In school, you get a certain view of history. It’s very white, very straight, very male, and the only disabled person you ever get to hear about is Helen Keller and the story conveniently ends before she can spell out more than W-A-T-E-R and start having opinions.
But the thing is… nobody invented us in 1950. We exist. We have always existed.
And once you start looking, you see us everywhere.
Let me discuss neurodivergence for a moment, although the same applies to physical disability and to queerness.
Changelings are autistic children. There is art that looks like children with Down’s Syndrome. Socrates heard voices. Henry Cavendish may well have been autistic. Soldiers for thousands of years have experienced PTSD. The demon-possessed. Prophets. Acedia. The fool capering across a Shakespearean stage or a royal court. The village idiot. Asylums. CBT is Stoicism wearing a sciencey hat. Mindfulness therapies are Buddhism wearing a sciencey hat.
Thinking about history from a neurodivergent perspective is like putting on a pair of 3D glasses and watching the blurry lines resolve into the Millennium Falcon.
This is, in some ways, an ahistorical way of looking at history. Medieval people did not have the concept of “developmental disability” to apply to their changelings and village idiots and fools. There is no reason to assume we have the One True Ontology To Rule Them All, particularly in a science that is in the early stage that psychology is. But the brain difference that causes me to be autistic did not spring up out of the ether in 1944 when Hans Asperger published his first paper. Throughout human history, we have been here.
A lot of feminists have written about the harm caused to women by erasing our experiences from history. When Adrienne Rich wrote about compulsory heterosexuality, she mentioned the brutal ways in which women have been forced into heterosexual relationships over the centuries, but still she characterized compulsory heterosexuality primarily as an absence:
The bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible, could be illustrated from many other texts than the two just preceding…
I am concerned here with two other matters as well: first, how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writings, including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a connection here. I believe that much feminist theory and criticism is stranded on this shoal.
This robbery of our history may well be especially harmful for members of categories like disability and queerness, which are both rare and, while heritable, often not passed down parent-to-child. Not only is our history left out of the textbooks, but we cannot learn about it from our parents or from the adults we interact with day-to-day (particularly since queerness and many forms of disability are not considered appropriate for children). Our history, our culture, has to be discovered.
In my experience, a lot of queer and disabled people have a sort of foreshortened future. I know a lot of people who are twenty-five or thirty and think “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now. I never expected to live this long.” And I think a lot of that is that we grow up without a history or a culture. We grow up without a model of what it’s like to be a happy, successful, queer or disabled adult. As Just Stimming eloquently puts it:
At some point, and I’ve told this story so many times and it never stops making me want to cry, I started hearing about other disabled people. People who were older than me, people who weren’t about this thing is going to kill me one of these days, people who weren’t about living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease, people who were disabled and alive and not sick, not dying, but raising hell and building lives and screaming, screaming, screaming when we were being killed.
People who used words like we.
I thought, we, yes. We. Okay. We can make this work…
When you are disabled, when you are traumatized and vision-impaired and autistic, even and maybe especially when you haven’t been given those access codes yet, you learn to see yourself as the walking dead. You are vast swathes of nonexistence, cut off and left for dead at every missed milestone and swapped pronoun and bruised shin and scar on your face. There are Other People, Normal People, People, and then there is you, and you are defined by the parts of yourself that match to everyone around you, and then the vast swathes of nothing. Disability is absence, disability is inability, disability is death, and you are a woman in a refrigerator.
It takes you a while to learn that you aren’t the one who put you in the refrigerator.
It takes longer to learn that it wasn’t your body, either.
A lot of us never get to the point where we can say it was you, you tried to kill me, you made me think I was dead, you screamed about the injustice of putting me in a refrigerator while you, you were the one killing me.
But people have become happy, successful adults who happened to be queer or disabled or both. They’ve done it for thousands of years. Societies have found ways to incorporate us– sometimes horrifying, abusive ways, but ways. Some of our members have achieved great things.
We’re here. And we’ve always been here. And no one can take that away.