31 October 2012

Halloween's Ableism Problem: The Commercialization of Disability Oppression and Mental Health Stigma


Trigger Warning: Direct quotes of ableist hate speech.
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Halloween's Ableism Problem
The Commercialization of Disability Oppression and Mental Health Stigma


A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak for Professor Sylvia Wing Önder's medical anthropology class on disability, neurodiversity, and stigma. During my presentation, I asked the students in the class to raise their hands if they had ever watched a crime drama or police serial on TV that portrayed a character explicitly identified as having a mental health or psychiatric disability, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, in a negative light. Nearly all of the students (if not all of them) raised their hands. When I reversed the question and asked if anyone could think of a neutral or positive TV or film portrayal of a character explicitly known to have a mental health or psychiatric disability, one student tentatively raised her hand.

I asked the students to raise their hands if they had read news coverage of a shooting incident, mass murder, or other violent crime during which a reputable journalistic publication used language like "psychopathic," "insane," "mentally ill," or other derogatory descriptions referring to mental health and psychiatric disabilities as a way of discussing the perpetrator's known or suspected neurology. Most, if not all, hands shot into the air.

The common practice of conflating violence--or indeed, any other ill in society or personal flaw of an individual--with mental health and psychiatric disabilities occurs not only in the popular and news media but in everyday conversations. This myth is perpetuated by TV shows that depict rapists, murderers, and terrorists as "mentally ill," and by supposedly objective and unbiased news reports that use the same dehumanizing language to construct horrifying and appalling visions of what mental health and psychiatric disabilities look like. The rhetorical and discursive constructions of mental health would leave the average individual convinced that anyone with a mental health or psychiatric disability is a raging monster incapable of normal emotions or empathizing with others, ready at any trigger to spring vicious, murderous violence upon anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way or say the wrong thing at the wrong time. These people, we are told, are menaces to society and ought to be locked away in secure facilities for their own good and for the good of everyone else.

And always, they are others. The process of othering is not new to disability, whether in general or around mental health and psychiatric disabilities in particular. Given that the ability to empathize with other human beings--the ability to understand another's emotions not only intellectually but emotionally--is frequently upheld as an innate characteristic of humanity that separates us from less sapient creatures, the message that certain groups of disabled people inherently lack empathy underscores the deeply troubling trend of dehumanizing those people. Whether it's the Autistic like me or those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities, the stigma we face is staggering. Unlike those believed to be non-disabled, we are forced to prove our humanity, to prove our worthiness to be included as having equal value and worth as everyone else. Because we are other, it is possible for the mainstay of society to make light of our marginalization. And, as you may well know or have suspected yourself, the commercial exploitation of disability enfreakment is a lucrative business.

Fright at the Museum: Dead Men Walking is this year's haunted house experience at the Museum of Crime and Punishment here in Washington, DC. I heard about the haunted house experience when reading a list of Halloween-themed activities in the District. The language used on the brief advertisement described the haunted house as "featuring the criminally insane." Appalled at the blatant ableism, I searched for the attraction on the internet and found this language on the official website--"This Halloween the Crime Museum will transform into a hunting ground for the criminally insane." Yet despite my horror and disappointment, I was not surprised.

Every year at Halloween, haunted house attractions pop up across the United States, in people's basements, in stores, in hotels, in museums, in frat houses, in amusement parks, and just about anywhere else one can imagine decorating with skeletons and spiderwebs and coffins and fake corpses with fake blood and weapons nearby. I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the commonplace use of "the insane" or "the criminally insane" as features in these attractions. Firstly, it's dehumanizing of actual people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities. Secondly, it's usually grossly inaccurate. Thirdly, it contributes to the already massive stigma against people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities in potentially extremely dangerous and harmful ways.

The attitude that leads otherwise decent people to believe that there is nothing wrong or problematic with featuring "the criminally insane" in a haunted house attraction is one deeply rooted in and perpetuated by an ableism so pervasive in society that it even taints disability rights movements. Ableism against those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities is not only widespread in society writ large, but it is a particularly vile  and virile thorn embedded deeply into the disability community in general, including the autism and Autistic communities. This ableism gives rise to the attitude that sees those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities as legitimate material for twisted humor, freak exhibits, and fright experiences. (After all, if it is legitimate to fear an entire group of people based on dangerously misconceived prejudices against them, then it makes sense that that group of people would be used in a fright experience like a haunted house.)

