Many of us have heard about, or come into contact with, some of these bright young things. They are heralded — or, more commonly, blasted — as naive, entitled, too optimistic, and over-confident. In many of these articles, their numerous faults are listed: They don’t know how to dress professionally! They expect to march into the workplace of their choice and immediately start making a six figure-salary! They think they are perfect! They want praise all of the time! (Does no one who writes these sorts of articles stop to consider that many human beings want praise when they complete a task to the best of their abilities?) They have tattoos, dyed hair, and iPods! EVERYBODY PANIC, because the American workplace is apparently going to be dragged down by Generation Y’s entitlement, narcissism and laziness! This narrative, however, seems to apply mostly to a very specific subset of the population (and even the picture that accompanies the NYT article reinforces this): young, able-bodied, middle to upper-middle class, college-educated white people.
This erases, or conveniently ignores, a hell of a lot of folks who are not young, abled, middle/upper-middle class, and white. It erases young workers who may not have had the “expected” educational opportunities (such as college), or who had to take more than the expected four years to finish their degree, or who did not finish school. It erases people whose parents or family members may not have been quite so “involved” in their education, or in their lives at all. Of course, it also erases young people with disabilities — both those who cannot work, and those who want to work but who may be bumping up against various narratives such as that of the “entitled” Generation Y kid. Some of us have psychological issues or disabilities that put us completely at odds with the “overly-confident” and “entitled” stereotype that apparently befits the current generation — because we cannot stop worrying despite the fact that we are supposed to be totally optimistic and confident all of the time, always thinking that the roads leading to our perfect job will be lined with rainbows, fluffy bunnies, and gold.
Some of us have physical disabilities, chronic pain, or chronic illnesses that prevent us from working 40-hour weeks (or more); asking for accommodations or disclosing our condition(s), we fear, may make us look “entitled,” or like we do not want to put in the time necessary to work our way up — even if this is not the case. The fact is that many people, and many young people, with disabilities are already at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to the labor market and making a living. Not only are many people with disabilities, at least in the U.S., more likely to face lengthy stretches of unemployment and/or live in poverty regardless of age, but many face additional hostility, discrimination, and unreasonable demands, both in the workplace and from society at large because of their disabilities.
While I am not saying that these over-entitled Generation Y-ers don’t exist (I’ve had run-ins with quite a few of them, myself), I am struck by the fact that the narrative surrounding them is so dependent upon erasing or ignoring certain people whose bodies and experiences do not fit the “expected” attitudes about labor that have been traditionally upheld by American culture. Many of these attitudes, furthermore, rely heavily on binaries that reinforce who “counts” and who does not: You either work full-time, or you’re lazy. You’re willing to be mistreated in the workplace and do whatever it takes “for the job,” or you’re a wimp. Suck it up, or go home. If you’re not making enough money to live on or are poor, you just aren’t working hard enough. If you ask for “accommodations,” you’re asking for too much — just do your job! You have to work hard to “make it,” and if you don’t work hard enough, it’s your fault. If you don’t like your job or face daily mistreatment, you can always quit and find another one, right? But if you can’t, it’s your fault, and why did you quit that job, anyway? These attitudes surrounding work affect people with disabilities in a wide variety of age groups and generational cohorts, and this is a crucial part of why they are so important to critically question and examine.
The message for Generation Y, in general, may be “Get over yourself,” but the message for those who do not fit the characteristics of the “average” Generation Y worker is more severe — and ultimately more dire.
[Cross-posted at ham blog]]]>
The intersections with disability here are rather clear. For one thing, there are some intersections between homelessness and disability, because some homeless people are, for example, mentally ill or have disabling physical problems. Do either of these things make them unworthy of compassion, or not human? Of course not, but from the way this proposed ordinance is designed, it is, on a very basic level, criminalizing homelessness even more than it is already criminalized (not to mention socially stigmatized), while taking extra “common sense” steps to avoid citing non-homeless people for an offense. Observe the following response to concerns that SF police would begin to crack down on non-homeless people were the laws to go into effect:
During a heated, five-hour Board of Supervisors public safety committee hearing on the issue Monday, Adachi showed photographs of behavior that would be illegal under Newsom’s proposed law: a well-heeled tourist sitting on her luggage as she waits for a cab, a little boy sitting on a sidewalk clutching his skateboard, and tourists sitting on a curb and gazing up at the sights.
Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman said all of those people would be warned first to move and that none of them would probably receive a citation.
“Obviously common sense is going to be part of the training with enforcement of this statute,” he said at the hearing.
Ah, yes, “common sense.” Common sense, apparently, still makes the further stigmatization of homeless people de rigeur. Because apparently, they don’t deserve to sit down in public, unlike “well-heeled” tourists and neighborhood residents. I wonder what the response to a person with disabilities — tourist or not — needing to sit down on a public street might be? Someone waiting for an ambulance? While that is approaching a bit of a slippery slope argument (which I generally like to avoid), it is worth considering, simply because “common sense” will mean different things to different people — those whose job it is to enforce the statute included.
Also interesting is the framing of this ordinance in terms of concern for children. From one of the SF Gate articles:
Newsom, who bought a home in the Haight recently, was convinced to support an ordinance after walking along Haight Street with his infant daughter and seeing someone smoking crack and blocking the entrance of a business.
Certainly, children need to be protected from dangerous situations or potentially dangerous situations, but is an ordinance that criminalizes the poor and homeless — not all of whom are recreational drug users or addicts — really the way to do it?
