30 December 2011

2011: Year in Review from Autistic Hoya

This has been a whirlwind year for me and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Here are some dates! Let me know if any information is inaccurate, or if there are missing dates that should be added. Thanks!

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- Year round: Several members of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network New England and another Autistic person serve on the Adult Services Subcommittee to the Massachusetts autism commission. Those are Dusya Lyubovskaya, Kevin Barrett, Phil Schwarz, Sara Willig, Joyce Kohn, and me.

- 29 January: I host book discussion group entitled "Characters on the Spectrum" concerning Jodi Picoult's House Rules novel.

- 1 April: Autistic Self Advocacy Network signs joint letter to Center for Disease Control concerning the problematic proposal to create the medical code "wandering."

- 2 April: Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Columbus, Ohio hosts coffeehouse showcasing creative material by Autistic people.

- April: Cafe Press agrees to allow shop owners who sell products with the tag "autism" to opt out of the April 2011 fundraiser for Autism Speaks.

- May: Loving Lampposts documentary juxtaposing the neurodiversity and pro-cure perspectives, from Autistic people, parents, Autistic parents, professionals, and others is released.

- 19 May: Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security holds hearing on bill to mandate training about autism for law enforcement and corrections officers. Autistic people and allies submit written and oral testimony.

- 26 May: Judge Rotenberg Center's Matthew Israel forced to resign under a plea bargain after being charged with lying to a grand jury and destroying evidence.

- 26 May: I presented and defended the findings of over a year of research into Autistic Characters in Literature at a public event.

- 25 June: Autistic Self Advocacy Network New England hosts focus group on Autism and Ethics for Autism NOW Center, with Ari Ne'eman keynoting.

- July: Autistic Hoya blog launches.

- July: Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services holds hearings on proposed regulations to severely restrict use of electric shock aversives by the Judge Rotenberg Center.

- 30 July: Wretches & Jabberers documentary about Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher, two adult non-speaking Autistic men who learned to communicate by typing late in life, is released theatrically.

- 5 August: Neurodiversity Symposium at Syracuse University, with Ari Ne'eman keynoting.

- 1-5 August: Autism Network International's annual Autreat conference in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

- 8-10 August: Autistic Self Advocacy Network presents the self-advocacy strand of the 2011 Autism Summer Institute at the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability.

- September: Thinking Person's Guide to Autism hosts the Self-Advocate/Parent dialogues that run for two weeks, including the perspectives of Autistic and non-Autistic people, as well as parents who are Autistic.

- September: Autistic Self Advocacy Network announces partnership with Freddie Mac to provide paid career-track internships for Autistic adults in return for training and education for interviewers and managers.

- October: Autistic Self Advocacy Network publishes Navigating College: A Handbook on Self Advocacy Written for Autistic Students from Autistic Adults, which is also available for purchase through the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability.

- 1 November: Second annual Autistics Speaking Day, leading to the award for Exceptional Services to the Autistic Community for creators Corina Lynn Becker and Kathryn Bjørnstad. Autistics Speaking Day receives significant publicity.

- November: Massachusetts adopts the proposed regulations curtailing the use of electric shock aversives by the Judge Rotenberg Center.

- 16 November: Autistic Self Advocacy Network celebrates its fifth anniversary at the National Press Club in Washington D.C, honoring Bjørnstad and Becker as well as Nancy Thaler for Outstanding Ally of the Year.

- 10 December: Autistic Self Advocacy Network hosts the Symposium on Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Autism Research at Harvard Law School, after which federal grant reviewing boards look to include Autistic grant reviewers.

- 19 December: After launch of petition at Change.org by an Autistic person, Autistic student Emily Holcomb's mother, Jenny Holcomb, enters into successful mediation with school officials.

- 20 December: Georgetown University Department of Psychology and Psi Chi psychology honors society agree to include an Autistic researcher panelist, Scott Robertson, on an upcoming panel in February 2012 entitled "Multiple Perspectives on Autism."

- 21 December: Petition launched at Change.org by an Autistic person on behalf of Autistic student Chris Baker will gather close to 150,000 signatures after national media attention and publicity by Autistic people, non-Autistic parents, and other allies.

- 23 December: Autism Education Project unofficially launched.

- December: Launch of the Loud Hands Project: Autistic People, Speaking by Julia Bascom for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.



