Category Archives: blaming

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

Yes, you read that title right.

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

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

Just for reference, here is the dreaded cow hoodie:

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

(Image via Popehat)

Clearly a menace to public decency and birthday cakes everywhere!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat Hatred and Ableism Collide in Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Hit: The Relationship Between Disability and Poverty, Part 1,293,495,594 in a continuing series

Did you know that being poor puts people at greater risk for disability? And that people with disabilities are more likely to be poor? And that there’s a very strong relationship between poverty and disability, the worst kind of vicious circle? Well, you probably do, especially because we talk about it a lot here, but here’s another study confirming that, from Wayne State University (bolding mine):

Dr. Bowen and Dr. Gonzalez said the study suggests that early socioeconomic conditions play a role in a person’s risk for disability that persists throughout the course of their life.

With much of the available literature on disability focused on the role of mid-life diseases, Dr. Bowen and Dr. Gonzalez took a unique life-course approach to the topic. “This study set out to determine if early life conditions contribute to the risk for developing a disability, and if so, what those risk factors are,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

The study utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study that followed more than 18,000 Americans 51 and older over the course of eight years. Using generalized linear latent and mixed-model commands for their statistical analysis, they examined the early-life parameters of parental education ranging from zero to 17 years, as well as the father’s occupation when the respondent was 16 years old. They factored in respondents’ social mobility — education, income and wealth — and health behaviors like smoking, drinking, exercising and body weight, throughout their lives, examining whether these factors mediated the effect of early life conditions. Analyses adjusted for the predisposition for certain forms of disability caused by characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity and disease, and tracked the changes from baseline measurements over the course of the study.

Dr. Bowen and Dr. Gonzalez said the study suggests that early socioeconomic conditions play a role in a person’s risk for disability that persists throughout the course of their life.

Our research strengthens the argument that poor conditions during childhood can put you on a path of heightened risk for health problems,” said Dr. Bowen, now a patient-safety research fellow at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla. “This isn’t to say that people who grow up with certain socioeconomic risk factors are going to be disabled, but it does provide evidence they will be at a disadvantage. This is most likely due to the lowered access to good nutrition and to important health information characteristic of people living in poverty.”

(Note: I can’t say I care for the implication that this is an education issue, which implies that it’s caused by volitional choices of people in poverty. I think it’s much more accurate to look at the constellation of socioeconomic factors which are strong determinants of health outcomes – stables and habitable affordable housing, financial and locational access to nutrition, and health care access – all of which are systemic issues, rather than individual actions. But the overall conclusions are, well, exactly what we already knew.)

Quoted: Audre Lorde

The supposition that one [group] needs the other’s acquiescence in order to exist prevents both from moving together as self-defined persons toward a common goal. This kind of action is a prevalent error among oppressed peoples. It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.

— “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” (1978), in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (The Crossing Press, 1984)

Kids these days! The “Generation Y” panic, privilege, and erasure

Recently, I read this odd article, penned by Judith Warner, in the New York Times–one in a stream of many that detail how excessively awful the current generation of young people (read: young workers) is at putting its collective nose to the grindstone, sucking it up, and generally not acting like a bunch of brats, or something.

Many of us have heard about, or come into contact with, some of these bright young things. They are heralded — or, more commonly, blasted — as naive, entitled, too optimistic, and over-confident. In many of these articles, their numerous faults are listed: They don’t know how to dress professionally! They expect to march into the workplace of their choice and immediately start making a six figure-salary! They think they are perfect! They want praise all of the time! (Does no one who writes these sorts of articles stop to consider that many human beings want praise when they complete a task to the best of their abilities?) They have tattoos, dyed hair, and iPods! EVERYBODY PANIC, because the American workplace is apparently going to be dragged down by Generation Y’s entitlement, narcissism and laziness! This narrative, however, seems to apply mostly to a very specific subset of the population (and even the picture that accompanies the NYT article reinforces this): young, able-bodied, middle to upper-middle class, college-educated white people.

