Tag Archives: stereotypes

Guest Post: Reflections on being Jewish and Autistic: Different minorities, same critique

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is a wife, mother, writer, editor, artist, photographer, and leader of the Vermont Chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). She blogs at Journeys with Autism, and her latest book, The Uncharted Path: My Journey with Late-Diagnosed Autism, was published in July of 2010. Her last guest post for FWD was “I Do Not Suffer From Autism.”

In writing this piece, I in no way wish to imply that my approach is the only approach, that having a religion is better than having no religion, or that Judaism is right and that other paths are wrong. As long as people act consciously and ethically, I really don’t care what they believe, or whether they avoid religion like the plague. I have been involved in social justice work on behalf of all people from a progressive Jewish perspective for much of my life, because that is the culture in which I find myself at home and because it provides me with a useful framework for action. I abhor proselytizing and fundamentalism of any variety; I reject violence, no matter who carries it out; and I support a just, two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, may it be in our lifetimes.

For almost two years now, I’ve become increasingly aware of how other people regard autistics. As you all know, the news is not altogether good. As I’ve waded my way through all manner of error and nonsense, I’ve had the most familiar feeling, as though I had heard it all before. The other day, it finally occurred to me: I’ve encountered the same basic stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people as I have about autistic people.

All minority people, to some extent, have to endure similar false charges, but the similarities between my experience of prejudice as a Jew and my experience of prejudice as an autist are striking. Here are some of the most damaging myths:

We don’t love properly. In the larger, mainly Christian culture in which I’ve lived my life, the view seems to be that the Jews of the “Old Testament” were all about strict justice, and that the Christians of the “New Testament” were all about love. (I put the names of the books in quotation marks because I don’t see one as being old and outmoded and the other as having superseded it; I see them both as valid traditions in their own right.)

The Jewish God, the critique goes, is only a God of judgment, a God of punishment, a God who lacks forgiveness, and we are just like our God: cold, judgmental, merciless. The Christian God, on the other hand, is a God of love and forgiveness. When I was growing up, without much of a Jewish education, I actually believed all of this. I believed it until I was in my late thirties, and I asked a rabbi whether there was anything in Judaism to help me heal my broken heart. His reply? “Yes. Our people brought the truth to the world that there is a God who loves us and cares about our lives.” I nearly fainted. When I began to study and practice Judaism in adulthood, I was startled to find that we are instructed to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to love mercy, and to make right the wrongs of the world.

And what did I believe about autistic people until I found out that I actually am one? I believed that autistic people don’t have empathy, the very basis of loving relationships. The lack-of- empathy trope has been at the core of autism theory for a number of years, and it’s appalling how many people still believe it. Of course, they don’t appear to have met any of the autistic people I know, nor do they seem to have much empathy for the pain and suffering this canard causes autistic people on a daily basis.

We think terms of black and white. Now, the interesting thing about this particular myth is that it betrays some pretty black-and-white thinking on the part of the people who accuse us of black-and-white thinking. For example, when people say that Jews are only about justice, it’s justice of a kind that brooks no shades of gray. Christians, on the other hand, are said to be all about love, which encompasses many, many shades of gray. But the truth is that Jewish tradition has always been concerned with a concept called tzedakah, which is essentially an action that combines justice (righting a wrong) with love (easing and, ultimately, healing the suffering of other beings). We do not think in black and white about justice and love; in fact, we combine them. To split them apart is an example of black-and-white thinking at its best.

Now, consider the myth that autistics think in black and white, usually expressed as our being all about logic and systems. In fact, some researchers believe that we have Extremely Male Brains that are high on systemizing, while non-autistics have brains that are high on empathizing. And yet, when I look at my own life, and that of other autistic people, I often see a capacity for high levels of both systemizing and empathizing, and I see them working together. We don’t split them apart. Other people do, and then they tell us that we’re the ones with the black-and-white thinking. It’s enough to make you weep.

