Downtime

You Can’t “Culturally Appropriate” a Weighted Blanket

For autistic people, the more faddish the blankets become, the better.

A woman with a weighted blanket
Calming Comfort Weighted Blanket/Sharper Image

Ashley Fetters’ recent Atlantic essay about the “problem” with weighted blankets as last year’s hot holiday trend felt like a reminder. A reminder that I’ll never be part of the “meditation-app-using, Instagram-shopping masses” Fetters’ piece bemoans, regardless of whether I actually use Instagram or meditation apps. Why? Because to Fetters, I’m “special.” Actually, I’m not just “special.” I have “special needs.” And I am, by her essay’s reckoning, under attack. Because nondisabled people are buying weighted blankets, I am having my “special needs” culturally appropriated.

As an autistic person, did I ask for this defense? No. But I sure got it. Fetters’ piece traces how weighted blankets went from a product primarily crafted for and used by autistic people to their new mass-market life as “blankets that ease anxiety.” She points to the Gravity Blanket brand and its almost–$5 million Kickstarter haul in 2017 as a turning point. To some longtime blanket producers, Fetters contends, “the Gravity Blanket and many of its new contemporaries sounds more like a story of appropriation—a story about the sale of the special-needs community’s promise of life-changing comfort to the”—wait for it!—“Instagram-shopping masses.”

It isn’t unusual for a news outlet to run a piece about autism without the voice of a single autistic person, as is the case with Fetters’ essay. Our parents and even grandparents are sufficient proxies. We can’t speak, or what we have to say is too precious and childlike to matter. Perhaps I could do an amusing card-counting trick or play a tune I’ve only heard once by ear. Thoughts and feelings are the purview of actual people, not “special” people like me.

But had Fetters asked, I would have been happy to tell her I am not a “special” person, nor am I angry about the blanket you got for Christmas. Yes, I’m autistic. I have a disability. I have more difficulty doing things most people do not struggle with. That being the case, there are still no “special” people. There is no “special-needs community.” There are disabled people and there are our families. That’s it. And now that weighted blankets and fidget spinners are mainstream, I’m more like everyone else than ever. In many ways, the fight for disability rights is about one fundamental issue: I would like to be regarded as an ordinary person. The mass production and marketing of weighted blankets is a step toward that goal.

There is no way to culturally appropriate from disabled people. That’s not to say there isn’t disabled culture. The Deaf community has its own language and institutions. I am on the board of Autspace, a conference entirely by and for autistic people to collaborate on culture building. But the physical objects disabled people use—fidget spinners and cubes, weighted blankets, shower chairs, scooters—are not a culture. In fact, nondisabled people using amenities originally designed for disabled people does nothing but improve our lives. It’s called the “curb-cut effect.” You’ve experienced it: The gentle slope from the curb to the street, usually at a crossing, was originally designed so that people in wheelchairs could cross the street. Now, they are enjoyed by people with baby carriages, small grocery carts, rolling suitcases, and bicycles, along with people in wheelchairs. The fact that curb cuts are useful to so many people means that there are more curb cuts, and those curb cuts are cheaper to install. Wheelchair users don’t have to fight to leave their houses and cross the street.

Equipment like weighted blankets and fidget spinners was once prohibitively expensive. Insurance rarely covers them. When I bought my weighted blanket years ago, it cost a little less than $400, which I paid out of pocket. It had to be custom-made, since almost no one sold prefabricated blankets for adults. I chose from dozens of fabrics, selecting a purple that I hoped wouldn’t look too garish. I waited months for it to arrive. I remember excitedly opening the box, only to find a pamphlet addressed to a parent, covered in pictures of smiling, gap-toothed toddlers. It was unimaginable that an adult would buy a blanket for herself.

Now I can get a weighted blanket, in an adult size, on sale at Target for as low as $79.99. It comes in an appealingly neutral gray. The trajectory for weighted blankets is the best of American capitalism: People figured out that a particular product is enjoyable for people outside my small corner of the disabled universe. They figured out a way to make the product cheaper and easier to access. This is an unequivocally good thing. There are hundreds of people sleeping better as a result. Perhaps some of them are also autistic and don’t know it; there are major autism diagnostic gaps along gender and racial lines. Why not sleep better with a blanket you got at the store and not fuss over labels? God bless the curb-cut effect.

If that’s cultural appropriation, please, appropriate away. If I may dare to make a suggestion to venture capitalists, do shower chairs next. My father recently developed back problems and hates his shower chair. Everyone would love to sit down and enjoy their showers in style.