Tag Archives: Abigail Van Buren

Dear Imprudence: Don’t Talk About Us, Talk With Us

A recent Dear Abby had a question from an employer with a disabled staffer who wants the staffer to feel comfortable at work:

Dear Abby: I run a successful restaurant business. One of my key employees, “Zayne,” has Tourette’s syndrome. He has been a loyal and valuable waiter for many years.

When customers ask what is wrong with him because he makes noises or hits himself, how should I respond? Most of our regular customers understand his condition and ignore it. However, we do get the occasional socially inept customer who gawks or asks rude questions.

I would defend and protect Zayne. He knows people ask about him, and if they question him, he tells them about his condition. What’s the best way to respond politely to people who don’t have a clue? —Zayne’s Boss in the Pacific Northwest

Abby nailed it in her response:

Dear Boss: If you are asked about Zayne, tell the questioner, “That’s Zayne. He has been a valued employee here for many years. If you want an answer to your question, ask him.”

I liked her response for several reasons. The first was that it’s extremely common for people to talk about (and speculate about) people with disabilities instead of just approaching them directly. It would be nice if we lived in a world where people didn’t feel it was entirely appropriate to ask questions about someone with a disability, but at the very least, if people feel compelled to ask those questions anyway, they should be asking the disabled person, not someone else. And they should be prepared for a response that isn’t necessarily polite, either. If people say ‘oh but I’m too shy to ask directly’ then one might reasonably ask why they think the question needs to be asked at all.

I also like that although she didn’t explicitly spell it out, the framing of her response very much put the kibosh on the ‘defend and protect’ idea put forward in the letter. We don’t need to be ‘defended and protected.’ We need to live in a world where we aren’t objects of curiosity and speculation. Since we don’t live in that world, asking people to interact directly with us instead of around us is a good first step.

‘Defending’ us doesn’t address the social attitudes behind disability speculation. It reduces the problem to a personal one, rather than a larger structural issue; the problem isn’t that one person with disabilities attracts curiosity, it is that members of society as a whole think it’s appropriate to query the people who work with/around a disabled person about that person’s disabilities and that these same people won’t interact directly with the person they are asking about.

The critical thing she left out: She could have suggested that Zayne’s Boss ask Zane how he would prefer to have these situations dealt with.

Dear Imprudence: Yeah Hi I’m Actually Right Here

Back in July, the following letter/response ran in Dear Abby:

Dear Abby: I am the parent of a child with special needs. To an outsider he looks different; adults and children stare at him when we’re out. My son is not aware of their impolite behavior, but I am — and it really irks me. What should I say to these insensitive people? — Boiling Mad in New Jersey

Dear Boiling Mad: I don’t think you should say anything. It is not unusual for individuals of every age to do a double take when they see someone — or something — that is “different.” Of course staring is impolite, but unless someone makes a remark or asks a question about your son, you should ignore the person.

Abby got some reader mail in response, so she decided to run a column featuring some of the letters she received. As FWD readers know, I am not a fan of the euphemism ‘special‘ and I dislike labeling basic needs as such. However, it’s very common, so I pretty much expected a thicket of ‘special’ this and ‘special’ that in Abby’s column. But I also expected at least one letter from a person with a disability, because Abby has run letters from us in the past on topics relating to disability issues.

Were my expectations met? No, they were not. The title of the column is ‘Special-needs kids build bridges of understanding.’ Three of the five letters were from mothers of children with disabilities and they all pretty much said that we have a responsibility to educate people staring at us:

…I now regard it as an opportunity to educate them about autism. I hand them a card explaining it that contains a link to the Autism Society of America.

This tactic, rather than ignoring people, is the way to go. If more people educated others, the stares and rude comments would become smiles and support.

One letter, well, here, I’ll give you the first paragraph:

I worked with special-needs children for a number of years. I actually believe that it is good when people stare. It gives us a chance to help the child learn social skills.

