Category Archives: social attitudes

The Largest Minority Round Table Discussion: Glee and Disability in Pop Culture

Last week s.e. smith and several other members of the disability community, including Alice Sheppard (a dancer with AXIS wheelchair dance company), TK Small (a lawyer and disability rights activist), Christine Bruno (who works with the advocacy group Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and Maysoon Zayidd (an actor and comedienne with Cerebral Palsy).

came together on the WBAI show The Largest Minority to discuss Glee and depictions of disability in popular culture. This particular episode of the radio show was inspired by s.e.’s post, A Very Glee Christmas.

You can download directly from their site: This is a direct download link to save-as. Alternately, you can play it on the WBAI site by going to their archives and scrolling down to Shared Timeslot Wednesday 10pm to 11pm on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 10:00 pm. Alternately, you can read the transcript.

The actual show itself doesn’t start until 3:52 in to the program slot.

It’s taken me a while to get the transcript of this done, for which I apologize. I did mean to get this up far faster than I did. I also should note that I had some difficulties always identifying who was speaking, and there are points in the program where the show’s audio cuts out terribly and I’m unsure what they’re saying.

Read more: The Largest Minority Round Table Discussion: Glee and Disability in Pop Culture

Trailer for Gen Silent (Video with Transcript)

Transcription with description follows.

GEN Silent Trailer 2.0 from Stu Maddux on Vimeo.

Read more: Trailer for Gen Silent (Video with Transcript)

We Are Not Your Props

Last week, the Internet exploded over the case of Jody McIntyre, a wheelchair user who was pulled out of his chair during a demonstration in Britain in front of a shocked crowd. I saw the Tweets rolling out live as the incident happened, with people demanding to know why the event wasn’t being covered on television; as usual, the coverage slanted towards focusing on ‘dangerous’ and ‘unruly’ protesters, as well as framing the people involved as ‘middle class’ with the goal of writing off the seriousness of the events and erasing the participation of people from the lower class who were up in arms as well.

From the corner of my eye, I spotted one of the policemen from the earlier incident. He recognised me immediately. Officer KF936 came charging towards me. Tipping the wheelchair to the side, he pushed me onto the concrete, before grabbing my arms and dragging me across the road. (McIntyre writes about his experiences)

The case caught attention as a result of being caught on video and went viral; within days, McIntyre had been interviewed by the BBC and mocked in The Daily Mail. This particular incident of police brutality started getting significant traction in discussions about the protests.

Much of the narrative surrounding this incident was righteous outrage. Seeing footage of a 20 year old man with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair for mobility being hauled out of it and being left to sprawl in the street sparked rage, and my Twitter feed exploded. It’s wrong, most people seemed to agree, for police to abuse ‘the disabled‘ when they are exercising their rights to peaceful protest. People also emphasised McIntyre’s ‘weakness‘ and ‘helplessness’ although I think he pretty amply demonstrated in his BBC interview that he is far from helpless:

Interviewer: And why then, do you think– Are you saying the police picked on your twice. Why do you think they did?

JM: I have no idea. I mean, to make one suggestion, I think in the second incident at least, I think there’s a clear element of trying to provoke protesters into violence. Personally, I see myself as equal to anyone else, but I do understand that I could be perceived as more vulnerable, so I think there was an element of trying to provoke violence from others.

Numerous incidents of police brutality were documented during the London protests, but this particular case got a lion’s share of the attention because it involved a disabled man. Another protester experienced a head injury so severe that it required surgery.

Which is a curious contrast from the way the left seems to regard other wheelchair users exercising their free speech and assembly rights. Every time there’s a significant conservative demonstration here in the United States, I see people using mobility devices being singled out for special mockery by the left. The liberal ableism starts flying when it comes to people with disabilities doing things the left doesn’t like and we are reminded that we are considered pawns when we express views the left does not like, and heroes when we’re expressing views the left does like.

