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Culture and Consciousness

  • Posted on November 10, 2014 at 11:21 AM

Clearly, it’s taking me longer to recover than one might think. I’m feeling much better than I have been, but if you could hear my voice you’d know first thing that I am still sick. I am still congested and still coughing quite a lot, though no longer so much and so deeply that my sides ache. What’s more obvious than that is that my voice is still recovering from a bout with laryngitis. Still, I have been “off” too long and I’m doing my best to get back to being productive. As I am starting to get back to work, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the thoughts that have been with me these past several weeks.

I’ve wanted to read James Charlton’s “Nothing About Us Without Us” for a while now, and I finally got my own copy. Currently, I’m reading five books at a time—each book covering a different subject. (This count does not include textbooks.) Don’t be too impressed, because I’m reading them all very slowly, because I’m not just reading them, I’m also reflecting upon their contents and studying them as deeply as I can. I like the eclectic nature of it, even if it means my progress is slower than it might otherwise be, because I come away with a much deeper understanding than a cursory reading would provide. Besides, sometimes the things I read from these different books click together in unexpected ways.

I hope you read my confession, because this is directly related to that post. Something that Charlton wrote on page 27 helped trigger the realization I describe in that post:

“Most people with disabilities actually come to believe that they are less normal, less capable than others. Self-pity, self-hate, shame, and other manifestations of this process are devastating for they prevent people with disabilities from knowing their real selves, their real needs, and their real capabilities and from recognizing the options they in fact have. False consciousness and alienation also obscure the source of their oppression.”

Charlton goes on to explore the meaning of consciousness, culminating (on page 29) in this:

“The point is that consciousness cannot be separated from the real world, from politics and culture. There is an important relationship between being and consciousness. Social being informs consciousness and consciousness informs being. There is mutual interplay. Consciousness is not a container that ideas and experiences are poured into. Consciousness is a process of awareness that is influenced by social conditions, chance, and innate cognition.”

I live in a culture that systemically devalues people with disabilities. I live in a caretaker culture, in which our government is expected to take care of people with a variety of disadvantages in a variety of ways that further reinforces the notion that they cannot take care of themselves. This culture is being reinforced through my “human resource management” studies, which consistently uses ablist language and caretaker ideas while purporting to support diversity.

It’s left me feeling like I’m getting it from all sides. On the one hand, I firmly believe that the “safety net” the U.S. and other “developed” nations provide is necessary and beneficial to society. Furthermore, I believe the “safety net” should be stronger than it is in the U.S. Simply put, some people fall through no (or little) fault of their own and these people “deserve” to be caught in the net. Other people fall due to their own failings and vices and, though they seem less “deserving,” it is still in the best interests of our society that these people are caught in the net. Finally, there are people who are “pushed” by our society, who have few natural chances to succeed, and need to be caught be the net. Unfortunately, the fact is that this “safety net” we’ve created often fails to catch people. But the true social crime is that we have inadequate means of helping people out of the net and back up into “regular” society.

On the other hand, I reject the paternalistic, caretaker attitude out society projects towards people who get caught by the net. (Note that these condescending attitudes are even stronger to those we’ve failed to catch in the net.) The underlying prejudice is that the people who provide the net are “better than” those who get caught in the net. Many of the existing mechanisms that are put into place to help people out of the net (or to make sure they don’t have to rely on the net at all) are just as paternalistic and condescending as the net itself, including affirmative action and the many other mechanisms that “promote diversity.” The idea here is that these people shouldn’t be treated differently; to ensure that they aren’t treated differently (because we know that they really are treated differently) we help them out of the net using “progressive” initiatives (because we know that they cannot succeed on their own). The whole system is a subtle, but powerful reinforcement of the underlying belief that the people our society casts off really are “less than” those that society embraces.

This is one of the reasons why I just can’t support Democrats. The language they use and the policies they so often create are just so patronizing that their underlying belief in inequality seems blatant to me and it’s offensive. But it’s also one of the reasons why I just can’t support Republicans, either. They’re less patronizing, but they’re also less apt to care enough to create the policies and programs that can actually help people. It’s frustrating, because neither the “safety net” nor the “hands up” need be patronizing or paternalistic. That attitude is not necessary, but it is beneficial if you’re more interested in maintaining a voter base than you are in actually helping people. The more people who are dependent on Democrats’ initiatives for basic survival the more people are likely to vote for them. And our bureaucracy often expresses both the political interests and the patronizing attitudes inherent in the system, when they’re not reinforcing them outright.

