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Autistics Speaking Day 2012: Reclaiming Voice

by Ari Ne’eman

Holidays are funny things – they come around once a year, and remind us of feelings and ideas that we shouldn’t have ever let ourselves forget. Whether it’s Thanksgiving gratitude or July 4th patriotism, we turn to holidays not because the day itself matters, but because it gives us a chance to relocate something important that we should’ve never let escape from our day to day existence. Holidays shouldn’t be necessary; we should be able to realize the importance of these sentiments all the year-round. But of course, they are and we don’t. That’s why holidays matter to us.

Autistics Speaking Day is not an old holiday, but already it is becoming an important one for the Autistic community. We are moving past the old days, when to be Autistic was to be a silent beneficiary of the charity and goodwill of others. We speak up often now, challenging media that demeans us, conferences that exclude us and organizations that dehumanize us on a regular basis. In the last half-decade, we have witnessed an awakening of our community.

And yet, even amidst this positive change, we don’t often take time to sit and think about the value of voice itself. Our movement is constantly about the business of responding to the many and terrible things being done to Autistic people and other brethren in the broader disability community at any given moment. This is as it should be – if the neurodiversity movement is anything, it is a way of defending ourselves against the horrors that pervade almost every aspect of the status quo in the autism community. But if we are going to do more than just defend ourselves, if we are going to find a way to thrive rather than just survive, more is necessary. We reclaim our voices not just so we can fight back against what is being done to us. We do so in order to take our rightful places as equal members of a society. We do so in order to establish and advance the idea that we are not objects of charity; we are citizens, endowed with the right not just to live in the world, but to help shape it.

I remember being at a lecture a few years ago on building employment opportunities for Autistic adults. At the end of the lecture, a parent volunteer stood up and announced, “We’re convening a workgroup to discuss how we can follow up on this for our kids here in Maryland. Anyone who wants to participate – parents, teachers, employers, providers, social workers…anyone who has an interest in the transition to adulthood, feel free to volunteer!”

Obviously, there was an important stakeholder missing from that list: Autistic people ourselves. There are immediate and practical consequences of that exclusion, of course. When people discuss disability services without disabled people, obsolete and segregated infrastructure is a frequent result. No better example of this exists than the over a quarter million Americans with disabilities being paid less than minimum wage in sheltered workshops across the country. But even if we could believe that our family and professional allies could do it all by themselves – that the policy and practice outcomes of a process that excludes the people it is designed to benefit would be unobjectionable – we would still be left with a profound and lasting problem. When society does for us without us, it sends a message about how we are seen as human beings and as citizens. That message is not a positive one.

Throughout human history, there has never been a group that has found success and liberation through meekly accepting what was offered to them by others. We won’t either. If we are going to see a better future for ourselves and all disabled people across the world, we cannot simply wait for others to speak on our behalf and hope they say what we would say ourselves, if given the chance. We cannot simply believe that a day will come when those who champion our cause decide to wish for us what we ourselves do desire. We can only succeed by being our own voice. By building our own power. With our allies, yes – but first and foremost with each other, we can build a better world.

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