We are excessively logical. Many people believe that Judaism is all about “legalisms,” and that it does not concentrate on coming from the heart. This particular myth is very old and very intractable, in part because most people believe that Judaism begins and ends with the “Old Testament,” ignoring thousands of years of mysticism, story-telling, discussion, ritual, and practice that are all about opening one’s heart. I’m not saying that all Jews come from the heart, any more than all Christians come from the heart. I’m saying that Jewish culture has its own ways of combining head-thinking with heart-wisdom that are little known or understood by others.

Of course, autistics are constantly stereotyped as being overly logical—except when we’re stereotyped as being out of control. And yet, somehow, we manage to have friends, families, relationships, children, and ethical lives.

We insist upon being different. For a number of years, I wore garb that clearly identified me as Jewish. For awhile, I wore a yarmulke and tzitzis (ritual fringes) every day, all day. During another period, I only wore headscarves and dresses. I now dress in a thoroughly secular fashion. When I didn’t, I got all kinds of attitude about “setting myself apart.” Of course, I wasn’t setting myself apart. I was just being myself. And I wear what I wear now because I am just being myself.

I grow. I change. I morph. I explore. I’m inconsistent. I’m human. Go figure.

Not surprisingly, I have gotten similar messages regarding my autistic sensitivities to all things sensory. I’m told that I’m “choosing” to be so sensitive, that I’m setting myself apart, when I’m really just being myself. And when my sensitivities are not as troubling, I’m also just being myself.

I grow. I change. I morph. I explore. I’m inconsistent. I’m human. Go figure.

Other people are normal, and we are abnormal. Many years ago, when my daughter was small, her father used to pick up one of her friends after school and bring him home. One December, on the way home, the young man said, “We celebrate Christmas at my house. We don’t celebrate Chanuka. We’re not like you. We’re normal.” My ex-husband took the long way home and patiently explained the concept of diversity to the young man until he got the picture.

And of course, we autists get stuck with the “abnormal” label all the time—more evidence of that dualistic, black-and-white thinking that “normal” people aren’t supposed to engage in.

We are all alike. In response to all the many myths surrounding Judaism and Jewish people, I did interfaith work for a number of years, teaching workshops in areas schools and churches. Some of the most common questions I got began with the words, “So what do Jews believe?”—as though we all believe the same thing! That was the moment I’d introduce the mantra of “You get two Jews in a room, you get three opinions.”

Likewise, it seems, people have an excessive need to see autistic people as being all alike. It usually expresses itself in terms of narrowing the definition of what autistic means. (I recently saw a YouTube video in which the mother of an autistic young man actually said that you can’t be autistic if you can speak. I was flabbergasted. ) At other times, this need to see us as alike expresses itself in conclusions by researchers that autistic people are a collection of deficits and impairments without any strengths at all. If we have strengths, they are usually called “splinter skills” (a term I despise, even though it’s got some cool alliteration and assonance going on).

Of course, we’re as varied as any other group. I’m not sure what kind of impairment, oops, I mean, neurological difference keeps people from seeing that variation. It might be interesting to do some genetic research on the matter.

We are not fully human. I first became aware that some people believe that Jews are not fully human when I was in Hebrew school and saw a piece of Nazi propaganda in which Jews were likened to vermin. I felt such pride in who I was that I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Who could really think that Jews weren’t people? Apparently, at certain times in history, a great many people.

I was reminded of this experience when I happened upon some writing by Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the psychologist who pioneered the treatment now known as Applied Behavioral Analysis. In discussing the basis of his treatment, he wrote of autistics in 1974:

“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.”

I shudder to think of how many people still believe this kind of thing.

Of course, Jews, autistics, and members of any other minority group share similar experiences: we are vulnerable no matter how well we “pass” and live up to the standards of the larger culture, and we constantly have to fight against the appropriation of our own voices. Moreover, the solution to whatever problem we appear to pose consists of attempts to do at least one of the following: a) efface our differences to make us indistinguishable from others, b) demand at least a pro forma conversion to the dominant paradigm, which means that we can stim/rock back and forth in prayer/be ourselves, but only out of the public eye, or c) isolate us in ways both visible and invisible.

