Naturalistic Neurodiversity

Exploring our differences through science.

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An Example of Ableism in Atheism

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Cartoon of poorly-dressed man vs well-dressed man, described below.

Image: comparing a “crazy person” talking about alien mind control with a “moral pillar of society” talking about Christianity, both validating their beliefs with faith over evidence.
Text: This isn’t the truth. You wish it were, but it’s not. Stop deluding yourself. You know the “crazy person” [as depicted] lives in poverty to the point he can’t afford a sandwich, let alone proper healthcare. “The crazy person” lives in fear of the police and faces brutal treatment from most because they think he’s “lazy” and just doesn’t want to work. He’s treated like scum. “The Moral Pillar of Society” is just some jackass who wants to feel superior, just like the jackass who uses the misunderstood medical conditions of those who can’t defend themselves as an insult against those he doesn’t like and/or agree with.

(via Schizophrenic Queen on Facebook)


Written by The Nerd

July 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Ableism in Atheism Anonymous #64

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Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability?

Neurological; both physical and mental. Multiple sclerosis caused many disabilities of various sorts.  I have mobility problems, symptoms of movement disorders, occasional proprioception problems and uncommonly have trouble speaking, which may include slurring, dysprosody (rhythm and tone are off), and even expressive aphasia. Cognitively, I have a poor memory when unprompted, sensation can overwhelm me, I have great difficulty making decisions… and much more. I have frontotemporal dementia (but not Pick’s) that’s usual but not always mild. Among other things, it imparts some autistic-like symptoms. In a separate category, MS also gave me both heat intolerance and poor thermoregulation. When I get hot, I do very poorly and I’m more likely to get heat-related illnesses and to do worse if I have them.

Have you (or do you personally know someone who has) felt out-of-place or limited your involvement with an atheist community because of disability-related situations?

(Note: I’ve yet to be involved in person. The closest group is more than an hour away.)
I feel excluded online whenever I see a person use cognitive problems as insults or as a reason to discredit someone’s words. “Retard” or “-tard”, brain damaged or demented — those especially bother me.

I have also felt excluded by places that commonly demand citations. I have an unusual portion of source amnesia and do not always have the mental resources to search out a cite. While I understand that would make the claims suspect, that doesn’t mean they’re worthless. I hate being treated as if that’s so and I hate being told I’m rude or lazy because I may try to put out enough information for the reader to find the cite if I can’t. There’s a difference between lazy and incapable.

I feel excluded when there are implications, even jokes, that disability means old age. “Aging=disability” is common, invalid, and has real consequences, even ones that have hurt me. When I first asked for a wheelchair rental, the neurologist initially refused, saying, “You’re too young for a wheelchair!” My age didn’t mean my legs could hold me up and after much insisting, I got a wheelchair. Yes, my doctor would have me limited to bed and wherever I could crawl rather than prescribe a mobility device to help me only because I was “too young”. Aging=disability is not a joke, it’s a misconception that makes problems for all ages.

I feel excluded whenever there are talks about dementia, about losing mental faculties — often enough, disability in general. “Dementia is worse than death,” I’ve heard. “Dead, but breathing.” I’m part of an online atheist community where people have said they’d kill themselves if they… found themselves losing their mental faculties, were going blind, had to use a wheelchair regularly. In multiple communities, I’ve seen people say life isn’t worth living if… disability — disabilities I have. (To be fair, I’ve heard this outside of atheist communities, too.) This tells me their base position is that people like me (which includes me, though they claim otherwise), shouldn’t be alive. Outside of personal confrontation, it’d be hard to make me feel less included than that.

What steps could atheist communities take to become more inclusive?

