This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014.
Recently a fashion has emerged of referring to people with learning disabilities, particularly autism, as dudes. This fashion has emerged out of the Justice for LB campaign but has cropped up in some of their media interviews, and I believe it ought to be challenged before it becomes established anywhere else. LB, for anyone who isn’t a regular reader, was Connor “Laughing Boy” Sparrowhawk, an 18-year-old autisic man who died in an NHS assessment and treatment unit (a mental health unit for people with learning disabilities) in Oxford, England, as a result of staff negligence which was part of a culture which was exposed by both an independent investigation into his death and an inspection by the Care Quality Commission last year. His mother, Sara Ryan, blogs at My Daft Life and there is currently a campaign of 107 Days of Action, after the time Connor spent in the unit before he died, “to bring about #JusticeforLB and all young dudes”.
I have no problem with a mother referring to her son, whether he is still alive or not or has a learning disability or not, as a “wonderful dude” or something similar, but there are two separate problems when a campaign for the rights of people with learning disabilities is done in the name of “all the young dudes” and when someone refers a radio interview to so many thousand “dudes” stuck in inappropriate assessment and treatment unit placements. One of the problems is less obvious but simpler: that it might not stay affectionate, and like many other terms for people with learning disabilities, it might end up as an insult if it just becomes a term for someone with a learning disability. The biggest problem, however, is that it’s just not inclusive.
The word dude is commonly understood to mean a man, particularly a young man, and is marginally more complimentary than bloke, guy and similar colloquialisms, but isn’t always so. Yes, there are recorded incidences of it being used to refer to or address a woman (Wikipedia has a few examples) but it remains a term predominantly used to mean a man. It is not always complimentary, as seen with derivatives like “dudebro” (meaning obnoxiously sexist members of certain tech communities, particularly gaming) and “warez d00dz” (meaning people who crack the copy protection on commercial software and distribute the results). So if you introduce a piece on a young person you work with who has a learning disability with by saying he is a dude, not everyone will hear it as meaning that he’s young, good-looking, fun-loving and sociable and has a learning disability. There is a danger that those who don’t meet this ideal (and a lot of people with learning disabilities don’t — you are less likely to present an unthreatening, boyish image if you’re quite tall and have ballooned in weight from being on anti-psychotics, for example) will come to be seen as less photogenic and therefore less media-friendly, when they might be among the most needy.
Autism is a condition that affects more males than females, so perhaps it is inevitable that in stories about autistic people and their struggles with social services, the education system or health service, there will be more male than female subjects, but that doesn’t mean we should forget that there are women who are experiencing the same thing, including abuses of the Mental Health Act (the case of Claire Dyer, who was sectioned on a pretext last September and threatened with removal to a secure hospital in another part of the country a week later, which I have written about here in the past, is a classic example; her case is still waiting to be decided) and the other inadequacies and abuses of the ATU system, and probably a few specific to them. Remember the woman in the CQC report on STATT, who left the unit because the staff refused to stop a man wandering into the women’s section? In the days of mixed mental health wards, women regularly complained that staff did not protect them from harassment by male patients and became aggressive with them when they complained; ATUs are still mostly (if not all) mixed-sex, so problems like this may be widespread.
Looking at the stories on the 107 Days of Action blog, it seems that quite a number of the stories about men refer to them as “dudes”, while there is just no equivalent for the women featured. Generally speaking, the colloquial terms for women are either insulting or patronising (‘chick’ being the most common) or otherwise inappropriate (like referring to women in general as “girls”). I tend to refer to women as ladies unless I’m told not to (or a particular woman is really unpleasant), but even that doesn’t equate to a female version of “dude”, and “dudette” really doesn’t work; it’s not a term anyone would use. When did you ever hear a woman called a cool dudette? Many women would not appreciate being called a guy or dude or anything which didn’t acknowledge that they were female, particularly if they had not done anything to give an impression of being other than a woman. If a woman looks less obviously feminine because of, medically-induced weight gain or other people’s decisions about her dress or grooming, then calling her a dude might be even more offensive or upsetting. If you would not call a female friend who was not disabled a dude, or any other colloquial term for a man, why would you call a disabled woman this, when she has less power to object than another woman? It is discriminatory.
On top of this, calling everyone with a learning disability a dude puts the women in danger, because it invites non-disabled people, including carers, to treat them the same as men when this may not be appropriate. Let’s imagine an autistic woman or girl is having a meltdown and one care worker, finding him- or herself unable to deal with the situation alone, calls out “can someone help me with this dude?”. The other person, primed to deal with a challenging man, uses force that might be appropriate for a man, or perhaps more. The threat level is elevated and prompts a potentially disproportionate response. The result could be lasting injury for the woman, or death.
I do not think for a moment that any of this is intentional on their part and I do not want this to detract from the campaign to get justice for LB and all the others who have suffered or died in these units, whether because of outright abuse, neglect or just from being kept in a unit a long way from home for a long time because the money mysteriously cannot be found to enable him or her to live at home or in his home area; I’ve been following it since the beginning and supporting it, including on here. It’s not a movement which has a big problem with sexism, but people are not going to take as much of an interest in the welfare of women in this situation if they are confronted with stories about photogenic “young dudes”. It should be justice for all learning disabled people and all autistic people, not just the young dudes.
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