Category Archives: intersectionality

Disability Blog Carnival 59 is up!

The fabulous and amazing Liz Henry has up a variety of awesome posts for the 59th Disability Blog Carnival!

The theme for the Disability Blog Carnival #59 is Work and Disability. It’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Thank you to Penny from the Disability Studies Blog for co-ordinating the Disability Blog Carnival through 60 issues!

Thank you all for your contributions! All through October, they buoyed me up and gave me food for thought. I felt intense pride to be part of this very loosely knit online community of thinkers and writers.

Blog Carnivals are totally my favourite way of finding new bloggers to read, so be certain to check it out!

Also, next month, we’ll be hosting the Disability Carnival here at FWD/Forward. The optional topic is disability and intersectionality. Email your links to carnival@disabledfeminists.com, and check back here on November 19th!

Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. 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.

Wait! you may be saying to yourselves. Kaninchen Zero, what the hell is ‘intelligence’ doing in the Ableist Word Profile series? Intelligence isn’t a disability!

Okay, so maybe you’re not saying that. But I’m serious. I hate this word. Hate the concept. With a hatred that is a pure and burning flame. True, part of this is because I get told all the time that I’m like wicked smart. When it’s some of the more toxic people in my family saying it, there’s more to it: You’re so intelligent so why are you poor? Other people use it as an opportunity to put themselves down: You’re so smart; I’m not; I could never do the things you do.

Does intelligence exist? At all?

Maybe it doesn’t.

There are tests that measure… something. They’re called Intelligence Quotient tests. The idea is that these tests actually measure some fundamental, real quality of human cognition — the people who believe in IQ believe that there’s a single quality that informs cognition as a whole and that people who have higher IQs have more of this and think better and perform better generally while people who have lower IQs have less of this quality and perform more poorly. Sorry; it’s a muddle of a definition, I know. Partly it’s a conceptual and linguistic problem — some things are not well defined and these things tend to be the things we consider to be fundamental. It’s much easier to define smaller things at the edges; it’s easy to define a fingernail. It’s harder to point to where blood stops flowing away from the heart and starts flowing back towards it.

The man who developed the first intelligence tests, Alfred Binet, wasn’t actually trying to measure intelligence. He’d done some work in neurology and psychology and education, and in 1899 he was asked to become a member of the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child. Primary education in France had become mandatory, so a lot of work on educational psychology was being done due to the large demand and the large available sample population. Binet, and others, were assigned to the Commission for the Retarded. (Again, please accept my apologies; I wouldn’t use the word if it were mine.)

The problem he was trying to solve was how to identify — consistently, without having to rely on the judgment of people who could be swayed by all sorts of personal biases (as we all are, including me) — those children who needed extra help. Maybe they had developmental disorders, maybe they had learning impairments along the lines of ADD/ADHD, dyscalculias, dyslexias, maybe malnutrition, injury, or childhood disease had caused neurological damage or limited development. The specific etiology wasn’t the point; the point was to be able to know who these children were and get them assistance. Which may be ascribing too-noble motives to him, but he doesn’t do so great later.Read more: Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence

Shifting the Responsibility for Disability in Uniform

Moderatix note: This post will be United States Military centric, as that is the perspective I offer, and the broken system within which I currently exist and attempt to navigate.  Other voices are welcome and experiences appreciated within the context of the conversation, since I can not pretend to know every thing about every military experience from every branch in every country.

Disability issues overlap many facets of life, and one of our goals here at FWD is to bring as many of those to light as possible.  One voice I want to offer here is that of the disabled U.S. Veteran.  Specifically in feminist circles I feel that the disabled veteran is a voice that is seldom heard, and while hir voice may be part of a very small percentage, sie is facing a unique set of challenges.

One of those challenges is getting a diagnosis and care in the first place.  A person gives hir time and life to the military for one of a variety of reasons and find hirself trained for any number of jobs.  Sie can travel the world, see exciting places, or be sent off to fight in wars.  In the blink of an eye hir world is turned upside down.  Suddenly life isn’t what it was before.  Hir body/mind/soul are not what they once were, and coming to terms with that is no easy task.  If sie is one of the ones who has survived combat injuries or someone who became sick or injured while doing hir job in a Stateside base, sie does what sie has been taught to do…sie makes a routine appointment at the local Military Treatment Facility (MTF) to see her Primary Care Manager (PCM).