Let's deconstruct this. To use actors or exhibits portraying people belonging to a marginalized group--in this case, people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities--as a form of entertainment is not only belittling, but dehumanizing. Why? Because it says that they are fodder for entertainment. This process of enfreakment has a long history that includes the freak show sideshows accompanying circuses that put people with visible disabilities and deformities on display for public amusement and pity. When it comes to these types of portrayals, it contributes to the message that says that these are not people worthy of respect or dignity for no reason other than their disabilities.

The suggestion that all or many people with mental health or psychiatric disabilities are now or will in the future become violent murderers or rapists is not only ableist and stigmatizing, but grossly inaccurate. Not only are those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities not any more likely to commit violent crime than the general population, they are at significantly higher likelihood of being targeted as victims of both nonviolent and violent crime. The ableism that perpetuates this harmful myth does a disservice to people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities twice over. It wrongfully insinuates that they are more likely to commit violent crimes--thereby allowing for the disturbing proposition of pre-emptive confinement and containment of these people that sounds suspiciously like Minority Report--and it allows society to ignore their needs when they are victimized by crime.

This is not merely Halloween's ableism problem, but the consequence of ableist attitudes embedded across all levels of society. The commercialization of disability oppression poses a unique problem in that it is doubly exploitative. It harms the disabled and it allows the rest of society to become complicit in its perpetuation. It is morally abhorrent, but rarely questioned. Those in positions of power and privilege can remain unchallenged because they have the social capital and financial resources to maintain their power and privilege. It is no object to oppress people who are already marginalized in society.

In order to combat the frequency of these appallingly ableist depictions of disabled people, we must begin by combating the attitudes that justify and excuse them as harmless and valid. That begins with changing the portrayals we see on TV and in film, in literature, and in the news media. It begins with changing the way we talk about mental health and people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities, whether that be in public speeches or debates, university classrooms or compulsory education, or everyday conversations. It begins with challenging enfreakment as the norm. In the absence of widespread public outcry, both individually and at the organizational level, President Obama will be able to continue to pontificate about keeping guns away from "the mentally ill," reputable newspapers will be able to continue to speculate about how "insane" suspected perpetrators of mass killings must be, and professors will continue to be able to make tasteless, ableist jokes about involuntary restraint and seclusion. The understanding that these rhetorical constructions and public enfreaking depictions of disability contribute to a society in which those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities are unwelcome, unaccommodated, and in perpetual danger of victimization of hate speech and hate crimes is necessary in order to deconstruct them and work toward ending them.






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Note: The idea that mental health and psychiatric disabilities, among other temporary or permanent conditions, can render one legally "insane," for purposes of the popularly-called "insanity defense" (in legal terms, "not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect"), deserves another critique in its own essay.

Addendum: The language used in the DC Museum of Crime and Punishment advertisement--"hunting ground for the criminally insane"--actually has two possible interpretations. I intended to include a bit about this in the original essay, but it seems to have slipped my mind. This phrase might be interpreted as furthering the dangerous misconception that people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities are murderers waiting to happen, and that the "hunting ground" is those people hunting down the "normal" people. Its other interpretation, however, is far more sinister and haunting. The second possible interpretation is that the event planners are implicitly condoning the "hunting" of people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities--i.e. that the "hunting ground" is a place for the "normal" people to hunt and kill the "criminally insane." This carries many problematic consequences, not the least of which is the direct condoning of violence against those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities as acceptable. 

23 October 2012

Important Social Rules (for both Autistics and non-Autistics)


After participating in four different "social skills" aimed classes or programs for Autistics or people with similar disabilities over the last several years of my life, I've come to realize that most of the important social rules that I follow aren't necessarily the ones people are usually taught in "social skills classes" that typically aim to normalize Autistics rather than provide them with coping mechanisms and tools to navigate a predominantly neurotypical world. (And ironically enough, many non-Autistics whom I know don't follow many of these social rules that I'd consider to be common sense!)