It’s Tiny Tim season, so of course this case hit a number of sweet spots, as it were. McIntyre was an excellent choice ofcause celebre for nondisabled people angry about the police response to the protests because he was a symbol. An object. Dare I say it? A prop. McIntyre was ‘the disabled.’ It’s generally agreed that being mean to ‘the disabled’ is one of the worst things a person can do and unlike those pesky nondisabled protestors who were abused by police, there is, of course, no rational way he could have posed a threat to police, making his abuse at their hands ‘unjustifiable.’

I don’t know how else to say this because I feel like I have been saying it for years, and no one is listening:

We are not props. We are not symbols. We are not rhetorical devices. We are human beings. We have free will and bodily autonomy.

Every protester in London had a right to not be abused by police. Not just the disabled protester. And every person has a right to express views, no matter what they are, no matter who agrees with them, regardless of disability status. Patting us on the head when we fit with your agenda and then telling us we’re ‘clueless’ when we don’t is patronising, it is dehumanising, and it is wrong.

Jody McIntyre attended that protest in full awareness that police violence had been ongoing at the student protests and he took a calculated risk, knowing it was a possibility, just like every other protester. He’s not a hero or a rallying point because he was dragged out of his chair and hit by police while disabled: He’s a person who experienced police brutality. He pointed this out in his interview:

I would say that it’s very important not to see this as an isolated incident. This is the police’s role at demonstrations. To incite and provoke violence. They’ve done it in the past and they’re continuing to do it now. I am not the real victim here. The real victims are the students, like Alfie Meadows, who is in hospital within an inch of his life after a policeman struck him on the head with a truncheon and he needed emergency brain surgery. Now imagine if it was Prince Charles, or Camilla, or a police officer who had been within an inch of their life.

He attended that protest because he had something to say:

“[The police] are out of control,” he said. “I have just as much right as everyone else to protest. My 16-year-old brother now believes he will be unable to go to university because of the higher fees involved.” (‘Footage shows protester dragged from wheelchair‘)

Every time our disabilities are used to leverage pity and other emotions, it’s a reminder that people think of us as consumed and defined by our disabilities. If McIntyre hadn’t been in a chair, he would have gone down with scores of other nameless protesters who were abused by police. If his abuse hadn’t been caught on video, a handful of enraged Tweets would have been the sum total of the matter. Instead, people are trying to leverage him to make political points.

This case is rare; usually when we are used as pawns to advance agendas, we are not allowed to speak for ourselves. McIntyre has been interviewed and given a voice and an opportunity to push back on some of the narratives surrounding him, breaking out of the prop mold people want to shove him in. Most of us don’t have that chance.

I’ll leave you with this:

As a result of events on the 9th December I will be pursuing legal action against the police. But I do not because I see myself as a victim. The real victims are the likes of Alfie Meadows who was hospitalised as a result of his injuries. We need justice not only in my case but also in Alfie’s case and anyone else who’s suffered in this struggle.

While this condemned government continues to promote values of inequality and attempts to widen the gap between rich and poor, I will speak up for those who do not have a voice. (‘Who’s apathetic now?‘)

Love and Relationships: Pity’s Got Nothing To Do With It

One of the relationship tropes that irks me most when it comes to talking about partnerships where at least one person is disabled is the idea that the relationship only exists because of pity, often paired with the idea that disabled people will take any relationship they can get out of fear that they will be alone forever, sobbing quietly in a dark corner1.

I see these paired ideas reinforced all over the place. Heck, I was watching some Six Feet Under the other day, and there’s a scene where Nate keeps pressuring Brenda as they fight about their relationship, which is kinda falling apart (this is an Alan Ball show, you think it’s going to depict happy, functional relationships?!). For those not familiar with the show, Nate has an arteriovenous malformation that plays a central role in the show and in this scene, he says that Brenda only wants to stay with him out of pity, as he’s recently told her about the diagnosis.

Brenda looks at him and basically says ‘dude, if I didn’t want to be with you, I’d leave you. I want to marry you because I love you, not because I think you’re an object of pity and I feel responsible for you now because you got diagnosed while we were together.’ It was a really nice twist on the way these stories usually play out, where we end up seeing that the nondisabled2 partner really did stay with the disabled person out of pity and ends up feeling burdened and angry and there’s a whole big scene.

