Category Archives: invisibility
I don’t have a t.v. at home so I don’t actually watch a lot of advertisements, but when I do, there’s one thing I notice: Unlike the rest of my life, advertisements only include people with evident disabilities when they want to make some sort of point.
I’m really bothered by this. I know, I know, it’s advertising. We also don’t get excited about brighter brights in our laundry and aren’t followed around by wind machines when we get new shampoo. It’s certainly not supposed to represent “real life” in any way, because it’s all fantasy to sell you stuff. But part of what advertising sells us is ideas about people. And part of what I think it sells us is that disability is a punishment, a novelty, a metaphor, or a joke.
As we’ve said before, disability never just is.
I think this does immeasurable damage to both our perceptions of ourselves as disabled people, but also people’s perceptions of disability and what it looks like.
Today I’ve pulled up a bunch of US-based advertisements (oh, wait, I added the Quebec advertisement after writing this paragraph – Canada & the US!) that feature people with disabilities. I’m curious about what people’s thoughts are when they watch these. What take-away messages about disability do you get?
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): Disability as punishment.
The video is a bit grainy, probably meant to invoke “home movie”. It opens with tinkly piano music of sadness and woe. A male singer croons: Together…..
The video opens showing a young man sitting on a bench, reading a book. He’s labelled “Your Best Friend”.
The Singer croons: We’re meant to be….
The young man looks up! There’s a woman! She’s walking up to him, obviously excited to see him. She’s labelled “Your girlfriend.”
The camera pans back to show this scene as viewed through a hospital window. The couple – your best friend and your girlfriend – walk off together hand in hand.
The singer croons: Together! Forever!
The camera continues to pan back to show the back of someone sitting in an electric wheelchair, staring out the window. The hospital room is obviously very bleak. This person is labelled “You”.
The screen goes black, and then: “You have a lot to lose. MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”
That’s right, folks: Don’t drink and drive because if you do you’ll become a scary scary cripple and your girlfriend will leave you for your best friend and you will die alone and unloved!
[Of course it’s a terrible idea to drink and drive. But I’ve seen hundreds of anti-drunk driving ads, and they really can send the same message without implying ‘Don’t drink & drive because cripples don’t get no love’. It can be done!]
Berlitz: Bait & Switch
Camera is doing a gradual close-up on a man in a wheelchair. Behind him is a park. The music is the tinkly piano of sadness.
Man: Up until two weeks ago I always said “It will never happen to me.” But today, look at me. Listen to me. Now I speak English fluently.
The screen goes black, and then “Berlitz. In just two weeks.”
I really waffled back and forth on this ad. On the one hand: Hey! It’s a person in a wheelchair and they’re not presenting him as a sad story. On the other hand, the whole point is to “trick” you into thinking he is telling his sad story but it turns out Surprise! He’s not. I feel this falls into the trope of “Disability to titillate”. What do you think?
Michael J Fox on Stem Cell Research (US political ad)
[Michal J Fox has visible tremors from Parkinson’s Disease.] As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me.
“I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”
Pepsi Superbowl Ad: Deaf people tell jokes, who knew?
The entire advertisement is in ASL:
Woman: This commerical was created and performed by EnAble – a network in PepsiCo which supports inclusion, diversity, and the inclusion of persons with different abilities.
Two men are driving slowly down a residential street, looking around and obviously trying to find which house they’re going to.
Passenger: Hey! We’re going to be late. We’re going to miss the kick off.
Driver: Which house is Bob’s?
Passenger: I thought you knew.
Driver: I thought you knew?
Passenger: No I thought you knew!
Driver: I thought you knew!
Passenger: No! I thought you knew!
He shrugs and starts honking the horn.
HONK HONK HONK
Lights in all the houses start to come on. A dog starts barking. People look out their windows annoyed.
One house stays dark.
Driver: That’s it!
Passenger: Yeah, ya think?
They go up to Bob’s house and push the doorbell. The lights flicker. Bob opens the door. Across the street he catches his neighbour’s eye.
