Throughout the neurodiversity movement and wider into parent-led autism communities, there has been one particular question that comes up time and again: Is autism (and neurodivergence in general, for that matter) a disability?
The prevailing opinion of Autistic self-advocates and many people in neurodivergent-led communities is that, yes, it is a disability but only understandable using the social model of disability. Other groups have suggested that autism is not a disability, and use many euphemisms that neurodivergent people find patronising (no, I don’t have superpowers, and it’s definitely not a “diffability”). Then we have those parents and carers who believe that autism is a medical matter. They approach autism through the medical model of disability that views neurodivergence as something that is inherently broken in a person’s brain.
With the obvious caveat that pathologising neurodivergence is a weapon of normative violence, I believe there is somewhat of a middle ground in the way that we view disability. Perhaps we can find a way of interpreting a person’s disability that doesn’t require us to separate a person’s struggles into social issues, and medical issues.
First, let’s draw on the social models wisdom. A person’s access to the environment can often be a deciding factor in the presentation of disability. However, we have to consider what that environment consists of. Environs are made of more than objects and physical obstacles. Our relationships with those in our environment, and the power structures that exist within those relationships also form part of how we interact and experience our environment.
Having different or more intense support needs to the rest of your family will impact on how you relate to your family and how they relate to you. If your particular needs put you at odds with those you love, this will have an impact on your ability to access the environment.
Next, we have to consider the medical models teachings. Not all forms of disability come down to the diversity of minds. Autistic people especially are more likely to experience chronic health conditions. Unfortunately, under the current social model/medical model binary, they are required to separate out these parts of their identity in order to rationalise their support needs.
Consider then that under this approach, chronic health conditions and physical disability arising from traditionally medical issues also impact upon not only our access to the physical environment but how we relate to people in our environment. We can then see that the relationships and power structures in our lives are affected by not just neurodivergence but also those disabilities that are typically viewed through the medical model.
Where does this leave us?
People are not long lists of separate diagnoses that are the sum of their parts. We are whole people with diverse access and support needs, as well as undeniably interwoven relationships and power structures that impact upon our access and support needs. Regardless of the nature of your disability, the support you require will largely be defined by the way you relate to your environment and all of the people and objects within it.
In order to improve a person’s access to the world, it’s necessary to not only engineer physical accessibility features but also to engineer accessible power structures and relationships.
In my mind, I tentatively call this an enviro-relational model of disability, but I am open to suggestions.
If you take one thing away from this article, please understand that both the social and medical models ultimately fail to encompass a person’s entire experience of disability, and for this reason, we have to do further work to understand the true nature of disability in people’s every day lives.
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