Hir PCM might evaluate hir, refer hir out for tests with specialists, or set hir on a merry-go-round of treatments.  When the ride stops sie may or may not have any answers, and there may or may not be a Medical Review Board pending to tell hir the terms of the future of hir career.

This is where things get interesting.  By interesting, I mean kind of fucked up.  One, any or all of those specialists might have diagnosed hir.  Those doctors start treating hir accordingly, because while TRICARE (military medical insurance) has its flaws, it kicks a lot of arse, and sie gets the care sie needs, mentally and physically (until her PCM deploys, but that is another post altogether, just you wait!), all under the umbrella of hir diagnosis.  But then the Medical Review comes up, and all of hir doctors have to write these recommendations, and suddenly things change in terms of hir care.  In hir appointments hir doctors start getting vague about care plans, and start talking around the actual words for hir condition…sie might suddenly feel dismissed or as if hir questions are not being answered.

As we read earlier this year, it isn’t a coincidence that military doctors are getting dodgier than Sarah Palin in an interview.  There seems to be pressure to not diagnose active duty personnel while active duty, and it isn’t just PTSD.  This service member might have received treatment for months leading up to hir review board only to have hir diagnosis revoked for the board so that the military could discharge hir with a lower rating.

It’s not too hard to understand why this happens.  The rating system breaks down a little like this:

A medical team of medical officers somewhere in Officer Land and look at your whole military medical record, and all these nifty letters written by the doctors who have seen you, along with some reports from your Chain of Command (CoC).  Based on all of this information they determine whether or not to separate you from the military.  They also give you a percentage rating of how disabled they think you are before discharging your from the military (there is also something called Permanent Limited Duty, which I can talk about sometime in another post).  It goes 0%-100% (the percentage is ultimately the amount of money they give you and “how disabled” they think you are).  Unless they give you at least a 10% rating you get nothing.  There is a list somewhere of what constitutes what percentages, and the military’s is different from the VA’s and each branch seems to interpret it differently.  Anything between 10 and 20% will grant you a one time award (I love that they use the word “award”, like somehow you have won a prize) based on your pay over the number of years you spent active duty (minus taxes, but including any bonuses you earned).   Most medical review boards fall in this range.  The magic number seems to be 30%, which gives you a monthly stipend based on the same numbers.  This math works all the way up to 100%.  After 80%, however, you receive what is called a Medical Retirement, which, regardless of how many years you have served, you retain your full benefits (insurance, commissary, exchange and medical) as if you had retired after 20 years of service.  That, I think is the rub.  It’s money.

When I had my review, it went a lot like that as well.  I could have been Sgt. X (well, Petty Officer X) in the rheumatologist’s office w/ a tape recorder.  The same guy who had written in my record that he was treating me for fibromyalgia had written in my medical review that there was no way to know for sure, that I could in fact have fibro, but that I could also have CFS, or PTSD, or just be really depressed, so there was no real answer.  His best advice was for a medical discharge and a referral to the VA for follow up care.  He also suddenly became angry because I didn’t want to be on Cymbalta, because I didn’t feel the need to be on another anti-depressant when ADs weren’t helping my pain (Lyrica wasn’t out yet, and Cymbalta was a new-ish treatment).  When a doctor tells me “I guess you don’t want to get better”, without listening to my concerns I know I have lost a battle.

After my review board findings came back (10% if you are nosy), my doctors seemed to have a shift in my care.  I was receiving less pain management care (well, less pharmaceutical) and the focus was more on mental health.  My review board found that I was too depressed to continue with active duty service, oh, and Trichotillomania sounded weird, I guess, so they tossed that on there, even though no one gave a fuck about it before.  Pretty much all of my care was to be managed through Mental Health (which, should be noted, is in no way a slam on mental health.  In my case, it was not the treatment I needed, even though for some people it is what they need), which made my physical needs very difficult to acquire while I was still active duty.  Yes, I was depressed, but I was depressed because I was in so much pain that I was having a hard time dealing with life and a child, and because no one was listening to me.  I was not in pain because I was depressed.  No one seemed to be interested in the sequence of events.  Before my review board findings I had a PCM, a neurologist, a rheumatologist, a chiropractor, an internal specialist, and a pain management specialist all convinced that all signs point to fibromyalgia.  Afterward you could have dropped a pin in room of crickets for the voices that came to my defense.