Creating an inclsive environemnt for people with different abilities.
Quebec Society for Disabled Children: Give children wings!
[An animated young boy walks onto the screen, looking sad.] It’s not always fun being a child.
[He sits down into a drawing of a wheelchair.] Especially when you’re disabled.
[A butterfly flies around him, and he begins to look happier.] Disabled children are just like any other children.
[The butterfly lands on his finger. He looks overjoyed.] When you open your hearts, you give them wings.
[The butterfly carries him up into the sky.] Please, help them spread their wings. Thank you for helping the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.
What are these advertisements saying about people with disabilities? What examples of people with disabilities have you seen outside of drug commercials? And what impact do you think these sorts of advertisements have on our perceptions of ourselves, and each other?
Also see: An open letter to abled people who use disabled parking spaces by Annaham, which this is jumping off from. Since I drafted this, s.e. also wrote Dear Imprudence: Who Appointed You the Parking Police?!
Dear abled people who like to glare at people who use disabled parking spaces,
Hi there. It’s great that you’re so conscious that disabled parking spots are for disabled people! I’m pleased you’re so keen to keep disabled spots for disabled people – after all, that’s the law and the right thing. People who aren’t disabled certainly shouldn’t be using those spots.
However, you know what my problem with what you do is? My problem is when you take your anger out on people who are using those spots legitimately. I don’t know if you glare and shake your head and tut because you don’t notice the disability signs/stickers on the front of the car – or if you think they’re faking their disabilities – or if you think those crummy disabled people simply don’t deserve to hog the best parking spots. I don’t know if you do this because you don’t expect to encounter disabled people out and about, so you think the parking spot user isn’t legit. I don’t know why you’re letting dominant narratives crowd out the person there in front of you.
I’d also like you to keep in mind that some people who need disabled parking spaces are prevented from getting the sticker. The red tape involved can be incredibly difficult to negotiate, especially for someone running on the second shift for the sick. Some people who need stickers fall through the cracks formed by the “we need to tighten restrictions because of the tiny number of fakers!” meme.
Just keep in mind that, just as there are a lot of people out there who use disabled parking illegitimately, there are also a lot of people who make life harder for people who are using the parking legitimately.
Don’t be one of them.
Depending on where in the world you are, your nation may be celebrating Veterans Day, Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day today (or yesterday, for those living IN THE FUTURE); I happen to be in the United States at the moment, where we are observing Veterans Day.
There’s a thing I notice, in narratives about veterans. Only certain people are depicted as veterans of military service, while others tend to be erased. Going on statistics for just one service branch (warning, .pdf), the United States Army, I can tell you that 17.2% of the commissioned officers serving are women. 20.9% of enlisted people on active duty are Black. 2.1% of the Army National Guard is Asian.
But I keep coming back to the women, because when I see images meant to evoke military service and veterans, I see a sea of men. I come from a military family, a mixture of men and women (primarily Navy), and to me, the face of the military is not a white man. Yet, to many, it is; take, for example, the Facebook meme making the rounds right now encouraging people to replace their profile pictures with the face of a veteran. I know several women veterans who have received messages about this meme.
They were not amused.
Women serve. Women are serving. Women have served. Throughout history.
And women become disabled as a result of their military service.
In the past week, National Public Radio has reported on two different issues facing women veterans, particularly disabled women, both illustrating the fact that the Veterans Administration is not serving our women veterans adequately.
Women veterans experience psychological trauma and physical trauma. In addition to the signature tramautic brain injuries of Iraq and Afghanistan, one in five military women faces sexual assault and many women veterans are also coming home with mental illnesses. Skyrocketing numbers of women veterans are homeless and struggling on inadequate medical care and benefits. Many VA centres don’t provide women’s health care services and there are tremendous disparities in health care for women in the military as well as veterans.
