Saturday, May 20, 2017

What the Fidget Spinners Fad Reveals About Disability Discrimination

Aiyana Bailin
restlesshands42.wordpress.com

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Photo © Robert Couse-Baker / Creative Commons
[image: Hand holding a spinning fidget]
I'm angry about the sudden popularity of fidget spinners, but probably not for the reasons you think. I'm not mad that they're disruptive in class, or obnoxiously trendy. I'm furious because of what they reveal about societal power structures, and the pathologizing of disabled people by non-disabled persons.

Autistic people (and others with developmental disabilities) have been fighting a war for decades. It's a war against being forcibly, often brutally, conditioned to behave more like neurotypicals, no matter the cost to our own comfort, safety, and sanity. And those of us who need to stim in order to concentrate (usually by performing small, repetitive behaviors like, oh I don't know, spinning something) have endured decades of "Quiet Hands" protocols, of being sent to the principal's office for fidgeting, of being told "put that down/stop that and pay attention!," when we are in fact doing the very thing that allows us to pay attention instead of being horribly distracted by a million other discomforts such as buzzing lights and scratchy clothing. We've had our hands slapped and our comfort objects confiscated. We've been made to sit on our hands. We've been tied down. Yes, disabled children get restrained—physically restrained—in classrooms and therapy sessions and many other settings, for doing something that has now become a massive fad.

Think about this: Decades of emotional punishment, physical violence, and other abuses. And then some guy (who just happens to be in a position with more social clout than most disabled people will ever attain) writes an article about how having a fidget toy helps him concentrate during meetings, and all of a sudden, every neurotypical person in America is falling all over themselves to get a fidget toy of their own. The first time I heard about the fidget spinner craze on the news, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. But I was leaning toward "cry," for the reasons I just explained, and because the irony made me feel ill. Sometimes the universe has a cruel sense of humor.

This is important. Really important, so read this next sentence twice: Something that was considered entirely pathological and in dire need of correction when done by disabled people is now perfectly acceptable because it is being done by non-disabled people. This should make you stop and think, especially if you are someone who works with, educates, or researches people with diagnoses like autism.

What else might we de-pathologize overnight once the "right" people, the "normal" people, the "healthy" people start doing it? Will somebody write a tweet that makes it socially acceptable to avoid eye contact? Will a Facebook meme make it suddenly trendy to have texture sensitivities? Will hand-flapping become cool after it shows up in a music video?

Normality is an illusion. It doesn't exist. Human culture is constantly changing, and our everyday behaviors are changing with it, more than ever in the fast-paced digital age (yeah, I'm old enough to remember when phones couldn't go everywhere with you, and believe me, social norms were very different back then). Even if "normal" did exist, setting it as the goal towards which disabled people should strive is unacceptable.

Because insisting that disabled people act more like non-disabled people is not about improving functionality, it's about who has the power to set social standards. It's the same reason certain accents and dialects are considered less "educated" and the people who speak that way snubbed. It's the same reason people with one skin tone are portrayed as less capable, or more dangerous, than people with the majority's skin tone. It's​ why "women's work" is devalued and underpaid. In short, it's oppression, plain and simple.

Perhaps I should be more hopeful. Perhaps we're moving towards an era of acceptance. Even before the fidget spinner hit the spotlight, more and more professionals have agreed that sensory needs are real, and should be acknowledged and met. Many websites now sell chewy toys, app stores abound with sensory relaxation apps, and plenty of autism "treatment" programs (though certainly not all) have moved away from their prior focus on sitting still with immobilized hands while grudgingly accepted that stimming is actually a perfectly healthy thing for autistic people to do.

But the power structure is still there. There's still a rigid hierarchy of who gets to decide which behaviors are normal or pathological. There's still a societal subtext that tells people who are different "be less like yourself and more like us." We need to work on that.