Additionally, nowhere have I seen any plan to increase the number of homeless shelters or services for homeless people attached to this ordinance. The implicit message behind these proposed sit/lie laws seems clear: It’s too bad you’re homeless, but don’t you dare be homeless on our streets, because it might make our city look bad. Oh, and you certainly shouldn’t expect the city to help you not be homeless — even after it cites you for breaking the sit/lie law.
(Cross-posted to ham blog)]]>
You’ve heard the term “choice feminism” right? Usually used derisively by a person who is arguing: Just because a woman makes a choice does not make it a feminist choice, we have to be able to examine issues on a systemic rather than individual level, some choices that individual feels are good for them are actually going to be bad for the group as a whole and even bad for that individual when systemic issues are taken into consideration.
Here’s what annoys me about this argument. It always comes from the perspective of a white, cisgendered, currently nondisabled, middle-to-upper-class, heteronormative, and otherwise socially privileged person.
That doesn’t mean that it’s that kind of person saying it: it means that the very idea comes from a very specific perspective, in response to a very specific situation.
And not all of us are in that same situation.
The assumption, when this person says “we have to be able to make some sort of systemic analysis and that will mean some choices have to be wrong” they are almost always assuming some specific things.
* Women have been historically locked in their homes tending their houses and families, and larger society pushes against women’s ability to participate in the workforce, and women should participate in the workforce at the highest level possible.
* Women are oversexualized, and that sexualization takes specific forms, such as high heels, lipstick, makeup, dresses.
* Women are stereotyped as demure and submissive, soft and giving, caring and intuitive.
* Women are forced into roles as family carers, encouraged to have as many children as possible and to be the primary carer to those children, stereotyped as having special natural ability to raise children.
That’s just a few.
Here’s the thing. Everything I just said above about “women”? Isn’t true for women. Rather, it is true for white women. Or cisgendered women. Or nondisabled women. It is not true for women as a class.
Yet we continually operate on the assumption that it is!
But ask some other women, sometime, what their experience has been. Many poor and lower-class women, for example, would gladly tell you that they have never had a whiff of an option to stay home with their children — they’ve been out there washing the rich women’s drawers, or sewing them in the first place, so that they can afford dinner for their family a few days out of the week. Ask a black woman about being a nanny and wet nurse. Ask both of those women, and a few mentally or physically disabled women, about when they had their children taken away from them or weren’t allowed to spend any time with them at all (apart from the time they spent cleaning up the messes of the children of those rich/white/nondisabled women they worked for).
Ask a little black or brown girl in some poor neighborhoods about being expected to be virginal (a concept that depends on whiteness from the very beginning) until her wedding day. She’ll probably laugh at you. She’s been continually harassed, abused and assaulted since age six. She’s portrayed in larger culture as an unsexual unwoman and yet every man who crosses her path sees her as a potent sexual opportunity.
Ask the little girl with developmental disabilities about sex sometime, too. No one ever sees fit to give her any information on the subject. They fight to have her sterilized, or even be forced with serious drugs and surgical interventions to stay in a prepubescent state for the rest of her life, so that no one will ever have to deal with the messy proposition of a menstruating or pregnant r*t*rd girl. And if she does get pregnant, that baby had better be aborted immediately, because she could never, ever be anything but an utter failure of a parent. Sterilization is proposed precisely so that she will never get pregnant even if she is sexually assaulted by carers — precisely because everyone knows that she will be.
Ask the visibly disabled woman about being expected to dress up in skirts and high-heeled shoes. Everybody around her will wince at the thought of her in form-fitting, skin-showing clothing. Because, you know, “women” are oversexualized in that way. Ask her about those super-special parenting powers she supposedly has. Everybody around her will bristle at the thought of her having primary responsibility over a child. Because, you know, “women” are stereotyped as having those super-special powers.
All of these girls and women live very different lives as girls and women. The fact that they are marginalized as girls and women is one thing they share in common. But the ways in which they are marginalized are different!
A white woman is marginalized in a different way than a Latina woman is. And a Latina woman is marginalized in a different way than an indigenous woman! A nondisabled woman is marginalized in a different way than a paraplegic woman is… and a paraplegic woman is marginalized in a different way than a bipolar woman is. An upper-middle-class woman in urban New York is marginalized in a different way than a poor woman in urban New York — and a poor woman in New York is marginalized in a different way than a poor woman in Indiana.
There are different mechanisms of marginalization for different types of people — and the greater your difference from the presumed default person, the more different your type of marginalization looks than the privileged-other-than-gender woman.
And that means that what affects you, how it affects you, what issues are important to you, what is good for you and what is bad for you, is different for different sorts of people.
So we cannot, cannot assume, if we agree that “choice feminism” is misguided (and indeed, I believe that straw-ideology would be misguided — well, surely many people think that way, but that is not usually the argument that is being put forth in these discussions), that high heels, lipstick, being submissive, foregoing paid work to raise children, etc. etc. are clearly problematic under a systemic feminist analysis. Because they might be clearly problematic for one set of women — but they are not clearly problematic for the set of all women.
Actually, sensible shoes and baggy desexualized clothing might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who have been historically deprived of their right to any sexuality. Actually, full-time participation in the paid workforce might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who have already been working outside the home for centuries and have historically been denied the right to raise their own children. Actually, being aggressive and dominating or even merely appearing assertive and self-confident might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who are culturally typed as bossy, loud, demanding and unyielding and rarely read as anything but.