This erases, or conveniently ignores, a hell of a lot of folks who are not young, abled, middle/upper-middle class, and white. It erases young workers who may not have had the “expected” educational opportunities (such as college), or who had to take more than the expected four years to finish their degree, or who did not finish school. It erases people whose parents or family members may not have been quite so “involved” in their education, or in their lives at all. Of course, it also erases young people with disabilities — both those who cannot work, and those who want to work but who may be bumping up against various narratives such as that of the “entitled” Generation Y kid. Some of us have psychological issues or disabilities that put us completely at odds with the “overly-confident” and “entitled” stereotype that apparently befits the current generation — because we cannot stop worrying despite the fact that we are supposed to be totally optimistic and confident all of the time, always thinking that the roads leading to our perfect job will be lined with rainbows, fluffy bunnies, and gold.

Some of us have physical disabilities, chronic pain, or chronic illnesses that prevent us from working 40-hour weeks (or more); asking for accommodations or disclosing our condition(s), we fear, may make us look “entitled,” or like we do not want to put in the time necessary to work our way up — even if this is not the case. The fact is that many people, and many young people, with disabilities are already at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to the labor market and making a living. Not only are many people with disabilities, at least in the U.S., more likely to face lengthy stretches of unemployment and/or live in poverty regardless of age, but many face additional hostility, discrimination, and unreasonable demands, both in the workplace and from society at large because of their disabilities.

While I am not saying that these over-entitled Generation Y-ers don’t exist (I’ve had run-ins with quite a few of them, myself), I am struck by the fact that the narrative surrounding them is so dependent upon erasing or ignoring certain people whose bodies and experiences do not fit the “expected” attitudes about labor that have been traditionally upheld by American culture. Many of these attitudes, furthermore, rely heavily on binaries that reinforce who “counts” and who does not: You either work full-time, or you’re lazy. You’re willing to be mistreated in the workplace and do whatever it takes “for the job,” or you’re a wimp. Suck it up, or go home. If you’re not making enough money to live on or are poor, you just aren’t working hard enough. If you ask for “accommodations,” you’re asking for too much — just do your job! You have to work hard to “make it,” and if you don’t work hard enough, it’s your fault. If you don’t like your job or face daily mistreatment, you can always quit and find another one, right? But if you can’t, it’s your fault, and why did you quit that job, anyway? These attitudes surrounding work affect people with disabilities in a wide variety of age groups and generational cohorts, and this is a crucial part of why they are so important to critically question and examine.

The message for Generation Y, in general, may be “Get over yourself,” but the message for those who do not fit the characteristics of the “average” Generation Y worker is more severe — and ultimately more dire.

[Cross-posted at ham blog]

Where About Us But Without Us Leads

On 1 June 2010, E. Fuller Torrey MD wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times, “Make Kendra’s Law Permanent.” Dr Torrey is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit group whose sole purpose is to lobby states for the passage of so-called assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) laws like Kendra’s Law in New York and Laura’s Law in California. The New York law is named after Kendra Webdale, who was killed by Andrew Goldstein in 1999.

Dr Torrey and TAC will tell you Mr Goldstein had untreated schizophrenia. They’ll tell you people like him are dangerous, they’ll tell you people like Mr Goldstein are often so sick they don’t understand they’re ill and need treatment, and they’ll tell you they know best. They won’t tell you that Mr Goldstein had been seeking treatment desperately and been turned away repeatedly.[1. Source: Time Magazine, “Will the Real Andrew Goldstein Take the Stand?”] Continue reading Where About Us But Without Us Leads

Ableist Word Profile: Crazy (to describe political viewpoints or positions)

  • 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.

We just ran an ableist word profile on the word “crazy,” written by the lovely guest poster RMJ, who discussed how the term is used in a variety of contexts and situations. This follow up is sparked by what I’ve seen as a recent resurgence here in the United States in use of the term in a political context, to describe or characterize an individual with a particular set of political views. Every time I see it, it grates on me, and I thought it was worth a focused discussion here at FWD.

