To all readers who are unaware, the phrase “intellectual disability(ies)” refers to the condition formerly known clinically as “mental retardation”, which is defined as having an officially tested IQ under 70.
Attention people of the world—there is an issue here that needs to be discussed and publicly. There is a video that is (re)surfacing about Carly Fleischmann, a young non-speaking Autistic woman who at the age of 11 showed her family that she was able to communicate in the English language by using a computer and later, if memory serves, an iPad. This is awesome. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is something that needs to be talked about more, to be more widely researched, and to be more widely propagated. This is a distinctly good thing that has arisen from Carly’s story.
The not so good thing is how it’s propagated in the media. The title of the particular link that I see everywhere is “Girl who was Thought to be Mentally Retarded Finds her Voice.” I am truly glad that Carly found a way to communicate to the speaking world. I am likewise glad that her abilities, which had been profoundly underestimated because of ableism, are being recognized. These are the sorts of things that Autistic activists live to see and want for all of our fellow Autistics. We fight for this every day.
My issue is this—the way this video and the media in general frame Carly’s story gives me the distinct impression that most people’s thought process goes a bit like this—“Oh, she’s not retarded. How awful it must have been for her to be undervalued as one of them.” Essentially, that she was wrongfully undervalued because everyone thought that she had an intellectual disability, but now that she has shown that she does not have an intellectual disability, she is considered more deserving of human dignity than before.
I want you to pause and think about the ableism inherent to that whole piece of discourse. The way that everyone frames this story only serves to reinforce the idea that people with intellectual disabilities are not valuable people and that in order to be considered a valuable person Carly had to demonstrate that she did not have an intellectual disability. In fact, it reminds me of this video where Amanda Baggs explains this whole issue much more eloquently.
Yes, Autistics who cannot consistently speak should have access to AAC so that they can navigate the world. It’s terrific that Carly got that. But that didn’t make her a more valuable person once this metaphorical Schrödinger’s Box was opened and showed that the cat wasn’t intellectually disabled. The lesson here shouldn’t be “don’t undervalue people who might have intellectual disabilities because you don’t know if they are actually of average ‘intelligence’ and therefore valuable.” Rather, we should recognize that all people have value, regardless of their intelligence. The fact that the former seems to be the lesson, the fact that “not a retard” is considered a compliment, says absolutely nothing good and everything bad about this society.