Thursday, October 30, 2008

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory: Executive Summary

This series of posts (Part I, Part II, Part III) was written in response to this article by Amherst College Professor of Women's Studies and Political Science Kristin Bumiller, which appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of the feminist journal Signs.

In her article, Bumiller describes the neurodiversity movement, sketches a history of knowledge about and attitudes toward autism, and draws analogies between the social model of disability and feminist theories about the social construction of gender. Both movements, she argues, seek to enable their constituencies (women, people with disabilities) to participate more fully in democratic societies by reorganizing those societies so that those groups are no longer disadvantaged.

She calls those "antinormalization" strategies for social integration --- rather than seeking to enable more people to meet society's standards for full citizenship, they seek a loosening of standards. I chose to highlight two issues where feminism and neurodiversity (and disability-rights activism in general) both urge antinormalization strategies: caregiving and gender roles. As it stands, caregiving is done primarily by women, either within families for no pay or within institutional settings for little pay, and the relationship between the caregiver and the person with disabilities tends to be a hierarchical one in which the person with disabilities has relatively little autonomy, dignity or control. I think that if there were more choices between full independence --- home ownership, full-time employment, car ownership, etc. --- and total dependence --- the institution or group home --- everyone would be able to live in the way that best meets their needs, and pressures would be lifted from both women (who currently do most of the work of caring for elderly or disabled relatives) and disabled people (who don't want to be burdens to their families, and are easily guilted or browbeaten into choosing living arrangements that don't suit them but are convenient for their families).

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