29 April 2017

Ableist bullshit targets nonspeaking autistics/autistics of color. Also, the sky is blue.

In Portland, Oregon, a nonspeaking autistic high school student has just been nominated to attend a prestigious national program at the United Nations, after going through a competitive process in his state. Now, the national program staff have decided that he can't go because he is autistic and have refused to accept him.

His name is Niko Boskovic, and he uses a letterboard to communicate, by pointing at each letter to spell his words. The program is the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs U.N. Educational Pilgrimage for Youth, which brings youth from across the United States to the U.N. each year. (And they should be ashamed of themselves, and fix this, immediately.)

They are refusing to allow Niko to participate because he needs support to communicate. They are calling his mom, who has volunteered to pay out of pocket to travel to provide him communication support, a "chaperone" who is not allowed on the trip. That means that (a) they refuse to recognize her role as a human accommodation (like a reader, a notetaker, a transcriptionist, a personal attendant, or an interpreter serves as a human accommodation); and (b) they believe Niko is incompetent and less than his peers since a "chaperone" would only be there as someone to supervise him. Chaperones at middle school dances supervise the students in futile efforts to prevent "dirty dancing." Chaperones on school buses supervise the students in totally ineffectual efforts to prevent bullying, food throwing, and jumping off the bus (okay, maybe a bit more effectively at that last one). Chaperones of small children supervise the students to make sure they aren't accidentally wandering away from their field trips only to end up lost, hit by cars, or kidnapped. et cetera. That language makes it clear that they believe Niko is less competent and not on equal ground with his peers such that he is trying to bring a "chaperone" to participate.

Niko would be planning to bring his mother as a support person, meaning, to provide him with the tools he needs to communicate, participate, and take full advantage of the opportunity. This is horrifying and wrong, and not entirely dissimilar to when organizations like colleges and courts (as they do all the fucking time, for the record) deny d/Deaf and hard of hearing people the right to sign language interpretation (especially tactile for deafblind people) or CART captioning. (Yes, Niko not being able to participate in some educational program sponsored by a fraternal society is not in any universe the same thing as someone being denied interpretation at a hearing that could result in them being locked up indefinitely in jails/prisons that may literally kill them.) But it is, at its core, denying his right to communicate and to reasonable accommodation, and in so doing, demeaning his form of communication and presuming his inherent incompetence.

You know what this reminds me of? My study abroad experience when I was in college and older than Niko currently is.

Firstly, the staff member in the college's study abroad office insisted, in the most patronizing tone ever, that I should disclose to my professors immediately once abroad, not because of a specific cultural difference related to disability, but because I "just ... seem different" and that "it's obvious that you're different in any classroom." (Saying the word "different" in a tone of voice that sounded a lot like, "not normal and therefore maybe scary, unpredictable, or otherwise uncomfortable for other people to be around.")

Then, the external program's staff demanded to schedule a meeting with me on very short notice (right before Thanksgiving break), so they could question whether or not I would be "safe." They were worried I would not be "safe" because of details about my disabilities that I did not consent to be disclosed to them and that were not included in my file with the disability services office (meaning they only got those details by creepily looking me up online, again, without my consent).

Note also that at the time I was planning to study abroad, I had a cumulative GPA below the required 3.0 to receive approval from the university to do study abroad. I was also a declared major in a department that required its undergrad majors to study abroad in order to graduate. So I had one part of the university telling me I was not allowed to study abroad based solely on my grades (which were undoubtedly impacted by all sorts of ableism and insufficiently or not-at-all accommodated disability), and another part of the university telling me I had to study abroad or else I couldn't graduate.

And when I finally went and got separate special approval to go do it, I got hit with a double whammy super extra special dose of ableism, in the form of questioning whether or not it would be feasible or safe for me to participate in a program, and reminding me that unless I can pass for neurotypical to other people's standards (which apparently, despite all the hate mail I get deriding me for being "high functioning/mild/not really disabled" and thus unable to talk about disability, I don't), I "just seem different" (and meaning it with all the possible negative attitudes attached to the term).

Niko Boskovic deserves better. He went through the process to compete, and even knowing he is autistic and uses a letterboard, the Oregon chapter supported him and endorsed his nomination. The only reason the national program has denied his nomination and rejected him as a delegate is because of his disability. And that's ableist as fuck.


I also want to note that while I haven't been blogging a whole lot in the past few years, the other thing that's been nagging in my craw lately has been the recent news coverage of several autistic students in Florida -- one Filipinx, one Black, and one white -- subjected to appalling punishment and even arrest and police force as a means of control and compliance training, in response to their existing while autistic. Their names, respectively, are Seraph Isaac Jones (check that link for a fundraiser to help Seraph and family cover a neuropsych evaluation that could help him in fighting the awful fucking school), Ashton Gelfand, and John Benjamin Haygood.

