Tag Archives: conceptions of disability

An open letter to non-disabled people who use disabled parking spaces

Dear abled/non-disabled people without disabled parking placards who use disabled parking spaces anyway,

I don’t care if you want to use the space “because it’s so convenient.”

I don’t care if you only “need” to use the space “just for a minute.”

I especially don’t care if you back up your illegal use of said disabled parking space with some bizarre justification like, “But some people FAKE being disabled to get these permits, so what’s the difference?” or “Well, if a person in a car with a blue placard shows up, I’ll move” or “But there isn’t anyone disabled who needs to use the space here right now, so what’s the harm?”

The harm is that I or other disabled people are so often witnesses to your saying these things, and we are presumably expected to not react at all to your taking advantage of something that is not for you. I personally do not own a motor vehicle, so while I don’t need a disabled parking permit, I also don’t need your entitlement complex and your basically telling me — a person with disabilities — that some of the regulations intended to benefit me and people like me are rules that can be bent by you if it’s the most convenient option for you, an able(d) person.

Just don’t do it. It’s illegal and carries penalty of a possible fine for a reason.

This sort of legislation? Is not intended to benefit you, or be a convenient thing that you can take advantage of when you feel like it. Most of the world is already set up for you. These “convenient” parking spaces don’t have to be set up for your use, too.

Recommended Reading for August 24, 2010

Wheelchair Dancer: Body Matters, Edges, and Disability

We all experience limitations and restrictions.  Not all of those — like not being able to speak a second language — are disabilities.  The second language example is a true comment, and I would have thought that it was a pretty obviously bad comparison.  But it and other similar remarks kept coming up.  In addition to those comments, I was also thinking about a second order of experience: the kind where someone claimed kinship/commonality/knowing what I am going through on the basis of their limiting, but non-disabling experience.  I’m referring to the kind of thing like, for example, comparisons of feeling tired from having flu and the tiredness in chronic fatigue syndromes or, say, multiple sclerosis.  A second example is that feeling sad or disappointed is not the same as the emotion of depression.

Lena at the ch!cktionary: What My Feminist Agenda Looks Like

I reject the argument that feminists can’t fight for women and for poor, queer, disabled, and non-White people. Because guess what? Many women are poor, queer, disabled, and non-White. For them, being part of the latter means many more disadvantages and much more discrimination than just being a woman. A feminist agenda has to recognize that women are not simply all oppressed in the exact same way because they share a gender.

Thea Lim at Racialicious: Sympathy Grifting: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Fraud

Much of [fraudulent cancer patient Ashley Kirilow’s] success seems attributed to the fact that she easily roused pity with her little lost girl story and her brave smile. Kirilow embodied a version of white womanhood that we want to believe in (or at least we’ve been socially conditioned to embrace it): pretty, plucky, determined, and in need of rescue.

Pam Belluck for the New York Times: Tai Chi Reported to Ease Fibromyalgia

A clinical trial at Tufts Medical Center found that after 12 weeks of tai chi, patients with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, did significantly better in measurements of pain, fatigue, physical functioning, sleeplessness and depression than a comparable group given stretching exercises and wellness education. Tai chi patients were also more likely to sustain improvement three months later.

Jane Hughes for the BBC News: New brain scan to diagnose autism

The Medical Research Council study looked at 20 non-autistic adults and 20 adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

They were initially diagnosed using traditional methods, and then given a 15 minute brain MRI scan. The images were reconstructed into 3D and were fed into a computer, which looked for tiny but significant differences.

Recommended Reading for July 6, 2010

jadelennox (DW): How to fight ableism: some easy steps

So I thought it might be valuable to gather together some ways in which able-bodied people can do something about ableism in the world. Then, next time a person is feeling frustrated about ableism, and is thinking about doing some signal boosting of, say, some crappy thing the writers did on the latest episode of Glee, maybe that individual would have the option of committing to spending the same amount of time doing some more concrete fighting of ableism. Not that I’m critiquing the kind of signal boosting that a lot of us do on the blogosphere! But I’m assuming some people would find utility in hearing about other things they could do that might be useful.

Venus Speaks: Between the Lines

Today I realized something: How my disabilities shape the words I do, and more often don’t, say.

For instance: Whenever anyone uses the word “crippled”, I spot it from a mile away. Context doesn’t matter – it could be in anything – a novel, a newspaper article, a headline. “Recession cripples the American economy”, or “The onslaught cripples the meager defenses” or simply “crippling blow”.

Lauren McGuire at Sociological Images: On Disability and the Public Service Announcement [accessibility warning: embedded content lacks transcripts]

Disability-related PSAs cover a wide range of topics, but generally there are three main categories that the message falls into: how people with disabilities are viewed/treated by society, their value in the job market and society, and what their lives are like. Although these are pretty straightforward messages, there is a great deal of variety in the ways in which these basic messages are presented.

Michael Le at Racialicious: An Open Letter to Racebending.com Detractors

It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Airbender casting and an English actor playing an Irish one, or a Spanish actor playing an Italian actor. But it’s not really the same, and the reason is that Hollywood and media don’t consider whether an actor is Irish or Spanish or English. They think of that actor as “white.” The same is not true of actors who are Asian or Latino, who have to fight over the few roles specifically written for those ethnicities. And a lot of times, even when a role is steeped in Asian culture, even when a role is based on real-life individuals of Asian descent, those roles still go to white actors.

Garland Grey at Tiger Beatdown: CRAWLING OUT OF BED: Internalized Ableism and Privilege

In the two years since I have learned things about my own body. I have learned that once my knees start wobbling, GAME OVER. There is no powering through. There is no mystical internal light of determination that I can draw on – if I keep going my body will fail me. This has been a humiliating lesson to learn. But I can still walk. I can still exercise within limits and these limits expand the more I push them. I have also learned how much privilege I carry. I don’t have chronic insomnia like other members of my family. I’ve never lost a job because of being hospitalized, like my friends with Fibromyalgia. If I’m spending time with someone, and I don’t want to have to go into the whole story I can take an anti-inflammatory and ignore the pain, or blame it on fatigue.

