Category Archives: 101

Today in Journalism: You Mean They Can Ride Horses Too?

This delicious little story in the Carluke Gazette by Craig Goldthorpe is pretty much your run of the mill profile of a local person with disabilities by a journalist who has no idea what he’s talking about, but, gosh, thinks it’s actually neat! Milena Canning is an equestrian who enjoys riding Clydesdale horses, which isn’t exactly a news item, except for the fact that she’s blind. The story is cringe-inducing, but the real standout in the piece, to me, is the level of astonishment at the idea that a blind person could ride horses. Alas, I can’t pick up a copy in person to read the promised expanded version.

I’ll be sure to tell blind Paralympic athlete Ann Cecile Orr of Norway, who took two silver medals in Sydney in 2000, that she has talents that ‘can’t be believed.’ Likewise, I’m sure the International Blind Sports Federation, which recognises dressage in particular as a sport practiced by blind and visually impaired athletes worldwide, will be interested to know that blind people can’t ride horses. The folks over at Blind Equestrians will be surprised to learn they can’t ride or handle horses and the rapidly expanding Para-Equestrian community should probably be alerted as well, as should therapeutic riding schools that work with blind and visually impaired students, like the Marianna Greene Henry Special Equestrians Program (yes, I know, the name leaves something to be desired) at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s stories in the news about how amazing a disabled athlete is, simply because of the disability. While I think it’s good to profile disabled athletes, for a number of reasons including the fact that it’s important to alert people to the fact that, yes, people with disabilities do engage in sport, articles like this don’t do much to educate people. Goldthorpe could have written about blind equestrian sports and discussed the various adaptations blind riders use to engage in high level competition (people, it does not get much higher than Olympic-level sports, which is what the Paralympics are) instead of engaging in a ‘wow, look at the blind person!’ story. He could have pointed out that the story takes place within the larger context of a long history of disabled athletics.

Like other blind athletes, blind equestrians may work with guides and spotters. Callers are stationed around the ring for sports like dressage (where riders are also expected to memorise their own programmes) and I’d note that nondisabled equestrians also rely on callers and spotters during their own training; many people who have had an opportunity to be around horses probably remember riding while someone else controls the horse with a lunge line, to learn balance, focus on your seat, and get better connected with your horse. Blind and sighted riders have more commonalities than disparities, not just a love for horses and equestrian sport, but shared learning experiences.

I have an interest in equestrian sport and a love for equestrians because I used to ride, although I never reached a very high degree of proficiency. Thus, I tend to look out for stories about horses and riding, and I always watch equestrian events when I can. I love the connection that develops between horse and rider, where a working team can reach a very high level of communication and focus, and many equestrian sports are also just beautiful. Dressage, for example:

Dinks' Dressage: A dark horse faces the camera, head down and neck arched. The rider has a relaxed, comfortable seat with  hands low on the reins and the horse's ears are flicked back, almost as though listening to the rider

(Photo by Flickr user Axel Bührmann, Creative Commons License)

Dressage Abram Hall July 09: A shot of a horse in action, hooves in motion and neck out, with a rider posed comfortably and confidently in the saddle.

(Photo by Flickr user J.harwood, Creative Commons License.)

Articles like this, with their patronising attitudes about blind athletes, don’t do much to break down social attitudes. They tell readers that the subject of the article is astonishing and send the message that we should gawk at disabled athletes because they are disabled, not because of their athletic abilities. They also don’t leave people with more information; say, for example, information for blind folks about how and where to take riding classes, if they are interested, or information for people interested in watching athletic events. (Of course, given the writer’s level of surprise that a blind person could write horses, I’m guessing he probably doesn’t know there are entire events organised just for disabled riders in general, in addition to events for blind riders in particular.)

There are, of course, dangers to equestrian sport, but those dangers are present for all riders at all levels of ability, and the commonsense steps to address them are the same. Horses used in therapeutic riding programs are trained and handled especially carefully to address concerns about new riders who may not have the experience or the strength to control frightened and nervous horses, and riders, disabled and nondisabled alike, learn about safety as soon as they start handling horses. Riding is dangerous. Skiing is dangerous. Boating is dangerous. People participate in all these sports at all levels of ability because they want to, and find them interesting, and journalism that suggests that sports are just not accessible, or highly unusual, for people with disabilities frustrates me.

