Category Archives: events

Florida Court Ruling: Community-based Services, Not Institutionalisation

In 2007, Florida resident Michele Haddad was involved in a motorcycle accident with a drunk driver. She incurred a spinal cord injury that led to quadriplegia, and lived at home until she lost her caregiver and Medicaid informed her that she would only qualify for the services she needed if she spent 60 days in an institution. Aside from making absolutely no sense, as often seems to be the case with Medicaid bureaucracy, this barrier to accessing care was also highly discriminatory.

Haddad sued, arguing that she would suffer ‘irreparable harm‘ by being compelled to enter a nursing home, and the court agreed. The State of Florida was ordered to provide her with the community-based services she requested and was entitled to. Haddad will be getting a caregiver and staying at home, and we can chalk down another victory for disability rights. This is huge and I am really pleased by the positive outcome in this case. Haddad wanted to stay at home, she should have been allowed to stay at home, and it is heartening to read that the court ruled on the side of justice, bodily autonomy, and independence in this case.

The United States Government was also involved in the case, arguing on Haddad’s side. The Justice Department is currently fighting several discrimination cases, many of which build on the landmark Olmstead vs L. C. case that cleared the courts 11 years ago. Speaking about the Haddad case, Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said:

In the Olmstead case, the court recognized that the unnecessary segregation of individuals with disabilities stigmatizes those individuals as unworthy of participation in community life. By supporting Ms. Haddad in this case, we seek to ensure that individuals with disabilities can receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate, where they can participate in their communities, interact with individuals who do not have disabilities, and make their own day to day choices. (source)

I’m excited to learn that the Department of Justice is cracking down on discrimination and is specifically selecting cases that will promote full integration into society for people with disabilities. As I discussed a few weeks ago, passing antidiscrimination laws and winning victories in court isn’t enough to put a stop to discrimination and ableism, or to the social attitudes that allow for the dehumanisation and abuse of people with disabilities, but these cases do make a difference, and the direct involvement of the government shows that there is a genuine desire to address disability discrimination and to fight it.

Forced institutionalisation, as almost happened to Michele Haddad, has a long and very sordid history in this country. A common problem that I encounter in discussions about it is that it is not always recognised as such. The Haddad case seems fairly clear-cut: She clearly stated that she wanted to stay at home and she was told that she would lose services if she didn’t enter an institution. That sounds forced to me, and it sounded forced to the court, and most of the people discussing the case seem to agree.

But other cases are less clear. A lot of people with disabilities are not provided with information they could use to make choices independently. They are pressured by family members or care providers. Someone in a situation similar to Haddad’s might not be aware that home care was an option. All it would take is being whisked into an institution from the time of an accident and deprived of access to information suggesting that there are alternate modes of care. We see the same thing with decisions about medical care, where people aren’t provided with information and options, but simply told what to do.

‘Forced’ is a slippery word and it is not uncommon for people who want to deny that forced institutionalisation happens to find ways to weasel out of confronting it. After all, if you don’t say the word, it’s not happening, right? This persistent denial is one of the things that makes it so difficult for us to confront the real-world consequences of ableism. If we can’t get people to talk about the fact that forced institutionalisation happens, we can’t get people to talk about why it happens and we can’t get people to fight it.

Forced institutionalisation is not the only denial of rights and autonomy to people with disabilities that people think of as a thing of the past and believe doesn’t need to be addressed, countered, or fought any more. As a result, when we attempt to have conversations about these very real, very structural, and very present issues, we meet rhetoric like ‘oh, well, that doesn’t happen anymore, right? It sure was sad when it did, though.’

Michele Haddad, and thousands of people with disabilities all over the world, can personally testify that forced institutionalisation is not a thing of the past; here in California, for example, disabled activists are currently protesting cuts to In Home Support Services, a program that is vital for people receiving home care. Those funding cuts will result in institutionalisation for people currently receiving IHSS services.

Bad Behaviour: Disabled Students and Discipline Disparities

I wrote recently here about the abuse of autistic students in Pennsylvania, and highlighted the fact that abusive ‘discipline’ is distressingly common for disabled students. In the interests of writing a post that for once does not need a content warning, I’m going to refrain from providing details of the kinds of actions that are considered ‘discipline’ in the schools, but I’m sure many of you have encountered stories in the media and some of you have probably experienced abuse in the classroom yourselves.

This is a reflection of a lot of problems with the way society views and treats people with disabilities, and of serious inadequacies in the education system. Teachers who abuse students clearly should not be in the classroom, yet they are, and they are sometimes allowed to remain even after abuse is reported. Teachers who have received no training in working with disabled students shouldn’t be assigned to classrooms with disabled students, yet they are.

But what about the flip side, when students are taken out of the classroom?

