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What's with all the arguing about autism being a disability?

Let's start with a bit of background.


First we had the Medical Model of Disability, which places the disability in the person.


A red figure labeled “SOCIETY” points accusingly at a light blue/blue figure, who is holding a big box labeled “IMPAIRMENT = DISABILITY” and looking defeated. SOCIETY says, “YOU’RE the one with the problem, and it’s on YOU to overcome it if you wanna be included in our one-size-fits-all society.”

Obviously, this sucks. So a bunch of people came up with the Social Model of Disability, which makes a distinction between impairment and disability, placing the impairment in the person and the disability squarely on the shoulders of an unaccommodating society.


The light blue/blue figure is now holding a smaller box labeled “IMPAIRMENT,” and throws another bus labeled “DISABILITY” at SOCIETY while saying angrily, “Sure, I may have this thing going on, but the REAL problem is YOUR shitty attitude towards people like me and YOUR unwillingness to change some stuff!”

This is much better, but unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the message. A lot of people still think that impairment and disability mean the same thing, because the medical model is still dominant in so many places.


So when we say:


A light blue/blue figure says, “Autism is a disability.”

Some people hear:


A light blue/blue figure says, “Autism is an impairment.”

And if they don’t personally feel impaired OR disabled by being Autistic (or if they see those things as bad things and don’t want to be associated with them, which is a whole ‘nother problem), they may object to that idea.


Attempts to clarify things often run into the same problem. When we respond with:


A light blue/blue figure says, “Well autism IS a disability because of how society disables us.”

Some other people hear:


A light blue/blue figure says, “Autism is only an impairment because of how society impairs us.”

And if they personally feel impaired by aspects of being Autistic that have nothing to do with how society treats them, they may feel completely erased by that idea.


So what can we do about it?


Well the first step is to realize how often we’re just talking past each other (hence this here post). Clarifying questions and better explanations can go further than just saying the same thing again, but louder.


Also, we need to not shy away from the idea that autism is an impairment as well as a disability. Some people try to swing away from stigma so hard that they only wanna talk about the positives or society’s role in making things hard for us, but that leaves a lot of people out of the conversation.


Most importantly, we need to remember that there is an incredibly wide range of Autistic experience, and that’s it’s all valid. Some people feel impaired and/or disabled, some people don’t, and that’s okay. We just have to remember to leave room for all of us.


Four figures in a rainbow of colors stand together. One says, “I’m impaired,” one says, “I’m disabled,” one says, “I’m both,” and one says, “I’m neither.”

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