About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

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Warning: Site Tweaks

Gentle Readers!

Please be advised that we are making some site tweaks, so if things go wonky on you, rest assured, they will straighten out. I promise. Because the site may be erratic, I strongly recommend saving copies of your comments in case they accidentally get eaten, although we will do our best to prevent that from happening.

Incidentally, if you do experience problems (other than the bold font, we know about that (this should be gone now, so if the site is displaying in bold, let us know!)), this thread is a good place to leave them; please let us know which browser and operating system you are using (if you’re worried about privacy, you can also email admin @ disabledfeminists dot com to report those issues directly).

This notice will go away when we’re done, and thank you for your patience.

(Note 27 Nomber: Site tweaks are mostly finished, although we are still working on some things, but we’re leaving this post up so that people can continue to report problems, and so that we have a nicely organized list of the problems people have reported.)

By 22 November, 2009.    administrivia   



James Cameron’s Avatar: Watch Some -isms This December!

I’m editing this post to ad, since a lot of people are arriving here with the search term “Avatar racist,” some links to thoughts on race in Avatar elsewhere on the Internet: Sek writes “Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist” and Annalee Newtiz (linked in Sek’s post), wrote: “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?

Amanda Hess over at The Sexist drew my attention to James Cameron’s Avatar by asking me if we were going to be covering it at FWD. I initially thought she was talking about The Last Airbender, based on the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been attracting a great deal of ire for whiteifying characters who were formerly people of colour. Once I got that straightened out and took a gander at the available information on Avatar, slated for a 18 December release date here in the good old US of A, I just about blew my stack.

James Cameron is a filmmaker who specializes in, uhm, using a lot of blue light. The blue obsession apparently is hard to kick, because this epic project features a race of blue people. Which I assume will involve the use of a lot of blue lighting.

Ok, enough making fun of James Cameron and the blue light thing (but seriously, people…think about any of the works of James Cameron that you  have seen. What you do remember? That’s right, you remember BLUE LIGHT). The story behind Avatar is that it’s apparently a project he’s been thinking about and working on since the 1990s, waiting for filmmaking technology to get to the point that could do this amazing masterwork of cinema justice.

The film is set on the moon Pandora, occupied by a people called the Na’vi. Who just happen to be nine feet tall, blue, and sparkly. Oh, and they live “in harmony” with the natural resources on their planet. The writeups I’m seeing are making references to “simplistic people,” “unspoiled world,” “deep connection with nature,” etc etc. Hellooooo, noble savages!

Naturally, peaceful blue aliens cannot be allowed to live out their lives unmolested, because this is Hollywood. Enter Jake Sully, a white human male who is sent to help humans establish a foothold so that they can exploit the planet’s natural resources (what these people need is a honky!). The Na’vi are naturally not onboard with this plan, hence, conflict! Our plucky human falls in love with a Na’vi woman, of course, and becomes trapped in conflict between, well, colonialism and noble savages. Ah, an allegory for the ages.

Excuse me while I gag a bit.

Ok, now that I’ve cleared my throat, let’s move on to the disability fail. Because this is FWD, so you know there’s got to be some disability fail to discuss. (Although it is true that I will leap at almost any opportunity to mock James Cameron.)

Jake, you see, is a veteran with paraplegia. And the reason he wants to go to Pandora is so that he will be put in an able body: An Avatar, as they are known in the movie. Or, at least, his consciousness will be projected into that body, since only the Avatar can survive in the environment on Pandora. Oh, hey, did I mention that the Avatars look like the Na’vi, so Jake is going to be in, well, blueface? Yes, the paraplegic needs to become a racial impersonator in order to overcome his disability.

Yeah, that’s right. This is a movie which is not only racist as all getout, but also centers around a Miracle Cure! Which, of course, means that the disabled character will be played by an actor in crip drag. And, of course, this story automatically assumes that having paraplegia and being a wheelchair user is a tragedy which would make one bitter and furious at the world, and that, of course, everyone would want a cure. I would not be surprised if they threw in a healthy dollop of PTSD, probably portrayed in the most offensive and infuriating way possible.

I really can’t wait for this movie to come out so that I can rip it a new one in full, but it’s worth pondering the fact that Cameron has been thinking about and developing this project for over a decade, and he apparently has not identified any content in it which might be considered problematic. Indeed, they’re shooting for a PG rating, evidently, just to make sure that people of all ages can be subjected to ableism and racism this holiday season.

Thanks to Amanda for drawing my attention to this. (And anytime y’all want to see us cover something that interests you, drop one of us a line!)

An Expansion On What the Ableist Word Profile Is and Is Not

The Ableist Word Profile has a new introduction:

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post

This reflects the fact that there seems to be a bit of confusion about the purpose of this series.

Our goal with the Ableist Word Profile is to explore language, and the way in which language usage can subconsciously reinforce ableism. Indeed, the very structure of the English language reflects social attitudes about disability, and English language users are, therefore, steeped in these attitudes. We hope that all our readers can agree that the reason ableist language is so strong is because it is rooted in ideas about disability, and the value of people with disabilities, and prevailing conceptualization of disability.

While a lot of these posts are intended to get people thinking about word usage, they are not intended to dictate the language that individuals use. Only you can decide what language you use, but you should do so in full awareness of the impact that your language has. Ultimately, the person you need to be accountable to is yourself, not us.

