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This is a personal blog started in 2011. It is no longer active, updated, or maintained. Unfortunately, it appears that I've also irreparably broken some of the links by accident.

06 April 2012

Avoiding Tokenism

Tokenism is defined in the dictionary as "the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, esp. by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce." It is a sadly common practice in the world of autism, where Autistic people are frequently token Autistics rather than participating in an activity or leading an organization in any meaningful way.

These are signs that an Autistic is a token. Be aware of them and avoid them!

  1. There are no other Autistic people on a board, council, or committee.
    If an organization, council, or committee represents, governs, advises, or leads an entity whose primary focus is on autism related issues, serving or supporting Autistic people, or representing the autism community in any way, there ought to be at least a few Autistic people serving on the board, council, or committee. In fact, there should be as many Autistics as possible, given that purpose. (Wouldn't it be odd if an organization serving the LGBTQ community had only one or no LGBTQ people in the leadership?)

  2. The Autistic person has no real responsibilities or duties, and is not expected to contribute substantively.
    This is simply more evidence that the Autistic person is there solely so that those in charge can say that they have an Autistic person participating or in a leadership position. This can happen especially when the Autistic person is given an important-sounding title, such as "Vice Chair" or "Co-Executive Director" or "Program Coordinator." The Autistic person in this position is frequently assumed to be incapable of carrying out actual responsibilities. Conversely, the Autistic person may be actively impeded in attempting to take on responsibilities.

  3. The Autistic person is not expected to express opinions, and in fact is expected to comply quietly with the organization's official platform.
    This happens when an Autistic person is actively or passively prevented from expressing his or her opinions or ideas, particularly of the organization that has included or appointed him or her, and expected to go along with whatever the organization's leaders say or do without protest, even if they do or say something that the Autistic finds offensive, hurtful, demeaning, or ineffective.

  4. The leader(s) admits that the Autistic person was included or appointed solely or primarily because he or she is Autistic and not because he or she was otherwise qualified to serve or work in that position.
    This is also called "bad affirmative action." Yes, if it's about autism, you should have Autistic involved at all steps of the process because they are Autistic, but people should always be qualified to be doing what they are doing. If we're talking about a scientific research review board that reviews papers about autism-related studies, the Autistics involved should have a scientific background of some sort. (If they're community grant reviewers, that's a different story.) If we're talking about the administration of an autism-specific school, the Autistics involved should either have attended such a program in the past or have an educational background. If we're talking about an executive officer position in a nonprofit serving Autistics, the Autistic hired should be otherwise qualified to be in an executive position. We are not identical people who can be substituted for each other like mass-produced clones.

  5. The Autistic person is excluded from the decision-making process or main working process.
    This defeats the purpose of meaningfully including Autistic people altogether. If an Autistic serves on a board or council or committee, he or she should have as much say in the decision or working processes as anyone else.

  6. There are no plans or intentions to include or appoint other Autistics.
    When this happens, it is clear that the Autistic included or appointed is a token representing the bare minimum of effort required to appear to have included Autistic people.

  7. The Autistic person is treated in a condescending and patronizing manner by colleagues, and this is considered acceptable and normal.
    This is also called workplace bullying, hazing, and ableism. Don't talk to us in a baby voice. Don't praise us for every ordinary thing expected of everyone, like showing up on time, putting things in the recycling bin, or finding a parking space. Don't treat our opinions and ideas as meaningless fantasies. Respect us because we are people.

  8. Any leader in the organization treats the inclusion or appointment of the Autistic person as an, "oh how sweet" or "oh how nice" moment.
    See above.

  9. The inclusion or appointment of the Autistic person is made out of pity.
    See 4 and 7.


  1. It looks like this whole thing is about Autism Speaks' appointment of John E. Robison.

  2. This is what I said (almost verbatim, since I use scripts) at the Autistic Empowerment- Civil Rights Model panel at Georgetown. I will post the whole script on my blog when I get a chance.

    I will begin by talking a little bit about tokenism……. Tokenism is a civil rights issue and concern. Tokenism is the policy or practice of limited inclusion or representation of a traditionally marginalized group. Tokenism is not necessarily outright discrimination. People who are in a token position in some way have some reduced capacity compared to others in the group, being expected to be bland and inoffensive, with any assertiveness cast in the light of negative stereotyping of that group. If you have ever experienced tokenism- it is debilitating, humiliating, and –angering. Examples include films, media, employment--being given a fancy job title but no real responsibilities. This happens quite a bit, I have found, in the not-for-profit disability sector. There is no real expectation that a “co-director” or a “co-executive director” who has a developmental or intellectual disability will take on actual managerial responsibilities, whether or not they are capable of doing so. Tokenism is not intentional discrimination. Tokens are expected to remain in the background unless they are requested to do something for the benefit of the “main” people. In the case of disabled people getting token jobs, token unpaid presentations at conferences, while the “experts” and professionals are paid. and the like, the expectation is that we will be so grateful to have gotten the (limited) opportunity, that we will put up with any perceived discrepancies (which can cause internalized oppression) (and I think it is hoped that we will be too cognitively disabled to stereotypically naïve. perceive those discrepancies. **We aren’t.**

  3. Good article. This is something I've been trying to put into words for some people I work with.

  4. Would have been a far better article if the author had used the more respectful "People first" language.

    1. a) that's a derail.
      b) Not only is it a derail, which is inherently disrespectful, but it's exponentially more disrespectful in that it disregards the stated wishes of the vast majority of Autistic people who have stated a preference.
      c) No, really. A quick google shows you that. Or, oh, looking to the sidebar.
      d) Do you have anything actually relevant to say or are you too upset at Autistic people calling ourselves Autistic?

    2. Did you not read the sidebar?
      Look up there at the top of the page, left side. Click the links explaining why the Autistic Community (that means Autistic people), by and large, prefer identity-first language, NOT person-first.

      People get to define for themselves what they want to be called. Outsiders don't get to tell people what language is or is not more respectful.

      Also see Jim Sinclair's "Why I dislike person-first language."
      hint: google it.

  5. What a wonderful post! My son has autism, and I work for an autism organization. I don't think there are any autistics on our Board. (Although I could be wrong.) I certainly believe that there are many well-qualified autistics who would serve the organization well. Thank you for reminding us of this important point... although we shouldn't NEED to be reminded!

  6. Tokenism is so sad. How can you claim to be making efforts to include people, only to not really be accepting them, their ideas and their opinions? The sad part is as much as the token may try to fight against the issue, often there are rules that have been set down to help squash their voice, proving they truly were selected as a token, not with the intent of making them an active participant.


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