When people with autism or other disabilities try to engage in face-to-face communications, it is often made difficult because of a bias, intentional or not, on the part of the other person in the conversation. Another aspect of the value of social media to autistic people and others with various disabilities is the fact that they are judged not by their appearance nor the quality of their voice, but by what they have to say.
Consider the following excerpt from an autism advocacy blog:
What started the conversation was a person we know offline who has acquired a new condition over the course of the time we have known her. She has always been extreme in both her ableism and her refusal to even contemplate thinking politically about disability, more extreme than most people. Her entire identity has been tied up in the work (paid and unpaid) that she can’t do anymore. And she’s currently mired in some of the worst kinds of self-hatred because she appears to have transferred her bigotry towards disabled people (which she never acknowledged as such, and would probably be insulted by that description, but it’s true) to herself, and is busy thinking of herself as the useless burden on her family that she thinks of disabled people as in general. And she does not even have the solace of understanding disability in a broader sense than her own feelings (that she believes come out of nowhere and are therefore not things she can change), because while she is capable of thinking politically in that way, she fears it and refuses, believing it would make her miserable. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do about this, but I hope one day she’ll realize that the kind of thinking she fears would actually both be closer to reality and make her less miserable and fearful over the long run.
Was that written by a man? Or a woman? Young or old? Black or white? Disabled , or not?
As someone who spends a lot of time on the phone, e-mail, and IM, it is safe to say that I’ve never met, and will likely never meet, as many as half the people I interact with in the course of a day, week, month. Occasionally, however, I do meet face to face someone I’ve known virtually for a long time. Without fail, my thoughts of what they will be like are completely wrong. (Imagine your favorite radio DJ, then look up their picture online: you’ll see what I mean.)
Unfortunately, the norm in our society is to allow a person’s physical appearance and behavior affect our impressions of that person. In the case of autism, especially what is commonly referred to as ‘low-functioning’, this is especially problematic.
The beauty of social media, and the internet in general, is that your physical appearance doesn’t matter. Your method of communication doesn’t matter (granted, this is mainly because everyone communicates in much the same way online). People accept you – or not – for what you say, for who you are. Not what they think you should be capable of because of how you look or sound. We can only hope the offline world catches up.