Disability Pride Month and the Neurodivergent Demand for Disability Justice

Disability Pride Month and the Neurodivergent Demand for Disability Justice

Disability Pride: A Brief Overview

Rooted in the Disability Rights Movement of the 1970s, Disability Pride Month is observed in July and encourages us to dismantle ableism while embracing diverse ways of experiencing living in a human body. It’s a time for self-identified disabled people to celebrate our identities, strengths, and accomplishments, and demand equitable access and inclusion.

One of the significant milestones in our fight against ableism was the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. This act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. It was a hard-fought victory that signified the importance of our rights and underscored our value and potential.

Yet, the work doesn’t stop (and hasn’t stopped) there because it is nowhere near enough. The ADA, while transformative, isn’t the panacea to ableism. Ableism, like any systemic oppression, runs deep, infiltrating the very fabric of our society and our internal psyches. This includes ableism against neurodivergent individuals, where societal norms and structures are biased towards neurotypicality, often stigmatizing or marginalizing those who think or function differently.

The Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability, in stark contrast to the medical model, posits that disability is not a result of an individual’s differences or “impairments”, but rather, arises from the barriers, prejudices, and exclusions imposed by society. This paradigm shift reframes disability from being a problem inherent within the individual that needs to be “fixed” or “cured”, to a problem rooted in society’s inability or refusal to accommodate diverse ways of being and functioning. The social model emphasizes that instead of forcing disabled people to work harder to function as if non-disabled, we need to modify the environment (both social and physical) to be more inclusive and accessible.

This viewpoint fuels much of the advocacy for policy changes, adaptive technologies, and social awareness, with the aim of creating a society that respects and upholds the rights and dignity of all its members, irrespective of their physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental variations.

Neurodivergence and Disability

The term “neurodivergent”, coined within the autism community, encompasses all individuals whose cognitive processing diverges from what’s traditionally deemed as “normal”. Yet, the potency of the “divergent” part of this term is that it goes beyond a mere awareness of difference or diversity. “Divergence” indicates that while neurodiversity is a natural fact (in nature, diversity is the rule), neurodivergence is a socialized experience indicating the divergence from a socially crafted “norm”, rather than a naturally occuring “norm”. With that, the term carries a profound political undertone that I feel gets buried in current mainstream vernacular.

Given the social root of the concept of “divergence”, it’s easy to see how, under the social model of disability, neurodivergent individuals face various forms of disablement due to societal structures that don’t take into account our unique ways of experiencing and interacting with the world. For example, suffering sensory overload in grocery stores due to fluorescent lights and visually busy layouts can cause immense discomfort and stress, perhaps making it impossible to even go inside such a place (exclusion and lack of accessibility). Similarly, prevailing social expectations often push neurodivergent individuals to “mask” or hide our differences in an effort to fit what makes neurotypical people feel comfortable around us, resulting in mental exhaustion and even loss of self-identity. Practices such as scripting or rehearsing social interactions, which can be necessary survival tools for some neurodivergent individuals, also highlight the societal barriers to natural and authentic expression of our unique social styles and selves.

In short: We are disablized by society and we must participate in our own liberation in whatever ways we are capable. This is why Disability Pride Month should be important to all neurodivergent folx.

What it All Means to Me

As a proud member of the neurodivergent family, I use the label neurodivergent for myself in situations where I just need someone outside of the family to “get” what I am saying. I see it as an umbrella term that mainstreamers seem to not be threatened by. The more precise label I use for myself  is “neuroqueer AuDHDer”. I feel this encapsulates my experience of ADHD and Autism, along with the myriad other “queer things” I have come to appreciate about myself– including my queer gender and sexuality. 

I love the term “neuroqueer” for so many reasons. While both “neuroqueer” and “neurodivergent” highlight the importance of embracing neurological differences, and shedding light on the social elements involved in defining what is considered a deviation, I feel that “neuroqueer” takes the ideas inherent in “neurodivergent” a step further by intentionally aligning with the ethos of queerness and the importance of “queering” things. The “queering” of something is to challenge hegemony, hierarchy, and definition. It is to challenge the dominant powers like capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It is to reject societal norms and the pressure to conform and to emphasize the fluidity of identities and experiences. It is full of spectrums rather than binaries. It promotes radical acceptance and celebrates the diversity of human experience. “Neuroqueer” embraces these principles, advocating for the freedom to exist outside conventional categories of neurology, often overlapping with gender and sexual orientation (which exist in the brain). Furthermore, the term “neuroqueer”’ suggests an active, purposeful departure from societal norms, rather than merely a passive variance. Neuroqueer is radical and unapologetic.

In this way, Disability Pride Month is another kind of “queer pride month”. It is simultaneously a celebration of diversity, divergence, queer bodies, queer neurologies, queer experiences, and a rallying cry for justice. It is fitting that this month comes directly after LGBTQ2IA+ Pride Month, as the two are deeply interconnected. Not only are some LGBTQ2IA+ identities still medicalized, pathologized, and forced into a category of disability, but many LGBTQ2IA+ folx are mutliply disabled in other realms of their experience. Everything that is away from the “norm” enforced by society is, ultimately, made queer and queerness is almost always forcibly disablized by society.

For more about the term “neuroqueer”, please visit this site.