Seeing Yoko Ono appear on mainstream American television, appear not to discuss John Lennon but to talk about her own artwork, and even better being treated respectfully by the hosts of said television show . . . only to have her use that time to reinforce dangerous and pervasive myths about disability. Indeed, knowing that she was likely only invited to be on that show to discuss her own artwork and is being treated with respect because she is reinforcing dangerous and pervasive myths about disability.
Check out the video below, in which Yoko Ono appears on the Today Show to discuss Promise Piece, a new work of art in the form of a giant puzzle. The pieces will be auctioned off to benefit the organization Autism Speaks. Even worse, the condition of purchasing a piece relies on the promise that all pieces will be returned to be put back together once a “cure” for autism is found.
Now, there are many people who could be criticized for supporting Autism Speaks and organizations like it. That commercial on VH1 starring Steven Tyler, Robert Plant, Tommy Lee, and a bunch of other rock stars from the 70s and 80s, imploring you to “put an end to autism,” has been driving me up a wall for months now. There is also a boycott of Lindt Chocolate going on because of their support of Autism Speaks.
Indeed, I should have written posts criticizing those things. And, you know, they also would have been easier to write. I will admit with shame that I hesitated before writing this post. The last thing this world needs is more people going after Yoko Ono, right? But I also realized pretty quickly that once we start refusing to call out people who we like, people in fact who we love and greatly admire, what we’re doing can no longer in any respect be called “activism” or social justice work.
Now, this is the point at which a lot of you will be asking why I am upset. What’s wrong with Autism Speaks? A good charity, right?
Well, no. As someone who does not have autism, I’m not the best person to explain what is wrong with the organization and their model of response to autism. So here is some information from someone who can explain better than I can:
Imagine, if you will, that an organization existed by the name of “Womanhood Speaks,” which, on the surface, appeared to be in support of women’s rights.
Now imagine that the governing body of this organization only included members of the male gender, with not one female represented in its ranks. Imagine that its actual aim was to create a registry of all females and force them to become more masculine, completely disregarding the fact that a majority of females were perfectly content with their womanhood and even found it to be advantageous. Imagine that members of its leadership appeared on popular TV programs talking about the epidemic of womanhood and how it needed to be eradicated.
Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?
This hypothetical situation may seem utterly absurd, but for one segment of the population— albeit a much smaller subset than that with two X chromosomes— it isn’t all too far from reality.
I’m speaking of autistics, and more specifically, of the organization known as “Autism Speaks.”
I highly, highly suggest that you go read that whole post. Now. I’ll wait. You can also find more information about why Autism Speaks is bad news here.
All of this touches on numerous issues, the two most important from my (admittedly rather limited) view being that 1) Autism Speaks attempts to speak for people with autism, which is a horrible and condescending idea to begin with, but especially so when considering how spectacularly they fail, and 2) they argue that there is something “wrong” with having autism, and that autism is in fact something that requires a “cure,” when instead many people with autism do not want a cure or feel that there is in fact anything about autism that needs to be “cured,” and even those who ultimately do would probably like to be included in the process and would also like to be treated like people in the meantime.
Both points seem rather obvious once they’re laid out in front of you. And both are reasons to oppose Autism Speaks and those organizations that work off of the same model. The second is also why I have an issue with “Promise Piece” to begin with. The real shame is that it’s such an utterly beautiful piece of work, too. If only it was to symbolize the need for something different, something that is not a cure for autism. If only the fact that the puzzle is not whole was a metaphor for something that didn’t degrade the existence of certain people. If only it was to symbolize the need for world peace, or the need to put an end to violence against women, or many other causes where the world is indeed lacking something. Sadly, that’s not the case.
But seeing Yoko on the Today Show, and watching this piece of art get fawned over, when so much else of her work is utterly ignored or just plain mocked, brought home something that was in many other ways already bleedingly obvious. It brought home the fact people really, really buy into this idea that autism needs a cure, and that attempting to find one, and attempting to do work for the “benefit” of autistic people without their input, is a noble cause. And that’s an idea that needs to be eradicated.
Two organizations which I’m currently aware of that are already doing this work are the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the Autism Acceptance Project. They work within a social justice model that promotes services for people with autism while recognizing the right of autistic people to self-determination. And even better, they are run by and/or with autistic people.
These are the kinds of organizations that we need to be supporting. And those of us who are not autistic need to be educating ourselves, and using what knowledge we do have to call out other people, not out of a desire to attack them but out of desires both to hold them to their own standards and to end all forms of oppression. Even when they are people who we deeply respect and love.