A study recently released in Delaware found that disabled students are more likely to be suspended for ‘behaviour problems.’ More specifically, while 20% of the students suspended[1. School suspension, for those not familiar with the concept, is a form of discipline where students are ordered to stay out of school for a set period of time. Students may or may not be allowed to do schoolwork at home.] were disabled, disabled students only make up 14% of the student body. The study questions this disparity, asking why it is that disabled students are at more risk of suspension although there is an established body of law that is designed to specifically provide protections for disabled students, and to limit the circumstances in which they can be suspended.

The article asks, not ‘why are students with disabilities more likely to be suspended,’ but ‘what makes disabled students behave badly?’ I personally think that’s the wrong question. What is ‘bad behaviour’? How is this being defined, and who is defining it? It’s good to see some mandatory accountability in the form of tracking discipline numbers and reporting them, but accountability is only one part of the equation. If districts are not taking action to address the disparities, reporting them doesn’t make that much of a difference.

And are schools adequately identifying disabled students? While there has been more of a push in recent years to identify and intervene when disabilities are observed in the classroom, there tend to be racial and class inequalities when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. Likewise, there are disparities in identification; a teacher may attribute differences in learning and communication styles to disability in a white child, and ‘bad attitude’ in a nonwhite child, for example.

The approach to this particular educational disparity seems to be focused on what ‘makes’ students ‘behave badly’ instead of asking whether teachers are being adequately trained to work with disabled students and asking what ‘bad behaviour’ is and who is defining it. It assumes that everyone should (and can) engage in specific patterns of behaviour and it suggests that ‘abnormal’ behaviour patterns should be punished.

Are students suspended for not using modes of communication familiar to teachers? For needing to stand or pace while learning? For needing a quiet environment for learning, and for becoming upset when one is not provided? For needing orderly and precise schedules? For not completing assignments they don’t understand or find impossible to finish? For attempting to create and maintain personal space? For expressing any number of needs and needing a space where they are accommodated? For tics in the classroom?

When nondisabled people are the ones defining ‘normal’ behaviour and deciding what is bad and worthy of suspension, inevitably you are going to end up with disparities in student discipline. When teachers are not provided with adequate training, when they are dealing with classrooms that have too many students in them, when they are being burdened with a lot of additional work outside the classroom, a tinderbox of circumstances is created and disabled students tend to lose.

Suspension is a serious punishment. Students missing a month or more of school is a serious problem. Until we reframe the way that we talk about classroom behaviour, we’re going to continue missing the heart of the problem.

Announcing: Helen Keller Mythbusting Blogswarm!

A banner that has an image of Helen Keller in the center.  On on side it reads: Political Activist.  Radical Thinker.  Suffragist.  Pacifist.  Journalist.  Socialist.  Who was she? On the other side it reads: Helen Keller Mythbusting Day 2010
Image Description: A banner that has an image of Helen Keller in the center. On on side it reads: Political Activist. Radical Thinker. Suffragist. Pacifist. Journalist. Socialist. Who was she? On the other side it reads: Helen Keller Mythbusting Day 2010″

I learned that Second Life and Virtual Helping Hands are hosting a Helen Keller Day on Second Life on June 19th.

Helen Keller Day is a day set aside for information acquisition, education, exploration of employment opportunities, social engagement, and enjoyment of arts and entertainment. There will be vendors, employers, presentations, and pure, unbridled fun.

I think this is awesome. If I played Second Life, I would be all over this.

It did get me thinking a lot about Helen Keller, and the way people talk about her and use her legacy – something I’ve discussed on FWD before, in Feminist Icons and Subverting the Narrative.

A few years ago someone on a feminist site posted a list of the top 100 historic women in the US, and the list included Helen Keller. A commenter mentioned being surprised to find that out, because… well, what did Helen Keller actually do?

The answer to that question is what this Blogswam is all about.

What’s a blogswarm?

On the appointed day (or there abouts) – in this case, June 19 – people post about Helen Keller. Ideally, they’ll link back to a master post (which I will be hosting here on FWD) and leave a link indicating their participation on the master post. Then, people will be able to see lots of posts about Helen Keller in a variety of places from a variety of points of view.

Okay, but I don’t know much about Helen Keller. Are there some resources so I can learn?

Yes!

This is just a very short list. Your local library may have many books. I never resist the chance to push Lies My Teacher Told Me by James A Loewen, which talks about Keller in the first chapter. The American Foundation for the Blind has a selected Bibliography of books by and about Keller, but I have not read them so I have no personal opinion on them.

But there are other women with disabilities connected to Helen Keller’s life, and I don’t think they get enough attention either. Can I write about them as well as or instead of Keller and still participate?

