Two stories co-occurred in my Facebook feed this past week:
*The Autism Cake (link goes to a great commentary by The Crazy Crippled Chick because I can’t ever bear to link you to a news piece calling it “heartwarming.”)
*Abuse at an Adelaide Autism Center (Australian news story; see full text here: AEIOUabuse.)
I suspect some readers will instantly grok how these stories are interrelated, but let me break it down for you, beginning with the cake.
The story, brought to us by Cake Lady herself, goes thusly, and all the emphases are mine here: Cake Lady walked into a supermarket and to the bakery counter. She asked the person working at the counter to decorate the cake with a Happy Birthday message in icing. “After taking a long time,” the bakery worker presented the cake, Cake Lady smiled and thanked her before looking at the cake, then she looked at it while she walked away and laughed, but, “didn’t really mind that it looked so bad – I thought people would think it was funny.” At checkout, several other employees gathered round the cake, discussed it, took pictures, and finally told Cake Lady that the bakery worker was autistic and “you probably made her day” by smiling at her and saying thank you. The moral of the story, Cake Lady concludes, is “kindness is important.”
Where to begin? There is no kindness in this story at all. Not when Cake Lady smiles and says thank you in an ordinary exchange of goods at a supermarket. Not when she laughs behind the bakery worker’s back and how bad the cake looks – and not when she decides it is redeemed by comedic value for being so badly done. Not when the other supermarket employees gather around to gawk and not when they disclose the bakery worker’s autistic identity to a stranger without her consent so that they can applaud her for having a normal human interaction with a disabled person.
There is no kindness when Cake Lady posts this story to social media, with photos of the cake she finds so comically bad, literally to congratulate herself for “kindness.” (??) There is no kindness in the many many media outlets who published this story as an example of a heartwarming story of human kindness, without ever getting the perspective of the bakery employee, as if she is not a person at all, merely a prop. Which she is.
So what’s all the hype about? The reality is that our society does not value disabled people; they are seen as dependents, non-contributing entities, demi-humans whose lives are just a weak, broken, inferior version of “real,” “normal” people’s lives. Mostly, disabled people are just flat out ignored.
Insofar as non-disabled people have any positive feelings about disabled folks, they are based around condescension and pity: “Oh, that poor person. It’s so inspiring that they _____!” [have a job, were allowed to play for .5 minutes in a basketball game, went on an arranged date to the prom, etc.] “It truly gives me faith in humanity, when a normal person acknowledges the existence of disabled people in any way!” This is called Inspiration Porn. (Link opens a Ted Talk by the kickass comedian Stella Young.)
I see plenty of Inspiration Porn stories – usually they are about disabled people or homeless people, bonus points for both! – but Cake Lady has stuck with me. Why? Because it’s so flagrantly NOT an act of kindness, yet is being lauded as a shining example of goodness in the world. Cake Lady did not do ONE single kind thing in this story – I challenge you to name one! What people are lauding, really, is that: 1) a disabled person is allowed to have a job, and 2) the normals didn’t yell at her for fucking up at work, because 3) they feel bad for her because she is just a poor poor autistic person who probably doesn’t understand anything and it’s a special treat for another human being to SMILE IN HER GENERAL DIRECTION. That, it seems, is more than she deserves.
What does Cake Lady have to do with the other story? In Adelaide, Australia, the AEIOU autism center for young children is facing allegations that workers abused some of their young students, leaving bad bruises on their legs – parents suspect that this is related to potty training at the center. These are vulnerable non-speaking children who were not able to tell their parents in words what was happening to them, but they told them by becoming extremely upset about going back to AEIOU each day. The center’s response is to deny, deny, deny. Other parents are rallying to the staff’s defense, claiming that because it didn’t happen to their children, it didn’t happen to anyone.
Autistic children are not respected. They face the double whammy of being children, who generally are not respected by adults anyway, and disabled to boot. Autistic children are very often treated with this kind of “kindness” without respect: they are treated well as long as they are obedient and don’t have too many “behaviors.” Another way to describe this is “tolerance.” As Amythest Schaber said in their brilliant talk at the Richmond Autism Research Fair, “There is no love in tolerance. Tolerance is inequality. Tolerance says, ‘Who you are is different and wrong, but I, as the right majority, will conditionally allow your unpleasant existence to go on.'”
The punishment for not staying meekly in the mold of the poor poor disabled person who is grateful for the slightest acknowledgment of their humanity is pain, abuse, and sometimes even death. The AEIOU case isn’t even that unusual – as noted in the Autistic Family Collective statement on the case, there had been five separate cases of abuse against autistic children in a 12 week period when the AEIOU story broke – in Australia alone. But this goes on everywhere.
In a world where it is considered a kindness to laugh behind an autistic person’s back instead of to their face and then publicly congratulate oneself for conducting an ordinary business transaction with a disabled person in a polite manner, abuse of disabled persons is a given. It’s a GIVEN. Abuse and murder are the inevitable outputs of a society that fails to have a very basic level of respect for disabled people, that does not even seem to know how to recognize disabled people as fully human – complex, unique people who experience the full range of human emotions that anyone else does (and in the case of many autistic people, an even richer and more intensely felt range of emotion), who are self-aware no matter how old or young they are, who need real human connection and shouldn’t have to settle for tokenism, inspiration porn, and abusive relationships.
I get frustrated, these days, when I see people sharing the Mr. Rogers quote that says, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” This is good advice to comfort children, but for adults it seems to be, more and more, an excuse for doing nothing. It sounds like people are just asking to be allowed to continue to ignore the bad and wrong things, to not have to talk about them. You’re a grownup now. Stop looking for the helpers and be one.
You don’t have to be an activist. I know more than many that it’s hard enough sometimes just to get up and face each day, without feeling obligated to join a war against evil. But I believe in the contagion of ideas as a powerful social change agent. So even if you never join a picket line, sign a petition, write a blog, or even share a Facebook post, you can be a helper by changing your mind. If you’ve gotten to this paragraph, you’ve at least read one blog post by a disabled person, and that’s a start. There are so many others out there. There is a wealth of voices talking about lived experiences of being disabled, or queer, or persons of color, or in so many other ways the people who are calling out for social justice. Once in a while, hear them. It will change you.
And remember. Kindness without respect for others is worthless at best, and actively harmful much of the time. Kindness without respect is what we already have in abundance: inspiration porn and tolerance. We don’t need more of that.