I’ve yet to attend in-person events, but I have some standards I’d hope they meet:
Large events (conferences, concerts, etc) should be in ADA-compliant facilities. Preferably, they should have the accessibility (building, interpretation for the deaf, any possible Braille as perhaps for programs, etc) to be checked out and approved (if not set up) by someone who needs the accommodation. Nothing about us without us; it’s best to ask someone with a disability what they need rather than presume.
Local meetings… if they don’t meet at accessible locations, I hope they’d be willing to upon request. If there has been such a request, they should meet at accessible locations as many of the meetings as they can manage. Again, get the person’s input. Make it known that the group wants to accommodate everyone as much as they can and sincerely want to know if people need meet-ups to be different than how they are currently. Of course, consider the input and modify as necessary. Avoid “we can’t” in favor of “I’m not sure how, but let’s look into how we could do this.”

Online, avoid talk of disability-as-insult, as disability as a reason to dismiss someone. Condemn such talk when someone does it just as the community does (or should do) with misogyny and homophobia. A comment policy that condemns that wouldn’t be a bad idea, however misogyny and homophobia would be treated.

Give people with disabilities space to be the best they can be and accept them as they are. Give people with cognitive problems the benefit of the doubt, at least if it’s evident they’re trying. Skepticism requires significant effort and some say “really being” or “proving” you’re an atheist or humanist requires much (reading N-many off a list of books, for example). While I don’t think much of having strict standards for determining who’s “really” in a group, groups that do should leave leeway for those who genuinely don’t have the ability. (If taken strictly, though there are humanists in this state that can officiate marriages, I would be unable to meet their standards because I can’t read the books and can’t manage finances myself, for example.) We should not refuse anyone on account of disability, whatever the disability is.

I’d prefer there be no talk of “Life [under X disabled condition] isn’t worth living”, but if that cannot be eliminated, I want community leaders (because little-ol’-me was ignored) to engage with the idea of when-if at any time-life isn’t worth living, when death is (dementia=death?), etc, making sure to mention counter-examples. When there’s a person in a wheelchair in the community (and online “community” can be most everyone) and someone says that if they had to be in a wheelchair, they’d kill themselves, it should be treated as if a white man announced that if he woke in the morning to find his skin turned brown, he’d kill himself. It should be recognized the person is saying the person with the disability (or with more melatonin) has a life that isn’t worth living, isn’t even worth trying to live. Whenever there is such talk, there should be (at least reference to) a serious discussion about it. The “solution” shouldn’t be to tell the person with the disability (or darker skin), “Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about _you_. You’re fine, I like _you_.” That’s very “I’m not ______-ist, I have a ____ friend.”

Any other thoughts about ableism and atheism?

I think disability, atheist, and skepticism can go well together and think atheists could do good in fighting for disability rights. Atheists don’t think disability is punishment (there’s no one do the punishing, in any case). With no gods to blame or to rely on, all we have are each other.

I wish people in the atheist community (and outside of it, true) would recognize their ableism and then get over it. I know it can be scary to think about disability. Such change is almost always unwanted, but a disability can be acquired in a split-second. People need to understand that (more) disability doesn’t mean they’re a different person or that life isn’t worth living, worth trying to adjust — it’s just different. Also, we need to understand that we can’t really know what goes on between another’s ears, so we shouldn’t presume. If we do presume and presume incorrectly, we should recognize that’s our issue rather than the other person’s. I know online there are a lot of trolls, but presuming a bit of good faith can be helpful.

I know the community could be a force for good. To me, it seems quite natural that humanism should promote people being of equal worth and having equal rights regardless of disability. Surely humanists should naturally promote universal access. Surely they should defend or protest when people with disabilities are ruled against in court. Surely they should be part of the force trying to get resources for disabled victims of domestic violence. Surely they should speak up in protest whenever a family “care-giver” kills their charge, their “loved one”, and the glurge reporters all talk about the poor, loving care-giver and how sad it was they had to deal with such a burden, etc, rather than that the killer is horrible for murdering someone they said they loved. Most ground-floor residences still aren’t built wheelchair accessible. Women with disabilities are victims of assault, rape, and murder much more often than their non-disabled peers. (Men, too, but I’m not sure about rape.) A few years ago, a newborn was taken from two Colorado parents without any investigation into their ability to care of the child; they were presumed unfit just because they were blind. I know no group can take on every cause, but these things are is going on now.

