Category Archives: othering
If you spend a lot of time talking or writing about accessibility, someone will eventually tell you this apocryphal story:
When Steven Hawking (and it’s always Steven Hawking) started teaching at Cambridge, they needed to put in ramps in all of the buildings, since they all had those beautiful huge sets of stairs as the only way in. One security guard (and it’s always a security guard) protested. “What are you doing that for? I’ve been working in this building for 30 years, and not once have I seen anyone in a wheelchair come through those front doors!”
(I know when people tell me this story I’m supposed to laugh. It’s kinda hard, though: I’ve basically been told exactly that by university administrators; professors; graduate students; student representatives; municipal, provincial, and federal candidates and elected officials; bus drivers; taxi cab drivers; small business owners; large business owners; Fox news commentators; bloggers of a variety of political stripes; apartment building managers; independent book store staff; national chain bookstore staff; people who run on-line campaigns, tea shop staff, coffee shop staff….)
I think what I’m supposed to get out of this story is the ha-ha, look at the ignorant person.1 What I end up getting out of this story is that the burden of pushing for something to be accessible pretty much consistently falls on people with disabilities themselves. We have to ask because no program, no building, no website, will be willingly designed with the idea that people with disabilities are part of a broader target audience. Only websites, buildings, and programs aimed right at people with disabilities will do so. 2 (Until laws are passed, of course. And even then the law will be only grudgingly followed.)
Accessibility is often treated like a favour that non-disabled people do for (or even to) disabled people, one that is given out of the goodness of one’s heart. It’s an individual’s problem to bring up, and the solution is for individuals to come up with.
This attitude comes up in lots of different ways, both online and off. To focus specifically on what larger entities do:
– The issue of subtitling the political ads on YouTube is brushed aside because D/deaf people apparently don’t complain enough about subtitling for politicians to bother subtitling their ads.
– I am on the planning committee for a conference and was told that if actual disabled people signed up for the conference they would bother moving one of the events to a wheelchair accessible space, but otherwise they’d keep it in the room down a flight of stairs because it’s a nice room.
– As I have also pointed out before, having your requirement for receiving funding to complete your education being “student leadership” while simultaneously telling students with disabilities that they’re not able to attend events that are sponsored by the university (which is what having your event up two flights of stairs not suitable for “the very elderly or disabled” is doing) is telling students with disabilities that they can’t get the funding to complete their education. And yes, student funding in Canada is increasingly tied to poorly-defined “student leadership.”
When I point out these issues, I’m often told that these are individual problems: D/deaf people need to complain more! More people with disabilities need to attend conferences! Here, let me give you a list of individual solutions! It basically asks people with disabilities – people who already have a lot on their plate – to do more. And it often puts people in the situation where they may find a solution for themselves, but it’s one that leaves everyone else – whether friend, ally, or fellow traveler down the road – to sort out their own individual solution. To re-invent the wheel every time.
This isn’t the way this needs to work.
How it needs to work: Assume people with disabilities exist. Just like we assume people without disabilities exist.
So, politicians should make their political ads with both disabled & non-disabled people in mind, and thus the idea of subtitling isn’t one that’s new or unusual to them, it’s one they thought of all along. (Bonus points: maybe they could think of actual disabled people when making their platforms, too.) Plan events without assuming that everyone attending is going to be non-disabled. Then no one has to say “I’m disabled, I can’t go down a flight of stairs.”
We don’t act like putting a door in the front of our building is a favour we are doing. We assume that doors are necessary. And yet, people treat having a ramp to that door as a favour they are doing, when the ramp serves the same purpose: it allows people to come inside.
- I’m not particularly exploring the class issues here, but that’s only because I’m focusing on disability and not because I don’t think they’re there. Of the dozen or so times I’ve been told this, roughly half have had the teller start mimicking a “lower-class” accent when repeating the security guard’s words. ↩
- Before the website upgrade last month, the only page on my entire university website that passed an accessibility challenge was the Student Accessibility Office website. Because of course that’s the only website that a student with a disability will look at, right? ↩
In Houston, an autistic student is being denied accommodations and his parents took the school district to court to fight. However, they ran out of money and were forced to drop the suit. The student, Chapuka Chibuogwu, remains at home, not receiving an education, because his parents didn’t have the financial clout to pursue his legal rights. This is a story that plays out in communities across the United States every day, with school districts pouring money into fighting suits filed by people who are only asking for the accommodations they are entitled to under the law.