Yes! In fact, I think it’s an important part of the mythbusting about Keller to talk about Anne Sullivan, who was blind for parts of her life, Polly Thomson, who was a companion and aid to both Sullivan and Keller in later years, and Laura Bridgman, who was also deaf & blind and was “famous” before Keller. And this list is pretty US-centric, and entirely white. Bust the myth that the only women with disabilities doing anything of interest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were white women from the US! A very short list: Frida Kahlo, Jhamak Ghimire, Ragnhild Kåta, Theresa Ducharme…

I also think that it’s relevant to talk about Keller’s legacy, and how the treatment of her story – in productions like The Miracle Worker and the oft-repeated story of “the hand in the water” – affect perceptions of people with disabilities, especially blind and d/Deaf people, today. Brownfemipower linked to this discussion of Blind Rage and the Legacy of Helen Keller on TheGimpParade, as an example.

I’m really not up to participating, but I want to be supportive. What can I do?

Spread the word! Tell a friend! Read posts! Link others to posts! Bust your own myths, so that the next time someone says something ignorant about Keller or the work she did, you can gently (or not!) correct them.

I want to participate! But I don’t know if I can on June 19th.

Then write something on another day. The reason I suggest doing it all on the same day is because blogswarms will push across the blogosphere and people will notice them all at once. But please don’t feel obligated or that you’ve “failed” if you don’t write something about Mythbusting on the day.

Also, don’t feel you have to write something new. If you’ve previously written something about this and would like it to get some more attention, feel free to link it as well.

So, now what?

Well, on June 19th I’ll post up an open post about Helen Keller Mythbusting Day here on FWD. Folks can drop their links in right away – my goal is to have it open as early on the 19th as possible. Check back throughout the day to see what posts people have written!

I hope to see lots of awesome posts on June 19th!

Abuse of Intellectually Disabled Workers at Iowa Meatpacking Plant

Note: There are a number of links to news stories in this post. All of them have problematic language.

A horrifying story out of Iowa has been getting some press attention over the last few days, if you know where to look[1. Which is to say, ‘if you have the time to search for news stories that are falling through the cracks.’]. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report detailed the abuse of workers with intellectual disabilities in a meat packing plant and it looks like the labour contractor responsible, Henry’s Turkey Service, is going to be brought up on charges. I can find stories on this dating back to early 2009; the uptick in interest appears to be the result of news that more federal charges are going to be filed.

The labour contractor, based in Texas, provides crews that go all over the country and has done so since the 1970s. This particular group of 21 men was sent to a plant in Iowa, West Liberty Foods. They were kept in a bunkhouse with boarded up windows and space heaters for heat; Iowa gets mighty cold in the winter and space heaters are unlikely to cut it. These men were getting up at three in the morning seven days a week to work in a meatpacking plant, and some of them were ’employed[1. I use scare quotes here because from what I understand of this case, this was more like servitude than employment.]’ for decades.

Here’s a description of the conditions:

“The living conditions were worse than squalor,” she said. “There were fire hazards, no heat, their rooms were crawling with cockroaches. It was just filth, a nightmare.” (source)

West Liberty was paying Henry’s Turkey Service around $11,000 United States Dollars a month for the men’s labour, and they were making, literally, pennies on the dollar:

The report found that West Liberty Foods paid Henry’s Turkey Service as much as $11,000 per week for the disabled men’s labor. Henry’s Turkey Service then paid the men a combined total of between $340 and $500 per week, or about 41 cents an hour, The Des Moines Register reported.

Compared to the pay the men would have gotten at minimum wage, the report found that the company underpaid them by more than $1 million during the last three years of the company’s operation. But the underpaid amount could climb because other workers doing the same job earned between $9 and $12 per hour. (source)

How was this justified?

…to justify lower wages the lawyer explained how by using a Department of Labor formula the company then calculated how much to pay based on how many disabled men it takes to equal the amount of work done any one man. His example was three-to-one. (source)

This story is primarily being reported as a case of employment discrimination and much of the litigation surrounds the back wages and pay these men are owed. This is definitely an issue and I’m glad to see it being addressed. But this is also a very clear case of abuse of people with disabilities. And I am deeply disturbed to learn how the EEOC deals with abuse of disabled workers:

Under federal law, once the EEOC determines that the rights of disabled workers have been violated, it must attempt to halt the violations through an informal process of “conference, conciliation and persuasion.” The commission plans to send a proposed conciliation agreement – a settlement of sorts – to Henry’s owners. If the owners reject the proposed settlement and refuse to negotiate, the EEOC has the option of taking the company to court. (source)

Evidently, if you are a disabled worker and you are being abused by an employer, including abuse like being kept in squalid conditions and being taunted and name-called by coworkers, attempts to work the situation out amicably must fail before more aggressive measures can be pursued.