After my discharge I began the process of filing the VA claim.  It is pretty much the exact same process, minus the stuff from the CoC.  Oh, and it takes longer.  Hmmm.  I wonder why that is.

I firmly believe in my heart that military doctors (and doctors employed by the military) are being pressured to push us out the door and to let the VA sort us out because it is easier on the budget.  The Armed Forces Committee seems content to thank soldiers by one-lining them out of the fiscal year’s planning, and it pisses me off.  When I was given my board findings and told to sign off on it I was able to glance at the list of others who had been reviewed with my own.  I remember seeing at least a dozen names with finding for PTSD or other things that are “invisible”, all with a 10% or lower finding.  Brothers and sisters who have served their country, and this is the thanks we get when shit didn’t go as planned.  I know that this is happening to many service members, military wide.  I know that this is happening because our disabilities are invisible and easy to dismiss.  Veterans are slipping through the cracks, and Congress and the DoD is not only letting it happen, but damn well encouraging it.

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts on navigating disability in the military health care system.

Disability, Gender, and Poverty

I came across a new study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a D.C. think tank, examining the relationship between disability and poverty (pdf).

I was very interested to read this because, while its not discussed in this study, poverty in the United States affects women at rates much higher than men. “The US Census, which uses a comparatively conservative absolute poverty measure, reported in the last decennial census that overall 17% of females, compared to 13% of males, age 18 to 64 living in the largest US cities, had incomes below the poverty threshold. Likewise, 36% of female headed families with children under age 18, compared to 21% of male headed families with children, in the largest 70 cities, had incomes below the poverty thresholds.” For this reason, I think issues of poverty in general affect more women than they do men. Studies have also found that “women are more likely to experience disability than men, particularly disabilities related to mental health,” so the population of people with disabilities living in poverty is likely to have significant numbers of women in it.

According to the study, disability is an enormous factor in poverty. “About half of all working-age adults who experience income poverty have a disability, and … almost two-thirds of all such adults experiencing long-term, income poverty have a disability.” This means that, although poverty is often thought of as an issue primarily affecting Latinos, African-Americans, and other minority ethnic and racial groups, “people with disabilities account for a larger share of those experiencing income poverty than people in any single minority or ethnic group — or, in fact, all minority ethnic and racial groups combined.”

The study gives more information on the prevalence of disability in the overall population, finding that about 18.7% of the non-institutionalized population (excluding group homes, jails, etc)  reported some level of disability. About two-thirds of those people had a disability that “seriously interfered with everyday activities, made it difficult to remain employed, or rendered the person unable to perform or in need of assistance with various functional activities.” Looking at working-age adults over a seven-year period, the study found that “about one in four working-age adults experienced a disability [during the 7 years], but only 10 percent of them were disabled during the entire period.” This supports the view of disability as a dynamic phenomenon that can result in increases and decreases in the severity of impairments over time.

The employment rates for people with disabilities in the United States are strikingly low. Among women age 16 to 64 (considered working-age), about 65.8% of women without disabilities are employed, compared to only 26.9% for women with disabilities. The study attributes this discrepancy to both “the considerably lower rate of labor force participation among people with disabilities and a higher rate of unemployment for people with disabilities in the labor force. This means that women with disabilities are less likely to try to work, but even those who want and are actively seeking work are less likely to find it than women without disabilities. (I should note that per the study, “a number of EU nations — including all Nordic nations –and Canada have higher levels of employment among people with disabilities than the United States.”)

These disability rates and low employment rates have a drastic effect on poverty for people with disabilities. Of those working-age adults who experience poverty for at least 12 months, about half have at least one disability. Of those who experience longer term poverty, defined as at least 36 months of poverty during a 48-month period, have one or more disabilities. This does not mean that having a disability causes a person to become poor, or that being poor causes a person to become disabled, but suggests that there is a strong relationship between the two. A person who is poor and cannot access meaningful health care is unlikely to receive the treatment, aids, and other assistance that would help her to manage her disabilities. A person who is disabled is, as shown above, likely to have difficulty finding or maintaining employment, causing income loss and pushing them towards poverty. Basically, the two conditions reinforce each other and make it more difficult for an individual to address either one.

