Category Archives: bodies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions, part 1

[Warning for somewhat graphic discussion of medical procedures and adverse allergic reactions.]

I have been dealing with weird, severe, and inexplicable allergic reactions since the age of 14.

Most of these reactions have been to food items; my known food allergies include peanuts, various tree nuts, and (wait for it) green bell peppers. Of course, I take great caution to avoid these foods and my exposure to them. Unfortunately, with my immune system, such caution is no guarantee that I won’t have an “attack” out of the blue.

The first “attack” I had, in fact, was one of those not caused by food. I was a teenager at the time, in Paris on vacation with my family. I don’t remember much about my initial symptoms other than I felt overly-warm very suddenly, and decided that it would be a good idea to take a cold bath in order to rectify the situation. My mom found me in the bathroom of our rented apartment, facedown on the tile floor and missing several items of clothing. I had figured, somehow, that putting my face on the tile floor as a method of cooling down would look less weird than sticking my entire head into the freezer. My face, which had initially turned bright red, swelled up so much that I soon found myself unable to see. I had quickly begun to resemble the Bob’s Big Boy logo; I should note here that if you ever start to resemble a famous food-related logo, you should probably go to the nearest hospital post-haste.

My Bob’s Big Boy transformation was quickly followed by giant, blotchy pink hives that appeared on my neck and shoulders. Joining the party somewhat late was a hot, almost volcanic feeling in my lungs that quickly morphed into breathing trouble. Severe breathing trouble. So my family (my mom, my dad, and my younger brother — who suggested that I not look at myself in any reflective surface so as not to become more freaked out) and I took to the streets of Paris in search of a hospital. We found one — after a quick visit to what we thought was a hospital but which actually turned out to be a convalescent home. At the ER, the staff took one look at me and immediately put me at the front of the queue; I was quickly whisked away to a magical land where a nurse tried to calm me down, completely in French, when I loudly protested the insertion of a large IV needle into the underside of my forearm. The only English-speaking doctor on staff, as it turned out, was on his day off, but came in to examine me and assure my family that I was going to be okay.

When we came back from vacation, I had another attack about a month later. And then another. And a few more, until one ER doctor suggested that I get a full round of allergy tests, more commonly known as “scratch tests.”  The scratch tests revealed a substantial peanut and tree nut allergy. I took care to avoid these foods, or any foods that may have come into contact with them. Unfortunately, I still kept having attacks, even when I avoided the dreaded peanuts and tree nuts. I still have them, approximately once every 3-4 months.

Sometimes, I get them as a result of cross-contamination if I eat at a restaurant. Sometimes, I get them for no reason at all — even if I haven’t eaten for a while. The symptoms tend to be fairly consistent: first, a scratchy feeling will start in my throat and lungs, followed by wheezing. Then comes breathing trouble, which tends to feel like an elephant is standing on my chest. Usually, my eyes will then swell up to the point that I cannot open them all the way, or see. Sometimes, I get gastrointestinal trouble as well, the symptoms and signs of which are not things that I can discuss in polite company due to general grossness and/or TMI.

The first five to ten minutes of these attacks are, generally speaking, the worst part(s). By now, my battle plan for dealing with these attacks is well-established: Take a shot or two of my inhaler at the first signs of trouble (usually breathing difficulties plus another symptom), then four or five antihistamine pills. Of course, it takes a few minutes for these things to kick in, which is part of why the “waiting” part is so physically painful. During these first few minutes, I am in some sort of hellish allergy-limbo: it feels like someone or something has put some bricks on my chest and torso, I can’t see or can barely see, and it feels like my intestines are being vacuumed out of me — and the only thing I can do is wait for the medication to start working. I generally consider myself to be a patient person, but nothing will sap your patience like having to wait out a potentially life-threatening medical emergency.

And if that doesn’t work, I have to go to the next level, which is using epipenephrine, a self-contained steroid shot to be injected into the thigh in case my breathing is so severely compromised that I pass out or am in danger of not getting enough air into my lungs.

For these sorts of attacks, there is really no pat, inspirational or life-affirming end, so much as a screeching halt after the medication actually starts working. And this total lack of inspiration or an end in sight is also reflected in some of the responses I have gotten from many abled people in regards to my “allergy issues” (to be addressed in part two).