There are many, many autistic people who cannot do a “pro forma conversion,” who cannot “pass” as I do, and who have endured severe levels of bullying, assault, and isolation as a result. I shy away from the word Aspie and I use the word autistic to describe myself in order to make common cause with people across the spectrum (in the same way that I refer to myself as a Jew, not a denominational Jew, in order to make common cause with other Jews, no matter how differently they may think and practice, and how vehemently I may disagree with them). I will continue to do both. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and that makes me autistic. I had Jewish parents, and that makes me a Jew. I may present differently from others in my group, but then again, so do trees and birds and rocks. Why should people be any less diverse than the whole of creation?

[Interested in guest posting for FWD? Please see our Guest Posting page for more information!]

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

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

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

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

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

As the article itself says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading for November 23, 2010

miss_invisible at Take a little look… (DW): Origins

I often find myself wondering when, exactly, everything started. Have I always been dealing with mental illness? Have I always been, to greater or lesser degrees, disabled? At times the wondering borders on obsession, the inability of my anxious mind to let things go making me turn the thought over and over in my mind. Maybe part of me thinks that if I knew when it started, if I could find some moment and say, “This is when it began,” then maybe I could master it. I could understand it, I could control it, I could fix it. Ridiculous, obviously, but a lot what goes on in my head has fairly little to do with logic.

Shoshie at Catalytic Reactions: Afraid to Fly (trigger warning)

I particularly worry about flying the day before Thanksgiving.  The flights are so full, the airlines are looking for any excuse to boot people.  And now, there’s the added stress of the body scanners/grope searching.  I don’t want to go through the body scanners.  I don’t want someone to see my naked body.  I’m not ashamed, but I haven’t done anything wrong.  They have no right.

Lene Anderson at The Seated View: Everyday Hero

The click in my mind that connected that to the undertone of amazement that a person with a disability would adapt and go on with their life. It’s as if there’s a sense of awe that someone would face difficulty or pain without being curled up in a corner, gibbering in fear and how this bestows upon the person a regard as being a role model. Because it is apparently inconceivable to the able-bodied that it is possible to have a life while not being able to move your body the way the Abs do. Inconceivable to the point that there is this weird sense that disability conveys an alienness, an otherworldly not quite personhood.

BenefitScroungingScum at The Broken of Britain: Clare’s Story

I’ve been exhausted for as long as I can remember. I remember walking along in a kind of dream state when I was 7 or 8. I never went out anywhere as a teenager, I didn’t have the energy. At 19 I went to Germany to be an au-pair and remember the exhaustion of that. When I returned I went straight to University to study German. In a summer job in a museum in Munich I used to imagine making a den in the coaches that were part of the exhibit. I started to forget words. A nightmare for a linguist. That’s when it got worse. In my year out, I developed an allergy and was prescribed a high dose of antihistamines. I just slept through the rest of that year. The next year I developed a flu that didn’t go away and slept through my final year too.

Shari Roan for the Los Angeles Times: Sensory stimulation could prevent brain damage from stroke

Imagine a safe, inexpensive and drug-free way to prevent the long-term brain damage that often follows a stroke. No such treatment exists, but a new study involving rats suggests it might not take much to prime the brain to repair itself in the immediate aftermath of a stroke. For the rats, the simple act of tickling a whisker was enough to allow the animals to regain full cognitive function after a severe stroke — as long as the treatment was given within two hours.

Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine: Chronic pain: A disease in its own right

Herself a victim of chronic pain, [author Melanie Thernstrom] brings a personal perspective to the subject and also includes informative vignettes of doctors and patients she encountered at the many pain clinics she visited in her investigations. She shows that medical treatment of pain is suboptimal because most doctors have not yet incorporated recent scientific discoveries into their thinking, discoveries indicating that chronic pain is a disease in its own right, a state of pathological pain sensitivity.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: The Awkward Lines of -ist Language

[The scene sets with OYD, a slightly pale yet never-the-less still quite indigenous woman, sitting down to her trusty Macbook Pro, a laptop named “Lappy”, who has seen better days. She sets down and opens up her “drafts” tab under FWD/Forward, where she notices that egads! she has been working on this book review for over a month, and Oh my! how it must have been a long time since she has completed one. She cracks her “double jointed” knuckles like she does it too often, tucks a strand of brown hair behind her ear. She drags the review out of “drafts”, dusts it off, reaches for anything caffeinated, and begins to type.]

