Readers Write: Advisory council falls far short

Readers Write: Advisory council falls far short

In your Sept. 9 print edition, you published a press release announcing the first members of Nassau County’s so-called Advisory Council on People with Disabilities had been appointed.

Unfortunately, the council has already proven itself to be a complete and utter sham, dedicated not to empowering Nassau County’s disabled residents, but rather silencing us and spreading ableist stigma. 

Firstly, the very name of the council is ableist.  “Disabled” is not a dirty word, and using person-first language (“people with disabilities”) both treat it as one and suggest that one’s disability is an accessory that can and should be separated from one’s identity.

Something tells me that if the purpose of the council were to advise the county on issues pertinent to the Jewish community and was titled, “Advisory Council on People with Jewishness,” there would have been an uproar.  However, members of the disabled community are rarely afforded the same respect as members of other marginalized groups.

More disturbing is that the law that created the council is designed to ensure that those who try to speak over and for disabled county residents can sit on it instead of anyone with the actual life experience of being disabled.

At the discretion of the county legislature’s presiding officer and minority leader, some or all voting seats can be filled by “a representative of an organization that provides services to or advocacy on behalf of” disabled people. 

The Legislature apparently thought it had to allow for the possibility that, among the handful of disabled categories listed in the law, there might not be a single disabled person in all of Nassau County capable of filling a seat.  This is absolute infantilizing nonsense.

If you think I’m being alarmist, one of the voting seats has been filled by Jennifer Outlaw, the chief program officer of the SCO Family of Services, whose website is peppered with ableist slurs and misinformation about the autistic community.

For example, all over the site, SCO makes reference to “Asperger’s syndrome” and “high-functioning autism.”

For those unaware, Asperger’s syndrome has not been a diagnosable medical condition in the United States since 2013, when the American Psychiatric Association retired it due to its inconsistent application by doctors and the barriers to educational and healthcare access it often created.

Additionally, Hans Asperger, the Austrian physician it was named after, was a Nazi collaborator who handed over his autistic patients for extermination if he deemed them not of use to the Third Reich.  Referring to someone as “having Asperger’s syndrome” is the equivalent of telling them the Nazis would have considered them worthy of life.  It is utterly abhorrent.

 As for “high-functioning autism,” this is a complete misrepresentation of the autistic spectrum, which is structured like a color wheel and not a left-to-right functioning scale. 

Further, calling someone “high-functioning” is the equivalent of telling them they’re still seen as subhuman when compared to their non-disabled peers, but not as subhuman as those “low-functioning” people over there.  It is also utterly abhorrent.

 The icing on the cake is a promotional video live on SCO’s website, in which an autistic beneficiary of their services (who was presumably diagnosed prior to 2013) states, “I may have Asperger’s, but Asperger’s doesn’t have me.”

 I shouldn’t have to explain this to Outlaw or any of your readers, but portraying autism or any other disability as something to be fought against or overcome (rather than accommodated) is deeply ableist, and that video alone proves that SCO views its autistic clients and the autistic community at large with nothing but paternalistic contempt.

 No one associated with SCO should be sitting on this or any other advisory council.  They do not speak for the autistic community or the disabled community at large and will clearly use Outlaw’s appointment as an opportunity for self-promotion.

 To be clear, I do not know if Outlaw, herself, is a member of the disabled community, as her corporate biography doesn’t mention that she is; but, even if she were disabled, her position within SCO’s leadership would still be disqualifying.

 To the very few disabled residents whom legislators Rich Nicolello and Kevan Abrahams deigned worthy of sitting on the council, I would ask this. 

Either quit the council in protest or raise your voices when ableist organizations and their representatives try to speak over or for the disabled residents of Nassau County.  We’re counting on you.  We certainly can’t count on any of our bigoted elected leaders.

 Matthew Zeidman

New Hyde Park

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