All posts by s.e. smith

Reproductive Justice is for Everyone, Even People You Don’t Like

There’s a sign on the wall of a local clinic which says, according to my paraphrasing memory:

You have the right to decide if you want to have children or not, and to determine their number, timing, and spacing.

The clinic provides reproductive health services to low income members of the community, and plays an important role in ensuring that people have access to everything from safer sex supplies to prenatal care. I’m a big fan of theirs, and I’m a big fan of that sign, which I think embodies the core of reproductive rights and justice. Everyone has the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and one of the core values of the reproductive rights movement should be supporting people in this. Supporting all people, leading all kinds of lives, making all kinds of decisions.

Educating people so they can make more informed choices. Helping people access services to allow them to carry out the choices they are making, whether that’s a decision to get an abortion or to have a child or to get some birth control. Fighting sexual assault and rape as violations to bodily autonomy.

Recognising that while a choice might not be one you would make personally, you can still support someone in making that choice, and you can still enable that person’s ability to make decisions freely. As soon as we start making decisions about the ‘right’ kind of families and the ‘right’ number of children and the ‘right’ number of abortions to have, the concept of reproductive justice starts to fall apart. Who decides these things? Who is the arbiter of whether someone is making the ‘right’ choices?

There’s one group that gets left out of a lot of reproductive justice discussions: People with disabilities.

I’ve seen the decision to have a child with disabilities compared to child abuse, whether we’re talking about a child with a prenatal diagnosis, or a child born to parents with an increased risk of having a child with disabilities. I’ve seen disabled parents treated as though they are committing child abuse simply by being disabled, and being parents. I’ve seen people act like people with disabilities don’t need access to sexual education, because obviously we don’t have sex. I very rarely see any of these actions labeled as what they are, which is ableism.

Denial of reproductive rights to people with disabilities is ableism. Denial of our needs in the reproductive justice discussion is also ableism. Telling us we don’t belong at the table is ableism. We deserve reproductive justice too, and we have needs that are not being addressed by the current reproductive rights movement.

One of the problems with attempting to bring disability into reproductive justice conversations is that people act like the issues we cite are things of the past; they aren’t important, because they don’t happen anymore. People with disabilities are never involuntarily sterilised to prevent them from having children. Children are never taken from disabled parents. People are never shamed for deciding to continue pregnancies when a prenatal diagnosis indicates that the baby will be born with disabilities.

Well, these things are not in the past. They are happening right now.

A few recent cases from here in the United States: A child was taken from blind parents, solely because her parents were blind. It took intervention on the part of the National Federation of the Blind to restore the child to her home. The children of a disabled woman were denied visitation rights on the grounds that it would upset them to see their mother. A quadriplegic woman was told she couldn’t be a good parent. These are just three recent, high profile cases where parents were told they couldn’t care for their children because of their disabilities. Believe me, there’s more where that came from.

As for forcible sterilisation, the Ashley X case attracted a great deal of attention in feminist communities, but it’s far from the only one. Last week, we linked to a story about drugs that suppress sexual desire being used in autism ‘treatment.’ In Central and South America, forcible sterilisation, particularly of Indigenous women, is widespread and the United States has a history of sterilising Indigenous women as well. Tessa Savicki, a Massachusetts mother of nine, is suing after a hospital sterilised her without her consent during an unrelated medical procedure in 2006.

If sterilisation of people with disabilities isn’t a problem anymore, how come someone wrote a bill in 2009 to bar forced sterilisation of people with disabilities?

In a conversation at dinner the other night, I had to physically restrain myself when one of the people at the table attempted to argue that a mutual acquaintance was being ‘irresponsible’ by having a child at her age, ‘because it might be born disabled.’ This is not the only conversation like that I’ve witnessed, on or offline.

For people with disabilities, the reproductive justice discussion is extremely personal. People debate whether we should be allowed to have children, people believe that compromising our bodily autonomy is acceptable for the ‘greater good,’ and people debate whether or not we should have been born. For people who were born with disabilities, hearing people claim that parents having disabled children is akin to child abuse is rather appalling.

The thing about reproductive justice is that it’s not just for the people you like and the people you agree with. It’s not just for young, nondisabled, cisgender women who want to use birth control right now and have access to abortions, with the possibility of having children later. It’s also for parents of large families. It’s also for disabled parents. It’s also for religious parents. It’s also for disabled children. It’s also for people who are not interested in having children. It’s for everyone living in a body, no matter what kind of body it is, no matter what kind of life that person leads. Reproductive justice, true justice, should be all-encompassing.

Excluding people with disabilities from the conversation by either being actively hostile or dismissing our concerns is not reproductive justice.