This series is not about telling people that they cannot use language in a reclamatory way, as recently discussed by Lauredhel. At all. It’s also not about telling people which language they should use to define their own experiences. We cannot take that away from anyone, and we don’t want to, because we don’t want to police personal expression. When describing themselves, when choosing words that have meaning for them personally, people can find reclamatory word use incredibly empowering. That’s why we don’t edit comments in which people use language like “lame” self-referentially. Because we don’t view that as ableist.

What we are exploring is how these words are used against people. How words can become weaponized. And how they are used in settings far beyond their original context. We want to spark a discussion about the incredible power that language holds, and how much of this power is exercised on an entirely unconscious level.

I hope that this clears things up a bit; I will be writing more on this topic in the near future.

Disabled Sexuality and Disempowerment Through Fetishization

This is a complicated post on a complicated issue. That’s one of the reasons it’s not marked 101. I’m trying to write this without being judgmental of the fetish community (after all, I belong to the fetish community), but I am addressing devotee culture here, and I do have some pretty harsh things to say about it, because it makes me uncomfortable. And it makes other women with disabilities uncomfortable as well, because it plays into a lot of complex social issues; from bodily autonomy for people with disabilities to inherently unequal power dynamics. You may well disagree with the content in this post, and I invite your discussion in the comments, but I would like to draw your attention to this line in our comments policy: “This is not a space for chasers and devotees to hook up. We discuss sexuality plenty, but we discuss the authentic desires and needs and pleasure of people with disabilities as full humans and from our point of view; not as sex objects for others based only on the specifics of our particular impairments.” I also want to stress that it is not about the judgment of individual lives and sexual practices; it is not my place to tell people what is and is not ok, sexuality wise (or asexuality wise), this is just an attempt at articulation of my feelings, as a disabled individual, about devotee culture. In other words, comments on this post are going to be heavily moderated.

I’d like to start by telling you a story. This happened a few years ago, when I was living in San Francisco. I was attending a play party with a frequent play partner, and we were sitting together while we waited for some space to free up, talking out the specifics of our scene and catching up since we hadn’t seen each other in a while, when someone approached us.

“I really love your body,” he said, staring at me. Considering that I was not wearing fetishwear or really anything which would invite commentary on my body, I was a little surprised. I thought that he was possibly going to ask me to play with him, and I was getting ready to launch into me “I don’t play with people I don’t know and also you are creeping me out” spiel when he added “I would really like to feed you.”

Believe it or not, despite the fact that I’m fat, I hadn’t heard of feeder culture at this point. So I just sort of looked at him blankly, thinking is he asking me out on a date? This is weird.

“I’d like to feed you, and take care of you,” he said. Ok, I was definitely getting creeped out here. “It would be an honor,” he said, “if you would let me take you into immobility.”

At this point, my play partner thankfully intervened and managed to chivvy him off without too much of a fuss. When she came back to me, I looked at her and said “what was that guy talking about?” And she said “you haven’t heard of feeder/feedee fetishes?” And I said “no,” and she explained, and I realized that there were people out there who actually fetishized me for my body type. Not only that, but who fetishized the idea of creating a permanently unequal power dynamic by fattening me to the point where I could not move.

I felt ill.

And this is how I feel when I am confronted by devotee culture. For those of you not familiar, devotees are people who experience sexual attraction to disability. Not to people. To disability. Attractions to specific impairments, even; some people like redheads while others prefer blondes, and evidently some people prefer above the knee amputees while others go for wheelchairs.

As a member of BDSM, kinky, and alternative culture, I don’t really have a problem with fetish culture. I used to have a dear play partner who was a foot fetishist and he liked nothing more than to play with my feet and/or shoes for hours. I was cool with that. Yes, it was objectification of a body part, but it didn’t arouse these feelings of deep emotional distress in me like devotees do. We were fully consenting adults and there was no problematic power dynamic going on there. And devotees are often about a strange form of power play; to some extent, the fetishization of visible disability is about fetishizing power over marginalized bodies. There’s a difference, for me, between, say, a leather fetish or a bathtub duck fetish or a high heel fetish and a fetish for a particular type of body. There are also degrees of power play, and devotee culture, to me, feels like a very unsettling form of power play.

Disability fetishism is not the only form of fetishism which focuses on fetishizing marginalized bodies. For example, racial fetishes are quite widespread. As are fetishes of children and teens. These bodies are already dehumanized in our society and culture; fetishizing them is extremely problematic because it adds to their dehumanization. People in marginalized and oppressed bodies have been on the powerless end of the power dynamic for a very long time. To engage in a fetish which is structured around the dehumanization of disempowered bodies is a problem.

It’s not about the attraction to the disability: It’s about the attraction to perceived helplessness, it’s about the discomfiting power play, it’s about viewing an entire class of people as sex objects. An entire class of people whom, I would note, have historically been abused because people view them as objects. The same problem occurs with things like racial fetishes and the fetishization of children; the fetish is an echoing of a historical problem. Our social power structures already objectify marginalized classes of bodies, so why would people who live in those bodies want to sexually gratify someone by being the object of a fetish?

The problem is not disabled sexuality: It is the sexualization of disability. Which means that if you’re an amputee and you’re running in shorts and you pass a devotee, you are suddenly viewed as a sexual object, instead of a person running. That’s forced sexualization, taking sexuality outside the bedroom and other sanctioned sexual spaces and thrusting it into daily life. And maybe that’s what troubles me. Just as it troubles me that women can’t go out in public without being perceived as sex objects by society at large.

