Friday, April 22, 2016

Acceptance Must Not Become a Buzzword

The discourse surrounding autism is full of meaningless buzzwords: Awareness, cure, treatment, high-functioning, optimal outcome, and many more; even the factual-sounding phrase "evidence-based" cannot be taken as an indication that there really is evidence. Many of these words did mean something once upon a time, but since then have been distorted by widespread overuse and misuse.

Language has power, and replacing meaningless buzzwords with things that are meaningful is an important part of pro-Autistic activism: Rather than appealing to a vaguely defined "functioning" level, we describe what people's specific support needs are. Rather than trying to nonsensically "treat" or "cure" something that isn't a disease, we attempt to change the social and civil environments to ones that are more accommodating.

You might expect that a campaign to promote "awareness" of autism would be educating people about what autism is, highlighting some Autistic role models, and explaining how to best support the Autistic people in your life. In practice, "autism awareness" campaigns don't seem to promote any message other than autism is a thing that exists. If that's all we're meant to be aware of, then frankly, I think we're at peak awareness. When I hear people talk about "raising" awareness further, I imagine some Amish family in the mountains, living off a tofu farm, that hasn't heard the word autism yet.

Awareness, at least autism awareness, is a meaningless buzzword. You can verify this by asking people at "autism awareness" events, "what does awareness mean?" and getting the word awareness thrown back at you in most of the answers. It's a signifier with nothing signified. Therefore, the only meaning it holds is by association with the people currently using it, and for the most part, those associations aren't pretty. When the main beneficiaries of "autism awareness" are also the people encouraging us to buy blue light bulbs and commit child abuse, "awareness" becomes a top priority to replace.

The Autistic community's answer? Acceptance. That word is loaded with meaning, and every year we make concerted efforts to pack it with more: Acceptance is an action. Acceptance is more than just passive tolerance of Autistic people's existence. Acceptance is implementing accommodations before they're needed. Acceptance is presuming competence. Acceptance is solidarity. Autism acceptance is a fundamental shift in mindset that embraces the neurodiversity paradigm and the social model of disability.

Thanks to the aggressive promotion of acceptance within the Autistic community, we're starting to see the idea of replacing awareness with acceptance take hold in things created by non-Autistic organizers. Some people chase the imaginary neutral position by including both words, while others see what the world is trending towards, and hop on board with acceptance.

However, bringing a word out of the fringe and into the mainstream has an unfortunate side effect: The fringe no longer has control over the word's meaning. The word is subject to the large-scale social mechanisms behind language development. The word's meaning is now derived from consensus rather than logic or purpose.

Just as awareness can shift from education and understanding to "beware the autism boogeyman", the meaning of acceptance can shift to harmful ideas like "accept the tragedy of autistic life" or "accept the real child hidden behind the autism." If that happens, then acceptance is no different from awareness. It's stolen from the activist toolbox and becomes one of the master's tools. Our years of work become a failed experiment and we're forced to start over.

Already there are organizations co-opting the acceptance label to dupe their Autistic audiences into not making a fuss, when the content is still the same message that we protest. There are well-intentioned "acceptance" events where the people who show up use the word acceptance because it's there, but are really still stuck in the awareness mindset, undermining the events.

It is not enough to correct these occurrences for misusing a word, for they may be ignorant of the intended meaning of one label, but their overall messages are quite intentional, as they have always been. It is necessary for us to condemn phony acceptance as fraud, and as hatred.

We must not let acceptance become a buzzword. If it does, then we have made no progress towards actually autistic people being actually accepted.

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