Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Functional Communication, Disability Rights Theory, and Value-Added Versus Value-Neutral Word Definitions

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In a recent peer forum, the following question was posed...

I’ve found myself using the term “functional language” recently, and it gave me pause. What even is functional? Isn’t all communication functional? 

It brought to mind some unfinished work I've been pursuing exploring a concept I've been calling Value-Added Definitions and Value-Neutral Word Definitions of words and concepts. Latest attempt to explain these thoughts below, using the term "functional" as an example

Value-Added / Value-Neutral Analysis of the Term "Functional" and How it Relates to Ableism

One definition of functional is: "relating to the way in which something works or operates". This is a value-neutral definition of the word. The definition has no statement about "shoulds". It is an observational statement. As the initial question above points out, literally everything we observe is functional in that sense of the word. If your car is broken and not running, it is "functionally broken" because that's how it's currently being and existing in the world.

Another definition of functional is: "having a special activity, purpose, or task". This is a value-added definition of the word. Purpose is ... highly subjective. Highly value-driven. It is judgemental. It is a value statement. We assign a purpose and task to a car - it's meant to move. That is called its "function". If it is observed as not moving, it's now "non-functional". Interestingly, and this can enable so much hidden prejudice and oppression, the assessment of whether the car is achieving its task can, in and of itself, be very neutral and observational. Is the car able to move or not? That's the extent of the supposed "scientific" analysis. Left unasked, unquestioned, and taken for granted is the question - should the car be expected to move? 

When it comes to humans, all manner of ableism and discrimination results from the second definition of functional. Purpose according to who? Tasks meeting the needs of who or what? Far too often, these underlying judgements and baked into, and downright hidden and even denied, under seemingly neutral observations of whether a pre-defined, discriminatory task is being achieved or not.

For example, consider the value-added statement that c. What is this term really saying? It's not made clear whether this is intended as a value-added or value-neutral term, and easily comes off as implying that it's a value-neutral statement. But it's not. Left unexplored and unreferenced are underlying value judgements. Such questions as...

Who is defining the purpose of eye contact?

Is that definition free from bias?

Is that definition accommodating of diverse human experiences and needs?

What we find, using a neurodiversity understanding of autistic social experience, is that many autistic individuals find great discomfort with eye contact. We also find that, for them, it's not a needed part of socializing. If the desired purpose is "socializing", we have a mountain of evidence showing that eye contact is not necessary. Ever had a phone conversation only using audio? See, eye contact wasn't not necessary. So what then is the  statement "eye contact is a functional social skill" actually saying?

If the value-statement is, instead, correctly understood to be asking about "allistic (non-autistic / neurotypical) communication preferences, needs, and understood social norms" then yes, lack of eye contact is non-functional given that value statement. Also, that value statement is deeply ableist, prejudiced, and oppressive when used as the singular expected standard all human communication is judged against. If we instead define functional as "meeting the needs of autistic communication" then the answer is now that no, eye contact is not a functional social skill for many autistics. 

This does not mean that eye contact is useless. As discussed last week, humans are very diverse. Eye contact can enrich the social experience for some humans, while being a living nightmare and deeply distressing for others. Both experiences are valid. Given our knowledge of that diversity, great care must be taken when using a word like "functional". What underlying value judgements are present. Have they been explored? Is there any prejudice or discrimination occurring? When we observe discomfort, are we sure we know the correct root cause? Or did we simply assume one cause (the person is somehow "broken") that only works when employing an extremely biased definition of "functional" - able to meet the needs of the allistic.

So yes, in the sense of "not able to accommodate the needs of the allistic", many autistics are non-functional. And, in the sense of "not able to accommodate the needs of the autistic", most of society still remains non-functional. 

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This article brought to you by the currently unfunded Peer Voices Network. 

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