Unfortunately… I’ve yet to find an atheist group that recognizes their ableism. I’ve been told ableist comments were “just joking”, told to get a sense of humor, told to get over it, told to leave for a while and not bring it up again. I’ve been brushed off with “I didn’t mean it that way” with no investigation into what they really meant, what other ways they could’ve said, and why they used the words they did. I’ve been told disability is awful and death is better… but they like me and aren’t talking about me. Death is better than disability yet I am very much disabled and if I’m ever bothered by suicidal thoughts, the same people try to talk me out of it. They don’t see the discrepancies and are unwilling to investigate. Where is skepticism there?

Atheists need to recognize their ableism as a serious issue, one to be discussed, understood, resolved, and inclusion something to work toward. These talks… they need to include people with various disabilities. I think many atheists feel like they are inclusive of everybody when they’re not. I know Crommunist talks about racism in ways that people who think they aren’t racist realize they really are. Ableism is harder–first because many people haven’t heard of the word, second because ableism is so deep in the culture as to be invisible. The denial and defensive response needs to end; understanding and working on it needs to begin. I suppose it could turn into series of fights like misogyny is, but I hope against that. I think there’s yet to be much recognition of this discrimination.

Disability rights is a human rights issue that has the possibility of affecting literally everyone. (I think such activism could be good publicity, too; what self-proclaimed “moral” group would disagree with helping people with disabilities?) I think it’s worth fighting for, and, to think smaller, I think every person is deserving of respect. But to do any of this, atheists need to recognize ableism as real, as ubiquitous, and as a problem that needs resolving.

Response #64 from the Ableism in Atheism survey.

Note: I am grateful to each and every response, but I want to make a special thank you to this person for hir heartfelt response.

Ableism in Atheism Anonymous #63

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Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability?

Depression/anxiety, also executive function learning disability, and a mild non verbal learning disability

Have you (or do you personally know someone who has) felt out-of-place or limited your involvement with an atheist community because of disability-related situations?


What steps could atheist communities take to become more inclusive?

Things like only meeting at ADA complient places would help, but the best thing I can think if is making ableism more of a priority. Have talks about it, and it’s origins, and how to combat it. The skeptics movement is all about combating misinformation, and there is a lot of misinformation about disabilities out there. Without educating people about what ableism is first, I’m not sure how helpful merely banning ableist language would be, but calling people out when it comes up would definitely help, the same way atheists, even straight ones call out homophobic behavior. Things like making blogs compatible with programs blind/visually impaired would help, considerig how much of our community is online. Same with text for pictures/videos, and transcripts or interpreters for conferences.

Response #63 from the Ableism in Atheism survey.

Written by The Nerd

July 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Ableism in Atheism #62

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Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability?


Have you (or do you personally know someone who has) felt out-of-place or limited your involvement with an atheist community because of disability-related situations?


What steps could atheist communities take to become more inclusive?

Lessening of the usage of the word “retarded”. It’s crept into common vernacular, not because they think people with mental retardation are without value, but just because it’s something they’ve grown up with.

Response #62 from the Ableism in Atheism survey.

Written by The Nerd

July 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Neurodiversity-Friendly Code of Conduct

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Greta Christina recently brought to our attention the new American Atheists Conference Code of Conduct. It’s not perfect, but it’s open to revision. As you can see from the bits I’ve underlined, neurodiverse people and those with disabilities have clearly had influence.

American Atheists, Rev 1.1, 6/26/2012 – This revision supersedes all previous revisions. 

American Atheists’ Conference Code of Conduct

American Atheists is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.

We expect participants to follow this code of conduct at all conference venues and conference-related social events.

Yes means yes; no means no; and maybe means no. Please take no for an answer for any request or activity. You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

We have many different folks attending this conference: sexualities, genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, beliefs—these are just a few. Blatant instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other stereotyping and harmful behaviors should be reported to conference staff immediately.

