Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Labels and semantics

Recently, I engaged in a discussion on Facebook with the friend of a friend. The topic of the discussion was autism. It wasn't unfriendly, but there was disagreement. And I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

The FOAF - let's call her Tanya - is on the autistic spectrum. In the UK, in terms of the Disability Discrimination Act and its associated guidelines, we are discouraged from referring to people like Tanya as 'autistic' or 'suffering from autism'. We are to say 'people with autism'. Because to say that someone is autistic (or diabetic or cerebral palsied or whatever) is to imply that they are defined by their condition. To say that they suffer from autism (or diabetes or cerebral palsy or whatever) is to imply that they are victims defeated by their condition. I mentioned this in the exchange.

Tanya was not impressed.

She referred to herself as autistic. And she had a fairly strong and succint argument as to why.

She pointed out that the very political correctness around the way that labels are used is in itself discriminatory because - and here's where she completely took the wind out my sails - labels that we perceive as not implying any shortcoming are not applied in that way.

We say the slim woman, the athletic man, the intelligent child, the blond woman, the healthy man, the honest child. We don't get hung up on saying things like 'the woman with slimness', the man with athleticism' and so forth.

She also took another stance I found unexpected and interesting.

I mentioned that I have long considered autism to be a spectrum we're all on somewhere.

She didn't like that.

For her, discovering she was autistic was a revelation. It explained why some things were a challenge for her, that came easily to others. Better than that, autism enabled her to do things that other people can't do. She was unique. She was special. And she wasn't about to give up on that to some warm and fuzzy liberal who wanted to paint the entire human race in varying shades of her colour.

Fair point, Tanya. Fair point.

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