It’s not ‘remarkable’ that blind people ride horses and participate in competition, any more so than that anyone rides horses. What’s remarkable is that journalists still can’t be bothered to do any research when it comes to talking about disabled athletes, and still repeat the same old chestnuts in most articles profiling disabled athletes.

Representation: Actors With Disabilities Playing Characters With Disabilities

Here in the United States, the 2010/2011 television schedule is kicking off, and my mind naturally turns to representation for people with disabilities. I decided to compile a list of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities. This list is not necessarily complete; there are probably characters and shows I am forgetting about and unaware of, and it is entirely possible that actors with undisclosed disabilities are appearing in disabled roles.

One thing I note about this list is that these actors all share disabilities with their characters; we have, for example, Shoshannah Stern, a Deaf actress, playing a Deaf character.

And, although this list is in the US, fans of shows airing outside the US who want to add more representations, please do so!

Michael Patrick Thornton, who has a spinal cord injury, will be returning as Dr. Gabriel Fife on Shonda Rhimes’ show Private Practice. I’ve written about Dr. Fife here before, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him. Evidently he will be returning later in the season because he was working on a play when the first half was being shot.

Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, will presumably be reappearing as Tom Bowman on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama. I haven’t caught very many episodes of this show so I can’t speak to how well the character is depicted, but I do not that Bowman is a sexual character and he appears to be a fairly complex character, rather than a one dimensional stereotype.

The Fox drama Lie To Me has hired Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern (whom I adore after her work on Jericho) for an unspecified number of episodes where she will be appearing as a graduate student assisting Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) with research. Evidently, her presentation on the show revolves around concerns that because she is Deaf, she will have difficulty doing the work, but Dr. Lightman decides to hire her anyway. I think this storyline could either go really well, or really badly. I guess we’ll find out!

I think it’s safe to assume that both Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki will be reappearing on Glee. Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson has been spotted in some promotionals and an appearance has definitely been confirmed for the season opener. Robin Trocki, playing Jean Sylvester, will presumably show up at some point as well, undoubtedly in another ‘touching’ scene designed to humanise Sue Sylvester.

Long-running CBS hit CSI will be bringing back Robert David Hall as pathologist Al Robbins. One of the things I like about Robbins, although it has been a number of years since I watched CSI, is that he plays a character who happens to disabled, rather than a character who is all about his disability. His disability rarely comes up and while he walks with canes on the show, a big production isn’t made about his disability or  how he acquired it.

These representations span the map in terms of how well they depict disability. I think they pretty neatly illustrate that any representation is not necessarily a good representation. However, when you contrast them with roles where nondisabled actors are playing disabled characters, the picture changes; these depictions are fairly positive, while nondisabled actors in disabled roles are not so positive and in some cases heavily criticised for setting depictions of disability back. Clearly the cripface is a problem in these roles, but is that the only thing? Obviously, the writing of these characters is also a major issue, as is the research (or lack thereof) that goes into those roles, and it’s not always clear how much influence actors have on the writing of their characters; is it that shows using disabled actors put in a little more effort?

When we talk about pop culture at FWD, we tend to get a slew of trolling comments claiming that we don’t want to see disability on television at all or that we never want to see nondisabled actors in disabled roles. On the contrary, I want to see more disability on television, I just want it to be good depictions. Since the bulk of the good depictions are played by disabled actors, it begs the question: Can nondisabled actors appear in good depictions of disability, or are there inherent barriers that just make it impossible? Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?

Dear Imprudence: Take Your R-Word Somewhere Else

Emily Yoffe has really been striking out in the advice sweepstakes lately, but she redeemed herself in this week’s livechat, when a reader wrote in to say:

Q. Dealing With the R-Word: How can I respond to people who use the word “retard” or “retarded” as derogatory term in my presence? I have two beautiful children (one has autism), but have never used the R-word even before I became a mother. While I realize a vast majority of the time, people who use this term are not referring to people with intellectual disabilities, it still hurts to hear the word since it’s generally used to mean stupid. I have been hearing this word a lot lately—sometimes from younger people, other times from people my age (mid-’30s) or older who throw this word around. When I am in my own home, I just tell the person, “We do not use that word in this house.” When I am at another person’s home, I don’t know what to say, so I keep quiet (even though it doesn’t feel right) or leave. And what about when I’m in a neutral place? By the way, my son is almost always with me and everyone I associate with knows he has autism, but that doesn’t stop people from using the R-word. Please tell me how I can respond when I hear this word used in everyday conversation.

