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#DisabilityStillTooWhite: A White Autist Examines Representation in the Disability Movement

I identify as White, non-binary, neuro-queer, autistic, and disabled. I believe it is crucial to be transparent as soon as possible about (my) positionality when discussing intricate and delicate concepts (and always starting with my Whiteness to highlight how my White privilege directly and deleteriously impacts the other communities i [don’t] identify with).

joshua schwartz

joshua schwartz

Whiteness’ vague definition, which has been (and still is) debated throughout history, is insidious in the way it de-identifies it-self with race and affords White people the privilege of being able to ignore their Whiteness (as an identity, in addition to Whiteness as a concept) (Ahmed, 2007).

Case-in-point, i my-self didn’t learn about the history, complexity, and vaguery (or, hence, the whole concept) of Whiteness until i was both an adult and attending a higher education institution. As i have begun to comprehend the inextricability of Whiteness and the disability movement, i have likewise learned how autism cannot be separated from disability.

In all honesty, the initial thought of identifying as a White, disabled autist (as opposed to a White autist) – considering my numerous bodily privileges – terrified me. I could sense my privilege(s), and i believe the fear i experienced was my body telling me to go deeper into my discomfort. In doing so, i realized the problem inherent to my black-and-white understanding of disability: that to be disabled is not necessarily to be un-privileged. But before wielding my privileges in self-identifying as disabled, i wanted to understand the implications of making such a significant decision.

Because i am an autist considered to be “without intellectual disability” (according to my doctor), i began my research by seeking perspectives on the subtle-yet-key differences between how autistic and intellectually disabled people are treated. Turns out, many of the differences are race- and ability-based.

To illustrate, studies have demonstrated that intellectually disabled People of Color (POC), when compared with White autistic people, grapple with access to affordable housing, adequate employment, and social inclusion at much greater rates (Ditchman et al., 2013).

Additionally, i learned that disabled POC (femme-presenting disabled POC, in particular) experience both under- and mis-diagnosis more-often (Mandell et al., 2009) than White, masc-presenting disabled people.

This told me that – between gendered experiences, racialized experiences, and higher rates of misdiagnosis – disabled (femme) POC experience compounding barriers that are directly-upheld by the ableist and racist institutions of White supremacy and patriarchy (from which i benefit).

White autists also have greater access to diagnoses than Autists of Color (Magaña, Lopez, Aguinaga, & Morton, 2013; Travers & Krezmien, 2018) and, thus, greater access to legal accommodations.

After learning all this, i remembered hearing about the #DisabilityTooWhite (coined in 2016 by Vilissa K. Thompson, a Black; disabled; licensed macro-level social-worker who advocates for disabled Women of Color [WOC] and educates people [from individuals to organizations] on the oppression of disabled WOC from an intersectional perspective).

I became curious as i considered what i could learn from Vilissa, specifically around Whiteness’ influence and impact on Communities of Color (COC) within the contemporary disability movement.

One of the first things i learned is that by 2017, a year after Vilissa coined the viral #DisabilityTooWhite, there was still much work for White disabled people to do in confronting the current and historical White-washing of disability.

In another 2017 interview, Vilissa made salient the need for White disabled people to acknowledge both their race- and ability-based privileges not afforded to others, as well as to learn what it means to be a real ally to disabled people, to “walk that fine line” between being involved while also stepping back and magnifying more-marginalized voices.

Toward the end of that same interview, when asked about her vision for the future of #DisabilityTooWhite, Vilissa communicated her wishes for the continuation of the conversation her hashtag has catalyzed and an acknowledgment from White people that the burden of education is on them, not COC (in other words, that White people be actual allies/co-conspirators with disabled COC).

While i have not personally been able to locate many articles analyzing the concrete impacts of #DisabilityTooWhite to-date (read, here, a relevant publication from this year), i have found several analyzing both the successes of older, similar hashtags (as an argument for #DisabilityTooWhite’s potential for success) (Mulderink, 2020) as well as the representation successes #DisabilityTooWhite has demonstrated (Biss, 2019; Thompson, 2019).

It is (at least anecdotally) evident that hashtags can sow the seeds of very real social change. Indeed, a cursory review of Twitter’s #DisabilityTooWhite search results revealed to me that the exact conversation i am referring to, that of the White-washing of disability and a lack of action specifically from White autists, is taking place as recently as one day ago. There is also a 2019 publication on this topic (Onaiwu, 2019).

Today – four years after Vilissa Thompson coined #DisabilityTooWhite – while it is an absolutely beautiful and celebration-worthy feat for this conversation to be bubbling after so long, it is also clear by dint of such activity that disability representation in 2020 is still too White.

This is by no means a criticism of #DisabilityTooWhite, if it sounds like one! I am just frustrated by and fed-up with witnessing the valiant efforts of disabled (and femme) POC like Vilissa being met with criticism and systemic-barrier-after-barrier when us White people could be contributing so much more than we currently are.

Having my-self learned heaps already from simply skimming the surface of Vilissa’s hashtag and the dialogues it has catalyzed, i am invested in continuing to learn how i can use my privileges as a White, able-bodied, masc-passed, autistic person to contribute more to the representation and decolonization of disability.

I love being autistic, and i am proud to be able to celebrate my disability.

I also acknowledge that i am extremely privileged.

So i will not stay silent – or feel satisfied – until every disabled person is treated equitably for exercising their birth-right: for celebrating and being celebrated for who they are.

joshua (pronouns: they/them) welcomes contact and can be reached at autist.starving@gmail.com. Their writing can be found at starvingautist.com.

The viewpoints expressed in this article do not reflect the opinion of the Autism Spectrum News Editorial Board or the Publisher, Mental Health News Education, Inc.

References

Ahmed, S. (2007). A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory, 8(2), 149-168. doi:10.1177/1464700107078139

Biss, Danielle C. (2019) Getting “woke” on intersectionality: Illuminating the rhetorical significance of disability discourse in feminist activist spaces. Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research, 18(6), 41-60.

Ditchman, N., Werner, S., Kosyluk, K., Jones, N., Elg, B., & Corrigan, P. W. (2013). Stigma and intellectual disability: Potential application of mental illness research. Rehabilitation Psychology, 58(2), 206-216. doi:10.1037/a0032466

Magaña, S., Lopez, K., Aguinaga, A., & Morton, H. (2013). Access to diagnosis and treatment services among Latino children with autism spectrum disorders. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 51(3), 141-153. doi:10.1352/1934-9556-51.3.141

Mandell, D. S., Wiggins, L. D., Carpenter, L. A., Daniels, J., Diguiseppi, C., Durkin, M. S., . . . Kirby, R. S. (2009). Racial/Ethnic disparities in the identification of children with autism spectrum disorders. American Journal of Public Health, 99(3), 493-498. doi:10.2105/ajph.2007.131243

Mulderink, C. E. (2020). The emergence, importance of #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag. Disability Studies Quarterly, 40(2). doi:10.18061/dsq.v40i2.6484

Onaiwu, M. G. (2019). “A dream deferred” no longer: Backstory of the first autism and race anthology. Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement, 243-252. doi:10.1007/978-981-13-8437-0_18

Thompson, V. (2019). How technology is forcing the disability rights movement into the 21st century. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 5(1), 1-5. doi:10.28968/cftt.v5i1.30420

Travers, J., & Krezmien, M. (2018). Racial disparities in autism identification in the United States during 2014. Exceptional Children, 84(4), 403-419. doi:10.1177/0014402918771337

One Response

  1. […] I can repeat this statement that disability is too white. It has always been for a long time. This article (written by a white autistic person) has a lot of references directed to a lot of material about […]

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