Before I begin, I should make clear that I personally identify as “crazy” sometimes. Not always, but when the depression gets overwhelming and I can tell my thoughts are getting tangled, or especially when I’m in the grips of a manic episode. (More accurately, I identify as a “crazy bitch,” but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ve also been consistently described by others as “crazy,” in contexts ranging from affectionate to outright hostile and dismissive. So when I see this term tossed around in the media, it feels personal to me.

And it’s been tossed around a whole lot lately, largely by traditionally liberal or progressive media outlets. I first started seeing it show up at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s blog that combines “breaking news, investigative reporting and smart analysis.” Marshall doesn’t mention it on the site, but it also contains a big heaping spoonful of ableism with that political analysis. Here are some recent examples:

This is just a sampling of the posts with headlines including the term “crazy” and is not at all comprehensive. Even within this sample, we can see that the term is used to describe viewpoints with which TPM does not agree (like revising history textbooks or arguing, like Gaffney, that the Pentagon logo indicates a secret plan to subject the United States to Shariah law) and thinks are biased, bigoted, racist, or otherwise offensive (such as the protests about Obama speaking to schoolchildren or the racial laws in Arizona).  None of the posts, though, engage or critique those viewpoints or speakers in a substantive way – simply describing them as “crazy” is seen as self-evident and no further discussion is needed to demonstrate these views or people should be excluded from reasonable political discussion.

There’s been an even more recent explosion of use of the term to describe Rand Paul and Paul’s views, after he won a Republican congressional primary in Kentucky.[1. An earlier version of this post had stated, in error, that Dr Paul won the Republican congressional primary in Virginia. Thanks, Katie, for the catch.] Paul favors the free market and freedom of private business, to the extent that he seems to believe that anti-discrimination laws are an unreasonable restriction on businesses. Now I am no fan of Mr. Paul – and wrote about my problems with him previously on FWD – but that doesn’t mean I approve of political cartoons like this:

A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.
A political cartoon portrays Rand Paul as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Added to the original Tenniel illustration are a 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, a Rand Paul button, and an I Heart BP button.

To my mind, characterizing Rand as “mad” or “crazy” and not saying anything further is a lazy way to dismiss him and his ideology without actually having to engage with it. There is a lot to say about Rand’s ideas: how prioritizing private business over human rights preserves existing institutional structures that will continue to perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other oppression if not checked by a larger force like the government; how the line between private and public realms is a lot fuzzier and less distinct than Paul implies it to be; that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and BP’s seemingly inadequate safety protections and near complete inability to effectively respond are strong indications that business will prioritize profits over public goods like environmental safety; how an attitude of business before anything else will influence Rand’s views on everything from the minimum wage to immigration policy to climate control to internet neutrality. Those are all important discussions to have, discussions where we can’t assume that everyone in the audience will come down on the same side, but calling him “crazy” or “mad” and leaving it at that elides all of those complicated issues. Even more strongly, it implies that those discussions are not even worth having because it is so evident that the views or person being dismissed are wrong and absurd and laughable.

In Newsweek, Conor Friesdorf made an interesting observation about the policies and people who are dismissed as “crazy”:

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. The “kookiest” policy is arguably farm subsidies for corn, sugar, and tobacco—products that people ought to consume less, not more.

These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.

What I conclude from that is that the media doesn’t consistently use “crazy” and other ableist terms to refer to absurd policies or those that lack rational support, but instead reserves those terms for people outside of mainstream politics. Which in turn implies that the term is used primarily to further marginalize and dismiss people who don’t fit expectations of what a politician is or what are common or popular political arguments. To me, this is even more evidence that the implicit subtext of terming a person or policy “crazy” is “shut up and go away, or start blending in better.” Which, again, is exactly the message leveled at people with mental illness when they’re called “crazy” or “loony” or “unhinged” or any number of synonyms.

