I pledge, as a person who has been called the R word, as a person who is still called the R word, as a person who lives daily with the stigma of being a neurologically atypical person, to call this initiative out as the humbug it is.
I do not support the R-word. It is an ugly word. It is a hurtful word. It is an insulting, demeaning, terrible word. But you know what? It’s not the word itself that makes it so insulting. It’s the society that spawned that word- a society that will spawn another, and another. You know why? Because cosmetic changes to the language without changes to the actual structures of the society change nothing. The problems that ‘people with disabilities’ face don’t come from a nasty word. They come from structural, institutional injustice. They come from a society that is built for, designed for, dominated by, and run by one basic type of person; the ‘able-bodied’ ‘mentally typical’ person- a society that considers one way of perceiving, sensing, processing information, communicating, and moving to be valid at the exclusion of all others. They come, not from the use of nasty words, but from the ways in which this supremacist, normative mindset is built into every institution of our society.
What I see here, what I see every time I see one of these shirts or stickers, is not a movement that promises to change those structures. I see a feel-good effort to make a cosmetic and superficial change to how atypical people are treated by society without actually changing the real conditions of their disenfranchisement. I see a movement that pretends that the real problems facing the whole range of people who get CALLED the R word have nothing to do with disproportionate unemployment, or exposure to quack therapies and abusive treatment, or homelessness, or the rate at which mentally atypical people are victimized by crime, or a broken health care system, or the stigma and disrespect that can be and is very clearly expressed without using the R word, or the patronizing attitudes that this sort of ‘kind normal people riding in to help the mentally disabled’ thing breeds, or the attitude of normativity and supremacy implicit in the entire way people think about mental differences. No, it’s about the R word. If only we can end that word! That awful word! Truly, THAT is the most important “disability rights” issue of the day! Ending the R Word will bring real change to the mentally different, just like ending the N word brought real change to African Americans, ending the F word brought real change for GLBTQ people, ending the B word would bring change to women, and if we just stopped calling the homeless (a disproportionate amount of whom are mentally atypical) ‘bums’, surely their troubles would fly away! Oh, if only we could end the word, and then all the normies could go on home and rest contented that they really made a difference, while the people they’ve successfully rebranded face once more the same, continued challenges they’ve faced before, untouched by this surface change.
So, I don’t pledge to end the word. I pledge to embrace the word. I pledge to embrace every slur and pejorative used against mentally different people. I pledge to own them. I pledge to support the SELF-advocacy of atypical people, whatever their condition. I pledge to fight for the things that really matter to us, because I’d rather be employed, housed, receiving the accommodations I need to thrive in a society designed for someone else’s mental and physical layout, and called a disrespectful slur, than be unemployed, homeless, structurally disadvantaged, and called a polite euphemism. I pledge not to use a euphemism to whitewash and ignore the continuing injustices we face. I pledge to keep using that word to acknowledge and highlight the ugliness of social injustice, until that injustice is no more, and if I can, I pledge to turn that word into a symbol of pride and self-worth. I am a freak. I am a retard. I am a psycho. I am a spaz. Hear me roar.”
The Freak Liberation Front Manifesto
We hold self-evident, the truth that any society which, purposefully or by default, excludes and marginalized some part of itself, without warrant and cause, and which makes impossible the celebration of the potential and empowerment of people of all types within it, is a society that is failed, morally and ethically bankrupt, and structurally unjust. In response to the age-old development of such a society, we do hereby establish and pronounce the Freak Liberation Front.
What is a freak? A freak is someone who does not naturally conform to the ‘normal’ way of thinking, communicating, acting, and being. A freak is someone whose mental or physical blueprint is deviant from the dominant accepted form. A freak is a person singled out and victimized, abused, or dehumanized for not fitting into the box of normalcy. You call us disabled. We call ourselves freaks, because we promote the unity of all such people, not as individual and separate movements for deaf rights, or wheelchair rights, or neurodiversity, but as a single alliance against the apparatus and culture that is the source of our exclusion. We call ourselves freaks because we will not use the powerless language of ‘differently abled’ and ‘people with disabilites’, but opt instead to seize and reclaim those words used to marginalize us and remake them into tools of our empowerment. We take up the word freak as a badge of pride, of unity, and of open, naked sedition.
