Keep Believing in the Unlimited Potential of Neurodivergent People

[Image description: five people stand on steps. One woman holds a loudspeaker, and a man speaks into a microphone attached to the loudspeaker. One woman holds a Rainbow Infinity flag with a white background. Two people hold signs, and one says “Keep Kids Safe” while the other sign is out of focus.]

TW: eugenics, mention of addiction and suicide

This speech was given outside of the Alberta legislature on August 27th, 2020, at the #HoldMyHandAB rally for a reversal of the provincial government’s education cutbacks which caused the defunding of close to 20,000 jobs lost in the education sector across Alberta and increased class crowding. One of the most divested staff positions were education assistants who help diverse learners keep up with their classmates. The cutbacks have perpetuated a hostile environment for neurodivergent students and placed barriers to their success in school. “Keep Believing in the Unlimited Potential of Neurodivergent People” frames a position where unequal access to education is a continuation of eugenics programs against certain populations that the government of Alberta has enacted for over a century, and makes the case for education being a key to health, well-being, less demand on the welfare system, and a crime-free society.


Hello everyone, my name is Christopher Whelan, I am a proudly autistic man and a social worker in my hometown of Fort McMurray, far north of here.

I will also introduce this flag that I carry with me; the Rainbow Infinity. It is an internationally recognized symbol of the pride and community that we feel as neurodivergent people; people with minds that work differently than most. The rainbow, as you might have guessed, is adopted from the design of the rainbow LGBTQ+ pride flag designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. It is the symbol of all of us, every skin colour, every background, all of the neurodivergent people all over the world in solidarity, support, and acceptance of each other. The infinity represents the infinite possibilities of the human mind, and the unlimited potential of people with divergent minds. I am here in Edmonton to fulfill the promises of the rainbow infinity, to stand in solidarity with all people with divergent minds, and to hold our leaders accountable to it as well.

Image description: a man holding the Rainbow Infinity flag]

Many neurodivergent students, who we might call “diverse learners” due to learning in different ways than most students, rely on educational assistants to help them understand classroom content, aid them in keeping up with their peers in their studies, and advocate for them in spaces where the student cannot. These educational assistants, EAs, are critical to the future of neurodivergent people and the neurodivergent community. Education is the key to our people not only becoming employable, but becoming leaders. It opens opportunities. It helps us reach our infinite potential. But substandard, defunded education leads us to poverty, mental illness, chronic physical illness, addiction, crime, and suicide. It leads to a reality where neurodivergent people are reliant on handouts from the government to avoid starvation and suffering.

We know this because it has already happened before. One hundred years ago, the government of this province was locking up neurodivergent people in what was at the time called “Provincial Lunatic Asylums”, these asylums, located in Edmonton and at Ponoka, were places where our people were denied an education, and were instead given substandard, church charity-funded occupational training, comparable to the job training that prison inmates receive. They were discharged with the expectation that they would be able to find a job in an unskilled labour position, and no longer burden the welfare system. This policy was, and remains, an ongoing disaster.

[Image description: The Ponoka Insane Asylum in Ponoka, Alberta]

Neurodivergent people, who were continually rejected from workplaces due to ableism, bullying, and abuses they suffered from their co-workers and supervisors, turned to cash jobs to survive. They were forced into sex work and prostitution. They had to sell illegal drugs. They had to steal to survive.

The provincial government looked at all of this crime, and once more blamed neurodivergence and disability for the reason for antisocial behaviour. The provincial government in 1928 took a barely precedented move, and legalized the sterilization of disabled and neurodivergent people. In the 20th century, over 3000 Canadians from coast to coast were legally sterilized by doctors; which means they took away their biological ability to have children, saying that fewer neurodivergent people would mean less crime. Of those over 3000 Canadians, over 2800 were in Alberta. The Hitler-sympathizing Social Credit Party of Alberta amended this law, the Sexual Sterilization Act, to allow doctors to sterilize people held in asylums against their will, and later amended it again so that doctors could sterilize people not held in asylums, and all people of all divergent minds in Alberta were targeted.

Obviously, they could not get all of us, because here you all are. Disabled families. Neurodivergent families. Because our families protected us from government interference in our lives then, as you protect your children from government interference in their education now.

After the progressive conservative administration proudly struck down the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1972, we were once more allowed to have families. In the 1970s, the policy of de-institutionalization, the transformation of compulsory confinement in asylums began to slowly give way to segregated special education in schools, and then decades later we would begin integration of neurodivergent students into public schools with assistance from teacher aides and EAs. We would finally be allowed by the government to pursue a higher education; to not be impoverished, out of sight of our community, but to become leaders in our communities; not just grocery baggers and janitors but engineers, architects, nurses, doctors, and soon we would be in the position of teachers and aides helping our own people achieve their potential.

It is for this reason that assistive education cutbacks are an act of violence against our people. It is turning our back on the future, and walking backward toward the days of segregated Special Ed, asylums, and exploitation. The funding of assistive education is an act of goodwill, an act of the belief in the potential of neurodivergent people and the value of our life.

I have been accused of being too articulate to be able to speak on behalf of other neurodivergent people. That I am too “high-functioning”. My ability to be articulate is only due to the school staff who believed in me even when I was failing my tests. Only due to EAs and teachers who surrendered their time to give me extra tutoring. Only due to the people who saw my strengths instead of my shortcomings and dared to give me an academic challenge. Only due to a mother who fought and fought and fought and fought and fought the systemic red tape that was holding me back from achieving my potential.

I could have dropped out. I wanted to drop out. Every night I had a full day’s worth of schoolwork to do at home because I could not focus with all of the white noise distractions in a classroom. But teachers and school staff and my parents still kept fighting for me when I wanted to quit, and now I hold two bachelor degrees, a bachelor of arts in criminal justice from Mount Royal University, and a bachelor of social work from the University of Calgary. They fought for me and they won.

Image description: A man (me), holding my bachelor of arts in criminal justice degree with my mom and dad]

It is only right that I come here and stand with you, the next generation of parents and educators fighting for the futures of your children and our community. Never stop fighting. Keep solidarity with each other, keep believing in the unlimited potential of diverse learners and your neurodivergent family members. We will win.

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