Category Archives: anna rants

But is she taking her medication? Movies & Myths About Crazy Roommates

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!

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Poster for the upcoming film The Roommate. The tagline is 2,000 colleges. 8 million roommates. Which one will you get?

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.

The Canadian Government Is Going To Court So They Don’t Have To Make Web Content Accessible To Screen Readers

[Content Note: Not all of the links I have included in this piece have comments, but many of them do, and those comments are basically full of “Stupid disabled people wasting everyone’s time and energy by wanting the world to treat them like human beings” comments.]

If you’ve been following Canadian politics this week, you could very easily come away with the impression that the most significant – or perhaps even the only – thing going on with this week’s opening of the Federal Parliament was the Gun Registry Vote.

That there’s a federal court Charter challenge brought forth by Donna Jodhan arguing that blind Canadians are being discriminated against by the Federal Government for refusing to make their website content accessible to screen readers is not really getting a lot of attention. (Cripples these days! It’s like they don’t sell papers/make page views.)

A little bit of background information first. Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which went into effect in 1982 and is the Thing against which laws and the like must be “tested” in order to be considered actually legal in Canada. To give some lovely controversial rulings, the reason Canada has no abortion law is because it was found to violate the Charter’s guarantee to security of the person (and no law has since been passed) and it was found that refusing to include “homosexuals” in protections against discrimination violated Section 15, or the right to Equal Protection Before the Law, even though sexual orientation wasn’t included in Section 15.

Section 15 is the important one here:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Now, I Am Not A Lawyer, and it’s been about 10 years since I studied the Charter, so I’m going to leave that out there and not discuss my personal interpretations because they don’t matter. What matters is two things: 1) What the court says and 2) That the Federal Government is arguing that they shouldn’t have to be accessible to screen readers in court.

The latter is, of course, being read as Jodhan wasting tax payers money in a frivolous lawsuit, not the Federal Government for refusing to have accessible content.

From what I can tell, this is what’s going on: In 2004, Jodhan attempted to apply for government jobs online. However, the site wasn’t set up to allow screen-readers to access the site, so she was unable to do so. In 2006, she attempted to fill her Census out online, and again, the federal government website was not accessible to her screen reader.

On Tuesday [September 21], Jodhan will argue in federal court that her inability to apply for a position on the federal jobs website or complete the online version of the 2006 Census breached her equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

She will also argue that this violation and her ongoing inability to access the government’s online information and services constitute a breach against all blind and partially sighted Canadians, said Jodhan’s lawyer David Baker.

About 3 million Canadians have visual or other impairments that make it difficult to access the Internet.

The Federal Government is, in turn, is responding with “What, you think you should have a right to access the same information that everyone else can? Ha ha! Ha ha!”:

Internet access to government services and information is not a right guaranteed in law, the government says in its written submission to the court.

“Alternative channels available did allow (Jodhan) to access services and information independently, in a manner that respected her privacy and dignity,” it says.

With more than 120 government departments and agencies and more than 23 million web pages, “it is unlikely that the government’s web presence will ever be perfectly accessible to all,” it adds.

Frankly, if the Federal Government doesn’t think that their websites provide information in a timely fashion, and that access to that information isn’t something that they should prioritize, why are they bothering with them in the first place? And if they do think it’s important, why are they in essence arguing that “It’s important for most people, but not for the three million Canadians who won’t be able to access it?”

I support Donna Jodhan’s fight for equality of access to information for all Canadians. I hope you do, too. If so, I strongly encourage you to email your Member of Parliament and let them know. Perhaps if enough of us contact the government and let them know we value accessibility for Canadians with disabilities, they’ll start acting like we shouldn’t have to go to court just to get it.

This is the email I sent to my MP, who happens to be Megan Leslie, and cc:ed to the leader of the NDP. Please feel free to adapt it to send to your own MP. (This should give you their email address.)