Working Towards the Neutral Place

Something that I see coming up a lot in discussions about language is the argument that, by asking people to refrain from using words that refer to disability as pejoratives because they reinforce the idea that disability is categorically bad, people engaging in discussions about language are saying that disability is a bed of roses with a unicorn and a platter of cupcakes on the side. This is, as I said in a recent ‘Today in Journalism,’ so not true, and I wanted to pull that discussion out of that post, because it’s important, and it deserves its own post:

The thing about terms like ‘suffers from’ and ‘victim of’ is that if someone self identifies with them, that’s fine. But when they get used as generic terms to refer to people with disabilities in general, it sets a precedent. It tells people that disability is suffering, and that people with disabilities are victims. The reason that we ask people to use neutral language when talking about disability is not because we want to tell other people how to feel about their disabilities, but because we don’t want to tell nondisabled people to think negatively about disability.

This is an important thing, when talking about language. There’s a big difference between identifying with a term and using it, and using a term in general to refer to everyone like you, or, in the case of nondisabled people, using a term you’ve heard someone use as self identification to refer to everyone like that person. If the media presented disability in neutral terms, ‘The locals known Ray Magallan, a man with cerebral palsy who…,’ it allows readers to approach the article with neutrality. But here, from the very start, the subject of the article is a victim.

Asking people to think about the language they use generally is not about telling people that all disabilities are awesome! And terrific! And superfun! Nor is it about telling people how they should feel about their disabilities. What it’s about is working towards the neutral place: The place where disability in general is value neutral, rather than universally good or bad.

Speaking for myself and myself only, there are some things about my disabilities that I like, and that I am glad to have as part of my identity. There are other things about my disabilities that I dislike, and strongly wish would Go Away. And there are a lot of things that just are, that I don’t feel strongly about one way or the other. I don’t like society assigning values to my identities, or deciding that because I feel a particular way about a specific disability, all people who share that disability must feel like I do; I want society to view them neutrally, and that’s one of the reasons that I want to get people thinking about the language they use and how they use it.

The language isn’t the problem. It’s the underlying attitudes that are the problem. Disability is used as a shorthand for ‘bad’ because it is understood to be bad. The goal here is not to try and effect a switch, to disability as ‘good,’ but to get people to view it neutrally, and to allow individual people with disabled identities to shape their own approach to disability. To give people autonomy, and to make nondisabled people understand that when one person says ‘I hate my disabilities’ that person is speaking for ouself, just as the person who says ‘I love my disabilities’ is also speaking for ouself.

It’s also, of course, about getting people to confront the role of ableism in their lives, and to look at how it manifests, but that’s only one facet of conversations about language. People who are stuck on ‘oh, I need to just not use these words’ are missing the much larger discussion, that these words are code for attitudes and beliefs, and that when we talk about these words, we confront those beliefs. By working towards disability as neutral, we are allowing many people with disabilities self determination and autonomy, although not all people with disabilities will necessarily agree that working towards the neutral place is a shared goal, or even something that should happen at all.

Telling a person with disabilities who identifies ou personal experience as difficult, or painful, or unpleasant, or frustrating, or simply bad: ‘how can you say disability is bad!’ is every bit as policing as calling disability in general  a tragedy, because it’s denying someone’s lived experience, and it’s denying something that someone is articulating right in front of you. Someone who hates ou disabilities or who hates aspects of them isn’t ‘betraying the movement’ or ‘wrong,’ and the goal of language discussions isn’t to hound people who feel that way into changing their minds about how they feel about their bodies and brains.

It’s about creating a space for everyone, a space where people can self identify how they like, and feel the way they like, without being judged or shamed not just by society, but also by fellow people with disabilities. There is room for all identities and lines of thought in a world where disability is a neutral identity, and people are allowed to shape it and feel about it the way they want to, rather than being pressured to perform, think, and believe in a particular way for the benefit of others.

Crude Violations: BP Is Dumping Toxic Waste In Low Income Communities of Colour

The Gulf oil spill that has been capturing the news cycle in the United States for the last few months finally appears to be under control, and now we’re faced with a common problem: We have a whole lot of waste from the spill and associated cleanup, and it needs to go somewhere. This includes crude oil, equipment used by cleanup crews, soiled booms, and all kinds of other spill-associated detritus.

According to a story published at Colorlines last week, nine landfills in the Gulf region have been selected as sites for disposing of waste. Waste management authorities claim the material isn’t toxic, which means that regular municipal landfills, rather than landfills specifically designed to handle hazardous waste, are being used. Of the nine landfills chosen, five are located in low income communities of colour.

This is not a coincidence. While it is true that there are a number of primarily nonwhite communities in the Gulf, and that many of these communities are also low income, thus making it statistically more probable that at least some of the waste would end up in such communities, this case is clearly an example of environmental racism. There is a very long history in the United States of pushing unwanted toxic waste into low income communities in general, and communities with large nonwhite populations in particular.

There have been rumblings over the last few months about where BP is putting the oil spill waste, and most of those rumblings have focused on outraged white communities. This distracts neatly from the far more serious issue, the fact that most of this waste would end up in nonwhite communities, and that these communities would experience serious long term consequences. Focusing on white communities also allows the media to completely ignore the overt racism involved in deciding where potentially toxic waste ends up.

