A Crossroads of Equality: Ableism and Intersectionality

“Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled”

A definition of “ableism”

The exact definition of ableism depends on who you ask. Different people experience the discrimination in different ways. I like the one above, which clarifies how ableism can happen when people are perceived as disabled, or reduced to one charecteric in order to undermine them.

I’d like to think of myself as an ally to minority groups, even if I can’t speak with any authority on the experiences of any of them, except autism. For a more in depth analysis of disability issues specifically, I recommend you follow Mel Baggs’ blog. Her post “There is ableism somewhere at the heart of your oppression…” frames the argument along the lines of ‘if you’ve experienced discrimination, you’ve experienced abelism’ which is different to mine, though hers is still worth a read.

The idea behind intersectionalism is that all forms of discrimination go hand in hand with one another, in the sense that racism and abelism intersect, as there are obviously disabled people from BAME backgrounds. Homophobia and transphobia intersect in that there are trans people who are also gay and so on. The idea of intersectionalism proposes that you can’t be against one form of discrimination without also being against the others.

Until recently, autism has been widely thought of as largely a male disorder, with boys diagnosed with autism outnumbering girls, 4 to 1. Psychologists such as Baron-Cohen attribute the condition to an “extreme male brain”, where according to him the minds of men are geared towards ordering things – a male trait – but not empathisng – a female trait. However, scientists such as Shana Nicholas have pointed out how females often “slip under the radar” and research from 2012 theorized that autistic females are more likely to skew towards needing learning support, than showing behavioral problems, meaning thier missed by a lot of the methods used to diagnose ASD. That’s without mentioning the very interesting research appearing to show that autistic people are more likely than neurotypical people to be gender diverse.

Within BAME communities, a lot of families experience double discrimination, due to thier ethnicity or disability. Many families from those groups struggle to engage with autism resources due to a lack of representation from facilitators, the language barrier and not being able to get others to empathize with issues related to thier culture or religion. Also, testimony by autistic people from those communities say that things like public meltdowns often aren’t treated as symptoms of autism for them. To use one quote from a parent ‘people will see this behaviour first, and then see the colour of my child’s skin’

In that sense, there is an archetype associated with autistic people. That of, ‘straight, white and male’ – and I fit that picture. How can advocates of the neurodiversity movement like myself, claim to be against oppression of all autistics, when we have yet to shake off that stereotype? Research on autism within gender and race etc. present an opportunity for a turning point in our understanding of the condition. Vitally, in order to be truly representative, autistic activists must realise the importance of intersectionalism. This is why I say we are at a crossroads of equality.


Reading the research around gender, sexuality and race makes deciphering how ableism interacts with different discriminations, easier to understand.

Consider for a second that a lot of homophobia focuses on trying to delegitimize peoples sexual identity either by making them seem less woman-like or making them out as effeminate. These are obviously incredibly offensive caricatures to both women and LGBT+ people. Therefore, sexism, homophobia and indeed transphobia are here interacting in a way which paints stereotypes of people from across the sexual or gender spectrum. To be against one of these forms of discrimination and not the others, would be absurd.

Upon further analysis of quotes like the one from the mother who worried her son was being judged based on race for his autisitc meltdowns, we see this sort of interaction happening within ableism. In what she described, passers by saw the skin colour before they even guessed at autism, and presumably used that to make a judgement about the child or her parenting. In fact with lots of forms of discrimination, the concept of intelligence, learning and the mind plays a vital role. People on the LGBTQ+ spectrum have been accused of having a mental illness. IQ scores are often used as a way of saying people from certain racial backgrounds and are inferior to white people. Even when autism research focuses on one gender, the fact that all characteristics for defining autism are being looked at through a lens of how males experience ASD, shows an intersection of ableism and sexism.

Embeded within each of the fist two examples is the idea that people from those groups must be mentally disabled. In the case of the later we see how one group experiences autism being applied as the prototype, which overlooks not just females but all people with unique experiences of being on the spectrum. In this sense, ableism too can intersect with multiple forms of discrimination. I use the word intersect here to stress that this isn’t a case of one form of discrimination being more important than another, just that they’re not as disconnected as they are sometimes thought of as being. Importantly, realising that they intersect, strengthens the case for why we should care about all marginalized groups.