I see it in advice columns, where people are told they have an obligation to stay with disabled partners simply because of the disability (or just the opposite, that disability is a get out of relationships free pass, in some cases). I see it all around me, where someone acquires a disability and everyone assumes either that the person’s partner will feel ‘an obligation to see it through’ or will leave now, because, you know, the diagnosis, it changes everything and makes it functionally impossible for the parties to love each other anymore. After the chair, of course, no one would expect the relationship to continue, although it would be very heroic of the nondisabled partner to go ahead and stay anyway. Because what would a disabled person have to add to a relationship, even one that predated the disability?

I know a lot of disabled people, a fair number of whom are in relationships, many of which are with other people with disabilities. One thing I don’t see in those relationships? Pity. Because pity’s got nothing to do with it. Although we are often framed as objects of pity and sadness by the media, although many campaigns intended to raise awareness about disability issues play the pity card hard, pity is a shitty foundation for a relationship. Relationships founded on pity don’t last. Those founded on other things, like say mutual interests or love or, gasp, sexual attraction? They last. The disability is part of the relationship, it may complicate it at times, but it’s not a relationship ender or dealbreaker, and isn’t treated as such.

I always say that wanting to leave someone because of a disability is a shitty thing to do, although disabilities can certainly intersect with larger relationship issues and may ultimately contribute to a decision to separate. But wanting to stay with someone because of a disability is also kind of a shitty thing to do, and I hate how it’s commonly promoted and reinforced in pop culture. At the same time people are told they must stay with people who are disabled, they’re also told that disability is a burden, a ball and chain that will ultimately make the relationship miserable. This is not my idea of a good time, or anyone’s, I imagine; no one would like the idea of a partner staying out of obligation, let alone a partner stewing with resentment.

Hand in hand with the idea that pity is the sole factor in why anyone would want to be involved in a relationship with a disabled person is the thought that we are not choosy or picky about relationships because we cannot afford to be. We take what we get, according to pop culture, because we have no other option. We can’t hope for anything better so we settle for abusive relationships or relationships where we’re not happy3.

Uh, newsflash? We have lots of choices. And we can, just like everyone else, choose not to pursue relationships with people we don’t feel compatible with or aren’t interested in. We can also choose not to engage in relationships with people who are clearly pursuing or staying with us out of some strange, misbegotten sense of ‘service,’ where they are somehow ‘helping the community’ by taking one for the team and dating a disabled person even though ew gross.

Just like everyone else, we can also be involved in exploitative and abusive relationships. And sometimes disability plays a role in that as well, but pity? Also absent. There’s no ‘pity’ when a disabled person stays with an abusive nondisabled person out of fear of losing a caregiver or a home, for example.

I think many of our readers (and contributors) who have been involved with nondisabled people can relate at least one incident where the people around them made it clear that they thought their partners were staying with them out of pity. And for relationships where everyone’s disabled? The belief that disabled people only date each other out of pity and fear (rather than, say, interest in each other) is widespread; what better a person to date a cripple than another cripple, right?

  1. I am imagining a stock photo here of a sadfaced person slumping in a wheelchair facing the wall
  2. Or less disabled, although it’s rare to see two PWDs together in a relationship in pop culture simply because there are so few representations of us at all.
  3. I see the same attitude coming up with fat people, where it’s assumed that fat people aren’t desirable, so fatties will take whatever we can get when it comes to relationships because we have no choice.

New book: Living the Edges: A Disabled Women’s Reader

Living the Edges book cover, with a white title on background of an abstract type painting with a road or path and floating spheres of colourHere’s a book for your list, if you’re celebrating a gifty holiday soon – or just splurge on it for yourself!

Living the Edges: A Disabled Women’s Reader, edited by Diane Driedger, was launched last week in Canada, and it should contain plenty of interest for readers of FWD/Forward.

