Anyone else tired of these nebulous “Awareness” months, weeks, or days? I sure am. After everyone’s Twitter avatars return to their normal color and the media go back to what they were doing before, it seems like nothing has changed — after all, most people are aware of the existence of issues like breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean they’re taking action on them.
That’s starting to change, thanks to the work of disability rights activists and others who have taken the bull by the horns and challenged the implicit complacency in “Awareness.” Awareness isn’t good enough; it’s not action, and it’s certainly not a positive change. While it can be useful to educate people about issues that aren’t widely covered in the media or discussed in the community, such as rare diseases, many awareness campaigns don’t include concrete information about what people can do (like getting their marrow tested and on file with a database so they can help by donating if needed), and they don’t necessarily promote acceptance of human diversity or fight stigma.
With Autism Awareness Month gearing up this April, autistic self-advocates are taking on their own project: Autism Acceptance Month.
Self-advocacy in the autism community in particular has become a high-profile issue, as historically, nondisabled people have talked about disabled people, but rarely allowed them to speak for themselves. In fact, these conversations have sometimes explicitly excluded disabled people and advocated against their own interests, which is why the slogan “nothing about us without us” was created. Autistics are speaking up all over the world to advocate for themselves and combat harmful stereotypes perpetuated about autism in the name of “awareness.”
For example, when high-profile autism advocacy group Autism Speaks (a group which notably excludes self-advocates) suggested an event called Communication Shutdown last year, reinforcing the stereotype that autistic people can’t communicate, self-advocate Corina Becker fired back with Autistics Speaking Day. The event called on autistics to lend their voices to a chorus of people speaking up about their experiences and what it’s like to be autistic, as both a child and an adult.
Some parents of autistic children and other neurotypical advocates seem uncomfortable with the idea of autistic people taking control of narratives about autism and with advancing acceptance, rather than simple awareness or tolerance. The Autism Acceptance Month campaign defines acceptance as action, noting that: “Autism acceptance means embracing and valuing autistic people as autistic people instead of being afraid of us, having low expectations, or trying to find a way to make us not autistic.”
This is a direct challenge to the rhetoric used by many advocacy groups, which position autism as something which needs to be corrected or fixed, rather than as a natural expression of human diversity. Self-advocates like Ari Ne’eman (and myself) don’t see autism as a problem, but rather as a fundamental part of ourselves, and we’re fighting for social acceptance as the people we are, not as the people others want us to be.
Action as part of acceptance can take numerous forms. Maybe autism acceptance means ensuring that events you’re organizing are open to autistic people, and that autistics are featured on panels and discussions about autism hosted by your organization. Maybe you’re a parent of an autistic child, and you’re helping your child develop a communication method that works for her, or fighting for her inclusion in the classroom. Maybe you’re working at a newspaper, challenging erroneous information about autism in headlines and articles.
There’s even a pledge people can sign to indicate their commitment to autism acceptance, whatever form that might take for them. The key takeaway of the movement for acceptance is that it moves from awareness and into action, because acceptance is not passive, requiring active engagement by participants, and that the movement is rooted in the activism of autistics ourselves, not people speaking on our behalf. While working in solidarity with autistics is also a key part of autism acceptance, and autistics welcome the full range of neurodiversity in our movement, including neurotypical people, our voices, whatever forms they may take, are the important ones here.
So go out and promote some autism acceptance. Don’t change your Facebook picture: change your life.
Photo credit: A href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/denisdefreyne/863085355/" target="_blank">Denis Defreyne