Will the real Autism Acceptance Project please stand up?

Filed Under (Activism) by Estee on 07-02-2013

Today, I was informed that the name of the organization founded by myself but built with many autistic people, both verbal and non verbal, was taken by the creator at this site here. Ms. Zalzal, the creator of this pretty site is a web designer and built it as part of her senior exhibition project for Troy University’s Design Technology Innovation Program. This site was created in October 2012. The only problem is, the name belongs to the original Autism Acceptance Project, founded in 2005.

After trying a few portals to contact the creator, Ms. Jennifer Zalzal, I heard from her this evening. Honestly, many of us were not happy with her site. At the moment I cannot link you to the home page, which I have printed and screen-shotted (it’s no longer on her site), which reads:

“Through my research I have come across a similar campaign with the same name as the one I am branding/promoting. The Autism Acceptance Project (TAAP). Their mission statement works to promote acceptance of and accommodations for autistic people in society. The Autism Acceptance Project will bring forth a different and positive view about autism to the public in order to create tolerance and acceptance in teh community and to empower parents and autistic people.”

She then goes on to say,

“I think this is a wonderful statement and cause, but I would like to specify how my campaign differs to confirm my motive. My acceptance campaign is devoted to promote the acceptance and accommodations for people and parents suffering with the spectrum, similar in some ways to TAAP. The research and information I provide on my website is fully based on personal interviews with medical professionals and most importantly parents of autistic children. I want to give the viewers of my site a look at autism from behind closed doors and through the voices of those who know them best….I want to educate people on the truth of the matter.”

Today in an email from Ms. Zalzal to me, she stated that when she did her research she “did not come across your site.” I have been in email correspondence and am trying to explain to Ms. Zalzal why this is so problematic, and in the meantime, hope to support her in her efforts to accept autism…that is, before I realized this discrepancy. Her site is ableist in nature, so we find it difficult to support her premise. Let her do so on her own platform and identity, not ours!

As a critical disability scholar, I have to also be critical of our own agenda. When we wrote “positive” views about autism, this was in 2005. No one was saying anything positive about autism at the time and autistic adults had started something called The Autistic Adult Picture Project in order to project the image of real autistic people and living in society. Jim Sinclair, Frank Klein, and so many others wrote seminal pieces towards autistic equality and inclusion. Dr. Dinah Murray, autistic herself, created a video You Tube Channel called PosAutive which accepted submissions from autistic people of positive contributions in order to upstage the miserable portrayals of autistic people that were rampant in parent autism campaigns as well as by autism societies and Autism Speaks. Let me be clear as well that although I’m a non autistic parent who founded TAAP, I took a lot of critiques myself from autistic folks when I had the idea to start it. Critique is essential. It helps us to learn and grow. My commitment towards my son’s inclusion and acceptance in society reminds me everyday to look deeply at issues and my own internal bias’. I think it’s also important to send this reminder that many people were working assiduously (and still do today) to counter the portrayals that were, and are, seen by autistic people as oppressive and a threat to substantive equality or equality of opportunity and well-being. These ends are not served when we speak of parent’s suffering, which then leads to the discourse of burden. These movements in the early 2000’s, along with other disability rights activism, was an important shift to the view about autism acceptance, and in a minute, you’ll see how Ms. Zalzal threatens to undercut it. And this folks, is how “innocently” discrimination is materialized. Surely every experience is complex, and critical disability discourse enables this conversation, but let me reiterate that positive portrayals at the time were a necessary counter-speak to the misery-speak so predominant at the time. A few years later, many more people speak to inclusion and acceptance, although we haven’t yet attained it as a legal right in society.

I’ve also critiqued the way notions of acceptance are interpreted, and as we see on Ms. Zalzal’s version, it’s not quite acceptance when the “truth” as she puts it, comes from “parents and medical professionals.” Truth is a really sticky thing. Hang a sticky strip of truth and you’ll catch a lot of flies and they’ll just die. What is truth? Whose truth? It’s not a static concept! The other fundamental problem with her presentation of “autism acceptance” is that it excludes autistic people. Apparently, according Ms. Zalzal’s preamble, parent-truth is more important truth, and autistic truth is not necessarily that important. In a world that has worked so hard for disability rights and inclusion through various Human Rights Acts and international policy instruments, excluding autistic “voices,” is a violation of these fundamental rights. But hey, people trample on them all the time, right? Does it make it right to know something exists and pretend it’s not there?

When something very problematic comes up, it’s important for us to talk about it. I’ve asked her to please change her brand and return the TAAP identity to us as so many autistic people worked on this not to mention the years it took! Ironically, taking identity so easily is a fitting metaphor to autistic people having their identity taken from them by people who are not autistic. This to me speaks volumes about her other site/campaign.

Also, last year our website www.taaproject.com was hacked (not in connection to this) so this was another blow to hear that someone just saw our name and said “hey I’m just going to take it and make my own campaign because I think I can do this all by myself.” Advocates who can endure the criticism of their good intentions have the potential to be better advocates. Many people have ideas and they think they can run their own campaigns. When they press up against resistance from the community they claim to represent, it’s really important for them to listen. As one of my profs said to the class, “take it in the chin!” The problem is, Ms. Zalzal’s campaign rests on nothing save for her own ideas. Excluding voices does not make for a campaign. If people wish to join campaigns or make them, there are some fundmental rules:

1. Don’t take other people’s intellectual property and admit your’e doing it on your homepage and then write an email claiming you didn’t see us in your research;
2. Get involved with the community you are claiming acceptance for. Don’t speak on their behalf;
3. Recognize the problems of representing the medical model and parent model in a movement that has struggled with years of oppression by these very models.

From a critical disability standpoint, although I do believe all voices are important, Ms. Zalzal’s campaign is heavily weighted on hearing from the parents who “suffer” and hearing from medical professionals (in the name of “truth” about autism) who we need of course, but whose history with disabled people are complicated and paternalistic. Please see my blog post yesterday. I care about parents. I really care about autistic people as I have a wonderful autistic son in my life. I live with the complexities every day and I have chosen to live with them carefully and reflexively. I have not chosen the easy path. And believe me, I’ve taken it in the chin, and I’m quite certain I’ll have to again. I still support Ms. Zalzal in her growing process and to join the larger autism acceptance movement through various organizations and rights activists. I hope we can all encourage it.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.