  1. Don't intentionally interrupt people unless they're being bigots or it's an emergency. If you accidentally interrupt someone outside either of those scenarios, and you realize it or they point it out, apologize.
  2. Don't make promises you can't keep.
  3. Don't ask other people to do things for you if you'd be unwilling to do comparable things for them.
  4. Don't insult people to their faces unless they're being bigots. Otherwise, save the insults for private conversations with trusted friends, a counselor, a confessor, or an anonymous website where you omit both their and your names or other identifying information.
  5. Thank people when they do something for you.
  6. Only ask people questions if you either really care about the answer or you need them to think you do.
  7. Don't ask strangers about their health, religion, politics, gender identity or pronouns, sexual orientation, weight, income, or disability status unless you're in a safe space or themed event/conference (i.e. a queer pride group, an autism conference, or a religious gathering, for example).
  8. Don't invite yourself to parties or outings. If you find out about a private party or outing that you weren't invited to, don't mention it around the people who are invited.
  9. Thank people in advance when you expect them to do something for you.
  10. Always ask if you need anything from anyone.
  11. Default to speaking or acting more respectfully or formally when in doubt about how formal you should be around a particular person or in a particular situation or place.
  12. No means no.
  13. Only talk about people behind their backs to your closest friends, a counselor, a confessor, or on an anonymous website where you omit both their and your names or other identifying information.
  14. Ask if you're not sure if something is offensive (e.g. swearing, smoking, etc) and do so before doing the potentially offensive activity.
  15. Apologize if you accidentally offend or hurt someone and they've told you or you've realized it. But never apologize for your actual opinions or for being yourself.
  16. Admit it when you realize you made a mistake or were wrong.
  17. Ask before touching someone unless you know explicitly that they're okay with it. (If the other person offers their hand for a handshake or approaches you with arms wide open for a hug, that counts as explicitly being okay with that type of touch.)
  18. Never pressure someone into doing something that they don't want to do unless it's a literal life or death matter.
  19. Never intentionally hurt someone, physically, emotionally, or otherwise, unless in self-defense or in a literal life or death situation.
  20. If you have a problem with someone, take it directly to them in private first. If you're not comfortable doing that, talk about it confidentially with someone you trust (if possible, someone who doesn't know the person). Whatever you do, don't spread rumors, talk to everyone you know, or otherwise start drama. If you have to involve someone else for any reason, involve one person whom you trust.
  21. If someone says they're upset, hurt, triggered, sick, or need an accommodation (of any kind), believe them.
  22. If someone says they're a member of any group or community, don't assume that characteristics typical of or common in that group necessarily apply to them.
  23. Don't assume that a group of people are necessarily aligned with any philosophical, religious, or political views when you want to make jokes, snide remarks, or commentary about philosophical, religious, or political topics. If you're not sure, ask if a joke about X is okay. (i.e. "Does anyone mind if I make a joke about Republicans/Democrats?")
  24. If someone is visibly upset, panicked, crying, or having a meltdown, ask if you can do anything. If the person does ask you to do something, do it, as long as it's reasonable, ethical, and within your ability to do.
  25. If someone tells you about something upsetting, depressing, or tragic (such as a loved one or pet dying, a bad day at school or work, or a person who triggered them), tell them that sucks. Don't give advice unless they ask for it. If you're not sure, ask them if they want advice or just for you to listen, and whichever they say, do it.
  26. If you don't understand something, ask for clarification.
  27. If someone calls you out for saying something privileged, think about what you said and ask them for clarification if you need it, but don't become defensive or immediately assume that they're wrong.
  28. If someone tells you something about themself or someone they know, assume it's confidential unless it's already public information (i.e. on a public website or in the newspaper with that person's name) and don't tell anyone else unless you have reason to believe someone is in immediate danger from themself or other people.
  29. If someone calls you while suicidal, stay on the phone.


22 October 2012

Sexism, Ableism, and Rape Culture

Trigger Warning:

Extensive discussion of sexual assault and ableism, including a survivor's firsthand account and a lot of sexist and ableist phrases.
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Sexism, Ableism, and Rape Culture

Imagine that you are raped.

Then imagine that the first person you tell afterward accuses you of misconstruing the facts.