A conversation

Recently, I was on the commuter train home. I happened to be reading Susan Schweik’s book Ugly Laws: Disability in Public for a research paper. Two middle-aged women sat down opposite me, and one inquired as to what book I was reading.

Me: It’s a book about 20th-century ugly laws in the U.S.

Woman #1: What’re those?

Me: Oh, they were regulations that prevented people with visible disabilities from panhandling in public, but more generally, they also kept people with disabilities out of the public eye.

Woman #2: Wow, that is so interesting! Are you in school?

Me: Yes, I’m reading this for a grad school paper.

Woman #1: You’re lucky you’re in grad school! The great thing about being in school is that you get to learn about things you might otherwise never learn about.

Me: Yeah, I suppose so.

Woman #1: And…why are you interested in that topic?

Me: I’m interested in feminist theory and disability, and how those things intersect with race, gender and class, and other stuff. That’s the short version, anyway.

Woman #1 [After a long pause]: Of course, I didn’t mean to imply that you are disabled or have a deformity

Me: Uh, okay. [Pause] You can’t see it, but I do have chronic pain.

And the conversation sort of stopped after that. For some reason, I suspect that this is not an uncommon occurrence.

Disability 101: What is Able-Bodied or Abled Privilege?

What is able-bodied or abled privilege?

The term able-bodied/abled privilege refers to the numerous benefits—-some hidden, many not—-that many societies and cultures accord to able-bodied and/or abled people. Despite many folks’ paying lip service to notions of equality for PWDs, the chronically ill, people with psychiatric conditions, and those with chronic health conditions, abled privilege still exists, and there are still a lot of people who are resistant to the idea of a truly equitable, accessible society. Able-bodied and abled privilege is often hard for non-disabled people to spot; yet, in the words of the famous Palmolive dish soap ad, [YouTube link] most of us are “soaking in it.”

Many cultures have social expectations, structures, cultural mores, and institutions that are set up to accommodate able-bodied and/or abled people with the most ease; this is, of course, problematic for those who do not fit the standard of “able-bodied,” or “fully able,” whether in whole or part. Able-bodied or abled privilege also encompasses things like not having to worry about one’s energy level and/or pain level on any given day, the possible negative reactions of others to one’s needs due to his/her/zie’s disability or chronic condition, being stared at or questioned about (with varying degrees of invasiveness) his/her/zie’s disability or condition by strangers, her/his/zie’s ability to move for long distances or on a variety of surfaces without inconvenience/discomfort/pain and at a pace considered “appropriate” by others, being able to make decisions about the course of one’s medical, psychiatric, or other type of treatment without being questioned by others as to whether he/she/zie is making “the right choice” or can make a “rational” decision about his/her/zie’s own treatment-related choices, or being ignored by able-bodied people when one needs assistance in public; these kinds of able privilege masquerade as “the norm” for those without disabilities. For more examples, see Rio’s update on Peggy McIntosh’s famous article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” [link goes to Amptoons].

An earlier version of this post was originally posted at Faces of Fibro on May 6, 2009.

“Bad Cripple”

Last month, I went to a non-partisan Campaign School, where women learned the nuts and bolts of running a winning campaign for political office in Canada. We all said a bit about ourselves, and I stood up and introduced myself as a Disability Rights Activist.

I spent the rest of the weekend being told how “Bad Cripples” are ruining the system for everyone else, and how every problem that I discussed, from how low disability-support payments were to how difficult it is to get around the city with a wheelchair, was caused by That Person.

You know That Person. The one Everyone Knows who doesn’t have a real disability. They could work – of course they could! – they’re just in it to scam the system. This One is bad because whatever he claims about his disability, it’s obviously exaggerated because no one could be in that much pain. That One is bad because she decided to move to another province where the disability support payments are better – obviously she’s just in it for the money.

Regardless of where someone fell in the political spectrum, they felt it very important that I knew that it wasn’t the government’s lack of support for people with disabilities and their families, it wasn’t the surplus of societal barriers, it wasn’t even their own individual fears of disability that caused any financial distress. It’s those Bad Cripples who scam the system and totally ruin it for the Good, Deserving Ones.

People tell me anecdotes about Their Friend (or a Friend of a Friend) who totally confessed to scamming the system, or they tell me about how Their Friend isn’t really disabled, and they can tell, because of X, Y, or Z.

I’m going to confess something to you: According to the way a lot of people define “Bad Cripples”, Don and I are really Bad Cripples.

I’ll start out with the comments. Both of us have very bleak senses of humour, and both of us (me especially) say some of the most awful things. These include things like “I just married him for the disability cheques,” “Damn it, I should have lied and told everyone your Cancer spread so I could get extra time to finish my assignments,” “Oh, Don fakes not being able to talk very loudly so he doesn’t have to deal with the Student Loan people”, and even “Oh, the wheelchair’s just for show.”

You might be thinking “That’s obviously you joking around, Anna! No one really thinks you’re serious.”

Yes, yes they do. All the time. I’ve been talked to by professors about my joking comments about Don’s Cancer, and asked not to make them in front of other students. I’ve gotten really angry @replies on twitter about some of them. I have an email I can’t quite get myself to delete that’s all about how I’m a horrible wife who’s just using Don for his money.

I have no doubt that people have said, either to you or someone you know, something that sounds like they’re just gaming the system, including a breezy “Oh, I’m just gaming the system.” But you have no idea if they’re serious or not, or what their circumstances are, or how much pressure they’re under, internally or externally, to “pass for normal”.