Given all of this, I am distrustful of anyone who argues against “choice feminism” or the idea that “any choice is a good choice for that person” because that is not the point. When people protest as you judge their choices against your standards, they are not claiming that no choice could ever be problematic. They are protesting because you are applying the standard of your particular experience against their very different experience. They are protesting because you are assuming that your experience is universal. They are protesting because you are invalidating their own experience, their own feelings and thoughts and desires, in the process. They are protesting because you are objectifying them. And it feels pretty shitty to be objectified.
(Cross-posted at 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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
I wrote this yesterday in an extreme fog and do not have the spoons to rework and polish it. Apologies for the brainspill, but these days it’s the only option I have.
For background, see Ouyang Dan’s post on the problematic aspects of the TV show House. Don’t tell me that people realize this is fictional. Don’t tell me that people know how to maintain that separation. Some do. Many don’t. And they’re everywhere. At the bottom of the totem pole… and in positions of power over the very people they are prejudiced against.
I was called back to work two weeks ago. I work at a government office that provides certain assistance programs. (Once you go to work for one government agency, you realize there are a whole lot more of them than you ever thought before.) I really don’t want to go into it any more specifically than that.
It’s been very rough on me. Last winter, work was physically draining. I basically have two whole hours every day that I am awake and not at work, preparing for work, or traveling to and from work, and semi-conscious. Not only am I so physically exhausted that I go to bed three hours after work ends, I am so physically exhausted that my brain just cannot be pushed any further. I have trouble comprehending the blogs and news sites I normally read; writing is usually out of the question. Of course, we won’t even talk about anything more physical than that — even preparing a boxed dinner for myself is too difficult. My apartment is even more a mess than usual, because I don’t have the energy to pick up the clothes that I shed as soon as I get the front door shut, the mail and personal items that trail after me from the couch to the bedroom…
Unfortunately, so far this year, it hasn’t just been physically draining. I’ve been dealing with a sudden onset of severe migraines, and not the type of migraines I’ve had since childhood and have an intimate knowledge of — these are more classic migraines, the nausea, the aura and vision distortion, the intense pain and pressure behind the eyes… The pain is not as overwhelming as my normal migraines (where a twitch of the toe makes me want to scream or cry or at least moan, but the movement and force of emitting any noise at all would hurt even worse, so I just curl up and remain frozen in misery), but the experience is just as miserable because it block’s my brain’s ability to function, even to process the smallest of information. I’ve been having trouble writing six-digit numbers on the top of each application. And normally I work faster than the worker next to me, but the past two weeks she’s been cranking out work three times faster than me.
It’s frustrating. I’ve been doing everything in my capacity to do to fight these headaches off. Everything. And no, I don’t want any helpful suggestions. But regardless, even with all the desperate measures I have been taking, they persist.
On top of it all, my endometriosis has decided to flare up at the same time. So I get double nausea, extreme abdominal cramps, persistent pelvic pain and other symptoms.
I’ve been in a lot of pain.
I take a lot of medications. For pain. I take medications that have no effect on people who do not have a specific type of pain disorder. And I take medications that people who are not in pain popularly take to get high. (I do not, for the record, take anything to get high myself.) And I put up with a lot of shit to continue taking one of few medications that works and that enables me to work.
(I guess I could give it up and therefore be putting up with less shit. But then I’d, you know, not be able to work. And for so long as I have the option to be able to work, I’m taking it. Because I may not even have that option forever. Situations change, bodies change, and bodies change how they react to medications over time. I’m doing what is necessary for myself and my family at this point in our lives.)
So, at work today.
I sit on the far side of the first floor of our building, along with all the other people working in my particular program, the people working on another program, and a couple stray general clerks across from all of us. The other program’s supervisor and one of the other program’s workers (OPS/OPW hereafter) were talking about a certain case, a woman who was being denied medication and needed help obtaining it. This was before lunch, it was a general talk in a work context, that is how to get the problem solved.
My husband and I went home for lunch, as we do regularly, given that we live less than five minutes from our workplace. It takes half the lunch period but it is worth the spoons because it makes the workday so much more bearable — two four-hour chunks rather than one long nine-hour one. We sit around, watch The People’s Court reruns, eat our lunch and laugh at the cats who get in silly, hyper, meddling moods around that time.
I returned from lunch, feeling a lot better having had a break from the fluorescent lighting and ambient noise of the HVAC system. And a few minutes after I got back, sitting next to the OPS scanning documents into the computer system, OPW wandered back over and began talking again about the client from before.
The medication? Oxycontin. Her doctor has been prescribing it to her for over 15 years.
And the conversation? Went like this. (As typed soon after in an email to my husband, as close as I could get to what they actually said, given how stunned and hurt I was while it was happening.)
OPW: do you watch house?
OPS: no not really
OPW: well he has some sort of leg injury, but he takes that other one, what is it? vicodin
OPS: uh huh
OPW: and they sent him to rehab, and he just had to find something to occupy his mind so he wouldn’t think about it
OPS: yeah they get addicted so easy
OPW: and now they put him on regular pain killers and he’s doing just fine
OPS: yeah a lot of the time tylenol or advil works just as well, people just want the high
OPW: exactly, and their doctors prescribe it to them and they hand it out to family members…
And the conversation went on like this for a couple minutes, with the two of them walking back and forth fetching printed documents, attending to the scanning etc.
I just… I’m not terribly private about my condition. I don’t bring it up, but if it’s relevant I talk about it. I do try to avoid telling my coworkers that I take narcotic medications (as opposed to just “medications”) but I have gone over it specifically with HR as it can be a security issue in some agencies.