Body Image & Disability: An Entry Into The Conversation

A long time ago, I said this:

People with disabilities, especially women, have all the same pressures currently non-disabled people do to look “good enough”, with added bonus of being either non-sexualised or hyper-sexualised, as well as having people infantize them to an incredible degree.

Talking about disability and self-esteem and body image is very difficult for me. People look at me and see a woman without a disability (or a woman with a non-evident one), and I pass. I don’t get the odd looks that a woman of my age (or younger, or older) using a cane or crutches would. I don’t get the pats on the head that women who use wheelchairs report, and I don’t have people leaping out of the way when I’m using a motorized scooter.

But at the same time, women like me are often used as stand-ins for “horrible”. Whether that’s the simple of “she took off her glasses and suddenly she was beautiful!”, or the more complicated of “oh my gosh! the woman I had sex with is actually a crazy person! Quick, let us make many movies about crazy = bunny-boiler = grotesque!”, I’m well aware that women like me are bad, ugly inside, and unacceptable.

These things add a whole other layer to the conversations that many women, feminist and non, have about self esteem and body image. We are all inundated with the constant barrage of White, Long-Haired, Slender (But Not Too Slender), Tall (But Not Too Tall), Unblemished, Healthy-looking, Young women in most advertising and fashion spreads, television shows, movies, and even on our book covers.[1. The last one is so ubiquitous that until just now I didn’t realise that of all the non-fiction books on my desk about disability, only one has an actual image of visibly disabled people on it. Most of them have very plain covers, or abstract-type art on them.]

At the same time, though, poster children and the pity parade are a fairly common image of disabled children – whether with visible or non-evident disabilities – that present people with disabilities as weak, as undesirable, as needing of pity – and always, always, always, as children. Very rarely are images of self-possessed, happy, disabled adults shown, unless they are in one of the “he’s so brave” “look at what she’s overcome” news stories.

I don’t know how this affects other people, or how they deal with it. I know that when Don first got his cane, and then his wheelchair, his self-esteem and image of himself took a hit, and it took a while for me to convince him that yes, I still found him attractive (and I can’t tell you how much I love that wheelchair, since my sexy sexy husband now has energy!). I know for me it would be nice to see images of Actual Crazy Women who aren’t mockeries of women like me, but treated like actual people. It would be nice to see casual fashion spreads with people with evident disabilities in them, rather than only seeing “diversity matters!” posters that include maybe one (male) wheelchair user, usually white.

As I said, I find these things very hard to talk about, because in many ways I don’t even know where to start. While to some extent discussing pop culture and representations there is important, how do we, as individuals, deal with our own self-esteem issues? How do we, as a group, tackle the constant attacks on people with visible disabilities to hide parts of themselves? Make yourself more approachable by putting sparkles on your cane! Soup up your wheelchair and maybe someone will ask you a question! Hide your obvious aid-devices so that they don’t offend people! Cake on make-up so no one can see your scars!

I think there’s so much here to talk about. Please, tell me your thoughts.

Recommended Reading for September 7, 2010

Lisa Harney at Questioning Transphobia: QT and Posting and My Inability to be Consistent

Oh, and a lot of neurotypicals learn about ADHD symptoms, and they think “I lose my keys sometimes? I lose my train of thought! I miss deadlines!” And you know, it’s true. Everyone does these things occasionally. But the difference is that you do not do them every. single. day. This isn’t what your life is like, this is when you have a bad moment – you’re tired, overwhelmed, in a hurry, and bam, a thing happens. This is what life is like every day for ADHDers, and when we’re tired, overwhelmed, in a hurry, then it’s that much worse for us. So, I can understand if you relate to these symptoms? I’m sure most people do. But don’t generalize how you experience them (as not-symptoms, assuming you do not have some other condition that causes similar symptoms – or you’re not an undiagnosed ADHDer yourself) to how I experience them (as symptoms). For me, they are a daily impairment.

K__ at Feminists With FSD: Book review — The Camera My Mother Gave Me [trigger warning for sexual assault]

The negative reviews usually contain some variation of gross-out due to TMI or frustration with Kaysen’s lack of progress in treating her pain medically. It’s TMI and gross because vaginas and vulvas are generally considered vulgar and gross – at least outside of feminist circles – sometimes even within feminist circles, because don’t talk about vaginas too much or else you reduce yourself to a big walking vagina – and thus it’s a shock to read such frank language and descriptions about the vagina.