The McNally Robinson book-launch blurb is as follows:

Diane Driedger has written extensively about the issues of women and people with disabilities over the past 30 years. Diane is an educator, administrator, activist, and researcher in the area of disabled women’s issues in Canada and internationally. She is also a visual artist and poet, and holds a Ph.D. in Education. She lives in Winnipeg.

This collection brings together the diverse voices of women with various disabilities, both physical and mental. The women speak frankly about the societal barriers they encounter in their everyday lives due to social attitudes and physical and systemic inaccessibility. They bring to light the discrimination they experience through sexism, because they are women, and through ableism, because they have disabilities. For them, the personal is definitely political.

While society traditionally views having a disability as “weakness” and that women are the “weaker” sex, this collection points to the strength, persistence, and resilience of disabled women living the edges.

A partial contents list, from Disability Research Forum reveals a whole lot of must-read articles:

“Feminism, Disability and Transcendence of the Body” by Susan Wendell

“Living on the Edges” by Charlotte Caron and Gail Christy

“Mirror Woman: Cracked Up Crazy Bitch Conja Identity” by Marie Annharte Baker;

“Margins Are Not For Cowards” by Cheryl Gibson;

“Triple Jeopardy: Native Women with Disabilities” by Doreen Demas

“Coming Out of Two Closets” by Jane Field;

“Performing My Leaky Body” by Julie Devaney

“To Be Or Not to Be? Whose Question Is It, Anyway? Two Women With Disabilities Discuss the Right To Assisted Suicide” by Tanis Doe and Barbara Ladouceu

“Living Poorly: Disabled Women on Income Support” by Sally Kimpson

“‘Have You Experienced Violence or Abuse?’: Talking With Girls and Young Women with Disabilities” by Michelle Owen

“The Geography of Oppression” by Joy Asham

There was an audio interview with Diane Driedger at CBC’s Weekend Morning Show last Sunday, in which Diane speaks of the book and of her experiences with invisible disabilities and workplace accommodations.

My transcript of the Weekend Morning Show interview, titled “Double Jeopardy”, is below the cut. All errors in transcription are mine.

Read more: New book: Living the Edges: A Disabled Women’s Reader

By 14 December, 2010.    accessibility, intersectionality, social attitudes   



First UK Survey in 13 Years Reveals Significant Barriers to Participation in Society for Disabled Persons

A Life Opportunities Survey in the UK, conducted for the first time since 1997, surveyed 18,000 Britons and the findings on disability are striking. (As are the way the headlines about the survey are framed.) Bottom line? There are significant social obstacles to full participation in society for people with disabilities, leading to increased isolation in comparison with nondisabled people.

There’s a reason we talk about the social model of disability a lot: Because it matters. Many of the obstacles encountered by people with disabilities are created by society, yet disability is framed as a personal failing, and we are told that it’s our responsibility to get the inclusion and access we need, even when this is functionally impossible. One person cannot fundamentally rejigger the very structure of society; I, for example, cannot singlehandedly make sure that every new construction in the United States, or even in my own community, is accessible, because there are too many obstacles in the way. Access and accommodations are treated as a tremendous hardship and a nuisance and disability is framed as a burden: On society, on family members, on schools, on hospitals. This contributes to persistent social attitudes about disability that make it harder for us to achieve inclusion.

This doesn’t mean we should just give up. But it does mean that looking at disability solely from the perspective of a more personalised model makes it inherently difficult to address a lot of issues impacting people with disabilities. Making the focus on individuals, rather than institutions, also allows society to get a free pass on the barriers it creates; it’s our fault, evidently, that we are more likely to experience poverty, rape, sexual assault.

In employment, 56% of adults with impairments experienced restrictions in “the type or work they did or the salary they were paid” compared with just 26% of the general population.

This income inequality severely disadvantaged those with disabilities. Almost a third of households with an adult with impairments said they could not afford a week away on holiday each year – compared with just one in five of other households.