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian 1st edition cover. A black background with plastic toy figures of a cowboy and an indian, with the title and author's name in chunky green and white letters.I like media where I can consume it, enjoy it, and get a sense that I am experiencing something that touches on experiences that are my own, that seems real to me with out over-exaggerating them (mostly). I also enjoy it when certain traits about characters are touched upon as a description, as part of who that character is, but then they are not brought up as Huge Deals throughout the entirety of the book.

These are a few things that really endeared Alexie Sherman’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to me. Sherman created a protagonist “Junior”, who was born into the world with several oppressions, living on the axis of poverty, race, and disability. Within the first few pages of the book Junior gives a pretty good run down of how each of these things affects his life, and has always affected his life from the moment he was born. From never having quite enough to eat, to the way his “grease on the brain” has given him a stutter and seizures.

But that is where Alexie leaves the discussion about Junior’s disability. It is just a part of him, a description of his character. It isn’t some great obstacle he has to overcome. His disability isn’t some plot point, and it doesn’t help the other people around him become inspired about trying harder or appreciating their lives more. In fact, he goes into great detail early on, in those first few pages, to explain that the reservation kids often bully him. From an excerpt on NPR:

You wouldn’t think there is anything life threatening about speech impediments, but let me tell you, there is nothing more dangerous than being a kid with a stutter and a lisp.

A five-year-old is cute when he lisps and stutters. Heck, most of the big-time kid actors stuttered and lisped their way to stardom.

And, jeez, you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.

After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.

And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you become the biggest retard in the world.

Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day. They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.

I’m not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I’d have to fill it with stutters and lisps, and then you’d be wondering why you’re reading a story written by such a retard.

Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?

We get beat up.

At least once a month.

Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club.

Sure I want to go outside. Every kid wants to go outside. But it is safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and read books and draw cartoons.

Then, he moves leaves it there. We know he deals with these things as part of his life, but they do not define his life. Even the most horrible and hurtful parts of his life with disability are not defining his life.

Some other things that are not defined by Junior’s particular disability:

  • His grades in school — He does well in school, and this point becomes part of the main plot, so I won’t give too much away for anyone who plans to read this book.
  • His ability to participate in sports — Junior plays many sports, including contact sports. He is a good basketball player, playing on the school’s team.
  • His ability to have romantic relationships — Despite his believing how shallow it is, Junior has a girlfriend, and as it turns out, she actually likes him! Imagine that!

The other aspect of this book that I enjoyed, though I don’t expect every reader to view the same way, is that the Indian Reservation depicted has a lot of truth to it from my own experiences of having grown up on and around my own as a girl. Twenty, and even ten years ago, our reservation life was not so far off from the one described here, with the exception of perhaps the climate being slightly different, and perhaps I was too young to understand and remember anything about crime rates. But there was poverty, and then there was crushing poverty where I am from. There was alcoholism, though I would venture that perhaps it wasn’t the hot-button stereotype that I feel is portrayed at times in Alexie’s book. I don’t know. Every Native community is different, for sure, with their own unique set of problems. While I feel that there is a lot of truth to what Sherman Alexie has created, I also feel that there is a sweeping generalization. So, it hits and it misses, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself and decide what you think.

