Othering basically means putting people in a category that is not like me. We “other” people when we put them in a separate category to us. By saying we have pupils and then “special needs” pupils we place some children into a category that is “other” to their peers. When we do this there is also an unconscious inference that the “special needs” children are not real children because otherwise we would just group them with every child. We would just have children, not children and special needs children. 

When we have a friend and then an Autistic friend we are othering. When we say we are an employer and then an inclusive employer we are othering. When we have co-workers and then Autistic co-workers we are othering. When we accept plaques and awards for working with “special” people we are othering.  

Things not to say when othering: But you look so normal!

But you look so normal

A phrase often addressed to Autistic people

What the person saying this phrase doesn’t realise is that they are giving away more about themselves than they intend to. What they are really saying is:

But you look so normal. You look like me but I’m not Autistic or disabled or disordered (or whatever negative ideas of autism I have in my head). And if you’re Autistic and look like me then that challenges the self image I have created and the images I have created of “special” people to distance myself from people who are less than me. I’m finding this rather challenging so I’ll make it about you instead of inflicting any self-reflection on myself. My self image is fragile so I will challenge you instead of challenging it.

Evaleen’s Translation of what they really mean

We all have needs, what’s so special?

When we have schools and then “special schools” we are creating a distinction where there needs to be none. And let’s be honest, we are not segregating the two groups and placing them on some visual par in our minds. We are placing one above the other. When we other, we discriminate. When we segregate some children into classes and others into units then we other and discriminate. I mean, we don’t like to admit that’s what we’re doing because that would mean a lot of self reflection and evaluation so it’s easier to justify our discrimination by saying that one group has needs that are different to the other. If you scratch the surface of this argument you’ll see that really we all have the same needs. The illusion we’ve created for ourselves serves only to justify our discrimination and not to actively help or support those we have “othered”.

How do we change this? We do this by giving minorities central roles in any discussions about them. How many Autistic people were consulted in Ireland before they build “units” for the children of our community? How many Autistics were interviewed about their school experiences before creating school experience for Autistic children? How much Autistic input is there in teacher, principal and SNA training? How many Autistics were asked if the way we are described on National Council for Special Education website is true? 

These were rhetorical questions but if I’d to hazard a guess I would say ZERO. Inclusion isn’t about putting people into separate places in our minds and in our world . Inclusion means that instead of completely ignoring them or locking them up in institutions we see them. Inclusion is about not only treating people as equals but as seeing them as equals. Inclusion means giving people choice not rigid structures. 

The short answer is that those who are excluding us need to step up and stop discriminating and othering us. We can only do so much through education, we need those compassionate students to do their bit also! 

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