In a piece in the New York Times, Nominee to Disability Council Is Lightning Rod for Dispute on Views of Autism, Amy Hardon discusses Ari Ne’eman and his nomination to the National Council on Disability (NCD).
Mr. Ne’eman’s name was submitted by the White House as part of a group of nominees to the NCD. His nomination is to succeed Robert Davila, whose term has expired. Mr. Ne’eman’s nomination was “ordered to be reported favorably” by the Senate HELP committee on March 10th and sent to the full senate. At present, the nomination is on hold.
Mr. Ne’eman is an autistic adult. If his nomination is confirmed he will be the first autistic to serve on the NCD. He is probably best known his efforts with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), which he founded. ASAN seeks to advance rights of autistcs as reflected in its mission statement:
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The Autistic Self Advocacy Network seeks to advance the principles of the disability rights movement in the world of autism. Drawing on the principles of the cross-disability community on issues such as inclusive education, community living supports and others, ASAN seeks to organize the community of Autistic adults and youth to have our voices heard in the national conversation about us. In addition, ASAN seeks to advance the idea of neurological diversity, putting forward the concept that the goal of autism advocacy should not be a world without Autistic people. Instead, it should be a world in which Autistic people enjoy the same access, rights and opportunities as all other citizens. Working in fields such as public policy, media representation, research and systems change, ASAN hopes to empower Autistic people across the world to take control of their own lives and the future of our common community. Nothing About Us, Without Us!
I will repeat for emphasis: “ASAN seeks to advance the idea of neurological diversity, putting forward the concept that the goal of autism advocacy should not be a world without Autistic people. Instead, it should be a world in which Autistic people enjoy the same access, rights and opportunities as all other citizens”.
I find that a position difficult to argue with. Who wouldn’t support access, rights and opportunities for autistics?
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This mission statement is fully in line with the purpose of the National Council on Disability, which also promotes rights and opportunity:
The purpose of NCD is to promote policies, programs, practices, and procedures that guarantee equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities, and that empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society.
As the parent of an autistic child with very significant disabilities, I can say without reservation we need groups working on improving the rights and access and opportunities of autistics. I believe Mr. Ne’eman and the National Council on Disability would be an excellent match.
In her piece in the Times, Ms. Harmon notes that it is unclear who put the hold on the nomination and what the reason may be. Senate rules allow for a single senator to place a hold, anonymously, for any reason (including just plain obstructionism):
Mr. Obama’s seven other nominees to the council were confirmed this month. But parliamentary procedure in the Senate allows one or more members to prevent a motion from reaching the floor for a vote by placing an anonymous hold on the action, which an official with knowledge of the proceedings said had been done in Mr. Ne’eman’s case.
The Senate has been rather obstructionist in approving many Obama administration appointments, leading the President to employ recess appointments in order to get some of his nominees into jobs. Recess appointments are not the sort of action the President takes lightly, indicating the level of obstructionism in place.
Mr. Ne’eman’s nomination to the NCD generated some discussion within the online autism communities when it was announced. For many people this centered on a question of whether Mr. Ne’eman viewed autism as a disability. Many went so far as to outright claim that he does not see autism as a disability. It would seem clear that Mr. Ne’eman views autism as a disability merely from ASAN’s mission statement which places ASAN as a disability rights organization. For those who remained unsure, Mr. Ne’eman answered this claim quite clearly in a recent piece he wrote for Disabilty Studies Quarterly:
It should be stressed: none of this is meant to deny the very real fact that autism is a disability. It is only to point out that disability is as much a social as a medical phenomenon and that the “cure” approach is not the best way forward for securing people’s quality of life.
Mr. Ne’eman and ASAN have been very active in united efforts by multiple disability groups, such as the recent request for an investigation into the methods employed by the Judge Rotenberg Center (which includes electric shocks and seclusion). One thing lacking in most autism organizations, in my view, is the recognition of our place within a larger disability community. Mr. Ne’eman’s track record of collaborations within this broader community is another sign that he would be an excellent candidate for the NCD.
The Times article concludes with:
But the split among autism advocates, suggests Lee Grossman, director of the Autism Society of America, may simply reflect the unmet needs of a growing population, for both research into potential treatments and for programs to support jobs and independent living.
“We have this community out there frustrated and bewildered and reaching out for any assistance, and that makes us battle-hardened,” Mr. Grossman said. “We need to reframe the discussion. From our perspective, it’s great to have a person on the spectrum being nominated to this committee.”
I agree with Mr. Grossman that this is a great thing to have an autistic nominated to the NCD. As I’ve already pointed out, Mr. Ne’eman’s goals fit those of the NCD quite well.
One notable piece of irony in this story is that the organizations which are critical of Mr. Ne’eman’s nomination have no positions held by autistics. The notable exception is Autism Speaks, which only recently added an adult autistic (John Elder Robinson) to an advisory position. As an additional irony, it is very likely that Mr. Ne’eman’s own advocacy efforts were partly responsible for Autism Speaks giving a position to an adult autistic.
Autism represents a “spectrum” of disabilities. All to often, Mr. Ne’eman’s efforts are framed as being part of some divide between the “high functioning” and “low functioning” ends of the spectrum.
The New York Times piece noted this in this section:
But that viewpoint [neurodiversity], critics say, represents only those on the autism spectrum who at least have basic communication skills and are able to care of themselves.
“Why people have gotten upset is, he doesn’t seem to represent, understand or have great sympathy for all the people who are truly, deeply affected in a way that he isn’t,” said Jonathan Shestack, a co-founder of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, whose mission is to help finance research to find a cure.
Neurodiversity certainly does not represent only “high functioning” autistics as its critics would imply. I will not speak for Mr. Ne’eman nor ASAN, but from my own perspective. First, neurodiversity is not limited to autism. Second, within autism, neurodiversity does not apply only to the “high functioning” autistics. In my opinion, the neurodiveristy “viewpoint” is one that stresses rights for all, regardless of the level of “functioning” or presence or lack of any neurological “disorders”.
There are those who try to downplay Mr. Ne’eman’s disability. Keep in mind, we are talking about a man who spent part of his education in a segregated special education program. The fact that he was able to self advocate his way out of this program is to his credit.
For the record, my perspective is that of the parent of a young child with multiple disabilities including very significant challenges due to autism. I would argue that it is precisely children like my own who most need other people to fight to protect their rights. It is from that perspective that I welcome the nomination of Mr. Ne’eman and look forward to his confirmation in the full senate.