The second reason people think of “fakers” is the “I know stories of people who don’t have real disabilities and they get all this financial support!”

Here’s the thing: I don’t have an obligation to tell you what my ability status is.

My ability status is between me and my doctor. I have made the choice to share it with a few friends, and my husband. I don’t have to tell you. I don’t have to tell my teachers. I don’t have to tell the pharmacist, the person who’s demanding I justify my tax-status, or my landlord. I have not discussed it with Student Accessibility Services on campus. I have not disclosed to the people on any of the committee meetings I’m on. I didn’t tell anyone at Campaign School.

Because it is none of their business.

I do not owe it to you, or anyone else, to explain why we’re raking in those big disability cheques.

I also want you to consider that you don’t always know what disability will look like.

You can’t tell by looking at my friend with the mental health condition that she tried to climb out a third floor window and jump because she couldn’t take the idea of another day at her job, but you can probably tell she isn’t working right now while she recovers from the experience. You can’t tell by looking at my friend that she was bullied so badly at work that she has panic attacks whenever she thinks of stepping foot in the neighbourhood of her former workplace. Until Don got his cane, and then his wheelchair, lots of people wanted to know why he wasn’t working – aren’t people who have mobility issues always in wheelchairs?

I know people who tell me “Bad Cripple” stories are trying to be helpful. They want me to know that they understand how difficult it is, and that if it weren’t for all those Bad, Faking Cripples out there, Don and I wouldn’t be living entirely off the largess of his family and my scholarship money. (The government expects that I should take out student loans to pay for Don’s medication that he needs to live. Oh goody – overwhelming debt in exchange for a husband who lives! Thanks, Nova Scotia! You continue to be awesome. Yes, the big disability cheques comment was a joke.) What I think they don’t want to do is question why it is so difficult. Bad Cripple stories give us someone – a conveniently faceless group that Doesn’t Include Us – to blame.

I think a lot of people are going to rush to tell me stories about how this all may be true, but they totally know of this person who is totally lying about being disabled. Please consider whether or not that anecdote will contribute to a conversation, or just remind people with disabilities that they’re viewed with suspicion and have to prove their status to you.

Umbrella Terms

My pet peeve: Labeling “othered” groups as though everyone who falls under that umbrella term has the same needs to achieve full inclusion in society.

For obvious reasons, I’m going to focus on the umbrella of people with disabilities/disabled people right now, but these thoughts have been heavily influenced by reading posts from GLTB activists about trans* inclusion (or lack thereof) and blog carnivals like the Asian Women’s Carnival and International Blog Against Racism Week.

Over the summer, while I was in the process of ranting to Don about my disappointment with our current government’s inclusion of people with disabilities, I was stopped on the street and invited to a talk. “Is it fully accessible?”, I asked.

“Oh yes,” responded the person inviting us. “We have a wheelchair ramp.”

“Do you have material available in braille? Do you have a Sign interpreter?”

“No.”

“Well then,” I snapped. “I guess you aren’t fully accessible, are you?”

(As I said, I was just ranting about this when we were interrupted with this invitation, so it was already on my mind. People need to pick better times to interrupt me. I’d like to think that normally I’d be more polite.)

There’s a certain hierarchy of accessibility that “everyone” knows about. If you have a ramp, you’re good! That this doesn’t address the needs of any number of disabled people is irrelevant – the main image of people with disabilities is that person (usually white and male) in a wheelchair.

So, in the effort to be inclusive without thinking thoroughly about what disability means, and who is included when making accommodations, we end up with situations like this one, from the comments on a post on disability at Feministe:

Willow:

Fire alarms. So it’s great and all when fire alarms have bright flashing lights in addition to the blaring sound, so people with hearing loss (like my dad) will know if the alarm goes off and be able to evacuate, right? Yeah, well, it so happens that I have photosensitive epilepsy, and the light on pretty much every alarm cycles on a frequency that triggers my seizures. So if the alarm goes off, not only do I have a seizure, which sucks in the first place, but I also cannot evacuate the building because I am either (a) unconscious and convulsing or (b) in “zombie mode” and unable to navigate the world safely.

I always feel so, so guilty about advocating for accommodations for people with epilepsy that will make the place unsafe for people with other disabilities…but at the same time, I have EXACTLY THE SAME RIGHT to be able to be there and/or be safe there. It seems as though some types of disabled people–deaf, blind, and/or in a wheelchair, in particular–are privileged over others. I lived on campus as an undergraduate, and when the school installed a new fire alarm system that included flashing lights, I was told that they would have someone “come check on me” whenever the alarm went off. Excuse me? You can’t have someone come check on the zero deaf students in the building but the three of us with photosensitive epilepsy have to wait until the fire department shows up? Not to mention the risks that come with having a seizure in the first place (such as, for example, death)?

Thoughtless accommodations, but gosh darn it, we’re “accessible”.

I know next to nothing about epilepsy, and my knowledge of deafness is limited, so I have no idea what sorts of accommodations would balance both the need for a flashing alarm and the need not to cause seizures in people. But that’s not my point. The point is that full inclusiveness, rather than going for the “easy” solution, would actually consider those needs and work them both in. It would be working with people with disabilities to design safety systems that would accommodate everyone. (Deaf people can also have epilepsy, after all.)

Grouping “othered” populations under this umbrella term allows the “general” population to decide “Oh, I’ve included a ramp, I’ve got a flashing light, and there’s braille on my elevator buttons, I’m set.” But we don’t all have those needs.

We’ve been grouped together as having the same needs both because it’s easier for the “general” population to decide they’ve “done enough”, and because we have greater strength in both self- and group-advocating when we band together. But, just like when other “othered” groups band together, things get left out, put aside, maybe next yeared.