Enter the media, which decides to frame this case in a number of, shall we say, interesting ways. Chibuogwu’s parents are immigrants, and there’s a heavy focus on the ‘broken dreams’ narrative going on here, with a side of ‘all immigrants can succeed if they try hard enough’:
Dreams brought Kenneth Chibuogwu to America and in time determination brought many of those aspirations within reach.
“I worked hard. I came to this country with nothing,” says Kenneth.
This is a common element I see in stories about problems immigrants encounter in the United States. There’s a myth here that this country welcomes ‘the right kind’ of immigrants, people who work hard and keep quiet, and these stories frame problems as simply personally unfair, rather than as evidence of more systemic issues. They remind immigrants that they just need to try and they will succeed in the United States, since obviously things like racism don’t present any obstacles at all to members of the immigrant community. These stories present the United States as a fundamentally fair, free place, as the pinnacle of human achievement, and makes sure to grab pull quotes to reinforce this:
“There was nothing I could do but cry because I was so shocked that such a thing could go on in this country,” added Neka [Chibuogwu’s mother] of the repeated conferences with Alief administrators ending in stalemate.
In this case, the school district turned around to sue the parents to demand repayment of the legal expenses it incurred fighting the original suit, and when it lost, it appealed. This isn’t personally unfair. This isn’t about broken dreams. This is evidence of a systemic problem. When a school district is so opposed to accommodating students that it retaliates with countersuits when people attempt to get the district to comply with the law, that’s indicative of deep, sustained ableism.
And, of course, this article includes lines like ‘…a child who will spend each and every day of his life challenged with autism.’ Never is Chpauka Chibuogwu himself represented, except as a shadowy figure at the fringes of the story. Interviews with both parents are present, but he is firmly relegated to the sidelines.
This quote is illuminating:
“What they are trying to do is send a chill down parent’s spine about advocating for their children,” says Louis Geigerman, president of the Texas Organization of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates.
Note that Geigerman doesn’t say ‘this case is being used to threaten disabled students who need accommodations.’ Not ‘this case is designed to send a clear message that disabled students are not deserving of accommodations,’ not ‘the fact that this school district is fighting this hard to deny accommodations is illustrative of some serious problems with our education system.’ No. It’s about the parents.
Now, obviously, a child being denied accommodations in school is probably going to have trouble self-advocating, for a variety of reasons, ranging from ageist attitudes to perhaps not having access to information about self-advocacy to being around people who refuse to communicate on the student’s terms. So, clearly, parents play an important role in securing accommodations for disabled children and in forcing school districts to comply with the law. However, the complete erasure of the student in this case, and in most cases like it, is really frustrating. It’s a reminder that people with disabilities are defined by the people around them, rather than existing as individuals.
The only direct reference to the student is this editorial line thrown in at the end of the story:
As for Chuka, he’s now fourteen, attends no school and for five years hasn’t received a single minute of the free and appropriate public education that is his right.
That should be the centre of the story. The denial of education to the student should be the focus. The fact that the school district is violating the law should be the focus. Persecuting his parents with lawsuits is definitely part of the story, and it’s an important part, since the decision to attack his parents for fighting for accommodations is illustrative of the way the district views disabled students, but the story isn’t framed that way. The story is framed as a hardship for the parents, with the student as an afterthought. ‘As for…’ is the line you use when you are making a throwaway comment. This student is not a throwaway.
I’ve recently gone back to school and today had my first class session. This week has consisted of various orientation activities, meeting the faculty, sessions on academic integrity and what constitutes plagarism, learning about the library and the career services office, all that kind of thing. I’ve finished each day exhausted and unable to do anything more than flop on the couch – as has everyone else in the incoming class.