This is a labour rights issue, but it is also an abuse issue. And it illustrates the critical need to get tougher protections in place for workers with disabilities. These conditions should never have happened in the first place and they definitely should not have been allowed to persist for decades. There would be widespread outrage if nondisabled people were involved in the case, but as it is, most of the reporting and attention seems to be happening in Iowa itself. This is being treated as a local news story, instead of what it is, which is a heinous outrage and a grave violation of human rights and all reasonable decency.

And it’s being treated as a one time event, rather than evidence of a systemic problem. Certainly, the news says, this case is awful and it’s good that charges are being filed. But there’s not a lot of exploration into how and why this happened. Some advocates are quoted in the articles, as well as family members, and they are righteously infuriated, but I don’t see any quotes from people with disabilities, including any of the workers involved; once they were removed from the bunkhouse, they were apparently whisked into group homes.

Henry’s Turkey Service is not the only agency that provides contract labour like this. West Liberty is not the only employer which tries to cut costs by using contract labour. This is a structural problem, not a local news issue. Workers with disabilities and workers with nebulous immigration status endure horrific abuses in this country; the situation at West Liberty is repeated over and over again all over the United States because of the attitude that these individuals are a cheap source of disposable labour, to be used up and thrown away.

And the people ‘in charge,’ the people who might be empowered to investigate and take action? Well:

Muscatine County Sheriff David White said recently that he is confident the people who ran Henry’s Turkey Service treated the bunkhouse residents well.

“Our take on it was, you know, that they were doing some pretty good things with these guys,” he said. (source)

The reason no one did anything about the hostile working environment, atrocious living conditions, and economic abuses of these men is that they were regarded as something less than human. And employment law appears to reinforce that idea by suggesting that the first step in abuse cases like this is not filing charges, but ‘conciliation and persuasion.’

BADD: How can I support Blogging Against Disablism Day?

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010Today is the “beginning” of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010. I put beginning in quotes there not just because the day is done in Australia and the West Coast of Canada is still waking up, but because Diary of a Goldfish, who hosts BADD every year, acknowledges that people with disabilities are not necessarily able to post precisely on the date of a blog swarm – that there is inherent disablism in demanding that disabled people write a post on a specific time table.

Every year since I started participating in BADD, I’ve had many people ask me how they – both as currently non-disabled people, and as people with disabilities – can best participate in BADD if they don’t want to, or can’t, write a post, put up a photo, or create a video or podcast. Here is just a short list of suggestions:

Check out the ever-growing list of BADD posts over at Diary of a Goldfish. Even “just” (there’s no just about your time/energy investment!) reading people’s posts and learning about their experiences contributes a lot to BADD. Blogswarms like this are all about raising awareness, and raising your own awareness is just as important. As well, you may find a whole new set of blogs to add to your blog-reading lists. There are so many bloggers with disabilities out there, fighting the good fight against ableism every day.

Comment on some BADD posts. I know that every time I write something and it gets no comments, I feel like I’ve put effort out for nothing. [This is not a demand for more comments for me! I’m just sayin’.] If you have the time/energy to do so, I would really encourage you to leave comments in support of BADD posts. They don’t have to be lengthy: even just “This post was great, thank you for writing it” can make a difference. If you’re up to writing more, go for it! But just leaving words of support can be a big deal.

Tell people about the awesome posts you’ve read. If you have a blog, link your favourite BADD posts so others can check them out – if not today, then over the next few days, or even weeks. Months. They’re not going anywhere, and although we all hope the prejudices against people with disabilities are going to disappear, that’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon, either. There’s nothing saying you have to only link to BADD posts this week. If you’ve got a twitter account, tweet some links to your followers! The hash-tag for BADD seems to be #badd, but I like to also tag my tweets #disability as well. (This is selfish on my part – I follow the #disability tags on twitter.)

Think about dis/ableism in your every-day life. This one is mostly for the non-disabled people, or for people like me – I always need to remind myself to think outside my box of “what disability looks like”. There are huge swaths of my workplace that someone in a wheelchair can’t get in, and I went to a university last week that claimed it was impossible to put floor announcements in their elevators. Many [not all – I’ve heard very good things about some places, like L’Arche] of the group homes in Canada for people with cognitive impairments are more like prisons than the “home-like” environment they claim to be. The websites for each of the major political parties in Canada are inaccessible to many people with disabilities, and events that are held for “all Canadians” have no captioning, no visual description, and no way for Sign users to participate.

I think BADD is a great opportunity to see just how much is out there about disability on the internet. For disabled people who may be feeling isolated, it’s a great time to see just how many people are out there that struggle with similar issues. For the non-disabled, it’s a great way to start educating yourself about disability issues.

The Blogging Against Disablism 2010 Page will update throughout the day. Here’s just a tiny selection of posts that I’ve had the chance to read, and highly recommend.