A body is not something you can take on and off. When someone is done with a foot fetish scene, the heels can be put away. When someone is done with the bathtub ducks, they can be put in the closet. When someone is finished with leather play, a pair of jeans can be slipped on. When you are done exploring power play, you emerge from the scene and return to a more equal state. You can’t do that with a marginalized body. When your body is someone’s fetish, you are an object. You are disempowered. All the time. You can’t escape.

I don’t see anything wrong with able bodied and disabled people engaging in sexual activity. I don’t think that’s necessarily inherently inequal or any of my business, really; if sexuality is egalitarian and based in attraction to the whole person, and for people who are interested in it, if power play is carefully negotiated and happens in controlled environments, I think that’s dandy and great for everyone. And perhaps that’s what troubles me so much about devotee culture. I dislike the fact that there are websites with “stimulating images” which are clearly taken from people’s personal lives. Post a casual photo of yourself on Facebook with friends, get ready for a devotee to lift it to wank off to. When I engage in power play, it’s with full awareness, knowledge, consent, and, yes, control, regardless as to which side of the dynamic I’m on. When I engage in fetish play, it is with things which I can put away when I am done. When someone steals something, a part of me, without consent and sexualizes it, that’s not consensual. When someone’s body is the fetish, there is no putting the fetish away. The scene never ends.

I think it’s great to see disability-positive porn, erotica, and other materials celebrating disabled sexuality. But I am not ok with devotee fetish materials, because they strip bodies of agency. They reduce people to their component parts and disabilities instead of viewing them holistically. I am not ok with the idea that sexuality can be forced on people in their daily lives and routine activities, whether those people are sexual or asexual, partnered or not, etc, because people fetishize their bodies. Just as I think that a woman should be able to jog in lightweight, sensible exercise clothing without being hooted at, I think that someone with a disability should be able to go to the bank without wondering if ou is going to be fetishized by someone in line. I think that a Black woman should be able to walk into an office without being viewed as a sex object. I think that a child should be able to play on a playground without being objectified.

I think it’s interesting that devotees tend to focus specifically on disabled women, who are often disempowered by intersecting systems of oppression. Just as other fetishes of types of bodies focus primarily on people who are disempowered. Indeed, disabled women are at higher risk for sexual assault than able-bodied women, which turns this into a particularly thorny issue. For sexual women with disabilities, sexuality can be very empowering, can be a way of taking back power, in fact. To be reduced to a fetish object is to have that all taken away. I’m not asexual, so I can’t speak to that experience, but I imagine it would be extremely upsetting to be the object of a sexual fetish when you are not sexual. And also immensely disempowering, since this is a society in which sexuality is assumed and almost expected, making it hard enough to navigate without thinking about whether or not someone is getting turned on by your leg braces. Whether you are sexual or not, your body is not a sex object, and should not be viewed as one. No matter who you are.

The problem with devotees isn’t that people with disabilities are gross and cannot engage in sexuality. The problem is that people with disabilities are not objects which should be used for sexual arousal. You get off polishing my shoes? Terrific (and please, come over, because I’ve got a serious backlog over here). You get off thinking about disability? No, thank you. I am not my disabilities.

The problem with objectification of marginalized bodies is that it reinforces social and cultural norms. It echoes the idea that people who live in marginalized bodies are public property, and that it is acceptable to treat them as such. It forces people who are living in ordinary bodies into the position of being sexualized against their will.

Some devotees even go as far as to say that they are empowering for people with disabilities because they are attracted to people because of disability, rather than magnanimously overlooking disability. But, actually, that’s not empowering at all. Just like it’s not empowering to be fetishized if you are Asian, or Black, or Latin@. Just like it’s not empowering to be fetishized when you are 12 years old, doing your 12 year old thing.

I dislike the claim that I will “change my mind” once I explore it. My mind is pretty made up here, honestly, and the tone in which this is said carries a degree of force which I am deeply uncomfortable with. Just as I don’t tell straight people that they will love gay sex once they try it, I ask that people not force their sexuality on me. I’m already being used as a sex object against my will every time a devotee gets excited when I use my inhaler in public (and yes, it has happened). Somehow, I don’t think that’s the start of a wonderful relationship.

You can’t “change your mind” when you are living in a marginalized body which is being sexualized, because there is no escaping your body. You can be open minded, experiment in bathtub duck play, decide it’s not your thing, and not do it again. You can’t do that when your body is the object.

Ableist Word Profile: -wit

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

Today’s ableist word profile: On the appendage of “-wit” as a suffix to another word to make an insult, as in nitwit, halfwit, f*ckwit1, etc. To be clear, this ableist word profile is not on the word “wit” in the sense of “funny or amusing,” but rather on the use of the word “wit” in slang terms which are meant to imply that someone is “stupid,” as judged by the speaker. As kaninchenzero discussed in her profile on “Intelligence,” the historic reification of intelligence and insistence upon valuation of a particular kind of intelligence has been particularly damaging to people with disabilities. Using “-wit” is a suffix in a supposedly pithy insult is a great example of the way in which ableist modes of thinking are embedded into our very language.

“Wit” in the sense of “mental capacity” comes from Germanic roots, and has been used in English to refer not just to intelligence, but also to knowledge, and to thought processing (three different things) for a very long time. In the sense of being amusing or funny, the word dates to around the 1500s, and since being witty is usually associated with being “clever,” there are actually some ableist overtones to this sense of the word as well, like the idea that you need to be “clever” to be funny, and that some types of humour are more valuable than others.

