An Open Letter to Suzanne Wright, Co-Founder, Autism Speaks

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending an event at the White House celebrating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy signing into law what later led to the Developmental Disability Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.  In light of this historic anniversary, I feel compelled to comment on your recent blog post leading up to Autism Speaks’ first National Policy and Action Summit earlier this week.

Back in 1962, President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation* called for our country to “combat” mental retardation, “[exploring] the possibilities and pathways to prevent and cure mental retardation.”  Here we are, 50 years of progress later, and your words connote the same sense that we are at war, suggesting that given the prevalence of autism we should call out the “Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.”

Over the years, though, we have learned that war is no longer a useful metaphor to invoke and apply in the disability community.  People with autism, or for that matter other developmental disabilities, are not victims of the predations of some evil actor, nor are their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.  Instead, we appreciate, as stated in the Developmental Disabilities Act, that “disability is a natural part of the human experience.”

Unfortunately, your description of children with autism and their families is polarizing and divisive, creating rifts within a community that can ill afford it in these perilous times.  Characterizing people with autism and their families as victims suffering from a dreaded affliction ignores the diversity of the community of people with autism, as well as their creativity, perseverance, adaptability, resilience, and overall beauty of their human spirit.   It belittles the many who, rather than seeking to be cured, are striving for their human rights to be accepted and respected. It is far from reality for many people with autism whom I know and who are involved in our work.  All are deserving of dignity and respect.

Certainly, it is true that many individuals on the spectrum, and their families, face serious challenges on a daily basis.  The current system of social insurance and social services and supports fall well short of meeting the needs of too many who are in need of assistance.  To confront this reality and achieve progress on behalf of and with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, the only successful path forward is one which unites, rather than divides.  We all must work together.

As you may be aware, The Arc is the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of and serving people with all different types of intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Throughout our network of nearly 700 chapters in 49 states, The Arc serves and advocates on behalf of and with many individuals with autism – and we know that more can and should be done to ensure that people with autism are included in the community and have access to the services and supports to achieve their goals in life.   Solutions to the challenges people with autism and their families face are possible.

The Arc’s experience, over more than 60 years, makes clear that our power to achieve change is greatest when people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their parents, brothers, sisters, professionals, colleagues and friends are all at the table.  Our voice is even stronger when we make it a priority to listen to what people with developmental disabilities have to say for themselves about their own lives.

Now is the time to come together – people with and without disabilities, including autism – to determine where we want to be tomorrow, next year and 50 years from now.  The rhetoric of 50 years ago has no place in today’s discourse.

Sincerely,

Peter V. Berns
Chief Executive Officer
The Arc

*The outdated term mental retardation is used in this context because it is the formal name of a panel in existence 50 years ago.  Today, the accepted terminology is intellectual and/or developmental disability.