I was sitting right there. OPW sits on the other side of me, and had to walk around me to get to where OPS was at the scanner. I was sitting right there.
They were talking about me.
They weren’t thinking of me, of course. They’d never make that connection. I’m young and thin and pretty enough. They know I work hard. Most of my office loves the hell out of me.
But if I had spoken up — rather than sitting there holding my breath trying not to cry — how would that opinion change? Would they start seeing me as lazy, as slacking off? Would they whisper about me every time I went to the water fountain for a drink? What was I taking? What was I doing with it? Would they start taking certain behaviors as symptomatic of addiction? If I passed too well one day, appearing to be just fine (to them; I am good at covering up my pain) — would they take that as evidence that I couldn’t actually be in pain and couldn’t really need that medication? And if I didn’t pass well one day — especially these days, when I’ve been stopped more than one time as someone remarks on how deathly pale I am and asks if I’m OK and tells me to take a break — would they see that resulting, not from my pain, but from the supposed addiction?
They were talking about me. They didn’t even know it. But I am that person on that medication. Pushing through the pain to keep working.
The difference is, Dr. House is a character.
And that woman. These were the attitudes of the people who were helping her resolve an issue. As much as I wish otherwise, workers do have some degree of latitude in deciding how they are going to approach a case, and can apply the law in different ways for different people, even if it appears pretty strict on paper.
I am that woman.
I have been there. I am there. I have to deal with unsympathetic figures in obtaining my treatment. Doctors, nurses, office staff, pharmacists, insurance reps, welfare reps, other reps. I have issues I have to call to have resolved. I have that person on the other line who’s promising me on the one hand to resolve the issue — but on the other hand …? How can I ever know?
I don’t know what was going on in this woman’s life. I don’t know if she’s dependent (there is a difference). I don’t know if she would be better off on another course of therapy. Or whether she’s tried all those other courses and they’ve given her awful side effects or they’re contraindicated given her particular condition or they’re unavailable to her due to income or access. I don’t know.
Maybe she’s abusing. Maybe she’s handing it out on the street corner.
Maybe she’s just like me. Just one person trying to power through this world as best she can. And this is the best way she’s found to do it.]]>
Access is an all-consuming endeavor in a disabled person’s life. I love that the disability community learned to frame it that way: it emphasizes that the problem is not the person, their body or their condition; the problem is society’s indifference.
Many accessibility solutions are structural; they require collective action — constructing spaces such that wheelchairs can be used within them; hiring interpreters and providing caption services… these are not actions that can be undertaken by a single person.
What is unfortunate about this, though, is that it relieves the fully-abled individual of hir responsibility to hir disabled counterparts. It means the fully-abled individual can safely get away with never thinking about disability, and the connection between societal access and hir actions specifically, at all. Sie never has to consider how her attitudes and behaviors very really shape the environment of hir peers. Sie never has to stop and think, how does what I am doing affect those around me, and how can I change that to make things better for them?
When all solutions are collective, your own actions become invisible. Your contribution to the world around you becomes invisible. The power you hold over other people becomes invisible. Your status as part of the problem becomes invisible.
So let’s be clear — YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. And there is no instant solution, no magic words that can make that “go away.”
But what can you do?
I thought of what I think is an illustrative example the other day.
When I was attending college, I had a lot of walking to do — at least a mile from my dorm to each class, and of course the walking in between. It was exhausting, and it was one of the major factors that led me to drop out the first time.
One of my classes was on the sixth floor of the humanities building. Another was on the fifth floor of the math and science building. And I had several choices on how to reach those points:
1. The elevator.
2. The escalator (in the math building).
3. The stairs.
Here’s the irony: the only accessible solution was the stairs.
I have a physical disability. That disability is also invisible. I can climb stairs, but when I do it precludes any remotely physical activity (up to and including sitting upright) for a couple days, compounded the more flights I have to climb.
This was not teneble, not when I had to do this three times a week, and that doesn’t even include the energy required to walk to the building in the first place, to sit in the hard uncomfortable chair for an hour taking notes, and the energy I needed to do the home assignments, projects, and studying necessary for the class. And that doesn’t account for my four other classes!
So: Why couldn’t I use the elevator?
Well, because everyone else was using the elevator — so many people that there was a long line and usually a 15-20 minute wait before you could step foot in one.
Again, I have an invisible disability. I could have pushed to the front of the crowd every day, jostling my way through dozens of people to weasel my way in the door. And that would have made me kind of an asshole, you know?
So what do I say? “EXCUSE ME, I’M DISABLED, I NEED TO GET IN.” And everybody would turn to look at my lanky eighteen year old body, with no visible deformities, no mobility aids or other assistive devices or personal aide or caretakers, having walked in the front door just fine. And then everybody would be thinking that I was kind of really an asshole.
Complicating things is that at the time, my severe anxiety was undiagnosed and untreated. There was no way I could have even squeaked out a humble “excuse me,” much less forced my way through the crowd, much less shouted for all to hear that they needed to get out of my way and give me “special treatment.” Oooh, how I loathed special treatment. It made me feel like I was, you know. Disabled. Not normal.
This crowd existed in front of every elevator in every building on campus. Not all of the people waiting at that elevator were healthy enough to take the stairs. There were surely others with invisible illnesses like me, and others yet who just weren’t in the greatest shape, and so on. But the majority of those folks took the elevator because it was there. And those folks are the ones who made my life, and my participation in society, that much harder back then.
So: Why couldn’t I use the escalator?