You're crazy. You're insane. You're imagining things. Surely you don't remember right. He's such a nice boy. A perfect gentleman. He'd never do that. And we would never let that kind of thing happen here. It just doesn't happen. You must be out of your mind. You need help.

After all, it wasn't really rape. It couldn't have been.

This isn't a rare situation.

This is the reality for many rape survivors, with little regard to race, class, ability, education, or age.

Over the last few days, this account of former Amherst student Angie Epifano's rape and the school administration's utter failure to punish the perpetrators has gone viral from the Amherst student paper website. You may have also read this story about former Notre Dame student Lizzy Seeberg's rape and subsequent suicide. In Angie's case, the school officials not only dismissed her account and suggested that it wasn't really rape but a hookup gone wrong, but after she spoke to school counselors, she was involuntarily hospitalized in a psychiatric ward with the not so subtle assumption that she wasn't entirely lucid or competent to be making accusations.

Some excerpts from the articles linked above, starting with Angie—
Eventually I reached a dangerously low point, and, in my despondency, began going to the campus’ sexual assault counselor. In short I was told: No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup…You should forgive and forget. 
How are you supposed to forget the worst night of your life? 
There's more.
She began rattling off the Administration’s policy regarding students released from psychiatric care. In order for students to be allowed back they had to have parental supervision while on campus in order to make sure that the student did not relapse into substance abuse again (the most common reason for student admittance into the Ward). This meant that a parent would stay in a hotel near campus and would then follow their child around for two weeks until the “all clear” period was reached. “And since you don’t have parents…” 
She trailed off awkwardly and began to resolutely examine the upper left-hand corner of the dining room. 
...
Panic welled up inside of me. 
Did this mean I was trapped on the Ward forever? God, no, I couldn’t handle that. I wasn’t crazy! 
Claustrophobia and paranoia dropped on top of me and I wildly scanned the room. I met my roommate’s eyes. She was looking at me with worry: What’s wrong? 
The room stopped spinning, the walls went back to their normal locations, I could breathe again, and now I was angry. I told her flat out: Let me get this straight. I was raped on their campus. I had an emotional breakdown because I didn’t feel safe and felt harassed on their campus. I went to their counseling center, like they told me to, and I told them how I was feeling. They decided that I should be sent to the hospital. And now they won’t allow me back on their campus? They allow rapists back on campus, but they won’t allow the girl who was raped back? The girl who did nothing wrong.
And after Angie was released from her involuntary hospitalization.
What was the point of staying at Amherst? I had been stuck on campus for eleven months straight; each day had been more challenging and emotionally draining than the previous one. I had been feeling better recently, but each time I met with my dean I felt more emotionally distraught than I had beforehand. Her comments reminded me that in the Administration’s eyes I was the most base individual: a poor and parentless humanities major who was the school’s token-Deep-Southerner. I was sullied, blameworthy, and possibly insane.
And she ultimately decided to withdraw from Amherst.
I became even more resolute about my decision to leave, and decided to talk with the Victim Rights Law Center, a pro-bono law firm based in Boston that my survivor group had recommended to me several weeks earlier. My preliminary intake with the VRLC was quite eye-opening: Oh Amherst? Yeah, unfortunately I know Amherst all too well. I’ve been down there many times to deal with the administration and their constant mistreatment of survivors. Our law firm keeps trying to force them to change but they just don’t seem to understand, they keep doing the same old thing. 
Amherst has almost 1800 students; last year alone there were a minimum of 10 sexual assaults on campus. In the past 15 years there have been multiple serial rapists, men who raped more than five girls, according to the sexual assault counselor. Rapists are given less punishment than students caught stealing. Survivors are often forced to take time off, while rapists are allowed to stay on campus. If a rapist is about to graduate, their punishment is often that they receive their diploma two years late. 
I eventually reported my rapist. 
He graduated with honors.
Lizzy's story is as appalling.
In a sense, Lizzy’s ordeal didn’t end with her death. The damage to her memory since then is arguably more of a violation than anything she reported to police -- and all the more shocking because it was not done thoughtlessly, by a kid in a moment he can’t take back, but on purpose, by the very adults who heavily market the moral leadership of a Catholic institution. Notre Dame’s mission statement could not be clearer: “The university is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” But in this case, the university did just the opposite. 
In life, Lizzy was both politically and personally conservative, a brand new member of the College Republicans who led her parish youth group and spoke openly about saving herself for marriage. But Notre Dame officials have painted and passed around a different picture of the dead 19-year-old. Sotto voce, they portray the player as wrongly accused by an aggressive young woman who lied to get back at him for sexually rejecting her the first moment they were ever alone together.
And the rapist's lawyer, Joe Power, who is also a Notre Dame alumnus, "also suggested that Lizzy’s parents should never have let her go away to college because Effexor is such a powerful drug that those on it require 'close supervision.' (The prescribing physician, Dr. Claudia Welke, called that an 'absolutely false' characterization of the widely prescribed antidepressant, and of Lizzy’s mental state prior to Aug. 31, 2010.)" He also suggested that the reporter who wrote the article was racist and ought to have been writing for the Ku Klux Klan because the rapist happened to be Black. (Power is white.)