Shockingly, 12% of adults with impairments experienced difficulty “accessing rooms within their home or difficulty getting in or out of their home” compared with just 1% of adults without impairments. (‘Disabled people ‘twice as likely’ to miss out on careers, courses and holidays‘)

The survey also found that stress is a significant contributor in the lives of many people with disabilities, and when you are disabled, you are much more likely to be living on the edge. From the same article:

An unexpected bill of £500 would leave 38% of impaired adults struggling compared with 26% of their able-bodied peers.

“It is hard to know whether this is because people with impairments have reduced incomes or because they have higher living costs,” said Howe.

I would note that the UK is also in the process of putting through brutal cuts to the disability living allowance, making financial hardship even more likely in the future. Writing at Comment is free, Sharon Brennan notes:

A disabled person’s disability will not go away just because the government has decided to save 20% on its DLA bill. The only change will be that those affected will have to fund the higher costs of living out of their own pocket. And these pockets are already threadbare. These cuts will affect a sector of society that the Disability Alliance UK states is already twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens.

The Daily Telegraph took the ‘but disabled people really want to work‘ tack in its reporting, stressing the barriers to employment for people with disabilities and how this translates into increased financial hardship.

Almost half of households where at least one person had a disability (45 per cent) were unable to afford expenses or make loan repayments, compares to 29 per cent of households where no-one had an impairment.

Barriers to transport were also noted as a significant obstacle, whether people with disabilities are trying to get to work, socialise, or access an education. We are more likely to rely on public transport, for a variety of reasons, and we often encounter inaccessible transportation, essentially trapping us at home. This is a social obstacle, not a personal one. Wheelchair users, for example, are not inherently immobile; they are immobilised by inaccessible transit, by broken buses, by drivers who refuse to pick them up, by sidewalks that are not maintained.

The study also noted that some social obstacles, like high costs for housing and transport, impact nondisabled people as well. Addressing those barriers to access would benefit not just disabled members of society, but low income people in general. Making changes to work towards a more inclusive society, in other words, isn’t just about ‘the disability agenda.’ It’s about basic measures that would be helpful for all humans.

These results are being called ‘enlightening,’ which is what happens when you ignore people who have been shouting loud and clear for decades about barriers to social access, and when you decide that conducting surveys to learn more about the specific needs of the disabled community is so unimportant that you only need to do it every 13 years or so. These results are only ‘enlightening’ and ‘shocking’ to people who haven’t been paying very close attention.

Meanwhile, in the United States, another study recently released notes that people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience violent crime.

By 13 December, 2010.    accessibility, social attitudes   



Portly + Powerchair + Pedestrian = Panic

Ow. My head hurts.

And this is why.

Power chairs: older and fatter Americans are on the move – St. Petersburg Times:

“A man on a moped crashed into a man in an electric wheelchair the other night in the middle of Fourth Street. There on the front page of the paper was a police tape picture of one of those objects we see all over. The wheeled mobility industry calls it a power chair.

A what? A “power chair”? Wow, I’ve never heard of one of those before! Whatever could this “power chair” item be? What is it for? Should I be frightened? It’s something to do with teh fat, right? Cos there’s “fatter” up there in the headline.

They’re everywhere, it seems, dotting the downtown streetscape, a kind of ant trail from the condos to the Publix and back.

The temptation is to declare these are the new symbols of this city. Used to be folks sitting on green benches, God’s waiting room and whatnot, and now it’s folks sitting on … these.

Truth is, though, power chairs and mobility scooters are far from just a Florida phenomenon, and mishaps are not unusual.

WHAT? These … contraptions … are in places OTHER THAN FLORIDA too? SOMEbody really did just discover powered mobility devices for the first time. And they’re not happy.

[…] Electric mobility devices, or EMDs, are everywhere because of trends in geriatrics and bariatrics. Those are the portions of the health care industry that deal with old people and fat people.

This is America, getting bigger and older, fatter and grayer, rolling into the future.

[Snip prolooooooonged agonising – they’re not quite motorised vehicles, they’re not quite bipeds, what do we CALL them? How do we TREAT them? The sky is falling!]