“Nitwit” appeared around the 1920s, and appears to have Yiddish origins, with “nit” meaning “nothing,” so a “nitwit” is literally someone who is deemed lacking in intelligence or thought processing abilities. Which is not a terribly nice thing to say about someone. Calling someone a “halfwit” isn’t much better, and likewise with “f*ckwit.” All of these things play into the idea that intelligence is something which can be objectively measured and should be objectively valued. Using the F word evokes a whole new set of issues and overtones which I don’t have time to delve into here.

There are a lot of words we use to insult people when we think that they are not intelligent, or are not acting in an intelligent way. What’s interesting about the way we use these words is that a lot of them insult people not for lack of natural intelligence (whatever that is), but for lack of knowledge. We say that someone is being a “nitwit” when they don’t know the facts of a matter, that someone is being a “f*ckwit” when they are being obstinate or recalcitrant from a lack of knowledge about a situation, that someone is a “halfwit” if ou fails to grasp a situation immediately.

It fascinates me to see that people have equated knowledge and intelligence when in fact these are two separate issues, and the ability to process information is still another issue. Someone can have lots of knowledge but not know how to apply it, someone can have the ability to acquire information but lack the ability to access information resources, and so forth. As a culture, though, we’ve decided that these three things are the same and that people who are “below” our level are lesser than us, which is a rather interesting state of affairs.

And it’s really damaging to people with disabilities who use communication systems other than spoken languages, to people who are not neurotypical, to people who have aphasia and other problems expressing themselves. These people were historically written off as “halfwits” simply because they couldn’t communicate in a way which satisfied the social norms. It wasn’t about their “mental capacity” or “native intelligence” but about, literally, the fact that they couldn’t communicate.

So, when you’re calling someone a “somethingwit,” you are referring to the historical oppression of people with differing communication systems, to the oppression of people who are neuroatypical, to people who think and acquire knowledge differently.

When seeking alternatives, it all comes back to this: What do you really mean when you call people nitwits? Do you mean that they lack knowledge to which you have access? That they did something wrong? That they are being closedminded? That they are frustrating you? That they don’t think the way you do? (It’s ok to say that someone doesn’t think like you do, as long as you aren’t placing a value judgments on it.)

Or, are you passing a value judgment? Are you really saying “this person is stupid” when you call someone a “nitwit”? Because, if you are, seeking out alternatives is about more than plugging in the word or phrase that describes what you really mean. It’s about changing your way of thinking and the way, in particular, that you think about intelligence/knowledge/communication/thought processing.

  1. I’m not a prude, but I know some people find this word triggering, so I’m opting to censor it here.

More Tales From the Good Doctor Files

I’ve seen a fair number of doctors in my day, and I experience a varied range of interactions with them on a regular basis. Very rarely do I encounter a doctor about whom I rave, because, for the most part, my interactions with medical professionals don’t go well. I’ve rarely been treated with outright rudeness, but I have encountered condescension and snobbery and that sort of thing because of who I am, my size, my life.

Which makes me want to start lauding the rare positive encounters I have, as kaninchenzero recently did in “How to Be a Good Doctor.” The doctor I’m writing about today isn’t actually a doctor, she’s a physician assistant, and she performed my annual exam several years ago, but my experience was so positive that I still remember it vividly.

My appointment started, as they always do, with me arriving 10 minutes early and then sitting in the waiting room for 30 minutes. It’s a very busy clinic, the place where I go for reproductive health stuff and primary care, and I’m used to that. They overbook the schedule a lot, and a lot of seemingly simple appointments turn more involved as the patient says “I’m having suicidal thoughts” or “hey, what do you think I should do about this huge bleeding ulceration on my foot” right as the doctor is leaving the room. So, I bring a book and try to stay calm.

Which is hard. The waiting room is often really crowded, which makes it very noisy, and forces me to sit sandwiched between people, which tends to make me anxious. On this particular day, though, I wasn’t bothered as much, because I was still kind of riding the high from a very intense scene the night before. It was one of those rare nights where I went deep into subspace, that place in my head where I can go when I trust the person I am playing with completely and totally, and just turn into a ragdoll. I like that place, and it leaves me feeling good for days when it plays out well.

So, eventually the nurse emerged to bring me through to the back where I could be weighed and measured. The first awesome thing that happened is that the nurse did not calculate my BMI. There’s an ominous little chart next to the scale, so I was fully expecting her to, but no, she just noted my height and weight without comment or judgment. And she brought me to the exam room, where I changed into the woefully inadequate exam gown and girded my loins for battle. (Literally in this case, I guess.)

So, the PA walked in, and she apologized for the fact that I had been kept waiting before we went over the quickie basic questions to make sure that nothing in ladytown was exploding. And then we started getting into that trickier ground about sexual partners, which I answered honestly, noting that I very rarely have penetrative sex but I did engage in sexual activity with more than one person, and she noted it without comment. Not even a freakin’ eyebrow.

And then, she went to listen to my heart and lungs, and she said “what are these marks,” and I realized, oh, that’s right. I was covered in all sorts of marks which must have looked pretty horrific and nasty. I took a deep breath. How do I explain this? I think it’s good that doctors take note of marks which look like abuse, and I want to make it clear that this is not abuse, but that I am not at all upset that she asked about it. It’s pretty reasonable to assume that marks like these are the result of abuse.

“I’m a member of the BDSM community,” I said, finally. “Those are probably marks from the consensual scene I was in last night. I know what they look like, but…really, I’m not being abused. I’m ok.”

“Oh, ok,” she said. There was a bit of a pause.

“I guess that’s pretty rare up here,” she says.