So, I’ve been struggling with my own limitations for over a month now. Not only have I been stressed beyond what I can bear, not only have I made myself quite literally ill (thrice over now), but I’ve also been imbibing this ablist garbage, while also reading two books (Charlton’s and a book about revising government) that help me to better envision how things could be. I’ve come away from this mess—rather I’m trying to climb out of this mess—feeling very weak indeed. Physically, I am weakened. More than that, I’m demoralized, because I’ve learned that I am not immune to this culture that I live in. I internalize it. When I’m strong enough, I reject it. Mentally, I reject it outright. But emotionally, when my filters and defenses are shredded, I internalize it and it sticks with me. I spew it back out in the form of self-talk that makes it harder to stand back up and get back to work. Then, I have to go back and clean the garbage out of my system by analyzing it, weighing its merits, and then discarding it once I realize (again) that it really doesn’t have any. Before all of this, I was arrogant enough to think I was immune to this garbage, because I was conscious of it. I know it is garbage, so why would I be susceptible to it! But it doesn’t work that way. Intellectually, perhaps I am immune, but how I feel is something entirely different. Sadly, I hear it, I feel it, and it hurts. When it gets its slimy tentacles tangled up inside me, it hurts more than I can bear.

The Employment Conundrum

  • Posted on June 12, 2013 at 10:00 AM

If you’re paying attention to the world of employment, then you might think the tide against homogenous thinking is turning. Maybe it is.

“The multinationals [SAP & Freddie Mac] both say they hope to harness the unique talents of autistic people as well as giving people previously marginalized in the workforce a chance to flourish in a job.” -- Fox News

For those of us who have people with autism in our lives, this may be seen as an opportunity. If you’re an adult with autism, there are people out there who value your unique qualities as employable assets. If you’re the parent of a child with autism, your child might have an employable future. This should be seen as good news, right?

I’ve read a variety of articles that communicate a changing trend. I’ve seen universities, employers, and other organizations all expressing their perception of the value of people with autism. As a neurodiversity advocate, this seems very much like what I’ve been working for, hoping for, fighting for. But then I remember that what I really want is a chance for my children, and everyone like them, to be valued for who they are.

You see, there’s a problem with all of this. I feel it like a shadow creeping up behind me. I feel it like slimy fingers along my spine. I feel it like the brush of coarse fabric against my skin.

Is valuing someone because they are autistic any better than NOT valuing someone because they’re autistic? Either way, it’s judging someone’s value based on a preconceived notion of who that person is and what they can or should be able to do. In other words, it’s prejudice.

I get the same creepy crawly feeling when I hear affirmative action expressed as a good thing. I’m sorry, but how is judging someone favorably for their race any less an act of racial prejudice, especially when it means judging someone else unfavorably for their race?

On the one hand, if we do nothing, then people with autism will still be marginalized. On the other hand, if we convince people in power that people with autism have a peculiar set of traits that can add value to their workforce, then…people with autism will still be marginalized, but at least some of them will be employed.

Practically speaking, I recognize that there is a real-world trade-off going on here. I recognize that, as abhorrent as the practice may seem to me, affirmative action serves a purpose. I recognize that marginalized but employed is better than marginalized and unemployed.

But, aside from these practical realities, the truth is this doesn’t change anything. The real problem isn’t simply that people with autism are unemployed or that people who are not white are less favorably employed than people who are white. These very real, life-altering hardships are symptoms, both of them, of a much bigger cultural disease.

Prejudice is alive and well in our cultures. Prejudice has a deep, lasting, traumatic, and obviously negative impact on the lives of real people. The cure to this cultural disease, the cure to prejudice, is not to tweak prejudice to be more favorable. The cure to this cultural disease is for everyone within the culture to open their eyes and see a fellow human being—not a white male or a black female or a black male autistic or whatever other boxes you might put a person in.

I don’t care what your skin color is, what your diagnosis is, or whether you have a diagnosis. You have value. You have something you can contribute to society. You have a reasonable expectation to earn a living contributing in some fashion to society. When applying for a job, you should be judged solely on whether or not you can do the job that needs to be done.

Granted, in certain cases, designing jobs that meet organizational needs and yet accommodate for existing weaknesses is a very good thing. I’m all for it. Until you stick a label on it. As soon as you designate that job to a certain label, you dehumanize the people who can do the job with the accommodations in place. The fact is there are people who are similar to people with autism who do not qualify for or do not have access to an autism diagnosis. Some of them have other diagnoses. Some of them have none. Can they do the job? Can they benefit from the accommodations? Does a label really matter? The fact is that the label only matters in a world where prejudice reigns.

