Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Myth of "Overcoming"

There are a lot of things about the disability community that bother me. They aren't problems that are limited to just the autism community, either. They're wider than that. Wider even than neurodiversity in its big-tent form. What I'm referring to, of course, is the generally accepted level of ableism in our society, and when I talk about the problems I have with "overcoming", I want to talk about them in that general way.

This is not to say that "overcoming" doesn't have specific and unique ways of manifesting as a problem within the autism community. It does. My reasons for addressing it more generally are not meant to sideline the discussion about autism-specific issues, and I'll treat them later in this essay. For starters, though, it's useful to talk about why "overcoming" is a problem more generally.

"Overcoming" and intent

Most of the time, when I address individual uses of the "Overcoming" trope with people, the defense that I get is based around their intent when they used the word. That is to say that if I point out that "overcoming" is not a good description of what the person is doing, I get pushback about being too sensitive or about how the speaker's goal was to highlight the person's achievement, not to erase his/her condition.

I shouldn't have to remind people about this, but intent is not a magical way to repair mistakes you've made. Poor word choices are poor, and simply apologizing and moving forward does far less damage than attempting to argue that you're still right because the thing you said isn't the thing you meant to say and everyone else should know that. Still, there are an awful lot of people who will spend a very large number of words essentially arguing the point in the last sentence without reducing it to its simplest terms, which would automatically implode its credibility by showing it to be self-centered and based on impossible expectations.

Very often, too, the people who defend "Overcoming" as a word miss out on the fact that what they're praising as proof that someone has "overcome" a disability or impairment is actually something that is very impressive on its own. For example, I have heard from family members that they are proud of my "overcoming" my problems with expressive language and writing a book. They might have the best of intentions, but the fact that they are using "overcoming" to tie my ability to write a book to my coping with my disability is very disappointing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but writing a book is incredibly difficult and most people can't do it. I expect that, if I'm going to be praised for it, I get praised for it. When it's used as proof of my "overcoming," the implication is that it's an everyday task that I struggled with, and my achieving it is a milestone. This is insulting regardless of the speaker's intent, and there is no way for me to be gracious about it, because people who (typically) don't have the discipline or talent to acquire my skill set are essentially downplaying my achievement when they "congratulate" me in this way.

If the "overcoming" achievement being discussed is something that is essentially a basic skill, then the intent-based defense holds a little more water. It still has problems along other axes, but it does at least avoid the minimization/dismissal of exceptional skills. That's not to say it's defensible, though. The other side of the problem with "Overcoming" and the speaker's intentions is that when the accomplishment of basic skills or tasks is heralded as proof that a disabled person has "overcome" a condition, it can distract us from providing the support that someone needs in other areas.

To boil it down to simplest terms: When you say someone has "overcome" because they have excelled in a skill area, you erase their accomplishment. This is especially troublesome when the skill area is one that the general public does not develop--such as a professional skill. When you say they have "overcome" because they have met a basic milestone in one skill area, you erase their need for further support in other skill areas. That's the essential error here--"overcome" means "no longer has a problem". If someone is seen to have "overcome" a problem, the general assumption is that they no longer need help.

"Overcoming" versus coping

If the language that is used to congratulate disabled persons when they reach milestones or achieve professional success is one that effectively labels them as no longer having an impairment (despite acknowledging that they have a disability), then the result will be to reduce the general level of attentiveness to that person's need for support and/or help coping. The language itself compels such a conclusion, even if it is only made at the subconscious level.

This is erasure, pure and simple. If the "overcoming" trope is used by a support person or caregiver, then it can even have a hand-washing effect, allowing the speaker to absolve him/her self of the responsibilities of continued support or care by stating out loud that the achievement of a certain milestone or accomplishment has ended the disabled person's need for further support.

Because our impairments are sometimes imperceptible to outsiders (such as when we're dealing with anxiety), and also because we often have a network of support persons (meaning that not all of the people helping us know all of our needs), the use of "overcoming" in this way is almost always a hasty generalization, one that deprives us of agency by creating a narrative of our experiences that we have no control over.