We maintain that the greater part of the difficulty and disenfranchisement of the freak is due, not to the inherent weakness of the freak, but to the exclusive structures of the unfreak world. Your society, your culture, has shaped itself in such a way as to exclude us. When a wheelchair user cannot access your building, have you not excluded them by default? If a blind person cannot study because there is no Braille in your libraries, has your system not disenfranchised that person? If an autistic cannot bring forward their abilities because they cannot utilize your unspoken social rules and methods of communication, have you not robbed them of their right to contribute? In each case, whether or not you have openly established an exclusionary policy, the very structure of your society (and of your structures!) sets a de facto segregation against those who do not fit your model of normalcy. That is the very definition of structural and institutional injustice.
This is an injustice that permeates every facet of how the freak is treated in society. This injustice is present, when prenatal testing seeks to weed out the abnormal. It is present when the parents of the freak pray for a cure, and an end to their child’s freakishness, and in every freak that internalizes that hatred and begs for the abolition of their personhood. It is there when we are subjected to compulsory medication and abusive therapy, segregated in both public and private schools, forced into dehumanizing institutions, degraded in self worth in public dialogue and media, and disproportionately both victimized by and convicted of crime. It is present, when we look for work, and find positions, regardless of disability legislation, closed to us, forcing us once more into the ranks of the unemployed and the powerless. It is present when the art and literature of our culture, and when means of communication, tailor themselves only to the sensory and interpretive needs of one type of person, and when the physical environment is shaped to accommodate only one body type. It is present when our self-appointed advocates perpetually infantilize us, presume to speak for us, and take upon themselves the normal man’s burden, to patronize and pity us. It is present when, against all odds, a freak triumphs and achieves, and is congratulated for overcoming themselves.
What we demand to end these injustices, the end of these and other abuses against us, the end of the exclusionary culture and institutions by which these injustices are propagated, and the end of any and all systems that implicitly confirm these injustices, is the establishment of a culture and structures based on inclusion, acceptance, and dignity, which accommodates the needs and desires of the freak as well as it accommodates the needs and desires of the privileged normal.
We ask not for cures. We will not and cannot forsake who we are- it is an inseparable, integral part of us. We will not seek to annihilate what we are, and become that which we are not, to kill ourselves and allow strangers to move in behind our faces. We demand, and continue to demand, not the reconstruction of our personhood, but the reconstruction of a social system that serves the needs of one model of person, and one model of person only, that treats all other types of person as defective trash, and that throws us, and our potential, into the dustbin of freakishness as punishment for our unchangeable, unchoosable nonconformity.
We recognize that these changes can only come about through the multi-tactic and multi-tendency coalition of all freaks, directed by and for the freaks themselves. The neurotypical and normal-bodied ‘advocates’ for us, the quislings who in claiming our best interests would destroy our identity for their own convenience and privilege, have neither our best interests at heart, nor the understanding of our lives, struggles, wants, and needs necessary to help us. The place of a neurotypical, a beneficiary of that system which disenfranchises us, in our struggle is, at best, the ally- never the leader. What is needed, what justice demands, that we ourselves arise, each community of freaks with its own nuances and interpretations of our common demand for inclusion (never assimilation!) and enfranchisement, in solidarity with one another, and demand to be heard. Demand to be heard first and foremost, not as a footnote. Demand to be heard entirely and wholly, before any member of the privileged normal class takes the floor. Demand that our voices, and our wishes, guide any conversation about what is best for us, and defend that rallying cry: Nothing about us, without us!
Across this world, the age of supposed acceptance and pluralism, the age of alleged individuality, tells us to think outside the box. What is the box, but lines- lines which must not be crossed, lest one stray from that box of normalcy? The sick farce, then, is that while we are encouraged to think outside the box, those who truly lie outside the box have crossed the line, and must be corrected, by coercion, or excluded from the treasures of the box itself. This is a box whose structure does not serve us- a box meant to contain only one way of being. We have tried to conform to this box, and it is hostile to us. We have tried to bend and expand this box, but it is stern and unyielding. We have tried to live outside the box, or to construct our own boxes, but in the face of the dominance and power of the box, these efforts are meaningless. We are left with but one recourse in our grievances, one strategy left in our struggle. Let us unite, freaks of the world, against abuse, against stigma, against prejudice, reprogramming, and assimilation! Let us come together, not to find a way into the box, not to find a way to make the box bigger, not to change the box’s shape, but to tear down the very walls of the box itself!