They don’t need to be registered, after all, and they don’t have state plates. And what about the people in them? They don’t need a license. Does that make them pedestrians? They’re clearly not using their feet.

[More agonised whining. Did you know that now and again, old people drink alcohol? Shocking, I know.]

State law also says sidewalks are for pedestrians. No motors.

Hmm.

Reeeeally? Are you sure about that State law? Did you, say, look up what “pedestrian” means? Here’s a clue, from a the 2010 Florida Code, TITLE XXIII MOTOR VEHICLES, Chapter 316 STATE UNIFORM TRAFFIC CONTROL , 316.1995 “Driving upon sidewalk or bicycle path”, which I found with a 60-second Google search:

(1) Except as provided in s. 316.008 or s. 316.212(8), a person may not drive any vehicle other than by human power upon a bicycle path, sidewalk, or sidewalk area, except upon a permanent or duly authorized temporary driveway.

(2) A violation of this section is a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a moving violation as provided in chapter 318.

(3) This section does not apply to motorized wheelchairs.

Section 3 is fairly recently clarified, but it’s clear from other law sites that motorized wheelchairs were considered pedestrians by custom before the clarification.

Now that that’s settled, back to the “older and fatter” article:

Read more: Portly + Powerchair + Pedestrian = Panic

By 10 December, 2010.    accessibility, shaming, social attitudes   



Howard Hyde Inquiry Ignores Ableism As Cause of Death

Note: This post discusses police violence against people with mental health conditions.

The results of the Hyde Inquiry were released on Wednesday.

Some things about the Hyde Inquiry, since I don’t think it’s been widely covered outside of Nova Scotia. I wrote this summary several months ago:

Howard Hyde had a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The treatments he was on were making him sick, so he stopped taking them. He became violent.

His wife called the mobile mental health team – a project in Halifax that will go to you rather than you needing to go to them. She then called 9-1-1.

Two days later, he was dead in police custody, having been tasered.

Various things went horribly wrong. Among them were -and continue to be – the police’s inability to deal with people who have schizophrenia, amongst other mental health related conditions.

What they should have done was taken him to the hospital. Which they did, for a bit, and then left, returning him to lock-up.

His wife had tried to contact them and make sure that he was okay, and that they were aware that he had schizophrenia.

“I really wanted him to be in the hospital and get the treatment he needed for psychosis,” she said.

He had been taken to hospital for assessment, and the hospital staff requested that he be returned to the hospital after his arraignment hearing. He was not.

Parts of the surveillance tape of the tasering itself are “missing”.

“Hyde began struggling when officers tried to cut the string from his shorts. Though images were not caught on tape, surveillance audio recorded sound of the scuffle. Edwards can be heard saying “Howard, sit down.” Fellow Const. Greg McCormack is then argued to have said “You’re going to be doing the f***ing dance next, Howard,” although his voice is muffled.

It was also revealed that more than 30 minutes of footage of Hyde in a cell waiting to be booked has gone missing.”

I’ve since learned that what was actually said to Howard as the police officers approached him with a knife:

A surveillance camera captured the moment when an officer told Hyde a utility knife would be used to remove a knot from the drawstring in Hyde’s shorts, saying: “I just have to cut off one of those balls there.”

Anyway, as I said, the results were back. After 11 months of looking into the death of a man who police were called to help, we’ve all been told that Howard’s murder was an “accident” and it had nothing to do with his mental health condition.

“The only useful approach is to understand that Mr. Hyde died because of physiological changes in his body brought on by an intense struggle involving restraint,” Derrick wrote. “He did not die because he was mentally ill.”

I suppose this is technically correct. Howard’s death was not because he was mentally ill, his death was because the police were ill-equipped to deal with someone having a mental health crisis. I don’t have statistics about the number of men having mental health crises that are murdered by police officers every year, but I do know that I can’t go a whole month without at least one report, and it’s an issue that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada feels needs to be addressed.