But, the military, and the veterans system, was originally built by and for men. That legacy frustrates Kim Rushing, a 20-year veteran of the Navy. From her wheelchair, she scoffs at tables piled with olive drab long johns.
“All this stuff, is all men’s stuff,” she says. “I’m a woman and I served my country, and that’s what I get, is men’s stuff.” (‘Veterans Affairs Scrambles To Serve Female Veterans‘)
Rushing isn’t alone. Women, and their service, are erased and continue to be erased. Because women aren’t officially allowed to serve in combat positions, they aren’t eligible for combat medals, even when they are in combat, for example. But this is about more than medals. This is about a fundamental breakdown in the health care system for female veterans, especially women who are now disabled and served in the military with the understanding that the military would take care of them; this is the exchange, for service, to be provided with care.
Ending up on the streets is a common fate for veterans due to lack of support, and it’s especially stark for women.
Over the past decade, the number of female veterans who have become homeless has nearly doubled to roughly 6,500, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of them are younger than 35. (‘No Place To Call Home For Many Female Veterans‘)
Many of these women also have mental illnesses, a legacy of their military service. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is notoriously underdiagnosed in women, which means that homeless women veterans may also be living without diagnoses and access to medical treatment that meets their needs. This is a travesty.
Writing on this ain’t livin’ today, I said:
I never knew my grandfather. I will never know his war stories because he never told them. I don’t need to know them; I don’t need to know anyone’s war stories, I don’t need to know what people saw and did to honour them. I don’t need to know someone’s politics, I don’t need to know why someone joined the military, I don’t need to know what people think about what they did in the course of their military service. None of this information is my business or is relevant to my own experiences and in this country, where the experiences of others are asserted as property by people who have not lived them, this attitude seems to upset or disturb people, that some things are private and demands to lay them out for inspection are not welcome.
This I do know: That women who have served in the United States military are not getting the things they were promised in exchange for their service. That women serving in the military now face restrictions to access for basic medical care. And that I don’t need to know their names or their stories to know that this is wrong.
Veterans Day here in the United States serves as a reminder to thank all those who served, like Ouyang Dan, who writes here, those who are serving, those who gave their lives in service, although of course you can thank a veteran any time.
It’s, for me, also a reminder that my work, of centreing marginalised experiences; refusing to allow people who experience oppression to be erased; and pushing for equal access in all areas of life for all of us, is never done.
Lisa Harney is a single lesbian with ADHD, three cats, and a penchant for writing about social justice and transphobia. She blogs regularly at Questioning Transphobia.
So one of the most frustrating experiences of coming to terms with my disability is realizing just how much ableism has impacted my life without my realization. I mean, I knew that this stuff was not really fair or reasonable, but I didn’t really know why.
When I was in the first grade, my teacher told my mother she thought I had a learning disability. My mother’s goal was to prove that I had no disabilities at all, so she had my intelligence tested and I was categorized as “gifted.” It was also determined that I was nearsighted, which required me to wear glasses. Somehow, unfortunately, neither of these solutions actually helped with my problems: I had trouble retaining what the teacher said to me, and I had trouble doing all of my schoolwork.
In retrospect, being marked as gifted was mostly negative. It meant I had more pressure to perform well, that I should be a straight A student, but I never managed this. My report cards are littered with “doesn’t pay attention” and “doesn’t apply herself” and other negative assessments that read to my parents as “Lisa doesn’t fulfill her true potential.” Now, of course I wanted to, but to me grades felt almost like an arbitrary lottery. I never got grades commensurate with the effort I put into class, and no matter how much effort I did put in, I’d get in trouble when my report card had too many Cs and Ds. There was a reason I could make it to the spelling bee state finals and do calculations in my head, and yet still couldn’t maintain any kind of consistent quality of work.