Here’s a different problem. A lot of kids used the escalator. An escalator, as you know, is basically a revolving set of stairs that moves upward, so that you don’t have to do any climbing to get up to the next floor.
But here’s the problem. Everyone who took the escalator? Walked up it.
Now, if I wasn’t going to be climbing the stairs, why the hell would I go and climb the escalator? The entire point is to spare me that climb, right?
But I couldn’t use it that way. If I stood still on a single step, that would clog up the line of kids studiously climbing, climbing. They were narrow enough for two small people to stand side by side, but then not everyone is small, and we also had to carry our bulky book bags and such with us. So if one person stays still, there is a bottleneck effect — only a trickle of people can squeeze through, and everyone else gets stuck behind you standing still.
Assuming everyone in that crowd is healthy, someone who stands like that and creates that kind of jam is, again, kind of an asshole — right? So what was I supposed to say? “I’m disabled, sorry.” While everyone stares at the back of my entirely healthy-looking body for the next few minutes.
So: what was I left with? Well. The stairs were pretty free. Maybe I could have started to carry a cane, just to visually signal to people that I was sick. Even though I didn’t need that cane and wouldn’t know what to do with it. Do I hunch myself over, tousle my hair and do my best to act like I’m ninety years old and barely hanging on? Just so people would maybe, just maybe, believe me?
Or maybe… maybe everyone else involved could have stopped and thought about how their actions were affecting other people. Because I sure as hell wasn’t the only one facing this dilemma.
Just because the elevators and escalators existed did not mean they were therefore accessible to the people who needed them. Because accessibility is more than structural. It also counts on the actions of each individual.
Yes, you are part of the problem. There are times where you are in the way, where your actions are creating difficulties in someone else’s life. And you probably can’t even see it. But, you know — maybe you would — if you started looking. ]]>
This post is a part of Blogging Against Disablism Day.
For most people, health is not life’s goal. Public health is not a religion, or, as recently seen in the United States of America, health is a journey, not a destination. Health is a means to an end, it is a resource for living the full life, not something to be pursued in an obsessive way that denies risk enjoyment and testing limits.
[John R Ashton and Lowell Levin, “Beware of Healthism”]
How many people with disabilities participated in Australia’s 2020 Summit?
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 19% of the young (aged 5-64) population have disabilities, and numbers are much higher after retirement age. If people with disabilities (PWD) are considered full citizens and had proportional representation at the Summit, of 1000 working-age participants, you might expect nearly two hundred people with disabilities having their say at the Summit.
Of people with disclosed or visible disabilities, however, the current count seems to stand at less than ten. According to one source, there were six. The fact that these numbers are difficult to obtain shows how important this issue is in the able-bodied national psyche.
On this information, that’s PWD underrepresented by a factor of thirty. How many protests would there be if there had been only 16 women at the Summit? The country scrutinised gender inclusion closely and at length, both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere. This disablist inequality puts that to shame.
You can download the Initial Report of the Australia 2020 Summit here.
The report opens with “The Productivity Agenda”. The focus on a competition economy labels us as marginal citizens, if we are not economically useful. We are primarily a problem for capitalism, a burden to be reluctantly dealt with. We are not seen as people with thoughts and ideas and lives, people who have their own perspectives and contributions to Australia’s civic society and cultural life.
What mention there is of disability in the report marginalises or erases our humanity and agency, and treats us either as defective production units (the disability insurance scheme), or burdens (the carer support). Both of these aspects of disability and disability care are important, but where are the people with disabilities themselves? There is a note that “Carers often experience significant social exclusion”, but the Summiteers gloss over the social exclusion of PWD themselves, apart from a nod toward “recreational services for disabled young people”. Note that they’re not even using “people-first” language – the Report also refers to us as “the disabled”. (More information about people-first language can be found here and here.)
The report talks about additional funding for carers for medical, housing and transport costs, but it doesn’t talk about people with disabilities needing more money for medical, housing and transport costs. It is just assumed that we all have a carer who takes care of everyday life necessities. The report talks about the need for additional training for carers, but not about educational opportunities for PWD. The purported disability insurance scheme is proposed to apply only to people who are catastrophically injured, not people who are ill, who have congenital disabilities, and so on – no matter how severe their illness or major their impairments.
The Health section contains a few more choice snippets that come from a paternalistic, healthist, ability-normative point of view. (Does anybody have a better term than “ability-normative”? I’m analogising with “heteronormative” here, but I’m not sure that it really works well linguistically.)
The ObesityCrisis(tm) looms large at the summit. What mention there is of the determinants of health looks at ObesityCrisis(tm), alcohol and drug use, and Indigenous health and gap-closing (an excellent focus in itself, and an area of major need, though what we call “healthcare” isn’t necessarily the solution). Mental health gets a passing mention. Is it as if no one ever has health issues that aren’t caused by indigeneity, fat, or drugs. The link between poverty and health is not drawn. The only nod to the “stuff happens” theory of disability is the injury insurance scheme. Otherwise, it’s all “personal responsibility”.
There is a mention of making physical exercise mandatory in the workplace, perhaps with the Japanese schema in mind, something many PWD would find difficult or impossible. Do we really need to be further stigmatised in the workforce? All of the health focus is on preventive healthcare, as though by making certain choices, disability will never happen. Under preventive health policy, there is the rather dramatic and threatening note that there should be “zero tolerance of unhealthy actions“, whatever these may be. I think there is some magical thinking going on here.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that the Summitariat choose to believe that if you’re white and watch what you eat, you will be invincible, immortal, shiny, and endowed with super-powers. I can understand the attraction of this sort of mindset, to a group of able-bodied people. Who doesn’t want to think that they have control over their own super-powers? I sure did, as a Temporary Abled-bodied young ‘un.