Dear Megan,

I recently learned of Donna Jodhan’s Federal Court case, arguing that the Canadian Government must provide screen-reader accessible content on their websites, as reported in the Toronto Star (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/863379–blind-woman-says-federal-websites-discriminate-against-the-visually-impaired) and the CBC (http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/09/18/to-blind-accessible-feds.html) In light both Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Canada’s recent signing of the Declaration of Rights of Disabled Persons, I’m appalled that the Federal Government would waste tax payers’ dollars in arguing that 3 million Canadians should not have the ability to access government services online or apply for government jobs online.

In this day and age, it’s ridiculous for the government to argue that access to the internet is not necessary. According to the Toronto Star, government lawyers are arguing “Internet access to government services and information is not a right guaranteed in law”. While I agree that this is technically true, in refusing to provide this access, the government is arguing that blind and visually impaired Canadians should have less access to government services and information than Canadians who are sighted.

Megan, every day it is clearer to me how many societal barriers are put in place that prevent people with disabilities in Canada from full participation. The time and energy the federal government is frivolously spending in defending their lack of web accessibility could be far better put to use in bringing the government’s websites up to the same standards as those in other countries, standards that are reasonable to expect in the 21st Century.

This is such an important issue, and I hope that the NDP will work to bring awareness of it to Canadians, and encourage the federal government to stop fighting against people with disabilities, but fighting for them.

Thank you,

Anna P.
cc: Jack Layton

In The News: Toronto StarUPICBCGlobe & Mail

John Stossel Wants YOU! To Be Afraid of the ADA

Not being from the US, I had this idea in my head that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) must be awesome. I mean, come on! It’s been 20 years now! Ramps to every building, disability friendly policies, accessible washrooms in every hotel lobby! I get all starry-eyed just thinking about it.

People with disabilities who have actually been in the US are probably either rolling their eyes or giggling at my naivety.

In the last few weeks, I’ve read about airlines being fined for not following the ADA, despite repeated complaints from customers that they hadn’t been, continuing issues with post-secondary education, online content, and accessibility for students who are blind or otherwise vision-impaired (no mention of blind or visually impaired teachers) and students needing to sue in order to get attention to the fact that the new content delivery system was not accessible to them (again, no mention of blind or visually impaired teachers), the Attorney General of Massachusetts needing to step in to demand movie theater chains provide accessible content in all their theaters… The list goes on, while “advocates” tell people with disabilities not to sue because it upsets the non-disabled when they do.

And maybe those “advocates” have a point. Because even though one can find example after example after example of law suits – threatened or actually carried out – before businesses, universities, and even government offices will follow the ADA and “allow” people with disabilities the “rights” they’re guaranteed in the US, some folks still feel the need to produce opinion pieces claiming these lawsuits are frivolous and that the people who take them on are parasites (Content Warning: John Stossel).

Under the ADA, Olson notes, fairness does not mean treating disabled people the same as non-disabled people. Rather it means accommodating them. In other words, the law requires that people be treated unequally.

The law has also unleashed a landslide of lawsuits by “professional litigants” who file a hundred suits at a time. Disabled people visit businesses to look for violations, but instead of simply asking that a violation be corrected, they partner with lawyers who (legally) extort settlement money from the businesses.

Some disabled people have benefited from changes effected by the ADA, but the costs are rarely accounted for. If a small business has to lay off an employee to afford the added expense of accommodating the disabled, is that a good thing — especially if, say, customers in wheelchairs are rare? Extra-wide bathroom stalls that reduce the overall number of toilets are only some of the unaccounted-for costs of the ADA. And since ADA modification requirements are triggered by renovation, the law could actually discourage businesses from making needed renovations as a way of avoiding the expense.

I feel like I’ve taken apart aspects of this argument before, mostly because it seems the arguments get repeated over and over until one wants to make a Bingo Card and be done with it. But, to save me some keystrokes: Let’s Bust Some Myths: People with disabilities just want to sue the world into compliance (there’s a transcript to the video linked there in the comments 1), Needs Are Not Special and Accommodation is not “Special Treatment” (written by s.e.), Why Being Nice Isn’t Enough (which is meant to address the “just ask for accommodations!” part), “Bad Cripple” – you know, the fakers who are just scamming the incredibly generous disability system for the huge cheques they can rake in – oh, and we’ve got multiple posts just here at FWD about workplace accommodations being treated like a huge drama and a favour that doesn’t need to be granted rather than a right, people who work with actual people with disabilities assuming all people on prescription drugs are dangerous addicts, and how the opposite of disabled is not employable.

