Autism Interview #149: James Shirley on the Intersection of Disability and Religion

James Shirley is a truck driver, ordained minister, and vlogger from Pennsylvania with an M.A. in Theology. He identifies as INFJ and is passionate about disability advocacy and is actively involved in many disability and human rights organizations, corresponds with elected officials to improve public policy, and is working on a film about disability experience. This week James shared this experience with the intersection of disability and religion and how he’s managed life throughout multiple abuses.

In what ways have you had to self-advocate in school (college or graduate level) or at work?

In school and work I had to constantly defend myself from thought policing, tone policing, threats, theft, vandalism, violence, rumors, slander, character defamation, sabotage, interruptions, and the need to “prove myself” to others that I didn’t need their permission to act, think, speak and make decisions for myself.  Aside from seeking learning support and counseling while working, I found myself having to file complaints against the institutions for abuses of me and others, particularly Geneva College.

What are you most passionate about?

I am most passionate about my family & friends, disability justice, and Judaism.  

What are some important issues surrounding the intersectionality of disability and religion?

The majority religion of any country is often weaponized against disabled people who are cast off as being less than human or even demonic.  Judaism is intimately related to Disability (see my interview with Rabbi Mordy Rudolph on my youtube channel). For example, both Jews and Disabled people were put into death camps and labor camps.  I have a personal friend who survived one of the Nazi death camps.  Half of the disabled people placed into the T4 camps were given to the Gestapo by Church-run asylums. 

Furthermore, the pathological terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” that are often applied to Autistics come from Nazi “science.” [The most infamous Nazi doctor Mengel was referred to as “the angel of death.”]  I think society should be aware of the fact that involuntary sterilization of disabled people, forced drugging, electroshock, isolation, food and temperature deprivation, along with genital mutilation still occurs in the U.S. in over a dozen states.  Filicide (the murder of disabled people by their parents or caregivers) is often unreported and unpunished, and religious language such as “guardian angel” is commonly applied to the person who murders his/her disabled child in news reports while the victim is either forgotten about or blamed for the murder and described as a “burden” to society and the family caring for them as a “pre-punishment” by judges before they hand down light sentences for homicide of a disabled person. 

I’ve heard pastors describe in sermons disabled children (including their own children) as “punishments for sin” even though Jesus clearly teaches in the Gospels that “neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind, but he was made so for the glory of God.” 

I also think laypeople should realize that Christian Republicans in 1973 are the ones who legalized abortion (as 6 of the 7 Justices who ruled in favor of Roe were nominated by Republicans and the only two dissenting justices were nominated by Democrats).  There are more abortions under Republican presidents than Democratic presidents as well as fewer abortions now that it is legal than when it was illegal.  The matter of abortion impacts disabled lives because a society that allows disabled people to be aborted is more likely to abuse them when they are alive, particularly when doctors tell mothers that “disabled people are not worth living” and when psychiatric experts like Ivor Lovas who developed (ABA) Applied Behavioral Analysis posited: “An Autistic child is not a person…but has to be made into one.” Any treatment which seeks to make neurodivergent people into neurotypical people is inherently dehumanizing, untrue, and unjust.  

What kinds of stereotypes, microaggressions, or abuses (if any) have you experienced in a religious setting or by clergy or laymen/women?

Indirectly I’ve heard a pastor describe his own disabled daughter, “What good is a disabled girl!” in his sermon and then he went on to explain how his daughter only had value in relation to helping him advance his ministry and personal agenda.  Directly, I’ve been threatened and harassed by clergymen and laywomen and told that I was being “disrespectful” and told that I’m stupid and need to “shut up,” “be quiet,” “Just stop it!” and so on for honestly and politely answering their questions.  I had Christian peers gossip about me and judge my salvation due to my disability (because I couldn’t talk on their level, think fast enough for them, detect when they were lying, or answer questions quickly enough for them), even though I was in good standing in the church and came from a long line of Presbyterians that stretched back for centuries.  I had Christian professors mock my family for genetic reasons and even publicly brag about discriminating against people like me.  