This had repercussions at home. I learned from my father that I was stupid, lazy, inconsiderate, and selfish. I learned these lessons really well. I internalized them. Somehow I was convinced that I was really sabotaging my own school work. His conviction in my potential wrongdoing was such that he would grill me about what I did at school every day once I got home, and the right answer was always “I didn’t do my schoolwork.” If I said I did, I’d be punished for lying. So I learned to lie to him because the lie was the only acceptable answer. And he convinced me I was an inveterate liar, so it was interesting to realize once I got out on my own that I was total rubbish at it.
So yes, from most of my teachers as well as my father, I learned that I was pretty worthless; that I was stupid and lazy. That my problem was that I refused to apply myself and spent too much time daydreaming, or reading novels, or playing games (role playing games, mostly). That everything I enjoyed was a personal flaw, and that everything I failed at defined me. And this has stuck with me for a long time.
This carried through into my first long-term relationship – which was also abusive. But my partner liked to especially pick on my inattention, my tendency to zone out in the middle of a conversation, my forgetfulness, and insisted on treating me as if I was a child to be controlled instead of her girlfriend. She went beyond this, but this itself is apparently a common pattern in relationships with ADHDers – that a parent-child dynamic develops. This is often framed in articles and literature and by non-ADHD spouses and partners as something the ADHDer is totally responsible for, and relationship problems are often blamed entirely on ADHD, but the non-ADHD partner’s ableism is practically never discussed. And being treated like a child, having every mistake scrutinized and berated and everything you do ignored and forgotten takes a huge toll on you. It’s abusive. My partner was abusive in many ways beyond this, so I don’t want to make it sound like her ableism fueled all of the strife, but it definitely had an impact.
Every attempt I made to enter college hit a wall. I would do really well (and learned I was not in fact lazy or stupid) until I couldn’t anymore. I don’t really know how to describe it. I wanted to get my degree, but once I hit that point, college went from doable to extremely difficult. It may have been changes in routine, greater difficulty in classes, overall stress from spending that much energy to excel constantly without a break. I don’t really know. I just know that I would hit a point beyond which it was very difficult for me to continue. And that I didn’t even know how to find support or assistance, that I don’t feel resources for this were really clearly explained to me if they existed at all. And besides, maybe I was lazy and stupid, right?
Most of my jobs went the same way – I’d do a job well until I couldn’t keep it up any longer, and I’d often have to quit because simply going in was difficult. Again, this is hard to describe, how this works. It is not that I wanted to lose my jobs or that I did not enjoy them, but that I’d end up being unable to continue, or that I’d find it difficult to meet basic requirements like punctuality. And I’d be left wondering how I could have sabotaged this amazing job, and how lazy and stupid I must be and how much I must hate myself to make these choices.
And this really was a spiral of self-hatred and recrimination that continued until the past few months. That I was holding myself to standards I had no idea I couldn’t attain without help, medication, accommodations. That my knowledge of ADHD, the background cultural knowledge was so lacking in information that I really had no idea how to start looking into this, or even that there was anything to look into. I spent more time wishing I had done everything better, that I hadn’t made so many mistakes, that I hadn’t lost two promising careers, that I hadn’t apparently done everything in my power to block my own success. That I had no idea I was not only limited because of my neuroatypicality, but because there simply wasn’t any easily accessible information that would have helped me realize what was happening to my life. Even when I saw doctors about my GAD and panic disorder in 2003, the possibility of ADHD never came up.
Since I wrote my two posts about ADHD on Questioning Transphobia, I’ve had several people tell me in comments, e-mails, or chat that they related strongly to the symptoms I described, that by making my experiences with ADHD accessible, people who have been undiagnosed so far – who might themselves have ADHD – know about the possibility and can respond to that information. According to at least one researcher – Dr. Russell Barkley – it is possible that only 10% of ADHDers who have gone undiagnosed into adulthood are diagnosed as adults.
I am not saying that experiencing ableism without even realizing you have a disability – let alone what ableism is – is worse than experiencing ableism when your disability is known. Just that it was a dark moment for me to realize how much of my life has been defined by ableism, and how much I had no defense mechanisms at all to cope with that and how much I had to realign my own understanding of decades of my own life. The end result is good, in that I was able to resolve a lot of my own self-hatred, but the realization itself was a bit shocking.