Tammy Worth for the Los Angeles Times: Mental health parity act may affect your medical benefits

Other provisions of the bill require out-of-network coverage for mental health services, parity of coverage of medical and mental health medications, and if someone is denied coverage of a mental health service that is deemed medically unnecessary by the insurer, patients have the right to find out why.

Andrew Palma for the Golden Gate [X]press (San Francisco State University student newspaper): University loses scholar, activist

Longmore is arguably most well known for his 1988 protest outside the Social Security Administration’s Los Angeles office. He burned his book about George Washington, written word by word with a pen in his mouth and a keyboard, to protest policies that penalized disabled writers for counting royalties from their work as earned income.

Adrian Morrow for the Globe and Mail: Efforts to battle chronic pain found lacking

Some 80 per cent of people around the world who suffer from chronic pain can’t get the treatment they need and governments must step up their efforts to tackle the issue, says Michael Cousins, an Australian anesthetist and the driving force behind the first International Pain Summit [. . .] Earlier this year, he had a hand in drafting a national pain management strategy for Australia – the first in the world – and the summit, which takes place in Montreal on Friday, will draw up guidelines to help other countries follow suit.

“We’re not his kids, we’re adults, and we’re our own people”: The Trouble with the Jerry Lewis Telethon

Today is Labour Day in Canada and the US, which for many people means the end of the Labour Day Weekend Jerry Lewis Telethon. Wikipedia conveniently describes the Jerry Lewis Telethon so I don’t have to:

The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon (also known as The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon and The Jerry Lewis Stars Across America MDA Labor Day Telethon) is hosted by actor and comedian, Jerry Lewis to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). It has been held annually since 1966. As of 2009, the telethon had raised $2.45 billion since its inception. It is held on Labor Day weekend, starting on the Sunday evening preceding Labor Day and continuing until late Monday afternoon, syndicated to approximately 190 television stations throughout the United States.

On the surface this probably looks like a good thing, but digging a bit deeper: For many people, this is one of the few times they’ll see images of people with disabilities on their t.v. screen (and from a noted authority and beloved celebrity), and the entire thing is one drawn out pity parade.

Since 1991, protesters, including Laura Hershey and Mike Irvine, have tried to raise awareness about the way that the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and Jerry Lewis himself, treat actual adults with disability, and have discussed how these sorts of pity parades affect the public perceptions of people with disability. In 2001, Hershey wrote:

As we in the disability-rights movement keep trying to explain, our biggest problems come not from our physical conditions, but from a society that fails to accommodate us. Lewis’s telethon plays up the problems, without suggesting their sources or solutions. For instance, those sappy vignettes will make much of an “afflicted” person’s inability to wash his own hair, or get herself to the toilet, without any discussion of the urgent need for publicly funded personal assistance, or of the problems posed by the architectural barriers designed right into the layout of most private homes.
Trouble also arises from the fact that thousands of families dealing with disabilities in the U.S. and Canada are denied adequate medical care and equipment – necessities which should be basic human rights, not handouts accompanied by a drum roll and tally.

I’ve written about my disdain for both the Telethon and for the praises Lewis gets despite referring to people with disabilities as “half-persons” who should “stay at home”, and I think this is still an idea that people find very challenging. It’s easier to view these sorts of fund raising telethons as doing Good Things. They are supposed to, after all. That it’s still leaving people with disabilities begging for basic rights, access, and assistance that shouldn’t be necessary in this age of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Accessibility for Ontarioans with Disabilities Act (AOWD) isn’t comfortable to think about. That the main use of these funds is for finding a “cure” – by which they mean a pre-natal test – rather than assisting families in purchasing wheelchairs or renovating a home to make it wheelchair accessible, or in assisting people with disabilities in getting support during or immediately after a move seems to surprise people. Your money isn’t going to help actual people with disabilities. It’s going to help the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and to aid Jerry Lewis in his continued insistence that he’s a humanitarian. These are not really the same things.

Many people with disabilities have written about their perceptions of these telethons, and the damage they do, as well as the issues with giving a humanitarian award to a man who treats actual people with disabilities with such disdain. Hershey’s most recent columns are Speaking Out against the MDA Telethon and Laura’s Labor Day Weekend Column. Liz Henry wrote last year about her dose of morning rage regarding the telethon, and there are many links there that highlight the issues around Jerry’s Kids. There’s also the 2007 Blogswarm, Protest Pity, which features more than 35 blog posts about the Telethon and the Protests. You can also read From Poster Child to Protester, which may be the first thing I ever read about the protests and the Issues with Jerry Lewis.