A Question of Ability?

In order to explore abelism with regard to intersectionalism we need to look further at this idea of intelligence and the mind. Any attempt to devalue autisitc people or to devalue somebody by making them out as disabled, focuses on thier weaknesses. For me that’s interacting in social situations and being under pressure. This disregards things like emotional intelligence, or cognitive ability to understand a special skill, which a lot of autistic people excel at. All discrimination really, involves a stripping of nuance and specifics.

I pointed out earlier how the idea of intelligence has been routinely used to undermine people of different racial backgrounds. In the case of the former, the abelist and racist myth of “race science” says that there is link between race and intelligence and that there are “evolutionary bases for disparities in social outcomes such as wealth and educational attainment”

So I bet some of you are a bit confused right now. If neither autistic people or people from BAME backgrounds are less intelligent, than how are those two forms of discrimination connected? Well, heres the point. Intelligence is a slippery concept. Its one thing to try and prove that there are no significant disparities in intelligence between marginalized groups and everyone else, and another to argue against the ways some methods of measuring intelligence can be used to promote discriminatory messaging.

Take IQ scores. Most people who take them will achieve a fairly flat line across each of the categories. For the majority, if they are unable to cook a meal, they will also be unable to analyze complex literature. However, for autisitc people this might be different. I remember when I was young I took a longer time than most to learn how to tell the time and to cook, but I also remember still being very emotionally aware, and knowing lots about my favourite authors and musicians. One could look at my difficulty in immediately comprehending an instruction or question now and conclude that I am less intelligent, without taking into account other forms of intelligence. Its a similar situation with people from different cultures. IQ tests have been criticised before for placing undue weight on language skills, when people from different backgrounds obviously communicate differently.

This goes back to this question of nuance. With discrimination all question of different experiences is removed and the discriminator is focusing on a set of standards which they have decided determines someone’s intelligence. Transphobia relies on a set of assumptions about what male or female is, homophobia on ideas about what is right for men or women to do. Considering straight, white and abled people are the majority, the assumptions are frequently based on what’s ‘expected’.

Ableism can intersect with other discriminations any time one group of people is derided as mentally and psychologically inferior another, and you see a view of thier identity as something to be cured. Age old ideas of medicalization – the concept that you can just ‘cure’ something thats intrinsic to the genetic makeup of a person – has been used to hurt people of numerous identities, including autistics. Even if we’re looking at this on a less extreme note, every time people are judged on a basis of what they can or cant do, or anytime someone is barred from access to a certain part of society that most have access to, you’re seeing why identity activists of all stipes should be supportive of each other.

An Atypical Perspective…

Discriminations intersect in different ways: Just looking at the baseline fact that there are autistic people who are black or autistic people who are gender diverse shows a good enough argument for intersectional equality. This is stressed further still through the prevalence of medicalization in identity discrimination, the like for like comparison of peoples abilities irrespective of thier backgrounds, and even the bias that sometimes occurs within research. By grasping how these discriminations intersect we can seek to further understand the experiences of a wide range of autistic people, and make the community a welcoming place for those outside of the steotypical definition of ‘disabled’.

Don’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree: This is a mislabeled quote often attributed to Albert Einstein which goes ‘everybody’s a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid’. He meant that someone might excel on one measurement and prove inept on another. Unlike the standard portrayal of autisitc people, I’m awful at maths, while I excel in creative ventures. Still, if you judged my intellegence based on the former, you could conclude that I’m not very bright. We see this across the board. People from different cultures or countries are judged on thier ability to understand western reading or writing comprehension. People of different genders are expected to experience things like disabilities in the same way. To hold up a set of standards and pretend that they are universal is not only ableist but a disservice to people of all identities.

Intersectionalism should be a lynchpin of movements towards equality: Considering that everybody is diverse in some respect, without any intersectionalism at the heart of your movement you’re really only speaking for yourself. However, as previously pointed out, efforts to seek equality should consider the experiences of all those people within them – an autistic community should value the experiences of its BAME members, just as much as those of its LGBTQ+ members. There are issues that you can say pertain specifically to each of those groups and they themselves should always be given the microphone first in any disscussion about thier oppression. Still, our struggles are often interconnected and interweaved in ways which can’t, or indeed shouldn’t, be overlooked.

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