And finally…

I’m one of those folks who “stare” at others. By no means is there ever a bad intent. I’m a people-watcher. I love watching people communicate in different ways, like signing. Whether someone is in a wheelchair or has a visible disability, I value each and every person.

Maybe “Boiling Mad” doesn’t understand that many of us are willing to reach out, lend a hand or just be friendly. I wish to embrace, not ignore, and I hope my behavior isn’t perceived to be offensive.

So, we heard from parents. We heard from people who are a fan, evidently, of the ‘tough love’ school of thought; staring makes you stronger! And we heard from someone who likes to stare at people.

We did not hear from anyone who gets stared at. Ouyang Dan, writing about a different advice column involving the nondisabled gaze and what to do about it, pointed out:

I get extremely uncomfortable and irritated with people who can’t manage to be polite and respect the privacy of other people. “Othering” is a concept that riles me pretty good, and othering people based on circumstances beyond their control is right up there on my list of things that will get you “unfriended” or “unfollowed” in a keystroke. Beneath that is treating people with disabilities as if they do not have a right to privacy when they are in public with you. As if their existing in a manner that you find abnormal is somehow negating their right to eat lunch without you staring at them.

Abby’s decision not to represent any people with disabilities in her column is noted. I’m willing to bet that some people with disabilities wrote in about how much they do  not like being stared at, to point out that when everyone is staring at you, it is most definitely perceived as offensive. It’s not ’embracing’ at all to feel like you can’t go to the grocery store, ride a horse, sit in the library, or do any number of other things without people gawking at you. Being stared at is not fun.

It is also not an opportunity for a teachable moment. People going about their daily business are not diversity educators. They are human beings, doing human things, and just wanting to get those things done. Having to question whether or not you want to go out on any given day because you don’t feel up to dealing with stares is not enjoyable.

I don’t know how to deal with staring. I get stared at a lot and it upsets me. Ignoring people doesn’t quite seem to work. Staring back sometimes shames them into looking away, by reflecting their gaze back on them and forcing them to consider how it feels to be stared at, but I really have a hard time with eye contact and often staring back at people forces me to meet their eyes. Sometimes I say something like ‘pardon me, is there something on my…’ and then they mumble and look away. But I definitely do not feel like it’s my responsibility to educate people when I’m going to the post office or having dinner with friends. They can go educate themselves. Or they can pay to take a workshop where I would be more than happy to educate them in a structured classroom environment.

Dear Imprudence: Don’t Pressure People To Resume Family Relationships

Today on Dear Abby, a reader wrote in with a problem that some of us have been on the other side of:

Dear Abby: My oldest granddaughter, “Allie,” is a psychiatrist. I have always loved her, been proud of her accomplishments and have had a warm relationship with her.

Her mother—my daughter—got drunk and made several angry, harsh phone calls to Allie. Since then, Allie has refused contact with everyone in the family. I have written to her numerous times and so has my daughter, begging for forgiveness. My daughter has quit drinking, thanks to the patience and loving support of my family. She has also come out of an abusive marriage.

Allie gave birth to a baby girl last year. I have never seen my great-grandchild and it breaks my heart. Abby, what can I do to restore a good relationship with my granddaughter? I love her and pray for her every day.

—Grieving Grandma

I must say, I dreaded Abby’s response to this letter, given that it painted a tragic tale of family torn asunder, a mother trying to reform herself, and saddened grandmas. I’ve had to cut off family members for my own health and protection, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some FWD readers have had to do the same, for a wide variety of reasons. So I was expecting a lecture about how Allie ‘owes’ her family something and the grandmother should continue trying to pressure her into repairing the family’s relationship.

Here’s what Abby said:

Dear Grieving Grandma: As your letter proves, being a mental health professional does not exempt someone from having family problems. Depending upon what your daughter said to Allie, it is understandable that she might want to protect herself—and her baby—from her verbally abusive, alcoholic parent. While it may be harsh for Allie to have cut off contact with all of her maternal relatives, including you, she may have done so to prevent you from trying to pressure her to “forgive” her mother for what has been an ongoing pattern of behavior.