Federal registries should be created to list abusive teachers, principals, pastors, and community members who mistreat Autistic children or adults. I encourage all ASD folks to use their cell phones to audio and video record daily harassment and abuse and to hire private investigators to expose systemic corruption and discrimination or even bodyguards, if necessary

What kind of stereotyping or discrimination is common for disabled people?

Disabled people commonly are made to work for sub-minimum wages.

They are 16 times more likely to face violence from the police (especially deaf people).

They are up to 8 or 9 times more likely to commit suicide, especially after harmful therapies like ABA that lead to PTSD.

Autistic people are also far more likely to be violently assaulted by others or to be sexually abused.

Despite stereotyping and severe abuse that many mentally ill folks suffer, Autistic individuals are no more likely to be violent than other people.

In what ways has the church or your faith in general, been a positive influence on your life?

Most laypeople in the church had a positive impact on my life.  My faith in God and the Bible has kept me alive and influenced me in a good way.  Studying theology along with my life experiences led to my eventual conversion to Judaism, which is more in line with the values I inherited from my family, beliefs I acquired from society in general, was trained in by public schooling, and is more disability friendly.  

In my opinion, Judaism is the best religion for short and Autistic people as Jews tend to be shorter, have a more literal approach to the Bible and life unlike the neurotypicals & Christian Derridian-allegorical method. Judaism also affords federal hate crime protection as well as the right to go to Israel and become citizens of a much safer country that respects the lives of disabled people more because of the shared history of violent oppression with us in the concentration camps

How has your life been impacted by heightism?

Heightism has almost always had a negative impact upon my life that has led to gratuitous harassment, false accusations, emotional/verbal abuse, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, being profiled, not being believed, being presumed incompetent, etc.  

Your experienced horrible abuses since childhood. With such a poor support system, what were the primary factors that led to you eventually finding the strength to obtain an advanced education, receive a diagnosis, and find meaningful work?

I credit my family, my neighbors and the suburban values of my home church North Park EPC, the North Hills school district, compassionate citizens, empathetic peers, and my Faith in God (along with the Protestant work ethic) for giving me the endurance to complete college and obtain a master’s degree.  I got my diagnosis with the help of a good social worker and my now friend and neighbor who introduced himself to me as we were both taking a walk and said he was Autistic, and he believed that I was too (according to his mother). 

After being injured on the job at Amazon, I decided to pursue commercial driving with the encouragement of my dad.  On my own, I’ve done a lot of volunteer work and am currently seeking a job in Disability Justice Public Policy.  

What kinds of abuses do you see/experience as an Autistic adult in society today?

I believe shouting in our faces (which is intended to cause pain) is an act of violence as it invades our personal space (4th amendment), hurts our ears, and causes physical pain (which we can prove empirically through checking our heart rates/blood pressure or doing a brain scan during those encounters). I recommend to Autistics to cover their ears (or use earplugs), close their eyes when confronted by loud & aggressive personalities.  

This sometimes happens in schools, therapy centers, and within the home. I’d suggest reporting bad teachers or principals to the state and federal departments of education and suing the school district if necessary as schools are bound by federal law and Supreme Court precedent to protect disabled students from harassment. I also believe reparations should be paid to the survivors of forced drugging, electroshock, sterilization, being profiled and falsely charged by police or others. All of the studies show that “interventions” and bullying which are intended to “cure” or “fix” Autism cause PTSD and permanent psychological harm including memory & concentration problems and thus reparations should be given to the victims of these practices as well as a public apology issued by the practitioners. Similarly, compliance training sets up Autistic people for sexual assault and abusive relationships as they are taught they can never say no.

Sadly, so many of my experiences of disability have been negative, but it has given me determination to persevere against the odds which seemed to me and others to be almost impossible. Also, I am glad that the FDA ordered the Judge Rotenberg Center to end its electroshock this March.  And it is good that the ACJ (Allegheny County Jail) in PA is being sued this year for psychiatric abuse; it is my hope that this trend of cracking down on torture in America continues.

