When I was sworn in as an attorney in 2019, the leaders from my local chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers welcomed me to the profession and I enthusiastically signed up to join their organization. I wanted to become more involved in the events the group put on, so I filled out a committee preference form to hopefully lead our chapter towards greater disability inclusion. I’m autistic, and I regularly notice a lack of openly disabled lawyers like me. It’s a passion of mine to help design a world that is more welcoming, stigma-free, and accepting of disability and neurodiversity (the range of differences in brain function), so I ranked the diversity and inclusion committee as my first choice for service.
After receiving my preference form, I was immediately asked by the chapter president if the health and wellness committee would be a better fit for me. (I can only guess this came from registering my disability). I knew that the health and wellness committee specifically handled and created initiatives related to attorney mental health (which is a huge issue in our profession) and would occasionally organize group fitness classes to build community among members and encourage healthy lifestyle habits. Those initiatives are great, I thought, but it wasn’t where I belonged and could most effectively use my skills and knowledge. I had to explain that I was not uniquely qualified for health and wellness, no more than any other person on the committee. Disability is a form of diversity, not a synonym for unhealthy.
Autism spectrum disorder is a fairly common neurodevelopmental disability affecting one in 59 people. In general, it affects the nervous system, with impact on interactions, behaviors, and cognitive processing. It is not a mental health condition, nor am I physically unhealthy according to traditional standards of health and wellness (I try my best to eat right, exercise, and attempt to manage stress). Naturally, I spoke up and explained disability is a form of diversity—it is possible to be someone with a cognitive or learning disability, or be physically disabled—and be healthy. Yet diversity and inclusion for people with disabilities is the true issue: One in 4 Americans has a disability, but less than one percent of lawyers have disabilities. Needless to say, a group of lawyers had to confront their existing biases towards disabled folks, and assigned me to co-chair the diversity and inclusion committee I currently serve on.
Naturally, I spoke up and explained disability is a form of diversity—it is possible to be someone with a cognitive or learning disability, or be physically disabled—and be healthy.
My experience outlining the differences between disability and health is not isolated to law practice, and is even more apparent in greater wellness culture and in spaces and initiatives dedicated to wellness and self care. It’s often assumed that people with “invisible” disabilities like mine are inherently unhealthy. This assumption is further exaggerated for people with physical disabilities. More times than I would like to admit, I have been informed of the benefits of a gluten-free diet and how it would help my gut function and, therefore, my autism. While a gluten-free lifestyle may be beneficial to some—especially those on the autism spectrum who also have co-occurring gastrointestinal issues or celiac disease—this wellness phenomenon in particular would not make me neurotypical (aka not on the autism spectrum), or “reverse” my autism. I embrace my neurodivergence. My autism is not something that makes me sick the way sleep deprivation, a cold or the flu, or too much stress might.
The idea of wellness centers around being the best we absolutely could be by embracing healthy lifestyles and habits, but makes one big assumption: we are all able-bodied, and most issues are solvable through healthy eating, exercise, and potentially even expensive products. Baked into this is a healthy dose of ableism—preconceived notions and stereotypes towards people with disabilities. Whenever I look at trends surrounding food choices, exercise, or products, the people speaking about them or benefitting are overwhelmingly able-bodied.
Even spaces like gyms have ableist themes persisting throughout. I enjoy fitness. It took a long time to figure that out in my life because I was always being picked last, due not only my lack of athleticism, but also due to my social difficulties. Now? Pilates, spin classes, and working my body brings me a ton of joy. Yet gyms in general are exclusionary to people with disabilities that affect sensory processing (including autism), with their bright lights, loud music, and sweaty crowds. I am always looking to find instructors and professionals who respect that I might struggle processing cues that are too fast or overwhelmingly auditory. Private lessons or personal training is not always accessible for reasons such as cost and location, and we shouldn’t have to be burdened in order to feel included in a community.
For wellness to be fully inclusive, it needs to feature bodies that don’t look and move the way an “ideal” standard might. Most importantly, we need to be part of the industry’s conversations as a demographic that gets told we are unwell, but lives the healthiest lifestyles we can given limitations from our brains and bodies. To dismantle the ableism problem in wellness, this means a large industry needs to begin featuring and consulting people with chronic illnesses, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and physical disabilities as well—because being alive, capable of self-acceptance, and being our best selves should truly be for everybody.
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