That's the same state, by the way, where Arnaldo Eliud Rios-Soto, a Latinx autistic adult, was involuntarily committed and then confined indefinitely in a long-term residential institution operated by a for-profit corporation with a decades-long history of abuse and neglect of disabled residents in multiple states ... that being after nearly being killed and witnessing police (thankfully nonfatally) shoot Charles Kinsey, a Black man and a behavioral therapist working at Arnaldo's former group home.

The same state where Reginald Cornelius Latson (better known as Neli), a Black autistic adult, has also been confined, indefinitely, in the very same institution as Arnaldo ... after suffering solitary confinement and other abuse for years in Virginia prisons stemming from his arrest after police were called because he existed in public while Black and autistic waiting for a library to open. (That's after the governor's "conditional pardon" by the way.)

What strikes me about all of this ableist violence in/near schools and similar environments, is how ordinary it is. 

In the past several years, I've met and talked to hundreds, if not potentially thousands, of autistic and other disabled people. Almost every single one of us has survived at least one (and usually) multiple traumas, often beginning with family of origin or the school system, or both. Just from my friends and people I interact with regularly, I bear witness constantly to the devastating impact of ableist schools, ableist doctors, ableist police, ableist social workers, ableist bureaucrats, ableist families, ableist neighbors, ableist bosses ... on the literal physical and mental health of disabled people, especially those whose experiences lie at the intersections of disability, race, gender, class, and sexuality. 

Intersected disabled people are dying. Intersected disabled people need material help now. Intersected disabled people are surviving the violence of exclusion, rejection, and isolation every day.

I'm glad these stories are receiving attention in news media, but to those of us without the same privilege and power, it's not news. We've always already been living this violence, and it needs to stop.

06 January 2017

Racism, Ableism, and Much-Needed Reminders on Chicago Torture Case

Content/tw: mentions and brief descriptions of sexual violence, torture, racism and specifically anti-Black racism, ableism

photo: a set of six street signs that say, Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Classism, Colonialism, Ableism. in the middle is a green banner that says Intersectionality, which is a term coined by a Black woman scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

(1) The vast majority of everything I've said here, other people have been saying also (even if in different words/language), including and *especially* Black Disabled people. Like Cyrée Jarelle Johnson and Mrs. Kerima Çevik at Intersected. Listen to them. Follow them. Amplify their voices.

(2) What happened to this young white disabled person in Chicago -- his name is Austin Hilbourn, according to some sources -- was wrong. (For those who somehow missed the news, four people tied up a disabled person and beat him, cut off parts of his scalp, and taunted him, while livestreaming it to Facebook.)

(3) This attack was deeply ableist.

(4) The four people who targeted the disabled victim knew him from their school. That means it is highly likely that they knew Austin is disabled, even if they didn't know anything specific about what kind of disabilities he has. As a former disabled high school kid, trust me, everyone can peg the disabled kids. It also means they very likely targeted him because they knew he is disabled and therefore vulnerable and easy to attack.

(5) This type of ableist violence is NOTHING new. The reality for disabled people is that our entire lives are often marked with violence and abuse -- violence that is extremely more likely, more deadly, more brutal, and more erased when the victims are disabled AND marginalized, targeted, or oppressed in other ways. The statistics are horrifying. Anywhere between 83% and upwards of mid-90's-something percent of developmentally disabled "women" (people designated that way by researchers) are raped at least once in their lifetimes, and somewhere upwards of half of that number at least 10 times by the age of 18. Somewhere between half to 70% of all people killed by police are disabled, making Black Disabled or Indigenous Disabled people the most likely to be targeted in police killings. The numbers go on and on and on. They are appalling not just because of what they are but also because they attach to real people's lives and repeated, compounded trauma. Violence against disabled people is SO FUCKING ORDINARY and so often dismissed in the icky approach of "omg who would ever hurt a disabled person?! so horrible!" as though it never happens when in reality it happens all the time.

(6) The only new things in this instance, that are being sensationalized wildly by the media, are that the attackers, who are Black, yelled at the victim, "Fuck Trump supporters" and "Fuck white people." Prosecutors have charged the attackers with a hate crime. Because of these facts, (white) media has decided that this is a case that must be about anti-white racism.

(7) Anti-white racism does not exist. Racism is not just individual bias or prejudice; it's a system of power relations in white supremacy where racial bias and prejudice are backed by claims about science, political institutions, and social/cultural/economic structures.

(8) Obviously the attackers are *prejudiced* against white people. No one aware of the known facts here could possibly think otherwise. But again, (a) prejudice is not the same as racism, which requires an entire system/history/structure of devaluing people (not) in a racial group; and (b) it should be pretty fucking obvious why four young Black people might be prejudiced against white people given how violent and pervasive in all parts of society white supremacy continues to be.

(9) We know Austin is white. We have no idea whether or not he is a Trump supporter, or could even vote and if he could, whether or not he voted for Trump. Anyway, it doesn't matter whether he voted for Trump or not. This kind of violence is not okay no matter who it targets. It is wrong. It is fucked up. And as someone who is extremely anti-Trump myself (which should be obvious to anyone who follows this page), it's additionally fucked up that the attackers did this in the name of resisting Trump.