This selective usage is even more reason the term “crazy” shouldn’t be used in the political context – partly because it’s a lazy out for commentators who refuse to engage with the actual policy issues or political ideas being proposed on a substantive level, and partly because it fiercely underlines and reinforces marginalization and dismissal of people with mental illness. It reminds me that when people call me “crazy,” what they really mean is “stop existing in my consciousness – either disappear or become normal.” To see progressive writers and organizations rely on the marginalization of people with mental illness to score easy points against unpopular politicians is upsetting not only because of their perpetuation of ableism, but also because it puts me in the extremely uncomfortable position of defending people like Palin and Paul against this kind of criticism.

Science Says ‘Go Outside and You’ll Feel Better!’

I recently came across a Reuters story on a University of Essex study discussing the impact of spending time outside on mental health. ‘Five minutes in the green can boost self esteem,’ the title says. Now, this is actually a study supported by my own anecdata: When I go outside, I do indeed experience a mood improvement, and I know a lot of other folks who feel the same way. So this post isn’t about picking this study apart.

It’s about looking at the framing of the study, because that’s what I think is interesting.

What the study showed is that spending five minutes in a green area, especially if it has water, can have mental health benefits for people, although young folks and people with mental illness experienced the most significant changes. And the way I’m seeing the study reported, the burden is being placed solely on the individual. You need to go outside. You need to spend more time in green spaces. You need to make improvements in your mental health. It only takes five minutes! Get with the program! (P.S. It would be nice if you exercised while you were at it because otherwise you might get fat.)

Hmmm.

Are there maybe some obstacles to spending time in green spaces? Let’s explore some of them, shall we?

What about accessibility? Let’s assume you’re a wheelchair user living in an urban area. Can you access a park via public transit? If you get to a park, are the paths navigable? Are you a scooter user? Is it possible for you to get to a park on your own, or do you need a buddy to manhandle your scooter onto a bus for you since a lot of buses are poorly equipped for scooters? Do you use a service animal? Are you going to get hassled on your way to/while in the park?

What about time? If you have odd working hours or you’re caring for children or you’re relying on public transit in a city with poor transit? How are you going to make the time to get outside if the nearest park is a 30 minute trip?

What if you have multiple chemical sensitivity and a park is using pesticides?

What if you have social anxiety disorder that makes it difficult to leave your home?

What if a park is in an unsafe area?

What if…?

The framing of this study kind of exemplifies the medical model of disability; it’s all about things you, the individual, need to do. You are disabled by yourself, not by the world around you. Here in the US, there’s an especially strong emphasis on personal responsibility that I see coming up in disability narratives a lot. It’s that emphasis that says we should cut funding to social programs for people with disabilities because, well, they should take responsibility for themselves! It’s that emphasis that says that accommodations are too much of an obstacle for businesses because, well, people with disabilities should be able to sort it out on their own! The burden is on the individual to figure it out.

What I highlighted when I discussed some of the obstacles to ‘just’ getting into a park for five minutes is the social model. These are failings of society, not you as a person. Being told to ‘just’ go to the park for five minutes a day isn’t enough. You may already be a fan of trees and green spaces and be unable to get to the park because society has decided to make that difficult for you. What we should be concluding from this study is not ‘hey, people should go to the park more!’ but ‘hey, we should make it possible for people who want to go to the park to do that! That would be awesome!’

And what the reports I’ve seen on this study remind me of, over and over, is that we live in a society where disability is deemed to be your fault and your responsibility. Accommodation is not viewed as a social responsibility, full inclusion of people with disabilities is not regarded as a priority, and making spaces welcoming and friendly to as many human beings as possible simply isn’t important. What is important appears to be looking for yet another way to remind people that their disabilities are their own responsibility and that if they just did more maybe they wouldn’t be so disabled.

If you’re the park-going type, what obstacles do you experience in your community when it comes to accessing parks and other green spaces?

Social Campaigns Based on Ableism

Via Information Aesthetics, a blog I read because i am obsessed with data visualizations and charts and graphs, I read about a new campaign designed by “eco-design consultancy Giraffe Innovation.” They’ve created a website where a user creates a humanoid form to represent themselves. The site then tracks the person’s environmental impact – things like home energy use and waste creation – and represents their individual environmental impact by modifying the humanoid form that represents them.