I think it is naive to state that Howard wasn’t murdered because of his diagnosis. I think it ignores a frightening history of people with mental health conditions being murdered by police officers. I think it ignores that the criminal justice system is not equipped to effectively deal with people with mental health conditions. I think it ignores that there are limited resources available for people with mental health conditions and their families to get the help they need to cope with crisis situations.

I think it completely ignores the fact that Howard’s wife called the police for help, and two days later he was dead.

So yes, Howard Hyde isn’t dead because he had schizophrenia. He’s dead because ableism kills.

Disabled? Don’t Plan On Driving to the 2012 London Olympics

This post has been edited with updated information.

Here’s a completely bizarre policy move for you: Planners of the 2012 London Olympics announced today that a request to allow disabled ticket holders to use the games lanes set aside for athletes and dignitaries will be turned down. 100 miles (161 kilometers, if you must) of roads are being set up with a prioritised scheme to move official Olympics traffic along1, and disabled drivers don’t get to use any of those, although they might have benefited from the accommodation, avoiding the stress of traffic or inaccessible public transit.

The reason?

…it would not be possible to distinguish between bona fide ticket holders and disabled drivers using the lanes illegally.

That’s right. Because there’s a possibility that a person with a blue badge might use one of the games lanes without necessarily holding a ticket to the games, the organisers have decided to just go ahead and bar all blue badge holders from the lanes. This reminds me of a lot of the ‘fraud prevention’ policies when it comes to disability benefits; everyone’s got a passel of stories about ‘benefits cheats’ or people who use placards without ‘really’ being disabled, and thinks governments ought to move the earth to prevent even one person from falsely claiming benefits, even if the expenses of programmes aimed at addressing fraud far outweigh the payouts in terms of catching people.

We talk about placard panic here a lot, and there’s a reason for it. The media likes to devote utterly absurd amounts of attention to the idea that there are scores of people out there using disabled placards to get away with sneaky sneaky things, like parking closer to the grocery store. There seems to be a very common assumption that a car with placards should be viewed with suspicion because the driver is faking or someone is using placards for a family member of any number of other things, and the level of parking and driving policing that goes on in the media while ignoring other stories of far more importance and relevance is pretty breathtaking. This, of course, reinforces social attitudes and encourages media consumers to also get involved with placard policing.

It’s things like that that lead to decisions like this, where out of fear that a handful of people might abuse their disabled placards to take advantage of the dedicated lanes, people decide to just bar all disabled drivers from those lines after a reasonable request for accommodation. Including, I’m assuming people attending and competing in the Paralympic games, if the policy about the games lanes is taken to its logical conclusion. Which is, uh. Yeah. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Caroline Pidgeon, quoted in this article, puts it well:

When less than one in four Tube stations is wheelchair accessible it is appalling that the ODA have ruled out such a modest proposal.

So, basically, what organisers here are really saying is that they think disabled people shouldn’t bother attending the Olympics. For some people interested in attending, I’m sure that getting to various events was a concern, and being able to use the games lanes would have made it easier and more possible. Have an interest in sports? Too bad. Your kind are not wanted here. Which is interesting, since the organisers have indicated they are interested in accessibility issues; for example, there’s a discussion about making volunteering accessible, and their website has an accessibility statement. I guess accommodations only go so far, eh?

Methinks either the right hand knoweth not what the left hand is doing or someone has some seriously confused priorities.

  1. I would note that Londoners are already not very stoked with this idea; congestion is a serious problem in the city and many people are concerned that the Olympics will make it functionally impossible for people who actually live and work in London to go about their business. This has been a problem for other Olympic hosts, as has the very high cost of costing compared to limited returns, but that’s a different kettle of fish.