Oh, and by the way, 2011 also saw the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests, the deaths of Usama bin Ladin and Kim Jong Il and Muammar Ghadafi, the nuclear plant panic in Japan, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, Anders Behring Breivik's killing spree, a power struggle between the Ayatollahs and Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, and probably a few other things too. Those are just a few.

28 December 2011

"People First - Create an Environment of Respect"

That was the subject line of an email I received in response to the Chris Baker petition. But the email and my response to it speak far louder than any commentary I could make here.

Trigger warning: Hostility, ableism, and all that fun stuff.



Original email:


Lydia,

I respect and will eventually support your cause via Change.org. However I cannot in good consciousness sign such a disrespectful petition.

In the past "People First Language" has been the greatest of movements and arches into our modern day understanding of ALL people.


In your petition you continuously mention that Chris is "...an Autistic Student". This implies that Chris is Autistic, rather than Chris has Autism. By perpetuating this exclusive language, you and others are singling out Chris. He is a person first. No more and no less than you or I.

The correct usage would be to say: In Mercer County, Kentucky, nine year old Chris Baker has autism [or a diagnosis of ...], was told..

"complete extensive education regarding respectful treatment of Autistic students"

I applaud your consideration and concern for the teacher. The need to educate that person and in fact the entire school aboutstudents who have Autism or that may be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorders is admirable.

Kind Regards,

[Name redacted]
Advocate for People and Families Living with Brain Injury


My response:


Dear [name redacted],

Thank you for writing. While I appreciate your concerns and the reasons behind them, I respectfully disagree with your conclusions, especially as written in such a disrespectful email, and I am speaking to you as an Autistic person. I am Autistic, and that is how I identify myself. I, like the majority of Autistic adults and youth, intentionally do not use person first language to refer to ourselves or others who are also Autistic. The Blind and Deaf communities, like the Autistic community, have come to the same conclusion, with the majority of their and our constituencies choosing to use the proper adjective or noun in place of person first language.

We are aware that the majority of other disability groups or communities, including the traumatic brain injury community, prefer to use person first language, and the default for most of us is to defer to the majority consensus of the people with that disability or disabled in that particular way. For example, in reference to intellectual disability, the prevailing majority consensus among that community is to say "person with an intellectual disability," and so in reference to a person with intellectual disability, we will typically defer to that language; however, in reference to autism, the majority of adults and youth on the autism spectrum prefer to say "Autistic person," and so in reference to a person on the autism spectrum, we will typically say "Autistic person." The exception is for the minority of adults and youth who explicitly prefer to be identified as "persons with autism," and in reference to those specific individuals, that language will be used.

In this respect, the language that I have chosen -- which I have done so very intentionally and thoughtfully -- is the most respectful language that I can use, because it defers to the majority consensus of the population so described. When very well-meaning and well-intentioned advocates and members of the community writ large such as yourself insist that we use certain language to describe ourselves against our own stated and explicitly argued wishes, you are essentially telling us what offends us. I, and many others in the community of Autistic adults and youth, do defer to the majority consensus of any disability group when referring to people from those respective disability groups, because that is following the wishes of the constituency so described. I ask respectfully that you do the same in reference to us.

Jim Sinclair, one of the first Autistic people to extend the principles of the disability rights movement to the Autistic community, wrote a seminal essay in 1999 entitled "Why I dislike 'person first' language," which you can read at this link (or here: http://www.cafemom.com/journals/read/436505/). Since then, a number of Autistic people of all levels of visible or invisible disability, have written similar essays, including myself. I have personally written two essays that articulate all of the reasons why I do not ascribe to person-first language, one republished at the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism among other locations, and the other located at my own blog, on the topic. The first is called "Person-First Language: Why It Matters (The Significance of Semantics)" (or http://thinkingautismguide.blogspot.com/2011/11/person-first-language-why-it-matters.html) and the second is called "Identity and Hypocrisy: A Second Argument Against Person-First Language" (or http://autistichoya.blogspot.com/2011/11/identity-and-hypocrisy-second-argument.html).

Lea Ramsdell, writing about identify politics, asserts that "[l]anguage is identity and identity is political." The majority of us who are Autistic and who prefer to be identified as Autistic people do so because being Autistic is as much a part of our individual identities as being American, Christian, or Asian are for me. I do not refer to myself as a person with Americanness, Christianess, or Asianness, and thus I am not a person with Autism either. It is not an inherently good or bad thing to be American, Christian, or Asian, nor is it an inherently good or bad thing to be Autistic. It is simply a part of my identity. Autism is not something from which I can or ought to be separated.

