Independence and Autonomy

Among those who feel an impulse to breed yet more “presume competence” slogans, there is a particular flutter around the terms “independence” and “autonomy.” This contention sprouted directly from Porter and Burkhart back in 2012, and that spawned local versions that are being even further twisted to support vested self interests.

The argument is that the (allegedly aggressive and/or ignorant) use of the word “independent” implies a treatment of a person as a subservient participant, which acts as a specific obstacle to a (more loving and/or enlightened) method which has been valiantly struggling to use the word “autonomous” to portray the person equitably.

If those two words are deliberately redefined in that specific way, then yes, that argument is correct by definition.

But the increased rhetorical intensity is horseshit.

Now, redefinition in itself is not the problem.

Using a word with a new, more equitable meaning can be a powerful approach to an end... followed by making those unusual meanings more usual; similarly, the meanings of some words are so entrenched in harm that (contemporary) redemption is not viable, so there is value in avoiding them. Either way, redefinition can be very potent, and is sometimes needed. But such powerful tools can lend themselves to equally powerful abuse, which this editorial guards against.

In this case, the usual (canonical) meanings are beneficial, not harmful:

• autonomous: self-governing (in regards to choices)

• independent: free from external control/influence (in regards to actions)

Independence is not autonomy’s evil twin; for example, these terms are both described in the literature as significant, positive features in creative personalities. And a prominent ISAAC presentation promotes, “various methods of empowering individuals with AAC needs to have autonomy, independence, and a healthy sense of self.” The actual complaint, then, should be about the behavior of those specific partners who treat other people as subservient participants, no matter what words they abuse/redefine to inflict that harm.

So instead of chronically redefining abused words (and then those abused redefinitions in turn), let's teach people to use the usual words better, and then hold them to that standard. Make that part of the graduate training programs. Make that part of continuing education.

(Hell, it should be part of grade school. It should be part of life.)

Here is just one example of how the terms are used in the programs at Lane ESD:

Relative to a given system, a person might be described as “independent” when it comes to the event of activating a switch if they do so without any prompts or other supports. That word is used in that context with that meaning as a domain-specific technical term. AND we also value/honor that person’s autonomy in their choosing whether or not to activate that switch at all... or in choosing which switch to activate (or no switch at all… because that person might need a different set of systems altogether).

And so on.

(It's a SETT analysis, not a ‘TTES’… although SEPT is even better.)

If any partner is not supporting both the person’s independence and their autonomy (and their healthy sense of self), then we want to change that poor dynamic. But we aren’t going to affect any significant change just by demanding that the partner use the word “autonomous” instead of “independent” to label their abuse.

In addition, when a person does engage in an activity without apparent external influence (i.e., independently), we don’t necessarily know whether they also autonomously chose to act; therefore, simply substituting the terms is inaccurate. That understanding depends on whether that sort of meaning has been communicated well between that person and their partners.

Regardless of our confidence in our understanding, we still endeavor to do what we can to increase that likelihood of and opportunity for autonomous choice.

It’s what I hope that my partners will do for me… usually (but not always).

So yes, absolutely, we should avoid implying (ignorantly or otherwise) that a person is a lesser-class participant, particularly if they happen to be relatively vulnerable in a power dynamic.

But in this case, let’s start by promoting a better understanding of what the existing words already mean when used in their usual, beneficial ways. Independence and autonomy are allies, not antagonists.


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