Neurodiversity and social norms

The wonderful Audrey Yap said recently, in her interview with Dialogues on Disability, that  she hopes we can work toward the ‘normalization’ of things we typically classify as mental illnesses – including, in her specific case, depression. She explains:

For me, normalization would mean getting to a place where depression wouldn’t be something that one would have to admit, “disclose,” or “come out” about. Instead, it would be treated as a relatively common phenomenon that many people experience and certainly not something about which one should be ashamed. . . .What I would like, I suppose, is a culture in which we did not disproportionately reward those who are neuro-typical. I just don’t know exactly how we would get there.

I’m very sympathetic to Audrey’s point here. But it’s made me wonder how this idea of normalization fits in with another thing that I’m also sympathetic to – efforts to make professional interaction in philosophy more civil, kind, and respectful. Just so I’m 100% clear: I’m not for one second saying that people who deal with psychological or cognitive disability are somehow less civil, kind, or respectful. Rather, what I’m saying is this: how we go about trying to make a professional environmental more civil, kind, and respectful involves the cultivation of social norms, and this might have a disproportionate impact on people with certain types of disabilities. Some types of neuro-atypicality can affect how people interact socially. They can make it harder to perceive what the social norms are, or they can make it harder to behave according to those norms.

So here’s what often seems to happen. You’re at a conference where everyone is trying to be generally nice and supportive. Then Prof. X asks a question in a way that seems rude or aggressive. After the talk, people of genuine goodwill – wanting to explain why they think X wasn’t really being a jerk or didn’t do something blameworthy – start to whisper ‘Oh, I’m pretty sure X is [insert psychological diagnosis]’. What people are trying to do is explain why Prof. X didn’t intend to be rude, or why – even if maybe she did intend to be rude in that particular instance – she shouldn’t be blamed. But in doing this, they’re of course doing exactly what Audrey hopes we can avoid. They’re disclosing a diagnosis, often without X’s permission and maybe even without any confirmation from X that this diagnosis is accurate.

I think social norms that encourage respectful, collegial professional interaction are important for making our profession more welcoming. But I think they might also, in some cases, be the kind of things that either force the disclosing of a disability or, as Audrey put it, ‘disproportionality reward those who are neurotypical’. And the reason I’m writing this post is that I genuinely don’t know what to think about this.

Maybe this is one of those cases where there’s just a deep-set tension – like when some people have service dogs and other people have severe allergies – and the only thing we can do is muddle through the best we can, with sensitivity and goodwill. Or maybe I’m wrong that there’s a genuine tension here. Or maybe in some circumstances one of these values ought to be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Like I said, I really don’t know. I’m hoping you lovely readers will have smart ideas in the comments.