I’m still mulling all of this over. My main activism-related issues are The Big Ones – my city is full of “just one steps” and has a serious lack of Sign Language interpreters. But right now, I’m sitting in a room with fluorescent lighting (severe migraine trigger). It looks like the fire alarm is of the flashing-light type. The door is pretty darn heavy. I haven’t seen a single TTY- pay phone on campus. And probably several other things that I’ve missed.

It’s almost like the easiest, umbrella-term solution isn’t the best one.

I’m still thinking about a lot of this stuff – I certainly don’t have all the answers. Feel free to get into it in the comments. (My schedule is such that I won’t be able to respond to anything until evening my time at the earliest, although other moderators will be approving comments for me.)

Disability Is …?

(Originally posted July 2009 at Feministe, three rivers fog.)

We had a really good discussion about nondisability. It got derailed, a bit, because it depended on our ability to reasonably define disability. And it’s a subject that has come up in every discussion we’ve had these couple weeks. What is it?

I advocate an intentionally overbroad definition of disability. And I definitely see a tendency, with certain medical conditions, not to identify — on that inner level, what “feels right” — as disabled.

I support every person’s right to self-determination, to define their own experiences, and to identify however feels most right for them. I do not want to try to pressure people into identifying in a way they do not feel comfortable. But I do think that part of this tendency, this reticence, is rooted in a sort of ableism. Not ableism as in “internalized negative feelings about PWD” — but ableism as in “a certain understanding of how the world works and how society is/should be structured” … or, you might say, a certain model.

I want to explore a few things — explore our assumptions behind the word “disabled.”

1.

Think, for a minute: visualize a disabled person. Just a generic idea of a disabled person. What would you say are the requirements to qualify as disabled?

Do you have to be disabled — in a dictionary definition sort of way? Disabled, unable, incapable? Unable to work, or unable to participate in social activities, or unable to take care of oneself? Is there a certain level of un-able-ness one must reach to qualify as disabled?

If so, what do you call the people who don’t reach that level — but who share many, if not all of the exact same problems with accessibility in society, who face the same obstacles in their path, the same ignorance and hostility? The people who have the same condition, but face different accessibility problems because they are trying to navigate the workplace, living independently — who are able to do these things — but who still have to fight with the outside world to be able to live their life how they want to?

Are these people disabled? No? Are they abled, then? Are they privileged over the people who meet that level of un-able-ness?

Am I “temporarily able-bodied” because I can push myself enough to work full-time?
Because I can walk? Drive? Prepare meals? Go to sports events and concerts?
What about the fact that I still have to fight with my doctors over medication? That I still have to approach HR at work to tell them about everything I need to be able to work there?
What about the fact that without the drugs I am taking and my TENS machine and my access to health care and workplace accommodations and accessible parking, all of a sudden I wouldn’t be able to do those things anymore?

Is my disability about my inner feelings when I get home and slouch in pain — is it about what is going on in my body? Because I still have pain, whether I am well-treated and working or untreated and housebound. I still have fatigue. I still struggle when I stand up from a sitting position, still need help getting out of the car if I haven’t taken at least a few painkillers already that day. All that stuff is still there.

Or is it that my disability something beyond me — not having to do with me at all? Not defined by what is going on inside my body, but defined by whether society is working with my body or working against it?

2.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. A lot of us people who do fit the classic dictionary definition of “disabled”don’t feel “disabled” either. We don’t always feel un-able. We feel like “just people.” Normal people living a normal life, just happen to have some sort of neurological or physiological difference, but that isn’t our defining characteristic or something that is always forefront in our minds, it’s just one part of us that doesn’t always make that big a difference in our life at all.

3.

Remember, briefly, the social and medical models of disability.

Under the medical model, a person must justify their claim to disability. A person must fit neatly into a narrow diagnosis with a Latin-based name. The person must be cleanly categorized. Their experiences must fit a prepared check list.

The medical model says that your body fails to be normal in this particular way: so we must devise a way to force it to be normal, and that will solve the problem.

Naturally, such an approach to disability will wind up excluding a good many people who don’t fit those boxes cleanly, who appear close to normal — and that just can’t be right; there must be a logical explanation, like that they are over-worrying, imagining things, that they like being sick and want the world to treat them with kid gloves. After all, there is no proof that they deviate from the normal — so they have failed to justify themselves as different.

The medical model, in this way, denies community and services to people who still face considerable obstacles to full participation in society because they have failed to prove that they deserve that “special treatment.” They have failed to prove themselves as disabled enough. They aren’t “other” enough to be Othered.

The medical model imposes strict and narrow definitions — which become boundaries which must be policed.

What do you do when you’re caught in the middle? Different, but not different enough to be Othered, but still needing services (benefits, accommodations) which are only given to Others.

4.

Informed by the social model, “disability” becomes a marker not for condition (mental or physical) — not for “what I feel inside, what I experience inside” — but instead for the fact that our condition is maligned or neglected (or both) by the rest of society.

Disability is not a matter of my condition, but a matter of the group I am assigned because of that condition.

Perhaps it could be said as such: Disability is not a condition, it is a status.

5.

The classic analogy to explain the social model is this:

Many sighted people have less-than-perfect sight. If assistive devices — glasses or contact lenses — were not so widely available and accessible, many of these people would be prevented from full participation in many aspects of society.

But because society sees fit to prioritize this assistance, to make sure glasses/contacts are widely available and accessible so that every less-than-perfect sighted person can have clearer vision — because society decided that no person should be blocked from access because of hir different vision — this condition is no longer a disability.

This is a useful thought experiment. But it is not a perfect analogy. Many blind people still face considerable access blocks. This only really applies to people who are sighted, but whose sight is not precisely “normal.” Perhaps because society can, for the most part, bring abnormally-sighted people to normal-sightedness, whereas it cannot do the same to blind folk.