I think my favourite bit of the quote above, though, is the “If a small business has to lay off an employee to afford the added expense of accommodating the disabled, is that a good thing — especially if, say, customers in wheelchairs are rare?” I love that sentence, I want to cross stitch it on a little sampler and hang it up on my wall.

A Very Short List Of Businesses You Are Unlikely To See Wheelchair Users In:

1. Ones that don’t have a ramp to allow access to wheelchair users.

Seriously, that’s the basic criteria for shopping in this one-wheelchair-user household. We choose our restaurants, our coffee shops, our bookstores, our yarn stores, our sex toy shops, our grocery stores, our housing, our favourite tea place all on whether or not the shops themselves allow wheelchair users to enter. We don’t even go to one of the malls in the city because half the shops are too crowded to allow wheelchair user, so yes, John Stossel, if your business doesn’t accommodate wheelchair users chances are you don’t have many customers who are wheelchair users.

(Gentle reader, I cannot believe I just typed that sentence 20 years after the ADA passed into law.)

Honestly, that John Stossel is paid actual money to write opinion pieces that amount to “cripples are just sue-happy freaks, the ADA is why the Exxon oil spill happened, and service animals like snakes are ruining it for everyone else” – especially while service animals are constantly being turned away illegally – is especially irritating when we’re still fighting for something as simple as the right to be paid minimum wage for our work.

  1. Back when I wrote this I felt like I was making a very witty point by not “choosing” to be “nice” and putting the transcript up – if you wait for people to be “nice” then you wait a long time! I wouldn’t do that now because I think it’s shitty to make people sit around and wait so I can score some sort of political point.

AWP: “The Disabled”

  • 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.

Long Version:

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.

Why Don’t Non-Disabled People Trust People With Disabilities Anyway?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

An Open Letter to Ms Magazine Blog

Dear Ms Magazine Blog:

My name is Anna. I’m what some people in North America would call a person with a disability, and some people in the UK would call a disabled person. My husband, many of my friends, all of my co-bloggers, and a large number of our commenters are also people with disabilities/disabled people.

Your blogger, Carol King, would instead refer to us as “the disabled”, and as pawns of the religious right. In her blog post Kevorkian and the Right to Choose , she wrote:

The “right-to-lifers” enlisted the disabled in their cause when they cautioned that allowing people to choose to die would soon become their “duty to die.”

I’m pretty angry about that. Not offended, Ms Magazine, angry. You see, I’m really tired of “the disabled” being treated like we’re unthinking masses. I’m especially tired of the feminist movement – you know, one that allegedly wants equal rights for all people, including women with disabilities – doing this. It makes me angry because I’m a feminist as well as a woman as well as a person with a disability as well as someone who is not the pawn of anyone, thank you very much.

Some people with disabilities support the right to die. Others do not. Others do in some cases and not in others. Each of us has come to the conclusions we have because we are reasoning individuals. Gosh, some of us are even feminists who use a feminist lens to come to our decisions, regardless of which of the many places on that particular spectrum of opinion we find ourselves.

People with disabilities deserve better treatment than you have given them. We are not a throw-away line so you can score some sort of points. We are people, and I’m appalled that a feminist blog like Ms would publish something that would treat us as otherwise.

Frankly, I am so fucking tired of this shit. I’m tired of smiling while feminist organisations treat people with disabilities like they’re afterthoughts and problems to be solved. Like we’re just pawns in politics, like we need to be appeased but never spoken to or considered, like we’re too angry or not angry enough, like we have to push this fucking rock of dis/ableism uphill while you – our “sisters” – stand by and politely look away.