This is a pattern.

Let's rank oppressions, shall we? Let's claim that a white rape victim (and anyone supporting her) accusing a Black perpetrator is racist because her rapist happens to be Black. Now, is it wrong when Blacks or other people of color are arbitrarily accused of crimes simply because of their race or blamed collectively for the crimes of other Blacks or other people of color? Absolutely. Is it wrong that our prison system disproportionately incarcerates young people of color at rates staggeringly higher than for white offenders accused or convicted of comparable crimes? It's deplorable. Is it wrong that people of color face the terrible ramifications of racial profiling and the prejudices of predominantly white judges and juries? It's appalling. Of course it is. No one is suggesting otherwise, at least not here.

But to suggest that white rape victims shouldn't come forward when the rapists happen to be people of color is equally horrific. And it's disgusting, because it suggests that the fear of being perceived (wrongfully, at that) as racist should outweigh the need for justice. It's disgusting because it perverts the very real struggles of Blacks and other people of color against a racist and oppressive society for the purposes of sweeping rape under the rug. And because the attorney making this ridiculous accusation is white, well, it reeks of plain old appropriation.

The trouble with ranking oppressions is not only that it gets you nowhere but that it does absolutely nothing to challenge the very systems of power and privilege that perpetuate the oppression in the first place.

The intersectionalities between marginalized communities are not solely that members of one such group may also be members of others but also that the oppressions that affect one marginalized community intersect and overlap with the oppressions that affect others. You cannot operate in silos. You cannot draw attention to a set of issues purportedly belonging to only one marginalized community while ignoring their consequences for other marginalized communities. What happens to the queer community is wrapped up intimately with what happens to the disabled community and to the undocumented community and to the Black community and to the Jewish community and to the poor community. You cannot separate oppressions because they feed from one another.

Our society is complicit in perpetuating rape culture—that is, a culture in which rape and other forms of sexual violence are not only common but are normalized and justified through attitudes and social structures that legitimize and condone them. One major component of rape culture is the ever-prevalent practice of victim blaming, or suggesting that the victim should be blamed for allowing the rape to occur. The easiest example is the "short skirt" scenario. If the victim was wearing a "short skirt," or any other form of dress considered "sexually provocative," then it's her fault, because she was "asking" to be raped. She was "asking" for the sexual attention.

But victim blaming happens in a scarier way, and in a way all too familiar to those of us in the disabled community.

More frequently than not, a common tactic of victim blaming employs ableism as its ammunition for scapegoating the victims of rape as either ultimately complicit in the violence enacted against them or otherwise somehow incompetent and therefore incapable of making judgments about consent or rape. Historically, the power to involuntarily commit another person to a psychiatric institution under the supposition that the person was "insane" or otherwise mentally incompetent was often abused for economic extortion or even simple social retaliation, regardless of whether the victim of this abuse did or did not actually have any mental health, developmental, or intellectual disability. Today, this power is used to silence rape victims.

When you suggest that a rape victim must be insane or crazy, not only are you perpetuating ableism but you are using ableism to justify violence and blame the victim.

When you suggest that a disabled rape victim is incapable of giving or denying consent, you are denying that person's agency and you are presuming incompetence.

When you suggest that a disabled rape victim who does not speak or who was rendered temporarily incapable of producing speech (whether because of selective mutism, dissociation, or a panic attack), you are silencing the victim and de-legitimizing the victim's account.