Here’s what Yoffe responded with:

A: You need to say something in as neutral a way as possible. If the word is being used to describe someone with an intellectual disability, you need to say something like, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be insulting. But retarded is an outmoded word that many people find offensive.” Then offer what you prefer as a better term. If it’s being used as a general insult, you should also speak up and explain that word is so hurtful that you’d prefer not to hear it.

On the nose, Prudie. It’s important for the letter writer to not just speak up when it’s used to talk about a human being, but also just generally, to explain that it’s hurtful and has negative associations. I imagine the letter writer is going to get some pushback on that, but a few seeds will be planted, as well, and people might start thinking twice about how they use words like the R-word. A lot of people use exclusionary language out of ignorance and may be unaware that they are hurting people around them, and providing a quick heads up on the matter in a way designed to make confrontation difficult (by making the other person look bad if ou gets confrontational about a perfectly reasonable request) can go a long way to eliminating hateful uses of words like this one.

And, of course, pushback appeared within the livechat itself:

Q. The R-Word: I feel for this woman, but when I buy mulch that retards weeds, do I need to apologize for that? Should we just remove that word from the dictionary?

A: Talking about retarding the growth of weeds is a great way to preserve a useful word.

This is a really common response to discussions about language. The interrogator decides the subject is ‘too sensitive’ and thus deliberately misreads the discussion and the request to stop using a particular word to drag in an unrelated use of a word, sometimes a word that sounds similar, but actually has an entirely different root and origins (although that is not the case with the R-word and ‘retard’ in the sense of ‘flame-retardant’). To me, it reads like an attempt to use the ‘bad word’ as many times as possible in a sanctioned way: ‘But I just want to have a discussion!’

This reaction also raises a fundamental point about our common humanity. When I first started learning about and engaging with exclusionary language (because none of us are born knowing these things, let alone in a language that’s not our first), I was sometimes puzzled about why particular words were being identified as harmful, but the immediacy of the situation struck me. Here was a person, another human being, right in front of me, saying ‘please don’t use this word around me, it hurts me.’ What possible rational response could there be, other than to stop using that word around that person even if I privately disagreed, or to say, ‘I’m sorry this word makes you feel uncomfortable, but I use it to self identify in a reclamatory way, not generally to refer to people or as a pejorative.’

Things That Make Me Go Hmmmm: Psychiatry-themed Plush Toys

In Germany, the toymaker Paraplush has evidently just released a line of psychiatry-themed plush toys. Each comes ‘packaged with a personalized medical history and treatment plan.’ They’re tied in with an online game made by the same company (warning, Flash, autoplay). Like, for example, Kroko the crocodile:

A closeup of the head of a stuffed crocodile, clinging to a pillow.

Kroko here ‘needs your help!’ His ‘patient profile‘ tells us:

The patient’s hypersensitive hallucinatory perception is a symptom of a paranoid psychosis. The signs are a mental block and a Gestaltzerfall (disintegration of structure) of the habitual field of experience. The consequence is a compensational reactivation of archaic reaction patterns.

The idea behind the toys, according to the creators, is that ‘Children and grown-ups like their [the plush toys’] vulnerability and find something in them that gives them a great sense of comfort in helping to heal them.’

I am reminded of the giant plush microbes I buy for my cats to play with. They experience a great sense of comfort in shredding ebola.

There are a couple of things going on here that I find troubling. I am, in general, not a fan of the cuteification of disability issues, and thus, plush representations of mental health conditions presented as an educational tool bother me. This is just a personal reaction; I know that other people may well feel differently, and I admit that a part of me is kind of bemused by the idea of buying a plush representation of one of my disabilities.

I think there’s also an argument to be made, though, that some people might find these toys beneficial (or just funny in a reclamatory way), and might enjoy subverting the ‘patient profiles’ and ‘treatment plans’ or even writing up treatment plans of their own as a way of reclaiming and owning their own experiences with the mental health establishment. Indeed, I wonder how my perception of these toys would change if they were being produced by and for people with disabilities with the specific goal of empowerment.