But we’re not done – there’s an additional problem. The poverty estimates discussed above define poverty using the Federal Poverty Rate, a rate determined by the U.S. Government and adjusted each year. Currently, a single adult without children is considered “poor” only if she earns or otherwise receives less than $903 per month, $10,836 a year. If she has a kid, the family is considered poor only if they receive less than $1,214 a month or $14,568 a year. There are significant criticisms of the current rate, which is calculated primarily on the cost of food and doesn’t account for regional differences in housing costs. Another problem with the rate, though, is that it looks only at income coming into a household and not the necessary costs  – which would likely be higher for people with disabilities, who need medical care, assistants, mobility aids, or other costs to achieve the same level of functioning as a person without a disability.

This means that people with disabilities are “40% to 200% more likely to experience various material hardships than people without such disabilities … among persons living below the current poverty line, a person with a disability would require income of roughly two to three times the poverty line to have the same lower risk of experiencing most material hardships as a person without a disability.”

I read A LOT about poverty and its causes and how it can be addressed through policy solutions and why current policies aren’t working. But the idea of viewing poverty as a disability-related issue is a new one for me. The study explains that this is common, as “contemporary policy debate and research about income poverty in the United States is largely silent about disability… books and papers by leading income-poverty experts and researchers only rarely discuss disability, if at all.” The mention a recent set of papers presented by the Brookings Institute on “high-priority poverty strategies for the next decade” that briefly mentioned disability issues in passing, instead focusing largely on issues of marriage. This is another way the issue intersects with feminism – many contemporary poverty policies are aimed at encouraging poor women to marry or penalizing them for having children, policies based on stereotypes of “welfare queens” or poor women having extra babies in order to collect additional welfare money.

This study makes clear that poverty must be examined and understood through a lens of disability in order for us to create and implement policies that will adequately address the realities. People with disabilities are much more likely to experience poverty than people without disabilities, and the vast majority of people who experience long-term poverty have disabilities. People with disabilities are less able to obtain employment even if they are actively seeking it. And people with disabilities are likely to experience more significant material hardships (lack of shelter, food, etc) than people without disabilities even if both are equally poor according to the Federal Poverty Level.

There is a glimmer of hope in the study, though, showing that this is not an inherent or unavoidable situation for people with disabilities. In fact, the study found that “the U.S. is a notable outlier when it comes to poverty rates for disabilities. The U.S. has a higher income poverty rate for people with disabilities than any other nation in Western Europe as well as Australia and Canada. A handful of nations – again mostly Nordic – have eliminated the disparity in poverty rates between people with disabilities and those with no disabilities.”

So my plan is either to import Nordic social policies or just export myself to Scandinavia. See you in Reykjavík!

By 22 October, 2009.    class issues, intersectionality   



The Negative Side of Positive Thinking

“I don’t have time for positive thinking. I spend all of that time thinking negatively.” –Kathy Griffin

I might as well come right out and say it: I highly dislike the whole positive thinking movement. I would say “I hate it,” but that might get me accused of being bitter, cynical, negative, and many other colorful things in the comments. I do not dispute that I am, at times, all of those things. However, the fact that so many people take the construct of “positive thinking” as the big-T Truth on how people other than themselves can (apparently) improve their own circumstances by thinking “positively” is something that I find very troubling and a little bit scary, and also a bit naive.

You’ve probably heard of positive thinking and its (supposed) benefits. You’ve also probably heard of things like The Secret, which is a self-help book and DVD (and they have other products, too, including a daily planner and something called an “affirmation journal”). For those of you who have had the good fortune to not have come into contact with The Secret, the basic premise is something that sounds pretty innocuous at first, if you don’t examine it too closely or think about it too hard: there is something called “the Law of Attraction,” which posits that the individual can attract their own good or bad circumstances in life just by thinking about them.

I want to stress the part about the “bad circumstances” here. If you swallow that bait–which, like most bait, conceals a dangerous trap–here is what you are buying into: I can attract good things by using my thoughts. If I think positively, I will attract good things.

