It’s been a while since I’ve written. In many respects, my blog silence has been a good blog silence. There have been ebbs and flows — negative along with the positive. But I love my job, the students, and the people I work with. I’m mostly trying to figure out how to keep blogging while balancing everything else.
Summer’s ended, and I hope to write here with more regularity again. I’ve also begun re-organizing things on my blog, so there might be some blips with hyperlinks and such for the time being. To start things off, I wanted to post a short video documentary about disability culture, created by The Olimpias. In February, the University of Michigan hosted a three-day symposium on disability culture. It was a really lovely event, directed by Petra Kuppers. The Olimpias, which is the disability performance group that Petra also directs, recently released a 22-minute, open-access, fully subtitled documentary on disability culture and the UM event.
Both Mark Romoser and I are in the documentary. Mark starts off the Aut culture segment around 12 minutes in. The aut culture bits last about five minutes (hooray).
I’m currently at the Modern Language Association convention in Seattle. To put it mildly, it’s an overwhelming conference. Yesterday I participated in a roundtable discussion titled “Is Access the New Diversity?” — during which we explored how the field and world beyond thinks about access. What follows is my portion of the roundtable.
My co-panelists (Annette Harris Powell and Kathleen Blake Yancey) have eloquently suggested that what we need is a new theory of access. This much is clear, I think—Access has in many respects become an empty signifier, a shiny buzzword that sounds lovely on its surface level but isn’t fully realized in practice.
My own focus here today is disability and the ways in which access-as-concept has come to function not only as a narrative of remediation, but also as a narrative of erasure. When we consider access from a disability context, much of our scholarship positions access as a project of rehabilitation. (Other scholars have made similar arguments as well; for examples, see Linton, 1998; Palmeri, 2006, p. 55; Porter, 2009; Walters, 2010).
i.e., Access is often conceived as such: There is a set of able-bodied us’s eagerly waiting to rescue a few, rare disabled thems who are in dire need of help. When we help them to access our scholarship, our classrooms, our conferences, our interviews, our break rooms… It makes us feel so warm and fuzzy inside, so glad to be alive, so pleased that we could give something back and enrich their lives with our kindness! Let’s go pat ourselves on the back now, yes? /snark
Before I delve further into access and how we might begin to reconceptualize it, I need to admit something here, in case it’s not evident in my tone: Access and I have a troubled relationship. Most nights I go home wishing that access were a tangible object that I could lob across the room, pummel, and then photograph for my Facebook newsfeed. As an Autistic person and disability rights activist, there has always seemed to me a real divide between disabled and non-disabled conceptions of inclusion—the primary divide existing, as Michael Salvo (2001) and others have noted, in the form of disabled participation and representation, or lack thereof (also see Banks, 2005; Brueggemann, 2009).
Let me provide a personal example of what I mean here:
While consulting with a neuropsychologist several years back, the phrase “paralinguistic cues” first entered my vocabulary. More specifically, I was told that 1) I didn’t convey any, 2) I couldn’t discern any, and 3) I might find some hope with intensive behavorial therapy and social skills training.
Last year, the job search happened, but learning how to read nonverbals didn’t. Suddenly, I was awash in a sea of nonverbals, desperately trying to make sense of intensely social, high-stakes situations. Every moment was replete with inner narrations, memorized scripts and mantras and instructions from the ghosts of behaviorists past— Am I looking people in the eye for ten seconds and looking away for five? Am I inflecting my voice and conveying appropriate affect? Am I counting to three between each sentence? What are my hands doing? Am I stimming? Am I ticcing? Am I rocking my body? Am I delivering an appropriately timed to response to How are you?
I relate this story in order to make a point. As I slogged through the job search, innumerable people took up my access plight as an immediate and pressing concern: professors, mentors, clinicians, doctors, prospective employers, random people from the internet—all of these people were rooting for my appropriate Pavlovian responses in interview contexts. (And, unfortunately, I bought into passing, too—I desperately wanted a job.)
But here is the access problem as I see it, and it’s not limited to the job search, nor is it limited to my own experiences:
First, the burden of access was located on me, and my “success” was dependent on my presumed motivation or lack thereof. We place too much burden on so-called “problemed” bodies and too little burden on the profession writ large. Requesting accommodations, for example, is never an easy process for disabled people—it’s a process that involves negotiating disclosure, legal pyrotechnics, workplace politics, and discriminatory assumptions about laziness, intelligence, and human worth.
And, more troublesome, the discourse of accommodation isn’t one of change, isn’t even one of access, I’d argue. When we (as instructors, administrators, and people in/with power) deny accommodation requests, we do so because we believe such things might alter the fundamental nature of our professional spaces. And when we say yes to these requests, we generally do so because we believe nothing fundamental has been altered. But that, to me, is the sticky point: For a field that’s all about changing the fundamental nature of things, we’re really not all about changing the fundamental nature of things.