Write Allie one more letter advising her that her mother is no longer drinking and has left her abusive marriage. Continue loving and praying for her. But until your granddaughter decides on her own to relent, there is nothing you can do to “fix” this. I’m sorry.

Abby, I want to hug you and hand you a cupcake. This advice is right on. She reiterates that Allie may have been entirely justified in making her decision. Reading between the lines, Abby seems to be gently suggesting that Grandma should not have ‘written her numerous times’ and should have instead given her some space. The letter concludes by giving her permission to try one more time, something I personally feel iffy about, but, in the end, it reiterates that this is up to Allie, not the family, and that Grandma is just going to have to accept that.

Yes, Abby, yes. People who choose to cut off their family members do not do so on a whim. They do so to protect themselves. The last thing that people who make that choice want is badgering from other people in the family, or from family friends. They want to be left alone, and they want their choices respected.

Unfortunately, when these situations happen, many people often take it upon themselves to ‘fix’ them. As a result, people are forced not only to cut off the offending individuals, but the entire family, because they fear exactly this situation, people demanding to play a role in ‘reconciliation.’ In these situations, the offender is often painted as the injured party, and no one talks about the isolation experienced by the person who has to cut people off. If these decisions could be made and respected, people like Allie wouldn’t have to cut off contact with family members they may love very much.

You are allowed to protect yourself by choosing the people you associate with, including your family members, and you are allowed to not have this turned into a big drama with people insisting on getting involved left and right. You have the right to autonomy over your body and in your relationships, and it’s nice to see Abby stating that, albeit in somewhat less aggressive terms than I would have!

Dear Imprudence: I’ll Tell the Doctor On You!

Reader bzzzzgrrrl reads Dear Abby so I don’t have to; Friday’s Dear Abby column featured this question:

Dear Abby: A friend of more than 40 years, “Myra,” delivered a letter to my physician outlining her observations of what she claims were “changes” in me. I was called into my doctor’s office to respond.

Myra has also told me I should see a psychiatrist. I am disappointed that a friend would say these things about me, and I don’t think she should have contacted my doctor without telling me. I have asked others if they have noticed any dramatic changes in me and no one else has.

Myra may have my best interests at heart, but I am upset about this, to say the least. Am I wrong to feel that she has overstepped her boundaries? — Perfectly Fine in Ohio

I was reminded immediately of the story our abby jean linked to on Thursday, about a young man with depression who dared to talk with his friends about suicidal feelings, and got the cops called on him.

How does syndicated advice columnist Abby respond?

Dear Perfectly Fine: Your friend must have been extremely concerned about you to have taken the step she did. And I wish you had mentioned in your letter WHY she thinks you should see a psychiatrist. If you have no family nearby with whom she could discuss her concerns, it’s possible that she did what she did out of love for you, so please try to forgive her.

P.S. Was what she did out of character for her? If so, consider discussing it with her family — or physician.

Ah, yes, a little ‘furnish the details!’ plus ‘you should turn the tables on her and talk to her family or her doctor!’ I mean, seriously, Abby not only supports the concern trolling, but seems to suggest that Perfectly Fine should feel guilty. ‘She meant it for your own good, you know!’ And then demands that Perfectly Fine detail whatever it was that made this ‘friend,’ we’ll call her Busybody, tattle-tale to the doctor. Then, she follows up with ‘well, maybe you should talk to Busybody’s doctor in case there’s something wrong with her.’ Of course, Abby ignores the fact that Perfectly Fine might well already be in treatment, and just not feel like sharing it with the world, and that’s not Abby’s business, ours, or Busybody’s.

