Today, the day I began this piece, I heard a group of Amherst students complaining about “speds.” A sped, for those who don’t know, is helpfully defined in Wiktionary; it is “a special education student, usually an autistic person.” For those unfamiliar, the term is informal, derogatory, and offensive. It’s a shortening of the phrase “special education.” It is one of the countless ways allistic (non-autistic) people demean, mock, and belittle autistics, or anyone perceived as such.
Recently, I overheard an Amherst student use the r-slur to speak about someone else. It was jarring, and deeply unwelcoming — one of those moments that reminded me of how lacking Amherst’s disability justice and neurodiversity work is, given that the student who I shared a class with found it appropriate to toss around a common ableist slur as if it were nothing.
The r-slur is incredibly prevalent, and perhaps needs no definition if your experience in school was anything like mine (where the word was spoken with reckless abandon). Neurodivergent people were not a special class anyone bothered to protect. The r-slur used to be a technical term, the same way “special education” used to be nothing but a designation — now, the former has become a slur and the latter has been molded into an insult. Due to the profound ableism of mainstream society, purely descriptive terms for neurodivergent people have become markers of hatred. Such is the effect of changing words without changing perceptions.
Amherst College, bluntly stated, has an ableism problem. As an elite college, it is perhaps unavoidable. It stems from a cult of superiority that countless students subscribe to: the idea that their ability to access a prestigious college places them on a higher pedestal than their peers who have been failed by that same system (a notion which Amherst has done little to debunk).
Amherst students are the people who our faux-meritocracy has declared “smart,” and some students (those who belittle autistics) have taken it upon themselves to enforce the borders of that declaration.
Knox College professor of history and writer on higher education Cate Denial pins down the problem:
Our colleges and universities are products of that same [ableist] society. Long-form, written argumentation (using a specific linguistic mode) has long been held up as the only way students can demonstrate they understand literature, history, or political science (to grab three disciplines off the top of my head). But it’s simply one way. Similarly, it has long been the assumption in institutions of higher ed that students must be able to physically participate in lab experiments if they want to understand scientific endeavors. Why? Too often we don’t question that colleges and universities were built for able-bodied people without neurological problems or mental illness, and we repeat the assessment methods of the past.
These seemingly small, on-campus harms can and do accumulate in large-scale violence. The people that call their peers “speds” are actors in a society in which disabled children are already at high risk: Children with disabilities are more than three times more likely to be sexually abused, and nearly four times more likely to be physically abused. In a society in which ableism is constantly leveraged against some of the most vulnerable people, Amherst College owes it to the world to ensure that its students do not contribute to this immense existing harm.
As Amherst students become alumni with material effects on the world, we have the choice to embrace or reject the prejudice that divides students into categories of “smart” and “sped.” When we recall the work towards diversity, equity, and inclusion embedded into our programming and our classes, our neurodivergent peers should not be left behind, but rather embraced for enriching the campus with new ways of thinking. Ultimately, we have the choice to create a crueler or kinder society. We can passively accept the doctrine of ableism, or work to build an anti-ableist Amherst.