"But Isn't It Easier to Change the Individual than to Change Society?"
Emily S. Cutler
When arguing for the social model of disability, or for the acceptance of madness/neurodivergence instead of the cure, I am often met with the rebuttal, "But isn't it easier to change an individual than to change all of society?"
This argument often comes from (seemingly) the most well-intentioned people in the world. They agree, of course, that in theory, mad, autistic, and disabled people should be accepted and accommodated by society. These individuals will be among the first to express their wholehearted and enthusiastic support for this premise.
"But large-scale acceptance and accommodation is just not going to happen any time soon," they'll say, sadly, sweetly. "I mean, you can't really actually believe it will right? So in the meantime, we have to give people the tools to conform to society and fit in. We have to do what's easiest to accomplish in the here and now - to teach mad, neurodivergent, and disabled people how to adjust to society's ableist, neurobigoted standards so that they at least stand a chance of being happy or successful."
"I'm just being practical," they'll say.
And on the surface, it sounds like a very practical, well thought-out, correct argument. Aside from what is morally correct, or who should have to change - society or the individual - it sounds right that it is easiest for an individual to change.
To be honest, hearing this argument used to make me want to kill myself. Because I was so terrified that it was correct. I was so terrified that all my efforts spent on advocating acceptance and accommodation were in vain, and I should be focusing on adjusting myself to society instead.
But after thinking through this argument more thoroughly, its falsity seems glaringly obvious. If mad, neurodivergent, or disabled people found it remotely easy to change who they are - to adjust to society's standards of normality and fit in - wouldn't we have already? Wouldn't most, if not all of us, trade in our madness, neurodivergence, disabilities, etc. in order to be free from the violence, discrimination, and exclusion we experience on a daily basis? The reality is that changing ourselves - "changing individuals" - must not be so easy, or even possible for some.
I know that I have tried to change so many parts of myself in order to fit in and be seen as normal. I have tried so incredibly hard to stop having meltdowns, for example. I have tried multiple classes of psychiatric medications, therapies, and self-help groups. All of these efforts have been financially demanding, time-consuming, emotionally exhausting, and/or left me with some nasty side effects (in the case of psychiatric medications). Some of these efforts, such as behavior therapies, have been literally crazy-making, entailing large amounts of self-surveillance, i.e. tracking thoughts and behaviors.
What has proven to be surprisingly easier, however, is seeking out individuals and groups who accept me for who I am, which, yes, includes occasional meltdowns. This has also taken work and been quite time-consuming - it has involved reaching out to as many different disability and mad-friendly communities I can think of, constantly utilizing social media and other technology, and most of all, putting my story - including highly vulnerable parts of myself and my experiences - out there in a very public way, so that people with similar experiences know where to find me.
But while these efforts have proven to be time-intensive, they have proven successful. I have so many friends, co-workers, colleagues, and an incredible partner who accept me for who I am.
Don't get me wrong. I recognize that this success takes tremendous privilege. It is not safe for everyone to come out publicly with their story, and many people lack the time, energy, or resources to find accepting and accommodating communities. My white privilege, thin privilege, and relative financial privilege make all of the above easier for me.
But the point still stands that it is not universally easier to change an individual than to change society. In at least some cases, it is not only easier but also more fulfilling and rewarding to work toward societal change - or find communities in which that societal change is being enacted - than to change oneself.
And in turning the issue of disability acceptance, autism acceptance, and mad acceptance into a hypothetical moral dilemma, the well-intentioned people who argue, "But isn't it easier to change the individual than change society?" ignore the reality that for disabled, autistic, and mad people, there is no dilemma because there is no choice. These groups of people do not get to just make up our minds about whether we want to change ourselves or change society. It is not an interesting philosophical question about what should happen or what is more fair or just.
Instead, we are forced to exist in a world that is bigoted, discriminatory, prejudiced, and many times outright hateful toward us because of who we are. Our choice is as follows: we can accept that we will always be miserable, or we can seek change.
I'll choose the second one, thank you very much. I'm just being practical.