And then, we actually had a conversation. About what BDSM is, what it means to be safe, respectful (which I prefer to the ableist tagline “sane”), and consensual. About how boundaries are negotiated, the steps people take to protect themselves. I touched very briefly upon some ways that you can identify abuse in a BDSM context, where things like burn marks and scars and rope marks don’t always mean what you think they mean.

And she was so respectful. She obviously wanted to learn, to file this information away to help her work with  other patients, but she didn’t make me feel like a laboratory animal, she didn’t make judgments, she just absorbed information and asked clarifying questions and noted down some of the resources I recommended.

It was…refreshing. Other interactions I’ve had with doctors about this have not gone well. And when we were done, she finished the exam, taking the time to be slow and respectful and to actually respond to my statement that pelvic exams are usually excruciatingly painful for me. She took steps to make it less painful, delivering the least painful pelvic exam I’ve ever had. It was uncomfortable. But it didn’t make me writhe on the examination table. And it was fast.

Disabled sexuality is already marginalized, so when you are disabled and you are a member of a community which engages in alternative sexuality, you become even more marginalized. This isn’t just about the need to find a doctor who respects me, it’s about the fact that services are denied to people because of their sexuality, and this problem is even bigger for people with disabilities. When I meet a doctor who is accepting, I feel safe and comfortable. I feel like I can be open. And I feel like we can have a productive relationship with each other.

She didn’t make assumptions. She listened to me. She reflected statements back at me. And when she was finished, and I got dressed, she stopped back in to personally thank me. To thank me for taking the time to educate her. As a patient, I am not used to being thanked. It was a good feeling that she left me with.

Veterans Day

Today is Remembrance Day/Veterans Day/Poppy Day/Armistice Day, depending on where you are; for USians, it is Veterans Day, and an opportunity to honor American veterans.

I come from a family with a long history in the military, on my father’s side. Both of my grandparents were in the Navy during the Second World War, my grandfather later going on to be involved with the Office of Strategic Services in Berlin, and my grandmother working to decode enemy transmissions (she was a very talented mathematician). Several relatives on that side are currently in the military, working in various capacities around the world.

I can’t join the military, or I might well have, but my family associations did lead me to study military issues in college, and the focus of my undergraduate work was American military culture and the history and motivations behind modern warfare. Along the way, I had a lot of opportunities to interact with veterans and active duty military, and I even spent several months working in a Congressional office, handling a lot of issues, but focusing on veterans in particular.

My interactions with veterans among the Congressman’s constituents were humbling and sometimes very saddening. They had chosen this relatively isolated area to settle in for a number of reasons. Many were anti-war, and liked living in a community with other anti-war veterans. Others appreciated the isolation, the quiet, the companionship of friends they had made. Others were returning to their hometown to settle.

But, when they needed services, most of these people had to go to the VA hospital in San Francisco1, which is four hours away. Some lacked cars (or didn’t have reliable cars) and were forced to rely on the charity of others to get to appointments. Naturally, having to drive so far, many were obliged to drive down the night before appointments, staying in hotels in San Francisco to make early appointment times, and as a result, this added considerably to the already hefty expenses of travel. This lack of convenience led some to put off appointments, while others found that when they wanted appointments, they were denied, which is how they ended up in our office, asking for help.

These men and women, ranging widely in age, looked at the green college student with respect and courtesy and called me ma’am and asked so meekly for assistance that it almost made me want to cry. Some had been fighting for benefits for years before finally coming to us. Some felt bitter and betrayed, others had firm faith in the VA system. All of them needed services which the government had promised and had not delivered. They brought in stacks of documentation. Some of them were just glad to have someone to talk to, someone who listened intently and focused on their needs and tried to resolve bureaucratic tangles on their behalf.

It was my task to advocate for them. Knowing virtually nothing about veterans’ issues at the time, I was plunged into the depths of the VA system, and I noticed something very interesting: As soon as I said I was calling on behalf of a Representative, I got the red carpet treatment, and so did my veterans, by extension. I got people in for services they needed, I helped arrange transportation and temporary housing for them, and I followed up with them all and was constantly told about how smoothly everything went after I picked up a phone on their behalf. And I couldn’t help but think that there was something troubling about a system in which you needed the clout of a Congressperson behind you to get services to which you are entitled.

How many more veterans, I wondered, lived in my community silently, not asking for or receiving assistance that was theirs by right? Especially now, with two wars going on, there seems to be a dearth of visibility for veterans in this community. I know that they are here, I see them very occasionally, and sometimes we are shocked into remembering that they are here, as happened recently when an Iraq veteran shot himself and his partner in a murder-suicide.

The needs of disabled veterans are as diverse as disabled veterans themselves. “What can I do?” is not a question which can be answered quickly, or simply. I can say that in our rural community, one of the greatest things people can offer is assistance with transportation to medical appointments. For disabled veterans who cannot drive, a willing driver makes a huge difference, and for those who can drive, a safe ride can still be extremely valuable (as, for example, when a veteran needs to have a medical procedure after which driving is not recommended). There’s a benefit to being a driver, too; I really enjoy driving veterans and talking with them. I also enjoy sitting in companionable silence, too.

Many communities have local organizations of veterans. We have a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, along with several anti-war veterans groups. People who are interested in helping veterans in their communities can talk to these organizations about their needs. Offering to act as a driver or to visit veterans who  have requested it at home or in the hospital can be great. For people who can’t engage at that level, donating goods can also be very helpful. Many American veterans are homeless or living in poverty, and outreach services to them are available through local veterans’ organizations; donations of food, bedding, and other necessities are often appreciated, as are cash donations, for those who can afford it.