It’s when we get to the specifics of how the representative form is modified that I start to get uncomfortable. As the site describes:

The website shows the environmental impact of a person by using humanoid forms with body parts distorted relative to the environmental impact of common activities. Each part of the body is allocated to a different type of environmental burden: the feet correspond to the transport footprint, the hands to home energy, mouth to water, stomach to consumption, bottom to waste and the eyes and head to electrical consumer products.

Here is a sample image demonstrating some of the distortions:

A group of humanoid figures, seemingly sculpted from grey clay. The center figure is a "normal" man. The surrounding figures have distended bellies, exaggerated hands and feet, larger skulls, and protruding lips.
A group of humanoid figures, seemingly sculpted from grey clay. The center figure is a "normal" man. The surrounding figures have distended bellies, exaggerated hands and feet, larger skulls, and protruding lips.

The whole purpose of the website, the underlying assumption that makes this a meaningful exercise to convince people to reduce their environmental impact, is that when people see these “distorted” human forms that represent themselves, they will be so horrified that it will motivate them to reduce their impact so they can again be “normal.”

There’s got to be a way that we can encourage and motivate people to be more environmentally aware without drawing from, relying on, and reinforcing these ideas about “normal” bodies.

The full site for the project is available here.

Go educate yourself (please!)

Image description: A shocked-looking cat perches on a chair, staring straight at the camera. Text reads: Concerned cat is just looking out for your best interests when she says that your tone might be alienating well-intentioned potential allies who just need a little polite education.

[Image via Tlönista in this comment thread at Flip Flopping Joy. Description: A shocked-looking cat perches on a chair, staring straight at the camera. Text reads: “Concerned cat is just looking out for your best interests when she says that your tone might be alienating well-intentioned potential allies who just need a little polite education.”]

One unfortunately common response to marginalized people saying that there’s a problem is the “Educate me NOW” demand from “well-intentioned allies” who totally mean well, but they just lack education on these issues and so just can’t understand what the fuss is all about.

I am using the following example not to appropriate from the awesome anti-racist work that Jessica Yee and the fabulous Racialicious crew (and countless bloggers around the web!) do on a daily basis, but rather for two specific reasons: 1.) I have already talked about my personal relationship with this oft-used derailing tactic rather extensively, and could probably talk about it ’til I’m blue in the face; 2.) anti-racist activism and disability activism are not completely separate, independent social justice strains — many of us who are involved in these activist projects are, in fact, fighting similar (though NOT completely analogous) battles. For me, claiming an identity as a feminist disability activist has entailed doing my best to fight racism and white privilege alongside fighting for disability rights. This is because disability and race intersect in many, many ways — sort of like how disability and gender, and race and gender, intersect. In other words, this is not just a disability issue, or a feminist issue,  or a trans* issue, or an anti-racist issue; it affects many of us in the social justice blogosphere, if in differing ways.

The “educate me now because I want to learn, marginalized person!” response played out, yet again, fairly recently in the comments to a post on Bitch authored by Indigenous activist and writer Jessica Yee. [Full disclosure: Some of us here at FWD guest blogged for Bitch as the Transcontinental Disability Choir.] Jessica had written a post on white hipster/hippie appropriation of native dress and why it’s not only ridiculous, but racist. Makes sense, right? (If it doesn’t, you might be at the wrong blog. Or go read this. I don’t know.) Overall, this piece seems like it would fit right in on a website for a magazine that is dedicated to showcasing “feminist response[s] to pop culture.”

And then the comments started rolling in, and so did the “but you have a responsibility to educate people who mean well!” trope:

I’m sure this is in fact extremely annoying. However, you might consider that when people bring that up, they’re not saying, “Hey I’m just like you and I totally understand what you deal with,” they’re trying to make a connection and learn something. Ignorant people are a pain in the neck, but they’re mostly not trying to be ignorant on purpose.