From the start, the oil spill has disproportionately impacted people of colour. Many of the cleanup workers were people of colour, and BP also used primarily nonwhite prison labour in oil spill cleanup and tried to hide it. Now, with the spill cleanup winding down, waste from the spill is being dumped on nonwhite communities even as these communities struggle to recover economically from the impacts of the spill. They can look forward to leaching of oil and chemicals from their landfills  in the coming decades, and reports on the ground also indicate that the waste is already poorly controlled, with oil slicks and tarballs showing up around communities being used as dumping sites.

Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why were cleanup workers wearing protective suits? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why are people who have been exposed to  it getting sick? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why is care being taken to ensure it doesn’t end up in privileged communities?

Crude oil can contain things like benzene, chromium, mercury, sulfur, toluene, and xylene. These substances are known to have deleterious effects on human health; at the very least, skin irritation and difficulty breathing. The oil spill waste also contains traces of dispersants, known to be toxic. And the government wants to stand by the claim that the waste isn’t toxic? Dumping these waste in facilities poorly equipped to handle it will result in long term environmental repercussions, in addition to human health  problems.

I’ve written here before about how hazardous waste disposal methods tend to disproportionately impact communities of colour, and how they are most definitely a disability rights issue. Environmental pollution is a disability rights issue, and it’s a social justice issue. Toxic waste makes people sick. Making people sick is not ok, especially when familiar patterns of oppression can be seen in who is exposed to the greatest risks. If this waste is nontoxic, surely it can go in any landfill, and it would make sense to use landfills as close to the coast as possible, right? So the waste travels the shortest distance? What exactly was the selection process behind the nine landfills identified as sites for Gulf spill waste?

BP, like other major oil companies, has a long history of engaging in environmental pollution, including unauthorized dumping of materials known to be toxic. The vast majority of this pollution occurs in communities least equipped to fight it, and when oil companies are caught doing it, often the biggest punishment is a relatively small fine. In this case, BP isn’t being clandestine: the company is being openly invited to dump waste. The claim is that it’s ‘nonhazardous,’ but is it? Even if it’s not toxic, is it really the kind of thing we want leaching out of landfills and into waterways and farmlands?

These communities will be dealing with the repercussions of BP’s dumping well into the future, just like communities all over the world where people are sickening and dying because of toxic materials present in the environment. Just like communities where rates of chromosomal anomalies are skyrocketing as a result of exposure to toxic substances. Communities with limited support systems to help sick and disabled community members are the ones disproportionately facing an increase in chronic conditions and disabilities. A long term policy of dumping toxic pollutants on low income nonwhite communities and refusing to provide support for the consequences sends a pretty clear message to members of those communities, as well as to the rest of society.

We need to be talking about the connection between environmental pollution and racism and we need to be combating plans to dump hazardous waste on low income communities of colour, from protesting clearly racist environmental policy to working in solidarity with communities who are actively fighting toxic waste disposal in their landfills and on their sacred lands.

CDC Study Reveals Poverty as Major Contributing Factor for HIV Infection

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States recently released a study showing that in heterosexual communities, people living in poverty are five times more likely than the general population to be infected with HIV. For impoverished communities, where people are living above the poverty line, but not living well, people are two and a half times more likely to be infected.

This just in: Poverty is bad for your health.

Just so we’re all operating on the same page, the current poverty line in the United States is set at an annual income of $10,830 USD for a single person, $22,050 USD for a family of four. There’s a reason I was gravely concerned about the AIDS Drug Assistance program recently. This study shows that people living in poverty aren’t just less likely to be able to access HIV/AIDS treatment, they are also more likely to need that treatment in the first place.

Guess who is most likely to live in poverty in the United States? Black, Native American, and Latin@ populations. People with disabilities. Young people and older adults. We’ve known for a long time that all of these groups are more likely to have health problems as a direct consequence of living in poverty, and this study shows us that poverty is also a key factor in HIV infection rates among these groups. In 23 US cities, we are looking at a ‘generalized epidemic’ in the heterosexual population; that’s a fancy way of saying ‘this is not going away unless we do something about it.’

One obvious solution would be outreach and education programs. Provision of medical care. Access to safer sex supplies. Community education provided by people actually living and working in these communities who can provide that education in an accessible format.

Yet, there are a lot of barriers to doing this. There’s the furor from US conservatives opposed to any kind of community education, outreach, and healthcare when it comes to anything even tangentially related to sex; after all, if we hand out condoms, that’s like saying it’s ok for people to have sex! As Cara Kulwicki points out at The Curvature, there’s also a serious stigma against sex workers when it comes to funding for HIV/AIDS work. Not only do we not want to help sex workers, we don’t want to provide funding to any organisations that work with them.

At Racewire, Kai Wright notes:

Today’s CDC study establishes that the U.S. epidemic is instead best understood as two separate epidemics–one in poor neighborhoods and one in the rest of the nation. That’s because HIV prevalence is a shocking 2.1 percent among heterosexuals in the poor neighborhoods CDC studied. These are explosive findings that ought to fundamentally redefine our understanding of the U.S. epidemic and its gravity.

This study is a stark illustration of intersectionality in action. If we’re going to talk about disparities in HIV infection, we need to talk not just about poverty, but about race, the social structures that cause certain classes of people to be more likely to live in poverty, and the way these systems intertwine.

