Thanks are due to Kristina Chew for inspiring today’s post.  Over at her blog We Go With Him, Kristina shares her response to a post by the blogger Smockity Frocks about the terrible horrible no-good very bad behavior of an obviously autistic child who was waiting to use a computer at a public library.  There’s a fair amount of discussion about the post itself and its bloggy aftermath here.

Kristina’s post and the responses in the comments thread, however, led me to stick my long, poky, crip-power-disability-advocate nose into the business, and talk for a while about why I think “awareness” is, quite frankly, damn near worthless without the willingness to confront the ableism that awareness itself can inspire.

Here’s what I left on the comments thread:

I was able to google up a cached version of Smockity’s blog, and I’m sorry Kristina–I really don’t think this is a person who will be helped much by all the “awareness” in the world. Honestly, when Smockity only thought the child was spoiled, her response was within the realm of the frustrated-but-amused; when she was forced to confront the idea that the child might be autistic, her entire attitude underwent a change to semi-revolted sneering.

While it might be tempting to characterize ableism as a matter of ignorance, or as the inadvertent stigmatizing that occurs through the well-meaning attempts at “compassion” by the unaware, the fact is that for many, disability and difference (particularly neurodivergence) can provoke something very close to genuine hatred. Until we can accept this, and until ableism is called out for what it is and not simply termed a lack of “awareness,” it will never be possible to truly approach the heart of the problem.

Smockity’s response to the comments which attempted (with remarkable diplomacy) to assist her in developing “awareness” was a perfect exhibit of this sort of ableism. From her immediate medicalizing of the suggestion of the autism spectrum (“well, I don’t know her medical diagnosis!”), to her continued use of scare quotes around the term disability, to the subtle intimation that autism or no, the child she observed (and by extension the autistic children of the commenters and for that matter any other autistic child) was more the product of poor parenting than anything else, and the unstated but ever-present sense in all of her replies that she didn’t quite believe in this autism thing anyway, her tone never varied. Nothing in the (frankly, far sweeter than deserved) comments attempting to raise smockity’s “awareness” were able to penetrate that ableism.

The community of special-needs parents and the community of disability advocates are too often separate, and in many ways do not even speak each ther’s language. The special-needs parent wants to believe that if the observer knew of her child’s unique situation (“she has asperger’s” or “he has Tourette’s”), they would welcome her child with love and understanding, or at least benign neutrality. The disability advocate has often spent a lifetime forced to raise “awareness” of his or her condition (often whether or not the advocate would choose to: a certain amount of explanation is demanded in exchange for even the most minor of disability accommodation), and knows all too well that with awareness of disability comes the relegation of the disabled person to the status of “one of them”–and where the ableist is concerned, “they” inspire revulsion, fear and often hatred.

If the special-needs parenting community is unwilling to accept these realities as its own, the crusade to spread “awareness” will be at best a plea for charity (“please have pity on us, my child simply can’t help it!”) and at worst will place parent and child squarely in the crosshairs of an ableism with which they are unequipped to contend. The tools of the advocate–which include an unflinching willingness to identify bigotry and ableism for what they are, and the willingness to grapple with the anger and grief of such a realization–are a necessary part of arsenal of the parent who hopes (and fights) for full inclusion.


What do you think?

(A later note:  I do want to point out that, as a divinity school student, my favorite part of the story is that while this lady sneered at a small child, she was unable to do much more about it [like, say, offer help] because she was busy reading her Bible.  Because every post that references Kristina must contain this word, I’d like to say that that part of the story is particularly awesome.)