There’s a lot to explore here.

6.

The word disability isn’t perfect. I don’t know that I would choose it, were we to start over with a blank slate. Nor do I know that most people who are active in the disability community would choose it.

What I do know is this: people who don’t feel, literal-dictionary-definition disabled, embrace the word and run with it. They can make it something all their own.

Queer is a less-than-perfect word when you consider its literal definition, too. Yet the queer community has decided that they’re gonna take this thing and make it into what they want it to be. And they’re making something pretty damn awesome.

I don’t feel dis-abled. I feel people-are-willfully-ignorant and access-to-good-care-is-restricted-in-unnecessary-ways and the-medical-industry-has-no-respect-for-me. Among other things.

And I’m sure other disabled folk feel why-isn’t-there-a-wheelchair-ramp-for-this-public-use-building and nobody-has-to-accommodate-my-needs-until-they-get-sued-why-don’t-we-have-an-oversight-board-that-makes-them-do-it-right-from-the-fucking-start and you-aren’t-providing-alternatives-so-I-can-access-your-lecture-even-though-I-can’t-[hear-what-you-speak/see-what-you-write/be-there-in-person-at-all]. Among other things.

People who identify as disabled (or are identified as such by society) don’t necessarily always think the dictionary definition of the word applies to them. There are disabled people in wheelchairs or braces who still work, still have families, still go to parties. There are disabled people who appear totally abled yet can’t work, can’t perform certain self-care, and so on.

The word “disability,” in the disability movement right now, already refers to a great variety of individual conditions, abilities, approaches…

And for the most part, when a person appears whose condition challenges the current boundaries of abled/disabled, the disability community is completely ready to revise their assumptions and welcome that person (and hir companions) into the movement.

Because, here’s the thing…

7.

The disability movement has a lot to offer to a lot of different people — not all of those people who may identify as disabled.

And this is part of why I do not want to pressure people to change their identification. They don’t have to identify as a disabled person, or a person with a disability, to still become a part of the disability movement, to benefit from it, to help move it forward.

What I am wanting to do is not change people’s minds about how they individually self-identify. What I want to do is explore the cultural phenomenon that is certain groups rejecting the label of disability.

Anyway: the disability movement is working hard to change the way we approach the world. From an approach that excludes non-normal people to an approach that stops INcluding by certain standards and starts just treating all persons as fundamentally human, period.

Under the current system, when a woman becomes pregnant and plans to keep the child, we expect the child to be free of disability. What’s that refrain from the supposedly-gender-enlightened? “I don’t care whether it’s a girl or a boy, as long as the baby comes out healthy!

When we encounter a person, we expect that person to be abled. When we imagine a “person” — just a generic, default person — we imagine that person as able-normative.

Currently, things go like this: 1. World expects “normal.” 2. Non-normal people come along. 3. Oops!

What disabled people want is more like this: 1. World is prepared for any number of different things. 2. We come along. 3. Hey, we were expecting you!

This approach is what defines the disability movement. We want to change the world so that the world stops treating us as unexpected — and therefore a disappointment — and therefore has not prepared for us — and therefore we have to constantly fight with the world to make it change every little individual thing it has set up wrong.

This approach, applied broadly, has benefits for so many more people than only the classically, dictionary-definition disabled.

This is the world I want to live in (bold emphasis added)…

My body isn’t the enemy, I realized.

It’s not my physical self that creates all my problems.

It’s all the external expectations of it.

Disability isn’t the result of individual defects, deviations from the able-bodied norm. Disability is the result of a society that fails to accommodate these differences.

What if we saw these differences as variation, not deviation? After all, we fully expect our children to be born with any number of different eye colors. Why is it any less when it comes to physical and mental abilities?

Can you shape a world in your mind where there is no norm? What does it look like? How does it differ from the world you live in today? What do you expect of people as a whole in order to support those currently disadvantaged?

The more I think, the more confused I become. It seems impossible to structure society so that everyone is brought to a similar level of ability across the board. But it does seem possible to structure society so that those fully-abled work to make up for those straightforwardly lacking, and everyone works with each other in full expectation of a wide range of ability across the populace, and all of this is seen not as hassling and burdensome, noble and heroic when someone takes it on—but as mundane, everyday, simply expected, no different from separating out your recyclables or driving on the right side of the road: something that everybody does, because it isn’t that hard to do, and it benefits yourself as well as those around you, so it’s stupid and even outright reprehensible not to.

That is the world I want to live in.

[Reading back, I cringe at the use of the words “straightforwardly lacking.” Proof that we are all still learning, still building.]

What if things did happen that way? What if we just rushed to give, knowing that those around us would rush to give back?

and in this POV, the centering of individualism falls apart — because that’s not what life is about. life is give and take, push and pull, you do this for me (that i don’t do well/don’t like to do, but that i want/need) and i’ll do this for you (that i do well/like to do, and you want/need).

disability, really, when you get down to it, is the ultimate unraveling of that ball of individualism — it FORCES you to look at all these little things that go into the living of a life, and realize that not all of them are yours to do or yours to control — and also to realize how many of those little things YOU affect for OTHER people’s lives — and to finally give up, and fall back into the arms of the community.

it means you have to stop looking at things as “mine, yours, this person’s, that person’s” etc. you have to stop keeping the damn tally — and just rush to give, knowing that those around you will rush to give back…

so many people are afraid to admit that ultimately, they DO depend on the people around them, and their accomplishments are not solely their own, and the things they do, affect people besides themselves. but it’s all true! and it’s not a bad thing, if you look at it the right way.

This is everything we are trying to change.