The first thing the professor did today was say that this was her return to teaching after serving for several years in a university position to increase diversity. The second thing she did was announce her rules for the 3 hour class – no laptops, no cell phones, and no eating. And I cringed. My disabilities don’t really require accommodations for any of those policies. I have the hand strength and fine motor control to take notes by hand, although in the past when I’ve had more problems with muscle tremors, I’m not sure that I would have. I also don’t need a cell phone alarm to remind me to take meds at specific times, or to record the lecture or discussion for me to refer to later. One of the meds I take requires me to keep my blood sugar and salt levels fairly stable, so I sometimes find myself in a crisis and needing to eat something immediately, but I could make sure to eat right before class and keep something in my bag to eat during the 10 minute break if I needed to.
So I’ll be ok – which is good, because just imagining what I would have to go through to get an accommodation made me even more exhausted than I already was. My first step would have been to talk to the professor about the policies and ask for an accommodation. Frankly, I found her somewhat intimidating and not super approachable based on her initial lecture and the idea of disclosing my disability status to her was not exceptionally appealing. If I’d needed the accommodations during the first class session, I would have had to interrupt the entire class to ask to speak with her outside, alerting everyone there to my special needs. She explained to the class that the exclusion of laptops and cell phones was designed to facilitate and encourage class discussion and minimize distractions during the class session, so I can imagine that she might have made an exception to that policy for accommodation needs. But she explained her exclusion of food was because she “didn’t want to hear you chomping on a sandwich,” which would still be a problem if I were eating for disability reasons.
In either case, it would have been immediately and obviously apparent to the other students in class that I had gotten permission to violate the stated policy. Given that the laptop and cellphone ban was not enthusiastically received by any of the students, I am sure I would be questioned about why I got to have a laptop, or why I was special, and why couldn’t they have one too.
But imagine that the professor did not agree to provide an accommodation, or that I needed the support of the Students with Disabilities office to make the request or document my need for such an accommodation. I identified myself as a student with a disability on my application materials, but I believe that information was simply for diversity purposes, rather than identifying me to professors or to the Students with Disabilities office. I would have to call the disability office to schedule an in-person intake appointment. I have no idea if they require documentation of my disability – I don’t have any medical records documenting my diagnosis and so would have to request those from my psychiatrist.
The mere thought of going through all this made me weary.
How could this have been avoided? I think if the professor had announced the policies and then added “if anyone needs disability accommodations regarding any of this, please talk to me during the break or after class.” Signaling awareness of the possibility that students may need accommodations and willingness to discuss and provide those accommodations would have eliminated a lot of my potential concerns in less than 10 seconds of extra time.
As it turns out, I’m dropping the class for other reasons, so I don’t need to follow up on the eating issue. Which relieves me greatly.
Late last week, PinkyIsTheBrain on tumblr began a campaign to bring attention to the new Investigation Discovery show “Who the Bleep Did I Marry?”, which equates someone being trans* with being a serial killer, a con artist, or a bank robber.
[Note: If you’re unfamiliar with Tumblr, it can be a bit hard to navigate. “Conversations” or comments or follow-up tend to be nested.]
Music plays in background: “Love and marriage, love and marriage”
The video opens on a scene of a wedding in an idyllic location surrounded by trees with an arbor of flowers. The camera zooms in on the bride, who turns and says:
(Marriage officiant in the background): Join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.
First Bride: Five years from now, I’ll find out that he’s a bank robber.
The camera cuts to a different couple, walking under a portico with their backs to the camera. The bride turns to the camera and says “Serial murderer.”
A zoom in on another couple, standing like they are being photographed with their families.
Third Bride (loud whisper): Russian spy!
Another couple, cutting a cake.
Fourth Bride: Cheater. With three other wives.
Another couple, surrounded by a crowd, the bride sitting on a chair while her husband kneels to pull off her garter.
Fifth Bride: And he’s a… a she.
We cut back to the original couple, kissing at the altar.
The closing shot is of a fancy black car driving away, trailing ribbons, tin cans, and toilet paper. ‘Who the (bleep) did I marry’ is chalked on the back window.
Marriage Officiant (sounding disgusted): Who the bleed did you marry?
Voiceover: Who the bleep did I marry? All new [episodes?], only on Investigation Discovery.
This is not just a ridiculous comparison, it’s a pretty damned offensive one that equates being trans* with being a serial killer – and once again equates being trans* with lying, which is the same argument that murderers make with they murder trans* people.