When you suggest that a rape victim must be insane or crazy, you are implying none too subtly that if the victim were to have a mental health or psychiatric disability, the accusation of rape would be meaningless.

Because if you don't take it seriously when the victim is presumed neurotypical and non-disabled, how are disabled people supposed to believe that you will take it seriously if they are raped when you use accusations of mental health and psychiatric disability to de-legitimize and silence non-disabled victims?

And it does happen to disabled people. The least studied and tracked category of hate crimes are those perpetrated against the disabled. And when disabled people are raped, particularly those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, it becomes not only easy but common to use aspects of their disabilities as reasons to disbelieve their accusations of rape or sexual violence. When people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are the victims of rape, the usual response is to ignore the allegations and suggest that the victims are inherently incompetent and incapable of understanding rape, let alone making accusations against their abusers. And this frightening trend is part of a vicious cycle that both repeatedly re-victimizes disabled rape survivors and victim-blames non-disabled rape survivors within an ableist framework.

(Despite the media portrayals in crime dramas that would lead you to believe that people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities are frequently rapists and murderers, these people are far more likely to be victims of such crimes than to be perpetrators of them.)

You see, it's not enough merely to critique victim blaming that labels rape survivors "insane" or "crazy" as sexist and complicit in perpetuating rape culture. This dangerous practice must also be critiqued for the egregious ableism that lends it any credence whatsoever. To critique victim-blaming solely in the context of sexism and rape culture is to ignore the intersectionality that allows victim-blaming to occur as an outgrowth of ableist attitudes that see disabled people (and people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities in particular) as incompetent, incapable, overly-sensitive, and unaware—to perpetuate a particularly virulent form of ableism that not only sees the disabled as less-than but that also justifies violence committed against us as not as bad as violence committed against the non-disabled.

A quick Google search for "intellectual disability rape no charges" brings over half a million results. Disabled people are disproportionately likely to be victimized by violent crime, including sexual crime, because of the ableist attitude that sees people with disabilities (and especially intellectual and developmental disabilities) as particularly vulnerable, gullible to deception, and incapable of communicating about crimes committed against them. In keeping with this blatant ableism, a man convicted of raping a non-speaking woman with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability was freed because the justices on Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled that despite a significant mobility impairment, she could have communicated non-consent to sexual intercourse by biting or kicking her rapist—both of which are not actions of which she is physically capable. (See the Johnson article in the sources below.) By holding the disabled to the higher standard of physically resisting an attack when many non-disabled (including non-physically disabled) rape survivors have also not offered physical resistance for a variety of reasons (such as shock, trauma, restraint, fear, or direct threat from the rapist) and are not necessarily blamed for not resisting, the court has essentially ruled that it is within legal realms to rape people with physical disabilities and mobility impairments.

After all, if we don't fight back, we must have wanted it.

Ableism and sexism are ugly enough on their own. Combined? They're a dangerous force to reckon with, capable of freeing and exonerating rapists and silencing and de-legitimizing the victims of rape, all while dehumanizing millions of disabled people and leaving us legally and socially vulnerable to further sexual violence.


_______________________
Sources

Epifano, A. (2012, October 17). An account of sexual assault at Amherst College. The Amherst Student. 142(6).

Henneberger, M. (2012, March 26). Reported sexual assault at Notre Dame campus leaves more questions than answers. National Catholic Reporter.

Johnson, J. (2012, October 2). Man convicted of sex assault on disabled woman freed - court: she could have communicated dissent. Newser.

14 October 2012

There is no such thing as safe space.

Trigger warning: Ableist slurs, specifically the r-word.

--

There is no such thing as safe space.

Someone I've known for a long time and generally like and get along with (and who generally likes and gets along with me) has apparently decided that it's okay to call people and ideas and things "retarded." She says it's okay because "well I'm not actually talking about actual disabled people." She says it's okay because "well everyone around here uses that language." She says it's okay because "well I'm not trying to be offensive." She says it's okay because "people who get upset over this are too damn sensitive."

