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Who lacks empathy?

June 20, 2009

Renee of Womanist Musings has written about the case of Andrew Beck who, while working as a green keeper, had to wear a red cap as a signal of his disability (Asperger’s), was mocked by his co-workers, and was required to do an unfair amount of heavy labor. She notes:

Much of the ableism that we engage in is based in a failure to empathize and a desire to invoke able bodied privilege. 

I do believe the fact that Andrew had an invisible disability played a large role in how he was treated.  We have a tendency to see these as either not existing, or simply not as  serious as those who bear the physical markers of difference.

I know very little about Asperger’s Syndrome, however I know enough about disability to understand that difference does not equal less than.   Not only was Andrew subject to abusive behaviour on the part of his employer but the ridicule of fellow employees added to his stressful experience.   When we stand in silence as someone else is being abused, we are just as guilty of committing the offense.  Silence is a sign of tacit agreement.

I agree entirely but would also like to point to a special irony in this case. Aspies, as many of us with Asperger’s call ourselves, are often accused of lacking empathy, yet as Renee points out, neurotypical people often lack empathy when dealing with our differences. An Aspie who asks for a certain degree of quiet, whether in the workplace or at home, may be called unreasonable (especially if they have kept their invisibile disability hidden). On the other hand, Aspies are expected to anticipate the needs of people who function quite differently from the way we do.

This is typical of how privilege and power work: those with less power are expected to know intimately the culture and needs of those with more. The powerful are not expected to reciprocate, and if they make even the faintest effort to do so, they are lavished with praise and regarded as especially empathetic. Asperger’s, along with other positions within the autistic spectrum, functions as a social disability largely because it disrupts this pattern: the neurological and behavioral patterns of Aspies place us in a category of supposed inferiority while also interrupting our ability to anticipate the needs of our supposed superiors.

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One Comment
  1. September 18, 2009 1:39 pm

    Thank you so much.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot–people with ASDs are always considered in the wrong and NT people are always considered correct. It is just as selfish for an NT person to be disrespectful of an ASD person’s preferences or feelings.

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