However, the other side of such a dichotomy is–to put it mildly–really creepy, at least for those of us who have health issues and other problems beyond individual control. I will use myself as an example here: I have fibromyalgia. According to the dubious logic employed in The Secret, I have somehow attracted this. And, according to The Secret, I can think my way out of it. I can be CURED!

Oh, wait. My condition does not have a cure, and thinking one’s way out of a chronic condition is generally not recommended by certified medical professionals. However, according to the “Law of Attraction,” if I don’t think my way out of my condition, or can’t, then I basically deserve whatever happens to me. I brought it on myself, after all.

Therein lies the problem: This type of philosophy places an untoward emphasis on the individual: You control your reality. You control what happens to you. You control how much money you make. You deserve the best. Solving problems or helping others is beneath you, because it is all about you. You’ve got the world on a string, (sittin’ on a rainbow!) and it’s yours for the taking. Why help others, when you can just attract everything you want with your thoughts?

By now, you are probably starting to see exactly why this way of thinking is so troubling, particularly if you are a feminist, have a disability, are aware of social justice issues, or are not C. Montgomery Burns and therefore obsessed with your millions (and not much else).

What is so problematic about The Secret and many other self-help products is that they, however indirectly, make the status quo feel better about itself. People who buy into the “Law of Attraction” philosophy are not actually changing the world; no, that would take actual work. Instead, sayeth the Law, why not just think about changing the world, and let The Secret’s specious (and incorrect) use of quantum physics do the rest? See? Wasn’t that way easier than, ugh, going out and doing things?!

Telling someone to just “think positive” will not help her or him. I know that’s a rather harsh statement to make. I have had people “helpfully suggest” positive thinking (numerous times, I might add) in order to help with my illness. It is supremely frustrating, and it also makes me want to ignore whomever has offered that particular fool’s gold nugget o’wisdom. I get that people are scared of illness, disability, and death, and I understand why they are scared. But shaming people–particularly those with disabilities, chronic pain, mental health issues, and other chronic conditions–into silence by “helpfully” suggesting that they “think more positively”–and thereby shutting down the conversation or any room for the PWD to defend hirself–is not a solution. Rather, it just reinforces the it’s all about me claptrap that so much of the self-help industry traffics in; such “helpful suggestions,” oftentimes, are really meant to make the person who offers them feel better about hirself, and are not offered out of concern for the PWD or whomever else is unlucky enough to have been outed as a non-Positive Thinker.

After all, when someone offers those types of “helpful” suggestions to a non-Positive thinker–particularly PWDs or other people who have been marginalized by various cultural institutions–what she or he is saying starts to sound like, “I don’t take your experiences seriously. I care about expressing my opinions about your life and how you live it, so I can feel like I’m doing something and thus feel better about myself.” So, in effect, it really becomes all about them once again. And, in their minds, it is all about them, because the latest self-help craze told them so!

I will end with a quote from disability scholar Susan Wendell:

[T]he idea that the mind is controlling the body is employed even when physical causes of a patient’s symptoms are identified clearly…The thought that ‘she could be cured if only she wanted to get well’ is comforting…to those who feel the need to assign a cause and cannot find another, and to those who want to believe that they will avoid a similar disaster because they have healthier, or at least different, psyches. (The Rejected Body, 1998)

What does it mean to heal?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Instead, I propose: What is there to heal?

Healing is the process of a body, having been injured in some way, doing what it takes to restore itself to normalcy. Merriam-Webster says, specifically, “to make sound or whole” and “to restore to original purity or integrity.”

Take note of the words I have highlighted. What are they saying?

This cultural idea of healing, applied to a person’s spirit rather than body, draws upon the idea of an abnormal body being made “normal.” It assumes that any person not normal should be made normal.

But there are all sorts of bodies in this world. Bodies with broken bones, broken skin, disfigured limbs, faces, with cuts and gashes and wounds, missing limbs, missing organs, organs which work in abnormal ways — according to our cultural norms.

And, much the same, there are all sorts of people in this world. People who have survived assault and abuse, been subject to violence, faced trauma, been manipulated or neglected, dealt with addictions, lost loved ones. People who have experienced any number of things which cause them significant distress.

These people are expected to “heal” from their experience. They go through a modest amount of time processing the event emotionally and then return to normal.

But why should they be made normal?

Why should any broken person be pushed and pressured into a form which does not fit?

