Category Archives: anna rants
Don and I went to see a movie the other night, and gosh, we had fun! I mean, there’s nothing funner than going out for a nice evening with your husband and being confronted straight on with the knowledge that one of the scariest things some people can imagine is being forced to live with someone like you! Yay, fun times for everyone!
The particular film trailer that is paining me this month is for “The Roommate”. At first looks like some sort of “And then they went to university and had awesome adventures” sort of film, right up until that immortal line “She is taking her medications, right?”
There’s a whole genre of these particular films which take an idea that can be pretty scary – moving in with a stranger or virtual stranger – and kick it up a notch. If it’s a comedy, then obviously the problem will be someone who drinks all the milk or borrows all your clothes or is just really annoying, and that particular story will usually be about two white dudes, and in the end the hero will get the girl. When they want to really frighten people with some thriller-version, then it’ll be all about the scary white chick who moves into some other white woman’s life, kills some of her friends, seduces her boyfriend, and tries to steal everything away from her, while some family member eventually reveals that the crazy lady is on medication for some undefined mental health condition.
Gosh, I have no idea why stigma is still attached to mental health conditions!
I really hate that I can’t turn around twice without being reminded that people like me, just by virtue of existing in the world, are scary. There’s always someone reminding me of that, whether it’s a classmate telling me she’ll just say she’s crazy if she kills someone so she can get off without punishment (even though Canada’s jails are full of people with mental health conditions), the near constant repetition of the myth that crazy people are more likely to be violent (even though people with mental health conditions are actually far more likely to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators), or waiting for the next remake of Single White Female to be put into general release.
I know. They’re just films, and they really are just taking the perfectly normal fear of moving in with someone you don’t know and exaggerating them for effect. But I also know that people are really afraid of those of us with mental health conditions, and that the stigma and myths about mental health conditions can make it really hard for people who are having problems to seek out help. I have also had many discussions with people who have been honest about their mental health conditions to roommates or university officials, and suffered the consequences.
I often see the housing concerns framed as a concern for other students – being around someone with a significant mental illness might traumatize them. And I agree that finding me dead in a bathroom would have traumatized someone. But my self-harm and my mania did not seem to me to be any more potentially traumatizing for other students than my dormmates who would go to the communal bathroom to throw up after every meal, those who were using hard drugs like cocaine, or even those who would binge drink until passing out naked on the stairway, none of whom ever suffered any potential housing consequences. To say nothing of my then-boyfriend, who was then causing me active and ongoing psychological trauma through his emotional abuse and who got to stay in the dorm with all our mutual friends after I was shipped across campus. That I was the only student looked at by the university and potentially subject to penalties – and identified as potentially problematic because I sought lifesaving and appropriate care – speaks volumes about how students with mental disabilities are seen by administrators.
I hate these movies because of the stereotypes they reinforce. I hate that these stereotypes are the main reason I don’t discuss my diagnosis. I hate that I can’t just go to the movies without being reminded that my existence is scary-thriller frightening to enough people to make these movies popular.
Mostly, I’d just like to go see a movie without the reminder. It makes my popcorn taste bad.
- 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.
A month and a half ago I wrote a fairly angry email to Ms Magazine blog [which you can read here – yes, I sent it to them, no, I never got a response]. While part of my ire was raised by the subject matter and the treatment of people with disabilities as unthinking pawns of the “religious right”, a significant portion was because of the casual use of “the disabled”.
The short form of why this is a problem: People with disabilities/the disabled are not a collective group that all agree on anything. Asking what “the disabled” want or “the disabled” are doing is exactly like asking what “women” want and what “women” are doing. Women are individuals. Some of them are women with disabilities! We don’t all want the same things, but grouping everyone under the same umbrella, as though we are a Collective rather than Individuals With Opinions and Needs is… well, it’s pretty damned ableist, as well as being arrogant, ignorant, and irritating.
We’re still living in a society that makes a lot of casual assumptions about people with disabilities and their experiences. When people start talking about “the disabled” they are generally about to launch into some sort of stereotype – “the disabled are the pawns of the religious right”, for example. This boils down a lot of complicated people – people who have a wide variety of needs, wants, opinions, thoughts, and experiences – into one homogeneous group.
This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.
Saying “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” may seem like a pretty minor thing. It is, so it shouldn’t be that difficult. The reason for it, though, is that it can be that small reminder: that people with disabilities are people. That disabled people have opinions and thoughts and experiences and needs that are not universal to all people with disabilities. That we are, in fact, people, and it would be nice if we could be treated as such.
Language doesn’t change everything. It isn’t an end in and of itself. But it can be the first step in combating the sort of ableism that makes it okay for many people – including editors and writers for major and minor news sources – to dismiss us as pawns without thought.
See Also: Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media by meloukhia at Feministe.
Disability simulations and disability awareness days are condescending and patronizing towards people with disabilities. Instead of “raising awareness” about the “struggles” people with disabilities face, they end up raising awareness of how difficult it is to be a first-time wheelchair user, open bottles with socks on your hands, or navigate spaces with your eyes closed. They do not actually teach anyone anything about disability.
