The Eugenics Movement Never Ended

Note: I want to make it clear that not all people with neurodevelopmental disorders see themselves as being disabled (though, I would argue that we are made disabled by society, which is explained through a social model of disability). I state this because the conversation around disability is super complex, even within the community. So while I do see myself as disabled, I do not speak for others with neurodevelopmental disorders in how they see themselves.

Far too many people have bought into the illusion that eugenics went away after World War II and that we gave it all up. We didn’t. A lot of people, ashamed to be peddling outright eugenics, hid it behind kinder words, nicer sounding policies, and politer manners.

But they still kept doing it.

Yet, since people see “all the work” that has gone in to get things like legislation that “protects” disabled people and “gives them rights,” “providing them with opportunities they never before had,” they mistakenly believe we’ve progressed a significant amount. People see groups that seek to “cure” neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism and ADHD, as being helpful because they can speak the loudest and have the most resources.

Yet they don’t want to listen to us

They want to ignore us and assume that the world is hostile because our disorders make it hostile. They assume that, since they “couldn’t cope with all the problems” that we deal with on a daily basis, we must want to be cured.

This is despite the fact that the majority of responses by people with neurodevelopmental disorders is that we don’t want to be cured. We want the world to be kinder. We want the world to accommodate us as if we are part of it.

Because we are.

Separator.

It’s not uncommon to engage in social media and run across hateful comments toward a marginalised and vulnerable demographic of people. That’s a daily occurrence, though it’s not confined simply to ‘The Internet’, as many people dearly love saying. Nothing on the internet is simply or purely on the internet; it is all around us, but the abuse more clearly exists across various social media platforms, highlighting the problems on a grander scale.

This has to be said because people constantly try to pass off every negative comment and every form of abuse as “just something online,” as if the offline world contains none of the same issues or is never impacted by what happens online. They mutually impact each other, and they have for as long as they’ve existed. This should be obvious.

So it’s not surprising to see ableist comments such as the following:

“A society in which autistic people could function with no setbacks would be a bad society for the rest of us so yes.”

These views clearly come from a shared perspective that exists within society. Though this quote can easily be found online and is situated in a context of “curing” autism, it isn’t novel.

It sounds exactly like the complaints of my former colleagues about autistic students in our schools that I have had to fight against for years. It sounds precisely the same as the complaints I have received from parents of non-disabled students who think it’s “unfair” that their children have to interact with someone who “has problems.”

Honestly, it sounds exactly like the so-called “expert” special education teacher who trained teachers in my university courses. It mirrors her abhorrent beliefs about how we “cater too much to lazy children who are getting disability diagnoses so they can do less,” even though that is so far from the truth.

But this is decades, if not more than a few centuries, in the making. These are the exact programs, inside and outside of schools, that we have created for disabled and without them.

There’s a reason a common phrase among the disability community is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” It’s because we’ve never been considered, even when our needs are being discussed.

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The world is not made for us. Specifically, the world as it has been shaped is made for a small percentage of people because it’s not really made for anyone, but the world is very much not made for disabled people in the slightest. This can also be made worse based on a range of other factors: our gender (perceived and actual), our race and ethnicity, whether or not we have simultaneous disabilities, where we live, our socioeconomic class, our migration status, if we have a language barrier, and so on. There is a lot that can make the world more or less accessible to us.

Yet, as is true for most axes of oppression, we are expected to assimilate into society. If we do not assimilate (or fail to assimilate correctly), we can face a wide spectrum of abuse: harassment, neglect, and torture.

And torture is not hyperbole. This is most noticeable in the #StopTheShock campaign, which is a response to the fact that a court overturned the FDA’s ban of the use of electric shock on disabled students at the Judge Rotenberg Center.

Instead of reorganising the world to include autistic people, to include all disabled people, far too many think the world would be better off without us. And this belief is not confined simply to the far-right. Many people who consider themselves “on the left” or as “progressives” often share these values, too, and refuse to even take time to self-reflect on how they’re perpetuating harm.

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The history of the Progressive Movement in the early 20th century is littered with eugenicist rhetoric, and many people still hold these Progressive figures in high regard without even trying to understand their flawed history.

Schools, as we know them today, were largely developed under the Progressive Movement. Unsurprisingly, schools were filled with eugenicist policies. In overtly negative uses, these policies often targeted poor and non-white children; in more “positive” ones, they pushed for “gifted and talented” classes to support the “better children” in society (which usually meant supporting wealthier and whiter children).

In the early 1900s, institutions such as the Indiana School for Feebleminded Youth often talked about how there were too many “feebleminded” children and how it would be “a tremendous burden of expense to every community” if no one did anything to ensure there were fewer of them. They called for those children to be isolated from society, they called them defectives, and they suggested that the “defectives” living in other states shouldn’t be allowed to relocate to Indiana (in case they brought more “feebleminded” children and people).

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because this is how organisations such as Autism Speaks (and their supporters) speak about autistic people. This is the same kinds of rhetoric in the discussion about “curing” autistic people. This isn’t limited to just autism; it’s how many people talk about any kind of disabled person. It’s how they talk about people with any neurodevelopmental disorder.

It also runs parallel to how people have talked (and some still talk) about queer people. I definitely remember hearing (and being terrified of) this rhetoric around the “gay gene” when I was a kid. I remember news reports talking about how we could erase this so-called “gay gene.”

It’s almost the exact same, and so is the fear I feel for both.

Separator.

This conversation is much more complex and nuanced than whether or not to cure people of neurodevelopmental disorders and/or disabilities, but many of the people having the conversation about whether or not to cure us are not impacted either by society or the disorders/disabilities they want to treat (and eradicate). The only people who get to say that they “wish they had a cure” are the people who have to deal with having a neurodevelopmental disorder and/or disability. No one else gets to have that say, even if they are the parents of someone with one.

The people who wish they had a cure are not pawns to be used to push for eugenicist policy and research. They are people who have the lived experience to understand why they, personally, would want a cure who should have the space to articulate their frustrations. They are not talking points, and they are not ‘gotchas’ in debates about whether or not we should cure autism or anything else.

Literally anyone else can do everyone a favour and shut the fuck up.

And while they’re shutting the fuck up, here are some suggestions for what they can do instead of advocate for eugenics: Before even thinking of trying to cure us, solve the problems that neurotypical and non-disabled society has forced upon us and has made our lives more difficult. Get rid of the systems that force us to assimilate and tolerate accommodations that other people assume we need, since everyone often refuses to talk to any of us about what we actually need or want. Stop pushing for legalising assisted suicide first, especially when society refuses to let us have access to medical care or accommodations at all.

Most of all: Just fucking care about us being happy and healthy. Accept us for who we are and let us grow as we need. Stop trying to pathologise and eradicate everything and everyone that isn’t immediately understood.

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