Monday, January 3, 2011

Outing disabled celebrities: a cautionary note

I love lists. They're just so satisfying. And I'm not alone. In fact, the whole internet is a list-lovers paradise.

I've also noticed an interesting disability list phenomenon, which could be called "Outing Disabled Celebrities". I suspect the idea was borrowed from the gay community. If your identity is ignored at best, stigmatised at worst, then compiling a list of famous and successful people who share your experience can be heartening, even inspirational.

According to Google, there are at least a million lists of famous gay people on the internet, as well as lists of famous Black people, famous vegetarians, famous chess players, famous West Virginians, famous people who were adopted, and hundreds of others. In fairness, there should also be a list of famous dwarfs, but the only one I found has just four members. Four?! That's ridiculous. Even Snow White did better than that.

More enterprising impairment communities have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the game. For example, there are lists of famous people with Asperger's, including Woody Allen, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Vincent Van Gogh. There are lists of famous people with Attention Deficit Disorder, including Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Mozart and Winston Churchill. And of course, there are lists of famous people with depression and mood disorders containing names too numerous to mention.

Now, I can see the benefits of making these sorts of lists to challenge prejudice and negative stereotypes, but the popularity of 'claim a celebrity' does raise a few questions.

For example, just how accurate are these retrospective diagnoses? I'm not the world's greatest scholar, but some of these identifications are pretty dubious. Albert Einstein, for example, had a miserable childhood, started talking late, and was a bit of a nerd. Apparently, these are all potential clues to his neurodiversity, as is the fact that he never learned to drive a car. Yet he also married twice, had many friends, and possessed a good sense of humour. Or take Thomas Jefferson. Here, the evidence seems to consist of the facts that he preferred old clothes, disliked public speaking, felt conflicted about slavery, and kept exceptionally detailed financial records. Well, none of this was particularly unusual at the time, and it hardly adds up to a definitive diagnosis, does it?

Alert readers may have noticed that the same names often crop up on different lists. It's common knowledge that Winston Churchill suffered from depression, which he called his "black dog", but he also gets claimed by the Aspies. Poor old Beethoven and Einstein also seem to have had multiple impairments. And as for Mozart, he's been variously diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger's. Perhaps there should be some sort of 'disabled celebrity list summit meeting", which could work to achieve a consensus on exactly which problems afflicted what famous historical figure. Can you imagine the negotiations? "I'll trade you Isaac Newton for Alexander Graham Bell, and I'll throw in a few composers, but you're not having Mark Twain."

Of course, it's only ever the desirable disabled people who get on these lists. Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin might be diagnosed as having manic depression, on the basis of their raging tempers, manic highs, grandiose delusions, paranoia, reckless behaviour, gloomy depression and contemptuous disregard for others. But they don't tend to feature amongst the celebrity numbers.

The whole business of outing celebrities is an attempt to see the positive aspects of conditions that the prejudices of mainstream convention regard as unmitigatingly awful. But there is a risk of going to the other extreme, and glossing over the distressing difficulties of having a mental illness or cognitive impairment. There's also the danger of raising expectations unfairly. High achievers are rare in any field of life. Couldn’t listing dozens of exceptional people with manic depression or Asperger's may even make ordinary people - who have the same conditions but not the same talent - feel worse rather than better? For example, only about 10% of autistic people have savant skills. How many parents of autistic children are doubly disappointed that their child has the severe impairment, but not the compensatory abilities they have seen on the silver screen?

The celebrity disability list seems to be a product of an era in which there are hundreds of different diagnoses, many of them only recently discovered (or maybe 'invented' is a better word). While humans come in all sorts of different varieties and personality types, society is rather intolerant of those who don't fit a narrow norm.

Most traits can be found in the average person. For example, it's common to feel slightly depressed or manic from time to time. My ex-wife was convinced that I'm on the autistic spectrum, because I like to twiddle my fingers in front of my face, and I get upset if plans are changed - not to mention all this list-making. I disagree, because I think the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder fit me much better.

In fact we're both wrong, because there's nothing clinically wrong with me at all. I may occasionally manifest some of the same traits as someone with Asperger's or ADHD, but then so do many people. That's why it's so easy to diagnose long-dead historical figures with different cognitive impairments, and why so many children are being prescribed Ritalin. Almost everyone has their eccentricities, or sometimes feels shy in social gatherings, but that's not the same as autism. Not every nerd is an Aspie.

In a world where people feel uncertain about their identity, many folks jump onto diagnostic bandwagons, wanting to have a label - or a badge - to explain to themselves and to others why they feel different. It makes people feel secure to be officially distinctive and to have a wider community to belong to, and the internet makes it easy. When the original version of this article was published, there were dozens of outraged responses – more than for most of my Ouch contributions – mainly from neurodiverse people furious that I was challenging their role models, and pointing out that conditions like Asperger’s, ADHD and Tourette’s overlap, so it should be no surprise that the same name appears on different lists. My mistake, admittedly, only I don't think it makes any difference to my overall argument.

While I understand the importance of role models - and it's one of the main justifications for this blog - I think labelling, listing and separating can be a dangerous strategy, if taken too far. Rather than concentrating on what divides us, surely we should celebrate what we have in common?Remember Thomas Jefferson not for his eccentricities, but for the powerful (if dated) words which he helped draft: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal".

1 comment:

  1. Too right. Diagnosing (posthumously) Paul Dirac's autism is interesting, but I am wary of the claims made by his biographers that this was 'crucial to his success as a theoretical physicist' and the reason why he won the Nobel prize. It looks like they are searching for an essence, and to me I think their reductionism is symptomatic of a kind of scientism.