And the corollary is: a focus on individual “health behaviour”, and on standard-issue good health, as a moral imperative. Healthism. You’re soaking in it.
What is healthism? I’ll pull a quote from Crawford, “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life.” (Int J Health Serv. 1980;10(3):365-88):
Like medicine, healthism situates the problem of health and disease at the level of the individual. Solutions are formulated at that level as well. To the extent that healthism shapes popular beliefs, we will continue to have a non-political, and therefore, ultimately ineffective conception and strategy of health promotion. Further, by elevating health to a super value, a metaphor for all that is good in life, healthism reinforces the privatization of the struggle for generalized well-being.
The Summit report includes this submission, on policing health behaviours:
“Innovative strategies for making health everyone’s responsibility, for example through a measurable “wellness footprint” or health ratings for businesses, schools and urban communities.”
Not only are we told we are individually responsible for our own health (with a hefty side serve of blame), but we have a moral responsibility to others to not have disabilities. This type of “public health” rhetoric is nothing more than a reiteration of that individualistic approach, with the addition of a value judgement and a one-way obligation. Our ill health is a slap in the face to all right-thinking people. Our “wellness footprint” is going right there on our citizen report cards along with our carbon footprint. Ill health is a result of immoral decision-making. Big Brother is watching you, missy, up and give me twenty! Is anyone else seeing a healthist Brave New World here? I’m finding this all rather chilling.
There is a ritual that when someone develops an illness, their lifestyle is pored over looking for a choice that puts them at fault. If you have friends or family members who have developed heart disease or cancer, or if you have yourself, you will have noticed this. Only if ill people are found to have been unstintingly virtuous are they be considered a “good” sick person, with a moral clean slate. The rise of moralistic healthism can only mean further marginalisation for PWD who don’t fall into the “good crip” bucket.
Everyone wants to stick their nose into our business. Surveillance and evaluation is the name of the day. We are good crips, and we are bad crips. Good crips:
– were suddenly injured in an unavoidable accident (the sort of thing that might be covered in a catastrophic-injury insurance scheme), or perhaps a congenital happenstance
– have a visible injury or assistive device(s)
– are cheerfully and/or stoically compliant with attempts at medical treatment
– ‘overcome’ their ‘challenges’
– are cognitively typical and good communicators
– are thin and conventionally sexually attractive, yet display no sexual feelings or behaviour of their own (perhaps apart from conventional heterosexual marriage).
– have physically active lives, work in a job, participate in athletics
– are integrated and assimilated
– are plucky, heroic, unfailingly optimistic victims of tragedy.
What happens to transgressors, to PWD who deviate from the plucky-victim script? Are we punished? Outcast? Ignored? Where do we fit?
There is another societally-accepted script: the silent, identity-less crip as the foil for the self-sacrificing carer-martyr. The cute, tragic, silent, infantilised, ‘pillow angel'; ascribed no agency at all. The carer is also deprived of agency and identity in this stereotypical script, subsumed into the notion of “carer”, with no life of their own; a double tragedy.
But the reality is, people with disabilities are far more varied and complicated, not a collection of conveniently-cliched characters in morality plays and Hallmark specials. Some of us have carer responsibilities ourselves. And hobbies. And political ideas. And social lives. We are not potplants, pets, malingerers, inspirations, handfuls, beds, wheelchairs, freakshows, mascots, superheroes, or angels. Just people. With lives that aren’t reducible to being an economic unit or someone else’s encumbrance.
There are some things we can’t fix; we have to live with them. And we don’t become objects or burdens in that process, we are subjects. We have an outlook on the world. Readers here know that objectification of women is a problem – well, check out the objectification of women with disabilities. We are here, we are not going away, we have voices that need to be heard, we are part of this conversation. And one day – maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty years – odds are, you will become one of us.
Talking about health and disability policy without substantial input from people with a wide range of disabilities is a paternalistic farce. Before even starting to form a disability policy, a whole lot of people need to go back a step. Just as you can’t form a coherent, reasonable women’s policy without feminism (the radical notion that women are people), you can’t form a coherent, reasonable disability policy without disability activism.
The radical notion that people with disabilities are people.]]>
I had always meant to expand upon this topic, but never found the right words for it, succinct and meaningful. But, well, that’s not exactly my style either.
My job situation is still shitty, and I’m currently part-timing at a retail pharmacy as a cashier. (Sample day: Mid-20s white guy “discretely” [read:blatantly] takes a picture of me on his cell phone as I am kneeling down assembling a battery display; someone shits in the toilet paper aisle [seriously! a person! took the time to unbutton their pants and all!]; I set alarm off while fetching pushcart from back room.) “The injustices of retail,” I said to my coworker, as I nursed the scratch on my finger from pushing that toothpick in a little too hard.
But honestly, I still do, and always have, appreciated working with the public. It’s the kind of thing that reeks a little too much of bullshit to say in an interview (“Really! I love when people show visible surprise at the revelation that I can do third-grade math!”) but, well, it’s true. I like people. I am, fundamentally, the kind of person who likes spending time with people (though my severe social anxiety always masked it). I’m not a butterfly by any means — good God, I can’t stand parties, pubs, or the mall at Christmastime, and I always need time to recharge after any extended social time — but I do enjoy interacting with a variety of different people, and there are days I go home smiling because of it.