There are a lot of instances of language that I would not recommend in a progressive or social change setting going on here in this book. I see it being useful and very much achieving its purpose, for example, there is a very racist joke told by a white boy that Junior meets on his first day of school, using the “n”, which I will not repeat, but which is disparaging to Natives and Black people alike. Junior demonstrates an intolerance for it, without missing a beat, and in Junior’s point of view, the kid respects him for it. But, I have to wonder, is it because of how Junior addresses it, or because this particular student realizes that what he said was hurtful and wrong? The demonstration of how wrong racism is in YA literature is something I want to see more, but I question, sometimes, the ways in which we see it handled. There is almost no discussion or consideration of why this is wrong, just the very visceral use of very hateful words (like above, with the use of the “r” word in so casual a context). Just like using rape as a metaphor to show that a “bad” guy is bad, I don’t need to see or read -ist language for shock value to confront -isms. However, a well placed word could have the proper effect if viewed through the proper lens, but I don’t know if that is quite so obvious here. Junior simply reacts, saying he has to defend Black people, and Indians, but he doesn’t go into much else.

I will also note on the Wise White Person, or WWP, as I will. It takes a WWP living on the rez to point out all of Junior’s problems early on, and essentially Save Him! from the Rotten Destitution! Without a WWP, why poor Junior might be dead, the victim of a trailer fire started by grease from frybread, helplessly drunk and passed out.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is an excellent book, worth reading, for many reasons, but I caution you, gentle readers, there are many themes addressed, in very direct and raw ways that I am still not sure that I wholly approve of, and yet, as a non-white, Native American, woman, with a disability, I am not fully sure that fully disapprove of all of them either.

Oh, except for the sexist language. I found no use for that at all. I found no point where that taught any lesson, except where young boys were using it to show that “Hey!  Women and girls’ bodies are weak, so calling you a woman or a girl body part means you are weak! Har har!” You get no points there, Alexie. Misogyny wins again! Whee!

Imperfections

I am one of those people who often cannot ask for help.

At times, I am so afraid of seeming weak, or whiny, or overly-sensitive, or dependent on other people that I tend to either ignore my own needs until I start flailing around at the last minute in order to not get overwhelmed, or minimize the possibility that some things could be going wrong. I am one of those people who needs to outwardly look like I know what I’m doing and that I have things totally under control — preferably at all times. (Intellectually, I know that this expectation is intensely unrealistic, and can be dangerous; even the most “put-together”-seeming person can be a total wreck in private.)

Part of this is a defense mechanism that I developed around the same time that I started getting made fun of in grade school for my mild cerebral palsy and the limp it caused. Somehow, I figured that if I could be perfect at something — my something being academics — and make it look effortless, other kids would stop making fun of me. This didn’t work out quite the way that I planned; regardless, I still tend to hold onto remnants of this habit.

Part of it is also my own internalization of the cultural ideals that tell people with disabilities that we must always “compensate” for the imperfect status(es) of our bodies or minds, a la the Good Cripple or Supercrip, as well as the cultural messages that tell many women that they must be “perfect” while making it look downright easy, in accordance with the current “ideal” feminine role. A great number of women are told, in ways subtle and not, that we must try to “have it all,” and do it without a drop of sweat showing. We must look good all of the time, we must wear clothes that are “flattering”, we must keep a figure that approximates whatever sort of beauty standards happen to be “in.” We must take care of others’ needs and feelings and make this our number one priority, and think about ourselves last (if at all). We must project an outward appearance of cheeriness, strength, or deference, no matter how we might actually feel. If we cannot do most or all of these things, we have failed. And when this loaded set of expectations intersects with the PWD-compensating-for-disability trope, look the hell out.

These are just a few examples, of course, and these expectations shift in various ways depending upon race, class, ability status, sexuality, gender identification, education, and a host of other factors that are often derided as being remnants of “identity politics.” Identity and its politics, however, still continue to matter.

Here’s where I am going with all of this: For the past few weeks, I have been dealing with newer and more unpleasant fibro symptoms that are starting to affect my day-to-day life. At first, I thought these symptoms were just the result of a bad day, and then a bad week, bad month, et cetera (you can probably guess as to where this leads). I wanted to believe that these symptoms were not a huge deal, and look like I knew how to deal with them until I made it back to “normal,” however tenuous that position is for me. Now that these new and interesting symptoms have become a bigger deal than I had anticipated, a lightbulb has also gone off in my head: I need to work on letting go of this all-or-nothing, but-I-should-always-have-it-together-even-when-I-don’t-and-do-not-need-help mindset.