And when we are successful: it will be good for so many people. It will benefit a great many, people who might not consider themselves part of this movement, but who will see their life become substantially easier or better, because this movement has destroyed the system that puts obstacles in their path.

8.

There is a lot people can learn from the disability movement — even if they don’t consider themselves a part of it.

This is why I, and others, explicitly tie our disability activism to our feminism. Believe it or not, there are things that non-disabled feminists can learn from disabled ones about how to refine, how to better our (not their, OUR) feminist movement.

There are things the disability movement is accomplishing that the feminist movement has fallen short on. Things that disability activists are paying attention to that feminists have forgotten.

And it makes a difference in women’s lives.

9.

There are substantial immediate benefits to individuals, as well. Many of you who do not feel “disabled” nonetheless benefit directly from the Americans with Disabilities act and other non-discrimination legislation. And that’s only in the realm of the state (legal sense).

Consider the pharmaceutical industry. The alternative medicine industry. Consider protections on health insurance that prevent companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions or prevent them from denying certain treatments.

These are all things the disability movement has had part in. Often, the disability movement has been the sole force pushing for these things — when other movements fall short, and forget us.

And there is, therefore, substantial benefit to involving oneself in the disability movement. Because it is working for you. So it will do good for you and for us if you directly engage with it — help it refine its purpose — help direct its actions — help challenge preconceptions.

If you will stand with us, if you will be — a friend, or a family member — whatever role you feel comfortable taking, we will stand, sit, lean or lie beside you. We will be there with you, however you identify.

We want more people to engage with us — on an honest, good-faith level.

Some of those people will find themselves beginning to identify as a part of this movement, as a person with a disability. Some people will not, but will remain our friend, our ally.

No matter which: we are happy to have you.

***

ETA: I really should have included a link to this post from Joel at NTs Are Weird — from the perspective of the autistic community. I ain’t the only one beating this drum! I remember reading this post a long while back, and it has informed my politics a great deal. And I think it is necessary reading for anyone engaging with the disability movement. And he does a great job wrapping up the many elements of this post! 😉 Take it away (bold emphasis mine):

Welcome to the disability community! […]

Yes, that’s right, you’re DISABLED. Yep, you can pick that word apart and tell me why you aren’t, but, trust me, you are. And, no, I don’t mean that you are less or more functional than anyone else. I mean that you are part of a community defined by society’s institutions and programs, a community formed because of our minority status and the fact that society expects certain strengths and weaknesses, and anyone who doesn’t have that same pattern of strengths and weaknesses is going to have trouble in this society.

Yep, that’s the social model. It’s not the “OH MY GOD, I AM SO BROKEN AND LIFE SUCKS AND I WANT TO BE NORMAL BECAUSE EVERYTHING WOULD BE WONDERFUL AND I WOULD HAVE LOTS OF MONEY AND A GIRLFRIEND AND A NICE CAR” view of disability. But it is recognition that we have trouble in society as it is currently set up. You’ll also notice that it is not a view that accepts society as a static, unchangeable, and morally good entity, but rather as an institution that can and should change – even when people have a hard time seeing how it could.

In addition to this, I want you to know that there is “nothing new under the sun.” You don’t need to reinvent disability theory […]

One example – although the victory isn’t yet fully realized – find out why there public transit has to at least make *some* effort at accommodation in the US. Yep, I know it still sucks, and there are tons of problems – I’m not saying anything different. But I can assure you of this: Without good advocacy, there wouldn’t be a wheelchair lift on any bus except one owned by a nursing home – and even that one might not have one.

Find out why people with cerebral palsy can go to US schools today, even if their natural speech is hard to understand, thanks to assistive technology and good law. Sure, schools, technology, and law aren’t good enough yet, but they are way better than they were 40 years ago. Why?

Better yet, learn how you can make a bus in your city more accessible both to yourself and to someone with a different kind of disability. Learn about your schools and what can be done to help others with disability. Not just autistic people, but people with all types of disabilities. Do you know what you will find if you do this? You’ll find out quickly that it also helps you, even if that wasn’t the goal of the movement.

For those of you who are already doing these things – thanks! It’s good for us to stop reinventing the wheel once in a while.

Depending on narcotics

IMG_0172I take six medications. Five of them — the antiepileptic, the antidepressant, the non-narcotic pain killer, the muscle relaxer, and the oral contraceptive — are covered through a mail-order service. I receive a 90-day supply in my mail box every three months. No hassle. If a prescription runs out, my doctor is notified electronically, he then sends the new script electronically, and everything proceeds as normal with absolutely no additional step required of me. The only thing I do is click on the check-out button on the web site every three months. That’s it. No calling. No physical piece of paper to pick up. No wait at a retail pharmacy. Just a click and several days’ wait.

There’s one other medication I take. That medication serves the exact same purpose as all five others: it relieves my pain so that I can get on with my daily functions. I take it regularly, just like all five others. I have been taking it regularly for over five years now for the same reason. But this medication is not covered by the mail order service, because it is not considered a “maintenance medication” — despite that it fills the exact same maintenance role all five others fill, just by a different mechanism.

So for this medication, I am only allowed a 30-day supply at a time, and no refills — a brand new script each fill, which requires my doctor’s input each time. I have to call my doctor no sooner than the exact day it was filled last month, unless it falls on a weekend in which case I might get away with calling up to 2 days early. Then I have to call back a couple days later to see if the script has been written. If it has, it is printed out, and I have to physically walk in to the office, stand in line to see a receptionist, have them take a copy of the script with my photo ID, sign and date the copy, and walk out with the script. Then I have to physically take it into a retail pharmacy, wait in line, hand it to the pharmacy technician, then wait the required time for it to be filled. If there are no problems with my insurance, I then must physically present myself and pay for the prescription. Then I can walk out the door with my medication.