Why is it that a person who is anything other than normal is therefore less than whole?

Why can’t a person simply be who they are, even if they are injured or broken or disfigured, and still be considered a whole person?

Any person who has faced trauma will need to find ways to process their trauma, ways to cope, ways to live with what has changed in their life. But that person should not have to push hirself to go back to how things once were — or to make things resemble what they are for a person who has not faced that trauma. Things may be different. There is not only one way to live a life. There are many. And perhaps you will settle into a different one — one which works better for who you are now — which may not have worked for who you were before. And that way is no less right.

What do you do when life changes? You adapt. You make things fit you. You don’t make you fit everything else.

It’s ok to be broken. Being broken does not make you less than whole. It makes you different. And that’s ok.

Calendar Girls: Sexification Strikes Yet Another Serious Health Condition

[Author’s note: I’d been meaning to submit this piece somewhere since earlier this year, but never got around to it. I know we’re almost finished with 2009–so focusing on a charity calendar may seem a bit old meme, at least in internet time–but some of the issues that this campaign raises are, as they say, timeless.]

When the words “chronic pain condition” come to mind, not many people can name a charitable project that is trying to raise awareness while also dovetailing nicely with current mainstream standards of beauty. British former model Bianca Embley has set out to change this, at least in the UK. After a work-related accident that resulted in a diagnosis of severe fibromyalgia, Embley was left unable to work. According to her website, Embley “aim[s] to raise awareness of Fibromyalgia, specifically in the press and media, but also by supporting awareness campaigns through UK Fibromyalgia charities and organizations” with the rather risqué Polka Dot Gals 2009 Calendar [NSFW]—a 12-month compendium of artistic nude and nearly-nude portraits of female models, including one who, the website crows, has posed for such illustrious publications as Maxim and Playboy. All of the photographs make use of the organization’s official colors (black polka dots on a yellow background) in various creative ways. The calendar and its photos have garnered a fair amount of press coverage in Great Britain, in addition to quite a few celebrity endorsements. While this project’s goal is certainly one that means well, the project also brings questions of conventional female beauty, its marketability, and intended audience to the fore.

The Polka Dot Gals project seems to have an almost-exclusive focus on a very specific type of beauty that’s almost a Feminism 101 cliché: the young, white, thin, fully made-up and free of body hair paragon of femininity that is so overexposed in modern consumer culture, advertising and—dare I say it—pornography. As many a feminist activist has warned us, this type of “beauty” sells; at the same time, it is this sort of representation of female beauty that feminists have decried since the 1970s.

However, what makes this criticism more complicated is that Embley herself posed for the calendar, and though she may appear able-bodied in these images, she is not. The photographs that feature Embley have her posed [link goes to an article that appeared in The Sun; NSFW] in ways that suggest that she is able-bodied, at least in part; in one shot, she stands fully nude, her back to the camera, as she clutches a martini glass in one hand and her cane in the other. Taken out of context, this pose does not seem to allude to her condition in an obvious way—and the photograph, in fact, looks strikingly similar to many soft-core images that have come before it. The message seems to be twofold: 1) Women with chronic illnesses can still be sexy, albeit in ways that are approved and encouraged by the culturally sanctioned gold standard of sexualized, “feminine” display; and 2) This sexiness can be channeled into photographs for public display and consumption, so long as the goal is to “raise awareness” of chronic illness and disability.

A few of the poses struck by these ostensibly well-meaning calendar girls don’t seem to have much to do with the condition, or with disability, at all: former Playboy model Danni Wells, in her photo, wears both a coquettish smirk and a yellow and black polka-dot ribbon that (just barely) covers her naked body. Were it not connected with Embley’s campaign, the image could plausibly be a banner ad for a porn website. Wells’s personal stake in the campaign stems from the fact that her grandmother lives with fibromyalgia. (One might wonder how Wells’s grandmother feels about her granddaughter’s participation in the project, especially given the nature of the images that make up the calendar.)

