Dear Abby and Disablism

by Shaker Lydia Encyclopedia

[Trigger warning for dehumanization.]

I don't often read newspapers. I depend on the internet for my news, but when I'm home in Hawaii, I'll often read through the newspaper, more out of bored curiosity than the expectation of hard-hitting news. Among those time-fillers is Dear Abby, advice columnist. One of yesterday's letters provided an example of jaw-dropping disablism that I had to comment on (it's a perfect demonstration of that disablism and eugenic overtones towards disabled people I was addressing in this post):
DEAR ABBY: My husband and I have a 24-year-old developmentally disabled son who lives with us. Three months ago, he met a nice girl at the mental health program he attends. They hold hands, go to the movies and occasionally smooch.

Recently, "Jasper" had a mark on his neck. We were over at a friend's house for dinner when my best friend noticed the mark. She then proceeded to tell me I should consider getting Jasper "fixed." At first, I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly, so I asked her to repeat it. I am shocked that she thinks I should have my son sterilized.

Jasper is diagnosed with ADD and Asperger's syndrome. According to his mental health counselor, he could someday be married, have children and lead a productive, independent life. It just may take him longer to get to that point in comparison with his peers.

How should I respond to my friend about her suggestion? When she made it, I didn't know what to say. -- SPEECHLESS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE
Where to begin? Let's start with the language the 'friend' in the letter used. "Fixed". When someone talks about getting 'fixed' in that sense, it is usually directed towards a household pet in need of spaying/neutering so that they won't spray on furniture or display aggressive behaviour. Do I even need to explain the history of comparing people who are developmentally disabled to animals, and using such logic to justify their horrible treatment, including but not limited to torture, deprivation of essentials, and yes, sterilization? How far have we come in how we view disabled people? If this friend's attitude is any indication, not very far.

The general attitude is problematic as well. There is this long-standing bias against the idea of people with developmental disabilities having children, labouring under the notion that since we "can barely take care of ourselves" we could never be expected to raise children. It is assumed that only the neurotypical populace is capable of raising children.

As someone who has long wanted to have children, but was for many years pressured not to because of the stereotypes surrounding the nature of autism ("you won't bond with the child, you won't be able to be there for them emotionally, you might hurt them without realizing it, how will you manage when you can't drive/use a public restroom/do your taxes on your own?"), this type of rhetoric disgusts me and shakes me to my core.

Developmentally disabled children are treated as special "burdens" to be borne by saintly neurotypical able-bodied parents, and as adults, we are denied the chance to become parents ourselves, because we've shifted in neurotypical eyes from being an adorable burden to a worrisome burden. No thoughts or considerations on what we desire in terms of our reproductive rights and parenthood; it's frequently assumed these topics are beyond our understanding.

I understand perfectly. I am a person with autism, who deserves the chance to make my own choices about my body and my future. It's a matter of human rights and dignity which have been denied to us for far too long.

Abby herself gives a somewhat problematic response:
DEAR SPEECHLESS: If you still want to maintain the friendship with the woman, tell her what your son's mental health counselor said about his prospects for the future. But first, if you haven't already, make sure Jasper clearly understands everything he needs to know to protect himself and his nice girlfriend from premature parenthood.
While explaining that her son is capable and has a health professional confirm this is fine, it reinforces this idea that only select, "high functioning" (a problematic term in itself, hence the quotation marks) people with disabilities deserve to make these decisions, rather than it being a blanket issue of human rights.

There is also the matter of condescending language: "his nice girlfriend" sounds like something you say to a child, not an adult who is going to be discussing contraceptive techniques.

And by being silent on the idea that "Jasper" and his girlfriend could some day become parents when they are ready, Abby reinforces this idea that developmentally disabled people having children is not recommended or appropriate. It's not exactly the strong response to such horrible eliminationist, dehumanizing rhetoric I was hoping for. Very rarely do people who have neurotypical privilege consider the horrifying implications of such rhetoric, as it doesn't affect them and their reproductive choices like it does mine.

I, as a person with autism, am not an animal in need of being "fixed". "Jasper" and his partner do not need to be "fixed". No developmentally disabled person is in need of "fixing". We're not going to tolerate eliminationist, disablist rhetoric telling us that our own bodies and minds cannot be trusted to our own judgment.

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