I am also really bothered by the reinforcement of psychiatrisation going on with these toys; there’s one toy labeled as having ‘multiple personality disorder,’ for example, whom we are informed is ‘unable to accept herself,’ stressing that the conclusion we are supposed to draw from the patient’s history is that she needs to be ‘fixed’ through integration. Likewise, I assume most of the treatment plans are predicated on the idea of mental illness as something that needs to be controlled, probably with the use of medication. I suspect that other approaches/perspectives/experiences are probably not included in patient profiles and treatment plans.

And, of course, the company’s store is labeled ‘The Asylum: Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddlytoys,’ which…could we not make ‘asylums’ cutesy and funny, please, given that people are forcibly institutionalised to this day in facilities where abuse really does happen? Sometimes really horrific abuse?

What about you? How do you feel about this line of toys? Do you think the context, of who is making them, for whom, and with what intent, is important to consider?

Conversations About Body Image: A Place at the Table for Me?

Conversations about body image come up often in feminist communities, and unfortunately, many of those conversations are predicated on the dual ideas that all people should love their bodies and that lovable bodies are healthy ones. This can be seen in the language used by campaigns designed to get people thinking about body image; I can’t tell you how many ‘positive affirmations’ I have encountered that say things like ‘love your body, because it is beautiful, healthy, and strong.’ I guess people who don’t have healthy or strong bodies can’t love them, or people who actively reject beauty can’t love their bodies either. And, of course, this reads like a mandate: You must love your body, because the idea of not loving your body is highly alien, as is the idea of feeling neutral about or disassociated from your body.

For people who may dislike their bodies, for any number of reasons, these conversations end up being exclusionary, as they are often treated as ‘unenlightened’ for not loving their bodies and they are lectured in an attempt to get them to submit. For people with disabilities, an added layer of complexity is introduced, as it is assumed we do not or could not love our bodies because of our disabilities. Similar complexity can arise for some members of the trans community, who may experience inner conflict with our bodies but feel uncomfortable expressing it, for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of being perceived as spokespeople for the trans community when we are just talking about ourselves, to fear that discussing dislike/hatred for one’s body is not acceptable. Especially when encountering campaigns mandating that people love their ‘natural’  or ‘inner’ beauty, I am left with more questions than answers.

I was reminded of this by ‘Black Torso,’ the piece I featured in my post on sculpture last week. What, for example, is a breast cancer survivor who chooses to get reconstructive surgery supposed to do? The rebuilt breast is not ‘natural,’ so does that mean the patient does not love ou body? What about the breast cancer survivor who cannot afford reconstructive surgery or is not a candidate for it? Maybe ou hates the scar and is uncomfortable looking in the mirror, but feels unwelcome in body image discussions rooted in the idea that ‘love’ is mandatory for all people when engaging with their bodies.

I’d like to start deconstructing conversations about body image to make a seat at the table for people who might feel relegated to the fringes of those conversations right now, and there are a couple of angles that need to be considered with more care in conversations about body image and in campaigns designed to spark conversations about body image.

The first is the idea that everyone must love their bodies. Not all people love their bodies and they should not be required or pressured to; indeed, we should be actively creating a space for people who aren’t comfortable with the bodies they are in that doesn’t consist of ‘we will educate you into loving your body.’ We should talk, too, about the reasons why people may experience conflict with their bodies, and how social attitudes, life experiences, and other things may play a role in the relationship people have with their bodies, without singling out people or shaming them for not loving their bodies, or not loving them all the time.

The second is the idea of ‘healthy, strong, natural’ bodies being celebrated in these campaigns and focused on in language about body image. The fact is that not all bodies are healthy, strong, or natural. Health is something that changes over time from person to person, and while some people may always have healthy bodies, others do not. ‘Natural’ is also not necessarily something everyone possesses, and I dislike the idea that a body needs to be ‘natural’ (who is defining this, incidentally?) in order to be celebrated.