Such images bring to mind the question of intended audience; according to the website, a “portion of the profits” will go toward raising awareness of the condition in the UK, which begs the question of who, exactly, might purchase this calendar. The fact that the calendar is full of photographs that, by and large, seem designed to appeal to a heterosexual and possibly able-bodied male audience, is obviously problematic in a feminist sense. Given that fibromyalgia is a very gender-skewed condition (the ratio of females to males with the condition—at least within the US—is nearly 10 to 1), it appears that projects which aim to raise awareness of the condition in new and interesting ways have been a long time coming. The goals of the Polka Dot Gals are admirable, and the calendar may bring some much-needed attention to a condition that lacks a public face, but the project’s uncritical reproduction of the white, attractive and (seemingly) able-bodied female body as body-on-permanent-display—no matter if the body in question is wrought with constant pain and fatigue—is still troubling.

Gender presentation, disability and intersections

A few months ago, there was a wonderful conversation in the blogosphere about gender presentation and disability. Jumping off from bfp’s what is butch? (check out the comments for some interesting disability discussion) a range of commenters and bloggers had something to say, and it evolved to have a strong disability focus. Here are extracts from some of the posts:

From cripchick’s on gender and disability:

our bodies are objects that are not supposed to belong to us and by recognizing our genders, it implies that we own our bodies, think about them, take pleasure in them. maybe this is a big jump but to me, affirming our gender also recognizes our personhood: it says we are human and have a right to not have our bodies raped, abused, sterilized, experimented on, harvested, and more…

From Wheelchair Dancer’s Butch/Femme – Crip:

My decision to wear impractical shoes is as much a consequence of me not having to walk in them as it is a decision to participate in a particular understanding of femininity. But what do you see? A sad attempt to look normal? A pair of high heels on a woman? Or something so over the top that it slides into the devotee/fetish view of disabled female sexuality? Note that this is a risk that is only present for disabled women. It’s a long way for nondisableds to go through femme to fetish. Merely presenting certain aspects of traditional femme for a queer disabled woman puts her at risk of becoming a usually straight object of the devotee community.

From Goldfish’s Gender Presentation & Disability:

Myself, I like skirts and jewellery and what my stylist friend calls romantic clothes, but I can’t be doing with discomfort and material frivolity. I can’t cope with it in terms of pain and energy levels, and I can’t afford it. So I break the rules.

I don’t want to talk about my gender presentation as it ties in with disability, because it also interacts with race in some painful ways I am not in a space to discuss as well as some class issues I haven’t properly examined. And, indeed, I don’t feel right defining, settling into a particular mode of presentation, at least for now. But that’s no reason you can’t talk about yours. How does your gender presentation interact with your disability, your sexual orientation (or lack thereof, if that’s how you frame it) and your life history?

Ill

The topic of mental illness came up again with the latest large-scale hate crime against women to make national news. It’s a nice easy narrative for George Sodini to be a psycho, to be crazy, to be mentally ill because then we don’t have to understand him. We don’t have to relate, because we’re not like that.

Thing is, we’ll never know if Sodini was mentally ill or not. We can’t tell from what he left behind, and he’s no longer around to ask. The things he wrote aren’t all that unhinged; he just took the workaday hatred of black people and women that is everywhere in our society and picked up a gun and went hunting.

And the mentally ill means violent narrative is false anyway. Mental illness correlates with an increased risk of being a victim of violent crime, not of committing it.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating because there’s so much silence and stigma and ignorance surrounding mental illness. I’ve had kind of a lot of experience with mental illness and the mental health professions. Some of it may be triggering.

I have taken (in no particular order) Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, Serzone, Xanax, Ativan, Risperdal. I’ve self-medicated with alcohol a lot and smoked cannabis and taken LSD when I could get it. I have been diagnosed, at various times, with clinical depression, bipolar type I disorder, bipolar type II disorder, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, gender dysphoria disorder, depressive psychosis, and paranoia. I strongly suspect that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which would explain a lot of my symptoms, behaviors, and difficulties. I have spent time in private and public psychiatric hospitals and spent years in weekly or twice-weekly therapy. I have damaged myself in ways ranging from very small — pulling on my hair repeatedly — to very serious — shooting myself in the left hand between the third and fourth metacarpal bones. I still have PTSD-like symptoms from the last and from growing up in an abusive environment, though episodes of it get farther apart as time passes. I have had suicidal thoughts that became elaborate plans. There were times that the only thing keeping me alive was someone needed to feed the cat. I am not alive for big important reasons; I am alive for small stupid reasons. I am alive because I didn’t want whoever found me to suffer the trauma of it. I have suffered delusions and intrusive thoughts and I have always had minor hallucinations (words printed on a page are red instead of black, patterns on a floor or wall shift while I look at them). I often have trouble understanding people when they talk and try to pass it off as being hard of hearing. I’m not; I hear fine. I have trouble processing auditory information and especially picking conversation out of background noise.