(10) BTW, even the police have said they believe the victim was targeted for being disabled, not for being white. Though, to be clear, even if he was targeted for being white, (a) he was also targeted equally for being disabled, and (b) it still doesn't mean the attackers are reverse racist; it means they're prejudiced against white people, and ableist assholes to boot.

(11) Yes folks should be outraged that this happens. Feel outraged that the attackers did this. Feel outraged that the prosecutor described them as kids who made mistakes but shouldn't have their lives ruined over them. But where was your similar level of outrage every single damn time Black Disabled people are tortured, abused, raped, and murdered? Whether by caregivers, teachers, the police, or strangers? And where the violence is *clearly* tied to disability, to race, and often the entanglement of the two? And where similar words are spoken -- that they're good kids / good parents / good teachers / good officers, who made mistakes / snapped / lost it -- those words result in zero accountability? Where is your outrage for Korryn Gaines? Tanisha Anderson? Kajieme Powell? Melissa Stoddard? Terrance Coleman? Kayleb Moon-Robinson? Neli Latson? The young Black Disabled person who was brutally and viciously raped by several white football players, all of whom have gotten off scott-free for their attack? And many, many others?

(12) The four attackers in this case will most definitely end up in prison, with severe charges, and spend significant amount of time locked up, with hate crimes charges. The vast majority of white people who torture, abuse, rape, or murder Black Disabled people will not.

(13) White folks trying to call this the "BLMKidnapping" (Black Lives Matter kidnapping, for those unfamiliar with the acronym) are completely missing that (a) the attackers never once invoked Black Lives Matter as a movement; (b) even if they claim to be supporters of it, didn't do something Black Lives Matter actually advocates for; and (c) when white people commit obviously racist crimes, like the attack on a historically Black church in Charleston, it's not blamed on every white person nor are all white people expected to take responsibility and apologize or be publicly excoriated in the media.

(14) The rush to associate this attack with the Black Lives Matter movement, along with vicious and dehumanizing comments about the attackers -- like calling them monsters, calling for horrible things to be done to them, etc. -- calls to mind the lynch mobs that in a frenzy, would round up young Black people to publicly and brutally murder them in retaliation for crimes they supposedly (and maybe in some cases, actually) committed, while celebrating their violence. These rhetorical responses are racist as fuck.

(15) The attackers did something horrific and wrong. Perhaps unforgivable. The victim will have to live for the rest of his life with the trauma of not only the abuse itself but of having his torture livestreamed for the world to witness at the hands of his own classmates, people he probably saw on some consistent basis even if he did not really know them well or personally. He might never fully recover from what happened in some senses of the word. Undoubtedly, he won't receive disability culturally competent trauma-informed care. The attackers have done this. But in no way can or should caring and committed people attempt to turn this around and add to the racist shitshow by basically calling for the public spectacle of humiliation and violence against the Black attackers either.

(16) I don't believe in relying on police or prisons to promote "justice," so I'm not going to be calling for these four people to go to prison, because I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that prison/punishment must be the only possible solution. HOWEVER, these clear and undeniable disparities in how these cases are talked about by media and treated by police, prosecutors, and courts, provide more evidence of how UNJUST the in-justice system is in handling hate crimes against multiply-oppressed people in particular.

(17) Remember, ableism and racism and part and parcel with one another. White supremacy depends on ableism to further its eugenic mission -- of deciding which people are valuable, worthy, and desirable, which people are functional, healthy, normal, and fit. The victim in this case is not just any white person -- this person is someone whom white supremacy would also reject as not the best standard of whiteness, e.g., ability. Stop talking about this case if you cannot understand one basic fact -- disability justice requires racial justice. Disability justice requires the end of white supremacy. Black and Disabled communities are not separate entities that must now be pitted against each other; they overlap in deep and intricate ways, and Black Disabled artists, scholars, activists, organizers, and community and cultural workers have already been working for decades or longer at the intersections. Folks like Leroy F. Moore, Jr., and Patricia Berne, and Talila (TL) Lewis, and Jazzie Collins, La Mesha Irizarry, and Brad Lomax, and as far back as Harriet Tubman, alongside many, many, many others. They understand/understood these truths because they live them in ways that I, as a disabled east asian person of color, still don't, because of how our experiences against racism differ profoundly.

(18) The latest events in Chicago have got me shaken up and enraged and devastated, because not only has a fellow disabled person been subject to appalling ableist violence, but that very same violence has already become an excuse for virulent and violent anti-Black racism that will inevitably target my Black Deaf, Mad, and Disabled comrades the most -- and unless those with relatively more privilege and power keep speaking and keep amplifying their work and their voices, they will be the only ones left defending their humanity and right to exist.

17 December 2016

I don't trust allies and I'm not sorry.

Content/TW: Graphic descriptions of severe workplace bullying and abuse of an autistic person for being autistic.