Mental Illness: Still Stigmatised! (I’m Shocked Too)

I happened to be browsing through The American Journal of Psychiatry the other day1 when I noticed an article discussing the persistence of stigmatised social attitudes about mental illness. Researchers conducted a study using brief vignettes and asking respondents to discuss their reactions to them2. The study found two interesting things:

The first was that a greater percentage of the population understands the neurobiological origins of mental illnesses. Not only do people have a better understanding of the origins of mental illness, but they are also more likely to recommend treatment for the people described in the vignettes. People support services for individuals with mental illness, in other words, although it’s important to note the publication this appeared in; it’s clear that these ‘services’ are heavily skewed towards psychiatrisation, and it’s also important to consider that this can correlate with increased pressure on people who choose not to pursue treatment.

The second thing they found was that although people understand mental illnesses better than they did before, there hasn’t been a significant change in terms of attitudes about mental illness. Despite social campaigns organised by a number of groups, social attitudes about mental illness are primarily negative and people continue to hold a lot of false beliefs about mental illness.

People understand mental illness better, but it hasn’t changed the way they think about people with mental illness. Given that 20% of people in the US experienced symptoms of mental illness in 2009, this is a disturbing finding. Many of the respondents probably had mental illness themselves, though not necessarily the illnesses discussed in the study, or know some of the one in five people who experience mental illness in the United States.

As the article itself says:

Public attitudes matter. They fuel ‘the myth that mental illness is lifelong, hopeless, and deserving of revulsion.’ …Attitudes can translate directly into fear or understanding, rejection or acceptance, delayed service use or early medical attention. Discrimination in treatment, low funding resources for mental health research, treatment, and practice, and limited rights of citizenship also arise from misinformation and stereotyping. Attitudes help shape legislative and scientific leaders’ responses to issues such as parity, better treatment systems, and dedicated mental illness research funds.

What this study shows is that beliefs about reduction of stigma appear to be erroneous, suggestive that campaigns to end stigma are, perhaps, not working as well as intended. Indeed, some of these campaigns seem to actively reinforce stigmatised attitudes about mental illness.

I write a lot about pop culture, here and elsewhere, both because I love pop culture and I think it’s important. This study reminds me of the information about mental illness that people absorb through pop culture consumption. What people learn about mental illness from pop culture is that it is scary and that people with mental illness are frightening and dangerous. But, ‘they’ can be controlled with the use of medication. Both of these attitudes are clearly reflected in the study, which tells us that more people support treatment while still feeling negatively about mental illness.

The increased understanding of the neurobiological origins of mental illness can be attributed to a lot of things, I suspect, but one of them may well be the popularity of mental illness storylines on medical dramas. House, for example, often uses mental illness and includes expository scenes with (some) medical information. This, along with Dr. Google, results in a lot more understanding about the workings of the mind. On the surface, this might seem to be a good thing, but not when it fails to be presented with a shift in depictions of mental illness.

It’s all well and good for people to learn that, for example, people cannot control or prevent the onset of schizophrenia, and that people with mental illness aren’t at fault for what is happening in their minds any more than people who have asthma are at fault for having difficulty breathing. This is an important thing to convey to members of the public. But when it’s paired with a storyline involving violence or deceit on the part of the patient, it still leaves people with the impression that mental illness is bad. It might not be someone’s fault, but people are still bad because they’re mentally ill.

This is why we talk about things like the depiction of mental illness in pop culture: Because people take things away from what they engage with and they apply those things to their larger lives. Someone who learns about mental illness primarily by watching, say, House or Grey’s Anatomy may learn more about the medicine behind mental illness, but doesn’t take away anything new about the human beings involved. When TV shows tell us primarily that mental illness is a frightening unknown that can be controlled with medication, that doesn’t do much to break down social stigma.

Campaigns attempting to destigmatise mental illness have used a variety of creative media for trying to get their point across, from having people with mental illness enter classrooms to talk to students to running advertisements. If you ask me, they might be more effective if they went straight for the heart of pop culture; getting more mentally ill people involved in consulting when it comes to how we are depicted, publicly addressing stigmatised depictions of mental illness in pop culture, and challenging creators of pop culture to integrate more positive and factually accurate depictions of  mental illness.

  1. No, really.
  2. If you’re interested in seeing a critique of the study methods, they handily printed an editorial in the same issue.
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