I suppose it would be wrong to end the post there.
First, a bit of context. Last week marked the third year that some Canadian Members of Parliament (federal representatives) – including my own, Megan Leslie, and the NDP party1 whip 2 Olivia Chow – spent a day on the Hill attempting to do their jobs while using a wheelchair.
Second, important information. This year event is co-sponsored by the Canadian Paraplegic Association as part of Spinal Cord Injury and CPA Awareness Month. While their website refers only to the 2009 event, I’m assuming the relevant information is similar:
Several Members of Parliament and Senators have spent one day in May in a wheelchair. They conducted their normal working day having to make time allowances for simple things like finding wheelchair accessible shuttles and washrooms. They were only allowed to leave their chair while in the House of Commons as there is only one wheelchair accessible spot on the floor for the Parliament Hill event co-sponsor the Honorable Mr. Steven Fletcher.
I think it’s clear that not every disabled person agrees with my assertions about disability simulations, but I have some very strong reasons for describing them they way I do. Some of those reasons are best demonstrated by Olivia Chow’s tweets throughout the day. [You can see this all in context at her twitter. The event took place on May 12. Ms Chow tweeted throughout the day. Ms Leslie also tweeted about her experience, complete with pictures.]
Olivia Chow’s tweets throughout the day really irritate me. She did a series of tweets about the barriers facing wheelchair-users in Ottawa: …lack of curb cuts, bumpy sidewalks, washrooms too small, tables w wide legs…; …hills, doors that don’t open automatically, heavy chairs, elevators shutting too quickly…; Most of these barriers can be overcome by better design, government that understand disability and kind pp willing to help.
Actually, Ms Chow, all over those barriers can be overcome through better design, and while it’s nice if a government “understands” disability, I would really rather they listened to people with disabilities instead.
What Ms Chow’s tweets did is emphasize that, both as an MP and as a former City Councillor for Toronto, she doesn’t trust people with disabilities to actually be telling her the truth about their experiences. Instead, she tweeted
I wish I had this wheelchair experience day while I was a city councillor as a lot of barriers are gov by municipal code. and Maybe I should work w the Canadian Paraplegic Asso …and challenge councillors to spend a day using wheelchairs.
Actually, Ms Chow, I have a better idea.
Why not challenge the City Councillors, and the MPs, and anyone else you know who has government power to talk to people with disabilities about what their needs are, instead of deciding that spending a day in a wheelchair gives you some special insight? (Especially egregious to me is that the nice people playing dress-up in their wheelchairs for a day could instead have asked Steven Fletcher, the Conservative MP for Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia, Manitoba, who is a full-time wheelchair user. He might be able to shed some light on issues of accessibility in Ottawa. Mr Fletcher does support this disability simulation, but this doesn’t actually prevent anyone in Parliament from asking him about it anyway.)
It really disappoints me to see the NDP participate in these so-called disability simulations rather than use their power to highlight the voices of actual people with disabilities when discussing their accessibility needs.
Canadians with disabilities campaign constantly for their voice. We don’t need Olivia Chow, or Megan Leslie, to go around for a day tweeting about how inaccessible Ottawa is. We need our elected representatives to actually listen to our concerns. We need them to take those concerns seriously, and present them to their Party – be it NDP, Liberal, Conservative, Bloq, or Green – and to our Government. We need politicians and policy makers to believe that our voices are the ones that define what our accessibility needs are, not a day-long experiment.
I know that going around for a day in a wheelchair gets attention and kudos from the currently non-disabled. I’d rather that attention be offered to the people who continue to be notably absent from our Houses of Government.
- NDP = New Democratic Party. They’re our more-left-of-center-than-the-Liberals party in Canada. In the UK, they’re like the LibDems, in Australia, I think they’re like the Labour Party (but I’m not sure) and in the US… well, in the US, they’re scary socialists who want universal healthcare and support unions and are pro-choice, so they’d be non-existent in your current political environment. ↩
- The party whip is the person in a political party who ensures that party members are present for key votes and that they vote in line with party policy. The Wikipedia entry looks pretty good. ↩
One of the fastest ways to make women with disabilities seem pathetic and worthless is to erase or ignore their lives. Why should the Feminist movement celebrate women like Helen Keller, when everyone knows that Keller’s entire contribution was she learned how to talk – and that was entirely Anne Sullivan’s work, after all.
This is, of course, completely untrue 1, but there was a concentrated effort to ensure that Keller’s accomplishments were ignored. “Radical Marxist” isn’t as nice a story as “deaf-blind woman overcomes”.
