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Sara Luterman’s Speech for ASAN Gala 2019

I was elated, but also a little shocked when I was told I’d received the Harriet McBryde Johnson Award from ASAN. It’s hard to think of myself as being in the same league as previous winners like Dylan Matthews, Eric Garcia, and DJ Savarese. 

I don’t just care about the Harriet McBryde Johnson Award because I’ve won it, or because people I admire have won it. If that was all it was, then the award would just be nothing more than a fairly elaborate paperweight with my name printed on it. I care about the Harriet McBryde Johnson award because it acknowledges an important truth about disability advocacy, particularly autism advocacy: The stories we tell matter. A vital part of achieving human rights for autistic people is making non-autistic people see us as human. And we do that with stories. Those stories can be told in writing, like I like to tell them, but they can also be told by living openly in the world. By being proud of who you are. Not just proud of the easy parts to love, like talents or passions. But being proud of the hard stuff too.

The poet Dave Smith, who I had the good fortune to learn from before he passed earlier this year, had three rules for writing: What does it mean, what does it really mean? And why the heck should I care? Although he didn’t say heck. It’s something I think about whenever I write for an audience. And it’s something I thought about when I considered about why it’s important for a civil rights advocacy group to give an award for non-policy work at all.

What does this award mean?

There are talented autistic writers that deserve recognition for our work. Our community sees us and our value.

What does it really mean?

Growing autistic voices beyond the community, to speak to everyone, changes how other people see us. When we tell our own stories the way we want to tell them to the world, when we take control of our own narratives, we change what people talk about when they talk about autism.

Why the heck should I care? Or why the heck should you care?

Writing isn’t policy work, but it’s a kind of advocacy. It doesn’t change laws, but it changes minds. And sometimes, changing minds can make changing laws a little easier. Or at least I hope that’s the case. Otherwise I’m sort of wasting my life, aren’t I?

So I want to thank the Autistic Self Advocacy Network for awarding me the Harriet McBryde Johnson Award for Nonfiction and for having a Harriet McBryde Johnson Award for nonfiction in the first place. It means a lot.

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