You yourself write "He [Chris] is a person first. No more and no less than you or I." which to me is only a further representation of why person-first language cannot and should not be applied to person first language [sic: should say "autism"]. Use of person first language implies that there is some additional need to verbally recognize the humanity of the person so described, as if by him or herself, he or she does not quite qualify for personhood. Why can I say that I am American or that I am Christian or that I am Asian and do so without fear of being called insensitive or disrespectful to other people who could be described that way? Because we have in our society come to terms with accepting those labels as identity labels, and that people who can be described with those labels are inherently people. We have not yet done that with autism, although recognizing that a person is Autistic ought simply to be recognition of that person's humanity -- as an Autistic person.

Elesia Ashkenazy, also an Autistic and Deaf person, wrote a petition on Change.org explaining very briefly some of the reasons why we do not ascribe to the use of person-first language (http://www.change.org/petitions/understand-autism-first-language), that you may also find to be of interest to yourself. I think a quote from my own essay (the first one linked) summarizes it well.

Yet, when we say "Autistic person," we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual's identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person -- that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something. We affirm the individual's potential to grow and mature, to overcome challenges and disability, and to live a meaningful life as an Autistic. Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-Autistic people -- and that that's not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.

Stating that I am Christian or American or Asian recognizes that I am different from Muslims or Atheists, Egyptians or Koreans, or Africans or Europeans. It does not mean I am lesser because I am not the latter category. It does not mean I am less human -- or more human. These are descriptor labels of identity. We understand the word Autistic or phrase "Autistic person" in the same way. It is an identity label, and one that may be more or less important to specific individuals whom it describes (as labels like Christian or American or Asian may be more or less important to specific individuals whom they describe), but it is an accurate and honest means of describing my identity. I am Autistic.

Thus, while I thank you for your time in sharing your thoughts with me, I must share why I have come to the opposite conclusion firmly and resolutely, having read and understood the reasoning behind use of person-first language in reference to autism, and being myself an Autistic person or a person who is Autistic. If you can, please take the time to explore the links that I have shared with you, as those articles provide additional information about why the majority of Autistic adults and youth prefer to identify as Autistic rather than "persons with autism." If you sincerely wish to engage in respectful dialogue with and about Autistic people -- and I believe that you do -- then please take into consideration that those of us who are Autistic have the right to determine what we consider to be respectful language.


Blessings and peace,
Lydia


______________

Lydia Brown
[contact information redacted]

Do you know an Autistic student preparing for or attending college or university? The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has announced the publication of Navigating College: A Handbook on Self Advocacy Written for Autistic Students from Autistic Adults. For more information, visit the Navigating College website, or to order a print copy, visit the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability bookstore.

"Evil is not the absence of righteousness but of empathy."
— Mohsin Hamid

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."
— Albert Einstein

This message is intended for the designated recipient(s) only. It may contain confidential information or be subject to confidentiality protections. If you are not a designated recipient, you may not review, copy, or distribute this message or any attachments. If you have received this message in error, please notify the sender by reply e-mail and immediately destroy this message and any attachments. Do not retain, copy, or use this e-mail or any attachment for any purpose, nor disclose any part of the contents to any other person by any means.

22 December 2011

Can ordinary people effect change?

Trigger warning: Abuse and torture of an Autistic person by a teacher.

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Update 30 Dec. 2011: Close to 150,000 people have signed the petition.
Update 27 Dec. 2011: Over 75,000 people have now signed the petition.


Can ordinary people effect change?


If you'd asked me that question even a few months ago, my answer would have been a snide, "Only if those people have powerful connections and money." In the last week or so, that cynicism went out the window. First, with the successful result of the petition in Alabama this Monday, and now, with national attention turned to Chris Baker's case in Kentucky, I can make no case for pessimism ever again.

What happened with Chris?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A 9-year-old autistic boy who misbehaved at school was stuffed into aduffel bag and the drawstring pulled tight, according to his mother, who said she found him wiggling inside as a teacher's aide stood by.

The mother of fourth-grader Christopher Baker said her son called out to her when she walked up to him in the bag Dec. 14. The case has spurred an online petition calling for the firing of school employees responsible.

"He was treated like trash and thrown in the hallway," Chris' mother, Sandra Baker, said Thursday. She did not know how exactly how long he had been in the bag, but probably not more than 20 minutes.

...