Do you remember Beijing, Ms Magazine? You’ve talked about it a lot lately. You know what I know about Beijing? I know the accessibility tent was inaccessible to people with disabilities. [transcript follows]

“We will achieve our rights and the respect we deserve as women with disabilities.” “Because the issues of women with disabilities have often been excluded, the goal this year was to make sure the concerns of disabled women were addressed.” Oh, hell, just watch the whole damned thing – it’s subtitled – and see the commitment feminists made to women with disabilities. Ask yourself, seriously, Ms Magazine, why your new blog has decided not to talk much about women with disabilities. “No woman who attends this conference should be able to leave Beijing without thinking about the rights of women with disabilities.” Do you?

You know what? If that’s something you can’t do, let me sum it up:

Nothing about us without us.

You wanna talk “about” “the disabled”? How about talking to us? How about letting us talk for ourselves?

How about treating us – people with disabilities – the way you would like women like yourselves to be treated? As though we have some understanding of our own experiences, our own opinions, our own thoughts. As though our thoughts do not belong to anyone but ourselves?

As though we are thinking beings?

Again, my name is Anna. I, like you, am a woman, and I am also a person with a disability. And we deserve better from you.

Sincerely,

Anna.

Please note: This thread is meant to be about the continued marginalization of people with disabilities in the Feminist Movement. I won’t be approving any comments about Kevorkian or related discussions.
Continue reading An Open Letter to Ms Magazine Blog

Oh Canada: This week in Canada & Disability

It’s been an interesting week or so in Canada regarding issues around disability. “Interesting” here means hit and miss.

I could, for example, direct you to the coverage of the Paralymic Games, but that site appears to be inaccessible to screen readers. It’s very busy, and has a lot of flash on it. There’s an audio slide show – the first I’ve ever come across – but you need to download something in order to run the audio.

So, hit and miss there, I guess.

Of course, then we get this story: No sugar-coating for disability exhibit: Co-curator’s trip out west parallels struggle to overcome obstacles in Out from Under

For disability rights activist Catherine Frazee, the personal overlaps with the political even when she doesn’t intend it.

That happened with Frazee’s recent journey to Vancouver from Toronto for Out From Under, a unique exhibition on the social history of disability in Canada.

As one of its three curators, she felt it was important to be here for the exhibition’s opening during the Paralympic Winter Games.

Frazee, the director of Ryerson’s Institute for Disability Studies, can’t fly for medical reasons having to do with living with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic neuromuscular disease characterized by the degeneration of the motor neurons. When she travels, she is accompanied by an attendant and Patricia Seeley, her life partner.

The only option for her was to take the train.

Frazee was willing to make sacrifices to travel out west, such as sleeping in her electric wheelchair. She can’t be separated from her wheelchair, which is uniquely customized to her body’s needs. At times, for example, she has to tilt it slightly back to help with her breathing.

When she contacted Via Rail, she was told that she and her wheelchair had to travel separately.

Of course she was. *headdesk*

The exhibit itself sounds amazing and I wish I could see it. But it’s telling to me that in my country, where politicians regularly tell me they really care about the needs of people with disabilities, it’s impossible for Catherine Frazee to travel to Vancouver. Ultimately, she and her partner traveled through the US, where the Americans with Disabilities Act, as poor as it may be, still required that there be train cars that Frazee be able to use.

Or another hit and a miss: Promoting rights of disabled new foreign policy focus: Cannon

Promoting the rights of disabled people around the world will become a key foreign policy focus for Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said at the United Nations Thursday.

Cannon made the declaration after delivering Canada’s ratification of the world body’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Awwww. Isn’t that awesome?

Meanwhile our Prime Minister held a TalkCanada event that was inaccessible to blind or partially sighted people.

Yesterday morning Prime Minister Stephen Harper performed a first, by being the first Canadian Prime Minister to have his remarks streamed live through YouTube. Before and after the PM’s speech, and up until Sunday at 1:00pm ET, Canadians can login to the Talk Canada YouTUbe page to submit and vote on questions, which the PM will answer in another live stream on Tuesday.

As a completely blind Canadian and an Information and Communications Technology Accessibility Consultant (I help make information systems work for persons with disabilities), I take exception to the PM using technologies such as YouTube and Google Moderator (used for the questions and voting). These technologies were poorly accessible to me, and to other blind and partially sighted Canadians, including Derek Wilson who wrote about the barriers he faced. This is not the way that things need to be, it would have been very possible, should the PM have cared, to make the Talk Canada event easily accessible to a much wider range of Canadians, including the blind and visually impaired.

