Racial justice, disability rights, neurodiversity and cross-movement solidarity


How might greater social justice for those who have unjustly been marginalized best be achieved? Perhaps cross-movement solidarity is the answer to this question. And perhaps now is the opportune time to make it happen.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought into particularly sharp focus the inequities that exist in society. Racial justice has seen renewed prominence in the national conversation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the recent passing of two civil rights icons in John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. The Americans with Disabilities Act recently turned 30 years old, and the neurodiversity movement has been picking up steam in recent years due largely to increases in awareness and in the rate of diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders.

So, why do we need cross-movement solidarity with respect to racial justice, disability rights and neurodiversity? Because all three movements share many commonalities. There are a good number of people to whom all three movements are relevant. All three are civil rights movements that strive for greater freedom and equality for folks who undeservedly play according to a different set of rules. Each of these three fights work to remove an unjust social stigma that opens the door to discrimination and condescension — and replaces it with acceptance. All three movements acknowledge that all of us share a common humanity and deserve to be able to be who we are without having to pay a price. What lives in our hearts and our souls, our character, and how we treat others matters more than external appearances.

Each of these movements stands strong on its own, though they would stand stronger if they did so side by side. Imagine them combining to form a kind of “super-movement” with enough potency to shift the playing field so that it becomes more level for all of us. John Lennon’s timeless lyric from his song “Imagine” is certainly pertinent in this case whereby you may very well be saying, or thinking, that I’m a dreamer, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. After all, cross-movement solidarity is hardly a new concept. 

It is a relatively little-known fact that prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a good number of black civil rights activists worked to connect disability rights to the broader civil rights movementThis display of solidarity helped bring about events, including the longest occupation of a federal building in U.S. history, that ultimately led to the passage of this landmark law. Two movements (civil rights and disability rights) came together in the name of inclusivity and social justice, and with lasting results. 

It is challenging enough to be associated with any social stigma, though what can happen when there are two or more social stigmas at play? In the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, advocates for individuals on the autism spectrum and people with other intellectual disabilities stepped up and called for the full pardon of an autistic Black man wrongly convicted of assaulting a police officer in Virginia in 2010. Reginald “Neli” Latson had been reported to the police for “suspicious” activity while “possibly possessing a gun.” Though he was determined to be unarmed, the officer nonetheless pursued him as he tried to peacefully walk away, after which Latson resorted to a fight-or-flight response which is a common, involuntary reaction among autistic folks who find themselves in stressful situations akin to this one. In 2015, a conditional pardon was granted, though Latson continues to be subject to ongoing supervision and may be arrested and incarcerated should he fail to adhere to any of the conditions of the pardon. Arguably, only in the event of a long-overdue full pardon would Latson be able to begin to heal in earnest, and there is a great deal of healing waiting to happen, in part because of the severity with which Latson was allegedly treated while imprisoned.

With any luck, Neli Latson will soon be a free man. As a Black, neurodivergent man, he was victimized in part because of the color of his skin and because of a misinterpretation of the intent behind his actions which stem from a vulnerability common among many on the autism spectrum. When an egregious miscarriage of justice results under these circumstances, the racial justice, disability rights and neurodiversity movements are all relevant with respect to the efforts of the people fighting on Latson’s behalf for a full pardon.

As had been the case when disability rights and civil rights advocates joined forces and successfully worked to bring about the Americans with Disability Act, cross-movement solidarity might also help to free Latson by exerting a strong, coordinated appeal to the governor of Virginia to grant Latson what he deserves. Cross-movement solidarity could probably achieve at least a measure of justice for other autistic folks of color who have been treated unfairly or who have suffered an outcome comparable to that of Latson. 

Civil and human rights are of great importance to the autism spectrum community largely because these rights are often compromised for many who are autistic. The case of Neli Latson is but one example among many. The Autism Society is a prominent organization in the community which appropriately aligned itself with the protesters who were demanding these rights after the horrific killing of George Floyd. The Asperger/Autism Network asserted a similar sentiment by acknowledging the two-fold risk that members of both the Black and autism communities face on a regular basis. Distinct groups of people who are working towards a shared goal as a result of a shared grievance is the stuff that cross-movement solidarity is made of.

It all comes down to the fact that all lives do matter, that an injustice committed against any one of us is one act of injustice too many. However, if as a society we are to demonstrate that we mean what we say when we say that all lives matter, we must pursue a level playing field for those who have historically been marginalized and continue to be to this day. As such, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Disability Rights movement, the Neurodiversity movement, the Me Too movement, the LGBTQ Rights movements and other civil rights movements I may have overlooked in this instance are all of critical importance. The coronavirus pandemic creates urgency around the need for a level playing field considering the inequities that exist with respect to access to testing, health care and possibly a vaccine, once it becomes available. How can change on this scale happen, and persist, with nobody left behind? How can it happen sooner than later? Perhaps cross-movement solidarity is the best answer to these questions.

Sam Farmer wears many hats, among these father, husband, musician, computer consultant, and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s Syndrome, he writes blogs and articles, records coaching videos, and presents at conferences, sharing stories, ideas, and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in life despite facing challenges and adversity that often interfere in these pursuits. To learn more, visit samfarmerauthor.com.

“A Long Walk Down a Winding Road: Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens” is available on Amazon and can be purchased at all major booksellers.