Finally, we have these really complicated intersections between body image and disability, compounded by a lot of social attitudes about disability. Disability is scary, so disabled bodies are scary, and I notice that many body image conversations leave out people with disabilities, because no one knows what to do with us. Looking through many of the responses to the American Able art project, I was struck by the fact that many people were uncomfortable with viewing a disabled body, especially in the context of desirability. If our bodies are so frightening that people can’t see them on television and in ad campaigns, it shouldn’t surprise me that people have trouble fitting us in to discussions about body image.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room, in body image conversations, for people who may feel conflicted about their bodies, for people who reject a lot of the ‘affirmations’ promoted, for people who may not fit into the categories some participants in these conversations assume apply to everyone. Are there exceptions to these rules? Conversations where people are thinking about issues like disability and the rejection of beauty? Yes, there absolutely are, but they are exceptions, not the norm, and that is a trend I would like to reverse.

This is what we talk about when we talk about working towards the neutral place; creating a space where bodies and identities are neutral, so there is room for everyone, room for all relationships between people and their bodies, room for people at all levels of exploring their identities and their bodies.

Normalising Accessibility

The radio station I’ve been listening to for most of my life has a habit, when announcing community events, of indicating whether they are accessible. This generally refers specifically to wheelchair accessibility, although I have heard announcers address other things, like chemical sensitivity, depending on the announcer and the event. The point is, my whole life, whenever I hear community events announced, it has been announced with a note about accessibility. That kind of does something to a person, you know?

The announcers put accessibility in the same rank of importance as event information like where the event is, when it is, what is happening, how much it costs, and who to contact for more information, tickets, reservations, and so forth. As it should be. Because all of this information could determine whether someone can attend; if something is happening this Friday at 1:00, for example, I can’t go, because I’m meeting a friend for lunch. If it costs $40 USD, I can’t go, because that’s more than I want to spend. If it’s in Lakeport, I can’t go, because I don’t want to drive that far…and so forth. The whole point of an event announcement is to provide people with enough information to determine if they want to go to an event, and if they can attend.

I mentioned the fact that the radio station does this on Twitter and got a number of intrigued responses, and the thing that struck me was how radical people thought it was, that the radio station would make a habit of including accessibility notes on event announcements. For me, it’s commonplace, and I expect to see accessibility discussed on posters and other event announcements because I’ve been socialised to expect it; a big part of the reason for this is that I live in Northern California, very close to the Bay Area, where there is a highly active disability community that has agitated long and hard for things like this. In my own town, Fort Bragg, I can’t say accessibility is great. There are a lot of issues I’ve identified and I’m sure there are many more I haven’t. And I’d note that some events here are very bad about providing accessibility information on posters, and are shocked, simply shocked, if I contact organisers to ask, so I’m not pretending that accessibility notes are universally provided, or universally useful, in my little hippie paradise. But they are there.

Accessibility notes, to my mind, serve two important functions.

The first is that they provide a service for people with disabilities. You can know, right off the bat, whether you can attend an event, especially if organisations make a point of using comprehensive accessibility notes. For example, the radio station just aired a spot on a film screening that sounds interesting. It is in an accessible venue, but is the film captioned or will there be an interpreter? Is there an audio description available? This was not mentioned. Having complete notes about accessibility saves people the trouble of making a phone call/sending an email, and also avoids the  potential situation where the person on the other end says ‘oooooh yeah, our event is totally accessible’ and you get there and find out it’s not. I think accessibility information should be default with any event announcement; you wouldn’t announce an event without the date, right?

The second purpose, one I was discussing with Anna recently, is that accessibility notes remind people that we exist. Every time you hear an announcement saying something like ‘this venue is not wheelchair accessible,’ that sends a message. Hey, there are people who use wheelchairs! Hey, they can’t get into this event! That’s not cool! Encountering accessibility notes reminds people to think about the accessibility in their own lives and it acts as a quiet reminder; I mean, really, who wants to be the person running an event accompanied with radio announcements basically saying ‘wheelchair/scooter users, parents with strollers, and possibly people with mobility impairments not welcome’?

