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I am autism… And I vote

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Dr. Coplan steps into the political arena.


I am autism… And I vote
Every time I check my web browser, I get the feeling I’ve been transported back to 1932. Then, as now, bombastic candidates for national office promised to make their country great again, starting by ridding of their country undesirables – chiefly those who differed from them and their supporters on the basis of nationality or religion. In the 1930s, there was rampant anti-Semitism and xenophobia. In the run-up to WWII, American anti-Semitism led us to turn away Jewish refugees, effectively condemning them to death. After Pearl Harbor, fear of Japanese invasion (compounded by a large dose of ethnic prejudice) led us to round up and incarcerate roughly 100,000 of our own Japanese-American population. Substitute “Muslim” or “Mexican” for “Jew” or “Japanese,” and I see the same modes of thinking playing out today.
In the 1930s, individuals with disabilities were warehoused in institutions, and/or sterilized – sometimes as a condition for being released back into the community. The United States was the first country to initiate involuntary sterilization, as a eugenics measure. Germany – that other country striving to become “Great again” – followed America’s lead, and eventually went a step further, exterminating tens of thousands of its disabled citizens, selling the idea to the German public not just as a way of improving the gene pool, but as a cost-cutting measure .
Of course there was no such thing as public education for the disabled. In America, The Education for All Handicapped Law (PL 94-142) would not be passed by Congress until 1975. The Americans with Disabilities Act would not become law until 1990. (Any of you remember the scene on the steps of the Capitol to promote passage of ADA (Go here and here)? Lest you think the battle for disability rights has finally been won, in 2012 the United States Senate voted against signing the UN treaty on the rights of the disabled, despite the urgings of Senator Bob Dole – former standard-bearer of the Republican Party, and himself a person with a disability.
So far, none of our current crop of candidates has advocated a return to forced sterilization of the disabled. But we do hear rumblings about repealing the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Federal Department of Education (here, and here , for example). Wheelchair accessible transportation and architecture? Free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, at public expense? They’ve been nice – but their survival is not a given.
Thomas Jefferson knew that “Rights” are inextricably bound to obligations (“duties,” he called them). Today, a lot of people seem to have forgotten the “duties” half of the equation. Those duties include looking out for the infirm, and assuring equal opportunity for all members of society to achieve their full potential. This should not be a partisan political issue. This is not a discretionary giveaway of “free stuff.” Rather, this is what ethical and pragmatic societies do, as a duty, as well as to assure a well-functioning citizenry – any country’s greatest national asset. A few of us live with disabilities today; the rest of us are merely “temporarily able-bodied.” Eventually everyone – except those of us who will be struck by lightning or fall over dead of a heart attack – will need help from others.
History never repeats itself exactly, but if 2016 is to be a remake of 1932, I would like to see a different outcome this time around.

James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speaker in the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter. Have a question for Dr. Coplan? Ask the doctor.


4 responses to “I am autism… And I vote”

  1. Bruce D'Agostino says:

    I agree with Dr. Coplan. In 1996 I was responsible for the design and installation of 600 decks and ramps for the Olympics all ADA compliant. In 1997-99, as the design-build team leader, I oversaw the design and construction of five Prototype libraries that would be built in 37 neighborhoods in Chicago. All those designs incorporated all ADA requirements, many without being obvious.

  2. james coplan says:

    Thanks for chiming in, Bruce. It’s so easy to forget what things used to be like. And I agree: Elegant design is often so “obvious” (in hindsight!) that it blends in, rather than calling attention to itself. It’s all the stuff we take for granted – but shouldn’t.

  3. Susan L Johnston says:

    You might want to read Fully Alive by Timothy Shiver. It is an awesome review of the history of people with disabilities

  4. drcoplan says:

    Thanks for the heads-up. Sounds like a book I should read.
    Best wishes

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