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Being Autistic Doesn't Make Greta Thunberg a 'Pawn'

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As I was scanning the morning’s news on my Google account, I was jolted by a Blaze article reading, “Greta Thunberg isn’t a hero, she’s a victim…” Without even opening the message, I knew what was coming. As a disabled person, I’ve seen such tropes many times before. While Greta Thunberg and I have different disabilities, we are still lumped into the category of those who, by virtue of our conditions, are often assumed to lack the same agency and capacity as our neurotypical peers.

In our culture today, disabled people are often seen as objects — either of inspiration or of pity. The Blaze article, penned by Steve Deace, takes the latter tack. In his words, Thunberg is the ultimate “human sacrifice” to the “progressive cult.” Deace contended, “Greta’s life has been entirely forsaken to a cause clearly not of her own choosing.”

He continued by discrediting Thunberg’s impactful testimony and eloquent oratory, because of her autism; “The degree to which the poor girl is afflicted with Asperger’s, which adversely impacts socialization and communication skills, is clearly how she was able to be groomed into such a useful zealot’s frenzy of one-note rage at such a young age.” In Deace’s view, “Greta was the perfect vessel for what other people, young and old, often try in the name of various progressive shibboleths, but can’t quite pull off because the lure of autonomy in their lives is just too strong.”

Whether one agrees with Thunberg’s convictions is irrelevant; the assumption that disabled people are merely ideological fodder is as pernicious as it is untrue. While Deace and other conservative commentators have accused progressives of weaponizing Greta Thunberg, ironically, these same columnists weaponize her autism as a means of discrediting her entire belief system.

The ableist stench of Deace’s screed is hard to ignore. Because of her disability, Thunberg is a “human sacrifice,” “a vessel,” and the climate cause which she is so passionate about is “not of her own choosing.” According to this narrative, Greta is seen as a “poor girl” and someone lacking “autonomy.” Sadly, Deace and his ilk take the cheap and easy route of not engaging with Thunberg’s ideas, but using her disability as an excuse to dismiss her views altogether.

The fact that Asperger’s impacts Thunberg does not mean she lacks the ability to be passionate about what she has judged with her own capacity to be an existential crisis, namely climate change. Plenty of neurotypical people hold political convictions at a young age and are lauded for it. Conservative darling Kyle Kashuv, who rose to right-wing prominence after the Parkland school shooting, is only a teenager, yet he is lionized by those on the Right. On the contrary, when a disabled person stands up for what she believes, she is accused of being merely a pawn for her parents and progressivism.

Instead of being celebrated for winning Time’s Person of the Year, according to Deace and others like him, an activist who has inspired an international movement is little more than an innocent victim, deserving of pity more than distinction. After all, as disabled people are only too aware, even the most impactful of us is often relegated to victimhood in a narrative where only neurotypical people possess the agency and capacity to take political stands, much less be deserving of plaudits for it.

The reality is that disabled people like us are so much more than pawns for causes. We are liberals and conservatives and everything in between. We are doctors and dentists, secretaries and CEOs, professors and poets. There is no reason to pity us because we are neurodivergent; we have the same wants and needs and passions and pitfalls as anybody else. It’s high time  opinion leaders recognized our agency and humanity.

Image via Time Magazine.

Originally published: April 4, 2023
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