Chris is a student at Mercer County Intermediate School in Harrodsburg in central Kentucky. The day had barely begun when his family was called to the school because Chris was acting up. He is enrolled in a program for students with special needs.

Walking toward his classroom, Baker's mother saw the gym bag. There was a small hole at the top, she said, and she heard a familiar voice.

"Momma, is that you?" Chris said, according to his mother.

A teacher's aide was there, and Baker demanded that her son be released. At first, the aide struggled to undo the drawstring, but the boy was pulled out of the bag, which had some small balls inside and resembled a green Army duffel bag, Baker said.

"When I got him out of the bag, his poor little eyes were as big as half dollars and he was sweating," Baker said. "I tried to talk to him and get his side of the reason they put him in there, and he said it was because he wouldn't do his work."

Baker said when school officials called the family to pick him up, they were told he was "jumping off the walls." Days later, at a meeting with school officials, Baker said she was told the boy had smirked at the teacher when he was told to put down a basketball, then threw it across the room.

At a meeting with school district officials, the bag was described as a "therapy bag," Baker said, though she wasn't clear exactly what that meant. She said her son would sometimes be asked to roll over a bag filled with balls as a form of therapy, but she didn't know her son was being placed in the bag. She said school officials told her it was not the first time they had put him in the bag.


Read the rest of the Associated Press article here, or on any of the literally dozens of local and national news syndicates that have republished it in the last few hours alone. That's right -- this news article has been republished in dozens of places, gathering over four hundred comments at Yahoo and hundreds of views. The petition, which had several hundred signatures as of earlier today, now has well over 1,200, and the number continues to swell every several minutes. (It should be 1,300 soon.)

I had been called earlier today by staff for Change.org, Katie Bethell, who works to publicize and advance education-related campaigns. Katie put me in touch with an AP reporter, Janet Blake, who asked about Chris's situation and the petition campaign. How does Change.org work? Every time an individual signs the petition, an email is sent to all fourteen targets containing the text of the petition. So far, that's over 1,200 emails to the entire Board of Education in Mercer County, and the principals of each school in the county.

The school has not yet announced firing the teachers involved, nor formally responded to the demands in the petition that would mandate extensive training about autism and other disabilities for all special education teachers, basic training about autism and other disabilities for all non-special education teachers, and an explicit prohibition of the use of any kind of restraint or seclusion on any student except briefly and as a last-resort emergency measure. That kind of training would give teachers a better foundation for interacting positively and meaningfully with their Autistic students and students with other disabilities, and prevent a majority of these kinds of incidents.

But I am hopeful now that with increased national attention, enough pressure will force the Board of Education to take action.

Torture and abuse are always wrong. You couldn't do this to an "enemy combatant." You couldn't do this to an animal. You couldn't do this to your own child without having Child Protective Services removing your child from your home. It's not okay for teachers to do it either.

Yes, ordinary people can effect change.

21 December 2011

Letter to my AP English Teacher

Trigger warning: Incident of ableism from a teacher.

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21 December 2011

Dear [name redacted],

Do you remember what you said to me last fall?

I walked into your classroom during the fifteen minute break period. I probably had a question about our senior Globe project. Maybe I was reciting my lines. When I went to leave, you asked if I knew where two other seniors were. "They're probably in the senior hallway," I said, and you asked if I would go check. "Oh, I never go in the senior hallway," I responded. You asked why. "I have sensory issues, and I can't go into the senior hallway," I said.

Do you remember that? Maybe you remember what you said to me next. You looked me in the eye unflinchingly, and spoke in a firm, certain tone.

"You're just going to have to get over that."

For a few seconds, I'm sure, I stared at you in shock. Excuse me? "I don't 'get over' my sensory issues; sensory processing disorder is a neurological disability; it doesn't 'go away' and I can't 'get over it.' I can and do develop coping mechanisms, but I'm never going to 'get over' sensory processing disorder." Not to mention how presumptive, ableist, and insulting you were. I don't remember what else I said, only that I spent a good two minutes or so angrily explaining the nature of SPD.

Later that year, I heard that you told another student with a learning disability the same thing when that student went to talk to you about something -- possibly to ask for help or an informal accommodation, although I don't know the details.

Ever since, I have intended to write this letter. It's now December 2011, well over a year after this happened. I might have been dissuaded of the notion simply because of the long lapse in time between the original incident and today's date, but what you said to me cannot be forgotten, excused, or overlooked. It's far too significant and it was far too hurtful for that to be even a possibility.