Second, rarely was I an agent in the process of making things more accessible, more inclusive, more equitable. And, in many respects, forced passivity is the non-stop, lived reality of disabled people. In college, for example, disability services would give me a checklist of accommodations that I could request (but not necessarily receive)—extended time on tests, use of a soundproof room, and so forth. While these services were certainly helpful, they in no way made me feel like a full participant in my own education, never mind a full participant in the larger project of making the world a more accessible place. How did these accommodations value my autistic personhood, value my ways of communicating, moving, and being? How did these accommodations make me feel like I was a living, breathing part of my classes, rather than a special person in need of special workarounds?
Third (and finally), the aim of access, much like the whole of behavioral therapy, is to make disabled people “indistinguishable from their peers” (Alyric, 2008). We live in a world that conflates disability with undesirability. It is more convenient that we cease being disabled than it is for the world to become more inclusive of disabled people.
Reconfiguring interviewing practices, or dismantling ableist approaches to classroom management, or reinventing workplace events—these are not undertakings that happen in the name of access. Rather, what’s happening in the name of access is this:reconfiguring disabled people, dismantling their ways of being and knowing, and reinventing them, as best we can, into normate clones.
As I come to a close here, I hope that we can take up some of these issues together in conversation. I especially hope that we might further discuss why and how the twin goals of rehabilitation and erasure are so frequently realized under the bold banner of access. I also hope that we might focus on some constructive possibilities, some ways of re-envisioning access and enacting theory-activism in academic contexts.
As I hope we all know, the predominant emphasis on helping, training, and rehabilitation is a guise for that of erasure. The things I endured in the name of therapy, in the name of training, in the name of interview prep—most had normalization as their end goal. My hand-flapping and lack of eye contact were never valuable communication practices; they were eyesores, symptoms in need of remediation. Paul Collins sums it up well, I think, with the following line: “the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg” (2008).
Something transcendent happens to autistic people when we turn 21: We disappear. Unfortunately for me, however, I’m 27, still autistic, and still living and breathing on this planet. Yes, my friends: I have been left behind.
My parents made the mistake of not aborting me. And ABA, CBT, talk therapy, support groups, anti-depressants — none of these things have exorcised my autism. Sometimes, when I go to conferences, self-important parents like to pretend that I’m not really, truly autistic, that I have, in fact, outgrown my autism in the most spiritual and inspirational of ways. Because, honestly, haven’t I heard? The good and faithful autistics all recognize the depravity that is autism and work hard, so tear-inducingly hard, to make their disordered brains and disordered bodies disappear. That my disordered self could still exist… that I even want my disordered self to exist… such a pity. I’m so autistic that I cannot fathom how soul-sucking autism really is.
If I will not make my autistic self invisible, then they must. And if “evidence-based practices” won’t do the trick, ableism just might. So, I’m here providing a few suggestions for further infantilizing me, for facilitating a neurotypical brand of the Second Coming:
1. Remember that, while I may exist physically, I do not exist semantically. Pairing autistic and adult in the same sentence, for example, is a no-no. Other off-limits words include woman, citizen, activist, colleague, and anything with a —sex affix.
2. Although I might be an adult in the chronological sense of the word, stress that I will never be an adult in the developmental sense of the word. There are many ways to assert neurotypical dominance in this regard. You might, for example, correct my use of the words depression and anxiety and replace them with sad feelings and worried feelings. When I present at conferences and seem a bit too comfortable in my empowered adult status, you might knock me down a few rungs and ask me at what age I was toilet-trained. And, every time I remember to bathe, you might write me a 1,000-word email, CC four or five of my family members and/or former employers, and tell me how proud you are of me.
Other infantilizing measures might include, if you’re a soprano or alto, using a sing-songy voice and speaking only in rhyming couplets. But, hey, don’t take advice from little ol’ me. You’re the neurotypical — you’re the adult here.
3. Remind me that I am incapable of empathy and perspective-taking. If I disagree with you, tell me how self-centered I am. Emotionally speaking, I’m forever lodged in the terrible twos, and I’ll just never understand how bad you have it.
4. Emphasize that, unlike real adults, I cannot maintain mutually beneficial friendships and will always fail to meet your emotional needs. Condemn my black-and-white thinking and preach to me about shades of gray. If I pick up on your sadness and attempt to console you — make it clear that you’re not sad, you’re lachrymose. You’re not depressed, you’re bummed out. You’re not upset, you’re very upset. There’s a difference, and I damned well need to learn it. To facilitate this process, draw cartoon faces on the back of your business card and instruct me to keep it handy in my wallet.
5. Never give up on the messy, imperfectible project that is me. No matter how many times I tell you how cruel you are, no matter how many times I tell you how patronizing you are, no matter how many times I tell you how proud I am to be autistic — keep working on that disappearing act. Remember how glad you are that you’re not some bitter, twisted, ungrateful, disordered half-person like me. Remind yourself that I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful, personal savior like you in my life.
This post brought to you by a big a move, a new job, and my lack of existence.