What the CDC is telling us is that people who live at the intersections of oppression are much more likely than the rest of the population to be infected with HIV, and that this is, in part, our collective fault, for failing to adequately serve vulnerable populations. For failing to address the tremendous class disparities in the United States and for choosing to ignore the clear intersections within those disparities; there is absolutely no reason why entire classes of people should be more likely to live in poverty than others.

Phill Wilson, writing at the Black AIDS Institute, underscores the importance of viewing race and poverty as interconnected, not separate, issues when evaluating the results of this study and the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a whole:

So, the question is: Is race or poverty the driver of HIV in Black communities? We believe this is essentially a difference without a distinction. In America, Black people are disproportionately poor. Almost 25 percent of Blacks live in poverty, compared to 9 percent of Whites. According to a study by U.S. Department of Agriculture, nine out of every 10 Black Americans who reach the age of 75 spend at least one of their adult years in poverty. The uncertainty about why Blacks are disproportionately infected has never been about biological or genetic determinants–or for that matter even difference in levels of risk behavior. It has always been driven by social determinants of health: socioeconomic status, high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, high rates of incarceration, man sharing (knowingly and unknowingly) due to gender imbalances, lack of access to healthcare, lack of a regular health provider and low HIV literacy. These overlap significantly with the issues driving the AIDS epidemic in poor communities of all races.

This study challenges a lot of assumptions about how HIV is understood in the United States. It clearly shows that by focusing on injection drug users and men who have sex with men, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to other communities at profound risk for HIV infection. HIV has been stigmatised from the start, it dovetails very neatly with a number of social oppressions in the United States, and our chickens are coming home to roost now.

Deportation by Default: 15% of Immigration Detainees in the US Have Disabilities That Impair Their Understanding of Deportation Proceedings

Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released a report yesterday shedding some shocking light on the immigration detention system in the United States. According to ‘Deportation by Default,’ 15% of immigration detainees have mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities that render them unable to present their cases or understand immigration proceedings in court. Many were held for indefinite periods, like Jose Antonio Franco Gonzalez and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, two men who were held in detention for almost five years without adequate care.

Representation is not mandated or guaranteed for people undergoing immigration proceedings:

Some were able to hire lawyers, others received pro bono representation – but there is no automatic right to court-appointed counsel, and most were not represented, the report said. (source)

I know I couldn’t represent myself in immigration proceedings and have a fighting chance at winning, personally, and I have a lot less working against me than many immigration detainees do. The fact that counsel is not appointed for people who may be navigating an unfamiliar legal system in a language they may not understand is, to be blunt, a horrific miscarriage of justice.

The ACLU concludes its summary of the situation with this rather damning commentary:

Due process is part of judicial integrity. It’s a basic principle that this country has decided to prioritize. It’s one of our greatest exports — we send people all over the world to talk about rule of law and how to reform judicial systems but we’re not doing it here in our fastest growing judicial system [the immigration courts].

Not every non-citizen with a mental disability is entitled to remain in the United States; but everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and a chance to defend his or her rights. If the US government is going to detain and deport individuals with mental disabilities, it must do so in a way that respects their human rights, honors US human rights commitments, and ensures fair and accurate court decisions.

The circumstances and situations documented in this study, incorporating interviews with 104 people, are something that the United States should be deeply ashamed of. The justice system in the United States is often touted as a paragon of equal access and fairness; we are told that everyone has access to due process, to representation in court, to the right to understand legal proceedings. Yet, for disabled immigration detainees:

Deficiencies exist throughout the arrest, detention, removal, and deportation process, violating the human rights of affected individuals and offending both American and international standards of justice. The shortcomings include no right to appointed counsel; inflexible detention policies; lack of substantive or operative guidance for attorneys and judges as to how courts should achieve fair hearings for people with mental disabilities; and inadequately coordinated care and social services to aid detainees while in custody and upon release.

The report documents cases of people who did not understand what deportation meant and lacked the ability to comprehend deportation proceedings; one subject asked to be deported to New York, for example. Some interview subjects had intellectual disabilities or untreated mental illnesses that made it functionally impossible to understand what was happening, while others were in extreme emotional distress and had difficulty comprehending the proceedings, let alone communicating. At least two cases included US citizens wrongfully subjected to deportation proceedings. One North Carolina native had bipolar disorder, was unable to understand the case against him, and could not represent himself in court, so he was deported to Mexico. Another, a US citizen since childhood, would have been deported if it weren’t for the actions of an attorney with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Centre.

The report urges Congress to require appointment of lawyers for all people with mental disabilities in immigration courts. It recommends mandatory training for immigration judges to recognize mental disabilities, and calls for repeal of a regulation allowing a mentally disabled detainee to be represented in court by the warden of the detention facility. (source)

This recommendation would certainly be a step in the right direction if it was followed. It’s clear that we have been subjecting disabled detainees to grave injustice, and it’s going to take a lot of work to remedy that. People with disabilities are also poorly served in the US court system in general, but attorneys at the ACLU point out that deportation proceedings are among the most complex legal matters people can encounter, with the fewest protections in place; if there’s any place where inability to understand court proceedings has high stakes, a deportation hearing is definitely high on the list.