How many things are wrong with this story, and with this response? It’s kind of hard to start enumerating them. But both of these stories, Perfectly Fine’s and the story abby linked to, reflect a generally held idea that it’s perfectly acceptable and even advisable to directly meddle in the lives of others ‘for their own good,’ especially when it comes to mental health. Contacting someone’s doctor because you think that person has ‘changed’ is incredibly intrusive and violating. Calling the police on your friend when ou tries to reach out and talk is a pretty awful thing to do. Both things happen a lot, and sometimes they end in very ugly ways, like involuntary psychiatric holds. As soon as someone is suspected of mental illness, the words and beliefs of the people around that person matter more than ou own statements. That is a really, really, really scary place to be in, to know that no matter what you say, people will ignore you.

What ever happened to ‘you seem a little down, do you want to talk about it?’ Or,  if someone tells you that ou is having suicidal thoughts, ‘is there anything I can do to help?’ There are all kinds of reasons why Perfectly Fine might have been experiencing a change in mood. Perfectly Fine might be really busy, might be irked at Busybody for something and not ready to talk about it, might be having a medical problem ou doesn’t feel like talking about, might be grieving a loss, having a tough time at work, or any number of other things, although it’s telling that ou friends didn’t notice anything. The first step when someone you are close to appears to be behaving out of character is not to run and tell the doctor or call the police, but to make it clear that you are available to talk if that person is interested.

I am very disappointed in Dear Abby’s response. It reflects a profound lack of respect for personal autonomy, and reinforces some very upsetting social attitudes.

Dear Imprudence: Have You Considered Violating Your Son’s Bodily Autonomy Today?

Content warning: This post discusses involuntary sterilisation of people with disabilities.

Reader bzzzzgrrrl drew my attention to a recent Dear Abby column that featured this:

Dear Abby: My husband and I have a 24-year-old developmentally disabled son who lives with us. Three months ago, he met a nice girl at the mental health program he attends. They hold hands, go to the movies and occasionally smooch.

Recently, “Jasper” had a mark on his neck. We were over at a friend’s house for dinner when my best friend noticed the mark. She then proceeded to tell me I should consider getting Jasper “fixed.” At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, so I asked her to repeat it. I am shocked that she thinks I should have my son sterilized.

Jasper is diagnosed with ADD and Asperger’s syndrome. According to his mental health counselor, he could someday be married, have children and lead a productive, independent life. It just may take him longer to get to that point in comparison with his peers.

How should I respond to my friend about her suggestion? When she made it, I didn’t know what to say. — Speechless in New Hampshire

I’m going to give you a moment to take that in. When I first encountered it, I was so stunned that I actually blinked and sat in uneasy silence for a minute thinking ‘I did not just read that.’ And then I thought ‘this woman’s ‘friend’ did not just compare a person to a dog, right?’ And then I re-read and realised that yes, I did in fact just read that and yes, the ‘friend’ really did say that.

Because this is how people think. In 2007, the United States objected to wording in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities that said that we have a right to sexual and reproductive health services. In 2009, there was a controversy in Indiana over a bill attempting to bar involuntary sterilisation of people with disabilities. Sterilisation is presented as ‘in the patient’s best interest.’ People discuss involuntary sterilisation as a topic of debate, as though there is a question about whether or not it should be performed.

I’m sure Speechless’ friend thought there was nothing amiss about her comment. She’s just exercising some friendly concern! And talking about Jasper like he wasn’t even there, evidently. I’ve been Jasper, sitting in the chair at the dinner table while someone is telling my father how to control my body, and it is not a pleasant experience, to be reminded that the entire world considers you public property. Thinks that it is perfectly acceptable to discuss you like an animal or a piece of furniture in your presence. It’s not much of an extension from people thinking it’s ok to say whatever they want about you to people thinking it’s ok to do whatever they want to you.

Abby responded:

Dear Speechless: If you still want to maintain the friendship with the woman, tell her what your son’s mental health counselor said about his prospects for the future. But first, if you haven’t already, make sure Jasper clearly understands everything he needs to know to protect himself and his nice girlfriend from premature parenthood.

I cannot say that I am wholly impressed with this response. Mainly because Abby is acting like the friend is someone Speechless would ‘want to maintain a friendship with.’ Someone who suggests than a human being should be ‘fixed’ like a household pet is someone I would be tearing out of my address book, I tell you what. Miss Manners is never afraid to tell readers when their ‘friends’ deserve nothing more than the boot and I think that more advice columnists should follow suit, personally.