Not all disabled veterans need or want assistance. For those who do, an advocate or just a friendly voice may be greatly appreciated.  The only way you’ll find out is if you ask. One resource available is the VA Voluntary Service program, which offers opportunities to participate at a wide range of abilities.

  1. Fortunately, a new clinic has just opened in Santa Rosa, only two hours away, which offers many of the services for which people previously needed to travel to San Francisco.

What I Am Is…

For some reason, all of my most intimate and personal conversations in the outside world take place in cars. Which is kind of odd, now that I think about it, because in a car you are captive with nowhere to go when things go bad, and sometimes they do. I think it must be all the windy roads without radio reception here; there are long spaces of silence that sometimes get filled with words on car rides. At any rate, the environment of the car feels almost like a confessional to me, and sometimes when I am thinking things out, I go for a drive somewhere, play some loud music. Think.

My point is, I am imagining that we are in a car right now, you and I, maybe it’s early morning, the mist curling off 128, we’re in that curvy stretch before Navarro, before the straightaway where you feel for a moment like you can see forever and you are flying.

Because, you see, what I am is, I am a person with disabilities.

And it has taken me so long to claim that identity, because of so many things, that I feel like whispering it instead of shouting it. Sometimes I feel like I can’t even really claim that label. I’m not, you see, “out” in the outside world, because every time I try to articulate what I am, I get blank stares of judgment. I don’t “look” disabled. I’m not “disabled enough.” I’m trying for attention. I’m not trying hard enough. Other people have real problems. Can we go, already?

It’s exhausting, right now, because I’m living a dual life. One part of me is still that Old Me, insisting on being able-bodied and neurotypical and budgeting spoons (but they’re not called spoons, it’s not budgeting spoons, I’m not doing that), and pretending that everything doesn’t crash down around me six times a day. That’s the version of me that doesn’t get up and leave a room when someone says “I didn’t really see what the big deal is with the mental illness thing in ‘Belonging,’ it was awesome that Topher could fix her.” That’s the version of me that lies when people ask why I wasn’t at an event, that makes up excuses when people ask me to do something, that laughs off those awkward things that happen, those aren’t because of my disabilities! I’m just a klutz! I’m just not thinking clearly! Haha! Can we go now?

One part of me is me, this me, the me right here, right now. The me that is on this website. The me that is out and proud about disability. That is confident. That has taken on this political label because the personal is political and the political battleground is my own body. That’s the me who feels awed and gratified when other people say that they share my experience, when people say that I have given them courage, the me that sees these awesome and wonderful and amazing women I am working with and this terrific community that are building together and goes yes, yes, this was necessary and it is good.

You don’t need to know the specifics of my disability. To see my medical chart. It’s enough to know that I am disabled. You accept me for who I am, for this label I have taken on, the one that says yes, people do share my experiences. People like me are oppressed because we are the way we are. It took becoming very exposed and being very public for me to own this identity, and when I took it into my hands, it empowered me. Because suddenly I was not alone. I thought I was alone. I thought I would always be alone. But instead, for the first time, people welcomed me with no questions, no judgments. They welcomed all of me and they keep doing it, every day, and it almost seems unreal.

I spent so many years fighting it. I felt ashamed of my disabilities. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere at all; I’m not like those visibly disabled people, the ones with the wheelchairs and guide dogs, but I’m not like those able bodied people over there. I’m not normal. I don’t think the way they do. I can’t. I’ve tried. I don’t fit there. I can’t do the things that they can. I can’t. I’ve tried.

I don’t need ramps, so I’m not disabled. But I do need grab bars. I don’t need to use augmentative communication, so I’m not disabled. But I can’t communicate like other people. I’m gifted and talented and smart, everyone says so, so I’m not disabled. But why are some things so hard? I can wear glasses to correct a lot of my vision problems, so I’m not disabled. But I’ve lost most of the vision in my right eye and have no depth perception. There are no glasses for that. I seem so personable sometimes, so I’m not disabled. But why am I terrified on the inside whenever I leave my house?

This is the world I live in, the world in which people like me aren’t disabled, and are disempowered as a result. To own that identity is terrifying, still terrifying, every day. When I see people on other websites refer to me as a person with disabilities I jump and say “no I’m not” because that’s what I have been trained to say. Just try a little bit harder. You’re not different. You don’t deserve any special treatment. Your conditions are manageable, some might even say controlled. Those physical problems you have, it’s because you’re not trying. Those cognitive ones, you’re clearly just tired or distracted. It’s not disability. Those things that happened to you? Things like that happen to everyone and they’re just fine. You don’t need therapy. You don’t have PTSD. PTSD is what happens to people who go to war.

That day that I picked up my label and started wearing it, that day was huge. It was tremendous. It was the day I admitted something publicly which I had thought about privately. And that was the day when I realized that there were all these people like me, people who understand me, people who get me. I don’t have to explain things to them, to you. You get it. And it’s so freeing, MY GOD, it’s so freeing and so terrifying, it’s like the night I called my first show and I knew it was nothing but me all the way to the end, all me, everything on my shoulders, but the power. The sense of rightness, of fitting in, when I first said “I am a person with disabilities,” it’s like that first time I sat down in the center chair in the booth and put on a headset and said “let’s get this party started.” It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s the right responsibility, so it feels like nothing at all, it feels like wriggling into a bed with freshly laundered sheets on a crisp fall evening.

