Monday, July 13, 2009

Definitely not autism advocacy: Accomplishments, capabilities, and rights

As an advocate for the rights of physically and mentally disabled people, I am acutely aware of how many people in our society consider the disabled to be childlike, helpless, hopeless, nonfunctioning and noncontributing members of society.
This opens a NYT opinion piece written by Evan Kemp. While Mr Kemp raises concerns about a specific fundraising event, his statements have much broader relevance.

For instance, Mr Kemp writes of the great harm that ensues when disabled children are denied the possibility of learning from successful disabled adults. The autism advocacy signature argument that disabled adults with achievements cannot really be disabled is not directly mentioned. But this is just another way to deny that successful disabled adults exist and it carries the same consequences.

Mr Kemp also notes how portraying disability as "overwhelmingly destructive" results in fear of disabled people and our consequent segregation from society. Then there is the issue of research priorities, some of which have the effect of supporting:

the damaging and common prejudice that handicapped people are "sick." As sick people, it follows that we should allow others to take care of all our needs until a cure is found.
Throughout his piece, Mr Kemp emphasizes that regarding disabled people as frightening and pathetic infantilizes us and leads us towards segregation, hopelessness, and dependence, to the great detriment of ourselves and others. Mr Kemp concludes with many recommendations, including:

Problems of economic waste, demoralization and segregation can be solved only when disabled people are depicted in the light of our very real accomplishments, capabilities and rights.
Mr Kemp's opinion piece was published almost three decades ago, in 1981. You can find it here. Autism advocacy continues to run in the opposite direction, rejecting and rolling back what we have learned about disability and human rights, going backwards in time to before Mr Kemp ever said a word.

Evan J. Kemp Jr. died in 1997. You can read his obituary here.