(And this is the process with a doctor who’s relatively friendly about the matter.)

It is quite a different process and one overflowing with “veto points” — points at which any party involved can cause any sort of problem and stop the whole process up. Maybe my doctor is on vacation and won’t be back for two weeks. He is the only one in my clinic who will write this script. I can’t call earlier in anticipation of his absence; they will not write the script before the last runs out. In that case, I’m stuck until he comes back. Maybe the system spits out some sort of error, like the one I received today: I was told the script must be written by my original prescriber. Which is this doctor. So now they have to go back and ask for the script all over again, and he isn’t in til tomorrow, and it’s not guaranteed to go through smoothly then. There have been other errors.

Maybe the insurance says no. For any number of reasons; I’ve dealt with prior authorization errors, quantity limit errors, errors because my insurance has suddenly decided to list me as living in an assisted-living home and cannot fill a prescription if I am. Maybe the pharmacy hits a snag, like the time they would not fill a written prescription until 2 a.m. that night because the insurance company said so, even if we paid out of pocket without billing the insurance.

And I’m going to keep running into these issues, and I will run into new errors every few months. I may have solved the last problem, but there’s always something new to pop up. I can never rely on this medication being filled on-time. It simply does not happen the majority of the time. No matter how diligent I am, how patient I am, how clearly and politely I explain myself — or how despondent I get, how emotional I get when telling them but I cannot work without this medication, and I don’t have leave on this job, and I can’t afford to be fired for missing work. Or whatever other pickle I’m in at the moment. It doesn’t matter. I do everything right and there will still be regular problems in getting my medication filled on time.

I’m sure, by now, you’ve figured out that this particular medication is a narcotic pain killer — hydrocodone (generic for Vicodin). I take it for chronic pain. I have been taking it for over five years this way, with the doses varying between one-and-a-half per day and three per day. And the only medical trouble I have ever had on it is when there was an excessive delay in refill during a bad pain flare and I got to go through the withdrawal for two weeks. (And I can tell you from experience: hydrocodone withdrawal is nothing compared to Effexor withdrawal.)

Narcotic pain killers can be a valid option for chronic pain patients. They fill a void left by other treatments which still aren’t effective enough to address our symptoms, which can easily be disabling. As you can see, I take plenty of other medications. But if I want to be able to get up and do something, I still need the pain relief the hydrocodone provides. So I take it. Because I like to be able to get up and do things. Like make the bed in the morning and feed the cats and make myself lunch and possibly run errands. Or — you know — work. Those silly sorts of things.

Here’s the thing, though. In both common culture and the medical industry, chronic pain patients who take these medications to be able to perform everyday, ordinary tasks that currently-able people take for granted — like bathing or showering or washing dishes or dropping their kids off at school — are still constructed as an addict just looking to get high.

You could almost kind of expect that for the narcotics. Most people do not understand the distinction between addiction and dependence. (Which is, basically, the distinction between taking a medication for a medical purpose so that you can go on living your everyday life, vs. taking a medication when you have no medical need so that you can escape from your everyday life.) This distinction exists for a reason; developing a tolerance for a medication is not a bad thing in and of itself, and must be weighed against the benefits that medications brings to the person.

Addiction calls to mind, though, a life being torn down. Addiction calls to mind a person who is seeing the detriment of a drug outweighing the benefit. A person whose life is falling apart because of the drug.

A chronic pain patient taking a narcotic pain killer under the close supervision and guidance of a knowledgeable doctor is exactly the opposite: sie is a person whose life is coming back together because of the drug.

But this image is not easily shaken in people’s minds. And so the chronic pain patient is reimagined as the addict. Hir behaviors are twisted to fit the common conception of the addict. If sie ever lets out a drop of disappointment at having problems with accessing this medication which is helping to put hir life back together — that is seen as drug-seeking behavior. And if sie lets out any sort of relief at the feeling sie experiences after taking the pill and having the crushing weight lifted from hir muscles — that is seen as “getting a high.” Heaven forbid sie show any emotion beyond just relief — like perhaps pleasure or happiness — at being able to perform everyday functions again. And any moodiness or other undesirable behavior can be easily attributed to hir “addiction.”

What’s strange, I notice, is that this reimagining is applied not only to chronic pain patients who take narcotics — but to any chronic pain patients who takes any pain relieving drug.

Take, for example, the anti-epileptic I take. It is not a narcotic. It cannot be abused — that is, if you do not have a neurological pain disorder, it will not do anything for you. You can’t use it to get high, get low, or get anything — except a couple hundred dollars poorer every month.

The only way this pill does anything for you is if you have some sort of nerve problem. And even then, the effect isn’t a “high.” Rather, it levels your pain threshhold — brings it closer to “normal.” No artificial mood effects, no giddiness, no lift. Just level.

And I still see this medication treated very similarly. Patients who take it are described in the same terms you would describe a drug addict.

And it’s just one of many. Any drug that relieves pain for a person with chronic pain will be painted in the same strokes.

At issue, here, is the conventional wisdom that our pain is imagined, that it has no real basis, or even then that it isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. That is the belief that feeds this twisted construction.

Because if you are imagining your pain, there is nothing legitimate you could be getting out of that drug. And if you aren’t getting anything legitimate out of it, but you’re still taking it — and getting upset when you don’t have it — well, that’s classic addict behavior, isn’t it?

If our pain were recognized as real and legitimate — if those messed-up-in-so-many-ways Lyrica commercials didn’t start out with “My fibromyalgia pain is real!” — this wouldn’t happen as much. Because if our pain is real and legitimate, then it is real and legitimate to seek relief for it.

(Of course, that assumes that pharmaceuticals are accepted as a real and legitimate way to relieve that pain.)

