Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory (Part I)

There's an interesting article by Amherst College's Kristin Bumiller in this past summer's issue of the University of Chicago's women's-studies journal Signs, titled "Quirky Citizens: Autism, Gender and Reimagining Disability."

It's a long article, but it still seems to jump around a lot between subjects. That's one of two major gripes I have with this piece, that once Bumiller gets deep enough into a topic to say really interesting things about it, she moves on. (The other gripe I have is with her tendency to depict the neurodiversity movement in what I think are overly broad strokes, which might be remedied by providing more quotes to back up assertions about what neurodiversity is, and by acknowledging controversies within neurodiversity where they exist. It would be really hard to do all that and have something short enough to have much of a shot at publication, though, so I can hardly blame her for oversimplifying the stuff that's not part of her argument).

The article is kind of complicated, narratively and structurally: she seems to tell the story of the history of autism, and the slow change in attitudes toward it, but at the same time she takes frequent breaks to discuss questions of gender as they arise. Since she does not advance a single, sustained argument but instead jumps around to look at a bunch of different topics, my responses to (some of) her points will be similarly scattershot.

The most interesting thing that stuck out to me was her categorizing of the different strategies of integrating autistics into society: she draws a distinction between "normalization" strategies that seek to bring marginalized groups more in line with the majority group (and thereby enjoy a wider range of social privileges) and "antinormalization" strategies that, rather than make it easier for more people to act like the standard white, male, middle-class person, try to make society more tolerant of differences.

Here's Bumiller explaining the rationale for "normalization" strategies:
Feminist theories have emphasized how in modern capitalist societies the privileges of citizenship are contingent on one's ability to embody the norm. In fact, citizenship often defines the primary dimensions by which we measure normality; the good citizen is an avid consumer in the market, makes appropriate demands on the state, and conforms to conventional family forms. The disabled, who experience a disproportionately high poverty rate in most Western societies (Burchardt 2004), are a variant of citizen outside the norm and are often seen as presenting an unwanted drain on the market economy like other groups that are considered undesirable because of their class, race or criminal record.
...Disability programs often state their objectives in terms that suggest their capacity to assure more normal social participation (e.g., promoting independent living, employability, functional social skills, and self-management). As applied, such goals often preclude individuals with disabilities from resisting norms that counter the political ideal of independence (like choosing to live in the company of one's family of origin rather than independently). (Smith 2001)
Now, here's her explanation of "antinormalization" strategies:
Antinormalization strategies potentially form the basis for a more far-reaching project whose aim is to shift the goal of the disability movement from simple demands for inclusion to a utopian vision of a society that values human diversity. This kind of activism has been adopted within the gay liberation movement, including, for example, actions that deliberately destabilize assumptions about proper sexual conduct in public places. To a lesser extent it has caught on among disability rights activists and has been applied in protests that hope to destabilize conventional images of the disabled. In its most radical form, antinormalization is devoted to pushing for the acceptance of difference and its full expression in an open democratic process. As it is put into practice, activists are likely to promote antinormalization side by side with normalization, either as mutual or contingent empowerment strategies (Meeks 2001). This grander scheme for social inclusion raises expectations for accommodating those identities that traditionally have been marginalized. This is important to a feminist politics that hopes to value disabled people's lives, respond to gender-based disadvantage, and expand our views of meaningful citizenship. (emphasis mine)
This scheme --- normalization vs. antinormalization --- makes for a pretty odd way of grouping different approaches to social integration. In the article itself, both the Americans with Disabilities Act and ABA for autistic children --- two things that could hardly evoke more markedly opposite reactions from most autistic self-advocates --- are classed as normalization strategies. Because of that, I'm not sure how useful those terms are for someone trying to navigate the confusing thicket of choices available to a novice advocate or self-advocate. Particularly, I think the "normalization" group ought to be broken down further, possibly along the lines of what is being normalized, and to whose benefit. For instance, there's a world of difference between, say, environmental supports that allow greater participation by disabled people in "normal" society by removing whatever physical, logistical or social barriers had previously kept them out, and "educational" strategies geared toward teaching socially or behaviorally "disordered" people to look, act and speak in ways that are already socially acceptable. The first benefits all disabled people; even if not every disability is accommodated immediately, the legal framework and political precedent exists to make it likelier that they will be. The primary beneficiary of the second strategy is society, whose institutions do not have to reconsider their approaches to dealing with a diverse population when the outliers can just be persuaded to suppress their differences. Also, besides its fundamental conservatism, the second strategy also creates a hierarchy among disabled people that favors those who can more easily pass as normal.


Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...


Ari Ne'eman, the president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, emailed me the URL to your blog. I am an aspie autistic in Olathe, KS, and I am starting a chapter of the network for the KC area. Are you interested in taking part?

Mark Foster

Ettina said...

I agree with your thoughts on normalization, but I'd phrase it differently.
I'd say that normalization is trying to make us emulate the norm, in our basic ways of relating and interacting, while trying to remove external barriers to us participating in normal activities would be 'inclusion' rather than normalization.

Anonymous said...

Do join us at AWA ~ Asperger Women Association


Anonymous said...

AWA ~ Asperger Women Association work with ASAN and Ari Ne'eman... Our site is on My space

Look forward to seeing you there too..

Anemone said...

I wondered, reading this, whether she simply wasn't aware that people try to normalize autistic people by erasing our differences. She may not have heard of ABA or be aware of the implications.