Thursday, April 12, 2012

Barry on Autism and the Social Model of Disability

Just out: Kevin Barry, Gray Matters: Autism, Impairment, and the End of Binaries, 49 San Diego L. Rev. 161 (2012).  From the introduction:
The medical-versus-social model binary is therefore a poor way of distinguishing between autism's factions. Far from distinguishing the two sides in the autism debate, the medical-versus-social model binary suggests that both parents and the neurodiverse seek the same thing: an end to disability, albeit through very different means. Furthermore, although the two sides clash over the pursuit of cures and certain treatments for autism, those policy choices are dependent on moral frameworks--not disability's dueling models of causation. And lastly, although both models of disability agree that impairment is inevitable, this turns out to be precisely what parents and the neurodiverse do not agree about. 
The real fight within the autism community has to do with autism's essence, but the hard-and-fast distinction between impairment's biological core and people's experience of impairment is illusory. Given the recent amendments to the definition of disability under the ADA, which defines disability as an “impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” the meaning of impairment is now more salient than ever.  
A recent second wave of disabilities studies suggests that impairment, like disability, is constructed by the social practices and institutions that name and diagnose it. This is true so far as it goes, but the autism debate suggests another way that impairment is constructed: it is constructed not only by those who name it but also by those who are named--autistic people, themselves. The neurodiversity movement, which claims autism as a way of being, is neither quaint nor quackery. It underscores that part of autism is the experience of those who are classified as having autism and who are changed by being so classified. For them, autism is a part of their being, not--or not only--some as of yet unknown biological pathology. Moreover, by adapting to, resisting, and transforming the social practices and institutions that classify them, autistic people change autism.  Autism, like other impairments, is therefore not fixed; its meaning is evolving as the group denoted by the diagnosis changes. 
Although many legal scholars have articulated the distinction between the social and medical models of disability and between impairment and disability, few have scrutinized the assumptions upon which these binaries are based. That is the purpose of this Article. Using autism as a case study, this Article attempts to show that the oft-claimed binary between the social model of disability (which holds that disability is socially constructed) and the medical model of disability (which holds that it is not) is not as stark as it is often made out to be, and that impairment is not solely biological but instead socially constructed, in part, by those who are diagnosed. Although these conclusions do not make peace between autism's dueling sides, they help to explain how the sides disagree “and why, perhaps, the twain shall never meet.”

Although this piece participates in the unfortunate academic trend of using "binary" as a noun, I think it's nonetheless an incredibly engaging treatment of an important set of topics. Much recommended!

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home