Another area where I have noticed accessibility notes coming up more and more these days is on recipes online. In part, that’s because I tend to hang out with other people with disabilities, so it’s not like accessibility notes are a Thing in the broader online cooking/recipe exchange community, although they should be. Seeing those notes reminds people that, hey, some people with disabilities like to cook, and, hey, it is really helpful to be able to skim the notes at the top of a recipe to see if you will be able to prepare it. After all, most recipes indicate if they are vegetarian/vegan these days, and many provide notes about common allergens like wheat, dairy, and soy. All this information is considered important because it will determine whether you can make the recipe, so why not add an accessibility note? Something like ‘you will need to lift a heavy stockpot full of water from the sink to the stove’ can be a dealbreaker. (Unless you have one of those rad flexible hose things that lets you fill pots right next to the stove, in which case, can I move in?)

Having accessibility notes does not create universal access. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction, of getting people to think beyond ‘special treatment‘ by positioning accessibility as something broadly relevant to most people, and something of equal importance as ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how.’ Which, for many of us, it is.

Today in Journalism: Athlete Overcomes Euphemism to Hang Ten

Up today, a Global Surf News feature on ‘challenged athletes’ competing in Duke’s Oceanfest, a surfing event held in Hawaii. Oceanfest celebrates Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian surfing legend, and the event is used to raise funds to support scholarships for Hawaiian athletes. This year’s event featured an exhibition by disabled athletes participating in AccesSurf, an organisation that, in their own words: ’empowers people with disabilities by providing adaptive surfing instruction and therapeutic educational programs on water recreation and enriches lives by assisting families to access the beach and ocean in a barrier free environment.’

This sounds like my kind of organisation, and featuring disabled athletes at a big surfing event seems like an excellent idea. In addition to raising awareness about the fact that, yes, people with disabilities can surf and enjoy the beach and deserve to do so, the event could also  be used to highlight accessibility issues. Competitors and members of the audience alike are at a surfing event because they love surfing, and it seems like a great idea to connect on the common ground of love for the ocean to get people thinking about accessibility and the integration of people with disabilities into society in general, not just the surfing community.

Of course, the takeaway from this feature article is somewhat different. There is nary a mention of accessibility issues, for example. The words ‘challenged athletes’ get used over and over again, perhaps because the schedule has the event noted as ‘AccesSurf Challenged Athlete Surfing.’ When all you have to go off is the event programme, and the event programme uses ‘challenged,’ a disability euphemism I for one have always loathed, you’re probably going to repeat that euphemism, because you don’t know any better.

The article stresses that the disabled athletes were ‘inspiring’ and ‘shining.’ That’s not really the takeaway I personally would want people to be left with. It makes it seem as though the athletes were participating for the sole purpose of inspiring nondisabled people and giving them enjoyment, when, actually, they were participating because they love surfing, and they want to highlight the work AccesSurf does in Hawaii. Articles like this always irk me because the focus is solely on what the event being covered does for nondisabled people; it allows people to pat themselves on the back and feel better, but it doesn’t, forgive me, challenge the readers in any way.

One disabled athlete was interviewed for the piece, and he talked about adaptive surfing for muscular dystrophy, and how happy he was to get an opportunity to participate in the event. Props for not making all the competitors nameless and faceless, truly, but the rest of the article gets a resounding raspberry from me. ‘It’s not what you do, it’s the style and spirit with which you do it that shines brightest’ is the lead sentence in the article, and that tells me a lot about how the person writing it thinks about people with disabilities.

This article could have been informative. It could have talked about adaptive aquatic sports to give people an idea of the range of available accommodations that can be used to get people into the water, and to familiarise readers with some of the terminology so they could potentially seek out programs like AccesSurf in their own communities. Surfers interested in participating in adaptive aquatic sports might have taken away useful material from this article. And the piece could have highlighted the work AccesSurf does around beach and ocean accessibility, again giving readers something to take away from the article and apply to their own lives.

Instead, it went for the ‘people with disabilities as entertainment’ narrative, and completely missed the potential for a teachable moment. It certainly didn’t do anything to change the way readers might think about disability; disability is a source of ‘inspiration,’ says the article, and that doesn’t really ask readers to delve a little more deeply into their attitudes and beliefs about disability.

Dear Imprudence: Do You Need Assistance?