How can you, an educator and a mother, look a person in the eye who has disclosed an intimate detail of his or her difficulties in your world, and say, "You need to get over that" to that person's face? It takes immense courage for most people with invisible disabilities (those that are not necessarily apparent simply by looking at an individual) to disclose their disabilities to non-disabled people, because people like you apparently cannot grasp the concept of an invisible disability. Simply because you cannot see it the way you could see a thin white cane or a wheelchair does not mean that it does not exist, is not real, or does not truly impact an individual.

How can you, an educator and a mother, listen to what someone has told you in explanation of some part of him or herself, and respond in such a dismissive and condescending manner? While those of us who are part of the disability community (people with disabilities or disabled people) may diverge on the relative importance we assign to our individual identities as a person with a disability or disabled person, disability (or ability) is an inherent part of an individual's identity and life experience -- in the same manner as race, religion, or sex. There is nothing more condescending than to talk to a disabled person or person with a disability and assume that you know more about his or her condition than he or she does. There is nothing more dismissive than to talk to a disabled person or person with a disability and suggest that that person can in fact make his or her disability go away.

Would you tell a man using a wheelchair that if he just "got over" his problems, he could walk? Would you tell a Blind woman that if she just "got over" her problems, she could see? Would you tell a Deaf man that if he just "got over" his problems, he could hear? I didn't think so. You wouldn't say such a thing, because nearly any rational person would be rightfully outraged at the mere suggestion. But you, [name redacted], seem to think that it is acceptable to tell a person with an invisible disability that if he or she just "got over" his problems, the disability would go away. There is so much wrong with that statement that I can hardly begin to dissect it. It reeks of ableism.

Do you know what ableism is? Merriam-Webster defines ableism as "discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities." Ableism takes many forms, as it is necessarily manifested differently against people with physical disabilities as opposed to people with mental disabilities, or people with learning disabilities, or people with cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. In our community -- that is, the community of people with disabilities, and in particular, the community of Autistic youth and adults -- a very common experience of ableism takes place when a non-disabled person dismisses characteristics of our disabilities as valid, legitimate, or genuine merely on the basis that he or she does not experience that particular characteristic.

And that is precisely what you did when you said that to me -- and to that other student. You do not have sensory processing disorder. To my knowledge, you are not learning-disabled. How then can you claim that if I would only "get over" my sensory issues, they would go away? You do not live with sensory processing disorder. You have never experienced sensory processing disorder, and it is impossible for you to experience what it is like to live as me. (To suggest that you could appropriate my life experiences and daily perceptions of the world would be arrogant beyond belief.)

You seem to think that if I would only work harder, my sensory issues would go away. If I were only strong and persistent enough, I could make my disability disappear. Well, if I were determined enough, according to what you yourself implied with your ableist remark, I could stop making up petty excuses for eccentric habits and get in touch with the real, adult world! (If the sarcasm is not evident, let me explicitly acknowledge it here.) Can you begin to comprehend how insulting that is? While this ought to be self-explanatory, it seems that I ought not to take any chances by assuming that you understand the depth of your offense.

By suggesting that I can "get over it," you directly imply that I am not putting enough effort into coping with the challenges that I face, thereby suggesting that I am lazy, unmotivated, or unwilling. By suggesting that I can "get over it," you directly imply that my disability is not real, thereby suggesting that I am wont to make excuses for atypical behavior. Are the pieces starting to fit together now?

You do not tell a disabled person or person with a disability to "get over" his or her disability. That remark is as ableist as the n-word is racist. It is inexcusable and unacceptable. For an educator, it is appalling and ignorant.

Do you remember what you said to me last fall? I hope you do. And I hope you never repeat it to anyone else ever again.


Blessings and peace,
Lydia


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For those who are curious, the letter was in fact sent to the teacher, and the teacher responded, initiating a dialog.

09 December 2011

When the Educational System Fails

UPDATE: 21 Dec. 2011: Jenny Holcomb, Emily's mother, announced a successful result from mediation with school officials this Monday, due in no small part to the political pressure from the over 1,100 signatures on the petition.

UPDATE: 13 Dec. 2011: You can view the full signatures list as of 1:20pm EST (6:20pm GMT) here!

UPDATE: 11 Dec. 2011: I have written and posted a petition to Change.org demanding serious changes be made in the next year in Marion County to prevent this kind of abuse. Please sign and share!