Today I met a man named Robert. He stopped by to ask how long a sale price on a can of Folgers was supposed to last, and we ended up chatting for a good ten or fifteen minutes — the line piled up behind me, but I didn’t give a damn. Robert was in a wheelchair, for whatever reason, and was there to pick up his medication, whatever it was. He got his “paycheck” on the third of every month, and only the third (read “paycheck,” there, as Social Security disability check) but right now he was fighting with Verizon, who apparently shorted him half a hundred dollars worth of minutes on his phone, and he was going back-and-forth with them to get the situation righted, and anyway he wouldn’t be able to come back for his coffee til then. I was nodding and exclaiming the whole time as he was describing how much fighting he had to do — to get his transportation to the doctor, to work, to the grocery store; to get his medicine filled correctly and on time; to keep his welfare benefits flowing smoothly (there is apparently a very common mistake that gets made on his account every couple months, and he then has to make a dozen calls here and there to get things patched up, and then a few weeks later some new worker makes the same mistake again, and…) etc. etc. etc.
God did I identify, and I didn’t have to deal with the half of what he did. The fatigue and the worry and the energy and the stress and the wasted time — and when I related as much to him (having by this point unfolded my stool and sat down over the counter) he laughed it off — “Oh hell, I’m used to it by now — doesn’t bother me.”
I hope I never get to that point. No one should ever have to get to that fucking point. No one should ever have to spend half their waking hours, no fucking exaggeration, correcting other people’s mistakes just to keep the basic necessities of life covered — and then getting attitude from those same people for being a pain in the ass to deal with.
This is a serious time sink for the ill and disabled. It is time that could be spend — you know, maybe working? bootstraps and all — could be spent writing, could be spent playing board games, or taking a bath, or spending time with loved ones, or going out to eat — or any number of other things that are totally productive, constructive, positive things to do — which, to varying effect, do make contribution to wider society.
And it’s a lot of time. This is why I call it the second shift: much like the second shift of professional women, who arrive home from work to do the domestic work their husbands do not do: this is a disproportionately larger share of time spent fighting, always fighting, pushing determinedly (or tiredly) through near-constant resistance.
Resistance — truly the best word for it — it is as though “normal,” “healthy” folk are able to move throughout the world uninhibited, like pushing your hand into thin air — but sick people, disabled people must move through a world which is set up to prohibit their full participation — like pushing your hand into a thick heavy bog.
That is privilege. The ability to swim through your sea with nary a care, completely obliviously unaware of the freedom of movement you are so fortunate to have, while the rest of us have sand bags tied to our limbs, anchors roped round our waists, our feet set in cement blocks… and to look back at us and ask, “What’s taking you so long?”
It’s exhausting. I cannot convey in words how exhausting the fight is. Always on the defensive, always saddled with the knowledge that your basic needs require a struggle, while everyone else’s basic needs are pretty much a given so long as they put in at least a half-assed drop of effort. It’s not even just time spent, it’s energy.
Look at it this way. How do you build muscle? You subject your muscles to resistance, just enough to create thousands of tiny little tears in your tissue, which your body then, with rest and nutrition, repairs — which leaves you stronger.
But this does not mean that all resistance therefore makes you stronger. Because the more you pile on, the more tiny little tears you make. And the less time you have to rest, to eat and drink well, to tend to your bodily health, the less of those tiny little tears get repaired. And you find yourself, now, with millions of tiny little tears, and not enough time or fortitude to repair even only the thousands you had before this overload.
Which means you don’t get stronger. You get weaker.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What unadulterated bullshit. And it has the bonus effect of implying that those who do not feel stronger after a difficult incident, those who feel fatigued and despondent, those who see themselves as in a worse place than they were when they started — it implies that those people are choosing their fate. It implies that those people get something out of their misery.
Say, all you sick people out there: does any of this sound familiar?
Robert and I wrapped up our chat — turns out he lived in Anaheim for awhile, and also attended Cal State Fullerton; what a small world! — and I moved on to the next customer, affecting the smile and the sing-song customer service voice. Hi! Do you have your [Pharmacy Name] card with you today?
But it was nice, if only for a moment, to connect with someone. To, prompted by the unspoken invitation of a new friend, reach down into myself, and connect with the real person deep inside.
Maybe our struggles make us stronger; maybe they make us weaker. It doesn’t matter. We work with the tools we are given, and we still make something whole and beautiful, something worthy, something satisfying. Why do we have to come out of every fight bigger and “better”? Why can’t we be broken and hurt? Why can’t we cry, why can’t we curse, why can’t we be angry and disappointed and let down sometimes?
Right — because we wouldn’t want to make the rest of you face up to the damage you do to our lives. We wouldn’t want to “burden” you, wouldn’t want you to have to do anything to maybe reduce a little bit the fighting we have to do to live our lives. We wouldn’t want to make you have to think about how your actions and attitudes affect other people — wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable.
When we are allowed to be angry, to be sad, to be bitter and disappointed, we are allowed to be human. When we are denied these emotions, we are denied our humanity. We are denied the full range of human experience.
It is fundamentally unfair — to weigh a person down disproportionately — to pile more and more shit atop their back — and then to grow indignant when that person lets out a sigh under the pressure — much less looks straight at you and lets rest the responsibility where it belongs. But this is how we treat each other — immigrants, queer folk, the disabled, those of color, the poor and disadvantaged — because we are fundamentally uncomfortable owning up to our own power.