FWD gave me the ability to do that. The place to do it. The place to fit in. And it is so unbelievably exciting to see commenters exploring their own identity, to hear privately from people who say that they are like me and never thought of themselves as disabled but realized that this label, “disability,” it’s for them too, and how freeing it is. It’s so amazing to engage with readers with visible disabilities who have no choice but to wear this label, who have been devalued and marginalized because they are identifiable and public, every moment of every day. And to talk with readers who bridge the divide between visible and invisible, flitting between these statuses depending on the day and who is observing. To explore the diversity of experiences that the readers here talk about. This is not a conversation I could have been a part of without owning my disability status.

Some temporarily able bodied people talk about disability like a burden, a curse, a trap, a prison, but, for me, it’s not. Denying disability is the burden, the curse, the trap, the prison. These disabilities are part of me and part of whom I am and they belong here with me.

By 9 November, 2009.    autonomy, bodies, identity, social attitudes   



Hipster Ableism

Note: This post contains spoilers for current episodes of Glee, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

There’s a particular brand of humour which seems to be extremely popular in the United States right now. It may, of course, be popular in other regions of the world as well, but since I’m American, I’m speaking to the American experience here rather than trying to conjecture about humour in other nations. I call it “hipster -ism,” in a reference to the fact that it’s especially prevalent in the hipster community and riffing off Carmen Van Kerckhove’s “hipster racism,” and it involves the use of -isms for supposedly comic effect.

Hipster -ism works like this: Someone uses an -ism among a group of friends, and the friends laugh, because the idea is that they know it’s an -ism, they know it’s not acceptable, and it’s funny because of this. It’s ironic, geddit? Over at this ain’t livin’, I’ve discussed hipster racism and liberal sexism, and today, it’s time for hipster ableism.

It’s important to note that there are a number of things built into the structure of the hipster community which are important to consider when evaluating hipster ableism, or any hipster -ism, in strict point of fact. The first is that the hipster community is primarily young and liberal, comprised of people who have grown up being lectured about racism and other -isms, while still living in a society which is rife with these -isms, and retaining the cultural values which prop these -isms up and directly benefiting from the entrenched -isms in their culture. Most hipsters also have class privilege, coming from the middle classes, and they are usually white and able bodied. Please note that these are generalizations. I am well aware that there are non-white hipsters, disabled hipsters, hipsters from the lower classes, etc, but I’m speaking to general demographics here.

Hipster -ism is a type of humour which people use because they mistakenly identify it as edgy and transgressive. The idea is that it’s funny because it’s pushing social boundaries and norms. Indeed, it’s a way of thumbing one’s nose at the “PC police.” But, there are a few things about it which suggest that this is not the case.

For starters, it’s primarily used in safe spaces, among other hipsters, which would seem to suggest that it’s actually a form of in-group humour. In fact, it’s a way for people to continue internalizing and believing in -isms, using their humour as a defensive wall. “Oh, I don’t really believe it, that’s why it’s funny,” they say, but if that’s the case, then why don’t they use this humour outside hipster circles? If it’s funny to make jokes about people with disabilities, for example, why don’t hipsters make those jokes around people with disabilities?

Another hallmark of hipster -ism is that people who challenge it are informed that they “don’t get it.” Another example of a technique used to silence and marginalize people; when those who question are told that they don’t get it, it often means that those being questioned are feeling uncomfortable. It’s true that different people have different senses of humour, but when entire classes of people fail to see something as funny, that may be a sign that, you know, it’s not funny.

Hipster -ism also props up cultural values, rather than breaking them down, by normalizing exclusionary language and ideas. When you make jokes about people of colour in a society which marginalizes people of colour, you are not being edgy, transgressive, or particularly funny. You are instead propping up the status quo. And, in a sense, privately justifying your privilege, although some hipsters are not even aware of the concept of privilege or of how it affects them.

And this brings us to hipster ableism. Hipster ableism relies on using jokes about people with disabilities as a form of humour, or using disability as a shorthand to make something appear funny. This can be seen in many forms of hipster art and expression, from films where disability is a joke to the entrenchment of ableist language in hipster discourse.

In Glee, we have Artie, a wheelchair user, constantly being used as a prop and being marginalized to the edge of the discourse. “It’s funny,” people say, “because that’s how people treat people with disabilities and Glee is making fun of that.” Uhm, no, actually Glee is just normalizing the marginalization of people with disabilities by constructing an entirely one dimensional disabled character (played by an able bodied actor) and using him as a prop. Artie does not defy social norms or break boundaries, he is a rolling caricature. And a cruel one, at that. Every time I see someone push Artie’s chair, every time Sue calls him a “cripple,” I cringe, as a viewer. I’m not seeing humour here, at all. I’m seeing what happens to people with disabilities every day.

The popular mashup series blending Jane Austen books with monsters is another terrific example of hipster ableism (among other hipster -isms). It’s kind of a fun idea, and I liked the concept initially, but the way the books have chosen to alter the plot is really reprehensible. They’ve added in things like racism and ableism because it’s “edgy” and “funny,” except that they don’t seem to recognize that readers have internalized the values supposedly being mocked, so actually the books just reinforce social norms.

In Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, we have Wickham being “punished” for his misdeeds by being severely beaten and developing quadriplegia, which is deemed just punishment, and Lydia is punished for her supposed sluttiness by being doomed to a life of caring for Wickham. The book makes sure to dwell on his incontinence to make sure that readers get the message, which is: Lydia is a slut, so she should be shamed and punished, and being a caregiver to a person with disabilities is a punishment and a burden. So, why isn’t this funny? Because this is what people actually think, right now, in the world. That sluts need to be punished, that developing quadriplegia is a tragedy, that caring for someone with quadriplegia is an impossible burden.