You’d think I was dangerous. I’m not. Really. I’m not even dangerous to me. Damaging myself — like it is for so many people who self-harm — is a way to stay alive, to cope with trauma. I have better ways to cope now and I don’t do that any more, but sometimes when I’ve had a really hard day and I hurt a lot and the noise in my head is very bad I remember how comforting it was to draw a blade across my arm, to feel the skin part, to see the blood well up, and how it made the noise go away for a while. Maybe it makes me crazy, but that is a warm fond memory for me. And it is what I needed to do when I needed to do it. I have the same memories about smoking, and I don’t do that these days either.

I’m much better now than I was. There are long periods where I don’t need psychiatric meds at all. But I am not cured and I never will be. I will always have mental illness in my life, just as I will always have fibromyalgia and physical pain. I’m back on an SNRI now and it’s helping and that’s good, because I could feel the old illness patterns coming back. Things have been bad lately with the economy. But I’ll be okay. I know how to cope with the bad things in ways that aren’t so drastic. There are people I can ask for help. I’m not alone.

Even if I am crazy.

Disability Is a Feminist Issue

FWD/Forward is all about the intersection between feminism and disability issues, so it’s worth talking about why I think (know) disability is a feminist issue. I’ll note that this post is not intended to be a comprehensive review, nor is it intended to be the final word on the matter. It’s just a brief primer. Also, fair warning, I’m a bit jived on asthma medication right now, so this post is a bit slangier and more sarcastic than my usual oeuvre.

The short version of the reason that disability is a feminist issue is that some people with disabilities are women. I know, shocking! But I’m here to tell you that it’s true. And I don’t speak from purely anecdotal evidence. According to the Centers for Disease Control*, approximately one in five American women is living with a disability. So, people, science says that some people with disabilities are also women.

So, if you identify as a feminist, presumably you are doing so because you care about women and issues which affect women. If an issue affects one in five women, it’s probably something which you should care about.

But, there’s more!

Did you know that women with disabilities are up to twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault and violence? Those certainly seem like feminist issues to me, so it seems worth examining why one in five women is at a higher risk of experiencing violence.

Did you know that people with disabilities are also twice as likely to experience poverty and unemployment? Poverty and unemployment are also considered feminist issues by many feminists, in no small part because they tend to disproportionately affect women. So, if you have conditions which already disproportionately affect women involving some women more than others, again, it seems worth exploring the causality behind that.

Did you know that the wage gap is also more severe for people with disabilities? The wage gap is often identified as a key feminist issue; it’s the thing that a lot of non-feminists think about when they hear the word “feminism.” Again, if you have a problem which is recognized as an issue which affects women and you find out that women women experience that problem at an even higher rate than ordinary women, isn’t that a feminist issue?

This is called intersectionality, people. It’s the idea that overlapping and interconnecting systems of oppression are involved pretty much anywhere you feel like looking. Now, every single feminist in the entire world does not need to address every single overlapping system of oppression which touches women. But every single feminist in the entire world does have an obligation to make sure that deliberate harm is not inflicted by ignoring intersectionality. That means that if the focus of your feminism is, say, sex positivity, you need to think about sex positivity beyond pretty white straight cis people without disabilities. Because, if you don’t, there’s a chance that you, yes, you, are hurting people with your feminism. And not just people in general, but other women!

And, I would like to point out that this is an argument so simple that even my father, who is the most un-hip person you can imagine, who scratches his head when he hears the words “intersectional feminism,” gets it. So if my dad can get it, you can get it, seeing as you are presumably interested in feminism and disability issues, since you’re reading this site, which means you’re already ahead of my father.

*Have you ever wondered why it’s called the “Centers for Disease Control,” instead of the “Center for Disease Control”? It’s because it’s the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” which is somehow magically acronymed into CDC. Who knows where the P went!

By 14 October, 2009.    101, feminism, intersectionality   



Next page →
← Previous page