Whatever the son’s mental health counselor may or may not have said is not anyone else’s business. And whether or not Jasper can achieve the holy trinity of marriage, children, and a job, he is not required to justify his relationship, nor is his mother required to speak for him to justify his relationship. Jasper and his girlfriend are evidently happy. They are entitled to bodily autonomy. They are entitled to their own sexuality, and to not be scrutinized and monitored. Jasper is entitled to his fertility.

I’ve discussed the lack of access to sexual education here before, so I’m glad to see that Abby briefly touched upon that issue. And, you know, props for subverting the usual family planning narrative that puts the responsibility on the woman, but Abby’s comment reads as a tad patronising to me. It might be because I’m still reeling from the letter itself, of course.

Personally, what I think Speechless should do is cut her ‘friend’ dead, socially speaking. And if the ‘friend’ asks why, Speechless should tell her. And if other people ask why, Speechless should tell them too. One reason that these attitudes are so pervasive and persistent is that they are rarely challenged and discussed by people who are not disability rights activists. If members of the nondisabled community started actively pushing back on things like this, started really thinking about what this line of thinking represents, perhaps we could start to dismantle it.

I go from things like this to people telling me that involuntary sterilisation doesn’t happen any more, that eugenics is over and done with, because things like this are never discussed. People appear surprised to learn that not only does involuntary sterilisation still happen, but a lot of people are all for it.

Dear Imprudence: Sexual Assault By Any Other Name

The 24 April edition of Dear Abby led with this letter:

Dear Abby: I am an average 17-year-old girl with a big problem. A few days ago, my cousin’s boyfriend touched me inappropriately. It took a few seconds for me to realize what was happening and stop him. I got up and left the room.

I don’t want to tell my mom because she shares what we talk about with other people. I don’t want to tell my cousin because she loves her boyfriend, and if I ruin this for her, she’ll never speak to me again. I have seen her do it with other people.

My cousin visits my house every day with her boyfriend. I have been leaving for hours so I won’t have to see him. Please help me. What other option do I have besides telling somebody? — Staying Silent in Guam

Dear Staying Silent: You have two options. You can remain silent and let your cousin marry a man who has so little self-control that he would not only hit on another woman, but one who is a close relative of hers. Or you can tell your parents what happened so your cousin can be warned, and possibly save her from a world of heartache later on. Please be brave and do the right thing.

What I find fascinating about Abby’s response here is that she doesn’t name, identify, or discuss what happened to Staying Silent. The response is framed as ‘you wouldn’t want your cousin to marry a guy who would cheat on her, right?’

As opposed to ‘you wouldn’t want your cousin to marry someone who commits sexual assault, would you?’

Hrm, I wonder why that might be. Here we have a girl who describes being ‘touched inappropriately’ and says that she is afraid to talk to someone about it. I feel like a supportive and helpful response would name what happened—sexual assault—and provide the reader with resources such as referrals to sexual assault crisis centers or organizations like RAINN. Staying Silent did have another option; talking with a counselor instead of a family member about what happened, and maybe talking with the counselor about a way to bring this event up with her family.

Instead, Dear Abby didn’t address the actual event which occurred and informed Staying Silent that she should ‘be brave’ and ‘do the right thing’ by telling her parents. Refusing to name sexual assault is one of the reasons it is so hard to address. Calling sexual assault ‘hitting on’ someone makes it that much harder for a victim to identify it in the future; when Staying Silent is groped on a bus, is that being ‘hit on’? How about when she’s pressured into unwanted sexual contact by a partner?

How monumentally unhelpful.

Staying Silent, if you’re out there and you happen to be reading this: What happened to you was sexual assault. It was not ok. Some resources you might find helpful are the Guam Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence and the Healing Hearts Crisis Centre, both of which offer counseling services.