That plot isn’t funny, it’s not transgressive, it’s just a repetition of what society believes. It uses sexism and ableism to advance itself, rather than refuting these cultural norms. And it was totally unnecessary. The book could have turned the Lydia/Wickham plot on its head and played with it, but instead it decided to take the cheap and easy way out.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, aside from featuring some rather horrific racism and colonialism, gives Colonel Brandon a “cruel affliction” in the form of “perverse tentacles” attached to his face. When discussing his unsuitability as a marriage prospect, the girls make sure to stress how “repulsive” he is, and they throw in some ageism when they suggest that a 27 year old unmarried woman might settle for him, but a 17 year old girl certainly shouldn’t. Adding gas to the fire, Elinor suggests that a woman who was “say, visually impaired somehow” would make an ideal match for Brandon.

Again, this is not edgy humour. People are discriminated against in love, among many other things, because their faces do not meet with society’s standard of attractive. And people also say that people with disabilities should just settle for loving and marrying each other. Or that people with disabilities are not sexual, and therefore should not be upset that they are missing out on intimacy and love. Able bodied people in relationships with people with disabilities are repeatedly told how “brave” they are and informed that they are “so courageous” for staying with their partners, while people privately speculate on how on Earth a nice able-bodied person like that could possibly date a gross person with disabilities.

The sad thing about both of these modifications to the novels is that they don’t really add anything. A cute, fun concept is actually ruined by the insistence on bringing hipster -ism into the plot. The writers think it’s edgy and transgressive, or they write it in to appeal to the audience they are trying to reach, and people lap it up. Meanwhile, people like me who went “cool idea” when they first heard about the books are reading and going “sigh.”

The most insidious thing, for me, about hipster ableism and other hipster -isms is that they are a thinly veiled way to continue being a prejudiced bigot. People can go right on thinking their prejudiced thoughts, and they can hide behind the shield of “humour” and “you just don’t get it” when they are challenged. Hipster ableism, far from being edgy and transgressive, is in fact very safe and affirming.

Indeed, ignoring and marginalizing challenges to -isms are built right into the hipster culture, where “PC” is hurled like an insult, social justice movements are mocked, hipsters engage in cultural appropriation to make themselves feel cool, and members of marginalized communities are deliberately excluded.

By 5 November, 2009.    media and pop culture   



Ableist Word Profile: Scab

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

I was working on something the other day and I unconsciously used the word “scab” to refer to temporary non-union workers brought in to break up a strike. And, as soon as I finished typing it, I said “hey, wait a minute!” So I took a break and researched the origins of the word to confirm my suspicions that it was ableist, and made a note to do an ableist word profile on it at some point in the reasonably near future.

Workers’ rights is a big topic of interest to me, as is organized labour and the use of unionization to advocate for the welfare of workers. Thus, I do not look fondly upon strikebreakers. I’ve always heard them called “scabs” and used “scab” myself without really thinking about its origins, but it takes only a cursory glance and thought to realize that the word is ableist; after all, what’s a scab? It’s a crust that forms on a sore or wound. And some people with disabilities have conditions which cause chronic scabbing. In fact, I have a condition which causes chronic scabbing, because I have eczema, so I’ve been using a word which is injurious to me, personally, for years.

“Scab” actually entered English around 1250, in the sense of “skin disease.” Scab as in “crust which forms on a sore” didn’t come into use until almost 200 years later, and “scab” as in “strikebreaker” is from the early 1800s. The word is derived from the Old English for “scratch/itch,” and is closely related to “scabies,” a condition which causes intense itching. And subsequent scratching. And, often, scabbing.

Why did we start referring to strikebreakers as “scabs”? We’ve actually got to take a trip back in time to 1590 to find out, because that’s when the word first started being used to describe a “despicable person,” since apparently people with scabs are despicable. These origins may have some class overtones as well, since people of lower class status are more likely to injure themselves/have untreated wounds and poorly managed skin conditions which result in scabbing. At any rate, the term was borrowed in the late 1700s to refer to people who didn’t join trade unions, and this use explains why we use it to refer to strikebreakers, since some people view strikebreakers as rather despicable.

The ableist origins of this word are clear; we’re using yet another term used to describe a medical condition/symptom as a pejorative. In this case, the medical uses of this word are alive and well. Everyone understands the meaning of scab in relation to health, and many people are also familiar with the pejorative use of the word. As someone who’s actually pretty scabby at the moment, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really connected the dots with this word, but now that I have, I’m eliminating it from my word use.

So, what’s an alternative to “scab,” for those who want to be able to say “temporary workers brought in to break up a strike” in a way which conveys sufficient rage and irritation? Well, there’s always “strikebreaker.”

I think it’s also important to note here that while I find the actions of strikebreakers pretty despicable, it’s a complicated issue. Many people hired as strikebreakers are actually unaware of the fact that they are being hired to break a strike, with employers transporting them in such a way that they are not aware they are passing a picket line. Companies have also been known to use people who do not speak the language in a region where a strike is occurring, with the goal of keeping workers ignorant about the circumstances of their employment. Some people may also feel some moral qualms about being involved in unionbusting activity, but they may be forced to accept work as temporary labourers by their financial positions. Things are never as black and white as we want them to be.

By 4 November, 2009.    101, Ableist Word Profile, language  , ,  



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