The fact that most people know how to curse (w/ their middle finger), accuse (with their index finger), and threaten (with their fist), but not how to say hello, how are you, what’s your name in ASL, or any Braille or AAC (Alternative Augmentative Communication), BlissSymbols says a lot about our culture’s attitude toward disabled people.  

What is the most difficult part of navigating daily life as an Autistic adult in an NT-tailored society? In a perfect world, what would make this better?

Communication is the most difficult part of daily life as others often seem to know what I am and others are thinking or feeling, but I do not know what they think or feel.  It is frustrating when I ask for explanations that NTs tend to get very upset over, as if I am challenging or disagreeing with them, and they often seem to be more interested in competing with me than being my friend.  Everyone else seems to understand these unwritten social rules that I am never able to comprehend.  I almost feel as if I am speaking or thinking in a different language from others. Perhaps in a perfect world we could all communicate through telepathy.  I do think genetic reengineering and cyborg technology will be helpful for disabled people to feel more included.  

How can NTs change their behavior/expectations to meet the preferences of people on the spectrum?

I find it disingenuous and rude when NTs make comments such as “What’s that?” “What are you doing?” but were not at all interested in honest answers to those questions, but instead intended these questions as insults or indirect ways of telling me to stop talking so that they can dominate the conversation by doing 90% of the speaking and then giving me mere seconds to respond to their minute long+ monologue, and then calling that a “debate.”  

I also find it dishonest when NTs speak in the 3rd person but mean what they are saying in the 2nd person or first person, and vice versa.  Or when they speak in the past tense and use stories from history to actually refer to present events, “object lessons,” which is common in sermons as euphemisms to talk about people–this is both misleading and dehumanizing to see people as mere objects.  And then NTs often blame me and get mad at me for not being able to read their minds, even though they claim that “only God knows your heart” and no one knows your true thoughts or motives, I Samuel 16:7.  

Finally, classmates and co-workers should make mutually agreed-upon and drafted written agreements with Autistic individuals so that it is very clear what the social expectations are on both sides instead of just assuming that the Autistic person will automatically know or understand unwritten rules, facial expressions, gestures, or implied ideas that are spoken in “off terms.” By putting things into writing, it will make it easier for the Autistic person to express his/her ideas instead of having to think on the fly or having to engage in an uncomfortable and what often ends up being a conflict situation regarding unwritten rules. 

Anything else you’d like to share?

I recommend reporting hate speech, discrimination and other crimes committed against Autistics to ADL, CommunitiesAgainstHate, ACLU, the OCR through HHS, the ADA section of the DOJ.  There are groups such as Disability Advocates on LinkedIn that are helpful, Autonomy works & Digni to help us find work. ADAPT, AADP, AAIDD, ASAN, NCIL, there is a Disability Rights (for each state), Neurodiversity Newstand, Autism employment network, Disability Leadership Institute, and there are often research studies like Spark that Autistic families can participate in and be paid.

Autistic families should advocate for ADA compliance officers to be placed in schools (including colleges) as well as disabled self-advocates to mentor disabled students. The Joey Travolta film camp is a good resource for disabled children & young adults. There are also disability led theatre groups.

And a note for parents: Supportive decision making is a better alternative to guardianship (which takes away rights from someone, and is difficult to revoke). I also suggest making a mental health advance directive for Autistics in case of crisis to get the proper treatment and to avoid the violent and coercive tactics of Resolve, the police & social workers. 

Also, many Autistic self-advocates prefer “identity first language” as in “autistic person,” while professionals usually say “person with autism” which is “person first language.” However, I prefer to be called by my name as I don’t think either of those two above mentioned are helpful because they both involve labeling and “othering.” We do not refer to “normal” people that way as “non-disabled person” or “person without a disability,” and disability is a normal part of human existence, so we should be referred to just like anyone else by our names and pronouns.

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