But people are going to have trouble with that. They don’t want to accept our pain. They don’t want to admit that it is real. They want to keep believing that it must be imagined. Because then, they can comfort themselves, in that murky area beneath our conscious thought, that they would never end up in our situation. They could never end up with any sort of medical condition. And if they did, well, they know how to do everything right, so they would never be affected by it.

This is why they scoff at our assertions that our experiences are real. This is why our conditions are jokes to a great many people. This is why “fibromyalgia is bullshit” has been the leading search term to my blog. This is why they seek so desperately to deny that these drugs — any drug — could be having a legitimate effect on us. This is why they treat us like addicts. Because they can see how we might reasonably be having real pain, and they can see how these drugs might reasonably be legitimately relieving it, and they can see how we might reasonably be upset if we are consistently denied access to the one thing that allows us to live our lives the way we want to.

And if all that is reasonable, then — shit — they could wind up in the same place someday. And none of their can-do bootstrap individual determination could magically get them out of it.

Addicts we are, then.

Conceptualizing disability

Amanda flags a great post by Anne C at Existence is Wonderful, which catalogues “three different ways of looking at autism — in terms of neurological structure, in terms of lived experience, and in terms of outward behavior.”  And Anne does such wonderful things with this delineation. Click through to read the whole post, which addresses attitudes toward autism in particular, but I think Anne hit on something that can be safely generalized outward — her three approaches toward autism can also, in fact, be three approaches toward disability.

[aut_concept_chart.png]AnneC’s chart: Conceptualizing Autism, transcribed below1

Some highlights, all emphasis mine.

My guess is that there are probably multiple underlying structural variations that can produce “autistic phenotypes”, and it will be interesting to see how this pans out, but at any rate, one important aspect of how I presently conceptualize autism is the fact that some structural differences do seem to really exist. And if the difference does indeed go “all the way down” to the brain, as it appears to, then it makes very little sense to (as some seem to) view autism as some kind of disruptive “module” overlaid upon a typical brain.

This is significant both in the cognitive science and the ethics realm, as it indicates (a) that experiments presuming autistic brains to be “broken versions of normal brains” are likely useless, and (b) that the best ways to help autistic people learn and develop functional skills are those which acknowledge an underlying and pervasive difference as opposed to those which presume that autism can be “removed” or “trained out” by simply eliminating surface behaviors.

Yes! Autism, or any disability, is not a case of “a normal brain gone wrong.” It is not a defect or even a modification of a “normal” brain. It is, simply put, variation. We will never overcome society’s confusion and mistreatment toward pwd as long as we think there is any such thing as a “normal” brain (or body) at all. Is any one color or pattern of a cat’s coat a “normal” one? Or are there many varieties, none inherently better or more-important than the others?

At heart of society’s approach toward disability is the assumption that there is a standard template for the human body, and if any one body turns out to be different, it is a deviation from that standard. As such, the solution to any problems resulting from said differences is to attempt to make up for that “deviation,” to attempt to make the “defective” body more like the standard template in whatever way possible.

Put this way, it is obvious that this approach is misguided at best. The solution is not to change the individual body to fit the narrow, faulty expectations, but to adjust those expectations to include the range and diversity of the human experience.

Similarly:

Mind you, none of this is meant to imply that I (or the researchers engaging in the experiments demonstrating visual-spatial trends in autistic persons) believe that autistic people cannot be disabled. Certainly, “uneven” development (which may include significant delays alongside “advanced” skill acquisition in some individuals), communication difficulties, and consequent social, educational, and occupational issues are very real. However, the existence of real disabilities and difficulties need not imply that the “whole person” is somehow diminished by the fact of being autistic, or that one cannot have attributes which exist as both strength and weakness depending upon the context.

This is where Anne comes back around to detail the third approach (outwardly knowable traits). She observes:

The orange column on the right of the diagram summarizes what most people probably think of as “autism” — that is, the externally-visible things that generally get people suspected of being, or identified as being, autistic in the first place.

This is where we see such things as diagnostic checklists, observations about a person’s developmental milestones (and when/if they meet certain expected ones), outward actions, language use, body language, tone of voice, social/educational/occupational success (or lack thereof) in the absence of modifying factors, etc.

What is interesting, and perhaps a bit unnerving, is that this category is at once the one people tend to put the most stock in (in terms of identifying autistics, in terms of determining what educational supports we might need, etc.) and the one most subject to cultural biases, personal biases, misinformation, and the ever-changing social lens through which different kinds of people are generally viewed.

…which, honestly, is a bit scary and unsettling for those of us who are going to be the ones to bear the consequences of any such things.

  1. The chart reads in three columns, transcribed here:

    * Not Outwardly Visible (Indicated by comparison studies of tissues from autistic and non-autistic brains, and some imaging studies)
    * Neurology (Brain Structure/Wiring): Autistic and non-autistic brains are different at the physical level!
    * Some studies suggest: Differences in “minicolumn” cell concentration and size; Local/global processing differences; White/gray matter ratio differences … but there is still no conclusive “autism brain scan.”

    * Not Outwardly Visible (Can be extrapolated from tendencies in performing certain cognitive tasks, and from autistic self-reports and introspection)
    * Cognitive & Perceptual Style: What characterizes the experience of being Autistic
    * Tendency to notice and attend to different stimuli than non-autistic people; Language processing differences (learns and uses language atypically); Sensory processing differences; Different memory and problem-solving strategies

    * Outwardly Visible (Patterns & tendencies in a person’s actions, demeanor, etc.)
    * Observable Traits/Behavior: What usually gets a person identified/diagnosed as Autistic
    * Atypical/”uneven” development (skills acquired in nonstandard order and manner); Diagnostic criteria (i.e. DSM); Behavioral tendencies indicate underlying differences, but do not comprise those differences!