I've asked her nicely please don't say that. I've told her firmly that's not okay stop saying that. I've yelled DON'T USE THAT WORD IT'S HURTFUL, IF NOT FOR OTHER PEOPLE'S SAKE THEN FOR MINE AND FOR THE SAKE OF RESPECTING ME AND OUR FRIENDSHIP. More than once. I thought I got the point across. But apparently not.

I talk to some of these people, including her, when I'm upset and need someone to talk to. I thought I trusted her. I thought she was good people. I thought she and the people around her when I'm around her were safe space.

Safe space is NOT dropping the word "retarded" and then making excuses and defending it and accusing me of being the one who gets too angry too upset and too damn offended. Safe space is NOT accusing me of policing your language or being hypersensitive or overly emotional. Safe space is NOT accusing me of making your space unsafe for you to say whatever the hell you want when it's actually you who are the one dropping hurtful, hateful slurs that give rise to the kinds of attitudes that let people like me get MURDERED and our murderers EXCUSED.

I'm pretty sure that safe space doesn't exist anymore. I'm pretty sure I'm done trying to find it. Because I can't take this anymore, hoping, praying, whatever, that this place I'm going to or this place I've been forever is going to be a safe space, lulling myself into a false sense of security and comfort only to be blindsided and attacked out of nowhere. It might as well be a gigantic sign in red letters.

NOT WELCOME HERE.
NOT SAFE HERE.
AUTISTIC? YEAH, NOT GONNA WORRY ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS. (oh wait you don't have them)

Go ahead, put up the signs. At least then you'd be honest about it. But I guess since everything you don't like is just -- r-word here -- you can do whatever the hell you want and it doesn't really matter anyway as long as YOU get to be safe and unchallenged in your nice privilege blankets.

11 October 2012

The Politics of Coming Out

What does it mean when Autistic people say that they are "out" as Autistic or "closeted Autistics?" The language is borrowed from the queer community, as anyone familiar with LGBTQQIA issues may know. It means to be publicly Autistic, to acknowledge one's Autisticness to one's community, to take some pride in being Autistic. It means identifying as Autistic outside safe space, and thus, accepting the potential consequences of being known as Autistic—accepting the risk of assault and victimization, silencing and erasure, paternalism and patronization, infantilization, ostracism, de-legitimization, sub-speciating, harassment, and retaliation. It also means publicly acknowledging one's membership in a particular community and affinity to a particular culture—an Autistic community, an Autistic culture, an Autistic aesthetic, an Autistic way of living and being.

Some Autistics can only be partially out or out only in some places or among some people or communities; there are many factors that can cause this to happen. Sometimes, Autistics may be out in the broader Autistic or disability communities, but may not be out at work or at school for fear of retaliation, harassment, bullying, or direct assault. Some Autistics who've identified as Autistic as adults but who may not have been identified as Autistic as youth or children may be out to their friends but not to their families for fear of misunderstanding, gaslighting, or blatant, flagrant ableism.

It's National Coming Out Day for the queer community, for those who identify as lesbian or gay or bisexual or pansexual or demisexual or polysexual or asexual or trans* or genderqueer or intersex or non-binary or androgynous or agender or questioning or queer in general (or any combination of the above). So let's talk about coming out.

We had a fantastic event at Georgetown two nights ago called Undocuqueer: Undoing Borders & Queering the Undocumented Narrative, during which four undocuqueer activists spoke of the intersectionality between the queer and undocumented communities, and the political, legal, cultural, and social ramifications of coming out as queer, undocumented, and undocuqueer. One of the speakers, Julio Salgado, spoke of the awakening  to the plight and experiences of queers that some straight undocumented people had when they began to adopt the language of "coming out" to refer to publicly identifying themselves as undocumented. They began to understand on a deeply emotional level the personal consequences for queers of coming out because they faced many barriers and dangers in identifying publicly as undocumented, analogous barriers in many ways to those faced by the queer community. This personal investment in coming out serves a means of improving understanding of the kind of coming out for members of another marginalized community.