Life would be so much better if we realized how much power we all have over each other — and how much power everyone else has over us — our interdependency. It is the concept out of which disability grows. And life would be so much better if we could look at this fact and see, not
Over half of the chronically ill*:
In a recent survey of 611 chronically ill individuals, done by the National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week committee, 53.27% of the respondents said that the most frustrating or annoying comment people make about their illness is “But you look so good!”
“Although telling someone they look good is often seen as a compliment,” says Lisa Copen, founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week “it feels like an invalidation of the physical pain or seriousness of one’s illness and the suffering they cope with daily.”
This is a sore spot for many with “invisible” conditions: that is, disabilities or impairments that aren’t visible to the eye, that don’t cause outward physical deformities or leave other telltale signs. The icon of the disabled in our society is a stick figure in a wheelchair; many healthy folks don’t realize that a good many of the people milling around them, though appearing outwardly healthy, can be suffering a chronic illness that leaves them impaired or outright disabled.
These illnesses can range from diabetes to chronic fatigue syndrome to cancer to eating disorders.
And because they are invisible, they can be harder to understand. People can’t see what’s wrong with you, so they assume there isn’t anything wrong (and we’re back to that white male able-bodied heterosexual default “person” again). Even presented with evidence, many people still insist that there can’t be anything really wrong. As people who have battled depression surely find familiar, you’re expected to just get out and get some sun, go out with friends, or otherwise push through. Most of us, after all, have experienced periods of sadness, pain or fatigue, or times when we were excessively hard on ourselves over our physical appearance—and healthy people will be able to recover from these things and move on. They have little concept of living with these things every minute of every day for the rest of your life.
And of course, no one can be expected to fully understand. But there are certainly conversational landmines that even the most well-meaning and sympathetic person can inadvertently step on. “You look great!” is one of them. Naturally, everyone loves a compliment (although many, especially women, are trained to feel a need to debate or deny those comments so as not to seem unduly self-confident). But when these compliments are offered as a refutation to a person’s complaints that they are feeling down or tired or overwhelmed, it leaves a person feeling (recall that teenage angst) that they aren’t really understood.
I’ll grant that I don’t tend to mind these comments as much; they blow over me a bit more easily. But a couple more comments that the committee picked out tend to dig under my skin:
* “If you stopped thinking about it and went back to work…” (12.42%)
I’ve been told to “think positive” my way out of the pain countless times. I have news for these people. I thought-positived my way through my entire first nineteen years of life. Despite living with a pain processing disorder that can make carrying in a few grocery bags feel like running a marathon, I pushed my way through school on nothing but Tylenol. And then I very nearly failed out of high school because I overworked myself. I was out of school for so long that the attendance office started calling and leaving threatening messages that I needed to come back or… I would go back to school for half a day and then take off my three-days-without-a-doctor’s-note just recovering from those three and a half hours sitting in a chair, not even enough mental energy left to learn: just enough to be present.
I then pushed myself through college, thinking that if I could just keep at it I could be “normal.” After six weeks I had to drop all my classes; I was stuck in bed in too much pain to so much as microwave myself a Hot Pocket for lunch; I lived on a big pan of bread bedside until I was able to go back home. I was bedridden and then housebound for three months thereafter.
I learned to pace myself after that; I dropped down to twelve units when I was able to return to college, and then mid-semester had to drop half those just to be able to finish half my work in the remaining half. (One prof cut me slack and gave me an A based on the work that I did, the other didn’t and gave me a C- because though I did good work, I didn’t do enough work to earn the grade. I still can’t decide which approach affords me more dignity.) Then I dropped down to six units the next semester and wasn’t able to finish it out. The pain catches up to me.
Then, a year later, I started working. Ten hours a week. And after six months I had to quit. It was killing me. I couldn’t walk when I woke in the morning; it felt like daggers shooting through the floor into my feet with the slightest of weight. I was feeling the migraines coming back, and my painkiller use was shooting upward at a rate I was decidedly not comfortable with. And my bosses were jerks to boot (“I’m fifty years old, honey, I hurt too.” “…!!!! [splutter]”).
No. I can’t be normal. Even if I look like any other perfectly healthy twenty-one-year-old (albeit with somewhat darker circles under her somewhat baggier eyes). I have to pace myself. I can’t take any more than two showers a week (and showers-per-week is a good gauge of my health at the time; when it drops below one, I know I’m in trouble). I can’t get out of the house too much (the effort trying to make myself look half-presentable, even after I ditched the somewhat exacting patriarchy standards, is too much, and then I’m out of my comfort zone where I can sit, stand, lie how I need, when I need and where I need, have my medicine and a drink at hand and heating pads and pillows ever-ready). I can’t take on too many out-of-house commitments, if any, and it has to be a pretty flexible definition of “commitment” to boot. My husband works full time and I not at all, and he still does half the housework. I’ve learned to ask for help when I’m struggling instead of stubbornly insisting I can do it myself. Etc. I’ve had to accept all these things. It’s a heavy hit to your pride, trust me.
Which reminds me of the last one that bugs the shit out of me:
3. You’re so lucky to get to stay in bed all day.
Oh, honey. I’d give anything to trade you…
*(A side note: I find it frustrating that a good chunk of stories I receive on fibromyalgia are press releases, seeking to advertise a new “alternative” treatment or, in some other way, make money off those suffering. A good chunk of the rest is business stories talking about how a condition impacts corporate profits. The remainder are slice-of-life stories that often get the facts pathetically wrong. I’d say perhaps one out of every thirty or forty stories that come my way seem to approach the condition in a respectful and accurate tone. This, despite being a press release, was one of them.)]]>