In the Court of Public Opinion.

A blurred city-scape at night.

Is neurodivergence a disability?

On the surface this appears to be a remarkably simply question, and indeed most people outside of the disability community would likely answer “yes” without a second thought. However, many within the community, and especially those with autism and ADHD etc. are more likely to say “no”. The reasons for this are complex and often quite subjective.

One of the major complications is that it is difficult to define disability in the first place. The medical model essentially views all disabilities as biological flaws in need of fixing, and at it’s extremes veers towards eugenics. The social model suggests that it is society’s inaccessibility that disables us, and while many disabled people prefer this definition, it fails to take into account that in even a completely accessible world some elements of people’s conditions would remain. Both definitions lean heavily towards the notion that disability is something to be removed or erased. Several other definitions exist which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that it is difficult to determine whether or not something is a disability when we cannot define what a disability is in the first place.

When it comes to the word “disability”, there are also plenty of negative connotations and assumptions made about the effected person, and understandably people are keen to avoid those connotations and evade the unnecessary barriers that come with them.

Furthermore, there are several differences between being neurodiverse and having another disability such as a sensory or motor impairment. As someone who falls into both categories, I cannot deny that the impact of using a wheelchair has been significantly greater than realising I was autistic. While the autism has influenced much of my social life, I cannot have said social life where there are stairs without a ramp or lift. That said, comparing autism to using a wheelchair is like comparing a pineapple to a vengeful octopus; both are prickly but the similarities end there.

Despite many neurodivergent people not feeling that they fall under the label “disabled”, the court of public opinion says otherwise. It is my understanding that neurodiversity is usually covered by the disability sections of equality laws, and indeed if you want any help or resources to manage being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world, chances are you will have to label yourself disabled to get them. In fact, I find it rather telling of the attitude our society has towards disabled and neurodiverse people that the court of public opinion overrules the views of the impacted persons.  

In my humble opinion, being disabled and being neurodivergent share many similarities, but they are not the same and thus autism (etc.) is not a disability. It’s more disability-adjacent. Neurodiversity should be welcomed in spaces for disabled people, especially as the cross-over between the two groups is substantial. Accessibility benefits both groups and should be encouraged. However, unlike many disabilities which require medical intervention even just to survive, those with autism or ADHD etc. usually do not need such intensive medical care for their neuro diversity. Medication and therapy can turn surviving into thriving, but in an ideal world with such support, being neurodiverse need not put any limits on what someone can or cannot do in the way that struggling to walk would.

When all is said and done, perhaps it is time that the court of public opinion started to pay attention to the people they hold these opinions about.

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