The True Meaning of Diversity

  • Posted on February 20, 2010 at 3:18 AM

“The true meaning of valuing diversity is to respect and enjoy a wide range of cultural and individual differences, thereby including everybody,” (The Fundamentals of Organizational Behavior, 4th ed., by Andrew J. DuBrin, 2007, pg. 381).

Diversity goes beyond recognizing that we are different in measurable ways.  Diversity goes beyond tolerance.  Diversity goes beyond offering assistance to excluded individuals.  Diversity is about inclusion.

In some sense, I have ignored those diagnosed with Asperger’s who object to being lumped into the same diagnostic category as my children.  Their words, their behavior—it’s beneath my contempt, it makes me angry, and it’s so hypocritical, so absurd that it really doesn’t warrant a response.  Except it does, because there are those who claim their words represent neurodiversity.  It got that response from people much more influential than I.

This post is not about them, though the words I write could apply.  This about what I consider the fundamentals of neurodiversity to be.

Consider the difference between cultural diversity and affirmative action.  Both seek to include people with different racial, ethnic, and national profiles in the workplace.  One does so by focusing on differences and disadvantages.  The other focuses on similarities and strengths.  One assumes that those who weren’t born white Americans need help getting a job.  The other assumes that everyone needs opportunities and can add value to a firm.

Neurodiversity is to cultural diversity what empowerment is to affirmative actionNeurodiversity and empowerment parallel each other in many respects; but, they are not synonyms, they are not the same.  Both have their place, but they are not the same.

Neurodiversity is not about services, accommodations, treatment methods, or any of the issues that are often in the forefront of our dialogues.  People who believe in neurodiversity do not share the same opinion about all of these things.  Those issues are not the essence of neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is about two things:

1) People are naturally and normally neurologically different.  Some of these natural, normal differences are labeled “abnormal,” “disorders,” “syndromes,” or other value-laden labels that interferes with our ability to understand the different subsets of human neurology.

2) Human beings are valuable, in all their diversity, in and of themselves.

This means:

1) You cannot claim to value diversity and claim to be superior.  Those two statements cannot be combined without the use of a logical fallacy.  It would not, however, invalidate a claim to value diversity if you are struggling with feelings of superiority.

2) You can claim to value diversity and yet desire assistance, accommodations, and/or medical treatments.  The use of assistance, accommodation, and/or medical treatments does not invalidate a claim of valuing diversity.

3) You cannot claim to value diversity and claim to be inferior.  Those two statements cannot be combined without the use of a logical fallacy.  It would not, however, invalidate a claim to value diversity if you are struggling with feelings of inferiority.

4) You can claim to value diversity and dislike specific people because of the things they say or do that are within their control.  For example, you can dislike someone who bullies you and still value diversity.

5) You cannot claim to value diversity and dislike individuals or groups based on traits beyond their control.  For example, you cannot dislike someone who embarrasses you by having a seizure in public and still value diversity.

6) You can support the research of human differences and still value diversity.  For example, you can support the research into the various causes of autism and still support neurodiversity.

7) You cannot support the forced eradication of a group based on an undesirable trait and still value diversity.  For example, you cannot support diversity and research a way to identify and eliminate autistic fetuses.

8) You can advocate techniques that minimize or “un-does” challenges and still value diversity.  For example, a person can support the inclusion of individuals with spinal cord injuries and support researching ways to correct damage to their spinal cords.  A person can also support the inclusion of individuals who cannot talk and support researching ways to give them access to speech.

9) You cannot advocate the “cure” of a diverse group and still value diversity.  For example, you cannot support racial diversity and try to cure “blackness.”  Neither can you support neurodiversity and try to cure autism or bi-polar or any other neurological subtype.

Neurodiversity is about recognizing that the human race has natural neurological variations, accepting the individuals with all those variations, and including them in society.  It is about giving people the power and the opportunity to achieve their own individual potential, not quantifying that potential and dismissing those who do not “measure up” from consideration.  A belief in neurodiversity does not preclude the experience of disability.  A belief in neurodiversity does not preclude the desire to overcome the experience of disability, either temporarily or permanently.  A belief in neurodiversity doesn’t even preclude a belief that the government has no business extending entitlements or “special rights” to disadvantaged groups.  A belief in neurodiversity does, however, preclude the belief that you are in any way superior to another on the basis of things beyond your or their control.  Being smarter doesn’t make you better.  Being more socially adaptable doesn’t make you better.  Being more emotionally stable doesn’t make you better.  If you want to feel “better,” then use your abilities (whatever they are) to help others.  Not only will you really feel better, but it’ll be a better feeling than any false sense of superiority could ever give you.