A fascinating conversation unfolded during the livechat with Prudence this week. A reader wrote in to ask:

Q. Should I Have Helped a Disabled Person? A few weeks ago, I was washing my hands in the ladies’ room when a woman with a physical handicap came in. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she was struggling to get the stall door open, and I froze. I didn’t want to insult her by helping her—she was able to get it open, but it required more work—and I didn’t want to seem unkind if she was open to help. What should I have done?

Well, speaking for myself, it’s really awkward when I am in a public space, having a problem, and someone is standing there obviously valiantly pretending not to notice. I tend to appreciate a ‘do you need assistance’ or, you know, a helping hand if it’s evident, that, say, I cannot move to open a door because I am laden with packages or groceries or whatever. I will probably say ‘no’ if asked because I am pretty self reliant and stubborn, in which case I appreciate an ‘ok’ as opposed to a resentful glare, and then we can all move on with our lives. But it is, you know, rather awkward when someone is clearly in a dither about whether to ask if I need assistance.

Prudence agrees:

A: I think when you see someone struggling with a door for whatever reason—disability, hands full with packages, pushing a stroller—the polite thing to do is ask, “Can I give you a hand?” Occasionally you will be rebuffed, but more often you will get a thanks. And if you’re rebuffed, don’t take it personally; just accept your help wasn’t needed.

I love that Prudence stressed asking first. Not assuming. Asking. Checking to see if someone needs help before jumping on it. That’s key, and it’s something that often gets left out.

Another reader wrote in with my favourite kind of story, the ‘I tried to help a person with disabilities and all I got was meanness because the person was mean and all disabled at me!’ narrative, where I feel like the person is leaving out the part of the story about how the ‘help’ actually involved attempting to force someone to accept it:

Q. Re: Helping a Disabled Person: I once offered help to a disabled person who was having trouble getting a door open. The person was offended and reported me to H.R. I had to go to sensitivity training.

Ah, yes.  Doesn’t this come up every single time nondisabled people talk about helping people with disabilities? Ohnoes! Sensitivity training! Somehow, I suspect that comment went through the context filleter before it got to the livechat, because there is obviously more to that story.

But, it gets better! A disabled reader wrote in to lay it down:

Q. For Helping: I totally agree that the person Helping tried to help is a massive jerk. But as a person with a disability myself, I’d like to suggest one thing: Next time, do us the favor of asking, “May I get that for you?” That way the person can tell you what he wants. A jerk might still not like that, but most people appreciate being able to choose between getting help (that they may have wanted to ask for but felt weird about) and refusing help (if they’re exasperated with getting “May I help yous” every time they turn around). And, for the love of beans, please, be OK with “No.” Politely telling someone “No thanks, I’ve got it” and receiving a murderous glower in response is sadly frequent.

Nailed it. This person covered the ‘ask first, don’t assume’ issue along with the ‘when someone says no, don’t get all huffy about it’ issue, and Prudence duly thanked the reader for the input.

This was a case where Prudie’s initial advice, responding to the first question, was right on. But it was really nice to have the voice of a person with disabilities centred in the conversation, especially after the usual sour grapes ‘meanie!!!!!’ comment got dragged out.

Liberal ableism

I consider myself to be a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, at least in the way that the term is commonly defined in the United States. Hesitant as I am to list all of my “liberal” qualifications, let’s just get some things out of the way: I am unapologetically feminist, pro-LGBQTIA rights, and am actively working to be anti-racist (which is an ongoing process). I am against capital punishment, as well as the current prison system. U.S.-ian imperial, cultural and economic hegemony across the globe does not sit well with me, and I am of the opinion that it should be actively dismantled. There are also other classically “liberal” opinions that I hold which would take entirely too much space to list here.

My own political stance is a huge part of the reason why ableism from people who are ostensibly my “allies” feels like such a giant thorn in my side. Because it seems that no matter how much we may align politically on the surface, some liberals seem to be incapable of viewing me — and other people with disabilities — as fully human, and treating us accordingly.

Many will protest, “But I can’t be ableist! I’m progressive/liberal!”  But here’s the thing: You can be liberal and also behave in an ableist manner, even without knowing it. It is indeed possible — even with the best of intentions.