UPDATE: 10 Dec. 2011: Jenny Holcomb, Emily's mother, announced that the charges have been dropped. The fight isn't over yet, though; Jenny still needs to meet with school officials in mediation to demand appropriate services and education for Emily.



WHEN THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM FAILS

...again. This time, it's Hamilton High School in Marion County, Alabama. A little after this October, Emily Holcomb, fourteen year old non-speaking Autistic student, was ordered out of school after school officials had the district attorney's office file first degree assault (a felony) charges against Emily for "hitting" and "shoving" her teacher, apparently causing a "minor injury" -- really, open-handed swipes and trying to push away from a woman (the teacher) who had physically restrained her for fifty-five minutes. Fifty-five minutes. Fifty-five...

That's abuse.

And now the school, after having negotiated an individualized education plan (IEP) including the services of a full-time aide specializing in autism, has decided that criminal charges are the way to go. Yes, that's right. Criminal charges. Go ahead and read the news story here if you find this to be too bizarrely incredulous.

Now, Zakhqurey Price, does anyone remember that name? He was an Autistic fifth grader in 2009 charged with assault when, after calming down from a meltdown, his teachers decided to corner and restrain him, and he (predictably) lashed out.

Why do school systems feel the need to criminalize autism? This blog tends to focus on issue and philosophy centered articles related to autism and advocacy, but this horrific, tragic turns of events is only more evidence of the deeply-rooted systemic problems in the way our country looks at differently-abled or disabled people, especially Autistic people. And something needs to be done. And something can be done -- by you and I, sitting here and reading this post. In fact, I've already created a Facebook group where you can read about the case and see updates.

But for now, what can you actually do to help? You can write, email, or call the school's superintendent who filed the complaint, the district attorney of Marion County, and the deputy district attorney who seems to be handling the case, asking them to drop the case and any charges. Emily needs help, and she needs help now. This isn't some fancy theorizing or overly intellectual model of some idea -- this is the life of an actual person whom someone is trying to destroy.

Demand that the school request the District Attorney's office drop all charges. Demand that the District Attorney's office refuse to prosecute the case. Remember to be polite and respectful. Explain that restraining Autistic people for fifty-five minutes is abuse. Explain that slapping outward is a defensive mechanism, not a violent act. Explain that Autistic children need caring, encouraging teachers who respect them, NOT criminal charges.

Mr. Ryan Hollingsworth
Superintendent, Marion County Board of Education
Marion County Schools
188 Winchester Drive, Hamilton, AL 35570-6626
(205) 921-3191 office
(205) 921-7336 fax
ryanh@mcbe.net

Jack Bostick
District Attorney
Marion County Alabama Courthouse
132 Military Street S, Hamilton, AL 35570
Phone: 205-921-7403

Paige Nichols Vick
25th Judicial Circuit
District Attorney's Office
PO Box 1596, Hamilton, AL 35570 1596
Phone: 205-921-7403

Tips for Letters and Phone Calls
  • Beginning of letter, introduce yourself (name, city and state) and your connection to autism (if any), as well as any organizational affiliations or professional credentials.
  • If a phone call, ask politely for "Mr." or "Ms." [name].
  • Be respectful, using proper greetings and forms of address, even if you think the subject(s) deserve(s) no respect.
  • Be polite, as this always adds power to your words. Polite here meaning writing in such a way where you do not intend to offend or insult.
  • Use proper grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. This adds professionalism.
  • Be succinct. Don't write a ten page novel. The subject will not read it. Guaranteed.
  • Be personal, if you have a personal story or connection. Make sure the subject knows why you care.
  • Be firm. You know you are in the right.
  • Explain why this is wrong. Tell the subject why it is wrong to criminally charge an Autistic person for an action that wasn't malicious, intended to be harmful, or offensive (meaning unprovoked).
  • Demand that charges be dropped immediately.
  • Conclude by thanking the subject for his or her time and consideration.
  • Sign with a professional greeting in a letter.
  • Include your full name, city and state, and address (home or work) at the top of the letterhead or beneath your signature in a letter.

And please, pass on this link. The more voices are heard, united behind Emily against the people who somehow think it's appropriate to criminally charge an Autistic person reacting defensively to people who were essentially abusing her, the larger and greater the possibility we can actually effect change. Yes, actual change. Strangers on the internet have that power; now it is time to exercise it.

07 December 2011

I didn't speak up

Trigger warning: Use of the r-word and detailed description of a bullying incident by an authority figure.

