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Threat Level Blue: Autism Awareness Month Under a President Who Hates Autistic People

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Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to list the demographics that merkin vessel and occasional president Donald Trump isn’t hostile toward. “Able-bodied, straight white men” seems fairly expansive, but given his propensity for flying off the rails with weird dialogue, there’s always a chance that by the end of the week, he’ll start rambling about how the Irish are only suitable for manual labor due to their skull shapes or something.

With that in mind, his abiding contempt for disabled people is hardly a recent development. It made headlines when he mocked disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski and obsessively denied it (even as he accused Kovaleski of “using his disability to grandstand”), but it goes back further than that. He’s been promoting conspiracy theories linking vaccination and autism since at least 2014, and he’s worn his eugenicist preoccupation with “good genes” on his sleeve for far longer than that.

But just as his decades-old racism and sexism, take on new menace with him positioned to give them each the force of law, so too does this contempt make me feel particularly unsafe as a disabled person with him in power.

As an autistic person, early April is always annoying for me. April is Autism Awareness Month, and Autism Speaks’ increasingly unavoidable “Light it Up Blue” campaign never fails to rope in well-meaning people unaware of the organization’s eugenicist views, shady practices and misogyny toward autistic women and girls. This year, however, I got a reminder that while the most powerful man in the country may not be quite clear on his support for the Iraq war or universal healthcare, he’s never wavered from his views on autistic people.

On April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, the White House not only participated in the Light it Up Blue campaign, it issued a statement pledging “innovation that will lead to new treatments and cures for autism.” In a vacuum, references to “cures” for autism are troubling enough, but coming from a man with such open hatred for disabled people and Victorian views on human development, such a proclamation comes off like a fatwa. It should be noted Trump doesn’t even hold the most retrograde views on disability in the White House; while serving as chairman of white supremacist news site Breitbart, Trump advisor Steve Bannon wrote to an employee that “spank[ing] your children more” would be the most effective “cure for the mental health issue.”

Nor does Trump’s threat to me and other autistic people reach its limit at rhetoric. For how it would translate to action, look no further than his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. In 2008, Gorsuch wrote the opinion for a unanimous 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that sided with a Colorado school district against an autistic student. In late March, the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned the decision. Gorsuch was asked about the case during his confirmation hearings, offering a non-apology that he was “bound by circuit precedent.”

Gorsuch genially passing the buck and washing his hands like Pilate might not shock the conscience like Trump flailing his arms to mock a physical condition, but in its way, it’s a far starker example of the danger Trump poses to disabled people. Gorsuch is Trump’s hatred of disabled people ascended to the highest court in the land, and decisions like his do more than just insult disabled people, they restrict their right to an education and set down their second-class citizenship in black-and-white legalese.

Ditto for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who lacks Trump’s crassness and open bigotry but, given his way, would restrict disabled people’s ability to get vital healthcare and social services, a position not lost on those who lambasted him for his own tweet marking World Autism Awareness Day. Ryan’s tweet also promoted Autism Speaks and their campaign, illustrating just how deeply rooted the myths and stigma promoted by the organization really are.

Donald Trump will (probably) not be president forever. Our next president will (probably) be able to talk about disabilities without sounding like P.T. Barnum. But Trump’s coarseness not only sends the clearest possible signal to disabled people that they are not safe or recognized as fully human, it provides cover for the quietly monstrous men, the men like Paul Ryan and Neil Gorsuch, who will have the freedom to credibly pretend they care about us because they don’t visibly enjoy hurting us. Trump has served to illustrate the stakes in the battle for our dignity, but his absence won’t end that battle by any stretch of the imagination.

(image: Shutterstock/a katz)

Zack Budryk is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Style Weekly and NOS Magazine. His novel Judith, a feminist crime thriller, is available now.

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