Today, I finally made the decision to schedule a doctor’s appointment to get help with my new symptoms.

Acknowledging that I don’t have some things completely “together” and that I (gasp) need medical help with these symptoms may be a tiny first step toward changing the tape loop in my brain that tells me that I am on one side of a binary — that I am either a or b, all or nothing, need help with everything or do not ever. There is a middle ground. Until now, I haven’t been able to acknowledge that.

Anything is possible, except an end to these sorts of stories

This wonderful headline came into my email yesterday.

Calgarian In Line For Berth At Vancouver Games; Triumph shows anything possible

This is a disability-centric blog, so yes, you can assume it’s about disability, and not class, or age, or immigration status, or ethnicity, or race. Those sorts of “overcoming adversity” stories get written all the time, as well, and are equally offensive, for many of the same reasons I’m about to lay out here.

I hate these stories.

I hate them because of who they’re written for. They’re not written so that blind children in Canada can be all “Hey! We’ve got a great athlete going into the Olympics, and he’s blind, just like me! Maybe I can be a world-class athlete, too!” (Because the Paralympians, who are also world-class athletes, don’t get much attention. 1) They’re not written so that blind adults can feel a bit of smug pride about having one of their own in the Olympic games to cheer for.

No no no, that would be silly. Everyone knows blind people don’t read the newspapers, and blind kids don’t learn about the Olympics! They’re all too busy leading sad lonely lives of darkness and misery! The only people who read newspapers are Nice Non-Disabled Folks who just need a feel good story about adversity.

Basically, framing this story as “overcoming adversity” rather than “Awesome Olympic Athlete (who is also blind!)” feeds into the SuperCrip story. When the only stories that your average non-disabled person reads about “the disabled” is this narrative, well– Annaham talked a bit about this in her post about SuperCrips over at Bitch:

Supercrip’s main function is to serve as inspiring to the majority while reinforcing the things that make this majority feel awesome about itself. In short: Supercrip provides a way for non-disabled folks to be “inspired” by persons with disabilities without actually questioning—or making changes to—how persons with disabilities are treated in society.

It also, of course, reinforces the stereotype that people with disabilities just need to try harder because anything is possible! Which we will now tell you by comparing all disabled people to an Olympic-caliber athlete!

Hey, able-bodied folks. Why the heck are you not overcoming adversity and becoming an Olympic-caliber athlete? It’s so easy, right? If you just “realize most of your limitations in life are self-imposed”, you, too can do anything!

  1. From reading the article, it seems like that’s the actual stereotype that Brian McKeever was hoping to overcome – that Paralympians aren’t real athletes. Sadly, that is not the actual focus of the report. It’s primarily about how amazing! it is that he might qualify for the Real Olympics. It even ends with this: “To me, it’s no surprise that he’s going to get a spot on the Olympic team,” Goldsack said. “You forget after a while that he has vision problems. He’s just one of the guys.” Well, yes, of course he’s one of the guys – he’s not one of the elephants, after all. Sheesh.

Guest Post: Disability and Aging

by Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin
Body Impolitic

Laurie: I blog with Debbie Notkin at “Body Impolitic” where we talk about body image issues in the broadest sense. I’m the mother of two daughters and I live in the Mission in San Francisco. I’ve published two books of my photographs: Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher).

Debbie: Along with my work with Laurie, I’ve has been an in-house and consulting editor of science fiction and fantasy at Tor Books. I help organize WisCon, the world’s first feminist science fiction convention,and I’m chair of the motherboard of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, supporting science fiction and fantasy that explore and expand gender. My day job is as a contracts manager for a nonfiction publishing company.

We were very pleased to be invited to blog about the intersection between aging and disability, in part because we think it’s a smaller intersection than is generally perceived.

We are 67 and 58, respectively, and both of us are able-bodied, and active. Not because “70 is the new 50” but because our bodies work just fine.

