I didn't watch the Miss America pageant, and I'd never heard Alexis Wineman interviewed before. She seems like a lovely young woman - articulate, intelligent, and certainly a wonderful spokesperson for autism awareness. However, listening to her speak reminded me of questions that arose for me when I saw Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor interviewed a few months ago. I remember thinking then, "I wonder if she ever gets tired of being interviewed as Supreme Justice Sotomayor, female Justice/first Hispanic Justice/first female and Hispanic Justice and not just someone who was obviously accomplished enough to get appointed to the Supreme Court." Will Alexis Wineman ever get tired of the media seeing her as The Beauty Queen with Autism (as opposed to a beauty queen, like the other competitors?)
Alexis Wineman, Sonia Sotomayor, and Being Thrust into the Advocate SpotlightI understand the temptation to focus on the fact that Alexis Wineman has autism. She's achieved something significant, something that gives her some social status, and like we did with Oscar Pistorius, it's almost impossible not to hold Alexis Wineman up as a role model for other disabled people. She represents the idea that it's possible for disabled people to make their dreams come true. That's very powerful.
But I don't think that it's any lack of determination or will to succeed that keeps most disabled people from attaining their dreams. It's the social barriers. William Peace wrote about this quite eloquently when he wrote about Oscar Pistorius right after his arrest. http://badcripple.blogspot.ca/2013/02/more-on-oscar-pistorius-by-andrea.html
And I think that one of the drawbacks of being a disabled person (or a person from any oppressed group in society) who has found a way to break through those barriers is that you become an advocate whether you like it or not. I wrote about this here: http://www.girlwiththecane.com/token/.
If Alexis Wineman or Sonia Sotomayor want to be advocates, more power to them...but I don't think that they should feel like they *have* to be, just because they're the "first" to do something.
I feel like our focus is misplaced a bit.
The Least Dangerous Assumption
I did a transcript for Ollibean this week of an interview that they did with filmmaker Ray Ellis. He's done the award-winning documentary "Certain Proof: A Question of Worth", which follows three children with communication disabilities through the school system for two-and-a-half years. He and the interviewer, Lauri Hunt, had a very interesting discussion about assuming competence (not just in disabled people, but in everybody) is "the least dangerous assumption".
If we truly assume competence, then it shouldn't surprise us that a young woman with autism like Alexis Wineman made it so far in the pageant world. We shouldn't be making such a big deal as a society that Sonya Sotomayer, a female Hispanic, was appointed to the Supreme Court. While they should certainly be celebrating their achievements, the media story should be that the powers-that-be in their particular fields realized what most of us have known for a long time:
A woman can have autism and still be beauty queen material.
A Hispanic woman can be Supreme Court Justice material.
Not only realized it, but removed barriers to full participation in society to groups that traditionally ran into into them full force...or at least a member from each of these groups, anyway.
It's a start.
I feel grateful that, even in the very small town in which I work, no one who's employed me has ever said, "We'd like to welcome Sarah, the first stroke survivor we've ever hired!"
How would it make you feel to have your achievement qualified by your membership in an oppressed group?
Learn more about the film "Certain Proof: A Question of Worth" at http://www.certainproof.com/