Nothing about autistic people without autistic people

From the TUC handbook, Autism in the Workplace

The trade union movement supports the demand of the disabled people’s movement: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’.

Many trade unions have structures for disabled members; if so, it may be useful to invite and welcome autistic members’ involvement in these.

There are organisations of autistic people, and trade unionists may benefit from their expertise.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 4.3, states that ‘In … decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities, States Parties shall involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organisations.’

However, in March 2012, the Autistic Rights Movement UK (now Autistic-UK) complained that the government’s National Autism Programme Board (APB) had been meeting since March 2010 with no involvement of autistic people’s organisations.

“Successive British governments have failed to understand (or have wilfully refused to understand) the importance of Disabled People’s Organisation (DPOs) – organisation of disabled people not organisations for disabled people.”
ARM-UK (now Autistic-UK), March 2012

Medical professionals and some charities provide useful services and resources for people with autism and for those supporting them. However, while some may campaign in the interests of people with autism, this does not necessarily mean that they speak for people with autism.

Moreover, some charities have come into conflict with trade unions, and/or pursue policies which are at odds with those of trade unions. For example, in 2013/14, teaching unions NUT and NASUWT were in dispute with the National Autistic Society about terms and conditions for staff at its schools.

The National Autistic Society sponsors several ‘free schools’, which teaching unions oppose.

Mind your language

See the TUC briefing, Words Can Never Hurt Me?, for a detailed explanation of how choice of language can help or hinder our campaigning for disabled rights.

The language we use can reinforce negative stereotypes of autistic people, or it can challenge them. If a trade union uses terms that insult or demean people with autism, this will suggest to autistic workers (and workers with caring responsibility for people with autism) that the union does not understand or empathise with them, and that if they get involved in the union they may face prejudice.

In using the term ‘disabled people’, the TUC follows most of the British disability movement. In the USA, the term ‘people with disabilities’ is more common, and some British (and many Irish) disabled people follow this American usage. The TUC does not regard ‘people with disabilities’ as offensive.

In line with this, all the following are acceptable:

  • people (workers, etc.) with autism
  • people (workers, etc.) on the autistic (or autism) spectrum
  • autistic people (workers, etc.)

Words to avoid

Some terms definitely are offensive.

Trades unionists should know that words such as ‘retarded’, ‘defective’ and ‘handicapped’ are unacceptable. These words encourage people to think less of their fellow workers, and some of them convey hate or contempt.

Words and phrases which present people as victims or pitiable reinforce negative assumptions. It is not good to refer to autistic people as ‘suffering’ from autism.

Phrases like ‘differently able’ and ‘physically challenged’ can be patronising or sarcastic, not egalitarian, and are not recommended by the British disability movement.

Trades unionists should aim for a natural and relaxed style of speaking and writing which avoids giving unnecessary offence.

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