The stereotypical intersection between aging and disability is the cultural expectation that they are the same thing. Whether people are saying “After 40, it’s patch, patch, patch” or just looking surprised if a woman over 50 lifts a 50-pound box, the common assumption is that age and disability are irretrievably linked, just as youth and ability are perceived to be irretrievably linked. While 75-year-old marathon runners and charmingly fragile disabled teenagers both show up as role models, old people who walk to the grocery store and people in their young 20s who are frequently unable to leave their homes because of chronic pain are equally invisible.

Living in our bodies is a day-by-day, minute-by-minute experience. In our experience, and the experience of our friends who are our ages or older, aging does entail additional maintenance time and energy. More small things about our bodies need attention than they did 25 years ago. We go to doctors more often. We have more routine tests. We have excellent memories, but we lose words more often than we used to.

These things, however, are not disabilities. Conflating age and disability is not only dishonest about the realities of aging, it is also disrespectful of the realities of disability. We can both go where we want to go, and get in to the buildings or transit vehicles when we get there. Neither of us is in the kind of pain (physical or mental) that keeps us from living able-bodied lives. To describe our minor aging issues as disabling would be to undercut and undervalue the real disabilities that people live with every day.

At the same time, the stigma of aging (which is partially fear of death and partially the culture’s definition that beauty must be youthful) puts a disturbing spin on diseases and conditions which are associated with aging. If someone over 60 has mild to moderate arthritis, almost everyone (including her) will view it as evidence of her body’s degeneration and eventual demise, while if someone under 40 has mild to moderate arthritis, it will be just something she has to live with, and not evidence that she’s falling apart. This distinction is so endemic in the culture that one of the major medical problems with aging is that people expect their aches and pains to be permanent, and thus don’t address them. One reason people disguise some of the things that happen to them as they age, just people who can sometimes disguise their disabilities, is that we are treated so differently in the world if we tell the truth about our bodies.

As fat activists, we’ve known for years that a fat person should always ask a doctor “What do you advise your thin patients with this condition?” Similarly, an older person should always ask a doctor, “What do you advise your young patients with this condition?”

Do disabled people experience the flip side of this stigma? Not being disabled ourselves, we can’t speak to that, but readers of this blog surely can. We’d like to know: Does being disabled sometimes get transformed into being treated as if you were aging? And if so, how does that work?

***

It comes down to rejecting stereotypes: the two stereotypes of aging are the ever-increasing decrepitude and incapacity on the one hand and the cheerful, active grandparents in the Depends commercials on the other hand. Like stereotypes of disability, or of women, or of people of color, these are not true. The truth is much more layered, complicated, and different for every individual.

Recommended Reading for December 1

Disability 101: The prison of ‘special’

Society expects that all people with disabilities will be loving and joyful and cooperative and that our very presence will bring inspiration and hope. That is our role. Everyone around us can feel good because of our loving presence.

Bull hockey. It is our prison.

We are not allowed to be contrary. We are not allowed to formulate an opinion that might be controversial. We are not allowed to protest. We are not allowed to complain.

No seat for disabled students on AMS Council [University of British Columbia, Canada]

Arts representative Matt Naylor explained that he opposed the motion partly because he was concerned that creating the seat would be out of line with the faculty-based system of AMS Council. “Creating any kind of non-voting seat for a specific constituency that isn’t one of the faculties has a lot of problems. We, as faculty representatives, should be the voice for all of our faculty, and we should be considering what is best for the society holistically,” he said.

“Creating special seats for special groups specifically dissuades that because they are responsible for articulating a viewpoint, and not articulating what they think is best for the entire society, so it creates a really fractious system.”

Naylor added that problems regarding representation lie in representatives’ engagement with their faculties, and not necessarily the structure of AMS Council. Councilors should make a larger effort to engage their constituents to make sure everyone’s voices are being heard.