In February 2013, New York City Councilman Vincent J. Gentile released a public letter and press release demanding the return of the 120 New York residents who were locked up in the Judge Rotenberg Center torture hellhole at the time. At the time, Gentile described JRC varying (and accurately) as a “barbaric facility,” “an institution which subjects its students to these cruel and unusual forms of ‘behavior modification,’” and “[an institution] in gross violation of the most fundamental standards of humane treatment of people with disabilities.”

One year later, Michael Bistreich began work as Gentile's Legislative and Budget Director. Michael is autistic, like many of the people formerly and currently in the JRC. He was forced to resign in June 2016 after being demoted and losing a raise for fabricated reasons, two and a half years after beginning work, after his co-workers, supervisor, and Gentile himself spent almost the entire time abusing him.

Photo: Michael Bistreich (who seems white or white passing), sitting on a couch with his hand on his emotional support bunny. 

Among other things reported in various news sources reporting on the lawsuit he's just filed, the chief of staff once locked Michael in a basement; the councilman repeatedly asked him if he could look into “upping your medications” to stop “twitching” because “you annoy me” and “when you twitch like that, it's annoying to people;” Gentile laughed openly at another employee's joke that they should “test the doors” in case Michael would “elope;” and staff coordinated a mass decapitation of his stuffed animals (teddy bears) that he kept on his desk for comfort (the ones he told his fellow co-workers he “identified with and emotionally valued”), even impaling one's head on a flagpole and “a stuffed animal dog that was gutted and impaled and had red coloring around its slit stomach, mouth and eyes to resemble blood” -- which left Michael in the conference room for an hour in shock and horror.

(Because, you know, stimming is such an inconvenience and source of discomfort for non-disabled people. So abusing someone to force them to stop stimming is totally okay. Not like you're expressing open opposition to an autistic person's right to exist as autistic or anything.)

Bullying and abuse don't stop with middle school’s merciful end. And they are absolutely not limited to the people who publicly express hateful opinions about disabled people (or autistic people specifically), but in fact, are at least, if not more, common and pervasive among people who are supposedly “allies” to autistic people. What Gentile did, allowed, and approved of is horrific and fucked up beyond all reason, but what stands out to me is the juxtaposition of his apparent advocacy on behalf of disabled New Yorkers trapped and tortured in the JRC with his abuse of his own employee. The people put out there as “allies” are so, so, so often the first and most likely people to be the most abusive and violent toward autistic people. whether that's the parents and other relatives who murder their autistic (and other disabled) family members, or the well-documented abuse/assaults targeting prominent autistic activist Kassiane Sibley, or the special education teachers or therapists responsible for violent restraints and seclusion behind closed classroom or institution doors.

I don't trust nondisabled, non-autistic people who claim to be allies, because Vincent Gentile is an elected official who spoke publicly and of his own volition against the evil that is JRC because of its inhumane treatment of disabled people, while simultaneously being an extremely abusive boss who preyed on his openly autistic employee just because he could, and did so with malice and deliberate knowledge about his victim's neurology, using autism as a means to target him.

(Another aspect to the bullying and abuse is undoubtedly the fact that Michael is not only autistic, but also seems fat based on the pictures posted online of him, and anyone who is perceived as fat is so incredibly likely to end up on the receiving end of abuse and brazen mockery. I noticed this trend in multiple school settings where the kids who were both disabled and fat got hit with a special kind of bullying that the thin disabled kids, like me, didn't.)

Vincent Gentile is clearly a hypocrite, but he is absolutely not some extraordinary exception or a standout example of a workplace abuser or disability advocate/ally hypocrite. Almost every autistic person I know who has ever had jobs has stories and stories of workplace bullying, harassment, abuse, and ostracism. Almost every disabled activist, advocate, or organizer I know has heaps of stories of nondisabled “advocates/allies” who routinely talk over, dismiss, and attack actually disabled people (and yes, I most definitely also mean physically, or with threats of physical attack). I have plenty of these stories too. And what's the worst about reading shit like this is the reminder that some absurd number of people I know right now are dealing with similar ableist, fucked-up bullshit in their own workplaces when they're lucky/privileged enough to get a job, and that no amount of fancy degrees or professional clothes or affected intellectual speech or, whatever, can disguise someone's otherness (from any marginalized identity/experience) to a professional predator.

If you're one of those nondisabled advocate/ally people, and you wonder why autistic and other disabled folks are so angry or bitter or resentful, or so quick to judge, just take a gander at Vincent Gentile. He's a perfect example of very well-placed distrust, because we've witnessed it over and over again, that the people most likely to twist the rusty, serrated knife in the back are the ones who profess most publicly to be our allies. I don't trust allies and I'm not sorry.

25 October 2016

Disability Justice & Conference Space: Notes on Radical Access & Radical Inclusion

graphic that says, No Prisons, No Institutions, Free Our People! against an image of prison walls, with www.autistichoya.com at the bottom
Image: Graphic that says, No Prisons, No Institutions, Free Our People! against an image of prison walls, with www.autistichoya.com at the bottom.

