Suggesting an autistic child go to government funded early intervention therapy to learn how to think in a neuro-typical way or expecting an autistic work colleague to mask who they are to avoid making other employees feel uncomfortable is not inclusion, that's exclusion. Inclusion doesn't start by trying to 'fix' the person with a disability. Inclusion starts with the wider community finding ways to enable, rather than disable, that person and those solutions should never involve that individual having to change, or adapt, to make themselves fit into their environment.
As Orion Kelly, an Autistic advocate, consultant, keynote speaker, writer and broadcaster notes:“We lack the basic understanding to even acknowledge that there are different people in the world. When the majority of people think about neurological disabilities, people expect to be able to easily identify these, thanks to movies like Rain Man. I often get comments such as: 'you look normal to me.', 'you act normal', 'you have all the things that most people have: a wife, kids, a home'. And because I appear “normal” they place me in the neurotypical bucket. But in doing this, people are not acknowledging what my brain is going through. There is still a real lack of understanding about the autism spectrum.”
When trying to make an environment inclusive, be that work, school or a leisure facility, physical accessibility is always taken into consideration: things such as ramps, door widths, accessible toilets. At work when employers talk about reasonable adjustments, it's often quiet desks and low levels of lighting that are given as examples of ways to enable someone. But perhaps the thing that's equally important, people's social attitudes and understanding, remains far from inclusive.
“As an autistic person I go out into the world and I suppress my true self to keep the neurotypical world feeling comfortable. So I spend every day of my life masking. I'm playing a role except there's never an end of the scene. Constantly recovering at night to get up in the morning and play the role again. And not only am I playing the role, but failing at playing the role successfully, as I'm still autistic, so I can't completely mimic a neurotypical brain! Failing and then being rejected by people as my disability has made them feel uncomfortable.”
Orion's point also extends to school settings. Even when children have received an autism diagnosis, teachers and educational professionals will often remark that a child appears 'normal', not understanding that this is masking, that this child is trying desperately to fit in. And the result of this suppression, is the explosion that comes at the end of the day when that child returns home, to the comfort of their parents, to the place where they feel safe and able to be themselves.
Medical vs social model of disability
The social model of disability is a way of viewing the world that recognises what makes someone disabled is not their impairment or condition, but the social attitudes, physical and environmental barriers that have been placed in their way. It was developed by people with disability as a direct challenge to the prevailing medical model of disability that proposes that people are disabled by their impairments or differences. The medical model views disability as a medical problem that can be prevented, cured or managed.
The social model helps to make it clear that the oppression, exclusion and discrimination that people with disability face is not an inevitable consequence of having an impairment, but is caused instead by the way society is run and organised.
"The medical model of disability says it is not us that is disabling you, it's your disability. The social model says – you have a disability but it is the community that is disabling you. I have a neurological disability. I do not feel disabled at home. It is only when I go out into society that I really start to feel that I have an invisible disability.”
Fashion for all
Looking to the world of fashion, not really an inclusive industry in many ways – the clothes can be unaffordable to all but the super-rich, the models walking the catwalks are not a general representation of what the rest of us look like and the clothes themselves are not exactly general daily attire! At this year's Australian fashion week, adaptive clothing was the focus of day four. A collective of designers took to the runway with fashionable garments that can be worn by both non-disabled people and people with disabilities and were modelled by the very people who inspired them. The outfits included multiple adaptive features, such as magnetic button closures and zips to improve access for prosthetic users. Now, while these clothes are for the majority of people financially inaccessible, the knock-on effect from shows like this is that the designs will filter through from the runway to inspire what the high street produces and sells. So, we will hopefully start seeing more inclusive clothing that takes people with disabilities into consideration. Wouldn't it be great if we all had access to clothes that didn't contain a label, for example? Labels in clothing can trigger sensory issues for autistic people. Why not just make clothes where there is no label, where the information contained on that label is just printed onto the item of clothing?
Inclusion in the work place
How one should behave at work, particularly in an office, so called 'professionalism', was defined in the West by a very narrow set of neurotypical people. Creating these expected behaviours makes it very easy for other neurotypical people to succeed in such an environment. For people that don't fit into this category, it's almost impossible.
“The minute we start to feel uncomfortable or slightly awkward by different types of people, we tend to push those differences away. So, an autistic person might go into the work place and act differently to how their colleagues behave, as a result these colleagues may then start to push that person away. The neurotypical colleague has interpreted the autistic person’s behaviour as being rude, or even as bullying or harassment. The autistic person is expected to act in accordance with the neurotypical company policies and culture but is expected to do this with a neuro-divergent brain! As an autistic person working in this environment, I can often only fail. And this is why the unemployment rate for autistic people is so high.”
“The way that we view the behaviours of an autistic person in the workplace, or anyone that has any kind of disability, is not satisfactory. As a result, you can forget about the physical things. You can give me my own allocated desk, in a quiet area of the office where I can turn the lights down. But if when I go to a meeting and tell the truth and I'm still getting reprimanded for it, or even end up losing my job because of the way I interact with people, what's the point in me turning the lights down?”
Orion Kelly created this video after his autistic son returned home from school having experienced a lack of inclusion at a school Mother’s Day event.