of diabetics testing their blood sugar? Of people with CP using a wheelchair? Of people emptying their catheter bags? How is any of that open to mockery by those who are not disabled?

Let me put it to you very simply: My senses and my neurological system work hard, every day, doing things that “normal” people take for granted. Going into a crowded store is work. Walking in a noisy downtown area is work. Hearing is work. Speaking is work. I barely even notice how much work it is, because it is my normal. I have always worked this hard at it. It’s my reality. It’s not a question of willpower, of mind over matter, of somehow taking a deep breath and making it less work. It’s the nature of my disability. So wanting to be left alone after a long day of more sensory and neurological work than any able-bodied person can possible imagine is not a sign of willful selfishness or an act of social deviance for an able-bodied professional to mock at an autism conference. It’s a sign of understanding how to take care of my mind and body. And that’s all it is.

My husband understands these things. When he wants to chat and I say, “I’d rather not talk right now, because I’m spent,” he doesn’t laugh at me. If the issue can wait, he says, “No problem.” If it’s an emergency, of course, all bets are off. Most people will push past their limits in an emergency as much as they can. But wanting to chat about the presidential debates, like a new neighbor wanting to chat over a snack, is not an emergency.

How people can defend or rationalize mocking such things is beyond me. I’ve understood how wrong it is for as long as I can remember. But then again, I’ve been a minority person all my life. I’m not sure that a lot of people in the majority, who take respect for granted and haven’t had to face this kind of treatment, can understand it as easily.

But that’s no excuse for not listening when we speak our minds on it. It’s no excuse at all. When minority people say, “Stop mocking us,” you just stop, even if you don’t completely get it, even if you need to think on it, even if it’s inconvenient. You stop because you’re potentially hurting people, and the people you’re talking about know a great deal more than you do about what your words mean to their lives.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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Making a Mockery of Disability http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/10/21/making-a-mockery-of-disability/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/10/21/making-a-mockery-of-disability/#comments Sun, 21 Oct 2012 04:00:18 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=1081 My friend Karla Fisher is a Senior Program Engineering Manager at Intel, an autism educator, the General Manager of a professional sports team, the mother of two thriving adult children, and the owner of the excellent Facebook resource Karla’s ASD Page.

On October 17, Karla attended the Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome Conference in Eugene, Oregon. Karla had worked with the sponsors of the conference and, as a successful autistic woman, had written a piece for one of their books. She was especially excited about the prospect of attending the talk given by Tony Attwood.

I’m tempted to say that Karla was disappointed in Attwood’s talk, but disappointed doesn’t begin to cover it. In fact, what Karla saw and heard that evening was deeply offensive to her. Following is her narration of the events; the speaker she refers to is Tony Attwood.

The session began well with the speaker talking about ASD versus NT as a culture. I was happy to hear this opening. I also know that I had some influence on this perspective as I had given this to him privately in email and also through at least one of the clinicians that he works directly with. From there, however, the cultural perspective thing sort of went downhill. The speaker was dynamic, quick, fluid and exceedingly witty. Humor was his main way of reaching his audience and he delivered well judging by the audience who was laughing several times each minute. He was very good overall as a speaker. The problem was that he used humor about autistic people primarily and he spoke ONLY to the NTs in the audience despite the fact that he knew we were there.

An example of this is when he talked about how he knows when a Mother (or Father) of a child is autistic during the session where he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child. He said, “I have a good picture of how it looks when an NT Mother hears this message…” (and here he does NOT describe what that looks like but assumes that I will just know so I sit there with a blank picture) Then he goes on to say that he knows the parent is autistic when he sees the following… He stiffens his body up then and puts on his robot voice and he says, “Okay, so let me see if I got this. I need to see about OT, ABA, understand about sensory integration….etc…).” As he is going through this I am thinking to myself that YES, this is the good way to approach the information that there is a diagnosis. Facts will help the child and this person was seeking facts… But my thoughts are disrupted by an audience who is in full belly laughter at this person’s imitation of an ASD person. I found myself wondering what was so funny. Then I wondered if I said anything if it would not be turned around on me as not having humor. My heart grew heavy as I realized that these people were supposed to understand and accept me. That these are the people who are committed to making my life better.

Ironically, I was wearing the same black hoodie that I wore earlier in the week when I was interviewed and accepted into this key job at one of the largest high tech companies in the world. And yet the goodness of my new position and all the praise and accolades by my coworkers and friends was completely lost in the moment that the room burst into laughter when this professional speaker made fun of the “ASD uniform” (the one which I was clearly wearing).”