Ableism is there when a liberal makes “jokes” about a condition or conditions that ou does not have, such as Restless Leg Syndrome. Or OCD. Or depression. Or schizophrenia. Or chronic fatigue syndrome. Or mental disabilities. Often, these “harmless” jokes are made at the direct expense of people with disabilities or health conditions — both physical and mental. Ableism is there when someone insinuates that diet changes (EAT ORGANIC!!11) and exercise (What? You mean you DON’T work out every day?!) are the solution to all bodily problems, including disabilities, mental health issues, and chronic health conditions. It’s there when someone calls those on the opposite side of the political spectrum “insane.”

It’s most definitely been there when “liberals” with whom I once got along decided that my illness — and the physical and energy limitations that come with my having a chronic illness — no longer suited them and their needs, and so they were free to do things like make unsolicited comments about my illness or how I manage it, or sigh and roll their eyes if I needed to slow down or take a break. Or, worse, tell me that although they have “sympathy” for my health issues, granting me access or even basic accommodations so that I could participate in an activity to the best of my ability just “wouldn’t be fair” to other (abled) group members. For these liberals, everyone deserves respect and opportunity — so it follows that disabled people absolutely deserve to participate in society! Until, of course, accommodations for PWDs conflict with the desired pacing or focus of the liberals in question — or until the PWD no longer conforms to the “angelic” and/or “in need of uplift by the kind liberals” image. Yet often, these same liberals still insist that they can’t be ableist — they’re so progressive!

This is precisely what makes liberal ableism so insidious, and so often hard to bring up (much like hipster ableism and, to some extent, hipster racism and liberal sexism, as well as liberal racism, though I do not wish to conflate all of these as the exact same type[s] of oppression) precisely because so much energy is dedicated to brushing off any discussion of ableism in liberal circles with some claim to liberal or progressive “cred.” Instead of deflecting and immediately whining, “But I’m not like that! I’m liberal!” many of these folks might do well to take a step back and consider how they themselves are contributing to so much of the offal that PWDs face daily with their actions and words.

Dear Imprudence: Who Appointed You the Parking Police?

This week’s livechat with Prudence featured a question that seems to crop up endlessly, like, pretty much whenever a person with a disabled parking placard pulls up to a parking space and gets out of ou car:

Q. Parking Lot Etiquette: I live in an apartment that overlooks the building’s handicapped parking spots. I have noticed one young woman, who has a blue permit, using one of the three spots every day, as if it is her own. The problem is, when she gets out of her car, she has no visible handicap. I would also add that other residents have to pay for their own spot, and she drives a late model Audi, so I don’t think she’s too poor to pay herself. I suppose she may have some handicap that isn’t visible, but is that what the spaces near the door are really intended for? I notified the manager, who I don’t think is going to do anything, and will probably leave it at that. But am I crazy for letting this bother me? Signed, Auto Fixated.

Oh  my stars, y’all! She’s, like, totally not disabled! ’cause she drives an Audi!

Prudence delivered the goods:

A: There have been interesting studies that show society actually functions better when certain people are willing to take on the role of unofficial police. Shaming the able-bodied who take handicapped parking spaces is a favorite outlet for these enforcers. However, the danger for such people is that they end up being unpleasant busybodies or worse. I have heard from many seemingly able-bodied people who have mild MS, say, but are constantly getting reamed out by “do-gooders” when they take a handicapped parking space. The woman you’re seeing has a permit, and you don’t know what might actually be wrong with her. She doesn’t appear to be preventing anyone who needs the space from filling it. So get over your fixation and find something that really needs fixing.

So, here’s the dealio, parking police: stop it.

No, really, that’s about all I have to say. A person with a disabled placard or plates owes no obligation to you. Is not required to specify and explain, in detail, the nature of ou disabilities. Period. Placards get assigned to people who need them1, and plenty of people who don’t have, ah, ‘visible handicaps’ do in fact need to take advantage of disabled parking spots. It’s nice that Prudence provided an example of a disability that might be nonevident, but still require the use of disabled parking, but, honestly? She didn’t need to. Because the takeaway lesson is that where people with disabilities park, and their disabilities, is not your business.

Yes, even if they are driving nice cars.

Additionally, if you do not need disabled parking because you are not disabled? Please stop using our damn parking already. Yes, even if it’s just for a minute. Yes, even if you were totally planning to move if someone needed it.

  1. And thanks to weird policies, some people who need them can’t get them.