This morning, Talking Points Memo published an article featuring quotes from Albert Watkins, an attorney representing Jacob Chansley. Chansley was a prominent participant in the invasion of the Capitol building on January 6th, 2021, which was intended to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Mr. Watkins has argued to the press that Chansley has “Asperger’s syndrome,” and went on to use deeply offensive language to characterize the rioters overall as having intellectual and developmental disabilities, saying to Talking Points Memo, “A lot of these defendants — and I’m going to use this colloquial term, perhaps disrespectfully — but they’re all f—ing short-bus people. These are people with brain damage, they’re f—ing ret—ed, they’re on the goddamn spectrum.”
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is appalled by this statement.
To begin with, Mr. Watkins spoke about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a deeply prejudiced and harmful way. This, as Mr. Watkins pointed out, was disrespectful. More fundamentally, as ASAN has pointed out on many occasions, autism and other developmental disabilities do not cause white supremacist ideas, and they do not cause violence. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are human beings with the agency to form our own beliefs, including abhorrent ones. People with disabilities also can make bad choices that cause harm. It is entirely possible that there were autistic people, and/or people with other intellectual and developmental disabilities, in the group that stormed the Capitol in January. But when a white autistic person commits acts of racist violence, that person’s racism, not their autism, is the cause.
Arguing that autism leads to violent acts further stigmatizes autism and leads to discrimination against autistic people — especially autistic people of color, who are more likely to be profiled as “threatening” due to racism and ableism and who face high rates of police violence, incarceration, and restraint and seclusion in schools. Scapegoating our community for the choices of white supremacists diverts public attention from confronting the role of racism in our society, and the role of white supremacy in the January 6th riot.
Mr. Watkins’ idea of a movement made up of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities apparently looks like the January 6th rioters. This is ignorant, hateful, and untrue. The self-advocacy movement has been led by people with intellectual disabilities — people Mr. Watkins denigrates as “short-bus people” and “ret—ed” — since its inception in the 1960s. The self-advocacy movement has been a powerful force for change, fighting for deinstitutionalization, self-determination, civic participation, and a better public perception of people with intellectual disabilities. That has included working to end the use of the r-word, and other slurs, to refer to people with intellectual disabilities. Mr. Watkins would do well to learn about the self-advocacy movement, its aims, and its long history of leadership of people of color.
As the trials of the rioters continue, it is likely that we will see more of this kind of bigoted argument, made in an attempt to protect white supremacists from the consequences of their actions. We must continue to speak the truth: that autism and intellectual disability neither cause nor justify white supremacist violence. We must continue to uplift the leadership of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially those of color. And we must keep our focus on ending the white supremacy that drives so much of what happens in the United States. The January 6th riot, while deeply horrifying, was not unique. It was part of a long legacy of white supremacy in our country, including systematic attempts to disenfranchise Black voters, police violence and mass incarceration disproportionately targeting communities of color, and countless other examples that must be confronted. ASAN will not allow our community to be used as a scapegoat to divert from this important work.
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The Autistic Self Advocacy Network seeks to advance the principles of the disability rights movement with regard to autism. ASAN believes that the goal of autism advocacy should be a world in which autistic people enjoy equal access, rights, and opportunities. We work to empower autistic people across the world to take control of our own lives and the future of our common community, and seek to organize the autistic community to ensure our voices are heard in the national conversation about us. Nothing About Us, Without Us!