Sometimes, though, the best way to combat the pity parade is to show people with disabilities talking about their lives, and their lived experience. Laura Hershey made this video as part of the “It’s Our Story” Project. Transcript follows:

Transcript:

The ‘It’s Our Story’ titles roll while tinkly piano music plays. White symbols of sign language and a person in a wheelchair flash against the background, which is suggestive of a US flag, with the continental United States in the blue square instead of the usual 50 stars.

The video opens on Laura Hershey, a powerchair user wearing a nasal cannula and glasses. The title of the video is “Jerry’s Kids”, and I believe she’s referring to the group “Jerry’s Orphans”.

Laura: That’s actually a group that was started in Chicago by Mike Irvin, Chris Matthews, and several other people. And I worked with them a lot organziing these protests nationally. I think what the name says is that Jerry Lewis doesn’t have the right to claim us as his quote “kids”, especially as he’s not interested in our perspective. He completely trashes people who question or challenge the telethon approach. He’s attacked us in the press, calling us ungrateful, claiming that he bought us our wheelchairs which is, you know, completely untrue.

You know, whatever ego trip he gets thinking of himself as our saviour, or our daddy, or whatever it is he thinks, we reject that.

We’re not his kids, we’re adults, and we’re our own people. We don’t belong to him.

Pap smears, fat-shaming, and the lithotomy trap

[X-posted at Hoyden About Town]

So I’m sitting watching the evening news, and on comes a chap telling us women and girls that we oughtta go and get more Pap smears. Then on comes a woman to talk about how Pap screening rates are going down in young women, and to speculate about possible causes for this. The cervical cancer vaccine comes up, as does the “awkwardness” of the test, and our inappropriate embarrassment, which we apparently need to get over.

What I don’t hear addressed in the mainstream media in these discussions of Pap screening? Well, lots of things, like heterosexism, and ignorance about Pap age/sexual experience guidelines, and sexual assault (inside and outside the medical system). However, the one that really stood out in my mind today is also a factor that isn’t going to be fixed by lecturing women. Fatphobic abuse in the medical system.

There has been a fair bit of talk around the feminist traps about some of the other factors, especially the aftermath of sexual assault and its effects on medical interactions. I’m not going to go into that in this post, but it’s a huge, huge issue. What I would like to talk about for a moment, not because it’s more important but just because I have a first-person anecdote, is medical fatphobia.

We know fatphobia kills. In all sorts of ways, in all sorts of settings. And one way in which it can kill is the horrendous tendency of doctors – quite a few doctors, from the stories I hear around the place – to trap women and girls on their backs so that they can shame them while they’re vulnerable. And what they don’t realise, or don’t care about, is just how long-lasting the effects of this can be – and not in a good way.

Medical education materials abound with motherhood statements about ‘Preventive Medicine’ and ‘Lifestyle Intervention’ and ‘Opportunistic Behavioural Education’. General practitioners are exhorted, over and over again, to take any and all opportunities they can to tell people they’re fat. Really, over and over. And OVER. And doctors, labouring under the mistaken impression that this will cause said people to magically become skinny and therefore ‘healthy’, go ahead and do it, then smugly boast about it between themselves, sighing about how no-one ever listens to them. Or, perhaps, under the impression that they can then self-satisfiedly sit back and tick a box on the chart about how they’ve engaged in initial Lifestyle Education, which they learned all about at the last Lap-Band seminar.

Medical education is a powerful, powerful matrix of fat hate, based on the twin premises that telling people they’re fat is (a) helpful and (b) harmless.

So let’s talk about how that plays out in practice:

When I was 19, I had a Pap smear. It was my first. I went to the nearest available doctor, who worked in a setting where they dealt with a late of people in late adolescence and early adulthood. I wasn’t particularly concerned about it; a very little vague unease at the unknown, but no particular trepidation. I didn’t bother taking anyone with me, and I just booked the appointment in between other things I had to do, like med school classes and whatnot. And off I went.

I got my Pill script, had my BP taken, then assumed the position. And the doctor came up into his position, as they do, then stopped.