Over the past few days, longtime Black disabled advocate Mrs. Kerima Çevik (who is also the parent of Mustafa Çevik, a multiracial Black nonspeaking autistic young person) has posted several statuses to her activist Facebook page on the issue of conferences, class privilege, and inaccessibility. (She's also the force behind blogs The Autism Wars and Intersected Disability, and featured in this fantastic interview by Black disabled activist/artist Leroy F. Moore, Jr. at POOR Magazine. I strongly recommend following her pages for unapologetic commentary on racism and ableism, especially how they intersect in disability "rights" and "advocacy" spaces.)

I'm including the full quotes of Mrs. Çevik's words (with her permission) because I cannot possibly do them justice through an inevitably inadequate attempt to summarize – and because my response, in dialogue, depends on understanding what she is saying here: 

1 in 3 disabled people live in poverty. Be aware that if a disabled person has the means to participate in a conference they have privilege their peers in poverty do not. It is the season of nonprofit galas, balls, and annual conferences.  
Know your privilege.  
Try not to flaunt elaborate meals before your food insecure peers. Try not to boast about your travels before those who can never hope to do so. Try to find more inclusive solutions to traditional conferences and other events that will equalize participation for more disabled people across income levels.  
Our peers include people with clinical depression. Try to be thoughtful of them.
Anything less than that is not a a triumph it is advertising for the few and the flaunting of privilege. 
Mrs. Kerima Çevik23 October 2016 
I'm going to explain this one more time because as a disabled woman with privilege living in Washington D.C., I have access to every gala and local conference being held by every national nonprofit headquartered here and I am only limited by my financial means and my local network. 
If you are able to travel to conferences and participate in them you have privilege. Period. That includes you, Leroy Moore, as much as I respect you. 
1. I also have privilege. I was not born into poverty and anyone of color not born into poverty who enters a state of poverty with any education whatsoever is upwardly mobile because they are equipped with information generationally poor people are not. They know, for example, that the water in their Baltimore neighborhood should not be given to their children because it is most likely lead contaminated. They know to scrimp for paint because their houses probably contain lead paint. They know that they will need to risk going hungry to pay the rent needed to live in a safer neighborhood with public transportation to get to a better work life or they risk a shorter lifespan. I know these things. They give me a survival advantage over peers who may be in poverty. They give me the confidence I can leave an impoverished state because I was not born in a culture of poverty. 
2. The only traveling poor in this country save every penny to gain transportation autonomy and we call them migrant workers. If you have a background and educational advantage that gained you the knowledge you needed to understand what you had to do to budget and travel despite your income level and participating in conferences gives you an economic advantage, even if that advantage is a long term one you have privilege. 
3. If the poor could travel, Freddie Gray would not have died being accosted by police near the same mall where TaNehisi Coates grew up. The reason Freddie Gray is dead and TaNehisi Coates is not is because he was given educational advantage and chose to apply it. The minute he entered Howard University he gained privilege and a network. If the poor could travel despite their poverty, they would migrate to where seasonal work was, and inner cities, the legacies of federal transportation policies and redlining, would not be the location of generational, intractable, poverty. 
Mrs. Kerima Çevik24 October 2016 
People are making my call for understanding of their impoverished peers when we are about to enter a season of excess into another thing altogether. I am startled at the number of people not willing to understand their own privilege.  
People who are poor and white make the same mistake. We should all know better. Privilege is not related to being poor. It is not a matter of the many things people have sacrificed to get themselves to conferences and events. 
People without privilege have no such choices. There is no thought of conferences or anything of that nature. They are in survival mode. 
As my initial call for not flaunting the excesses of the holiday season before those we may not be aware are suffering gets lost in people declaring the individual sacrifices they make to attend conferences, galas, retreats and other community events, I return to my point and stand by it. 
Conferences will continue to be exclusive until the entire community has equal access and equal support. Individual sacrifices notwithstanding, conference participation is a privilege not a right. I won't cease saying so until someone finds a way to pipe an entire conference into every institution, prison, group home, and bridge under which disabled people are forced to reside. 
Mrs. Kerima Çevik24 October 2016 


Everyone, including myself, who has commented in all these threads has an element of class, linguistic, and education privilege (even if lacking money/wealth, or formal or elite education, or fluency in English or written speech, we can still have class, education, and linguistic privilege that allows us to know what conferences are, how to get to them, and how to communicate over the internet). But we also in all likelihood have what Talila Lewis (TL) calls freedom privilege – we're not incarcerated (or we probably would not be able to post on Facebook). This is a natural corollary to Mrs. Çevik's call to bring conference space into institutions, prisons, group homes, and bridges. Until we are all free, no space (including conferences) is actually meaningfully accessible or inclusive.

Here's where I want to push back on Mrs. Çevik's conclusion though – if everything literally cannot be accessible to literally everyone, then what does it mean to be radically accessible or radically inclusive? I talk about multimodal access/participation as an ideal and an imperative for our practice and community-building, because that means maximizing who can participate and engage with what – the ideal, and grandest, most just vision being everyone having access to things like community and kinship and intimacy and education and joy. 