Interested in submitting a guest post to FWD? Read our call for guest posts here for more information!
These are some things I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t yet figured out where this train of thought is leading, or what it might connect to, or what conclusions I might end up with. I’m writing this to see if virtually talking it out can help me think through it further, or hoping it will spark some ideas or brilliance in one of you! This is not meant to be an authoritative statement on these issues and there may be glaring issues I’m overlooking! I’m just hoping to have a good discussion about it.
Recently, the federal circuit court in California heard a case about whether the city of Hermosa Beach could ban tattoo shops entirely. The plaintiff – a man who wanted to open a tattoo shop in the city – argued that the ban was an impermissible restriction of his free speech rights. The court wrote a long decision (pdf) considering not whether having a tattoo was something protected by the First Amendment, but whether the actual act of tattooing someone was conduct with sufficient expressive content to be considered as speech. So the court was thinking about whether the act of giving someone a tattoo counts as speech – if the tattoo artist is the equivalent of a painter or a photographer and adding artistic judgment and content to the representation, or if they are more like a computer printer printing out text or images designed by someone else.
This meant the court spent a lot of time discussing the idea of “expressive conduct” – behavior that isn’t actually “speech” in that the person is not speaking words, but is behaving in a way that communicates a message or idea and so is protected the same way that speech is. In the United States, the Supreme Court has already considered a whole bunch of activities and determined that they should be protected the same way that speech is. For example, burning the United States flag, wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War, and nude dancing are all activities that aren’t directly speech, but convey a statement or message and so are protected the same way that speech is.
I started thinking about the idea of “expressive conduct” – behavior that conveys a message or statement – and was immediately struck by how existence as a person with a disability could be seen as expressive conduct. Using a wheelchair or cane or braces while out in public seems to me to express a statement: “I am a person with a disability, I exist, I share public space with you.” This is, as we’ve discussed here at FWD and many others have expressed, a radical statement, a powerful message. To me, it seems equivalent to the message expressed by wearing a black armband to protest a war – it is a political statement of resistance.
The law of expressive conduct recognizes that not every instance of the behavior is communicating an expressive message. If, for example, I had mini American flags as part of a table decoration and one fell into a candle and started burning while I wasn’t paying attention, that flag burning would not be sending the same message as intentionally burning a flag at an anti-war demonstration. My accidental flag burning would not be sending a message and so would not be protected as speech. Similarly, a PWD alone in their apartment likely isn’t sending any message or statement with the mere fact of their existence – they might be typing or painting or speaking and sending a message that way, but not simply by existing. So PWDs wouldn’t automatically “become” speech – only when their existence communicates a message.
I’m not entirely sure where that gets us. In First Amendment law, when conduct is considered speech because of its expressive content, it is protected by the First Amendment, which means that the government cannot restrict it without passing certain protective tests. So theoretically, arguing that disability is a form of speech would let PWDs argue that governmental restrictions on their presence are in fact restrictions on speech. But since the First Amendment only protects speech from restriction by the government, not from private businesses or in private life, I’m not sure that would add any protections that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t already provide. So I’m not sure this analogy would be helpful in extending the existing legal rights of PWD.
I’m also unsure how people with invisible illnesses (like myself) fit into this analysis. My being in public does not automatically communicate to people that I exist as a PWD, because my disability status is not apparent from looking at me. So I don’t start communicating this message until I affirmatively disclose or mark my disability status.
I also wonder if this forcibly ascribes expression or speech to PWDs who do not think they are or want to express that radical message.
I don’t really have a strong conclusion to any of this – I’m still rolling it around in my head to see what if anything it turns into. But I like the idea of acknowledging that when PWDs with visible disabilities are engaged in sending a message as powerful as burning a flag.
What do you think? It’s ok if you don’t have a clear position one way or the other but just have thoughts or reactions!