He looked at my thigh. “Not quite the right spot,” I thought, “but hey, he probably knows what I’m doing more than I do.”

Then he touched my thigh. Around the middle, underneath (in lithotomy position).

Then he JIGGLED IT.

He jiggled my thigh.

And then he grimaced.

And then he did the Pap smear. I was frozen, completely unable (by my inexperience, position, and by general medical disempowerment) to say anything.

And then I fled.

Was I ‘traumatised’? I didn’t have nightmares. I went and got my next Pap smear dutifully, largely because I really didn’t have any choice – no Pap smear, no Pill script. (Ask me about contraceptive hostage-taking! You know you want to!)

But every time I get a Pap smear, every single time, even now more than twenty years later, I see his face. I see him jiggling my thigh with that look of disgust. Every time I lie down and spread my legs for the speculum, I am reminded of exactly how repugnant my body is.

My first impulse is to tell you exactly how fat I wasn’t, back then. To tell you that it wasn’t ok for him to do that because I was physically fit at the time. To tell you at length about how my aerobic capacity was at the 95th centile, that I could do a hundred pushups, that I could swim a k without stopping, that I was beating my fit male friends at squash, that I was getting State medals in my chosen sport. But that’s all irrelevant – because fat-shaming isn’t ok for people who are actually fat any more than it’s ok for people who aren’t. Fat-shaming doesn’t get a pass when it’s limited to people as fat as I am now, or twice as fat as me, or whatever. Fat-shaming isn’t bad because it’s directed at inbetweenies as well as at fat people. Fat-shaming is harmful for EVERYONE. Fat-shaming is not.ok.

As long as some doctors keep seeing lithotomy position as a prime opportunity to ladle on the shame, girls and women are going to avoid Pap smears. So hey, ball’s in your court, medical profession. Fix it. Get your own house in order, and meanwhile, stop telling US we’re the ones doing it wrong.

Reproductive Justice is for Everyone, Even People You Don’t Like

There’s a sign on the wall of a local clinic which says, according to my paraphrasing memory:

You have the right to decide if you want to have children or not, and to determine their number, timing, and spacing.

The clinic provides reproductive health services to low income members of the community, and plays an important role in ensuring that people have access to everything from safer sex supplies to prenatal care. I’m a big fan of theirs, and I’m a big fan of that sign, which I think embodies the core of reproductive rights and justice. Everyone has the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and one of the core values of the reproductive rights movement should be supporting people in this. Supporting all people, leading all kinds of lives, making all kinds of decisions.

Educating people so they can make more informed choices. Helping people access services to allow them to carry out the choices they are making, whether that’s a decision to get an abortion or to have a child or to get some birth control. Fighting sexual assault and rape as violations to bodily autonomy.

Recognising that while a choice might not be one you would make personally, you can still support someone in making that choice, and you can still enable that person’s ability to make decisions freely. As soon as we start making decisions about the ‘right’ kind of families and the ‘right’ number of children and the ‘right’ number of abortions to have, the concept of reproductive justice starts to fall apart. Who decides these things? Who is the arbiter of whether someone is making the ‘right’ choices?

There’s one group that gets left out of a lot of reproductive justice discussions: People with disabilities.

I’ve seen the decision to have a child with disabilities compared to child abuse, whether we’re talking about a child with a prenatal diagnosis, or a child born to parents with an increased risk of having a child with disabilities. I’ve seen disabled parents treated as though they are committing child abuse simply by being disabled, and being parents. I’ve seen people act like people with disabilities don’t need access to sexual education, because obviously we don’t have sex. I very rarely see any of these actions labeled as what they are, which is ableism.

Denial of reproductive rights to people with disabilities is ableism. Denial of our needs in the reproductive justice discussion is also ableism. Telling us we don’t belong at the table is ableism. We deserve reproductive justice too, and we have needs that are not being addressed by the current reproductive rights movement.

One of the problems with attempting to bring disability into reproductive justice conversations is that people act like the issues we cite are things of the past; they aren’t important, because they don’t happen anymore. People with disabilities are never involuntarily sterilised to prevent them from having children. Children are never taken from disabled parents. People are never shamed for deciding to continue pregnancies when a prenatal diagnosis indicates that the baby will be born with disabilities.

Well, these things are not in the past. They are happening right now.