But what that looks like may be different and come in multiple (and infinitely variated) forms. 

For example, for some autistic folks who are (a) not photosensitive epileptic and (b) sensory seeking in a particular way, strobe lights and disco balls might be extreme sensory joy. Obviously, those are also inaccessible for many (for a variety of reasons) and outright dangerous or life-threatening for others. So does that mean no parties may ever exist with strobes or disco balls, even behind closed-doors (and no windows spilling the flashing lights outside) and with explicit warning on all invitations and on signs or audio announcements outside the building? (Assuming an enormous amount of money availability for this imaginary party, here.) 

Another example: Someone who is deathly afraid of dogs (has an actual phobia) and someone who relies on their dog as their service animal may not be able to exist in the same small group in-person activity, all else being equal. That doesn't mean that either of them deserve to be shut out or excluded, or that one of them should be prioritized over the other. But it is obvious that a space currently occupied by several people who rely on their service dogs is not actually an accessible space for the person with the phobia of dogs, even though it is a very accessible space (all other considerations aside) for the people with various disabilities who rely on their service dogs.

Another example: No matter how much work so-called radical folks might put into creating "safe" space, such as through avoiding scents/fragrances, banning flash photography, giving content notes and trigger warnings for a variety of commonly triggering content, intentionally not engaging in body or diet talk, avoiding microaggressions of any kind, and so forth, there is always a very real possibility (and it frequently happens) that someone will still experience a trigger or retraumatization because others simply didn't know and couldn't possibly have guessed (without knowing that person very well personally, which they might happen to not) that something specific would be triggering and retraumatizing. The ignorance (literally, not knowing) of the other people in the space in no way diminishes or mitigates the actual harm caused by the retraumatization, nor does ignorance excuse harm caused. But it demonstrates that even with the most conscious and intentional intersectional organizing, there are always things that may not be accounted for or possible to account for.

Another example: Many autistic people (especially autistic people who don't also have what are commonly called cognitive/intellectual disabilities) who are literate strongly prefer to communicate over text – text message, instant messaging/online chat, email, or text-based social media – sometimes even when in the same physical space, and even when the same people can communicate using spoken speech. Many people with cognitive/intellectual disabilities (whether or not they are also autistic) who use spoken speech strongly prefer to communicate using the phone or in face-to-face meetings. So for the first group of people, conference calls can be difficult at best, or completely inaccessible at worst. For the second group of people, long email chains or Facebook threads (or this blog itself) become difficult at best, or completely inaccessible at worst.

I don't think that the answer or goal we're looking for should be that literally every space/activity/program/style of communicating or connecting is actually fully accessible and completely safe to every single person, because that's actually not possible, as illustrated in the examples above (and there are many more possible examples to draw on). It's what I call an asymptoptic standard (but the kind that ought to be a moral and justice imperative for us, rather than the kind that we ought to toss out, like the asymptotic standard of "whiteness" for people of color as the goal in white supremacy). In geometry, an asymptote is the imaginary line that a curve will come infinitely close to touching but never actually intersect. 

What this reality calls for is opening up our imagination to dream up more spaces and more methods of connecting and building in-person and online and other means of communicating and being with each other. It's not that conferences are inherently bad or wrong (or that it is wrong or bad to participate), but that conferences, in their current design and in the current world, are inaccessible on multiple (often intersecting) levels, especially class, as Mrs. Çevik calls us to keep in mind. But even in a future world where we magically eradicated poverty and granted everyone (accounting for multiple disabilities and other currently oppressed identities and experiences) the same or equitable amount of resources (including money, transit access, time, and energy), conferences are still going to be (a) the desired, or at least enjoyable and useful, format for some people for connecting and sharing information/ideas, and simultaneously (b) not a format other people enjoy or can fully participate in (or participate in at all) for other disability-related reasons (say, someone's social anxiety, or the length of time someone else can focus, or yet someone else's current lack of ability to cope with trauma in new and unfamiliar situations and discomfort with trying).

To be clear: I'm not advocating against making everything more accessible and more radically inclusive. To the contrary, I believe we have a moral imperative to make all our spaces as maximally accessible and inclusive as possible, and to aim constantly for total/full accessibility and inclusion as our goal. I also believe that expecting perfection – totally safe spaces, spaces that are equally and fully accessible for every single person's possible access needs, etc. – is actually not possible (again, see conflicting access needs). Disability Justice as a framework and imperative allows us to acknowledge and work within imperfections and limitations. Not to accept exclusion or inaccessibility, but to recognize that conflicting access needs are real, that even the safest of spaces can still retraumatize people, that every single type of program or activity or space or way of connecting/communicating is not ideal or desirable for every person, that every single person has capacity to harm, to be ignorant, to fuck up, etc. (especially when we remember how much class privilege, ability privilege, education privilege, and linguistic privilege it requires to use whatever is current activist terminology and to keep doing it consistently).

