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.


Anemone said...

Michelle, that's a great article. Thank you for linking to it, and kudos to the newspaper for having it on their website.

It's terrible that it's still so current, though. Is there any hope that at least some disabled groups can see it as history?

Mandy Thoo said...

Hi Dr. Michelle Dawson,

I'm sorry that this comment is not related to this specific post, but to "Where are the autism researcher bloggers?" as written by you on January. I'd like to request for an interview with you for my research which is related to that post.

I'm a masters student at the Australian National University and my research aims to promote the effective usage of blogs about Autism in communicating Autism knowledge with an audience.

As you are one of the (rare) high profile bloggers who is also a researcher, I would love to get your insight of your blogging activities. This research isn't on Autism per se, but on blogging.

I hope that you are interested in participating. If you'd like more information please drop me an email at


Michelle Dawson said...

Thanks to Mandy Thoo for your request, I will do my best to get back to you.

But in case anyone gets the wrong idea, I'm not a "Dr." and have never attended university as a student (something on the public record many times over).

Also, I am very distant from being "high profile" among autism bloggers. In fact I struggle with blogging at all (see terribly sporadic posting record...), though am working to improve things as best I can. Maybe I'll get the hang of it.

Ari Ne'eman said...

Evan Kemp was a great man and his writing as well as those of others, like Justin Dart and Harriet McBryde Johnson, show why "autism advocacy" has a lot to learn from the cross-disability rights movement.

not a gator said...

Wow. You've exactly expressed the conclusion I've come to after the last few years of autism hysteria. These crazy self-martyred "autism parents" are the same parents who had their "mentally retarded" child shipped off to an institution.

So we substitute diagnosis--not for political reasons but because diagnosis/understanding has evolved--and all of a sudden all the work to mainstream the disabled goes out the window? Amazing.

Catbalou said...

Thank you for this blog. I learn a lot here and the "real" references are refreshing.

I lived in WA DC when the Deaf students at Gallaudet University kicked out the hearing does seem like we are going backwards.