I‘m merely suggesting that if this is a cause you deem worthy of championing, then you should have a prepared source of information for them—be it this blog, book titles, or documentaries. Encourage them to learn more about THEIR history and perhaps you’ll draw a new soldier to your army.

It seems somewhat contradictory to put stickers on your laptop that indicate a Mohawk heritage and then rudely dismiss a stranger who expresses an interest in your advertisement. Perhaps a better way to accomplish your agenda (whatever it is) would be to engage in polite and open-minded conversation with those who mistake your stickers for an invitation.

Thea Lim at Racialicious pretty much nailed it in her recent post on what went down, entitled “Some Basic Racist Ideas and some Rebuttals, & Why We Exist” (which I highly recommend that you read in full, by the way). An excerpt:

This kind of hey-let-me-help-you-achieve-your-goal-by-suggesting-you-be-more-radio-friendly response totally misunderstands (and appears disinterested) in the anti-racist project, because it assumes that anti-racism is all about convincing white people to be nice to people of colour.   In other words, it assumes that anti-racism revolves around white folks.  Like everything else in the world.

Anti-racism and people of colour organizing is not about being friendly, being appealing, or educating white folks. While individual anti-racist activists may take those tacks to achieve their goals, the point of anti-racism is to be for people of colour.

I completely agree with Thea here — and I believe something similar applies to disability activism. That is: Those of us with disabilities are not here to make abled people feel comfortable, to hold their hands as they have a Very Special Learning Experience (most often, it seems, at our expense), or to make them feel good about themselves. I, personally, don’t care how “good” your intentions are, or that you reallllllly wanna learn, or if you think I’m being mean by not dropping everything to educate you when you demand it.  While I definitely don’t want to speak for Jessica, Thea, or any of the Racialicious contributors — or for people of color who do anti-racist work — I suspect that they may feel similarly about white people who come into PoC, WoC or other anti-racist spaces and demand that whoever is doing the activist work must halt whatever discussion is going on and educate them, now, because they are good “liberal” white people and have such good intentions, and you PoC want white people like me as allies, right? And if you don’t drop everything and rush over to educate me, well, you’re just a big meanie who must not want my support after all (such “support” is often conditional, and based upon whether the marginalized person can make the non-marginalized feel comfortable at all times), or you just want an excuse to be racist toward white people! Or some other ridiculous thing.

For me personally, the willingness that I “should” have to help well-meaning folks learn is also an energy issue. I am a person with disabilities, several of which I have written about at length on this website — and one of which is a pain condition subject to flare-ups. Thus, I have to manage my time and energy extremely carefully. Having to explain basic concepts over and over again to strangers on the internet because they’ve deigned to tell me that they “want” to learn — and some of whom may think, by extension, that they are somehow entitled to my time and energy — takes work. Writing takes work; additionally, a lot of bloggers do the blogging and responding to comments thing for free, on their own time.

And sometimes, those of us with conditions that intersect with our ability to do this work end up burnt out, frustrated, or we lose our patience. Though these end results are often nothing personal, they might read like it, and we end up paying the price energy-wise only to have that person who realllllly wanted to learn petultantly respond with something like, “You must not want to educate me, then, if you’re not up to answering all of my questions!” and leaving in a huff. But they reallllly want to learn. . . that is, if someone else does the brunt of the work for them and/or gives them good-ally cookies for just wanting to be educated about all this social justice stuff. Merely wanting is not enough; you have to actually follow through for your good intentions to matter.

There is, thankfully, a solution to this problem: those people who say, or comment, that they realllly want to learn must take responsibility for their own learning. There are several ways that this can be accomplished, among them lurking on blogs for a while before one starts commenting, reading a site’s archives (and most sites have them!), picking up a book (or two), reading some articles online or off. Certainly, there are a lot of things that are privileged about this assertion; of course, not everyone has the time to read about social justice, lurk on blogs, or take similar steps. But what is also privileged is the putting the responsibility for your own 101-type education onto someone else — someone who might not have all of the energy, time and patience that you might.

[A slightly different version of this post has been cross-posted at ham blog.]