[I also have no idea if the actual videos will be subtitled, Signed, or a transcript provided.]

Oh, and Canada continues to refuse immigrants when family members have disabilities. The only ‘hit’ there is that we’re talking about it, I guess, since it’s been going on forever.

I’m frustrated. Politicians, business owners, school officials, everyone tells me that they really care about the needs of people with disabilities. They often do grand gestures: Ooh, we’ll show highlights from the Paralympic Games! We’ll agree that yes, we’re going to support the needs and rights of people with disabilities in other countries! We’re going to put in a Student Accessibility Services Office (because all people with disabilities on campus are students) and that will solve all the problems!

What we won’t do, apparently, is ensure that people with disabilities in Canada can get from Nova Scotia to Vancouver with minimal fuss and drama, like the currently non-disabled can. We won’t discuss how inaccessible politicians are to people with disabilities. We will express disdain that the laws in Ontario now require universities to be accessible to students before students spend months or even years self-advocating. We will approve bursaries for students purchasing equipment that helps them write their essays and do their school work in February – 6 months into the Academic year.

Oh Canada. Please do better.

I’m not here for your inspiration

I think I upset one of the newer employees at my favourite tea shop today. Most of the staff are used to my cynical reactions to newspaper discussions of how inspiiiiiiiiiiring people with disabilities are at this point.

But let me begin at the beginning.

Actually, no, let me begin with something important, since recent events have told me one cannot be too careful.

There is a certain way news media prefers to talk about people with disabilities. They like to tell our stories in a way that’s “inspiring”, that’s about making non-disabled people feel better about stuff. “Oh, look at how brave that person is, being all alive and stuff despite having a disability! I would rather be dead! That person/their parents/their loved ones are so brave and inspiring! I will now put issues of accessibility and disability out of my mind, because I have been inspired!”

These stories aren’t really about people with disabilities. They’re about making currently non-disabled people feel they know something, that they’ve been touched, that their lives could be suffering and badness, but look how lucky we all are. Look at the plucky crippled person, and be inspired. [This is, of course, why Helen Keller is reduced to “hand in water” stories.]

There are, of course, reasons why people with disabilities and their families participate in these stories, and I certainly don’t blame them. I know if someone offered to interview… wait, I’ve been interviewed a few times now about disability, and I did leap at the chance. I don’t think that people who are interviewed for these stories are doing anything wrong. They’re talking about their lives, and describing their experiences. No, it’s the way that these things are spun, the words being used by the reporters to fill in the gaps, that is the problem.

The tendency is so very very wide spread that Haddayr (with the help of Codeman) made a bingo card for us all:

Description follows

Description written by Haddayr:
Are you writing an article that profiles or even tangentially involves a disabled person? Make it easy on yourself: string together these words and phrases with a few voyeuristic references to the person’s body parts, and call it a day!

She didn’t let her disability stop her!
Differently Abled/Handi-capable/Challenged/Some other twee or awkward phrase
Forced to use [mobility device]
Thought she would never get to [some activity most of us never get to do]
Courageous battle
He relies on [friends/a guide dog. No fair using electricity!]
Confined to a wheelchair
Then tragedy struck/her dreams were shattered/the unimaginable happened
. . . wants to help others [the ‘bless him’ is inferred]
Will never again see his childrens’ faces/hear them say ‘I love you’ canoe the boundary waters/run a marathon
Can only communicate through [communication device]
Cheerful/ Never let it get her down/ Positive attitude
Free Space:
BRAVE & INSPIRATIONAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Through the miraculous assistance of [something completely non-miraculous]
She refused to give up/give in/succumb
Defying overwhelming odds
She ‘suffers from’ [impairment]
If you saw her sitting down/lying still/riding the bus, you would never know that she has a disability…
[insert some pseudoscience]
Determination
Most of us could never imagine [horrific impairment] happening to us, but…
Every day she has to [take some medication/do some physical therapy]
Special
He has overcome his disability!
. . . proving you can achieve anything if you really try!