If you learned about Helen Keller in school at all, you probably learned the same pablum-esque story I did: Keller was a horrible brat of a child who screamed and kicked and was bad. Then, Anne Sullivan, that angelic woman, came along and, through her virtuous patience, finally got Keller to learn. She stuck Keller’s hand under the well water, and spelled “water” into her hand. And suddenly, Keller learned that “water” meant this stuff pouring over her hand. And then many years later she graduated from Radcliff College, and this is why all the students in my class should try their hardest, because look at how much Helen Keller accomplished, The End. 2
This idea of Keller is so pervasive that even books written about Keller in her lifetime – books that she wrote the introduction for – include the same story. To be vain and quote an essay I wrote last semester:
The only blind person who is given any voice or agency within the work [Ishbel Ross’ Journey Into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind] is Helen Keller, who wrote the forward for the book, and is presented as “[rising] above her triple handicap to become one of the best-known characters in the modern world.” … [D]espite dedicating a whole chapter to Keller, Ross makes no mention of Keller’s politics or activism, instead describing Keller’s grace, “agelessness”, and book collection.
No mention of her membership in the Wobblies 3. I guess that didn’t fit the narrative.
I learned about Helen Keller’s actual life story by reading the book Lies my Teacher Told Me. 4 It’s a book that’s a bit hard for me to evaluate properly because I went to school in Canada and it’s focused on American education and teaching. The section Keller appears in (cleverly titled “handicapped by history”) talks about hero-building and erasing things that add complications in our respected leaders. About Keller, Loewen writes:
Keller’s commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people’s opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller’s research was not just book-learning: “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it.”
At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity – this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input, and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller’s “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitation of her development.”
Keller recalled having met the editor: “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I Have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him” She went on: “On, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.” 5
Among other things, Keller helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, donated money to the NAACP, supported birth control, was part of the women’s suffrage movement, and spent time in Halifax. 6
When we talk about Women’s History – and I understand Women’s History month is in March in the US7, so that’s not too long from now – we are doing something wrong if we do not include the lives of women with disabilities. Helen Keller isn’t the only woman with disabilities who has been ignored, erased, or sanitized for public consumption – it happens over and over, to queer women, to women of colour, to women who are ‘marked’ as ‘not-mainstream’.
I think we can do better than this. I think we’re brave enough to not only confront that important women of our past participated in and encouraged others to participate in abuse, neglect, genocide of certain groups of women, but also brave enough to celebrate histories outside the mainstream.
- Well, not the bit about the water, but that it’s the sum total of Keller’s accomplishments ↩
- I think I’ve just described the plot of The Miracle Worker – another reason why I’m irritated that the show’s being put on. Ooh, let’s perpetuate the idea that Keller’s life began and ended at that water pump! ↩
- Industrial Workers of the World. They’re still around. ↩
- Loewen, James W. Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: Touchstone, 1995. ↩
- LMTTM, 22-23 ↩
- What? I like my city! She spoke at the closing ceremonies of the Nova Scotia School of the Deaf and Dumb. I’ve read her letters to the principal. I get kinda wibbly. Helen Keller was here! ↩
- It’s October in Canada. ↩
This wonderful headline came into my email yesterday.
This is a disability-centric blog, so yes, you can assume it’s about disability, and not class, or age, or immigration status, or ethnicity, or race. Those sorts of “overcoming adversity” stories get written all the time, as well, and are equally offensive, for many of the same reasons I’m about to lay out here.
I hate these stories.
I hate them because of who they’re written for. They’re not written so that blind children in Canada can be all “Hey! We’ve got a great athlete going into the Olympics, and he’s blind, just like me! Maybe I can be a world-class athlete, too!” (Because the Paralympians, who are also world-class athletes, don’t get much attention. 1) They’re not written so that blind adults can feel a bit of smug pride about having one of their own in the Olympic games to cheer for.
No no no, that would be silly. Everyone knows blind people don’t read the newspapers, and blind kids don’t learn about the Olympics! They’re all too busy leading sad lonely lives of darkness and misery! The only people who read newspapers are Nice Non-Disabled Folks who just need a feel good story about adversity.
Basically, framing this story as “overcoming adversity” rather than “Awesome Olympic Athlete (who is also blind!)” feeds into the SuperCrip story. When the only stories that your average non-disabled person reads about “the disabled” is this narrative, well– Annaham talked a bit about this in her post about SuperCrips over at Bitch:
Supercrip’s main function is to serve as inspiring to the majority while reinforcing the things that make this majority feel awesome about itself. In short: Supercrip provides a way for non-disabled folks to be “inspired” by persons with disabilities without actually questioning—or making changes to—how persons with disabilities are treated in society.
It also, of course, reinforces the stereotype that people with disabilities just need to try harder because anything is possible! Which we will now tell you by comparing all disabled people to an Olympic-caliber athlete!
Hey, able-bodied folks. Why the heck are you not overcoming adversity and becoming an Olympic-caliber athlete? It’s so easy, right? If you just “realize most of your limitations in life are self-imposed”, you, too can do anything!
- From reading the article, it seems like that’s the actual stereotype that Brian McKeever was hoping to overcome – that Paralympians aren’t real athletes. Sadly, that is not the actual focus of the report. It’s primarily about how amazing! it is that he might qualify for the Real Olympics. It even ends with this: “To me, it’s no surprise that he’s going to get a spot on the Olympic team,” Goldsack said. “You forget after a while that he has vision problems. He’s just one of the guys.” Well, yes, of course he’s one of the guys – he’s not one of the elephants, after all. Sheesh. ↩