Aim for infinite arrays of ways to communicate and connect. Aim for multiple tactics, multiple venues, multiple spaces, multiple programs – not to segregate or exclude by design, but to maximize opportunity and equity for actual participation and engagement by all people, on our own terms.

At the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective, we tried to account for the reality of multiple conflicting access needs, class needs, and such in planning our events. We knew that some sick and disabled folks primarily want spaces to be social with each other, without the pressure or expectation to talk about activism specifically or directly, but to be around other people who get it, who get us, and who understand where we're coming from, and to do so with an intersectional consciousness (i.e. recognizing and being accountable around different power dynamics in a space). We also knew that other sick and disabled folks primarily want spaces to do activism and organizing with each other, to talk specifically and directly about activism and disability politics within an intersectional framework steeped in disability justice. And of course, that many of us want access to both.

We also knew that some people who wanted to be part of our spaces work, and what that looks like is quite diverse – from folks who have the 9 to 5 office jobs, to folks who work in shifts, either day shifts or night shifts, weekdays or weekends, and sometimes multiple jobs. That some folks have childcare or other caregiving responsibilities. That some folks are well versed in disability justice language and other folks have never been (or are unable) to consistently use social justice terms and vocabulary. That some folks find it easy to use public transit, that some folks drive and rely on access to their own car, that some folks don't have ready access to any kind of transportation. That weekend events would work great for some people's schedules and spoon levels, but weekday events would work better for others, or weeknight events for still others, and that these groups were sometimes mutually exclusive. That these considerations are intricately wrapped up with race, class, gender, and disability – that, for example, as an often feminine-perceived person, I'm at greater risk for sexual harassment in a social space; that as a light-colored East Asian person, I'm at far less risk for police violence at a protest; that as a person with a college education, I'm far more privileged in ability to have conversations with certain types of language and knowledge assumed.

Instead of trying to create an event that would somehow magically accommodate all of these sometimes exclusive and competing access needs – all valid and legitimate needs that still created tensions in considering how to maximize access and inclusion – we created a model of multiple kinds of events. Sometimes we did things on weeknights, sometimes on weekdays/midday, sometimes on weekends. Sometimes we had explicitly social gathering events, and sometimes we had explicitly political activism forums/events. The idea was not that everyone would be able to go to everything (even assuming freedom and a minimal level of class privilege) but that as many people as possible would be able to at least go to something of a kind they would enjoy and that would minimize the impact on their spoons.

This is not a perfect model by any stretch of the imagination (and of course still relies and assumes certain types of privilege), but it is the kind of work I am deeply invested in creating and developing further.

I have always held that as a person who simultaneously experiences several layers of oppression and several layers of immense privilege, it is an immense and necessary responsibility for those with any kind of privilege to use that privilege in a way that is accountable to our comrades, neighbors, and community members who do not have the same privilege.

In contrast to Mrs. Çevik's exhortation not to share photographs from conferences or restaurants that evidence privilege simply by existing, I would suggest instead taking a harm reduction approach. By all means, share conference and food photographs as evidence of joy and connection – joy and connection that oppressed folks desperately need when existing in a world that is often literally trying to kill us – but do so in a way that prevents them from being shoved involuntarily into the faces of our fellow folks who might be further depressed, anxious, or retraumatized from exposure to them. Organize conferences and social gatherings and academic panels, but do so in ways that challenge the traditional conference model (especially entrance fees, expensive cities, or transit-inaccessible rural locations) and proactively create mechanisms to maximize access/inclusion for as many people as possible who would like to go but currently cannot. (And don't do it merely as an "accommodation" for some of "those people." Completely upend fee structures and prioritize paying multiply marginalized folks for their time, energy, and labor, and getting people to these spaces – which many find emotionally powerful and revitalizing – who usually can't go or who have never been able to go, ever.)

Yes, it is absolutely a privilege to be able to go to a restaurant or a conference (even if someone else is paying, even if you made huge sacrifices to get there, even if you experience a multitude of oppressions), but that doesn't mean we can't talk about being in these spaces – just that we have a responsibility to minimize the likelihood of harm we might cause in how and where we talk about it, and a responsibility to use that privilege to change and minimize the inaccessibility and exclusion inherent to conference spaces. Spaces are imperfect and inherently limited in their ability to be accessible, but we should always, always strive for maximal participation, maximal engagement, maximal access, maximal inclusion. Honoring all of our bodies requires diverse tactics, diverse spaces, and diverse communication and connection methods – outside and in challenge to the ableist, racist, classist implications of capitalist structures.

And we've got to keep fighting (with a multitude of tactics, and in a multitude of forums and venues) for liberation and freedom for all of our people. When we all get free, then we will actually be able to maximize the accessibility of these conference spaces (spaces where people sharing an interest or passion can gather to learn from each other and form or strengthen connections) to the fullest extent a conference can become radically accessible and inclusive. When we all get free, then we will actually be able to say truthfully that we are all free to get to these spaces.