There is a real danger in analogizing that can undo movements, hint of appropriation, and lead down the path of ranking oppressions. At the same time, there is value in drawing analogies in order to better understand, examine, challenge, and change the systems of oppression and hierarchies of privilege that impact not only all people who belong to any of a number of historically marginalized groups but also all people who are privileged by having these unearned advantages in society. The Autistic rights movement that has been emergent for the last two decades draws much from the Deaf community and the broader disability rights movement. The disability civil rights movement draws much from the Black and African American civil rights movement, though both arose around the same time. The queer rights movement draws much from the Black and African American civil rights movement as well as the women's rights movement. The intersectionalities are broad, enormous, and many. They leave a lot of room, a lot of space, much of it unexplored, particularly where three or more identities converge.

In the Autistic community, and in the Autistic rights movement in particular, we use a lot of borrowed language. Is this wrong and appropriative in itself? If the origins of the terms we use are not recognized and understood, and if the histories of the other oppressed groups from which we've borrowed them are not acknowledged as lending these bits of language to us, then yes, it is appropriative. But in the context of a holistic understanding of the societal hierarchies of privilege, power, oppression, and marginalization, the use of these borrowed terms can become empowering and liberating.

I've heard words and phrases like "autdar" (analogous to "gaydar," or the ability that many Autistics have to identify other Autistics, even among strangers), "flaming Autistic" (meaning someone who presents as obviously Autistic), "self-advocacy" (drawn from the community of people with intellectual disabilities), "Autistic" with the capital A (analogous to "Deaf" with the capital D to denote someone or something related to or part of Deaf culture and identity), and "Autistic space" (analogous to "Deaf space," or space specifically designed around the communication and access needs of Autistics). And of course, there are the ever-present "closeted" and "out," and infinite variations thereof. These terms may be borrowed, but they are accurate in their descriptions of the experiences we've had. They are as analogous as they can be—recognizing the similarities in the experiences while respecting the different circumstances and intersections of privilege and power.

Some Autistics will not come out because they have legitimate fears of losing their jobs or credibility at their schools—these fears are founded on the plethora of such incidents that not only occur but that are justified and permitted in the context of an ableist society that dismisses Autistics as incompetent, incapable, eternally naive and infantile, and therefore undeserving of the same opportunities as the neurotypical. To come out is a revolutionary act that challenges this ableist framework, yet we live in societies that perpetuate complicity with ableism, in societies that are not conducive to allowing Autistic culture and Autistic communities to flourish. The resilience that is necessary to exist in a society that frequently dehumanizes and devalues Autistic lives and the Autistic experience often demands coming out, but cannot compel it. And in far too many cases, the rampant ableism of our world suppresses untold numbers of Autistics who are terrified of the consequences of coming out.

We are more than the discursive and rhetorical constructs of autism and ability and disability. To be Autistic is not to be defective or deficient or ill—to be Disabled is not to be less than or inferior or incapable. Autistic culture is more than a passing, perfunctory phrase wrapped in a convenient package. Disability culture is more than an odd turn of phrase, unfamiliar and uncomfortable to those with able-bodied and neurotypical privilege, or to those who have internalized ableism and internalized their oppression. Most disabled people, most Autistic people have never been exposed to Autistic culture or disability culture. Our history is not taught or acknowledged. Our leaders, pioneers, and innovators exist on the margins of mainstream society, politics, and history. We are so commonly erased that many disabled people only learn that our communities are vibrant and widespread after they've already become adults.

To come out is to challenge the cultural norms that tell us we should remain in the closet. That is true whether one comes out as queer or undocumented or disabled—or anything else, for that matter. Not everyone can come out, not yet. But for those who can, each voice, each face, each name, each person, represents whole swaths of people whom society has told do not deserve to have an identity in which they can take pride and find community.



Left to right: James Saucedo, Julia Maddera, Lydia Brown, Sivagami (Shiva) Subbaraman, and Meghan Ferguson

Five people wearing matching pink short-sleeved t-shirts with big black letters that say "i am." on the front. James is a light-skinned man with short brown hair. Julia is a blonde-haired white woman who is also wearing a rainbow scarf. Lydia (me) is an Asian woman with black hair and a blue lanyard around her neck. Shiva is a Desi (South Asian) woman with short-cropped grey hair. Meghan is a white woman with brown hair in a ponytail and sunglasses perched on her head. In front of the five people is a twenty-eight layer rainbow-colored cake with frosting on top of a table covered in a rainbow pride flag. Behind them is a brick wall covered in various college flyers.