Neurotypicality is a grounding narrative of exclusion. The neurotypical is the category to which our education systems aspire. It is the category to which our ideas of the nuclear family aspire. And, it is the category on which the concept of the citizen (and by extension participation in the nation-state and the wider global economy) is based.
In the context of education, which is the one I am most knowledgeable about, the mechanisms for upholding the neurotypical standard are everywhere in force. Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.
Intelligence, understood as the performance of a certain kind of knowledge acquisition and presentation, is built on the scaffold of neurotypicality as the unspoken norm. To speak of the normative tendencies of education is not new. My concern is with what remains largely unspoken in that conversation. Having “special needs” classrooms upholds neurotypicality, for instance, as the dominant model of existence. Drugging our children because of their attention deficit is upholding a neurotypical norm. Sending our black and indigenous children to juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers is upholding a neurotypical norm which takes, as neurotypicality always does, whiteness as the standard.
Why is fairness to people with disabilities a different problem from fairness concerning other protected attributes like race and gender?
Disability status is much more diverse and complex in the ways that it affects people. A lot of systems will model race or gender as a simple variable with a small number of possible values. But when it comes to disability, there are so many different forms and different levels of severity. Some of them are permanent, some are temporary. Any one of us might join or leave this category at any time in our lives. It’s a dynamic thing.
I think the more general challenge for the AI community is how to handle outliers, because machine-learning systems—they learn norms, right? They optimize for norms and don’t treat outliers in any special way. But oftentimes people with disabilities don’t fit the norm. The way that machine learning judges people by who it thinks they’re similar to—even when it may never have seen anybody similar to you—is a fundamental limitation in terms of fair treatment for people with disabilities.
Dominant ideologies, then, have the power to create invisibility in plain sight. Once anything becomes normal, many simply refuse to see what is right their before their eyes.
That problem is grounded in how the marginalized are often positioned with the responsibility to bring that which has been rendered invisible into the light while also being poised to suffer the greatest consequences for that unmasking.
The student stepping back from idealized views of the police in order to acknowledge Baldwin’s criticism is taking a risk in a context that is mostly authoritarian.
A woman scholar taking ethical stances against the powerful current of her field is assuming risk in a context that maintains a false veneer of objectivity and high rigor.
If we are to experience a revolution of recognition, the leverage of those with privilege is essential, to pry away the cloaking in order to see what has been right their in front of our eyes all along.
Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.