“Owing to their mental disability, people may not be able to share their experience with the judge in a way that helps him understand that they have a mental condition or a valid claim,” says Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed’s legal director. “This is particularly true for asylum seekers who have suffered trauma or persecution in their home countries.” (source)

Another serious problem for people trapped in immigration detention is that it can be stressful, exacerbating mental health issues and causing emotional distress for people with intellectual disabilities. Being shuffled from facility to facility has documented ill health effects on nondisabled people, and those effects can be even worse for people with disabilities, especially when they are denied adequate care and treatment. Judges, uncertain about what to do with detainees who clearly do not understand the proceedings, can place cases in a form of legal limbo, leaving people adrift in the immigrant detention system for years.

If this report outrages you as much as it does me, I urge you to contact Congress to tell them that you would like to see this report followed up, and want to see Congress taking the concluding recommendations seriously. If you are in the US, your own Representative is the best bet for a contact and/or you can write your US Senators. If you are outside the United States, please consider contacting a member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law or the Senate Subcomittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security and explaining that while you are not in the United States, you are gravely concerned by this report and feel that it reflects poorly on the position of the US in international society (and anything else you care to add). You can also drop a line to President Barack Obama, should you feel so inclined.

Disability and Work: Fair Pay is a Disability Rights Issue

For people with disabilities who work, exploitation is a common fact of life. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Many nations have programmes allowing companies to hire people with disabilities at rates below the minimum wage. These programmes are often referred to as ‘occupational therapy’ or ‘sheltered workshop’ programs, with the idea that work, for the disabled person, is a form of ‘therapy.’ Some of these organisations have very negative reputations because of a history of worker abuse and exploitation. The thing is, actually, work is work, no matter who is doing it, and unfair pay is unfair pay, period.

Unfair pay is a disability rights issue because, right now, in countries all over the world, the law freely permits unfair wages for people with disabilities. Unfair pay is structured right into social programmes designed for people with disabilities and it’s not only tolerated, but encouraged. Companies are told that they can hire people with disabilities more cheaply than nondisabled people, and enjoy a little public relations boost by ‘charitably’ providing ‘productive work’ to people with disabilities.

Disability and work are fraught issues; here in the United States, on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, clear disparities and problems can be seen (h/t Liz Henry), and these problems are not limited to the US. Some people with disabilities want to work and cannot; because of their disabilities, because they become ineligible for benefits they need if they start working, because they cannot get accommodations, for a myriad of other reasons. Some people are working when they should not be, because they have to in order to survive. And some disabled employees are treated as a cheap source of disposable labour, as I discussed in the post talking about abuse of intellectually disabled workers at an Iowa meatpacking plant.

So, I was horrified when I encountered a story about Karen Smith, a woman with disabilities working in Geelong, Australia. Smith worked for what is known as a ‘supported employment programme’ for over a decade packing jam jars. Her wages, until recently, were $6 AUD per hour. According to Fair Work Australia, the current minimum wage in Australia is $15 AUD per hour for a 38 hour week.

However, Karingal, the organisation she works for, requested a federal government review of their programme and wage policies. The outcome of that review? A decision that Smith was being paid too much, and her wages should be cut to $2 AUD/hour. The only reason they weren’t cut lower was because internal policies at Karingal limit pay cuts.

The original government recommendation? $1.20 AUD per hour. The same trick was used in Iowa to keep wages for disabled workers low; the argument goes that people should be paid for the amount of work they do relevant to what a nondisabled worker would do, evidently, and the government decided that Smith only did $1.20 AUD worth of work per hour. That is less than 10% of the minimum wage.

Karingal, which employs 125 disabled workers, rejected suggestions it was exploiting Ms Smith.

The company claims it runs the supported employment program at a loss, while its employees enjoy being associated with the scheme.

I see this claim made a lot by organisations that do this sort of thing. They argue that they are providing a service, they’re running at a loss, really no profit at all in it, truly, but I find that hard to believe. This is not to say that these organisations are rolling in money or anything ludicrous like that, they are obviously not, but I find the setup rather suspect. Workers who are involved in such programmes are not paid directly by their employers. The programme pays them, out of funds paid by employers to the programme. There’s a bit of a black box effect here that makes it difficult to see how much money the programme is receiving for a given employee’s labour. How are we to know that these programmes aren’t exploiting people when it can be hard to find evidence to the contrary?

“We’re actually paying them more than what they’re worth because people like to work and like to be associated with it. We run (supported employment) at a loss in effect.” (source)

I’ve heard this narrative before too, and somehow it always feels very patronising to me. Yes, some people do like to work. Yes, people are trained to believe that they have more value to society when they work (and people who don’t work are shamed and told they are worthless). There’s a lot of value attached to a particular kind of ‘productivity’ as defined by nondisabled people. But, somehow, these statements always come out to me as seeming a bit, well, like patting people on the head while they are tasked with repetitive and pointless things and saying ‘well, the dear lambs like to feel special, you know.’

