“Culture of Disability” vs. “Neurodiversity”


The other day, when I read an article in Ode Magazine titled Your Brain Is A Rain Forest, I was both delighted and reminded of unpleasant things at the same time.

The premise of the article:

People with conditions like ADHD, dyslexia and mood disorders are routinely labeled “€œdisabled”. But differences among brains are as enriching—and essential—as differences among plants and animals. Welcome to the new field of neurodiversity.

When I was a kid, like most other kids I had a LOT of energy. I also had parents who did not…or more accurately, did not have the same kind of energy. They worked hard to provide for me and my two sisters, but neither of them did physical work. My mom had been athletic in her youth, but a bad knee jury when I was still quite young pretty much put an end to that. My dad, well, he never played or had any interest in sports.

And so my youthful, decidedly male energy really stood out in my family. Add to the mix that I was adopted at birth, yet my sisters were not, and it was a perfect setup for a black sheep scenario.

I don’t remember exactly when my parents started to used the descriptor “hyperactive” as they talked about me, but I do know it was early and I know that it hurt, not necessarily from the word itself, but, rather, because I was now being talked about as having a problem, a problem that was making life difficult for others. I also know that, for a short time, I was medicated in an attempt to “calm me down,” but, fortunately, that didn’t last long.

My parents grew uncomfortable giving me drugs, and they were given advice by someone to get me involved in sports instead. That someone is owed my eternal gratitude. Sports gave me an outlet for all that playful energy, and I was good enough at sports to enjoy them, to notice that in sports I was appreciated for my playful energy rather than diagnosed. Oh, I was still the black sheep in my family and “hyperactive” was eventually replaced by other labels, but my parents never again took me to a doctor for “help” with my neurodiversity.

One of the primary ways that those early experiences stuck with me manifests as an abhorrence of labeling people. If you consider all the horror that has been perpetrated by groups of people with one label doing bad things to people with another label, I don’t see how there’s any way anyone could conclude that the practice hasn’t been a net disaster. And now I have a 12-year old son who has a lot of playful, male energy and reminds me of myself in so many ways, and I can already see how his individuality has occasionally been seen as a “problem” within our screwed up culture.

Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry, as powerful as the big oil and military industries, depends on our culture of disability, so this idea of neurodiversity, sadly, is up against rather discouraging odds. There would need to be a massive cultural shift, including how we raise our children, in education and in medicine.

I say, considering the failure and tragedy that labeling has wrought throughout the ages, a shift toward a neurodiversity framework could be the only thing to stop the cycle of oppression and violence.


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