So, let’s go back to my story.

I haven’t been following anything to do with the Olympics for reasons I won’t go into here, but I knew exactly what was going on when I glanced at Saturday’s Globe & Mail and saw this splashed across the front:

A Different Victory: When Alex Bilodeau’s brother cheered his gold, the triumph went more than one way. The skier and the painter find inspiration in each other – and neither one accepts limits. Ian Brown travels to the intimate heart of a family.

“Oh gosh!” I said to Don, in my overly chirpy sarcastic voice. “It’s going to be an inspiring crip story, I just know it! Quick, let us purchase this fine newspaper so we can be inspired!”

Poor dude behind the counter proceeded to tell me how inspiiiiiiiirng he found “the brother of the guy who won gold”, to which my response was… less so. “Inspiring crip stories irritate the fuck out of me.”

You know what would inspire me, gentle readers? Curb cuts being cleared of snow so Don & I could get across the street without having to go three blocks out of way first. But I guess when you’re a bitter, cynical, angry person who just hates fun, that’s what you get.

Sadly for all of us, Ian Brown’s articles don’t seem to appear on the Globe & Mail’s website (except perhaps behind the paywall), so I can’t let you read the inspiriiiiiiing story of Frédéric Bilodeau, but I can show you a BINGO card that Don & I filled out while we read it.

Description follows

Description: As above, but with the following squares circled:
Differently Abled/Handi-capable/Challenged/Some other twee or awkward phrase
Forced to use [mobility device]
Then tragedy struck/her dreams were shattered/the unimaginable happened
Will never again see his childrens’ faces/hear them say ‘I love you’ canoe the boundary waters/run a marathon
Cheerful/ Never let it get her down/ Positive attitude
Free Space: BRAVE & INSPIRATIONAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
She refused to give up/give in/succumb
If you saw her sitting down/lying still/riding the bus, you would never know that she has a disability…
Determination
Special
He has overcome his disability!

Of course, what Frédéric Bilodeau’s story has actually managed to inspire is awesome comments at the Globe & Mail like this one:

Proud for so many reasons

Alexandre Bilodeau has provided something more than his magnificent gold performance (Gold Comes Home – Feb. 15). He has provided an example of the role that individuals with a disability play inspiring us as they overcome their challenges.

Thank you, Alex and Frédéric.

Brian Smith, Toronto

Mr Smith, with all due respect, we are not here to be your thrice-damned inspirations thank you very much. Be inspired! Lobby the Canadian government to provide funding for all universities to be fully accessible to people with disabilities! That would help lots of people with disabilities overcome their challenges!

The point of this post isn’t “here I am, talking about an article you can’t read, and being as sarcastic as possible, aren’t I witty?”. It’s actually to talk seriously about the way disabled people are written about. We’re allowed to be inspiring stories of overcoming adversity – and often those stories focus on the difficulties our loved ones have, and how hard it can be to have a disabled person in your life – or we can be a passive victim of crime. That’s it.

If new media actually presented people with disabilities as we actually are… well, that, gentle readers, would be actual news.

ETA: facesofcathy found that Ian Brown’s article’s up over at CTV. (Why? I don’t know.) Check it out: The Bilodeaus: Elusive truths from an unforgettable family. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison of the text (I think the headings are different?) but it look pretty close.

Check out the comments if you like to headdesk over how inspiiiiiiiired people find these types of stories.

Feminist Icons

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.

  1. Well, not the bit about the water, but that it’s the sum total of Keller’s accomplishments
  2. I think I’ve just described the plot of The Miracle Workeranother 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!
  3. Industrial Workers of the World. They’re still around.
  4. Loewen, James W. Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: Touchstone, 1995.
  5. LMTTM, 22-23
  6. 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!
  7. It’s October in Canada.

Anything is possible, except an end to these sorts of stories

This wonderful headline came into my email yesterday.

Calgarian In Line For Berth At Vancouver Games; Triumph shows anything possible

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!

  1. 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.