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It was eighth grade. Our history teacher, Mr. S, gave us a vocabulary quiz every Friday with words that I later discovered were on most SAT vocabulary memorization lists in order to broaden our vocabulary. To get full credit, you needed to spell the word correctly, recall its part of speech, and write the definition Mr. S had given us word for word. It was one of very few things that I believe he did well, and certainly augmented my vocabulary. But Mr. S was not a good teacher by any stretch of the imagination. He was fired at the end of the year, and he honestly ought to have been fired sooner for the way he treated his students. You see, teaching is far more than possessing book-knowledge and writing exams. Excellent teachers are those who empathize with their students, are genuinely concerned about their emotional and intellectual well-being, and whose actions and speech to and about their students are respectful of their dignity.

I had a close friend in eighth grade, Ben*, who was in all of my classes. Our school divided the 120-odd eighth graders into four sections, with whom students had all of their classes except math. My section included four other students receiving special education services, including Ben, all of whom were widely known to have learning disabilities and whose disabilities were often highly visible. Ben has multiple disabilities -- dyslexia, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and another unspecified learning disability. He was several grade levels behind in his spelling abilities. (One time, he spelled very simple words wrong.) Other students often bullied Ben because he was short, overweight, and learning-disabled.

One time at recess, another student said to me, "You're a retard because you hang out with retards." I don't remember what I said. I like to think I said that neither Ben nor I were retarded. But I don't remember.

Another time, the four other students receiving special education services all happened to be out of the classroom at the same time for scheduled services during Mr. S's history class. "Now that a certain four people aren't here," sneered Mr. S from the front of the room, sarcasm dripping from his smile, "we can actually get some work done." The class laughed. I shifted my weight uncomfortably in my seat. I couldn't look at Mr. S. I tried to pretend he hadn't just said what he'd just said, but how could I?

But at least those students weren't there when Mr. S said that. That wasn't the worst.

It was a Friday afternoon. Our history class was lazy and tired and wanted the week to be over. We had several words on that week's list, including a word that I had discovered great pleasure in repeating -- vicissitude. None of us wanted to take the quiz. (After all, what eighth graders do you know who would enjoy these weekly vocabulary quizzes?)

"I'll make a deal," said Mr. S. He looked about the classroom as people straightened in their seats, eagerly waiting to hear his offer. "Ben, come up here." He looked at my friend as Ben complied and walked to the board. "If Ben spells vicissitude correctly, I'll give you all one hundred percent." All eyes were on Ben. I remember hearing someone snickering. Someone else cheered, "Yeah, Ben!"

He picked up the dry erase marker and faced the white expanse of the board, squinting closely. Some of us encouraged him. I had been studying with him earlier in the week to help him memorize the vocabulary words. With prompting and encouragement, he eventually spelled the word vicissitude.

But it shouldn't have happened. None of it. I should have spoken up. I wish I had said something so badly.

But I didn't.

In the last few weeks, I saw two stories in the news about special education students who made recordings (one video, one audio) of their teachers verbally abusing and bullying them (1).

Why does this happen? Why did I grow up in a school where that behavior was tolerated and allowed to happen? Why did it take the whole year before Mr. S was fired? Did no one go to the administrators? Or did the administration not care enough? Why did no one else speak up? Why couldn't I say something?

We're supposed to be able to trust our teachers. We are in their care and custody. They exercise great power over us while we are their students, particularly when young, and the words that they say can irreparably harm and have long-lasting repercussions far beyond the classroom. I know a person with a learning disability who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because an elementary school teacher spent an entire year bullying and abusing her.

This is not an isolated problem. These are not isolated incidents. They are indicative of serious, systemic problems both in our educational system and in our society. This is not the fault of the individual teacher's alone, but our entire communities share in culpability for these horrific actions. The school administrators and other teachers, the students who are bystanders, the policymakers, the people who encourage and promulgate ideas about the inferiority or otherness of people with disabilities.

And me. I didn't speak up. And doesn't change start with one person? One butterfly flapping its wings alone can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. I wish I had been that butterfly.


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(1) Hibbard, Laura. "Julio Artuz, 15-Year-Old Special Needs Student, Records Teacher Verbally Abusing Him." Huffington Post. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011.


* Ben is not his real name, although S is the teacher's initial.

05 December 2011

Advocacy and Ableism

Trigger Warning: Extensive discussion of ableism.
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I mentioned to a family friend who has known me since early childhood that I've been involved with autism advocacy. She blinked, inclined her head slightly to the side, and asked, "Have you worked with children with autism?"

