In many ways we have come a long way when it comes to eradicating disability discrimination – the Paralympic Games 2012 demonstrates that. But, still today there is not only discrimination through accessibility issues, but also direct, ignorant and destructive discrimination. Is the language we use and the labels we place on people to blame? Meghan Hussey explores…
Let me tell you a story, one that might shock you, or might be common place. Recently, it was reported that an anonymous neighbour in Canada slipped a letter under the door of the home of a young man with severe autism. The neighbour described herself as a “pissed off mother!!!!!” whose grievance was the noise that the young man makes when he ‘selfishly’ takes him outside. Apparently, it “scares the hell out of normal children.”
The response to the letter on social media has galvanized the autism advocacy community. Family members of people with severe autism, such as myself, sadly are all too accustomed to stares, rude comments, and ignorance.
The neighbour’s call for the family to either move or euthanise the child is an expression of hate that calls for a deeper understanding of the historical legacy of oppression that people with disabilities, such as autism, have faced.
The Eugenics Movement in the United States and Europe in the early 20th century was full of people calling for racial purity and advocated euthanasia. They saw people with disabilities as defective stains on humanity; an hindrance to their goal of human perfection.
Many people forget that people with disabilities were among the first victims of the Holocaust in Germany. Thousands of children and adults with disabilities in Germany were either killed after being deemed “life unworthy of life” or subjected to horrific experiments for the supposed betterment of mankind.
When they were not being killed for their differences, people with disabilities were being locked in institutions away from the mainstream population. These were often understaffed, unsanitary, and unmonitored. Children were written off as useless and never received education, therapy services, or in some cases even real human contact. Abuse scandals were widespread, such as the case of Willowbrook State School in New York for children with mental disabilities, where appalling conditions and questionable medical practices lead the institution to finally being shut down.
How did this happen and why does the hate continue? After hearing about what happened in Canada, many have taken this opportunity to share our stories with the goal of hopefully raising awareness and understanding. I advocate for disability rights because I believe in human rights. Unfortunately, people with developmental disabilities are still fighting to be seen as human.
At the root of many cases of discrimination, hate crimes, and even full-blown genocide is the dehumanizing of the people, turning someone into an ‘it’. The Jews in Europe were called rats, the Tutsis in Rwanda were called cockroaches. In this case, the neighbour views the boy with autism as a wild animal, which is not something you let loose in a residential neighbourhood. Society keeps animals in the wild or in cages away from people and if they get dangerous they put them down.
Today, there are still people like philosopher Peter Singer, saying that those with severe intellectual disabilities do not deserve rights any more than animals, since some other species have supposedly higher levels of intelligence than they do.
Dehumanizing language is still used against people with disabilities, such as autism. I grew up routinely cringing as even good friends of mine casually threw around the word ‘retard’ in incredibly derogatory ways, something celebrities continue to do. I have seen children with autism in some school districts of the US still totally segregated from their ‘normal’ peers, regardless of their intelligence or behaviour. In most countries, especially in the developing world, children with disabilities do not go to school at all, have no access to therapy or services, and face social stigma that can even cause them to be abandoned or killed.
There is a lot more here than just raising awareness about what autism and other disabilities are. But what we also need is a shift in the way we view people with disabilities, which is to view them as equal human beings. My sister has autism, used to be completely non-verbal, and has an IQ in the intellectually disabled range. If she had a public meltdown when we were growing up from anxiety, sensory over stimulation, or frustration at her inability to communicate, my mother’s attitude helped me deal with the negative reactions we often received. The mantra in our family was “different is not less”. I am not somehow more human than my sister.
The letter sent in Canada seems extreme in this day and age, but, it was not so long ago that calls for euthanasia were acted on. In order to move away from the shameful legacies of the past, society has to start looking at the humanity of people with disabilities. They are not a collection of defects to be ‘dealt with,’ they are human beings that are meant to be loved. Expand the services and research that help them to reach their own unique potential. Open up opportunities for them to be included as the members of our community they are. In expanding our empathy and learning from our family members and neighbours with autism and other disabilities, surely we can all become more human.
By Meghan Hussey
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