Please do not wear heavy fragrances—including perfumes, colognes, scented shampoos, etc. Some of those attending have allergic reactions to scented products. No one will object to the smell of your clean body!

Please respect the sessions and the speakers. Turn off cell phones and other electronic devices, take conversations and noisy children outside the session room, and move to the center of your row to make room for other attendees.

There are chairs and spaces at the front and back of the room that are marked “reserved.” The front row chairs are reserved for attendees with vision or hearing impairments. The back rows are reserved for attendees with mobility accommodation needs. Please leave these chairs and spaces free throughout the conference for those who may need them.

This conference welcomes families with children and expects all attendees to treat these families with courtesy and respect. Parents or guardians bringing children are responsible for the children’s behavior and are expected to remove disruptive children from the session. Parents or guardians should be aware not all language may be suitable for children.

American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form. Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Anyone violating this policy may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the conference organizers.

If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff immediately. Conference staff can be identified by t-shirts/special badges/other ID.

Conference staff will be happy to help participants contact hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, provide escorts, or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference. We value your attendance.

[Email address for organizers]

[Phone number for conference security or organizers]

[Phone number for hotel/venue security]

[Local law enforcement]

[Local sexual assault hot line]

[Local emergency and non-emergency medical]

[Local taxi company]

Ableism in Atheism Anonymous #59

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Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability?

Autism & epilepsy.

Have you (or do you personally know someone who has) felt out-of-place or limited your involvement with an atheist community because of disability-related situations?

I have yet to find a skeptic place that wasn’t all “asshole = autistic”. And the -tard suffix. And people look at me like I’ve got 2 heads when I mention that flash photography often = seizures (I do not, in fact, have 2 heads). And when people post videos of talks and such, they don’t have transcripts, & when I ask, people think it’s appropriate to demand to know why I-or anyone-would possible need transcripts.

I wrote a blogpost about atheism’s ableism problem and the reaction was largely ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK, when it wasn’t IGNORE IGNORE IGNORE. This is a problem. (Actually, you may have read that post if you’re who I think you are…)*

What steps could atheist communities take to become more inclusive?

Um, stop being ableists?

Restrict the ableist language. Leaders need to actively say that it isn’t cool. Not just quietly say “yeah, I cringe when they do that”, but tell them ASSHAT AND AUTISM ARE NOT THE SAME THING AND STOP USING MY NETSPACE TO SAY THEY ARE or whatever.

Caption shit. ASL interpret shit. If someone asks for an accomodation (ie me and my no flash photography need, the transcript thing) instead of being all defensive and demanding to know why, just say OK, and do it, or find someone who can do it.

Meet places that are accessible to mobility devices & accessible by public transit. My city supposedly has great transit, but many meeting places are over an hour on transit and/or involve a half mile or more walk. I’m in good physical shape & can do that, but a lot of people can’t.

Any other thoughts about ableism and atheism?

The ableism issue is enough that I’ve pretty much stopped even trying, & given how much crap I have been trained to tolerate that’s pretty damn bad.

Response #59 from the Ableism in Atheism survey.

*I think the post may be this one, but if not, it’s still an eye-opener:

Ableism in Atheism Anonymous #55

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Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability?

Mental; working diagnosis dysthymic disorder.

Have you (or do you personally know someone who has) felt out-of-place or limited your involvement with an atheist community because of disability-related situations?


What steps could atheist communities take to become more inclusive?

Call out ableism where you see it. Encourage people who are disabled and are comfortable being public about it to be public. Apply skepticism to mental health claims (both SCAM stuff and “depressed people need to think more positively!”)

Any other thoughts about ableism and atheism?

Rationality/skepticism are very important to me in fighting my mental illness. I had to learn to rigorously check claims like “everyone hates me” and not just take it on intuition or faith.

Response #55 from the Ableism in Atheism survey.

Written by The Nerd

June 7, 2012 at 12:00 pm