No more prisons. No more institutions. Tear down these walls, and free our people.


Mrs. Kerima Çevik wrote a response to this blog post, published on 30 October 2016, at About Autistic Hoya's Post On Disability Justice & Conference Space. I responded to her response, but not on this blog.

25 July 2016

Ableism is not "bad words." It's violence.

Content/TW: Somewhat graphic discussion of violent attack on disabled people; discussion of S.V. (rape).

Ableism is not "bad words." It's violence.

Photo: A police officer outside the facility, speaking to onlookers, in this photo taken by Kyodo on 26 July 2016. 

Earlier today, a former employee of a residential institution in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, for disabled people (from children through elders), many people with significant disabilities and multiply-disabled folks, attacked residents with a knife, murdering 19 people and wounding 25 people.

The Sagamihara attacker was targeting the disabled residents of the institution.

He told police, "I want to get rid of the disabled from this world."

Don't you ever fucking dare try to say, "but who could hate the disabled?" to me again.

Don't. Dare.

We are not some innocent angels untouched by the realities of the world around us.

We are not unaware or oblivious to the existence of others, let alone of hate.

We know hate and we know violence, because it is written on our bodies and our souls.

We bear it, heavy, wherever we go. Ableism is the violence in the clinic, in the waiting room, in the social welfare lines, in the classroom, in the recess yard, in the bedroom, in the prisons, in the streets. Ableism is the violence (and threat of violence) we live with each day.

Ableism is the constant apologetics for family members and caregivers who murder their disabled relatives -- they must have had it so hard, it must have been such a burden, you musn't judge unless you've walked in their shoes. (In the last few decades, more than 400 disabled people were murdered by relatives or caregivers, and those are only the stories we know about.)

Ableism is the fact that a police officer who shot an unarmed Black man with his hands up decided it made more sense to claim he was actually aiming for the Brown autistic man holding a toy truck beside the Black man.

Ableism is the fact that the left wants to talk about jails and prisons as the largest mental health care providers in the country, decry the crisis of incarceration of psych disabled people, and then suggest unironically that we build new facilities, new asylums, new institutions, new inpatient beds so that at least we can get "treatment."

Ableism is the fact that queer, trans, and asexual people fight so hard against medical neglect and abuse that in the rush to end pathologization of queerness, transness, and asexuality, we insist on distinguishing ourselves from anyone who is really mentally ill, saying that there's nothing wrong with us because we aren't those people, so at least we don't need medical and psychiatric surveillance, gatekeeping, and control (only they do). 

Ableism is the fact that when violence does happen to disabled people, it's framed as inherently more tragic and pitiable because we are supposed to be these innocent fucking angels, like babies (no matter how old we are), and it's particularly low to attack us (but apparently not to attack non-disabled transgender people or non-disabled Black people or non-disabled Muslims or non-disabled women -- all of that is totally okay and justifiable and besides, it must have been the victim's fault in some way).

Ableism is the fact that of developmentally disabled people categorized as women, anywhere from 83% to 90% will be sexually assaulted at least once in our lifetimes and on average at least ten times by the age of 18; the estimate for those categorized as men is almost 40%; all of these are likely severely underreported. Ableism is also the fact that when we do receive sex education, it often assumes that masturbation is the only "safe" option, and that anyone having sexual contact with a disabled person is automatically a fetishist or a predator or both. Rather than being about consent and autonomy, it's about "protecting us" or "keeping us safe" but where's the talk of victim blaming?

Ableism is the fact that anywhere from around 40% to 70% of U.S. prisoners are also disabled, and that the forces of white supremacy, racism, and capitalism that keep poor Black and Brown people in prisons are necessarily intertwined with ableist presuppositions about intelligence and emotional capacity. (And that all incarcerated people -- disabled or not -- as well as many free disabled people can be paid, completely legally, only a few cents per hour for menial labor, and that this is called opportunity and teaching work ethic.)

Ableism is the fact that it is totally legal to torture disabled people in the name of treatment and help and "for your own good" -- everywhere from the daily ABA torture sessions focused on normalization at the expense of our own mental health to the extremes of the Judge Rotenberg Center where we are shocked even for flapping or moving out of our seats.

Ableism is the fact that too many of my friends and online acquaintances are literally facing death, starvation, family separation, severe physical danger, denial of life-saving medical care, and other catastrophes right now, as I type these words, because they are disabled in a capitalist, racist world that does not want us to survive in it.

Ableism is the fact that on average, autistic people die 30 years younger than non-autistic people, with suicide as the second leading cause of death. As one friend put it, that's an act of murder by society, because it is so bad that too many of us decide that it is no longer worth trying to live in a world literally designed to destroy us from the moment we are first born.

They hate us, and we already know it. They aim for us. They mean to kill. They mean to harm. They know what they are doing, and we know it too. There can be no innocence, not for us. Ableism is not some arbitrary list of "bad words," as much as language is a tool of oppression. Ableism is violence, and it kills.