A few recent cases from here in the United States: A child was taken from blind parents, solely because her parents were blind. It took intervention on the part of the National Federation of the Blind to restore the child to her home. The children of a disabled woman were denied visitation rights on the grounds that it would upset them to see their mother. A quadriplegic woman was told she couldn’t be a good parent. These are just three recent, high profile cases where parents were told they couldn’t care for their children because of their disabilities. Believe me, there’s more where that came from.

As for forcible sterilisation, the Ashley X case attracted a great deal of attention in feminist communities, but it’s far from the only one. Last week, we linked to a story about drugs that suppress sexual desire being used in autism ‘treatment.’ In Central and South America, forcible sterilisation, particularly of Indigenous women, is widespread and the United States has a history of sterilising Indigenous women as well. Tessa Savicki, a Massachusetts mother of nine, is suing after a hospital sterilised her without her consent during an unrelated medical procedure in 2006.

If sterilisation of people with disabilities isn’t a problem anymore, how come someone wrote a bill in 2009 to bar forced sterilisation of people with disabilities?

In a conversation at dinner the other night, I had to physically restrain myself when one of the people at the table attempted to argue that a mutual acquaintance was being ‘irresponsible’ by having a child at her age, ‘because it might be born disabled.’ This is not the only conversation like that I’ve witnessed, on or offline.

For people with disabilities, the reproductive justice discussion is extremely personal. People debate whether we should be allowed to have children, people believe that compromising our bodily autonomy is acceptable for the ‘greater good,’ and people debate whether or not we should have been born. For people who were born with disabilities, hearing people claim that parents having disabled children is akin to child abuse is rather appalling.

The thing about reproductive justice is that it’s not just for the people you like and the people you agree with. It’s not just for young, nondisabled, cisgender women who want to use birth control right now and have access to abortions, with the possibility of having children later. It’s also for parents of large families. It’s also for disabled parents. It’s also for religious parents. It’s also for disabled children. It’s also for people who are not interested in having children. It’s for everyone living in a body, no matter what kind of body it is, no matter what kind of life that person leads. Reproductive justice, true justice, should be all-encompassing.

Excluding people with disabilities from the conversation by either being actively hostile or dismissing our concerns is not reproductive justice.

Working Towards the Neutral Place

Something that I see coming up a lot in discussions about language is the argument that, by asking people to refrain from using words that refer to disability as pejoratives because they reinforce the idea that disability is categorically bad, people engaging in discussions about language are saying that disability is a bed of roses with a unicorn and a platter of cupcakes on the side. This is, as I said in a recent ‘Today in Journalism,’ so not true, and I wanted to pull that discussion out of that post, because it’s important, and it deserves its own post:

The thing about terms like ‘suffers from’ and ‘victim of’ is that if someone self identifies with them, that’s fine. But when they get used as generic terms to refer to people with disabilities in general, it sets a precedent. It tells people that disability is suffering, and that people with disabilities are victims. The reason that we ask people to use neutral language when talking about disability is not because we want to tell other people how to feel about their disabilities, but because we don’t want to tell nondisabled people to think negatively about disability.

This is an important thing, when talking about language. There’s a big difference between identifying with a term and using it, and using a term in general to refer to everyone like you, or, in the case of nondisabled people, using a term you’ve heard someone use as self identification to refer to everyone like that person. If the media presented disability in neutral terms, ‘The locals known Ray Magallan, a man with cerebral palsy who…,’ it allows readers to approach the article with neutrality. But here, from the very start, the subject of the article is a victim.

Asking people to think about the language they use generally is not about telling people that all disabilities are awesome! And terrific! And superfun! Nor is it about telling people how they should feel about their disabilities. What it’s about is working towards the neutral place: The place where disability in general is value neutral, rather than universally good or bad.

Speaking for myself and myself only, there are some things about my disabilities that I like, and that I am glad to have as part of my identity. There are other things about my disabilities that I dislike, and strongly wish would Go Away. And there are a lot of things that just are, that I don’t feel strongly about one way or the other. I don’t like society assigning values to my identities, or deciding that because I feel a particular way about a specific disability, all people who share that disability must feel like I do; I want society to view them neutrally, and that’s one of the reasons that I want to get people thinking about the language they use and how they use it.

