Letter of Response: A Response to "A Smithie's Response"

On April 23, the Sophian published an op-ed by Ellie MacQueen ’18, written in response to the SJE Committee/Disability Alliance’s email about why Smith would not be participating in “Light it Up Blue” this year. MacQueen took issue with the email’s tone and claimed it misrepresented Autism Speaks and the Smith student body.

The email may have been strongly worded, but the bluntness of its message does not inherently invalidate its argument; in fact, the intentionally harsh language illustrates the gravity of this issue. MacQueen takes issue with the email for going “too far in condemning Autism Speaks” and its “mission is to support families with autistic members and fund scientific research on autism.” She seems to have missed one of the main points of the SJE Committee’s email. By the organization’s—and MacQueen’s—own admission, Autism Speaks is focused on the family members of autistic people, as opposed to themselves.  This focus bolsters the perception that family members and caretakers of autistic people are the only ones who need support, without acknowledging the humanity or autonomy of autistic people. It also ignores autistic people’s own needs for support and accommodations.

MacQueen also criticizes the email’s use of the term “eugenics.” Eugenics is, indeed, a loaded term to use—and rightly so, as it carries with it histories of systematic abuse, violence and murder. Given this history, most people feel uncomfortable with the idea that something that still exists today could be considered “eugenics.” It is, however, important to note that at its most neutral, the definition of eugenics is: “the belief and practice which aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.” Autism Speaks puts a great deal of rhetorical and commercial effort into representing autism as a disease that needs be cured in order to improve the lives of people affected by autism (i.e. family members or caretakers), which assumes that autistic people would find the elimination of autism to be an improvement. All of these practices—from forced sterilization to researching a cure for autism—stem from an underlying belief that various types of defects need to be eliminated in order to improve the human race, as though there is something fundamentally wrong with disability, neurodivergence, or autism.  Euphemisms like “genetic modification” or “genetic selection” were coined to distance those practices from the negative connotations “eugenics” carries, despite being motivated by the same beliefs. These terms are no less rhetorically charged than eugenics; instead of allowing people to form their own opinions, they collude with dominant, ableist narratives and do nothing to force people to reexamine their unconscious biases.

In the second half of the op-ed, MacQueen takes issue with the idea that, because they distributed this email, the SGA was “claiming to speak for the entire student body.”  Factually, this complaint is off-base.  Firstly, it is important to specify that—while sent from the SGA’s email—the letter was written and signed by the Social Justice and Equity Committee and Disability Alliance. Furthermore, the job of the SJE Committee is not to represent the whole student body. Its role just the opposite; it exists to advocate for and serve the interests of marginalized students on this campus, as the most vulnerable populations that attend Smith.  Regardless of the majority opinion on Autism Speaks at Smith, it is the SJE Committee’s responsibility to guarantee that houses and student leaders are not supporting an organization that is harmful to Smithies. It is never the place of the majority to vote on behalf of the rights of the marginalized and oppressed. The decision to “Light it Up Blue” should have never been a poll sent out for the consensus of house populations, especially after one autistic student stepped forward to say, “This is violent.”

We want to conclude by clarifying that this response has been written by allistic members of the Disability Alliance with the pre-publishing approval of an autistic student. We did this to ensure that it was not the responsibility of the concerned autistic student to respond to this issue publicly. This serves the dual purpose of not putting the onus of education on the persons affected and ensuring that marginalized voices are highlighted. We recognize our responsibility, as allistic allies, to defend the right of autistic Smithies to be on this campus and to be comfortable here. We encourage other allies who understand why Autism Speaks’s work is harmful to educate people within their houses and the campus at large, and for those interested in this issue in general to consider taking on the Autistic Blog Challenge as an opportunity to engage with a marginalized side of this issue.

Signed,

The Smith College Disability Alliance