ETA: SF Signal has removed the post and posted an apology.
ETA2: Casil has also posted an apology on her website.
I’ve really appreciated the Special Needs in Strange Worlds column at SF Signal, but the most recent entry bugged me a lot.
“We Are All Disabled,” by Amy Sterling Casil, strikes the wrong note for me right from the title. Because in neither the commonly-used nor the legal sense of the word are we all disabled.
I struggled a lot five years ago when we were meeting with the school about my son’s IEP, which included a goal of having him participate in activities with “non-disabled peers.” It felt like a punch to the gut. Through the gut, even. On the other hand, there are day-to-day tasks my son struggles with as a result of his autism. There are things his peers can do that he’s not yet able to. Some of those challenges are because our world and culture are set up for neurotypical people. But formally recognizing his struggles and challenges was the first step to helping him learn to overcome them. My son would not be getting the support he needs if the school system simply took the approach that we’re all disabled.
Everyone has limits and flaws, yes. That doesn’t mean everyone is disabled. Claiming otherwise dilutes both the terminology and our efforts to make the world more accessible to those with disabilities. Who needs accessibility policies if we’re all disabled?
Casil describes herself as empathetic, saying this is “a severe, lifelong disability that could have cost my life on several occasions.” I’m not familiar with the idea of being empathetic as a disability, so I’m hesitant to say too much until I’ve learned more. She says she sees more, and that being empathetic is like having “opposite of autism.” She goes on to talk about an encounter at a convention, where a member of the audience came up to ask her a question after a panel:
“Do you think they’ll come up with a cure for autism?” he asked.
“It’s possible,” I said. “A lot more likely than for something like Down Syndrome even though there is no single cause for autism.”
My son Anthony was born with Down Syndrome. This young chap would never know that, nor would he care if he knew.
I hope my son never feels this way. I think he’ll be able to be a wonderful father, if that’s what he wants. But it’s that last sentence that really made me stumble.
“Nor would he care if he knew.”
Why not? Because autistic people lack empathy?
Autism is not the lack of empathy. I’ve watched my son cry over other people’s pain, both in real life and in fiction. I’ve read and spoken to other people with autism who clearly demonstrate empathy and caring. Why would you assume someone with autism wouldn’t care about your son’s condition?
Empathetic is not the opposite of autism. The myth that autistic people lack empathy or emotion is not only untrue, it’s actively harmful.
The young man wouldn’t meet my eye. He said, “My wife and I both have autism. We want to have children but we don’t want them to have it.” Uncharacteristically for someone with autism, he touched my arm. He was so very frightened!
“There’s a reason God made autism,” I said. I had already come to believe this was true.
First of all, not all people with autism are averse to physical contact.
And while I don’t want to argue with anyone’s personal belief, as someone with diabetes and depression, please don’t ever try to tell me there’s a reason God gave me these conditions. It’s not helpful to me.
Obviously, autism is something that’s both personal and important to me. The way it’s referenced and described in this piece feels ignorant. Not deliberately so — I believe Casil has the best and noblest of intentions. But I wish it had been written with a better understanding and awareness of autism.
Later, Casil returns to the premise of the title, saying:
How can I possibly say we are all cripples? Compared to the reality of – not the universe – just our own planet and the interconnectedness that is life on Earth, the perceptions of even the fittest human are as limited as a blind albino cave salamander … When a physically able person sees someone in a wheelchair and feels “sorry” for them, they should consider the different perceptions that wheelchair enables them to have. They see and hear things those who stand and walk do not. They get to live a different life. Different, not less.
My wife has had so many knee surgeries I’ve lost count. She also has a degenerative spinal condition. Some of the different perceptions and experiences she gets to have are staying inside because she can’t take our dog for a walk in the winter anymore. Taking a ridiculous number of pills each day to help her function. Never getting a decent night’s sleep, due to chronic pain. Knowing that even something as simple as moving a coffee table to vacuum could put her in the emergency room.
Her disabilities are not a thing to be pitied, but they’re damn well not a blessing. Nor are the challenges she faces in any way equivalent to what a non-disabled person goes through in an average day.
I think I get some of what Casil was trying to say. I know and like her, and I’m not trying to attack her. I agree that pity isn’t a terribly helpful or productive response to someone in a wheelchair, and that we shouldn’t see people with disabilities as “lesser.” Likewise, empathy and understanding are important. Acknowledging and respecting other people’s feelings and experiences is important, and we desperately need to do better.
Unfortunately, by misrepresenting autism and trying to generalize everyone as “disabled,” I think this essay fails to recognize or respect people’s different experiences. Instead, it feels more like the essay erases many people with disabilities, as well as their challenges and needs.
And by arguing that we’re all disabled, I think it undermines the spirit and purpose of Special Needs in Strange Worlds.