Fortunately, this case got a great deal of attention, and Smith’s wages were restored after a great deal of media brouhaha, although she is still not being offered the minimum wage for her work. Disabled workers are being exploited all over the world with unfair wages; this case happened to get some traction in the media, but what about all the cases that do not? Getting fair pay is an important aspect of receiving respect and fair treatment by society; if our own governments legalise unequal pay for our labour, how can we hope to combat ableist attitudes in the workplace, let alone in society in general?

Bad Behaviour, continued: Eight Year Old Autistic Girl Arrested For Battery

Yes, you read that title right.

Back in January, Evelyn Towry, an autistic third grader living in Idaho, just wanted to wear her cow hoodie[1. Just in case this is a US-specific slang term, a hoodie is a knit jacket with a hood.] and go to a birthday party and eat cake with her fellow students. Her teacher decided, for reasons that remain nebulous, that Evelyn wouldn’t be allowed to go until she took off her hoodie. Evelyn didn’t want to, so her teacher left her in a classroom with two staffers to guard her. She decided she wanted to leave, and a ‘scuffle’ ensued when the staffers tried to restrain her.

It ended with Evelyn’s arrest. For battery. The school claims that she ‘inappropriately touched’ the staff members who attempted to prevent her from leaving the classroom. Now, Evelyn and her parents are suing the school and the sheriff’s department. The suit is using the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as grounds, arguing that the school denied accommodations for Evelyn.

Just for reference, here is the dreaded cow hoodie:

Evelyn Towry, a young white girl with blonde hair, wearing a cow hoodie and playing in the snow.

(Image via Popehat)

Clearly a menace to public decency and birthday cakes everywhere!

I am trying to imagine, here, on what planet an eight year old girl could reasonably be arrested for battery. This case is a pretty classic example of a situation where people obviously lacked adequate training and compassion, and a little girl suffered for it. I have no idea why the teacher felt so strongly about Evelyn’s hoodie, but I see no reason that she should have been barred from going to a birthday party simply because she wanted to keep her jacket on. If there had been a situation where it was appropriate to separate her from her fellow students and make her wait in a classroom with school staff members, surely those staff members should have been provided with the training to sit in the classroom with her without ending up in a physical altercation; Evelyn may have had a meltdown, may well have been ‘flailing,’ but to say that she was ‘inappropriately touching’ staff members stretches the boundaries of believability.

And the sheriff’s department most certainly should not have taken Evelyn into custody when they responded to the school’s call. They should have politely informed the school that taking terrified children to the police station is not within their job description, and that the school should call her parents, if anyone, to address the issue.

Spring Towry said she got to the school Friday just in time to see 54-pound Evelyn — who was diagnosed at age 5 with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism[2. Do not even get me started on functioning labels and how much I hate them. -ed] — being walked to a police car with two officers at her side.

“She started screaming ‘Mommy, I don’t want to go! What are batteries? What are batteries?'” Towry said. “She didn’t even know what she was arrested for.” (source)

Being taken into police custody is traumatic enough when you do understand what is going on. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for Evelyn, who was probably off balance and upset already because her routines were disturbed. The prosecutor put the kibosh on the case, so Evelyn won’t be going to court to answer these utterly absurd charges, but what if the prosecutor had suspended all rational thought and gone ahead with it? Can you imagine her in court, responding to these charges? Perhaps the prosecutor would have offered a plea deal.

I have said it before, and I will keep saying it:

Teachers who have received no training in working with disabled students shouldn’t be assigned to classrooms with disabled students, yet they are.

It’s notable that the staff members restrained Evelyn hard enough to leave bruises and yet they are not being charged with battery.

ETA: After this post went up, The Seattle Times published an article indicating that Evelyn Towry’s individual education plan (IEP), in addition to being drafted without input from her or her family, ‘included police intervention as a course of action if the child misbehaved.’

Disability and Domestic Violence Apologism

Content note: This post discusses a domestic violence case involving a woman with disabilities, and includes details on domestic violence apologism as well as threats made in the court room.

Disability and domestic violence are intersecting issues with very serious consequences. People with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence and we are also less likely to receive assistance. We may be afraid of reporting, we may not be believed when we do report, and when our cases do go to court, sometimes the attorneys supposedly prosecuting our abusers engage in domestic violence apologism.

A recent court case in England is a classic example of what often plays out when people with disabilities are abused and report it. Two pensioners were married for 37 years. In 2003, the wife[1. The news story names the individuals involved in this case, but I prefer not to.] experienced a stroke. Seven years later, her husband started abusing her, because he apparently decided that her disability was an ‘act.’

On May 9 at about 11am [she] was sitting at the lounge table doing some paperwork. Earlier she had put some logs on a woodburner. He came in and said was she trying to burn the house down and then hit her around the head three or four times. She grabbed the phone to call the police but he took it off her and threw it in the fire. She then left the house and tried to get in her car but he took the keys.