This is the essential problem with not only this term, but with all ableist language--it is not only inaccurate, but the overall connotations of the word choices are domineering. What I mean by this is that "overcoming", as used by outside observers of our lives, is a term that can only be used to leave the impression that all is well with us. When that term is imposed on us from the outside, it is not only inaccurate, it requires us to devote extra energy to speaking back against the inaccuracy. This hurts our ability to access support and accommodations, which in turn creates a situation whereby we are forced to fall back on coping mechanisms that chew up our personal resources. The result of it is to stunt our growth by closing off our resources, forcing us to develop only in areas where we are, for all intents and purposes, not impaired.

Of course, this only addresses the use of "overcoming" by non-disabled speakers.

"Overcoming" ourselves

When a disabled person is using the "overcoming" trope herself, the problem becomes entirely different. Before I get too far into this part of the talk, I do want to point out that I'm not in favor of policing someone's expressive language. When I do encounter people applying the "overcoming" trope to their own experience, I intentionally do not engage with them about it then and there. If given the chance, I will do what I can do to get them to look at discussions about this topic, but I won't take their words and then tell them that they did something wrong. In keeping with the spirit of that ethos, I'm also not going to bring in specific examples of people who say that they have "overcome" in order to debunk them. It's not my goal or my intention to devalue the ways that others make sense of their own experiences.

It is true, though, that people who use the "overcoming" trope to narrate their own experiences have an impact on the rest of us. Their choice to minimalize and keep private their existing challenges and/or impairments is their own to make, but by using the "overcoming" trope to highlight their achievements, they are not only keeping their challenges private, they are broadcasting to the community at large that acknowledging these challenges and impairments is undesirable. Their erasure of their own struggles, whether it's through a narrative that places them in the past or one that simply ignores them, has a tangible effect.

If these voices are viewed as influential, if their "overcoming" is seen as desirable and lauded, then the culture shifts. Their admirers pick up on the implicit trade-offs they are making in their narrative. Slowly, over repeated exposure, a cultural norm emerges, one that values this method of highlighting achievements and downplaying challenges. The reason this is a problem is that, in an environment that downplays challenges, that treats them as undesirable topics of discussion, it is more difficult for individuals who need to speak up in order to receive support and accommodation to do so.

If the net effect of your personal narrative is that it decreases access for others, then that is a problem. We do not need to police your language to point this out--as this essay shows, it is demonstrable in principle. The effect need not be intentional either--individual speakers do not control the way that their audience will interpret their words. They should be looking hard at it, though. It is one thing to say something that winds up being unintentionally harmful. It's another thing to promote the vocabulary that was harmful after its effect is made clear.

This brings us to the last part of my discussion.

The myth of "Overcoming" and autism

To bring this discussion back around to my particular disability community, and also to close this essay, it's worthwhile to discuss how these harmful effects of the "overcoming" narrative impact the autism community in specific ways. To do that, it is important to understand the way that "treatment" for autism is situated within that community, how it is distinct from supports and/or accommodations, and why the two are not the same thing.

Most "treatment" options for autism that are not purely and demonstrably quackery revolve around behavior modification and/or behavior analysis. Similarly, most stories about "overcoming" autism are actually stories about successful behavior modification. Since it has long been the goal of those programs to make Autistic children "indistinguishable" from their peers, the implication has to be that to "overcome" autism, one must necessarily erase its visibility. The flaw in this thinking is much the same as the basic flaw in the section on coping above--it assumes that the relevant challenges are the visible ones, and it prizes reduced visibility.

This is a particularly damaging approach to take when one is addressing a cognitive difference. Even if one were to view autism as a set of "deficits" (not a view I endorse), one has to acknowledge the different cognitive style that Autistics possess and the way that it requires modifications to traditional educational methods. The elimination of autism-specific behaviors does nothing to address the issues with cognitive style and learning, and as such, the idea of "overcoming" autism though behavior modification becomes preposterous.

This is not to say that there are no behavior-based approaches to teaching that work, or that they are all ineffective. If the goal of the process is to provide support and to modify traditional educational processes to fit the Autistic student, and if the entire process is consensual, then I'm not one to rule out any approach. If, however, the goal is to render the student silent about her own needs while coaxing a verbal performance of learned scripts, though, then that is abuse, and the person who emerges on the other end has not "overcome" autism--she has simply been shamed into no longer seeking access or accommodation.

That is the essence of ableism.