Rebirth of the People

Human Diversity, Identity, and Disease

“I am.” These two words define so many struggles we face in public discourse today. People define their own identities in diverse ways and fiercely defend them. Disparage a person’s identity and you are attacking them. What follows is not gentle, rational, or easily calmed. Right now, we see how potent it is in public discourse about Palestinian and Jewish identities. It flows readily in politics everywhere these days. Identity even factors strongly into conversations about human diversity, health, and disease.

“Profound Autism”

Writing in the Washington Post, Katherine Ellison describes a great rift among advocates regarding neurodiversity and autism. The rift relates to a deceptively simple phrase – “profound autism.” Maura Leary is the mother of two autistic, nonverbal sons. One of them frequently injured himself and others before he died in 2018. She believes it is important to recognize that some children have profound autism that requires attention and support. She tells Ellison:

“You see happy videos of the great accomplishments of people with autism who get to go to work and play in basketball games. And, of course, that’s what I want for my kids. But that’s not my reality.”

On the other side of this rift are people like Julia Bascom, who is executive director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. She sees a focus on “profound autism” as a threat because it “would result in research aiming to ‘prevent’ or ‘cure’ autism, and a focus on more restrictive services.” To Bascom, autism is part of a person’s identity. Not a problem to solve.

Claiming a Fat Identity Instead of Seeking Care for Obesity

The divisive discourse about autism sounds very familiar. In discourse about obesity, health, and fat acceptance, we experience similar dissonance. At one extreme we hear from fat acceptance advocates who would prefer that obesity treatment were not an option. They reject any suggestion that obesity is a legitimate medical diagnosis and claim “fat” as an important part of their identity.

But the medical fact of obesity that profoundly affects the health and lives of some people will not go away simply because fat acceptance advocates dismiss it. Nor will the motivation of people who choose to seek care for it. In fact, as therapeutic options grow better and more numerous, you can be sure that more people will be seeking care.

Respect for Diversity?

All of this leaves us wondering. Can we cultivate a greater respect for human diversity, identity, and differing perspectives on health and disease? At times, public discourse that touches on these subjects is hardly reassuring. Nonetheless, we are hopeful.

Click here for Ellison’s article on autism, here and here for perspective on the tension between obesity treatment and fat acceptance.

Rebirth of the People, painting by Pavel Filonov / WikiArt

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November 18, 2023