‘She got in anyway and locked herself inside. He then drove his car in front of hers to block it, not that she could get anywhere as she didn’t have any keys. She called the day centre and her daughter for help. After about half an hour her daughter and son arrived.’

The next day, she reported her abuse to social services, and it ended up in court. Here’s what the defense said about the husband’s actions:

‘He couldn’t get any help with her because where they live is so remote so they were stuck together and the frustrations built.’

This type of apologism comes up a lot. ‘She made me do it’ is a classic excuse used for domestic violence regardless of disability status, and with disability in particular, it’s very popular, evidently, to make claims that it was the disability that drove the abuser into becoming abusive. This naturally legitimises abuse, because while people condemn it on the surface, they secretly think things like ‘well, he was under lots of pressure’ or ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a caregiver’ or ‘it must be so hard to have no help.’ Caregiver abuse becomes acceptable because, well, disability is just such a burden and it’s so hard and they didn’t get the services they needed.

Caregiver abuse doesn’t stop with cases like the one above. There have been a number of cases this year alone where caregivers have killed people and it’s reported in the media as a tragedy for the caregiver. Courts tend to return more lenient verdicts to abusers and murderers when disability is involved, because of ‘unusual circumstances.’ And people wonder why some people with disabilities are concerned about caregiver abuse. When abuse of people with disabilities is painted as something sad or hard for their families to deal with, instead of abuse of human beings, when caregivers are given lenient sentences because ‘the disability drove them to it,’ it normalises caregiver abuse.

It’s bad enough that the defense and, apparently, the court in this case thought that the husband was somehow justified in behaving abusively towards his wife because she was disabled. The prosecutor also had to join in:

That day when he told her off about the fire, she gave him cheek so he slapped her.

Where have I heard this before? Oh, only in every single reported case of domestic violence ever. Was it really necessary for the prosecutor to hop on the victim-blaming bandwagon too? When the media and defense attorneys constantly parrot lines like this, it reinforces the idea that some people just deserve domestic violence, and when the prosecution joins in, it, well, it makes me really angry.

Because, guess what? No one deserves domestic violence. No matter how much cheek or lip or sass or anything else is involved. No person deserves to be hit. No person deserves to be deprived of mobility. No person deserves to sit in court while the attorney supposedly acting in her interests suggests that, well, she kinda deserved it.

Oh, but this case gets worse.

The 68-year-old was ordered to pay £150 compensation to [her] but he told the court that, as they had a joint account, he would hand it over to her and she would simply put it back in the bank.

Economic abuse is extremely common in domestic violence situations, especially when they involve people with disabilities. The fact that this man openly admitted in court to the fact that he would do this shows me exactly how much contempt he had for the court, the law, and his own wife. And the fact that the court didn’t sit up and take notice is a sad but not surprising reminder of how often people turn their heads in the other direction in the face of domestic violence and abuse.

The victim has been relocated and, from what I understand from the article, is living independently with an aide. That’s the one bright spot here: Too often in cases like this, the victim is forced to return to the abuser.

Fat Hatred and Ableism Collide in Australia

Maz Smyth was rolling along one day in her manual wheelchair, as one does, when her front wheel got caught in a pothole and snapped off. Understandably annoyed by this turn of events, she approached the Toowoomba Regional Council to ask them to fix the pothole and pay the costs associated with fixing her chair.

Neither of these things is particularly unreasonable, wouldn’t you agree? It’s pretty standard for local government to maintain roads, and when I discussed this case with Lauredhel, she pointed out that most councils pay medical expenses when things like this happen, and that awareness of how potholes and other hazards contribute to injuries is on the radar in many regions of Australia. The Council failed to maintain the roadway properly and her chair was damaged as a result. She could have been seriously injured, just as any other wheelchair user, or someone who uses a cane or walker, could have been injured. Potholes are things that need to be fixed, and since the Council failed to take timely action to fix the pothole before someone was injured and/or property damage occurred, Smyth was, I believe, justified in requesting that they pay to repair her chair.

She went to the Council every day for a week, asking that they pay the costs of the repairs. They informed her that she needed to file an official claim and it probably wouldn’t be honoured. She demanded to talk to the Mayor. And then this happened:

[she was] told by a council staff member “perhaps it was your weight that caused the wheelchair to break”.

There are a whole lot of attitudes about fat wheelchair users that get reinforced on a pretty regular basis, like that fat people are lazy, or that using a wheelchair makes you fat. I wish I didn’t encounter them all the time, but I do, and this case was just another instance of casual fat hatred combined with ableism. Wanting to disavow responsibility for damages caused by inaction, the Council staff member decided that the best way to get rid of the Angry Crip would be to tell her that she’s clearly ‘too fat’ and what happened was her fault.

These attitudes are dehumanising, and it comes as no surprise to me to read that Smyth felt ‘downtrodden’ when someone told her this. It was yet another reminder that fat people and wheelchair users don’t belong in society, shouldn’t have equal rights to access public spaces, and should just stay at home and feel sorry for themselves.

A local paper, The Chronicle, decided to cover her story. While they were doing a photoshoot in front of City Hall, the Mayor evidently saw them, raced out of the building, and agreed to pay for the repairs. He said:

“I’m not sure how (the wheelchair was damaged) but we’ve had it fixed to help her out.”