FuckYeahFTM looked up the contact information for the Discovery Network, encouraging people to get in touch and point out how bloody offensive and shitty this is:
Here’s more info about the show:
Who The Bleep? [Opens with sound & Video]
The other episodes they have include: Married to An Embezzler, The Biggest Con, Married to a Spy, Married to A Bank Robber
And they are including marrying a transman, or in their words “He is actually a She” on that level, with criminals and murderers.
Discovery doesn’t actually make it easy to contact them with concerns (I had to use a search engine to find the Contact page because it wasn’t anywhere on the Who The Bleep? page), so here’s how I did it:
32. How can I contact you with programming comments or questions?
We welcome your e-mail comments and questions, which you can send to us by clicking here.
This is the most efficient way to contact us. Comments or questions directed to anyone else at Discovery Communications will be forwarded to Viewer Relations, which means it will take us longer to follow up.
You can also write to us at:
One Discovery Place
Silver Spring, MD 20910
There is actually a lot of “required information” before Discovery will let you contact them. They want your age, your name, what network you’re writing about (Investigation Discovery in this case), post code, Cable provider, program time, and “information needed” (along with several other pieces of non-required information) before you can fill in your comment. I believe it’s five steps before you can tell them what your concern is, the site is very slow (at least for me), and I have no idea how accessible it is. (It does not like my computer at all)
However, reaching out and making it clear to Discovery that this stuff is not okay, that being trans* is not a crime, is not lying, and is not the equivalent of being a “Russian Spy” or a “Bank Robber”, is important, and I hope as many of you as possible will contact them and make that clear.
This is what I wrote, if you are looking for a template:
Hello Discovery Network,
I am disgusted and appalled at your decision to equate being a trans man with being a criminal, a spy, or a murderer. A trans man is not “really a she”. He is a man who married a woman. The decision of your network to “out” someone like this is especially dangerous, as many trans people are murdered for allegedly “faking” or “lying” or otherwise “cheating” their sexual partners.
I hope you will reconsider your decision to air such an exploitive, dangerous, and abusive program.
Again, here is Discovery’s Contact Form. I emailed them last week and have so far received only a form letter, but if we overwhelm them with numbers, surely they have to pay attention, right?
Today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day.
Being suicidal, especially if you have long-term thoughts about suicide and suicide ideation, can be a very isolating and lonely experience. Do you tell your friends and family? If you do, how will they react? What about your job? Will you be forcedly committed into psychiatric care? Will people assume that if you haven’t actually harmed yourself, you’re not really suicidal and just faking it for “attention”? If you’re happy and having a good time today, does that mean you’re not really suicidal at all? What exactly do you say, and who do you say it to?
These are the things I wish I could tell you:
Be as kind to yourself as you can. If you are having long-term suicidal thoughts, you are ill. You are not weak, you are not failing, you are not letting anyone down. You are sick, and just like if you had a bad cold, or some sort of infections, you need to take care of yourself, and let your body and your mind recover.
There is not a quick fix. Talking to a friend, or a professional, or a help line, taking medication, spending some time in short or long term care, these are all helpful but take take time, something you can take as much of as you need. I wish I could promise you that talking to someone would force your mind and your body to heal, but it won’t. This is not because you’re a failure, but because you are ill, and again, you need to give yourself time, because you are not a failure, and you are not letting anyone down.
You do not have to be perfect. Just like someone with a cold or an infection may skip their cold medication or their antibiotics, and as a result may get sicker or set back their recovery, you too can end up screwing something up. This does not make you a failure, and you have not let anyone down. You are still worthy of getting the help you need, and you can still reach out to people who want to help you. Again, there is no quick fix, and you are allowed to make mistakes.
I cannot promise you that everyone around you will be accepting. It is not unusual in my travels through the internet to find people writing about how people who attempt or commit suicide are “selfish” or “bad”. These people are wrong. You are ill, and that is not the same thing at all. But there are people who are trained to help you, and are willing to help you in the road to recovery, no matter how hard or how long it is. Some of these people will be strangers, and some of them will be friends or loved ones. I know it’s socially isolating and scary, but please try and reach out, because they want to help you. Here is a small list of resources that may be helpful to you.
Your pain, and how you feel, it is all real. You are allowed to feel these things. You are allowed to be who you are. None of this makes you bad, or undeserving, or unlovable.
I hope you find what you need.
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
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.
- 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. ↩