Creating Autistic Suffering: Ableism and discrimination

This article was co-authored between David Gray-Hammond and Tanya Adkin

Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion and examples of ableism and discrimination against Autistic and disabled people. Mentions the R-Slur.

When you’re first confronted with the word “ableism”, it seems a bit abstract and unreal. This is because it is so ingrained into our society and psyche that it has become a normalised and accepted part of every day life. Regardless of your position and privilege (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, for countless disabled people, ableism represents a very real threat to not only their daily lives, but their right to exist. It massively contributes to poor self-worth and self-esteem, even ones own understanding of self, which for Autistic people (who may already be coming at it from a disadvantaged position) is exceptionally dangerous.

We can’t talk about ableism without talking about masking. It could be argued that masking occurs primarily because of ableism, in fact, it seems to be the rather obvious conclusion. We know that masking is a response to Autistic people not feeling safe to express their true selves. Why is that? Surely, if there were no ableist attitudes towards our expression of self, then we wouldn’t need to spend so much energy hiding it, often at great cost to our wellbeing.

Ableist attitudes are literally prescribing masks for neurodivergent people. Especially those of us who do not have access to community.

“Masking is an unsurprising response to the deficit narrative and accompanying stigma that has developed around autism”

Pearson A. & Rose, K. (2021)

Ableist attitudes feed directly into something known as ‘minority stress’. Minority stress is a phenomenon where minority groups experience increased adverse life events in a society that oppresses them by design. Due to ableism being inherent in our society, all of the infrastructure and supports in place actually add to the burden of minority stress.

“Minority stress theory hypothesises that the decreased social standing of stigmatised groups leads to increased exposure to stressful life events, while simultaneously being afforded fewer coping resources with which to handle these events”

Meyer, I.H. (2003)

So what exactly is ableism?

Ableism is discrimination and prejudice against a person, or group of people, that are disabled. It can take many forms, from the person who complains that disabled people get a “free ride” through to it’s scarier presentations such as violent hate crime.

Ableism is the systemic attitude that disabled people have less value than non-disabled people. This has close ties to capitalism, a lot of the way humans are valued is on their economic worth or “intelligence”. In a world where every one has a monetary value, it is easy to see why disabled people are wrongly considered less under this system.

Ableism has been trained into us from a young age, how many of us used the r-slur as an insult without even knowing the full ramifications of how this word scaffolds the systemic ableism that our current system relies on.

“Bringing home the bacon”

“What do you bring to the table”

When having time off of work, sick, is frowned upon or considered lazy, we begin to see why this system is not fit for purpose with regards to disabled people. These attitudes are taught to us from the moment we commence education. Schools that give out attendance rewards, and punish children and families that struggle to engage, usually because of unmet needs or disability.

As children we are sent home with mountains of homework, a not so subtle reminder that in the adult world, you cannot escape work, even in the privacy of your own home. Unpaid labour is lauded as “dedication” and “good work ethic”. These unconscious attitudes place us into a prison of ableism, where we have the keys, but are not taught how to use them.

Considering this, it is easy to see where internalised ableism comes from for so many of us.

“Internalised ableism is the absorption of negative beliefs about a particular disability and an attempt to distance oneself from that ‘spoiled identity’”

Woods, R. (2017)

Too many of us live our lives believing there is something wrong with us, valuing our lives by our ability to work. Western culture especially has taught us that we need to have a fixed purpose, when in fact, we are missing the beauty in our own existence.

That’s the problem, when we can’t see our own beauty, we try to hide who we are.

Simply put, living in a world where society actively discriminates (sometimes unconsciously) against your authentic expression of self, or places a higher value on our abled peers, naturally leads to internalised negative self-view. Even self-hate in some cases.

There are various laws and acts that are intended to protect us. One such act is the Equality Act, which covers various “types” of disability discrimination.

Disability discrimination, as defined by the Equality Act 2010, falls into six different categories:

Direct discrimination
Indirect discrimination
Failure to make reasonable adjustments
Discrimination arising from disability
Harassment
Victimisation

While we may be legally protected against some forms of ableism, we have to ask ourselves, honestly, how accessible and practical is it to enforce this?

The truth is that justice isn’t really justice. To utilise these protective laws, you have to be coming from a place of considerable privilege. Justice can be expensive, spoons heavy, and convoluted to action. Which in itself is ironic, given that these laws may be inaccessible to the very people who they are supposed to protect.

Ask any parent who has ever tried to acquire an EHCP for their child.

As with many laws, acts, and processes, designed to either aid or protect the most vulnerable. They are like fables with no moral at the end of the story, they are ultimately performative, intended to silence the rabble-rousers, and the people crying out for fair treatment. There are no winners here.

It does paint a pretty grim picture, however things are happening slowly. Progress does not come all at once, but rather in the many droplets that form an ocean. The internet means that Autistic and otherwise disabled people have been able to form communities, breaking down barriers and organising for their right to exist. The gap between parents, professionals, and disabled people is narrowing.

Anyone can publish a blog about their own lived experience. Just like we are doing here.

The social model of disability and the neurodiversity movement are gaining traction and popularity.

We still have quite some distance to move forward, but bit by bit we are chipping away at the stones of ableism that have been shackled to us since birth. Most importantly, the ableism we feel towards ourselves is washing away. Giving rise to a community that is showing on a daily basis, it’s growth and self-advocacy. A community that is proud of who they are.

We are proud to be a part of that community.

We need to decide how history will remember us.

100 years from now, we intend to be on the right side of history. Standing with all our neurokin. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating peoples differences, and the rich cultures that they lead to, rather than labelling anything that dares deviate from the norm as a deficit.

Bibliography

Equality Act (2010) United Kingdom Government

Meyer, I.H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and
research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674-697. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.674

Pearson, A., & Rose, K. (2021). A conceptual analysis of autistic masking: Understanding the narrative of stigma and the illusion of choice. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), 52-60.

Woods, R. (2017). Exploring how the social model of disability can be re-invigorated for autism: in response to Jonathan Levitt. Disability & society, 32(7), 1090-1095.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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