Disability Fail of the Week

I’ve only ever used a wheelchair for a few weeks at a time, but I have made extensive use of walking aids like crutches and sticks. You have no idea of the panic that used to come over me whenever someone took my crutches away, saying, ‘I’ll just put these over here, out of the way. Just ask me when you need them.’ Because no matter how helpful and well-intentioned the person, taking my walking aids away took away my independence; my autonomy as a person. Without them I might as well have been tied to whatever chair I was sitting in. Taking my walking aids away made me dependent on THAT PERSON, and if they left the room or were busy or distracted (because this was most often said by a teacher in a classroom setting) I was left immobile and helpless. And yes, from time to time we all find ourselves in situations where we’re dependent on others, but for disabled people dependence is so often all that’s expected of them, so often the norm, that any time someone takes away some of their hard-fought-for Independence, it’s that much more hurtful. It’s bad enough when you’re prepared for it – when you’ve made the conscious if reluctant decision to trade a little of your independence for someone else’s convenience. When it’s unexpected, sprung on you because ‘those are the rules’ that can’t possibly be modified or tailored to your individual needs, it’s unbearable.

Not Taking Care Of Yourself

When you’ve been been taught thoroughly enough that you’re Just Not Trying Hard Enough by people sufficiently different that they cannot tell when you are putting in insane amounts of effort, you may start believing it. You may have trouble telling what your own limits are, much less working out a more suitable way to approach things based on how your brain really works. You may feel like you’re Not Really Trying up to the point that you collapse.

This is exactly what got my mother (not on the Spectrum, but not neurotypical either) into the state she ended up in. She felt compelled to ignore any kind of limitation–including chronic pain from undiagnosed bone cancer–until she just collapsed. Between years of getting dismissed by doctors, and refusing to see that she had any limits whatsoever–which also helped keep her from getting the care she needed–she spent years with a very poor quality of life, then died at 60. That really opened my eyes to the fact that I was running breakneck down the same path, and it scared the hell out of me. Especially since I’ve got the same kind of high pain tolerance, and my reactions are similarly atypical.

Denigrating Self-Diagnosed People Means Denigrating All Of Us

In certain circles of the Internet, it’s become fashionable to make fun of people with “Ass-burgers,” particularly those who are self-diagnosed. (I prefer to use the term “self-identified,” and will be using both terms here.) One needn’t look any further than various snark communities and “humor” pages. When called on their ableism, people who make these kinds of remarks tend to defend themselves by saying something like, “Oh, but I don’t mean to make fun of the real Asperger’s sufferers! I’m just talking about the people who self-diagnose just to have an excuse to act like a jerk.” Leaving aside the obvious ableism directed towards officially diagnosed people–you know, we “sufferers”–there are numerous other problems with that formulation, which I’ll try to cover in this post.

A brief PSA on language

So many people have complained that it is asking too much of abled people to stop using words they consider trivial: crazy, insane, lunatic, idiot, moron, dumb, blind, etc.

I beg to differ.

You know what is really damn easy? Erasing these words from your vocabulary. All you have to do is stop saying them.

You know what is really hard?

Confronting people on their use of same language.

We aren’t even asking you to do the hard work. We aren’t asking you to tell other people to stop using that language. We aren’t asking you to confront other people on their use of that language. We aren’t asking you to explain why it is problematic, to answer people’s questions, to deal with their redirection tactics, or to handle the attacks on and harassment of the people negatively affected by that language that such confrontations always seem to draw.

You don’t have to take the brunt of it. You don’t have to deal with the negative consequences. You don’t have to face employment discrimination, street harassment, caretaker abuse, and other people’s general cluelessness about our lives. You get to sit tight in your privilege, enjoying it without even realizing you’re doing it.

All you have to do is cut a few words out of your speaking and/or writing vocabulary. That’s it.

We’re the ones who are putting our safety on the line trying to change the cultural system that oppresses us.

Two seconds to reconsidering what you’re really trying to say? Easy.

Changing other people’s deep-seated attitudes? Really damn hard.

How do you think we feel when you complain that two seconds is just tooooo haaaaard for you to take on?

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

Yes, it DOES make a difference

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

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.

I’m real.

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.