If I may summarize: Attwood was mocking autistic people at an event for parents and professionals who wanted to learn more about how to help autistic people. To put his statements in the proper context, Attwood knew that Karla was in attendance. In fact, he made specific reference during his talk to the fact that there were several autistic people in the room. He knew they were there. And yet he engaged in such mockery anyway.

I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh, Rachel. You’re overreacting. Mockery is much too strong a word. It was just good-natured fun.”

No. Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun. When you parody the speech and the body language of people who are considered social burdens, walking tragedies, and quasi-humans, it’s mockery, and it drove a tough 50-year-old woman who plays contact football to tears. You don’t do it no matter who you are or where you are — especially when you are making fun of people whom the world feels it perfectly acceptable to laugh at anyway. With your power, you put the imprimatur of respectability on such behavior. In this case, not only does Attwood have all the privilege that comes with being white neurotypical man; he also carries a great deal of authority in the world of autism. So when he makes fun of autistic people by grotesquing a stereotype, he sends the message that autistic people are here to be laughed at, to be mocked, and to be parodied simply for being who we cannot help but be.

By way of analogy, could you imagine what would happen if a well-known Protestant minister, in a public religious forum, satirized the difference between Christian prayer and Jewish prayer? What if such a minister gave as an example of Christian piety the Lord’s Prayer, delivered in a sober and restrained voice, and then, in contrast, put on a yarmulke, tzitzis, a fake beard, and sidecurls, and started rocking back and forth madly, mumbling incomprehensibly in a sing-song voice, in order to elicit raucous laughter from the congregation? He’d never hear the end of it. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith would be all over it. The network pundits would hold forth. Internet memes of every variety would appear. Someone would start a petition demanding an apology and his immediate resignation.

But none of that happens in the world of disability. Because the average person does not think that anything is wrong what-so-fucking-ever with making fun of disabled people. Because the average person thinks of disabled people as broken and therefore worthy of scorn. Because it’s still acceptable to laugh at physical and cognitive difference. Because disabled people are considered damaged goods ready for the trash heap, and anyone who thinks they’re worthy of reclamation and respect ends up having the same mockery cast upon them.

One of the most telling things about Karla’s description of Attwood’s performance was that he did not satirize what happens when non-autistic, neurotypical (NT) parents receive an autism diagnosis for their child. There is a stereotype of what happens, and since he was in the business of exploiting stereotypes for cheap laughs, he would have been free to exploit that stereotype as well. He could have parodied the NT autism parent as becoming hysterical, as believing the world was ending, as losing all hope. That’s the stereotype. But he didn’t. And do you know why he didn’t? Because the NT parents in that audience would have risen up in all their glory and shouted him down. And rightly so. No one wants to see their fear and pain for their disabled children mocked, even if they have journeyed past that fear and pain. People would have been irate, and some of them would have stomped out of the conference hall in protest.

And yet, somehow, it didn’t occur to him that the autistic people in attendance would feel the same way. He didn’t think about the fact that Karla Fisher would be sitting there in her favorite black hoodie, driven to tears.

But you know, this isn’t about Karla’s hurt feelings. It’s not about one person. It’s about her hurt being a signal that something in that room was very, very wrong — that the power relations were awry, and that the flow of empathy and respect were going in directions that favored some and mocked others. It wasn’t just about that room and it wasn’t just about Karla. It was about a world in which it is still acceptable to mock disabled people, in which it is still acceptable for people to laugh uproariously at it, and in which it is still acceptable for people to dismiss it by saying it’s just all in good fun and there was no harm meant.

Perhaps there was no harm meant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that harm was done. Harm is done by such behavior every single day — on school playgrounds, on television, in workplaces, in families, on buses, and in classrooms — for public amusement and for the infliction of private anguish. And when someone with authority engages in it, it only empowers people to go out and do it some more.

It’s not just autistic people who care about this. It’s disabled people. It’s the parents and friends of disabled people. It’s all of us.

This disrespect in the thin guise of humor has to stop — for the disabled people who are now here, and for the rest of humanity vulnerable to becoming disabled, through illness or injury, in the blink of an eye.

The fates may ordain that one day, Dr. Attwood, you are the person with a disability, struggling against the ignorance and prejudice of the world, and that you have to sit in a room and listen to someone mock your voice, your movements, your perspective, your pain, your struggle to speak. I hope you never have to go through that kind of disrespect. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But imagine how you would feel. Just imagine it. And then stop contributing to a world in which it happens.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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