The language isn’t the problem. It’s the underlying attitudes that are the problem. Disability is used as a shorthand for ‘bad’ because it is understood to be bad. The goal here is not to try and effect a switch, to disability as ‘good,’ but to get people to view it neutrally, and to allow individual people with disabled identities to shape their own approach to disability. To give people autonomy, and to make nondisabled people understand that when one person says ‘I hate my disabilities’ that person is speaking for ouself, just as the person who says ‘I love my disabilities’ is also speaking for ouself.

It’s also, of course, about getting people to confront the role of ableism in their lives, and to look at how it manifests, but that’s only one facet of conversations about language. People who are stuck on ‘oh, I need to just not use these words’ are missing the much larger discussion, that these words are code for attitudes and beliefs, and that when we talk about these words, we confront those beliefs. By working towards disability as neutral, we are allowing many people with disabilities self determination and autonomy, although not all people with disabilities will necessarily agree that working towards the neutral place is a shared goal, or even something that should happen at all.

Telling a person with disabilities who identifies ou personal experience as difficult, or painful, or unpleasant, or frustrating, or simply bad: ‘how can you say disability is bad!’ is every bit as policing as calling disability in general  a tragedy, because it’s denying someone’s lived experience, and it’s denying something that someone is articulating right in front of you. Someone who hates ou disabilities or who hates aspects of them isn’t ‘betraying the movement’ or ‘wrong,’ and the goal of language discussions isn’t to hound people who feel that way into changing their minds about how they feel about their bodies and brains.

It’s about creating a space for everyone, a space where people can self identify how they like, and feel the way they like, without being judged or shamed not just by society, but also by fellow people with disabilities. There is room for all identities and lines of thought in a world where disability is a neutral identity, and people are allowed to shape it and feel about it the way they want to, rather than being pressured to perform, think, and believe in a particular way for the benefit of others.

My Experiences with Disability & The Kink Community

Content Note: While this post isn’t going to talk about sex at all, and it’s only going to briefly touch on some things that get grouped under “kinky” sexuality, I would recommend against it being read at work.

Here is an image to give you a chance to back out! (Image is totally safe for work.)

Image description below

Image Description: A sign that reads “Wheelchairs and Strollers Please Detour Through Bears”

Via Accessibility Fail, who got it from Oddly Specific.

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Continue reading My Experiences with Disability & The Kink Community

Just

My beginning is like this: I was born a full three months before my expected arrival.

I apparently couldn’t wait the whole nine months to come into the world. This early arrival was rife with complications, however: a brain hemorrhage, one collapsed lung (I still have under-armpit scars from the surgery), and, the kicker — cerebral palsy as a result of premature birth. After they found the hemorrhage, the doctors did not expect me to survive.

The hemorrhage stopped on its own. No one could figure out why.

I was in the ICU for a long time after that — in a special plastic case to protect all three pounds of me from hospital elements.

My early birth was unexpected, as was my survival of the mysterious hemorrhage. Both of these things happened for no particular reason.

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There are a lot of people who seem to subscribe to the “just-world” theory of events — that is, anyone who has anything bad happen to them has done something to “deserve” it. One sees this attitude thrown around quite a bit in relation to disability and illness — for the smoker who gets lung cancer, for some people who become severely disabled due to accidents, for the “angry” or “repressed” person who is diagnosed with a deadly illness. One sees it in so-called New Age “theories” of illness — that illness is a physical manifestation of bad karma or some other buzz-word often appropriated from a non-Western belief system.

But what of those who are “born this way”? What could they possibly have done in their “past lives” to have disability and/or illness be a feature of their current life? Could I have been, for example, a dictator or Bathory-esque ruler in a past life? I am not one for metaphysics, so I am inclined to think that the answer is no. Besides, were there definitive proof of past lives, it’s not as if every single New Age person could have been a saint in his/her/zie’s past life. So when these folks try to utilize my CP, or my depression, or my fibromyalgia as “proof” that I am or was a bad person and they are good people who inhabit a world of unicorns pooping glitter or somesuch, I tend to get a little upset and/or snarky at their pushing pseudo-enlightened rationales as making any sort of sense.

Disability is not proof of a “just world.” It is not a punishment, nor a tragedy for those of us who live with all sorts of disabilities, or whatever dichotomous thing that various social and cultural attitudes have constructed it as. It is one facet of human experience.

For many of us, disability just exists, or just happens. And for whatever reason, this terrifies many currently-abled people.