Yeah. She told them how the wheelchair was damaged: She was using it to navigate the street, there was a pothole in the street, and her wheel snapped off. It wasn’t until the presence of the media shamed the Mayor that he decided to take action, and this is something I see with a lot of other cases of discrimination.

A solo voice can be easily ignored. A thousand tiny cuts like this happen all over the world every day and we never find out about them, because a single person usually cannot raise enough of a ruckus. It isn’t until a larger entity like the media, a disability rights organisation, or a famous person steps in that action is taken. Even here, the Mayor didn’t acknowledge her humanity or her right to access. He made it seem like she was getting a favour by having her chair fixed.

Commenters on the article noted that accessibility issues are actually a chronic problem, that there are a number of streets and paths with potholes and other obstacles. Clearly, access has not been made a priority, as illustrated by the fact that while Smyth’s chair was fixed, the pothole was not. The problem here is being treated as individual, rather than structural, and people will continue to experience accessibility problems as a result.

This case could have been treated as an opportunity to hold an accessibility review, to evaluate the town to see how safe and accessible it is, but instead it was treated as yet another opportunity to tell a fat, disabled woman that she didn’t belong in public.

Publicity and the Taser: When Stories Get Told (and When They Don’t)

Last night, a young Black man with epilepsy was admitted to a hospital in Louisiana after a suicide attempt. He declined to don a hospital gown and ‘attempted to leave his examination,’ at which point security stepped in. According to witnesses, security officers punched the young man in the lip and pulled out several of his dreadlocks before pulling out their Tasers and shocking him, causing him to have a seizure.

His family members state that although doctors present were aware of his seizure disorder, they indicated that it was ok for security to Tase him.

This is not an unusual story. In fact, Tasers and seizures have a long and sordid history:

“While we’re not able to comment on the details of this case, we are certainly concerned to hear that a person in apparent medical and emotional distress was subjected to the taser.” (Manchester, England, 2010)

The most recent report involves a Michigan man with epilepsy, who, when experiencing a seizure, apparently was unjustifiably tasered, clubbed, arrested, jailed and committed to a psychiatric facility for violent offenders — all based on non-threatening behaviors caused by a seizure. (Michigan, US, 2006, content note, describes police brutality)

A local family is questioning why a woman having a diabetic seizure would have to be tackled and shocked by police. (Portland, Oregon, US, 2007)

When the EMTs asked the cops to help them move Lassi from where he was lying on the floor, Lassi says, one of his “arms flailed during his diabetes-induced seizure, striking one of the LaGrange and Brookfield defendants. At no time did Mr. Lassi intentionally strike or offensively touch any of the LaGrange or Brookfield defendants.”

Lassi says LaGrange Park Officer Darren Pedota responded by Tasering him 11 times, for nearly a minute, as he lay helpless. (Chicago, Illinois, US, 2009)

A Texas man who called 911 to request medical assistance for a diabetic seizure earned a tasering from local cops for his trouble, the Waxahachie Daily Light reports. (Texas, US, 2007)

“Freddie was a law abiding resident of the United States of America. During his lifetime, he was never involved in any criminal activity. The records are there for everyone to see…He was the quintessential model son, grandson, nephew, grandnephew and cousin.” (Georgia, US, 2004, content note, describes police brutality)

The Taser is a ‘nonlethal’ electroshock weapon which has become highly controversial, for a lot of reasons, including the fact that people of colour are far more likely to be Tasered than white folks. The Taser is being adopted by more and more police departments, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Taser-related deaths are going up. The people most likely to be killed with a Taser in the United States are young Black men, and Tasers are especially heavily weaponised against people with disabilities, most particularly people with mental illness, seizure disorders, intellectual disabilities, and autism.

Fortunately for the patient in Louisiana, Taser use didn’t kill him. His family is, according to news reports, in the process of transferring him to another facility, where I sincerely hope that patients are not Tased.

What is remarkable about this case is not that it happened, but that I read about it. The only reason the media picked up the story of a young Black man being Tasered into an epileptic seizure is because of who he was: Derek Thomas is the nephew of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and according to the media, Justice Thomas is not happy with his nephew’s treatment.

I am very happy that Derek Thomas is being transferred to another facility, where he will hopefully get more appropriate care. I’m also pleased that he has supportive family members who are also influential and willing to fight for him.

Reading his story, though, makes me think of the scores of similar cases that I am not reading about. Justice and humane treatment should be available to all people, regardless of who they are, who their families are, and the colour of their skin. Tasing patients should never be deemed an appropriate treatment. This case angers me, and I am equally angered by the scores of similar cases taking place in hospitals across the United States right now that I will never know about because the media isn’t interested enough.

I would really like to see the mainstream media in the United States use this story as a starting point to explore the use of Tasers in hospitals, mental health facilities, and institutions, and to examine particularly closely the racial disparities in how, when, and where Tasers are used. This is an opportunity for some really terrific investigative journalism. Will anyone follow up on it?