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Queer and disabled activist Lydia Brown speaks at OpenGrounds

Georgetown University student discusses experiences with autism, self-advocacy

The Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures hosted a discussion with queer and disabled activist and writer Lydia Brown Tuesday at OpenGrounds as part of Humanities Week 2015. Brown, a senior at Georgetown University, is a policy analyst for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network as well as president and co-founder of the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective.

“I do a lot of work around disability justice, specifically focusing on violence against multiply-disabled people,” Brown said. “I am supposed to graduate from Georgetown University next month and will be starting law school.”

Brown led an informal talk with a handful of University students from a myriad of both undergraduate and post-graduate programs and representatives from the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. She described her experience as an individual with autism and what it means to be a self-advocate.

“Autistic [people] don’t have an identity or a collective identity. [As an autistic person], people tell you that everything that you do is a symptom,” Brown said. “You can’t have your own ideas because those ideas came from someone else. You can’t live a life where you can exercise your own authority. A lot of families of young autistic children don’t listen to me because they assume I am high-functioning and have a mild form of the disability.”

April is Autism Awareness month as designated by Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization founded in February 2005 by Bob and Suzanne Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism.

Brown told the group that she would prefer to have it called Autism Acceptance month for a variety of reasons.

“The shift from awareness to acceptance is important because awareness exists behind all kinds of negative ideas that autism is terrible, awful and should be ended,” Brown said. “I shared at the talk last night that 83 percent of all developmentally-disabled people will be raped at some point in their lifetime. Over half will occur before the age of 18.”

Among those present at the discussion was Jeremy Moody, a alumni of the University’s Tibet Center in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He is also on the autism spectrum and voiced his personal concerns with labeling the month as Autism Awareness.

“Part of what we’re talking about is acceptance, and people may know that the month of April is considered Autism Awareness month, which is a marketing tactic for Autism Speaks,” Moody said. “We work hard to relabel the month as Autism Acceptance month.”

Both Moody and Brown expressed dissatisfaction with the leadership structure of Autism Speaks, specifically the lack of autistic individuals part of the hierarchy.

“Not one single autistic has been in the decision-making process at Autism Speaks,” Brown said. “Autism Speaks [advocates] for non-autistic people who think that autism is devastating, and we should all be stamped out.”

Moody, on the other hand, spoke about the choice of the blue puzzle piece as the symbol for the organization and how it dehumanizes those on the autism spectrum.

“The blue puzzle pieces you may see are all part of the terrible Autism Speaks machine. It shows that we are not human beings but rather puzzles,” Moody said.

Brown stressed the importance of showing allyship while not necessarily being an ally for any minority as well as the marginalized in any given situation. She argued when one claims to be an ally, the conversation centers less around the group in question and more on the allies themselves.

“A conversation I like to have is that you aren’t statically an ally, but rather you practice allyship,” Brown said. “When people say, ‘I am an ally,’ it’s like they’re trying to claim it as their own identity. I am not undocumented, black, Jewish or Muslim. There are a number of groups I don’t belong to and I will never know what their experience is like because I’m not a part of it.”

Brown had also hosted a talk on Monday night entitled Beyond the Imagined Normal: Reimagining Disability in an Ableist World.