By Cara Liebowitz
It was a chilly spring night in March of 2012 and I stood in the middle of Farragut Square in Washington DC, alongside my fellow disabled brethren. We were coming to the end of a somber event, a candlelit vigil for disabled people murdered by parents or caregivers. And I was about to learn the true meaning of “candlelit”.
The tea candles were all arranged on a table, but as people started rushing to grab a candle, I paused, my stomach sinking. “I don’t think this is going to work out very well.” I said to Savannah, next to me.
You see, I have cerebral palsy, which manifests itself in innumerable ways. One of the more obvious aspects is motor impairment. 15+ years of occupational therapy ensured nothing but a lifelong hatred of the game Perfection, and so now, at age 20, I generally avoid anything that could lead to droppage, spillage, or anything else that happens when your hands don’t work. The thought of lighting and holding a lit candle – a tiny tea candle, at that – terrified me. I had visions of dropping the candle and lighting the grass on fire. No, thank you, better safe than sorry.
But Savannah was undeterred. “I could light the candle for you and you could hold it.” She suggested. I agreed. So, with Savannah’s help, I held a candle up to the sky and mourned for my brothers and sisters cruelly snatched from this world. I was able to participate fully, something that would have been impossible had it not been for Savannah’s quick thinking and willingness to accommodate.
Savannah is Autistic. I – although my particular constellation of impairments probably classifies me as neurodiverse – am not. And yet our experience at the vigil is a prime example of how disabled people of all shades can support each other.
It amazes me the hypocrisy that runs through the disability community. Disabled people who wouldn’t be caught dead using pity rhetoric to describe themselves promptly turn around and apply the same language to the Autistic community. An Autistic teen who communicates through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is excluded from a disability conference because the events are mainly Q&A based, with no attempt to accommodate him. There is a vague sense of superiority – we’re not like them, so obviously Autistics are inferior to us, the more normal disabled people. It’s the same ableist mentality that was bestowed upon us for so many years, and to a large extent, still is.
I’m not an autism expert – I leave that to the actual autistics. And there’s still a lot I don’t know about autism. But I do know that autistics deserve as much respect as any other human being, disabled or not. We, as disabled people, have more in common with each other than we think. We’ve all been subjected to assumptions about what we are capable of. We’ve all been labeled as “mild” or “severe” and expected to conform to a certain set of expectations that come with that label. We all know the feeling of struggling in a society that isn’t structured for people like us. If we cooperate with each other, stand (or sit) in solidarity and be prepared to defend each other, we can make more progress than we ever dreamed of. The disability rights movement is no longer about one limited definition of “disability” – it’s about us all.
The struggle for disability rights and acceptance is like a long, dark tunnel. We can make it out the other side, but only by the combined light of our candles. Just because we may be farther ahead in the tunnel doesn’t mean we can turn our backs on those who are where we once were. If we put our candles together, we can ALL make it out – justice and acceptance for all.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions presented within this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Autism NOW Center. Additionally, although Autism NOW respects the author’s use of Identity-Based Language, as the National Resource and Information Center, we promote and encourage the use of People First Language.