"No, actually," I responded in a calm, even tone. "I'm Autistic, and I know plenty of us." She stared, a little in confusion, as if not quite sure how to respond to that statement.

It's a question I get far more frequently than I like to admit or think about. Why does everyone automatically assume that because I can -- and do -- speak, and because I advocate, I must therefore be the relative or friend of an Autistic person, but not possibly Autistic myself? (And I have been diagnosed, in fact, by a neuropsychologist who specializes in ASD and who has sat on the board of an autism-related organization.)

And another thing. I had a conversation maybe a year ago with an acquaintance of mine, to whom I disclosed that I am Autistic. She responded, "But you're so smart!" And another acquaintance, at the same disclosure, interjected with, "But you seem normal to me." I'm expected to take this as a compliment. For some reason, looking normal makes me more human, because looking Autistic is a bad thing, something to be avoided, a taboo.

Why?

Some of you might not be familiar with the term "ableism." Some of you might be very painfully aware of it. For those who aren't, let me summarize. Ableism is the belief or attitude that an individual or group of individuals are superior or more human on the basis of their ability than people with disabilities, including Autistic people. Ableism is the belief or attitude that people with disabilities, including Autistic people, cannot have agency, cannot really advocate for themselves, should be pitied or cured, and cannot accomplish much so long as they continue to be disabled.

It's like racism, but against us. Me.

I grew up in a privileged suburb of Boston that around the 2010 census last year, still had over 90% White (Caucasian, European-American) people in the population. Less than 4% of people in my hometown were below the poverty line. Some houses went for a few million dollars. Walking around my hometown, you won't see homeless people or gang members on street corners. You won't see poverty or even much diversity. I hadn't thought about racism much because despite being Asian, I lived in a fairly homogeneous area and went to a regional school with a very culturally diverse student body.

That's privilege. It's not always recognized, acknowledged, or understood, but that's what it is. I never expected to be discriminated against on the basis of my race or religion (I'm a Protestant Christian in an area where a decent majority of the population identifies as some form of Christian), and never experienced that kind of discrimination. No racism here.

But ableism was a different animal altogether. I can't tell you how many times I've been told, "Well you're not really Autistic" or "You seem to be very high-functioning" or "I don't think you're really Autistic." And every time I mention my advocacy work, the mild look of curiosity, head tilted to the side, innocent, almost hesitant question -- "So do you know someone...?"

Why can't I be an advocate and Autistic? Why is it assumed that the only possible reason I would have any involvement or leadership in autism advocacy is having an Autistic relative or friend who certainly couldn't advocate for him or herself, and therefore I must advocate for this individual?

Parent advocates certainly have a time and a place and a valued opinion when advocating for their own children -- as minors -- or when allying with those of us who are Autistic in advocating on the larger level. I'm not writing this to disparage your role, undercut you as advocates, or accuse you of bad parenting. I'm writing this because I'm sick and tired of ableist attitudes -- whether from you or anyone else. (And certainly not all non-Autistic parents of Autistic children think in ableist ways. The problem is that plenty do. Many. Maybe even a majority.)

Think of it like this. Imagine an African-American/Black Civil Rights group led by a board and staff of White people, claiming to speak on behalf of all African-American/Black people, whose (White) leaders are thought of as revolutionary and innovative civil rights activists and advocates, and who rarely, if ever, include actual African-American/Black activists and advocates in their leadership or planning or policymaking. Or a LGBTQ Civil Rights group led by a board and staff of cisgender heterosexual people, claiming to speak on behalf of all LGBTQ people, whose (cisgender heterosexual) leaders are thought of as revolutionary and innovative civil rights activists and advocates and...

Both of those ideas would be abhorrent or objectionable to most African-American/Black people or LGBTQ people, and probably laughable even to potential opposition to the aims of those civil rights movements.

So why is this not only acceptable but the norm in autism advocacy?

Why is it assumed that Autistic people have no agency, are not competent, and cannot possibly understand the intricacies of advocacy?

Why does every person I meet assume that my advocacy makes me the non-Autistic relation to an Autistic person?

It's not something I can begrudgingly accept or resign myself. It's wrong. It's grossly unfair. It's ableist. And every single time it happens, I wince; my breath catches in my throat; my voice tightens; I can barely speak; the words struggle to slip past my lips; I look the person in the eye; I say, "Actually, I am Autistic. A large number of us are advocates."