23 December 2012


Trigger Warning: Extreme internalized ableism, eugenics, ableism, violence, murder, suicide.



That's the most accurate word to describe my current emotional state. I am in a state of profound grief. I am in mourning.

On 30 November 2012, twenty-three days ago, 25 year old Christopher Krumm stabbed his father's girlfriend Heidi Arnold, a 42 year old math teacher, in front of the house she shared with Christopher's father in Casper, Wyoming. Later that day, Christopher walked into a classroom in Casper College nearby and shot his father James Krumm, a 56 year old computer science instructor, with "an arrow using a high-powered bow." (News article.) Then he stabbed his father and himself, killing both.

Christopher Krumm identified himself as autistic. His suicide note (same source as link above) claimed that he never had a love life and was fired or forced to quit from four different jobs. The direct quotes from the suicide note that have been pulled from the Associated Press article include the following statements:
"[I] always had to subsist as a sort of bottom feeder."

"I am extremely bitter and frothing with hatred toward my father. I am resentful that my country did not castrate him."

"You should not have allowed my father to breed because he was genetically predispositioned toward having Asperger's Syndrome and put me at greatly increased risk for having it (and in fact I do). How could you hold his right to breed over my right not to be born?"

"Despite having a Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering I have not been able to solve the novel problems I need to solve at work."
These are the consequences of internalized ableism. Because Christopher Krumm lived in a society that fed him with messages that he was less than, conditioned him to believe that disability in general and autism in particular are defects that ought to be prevented, and neglected to embed systems of support for him, he internalized these forms of oppression and he began to believe them as true. He espoused eugenics as a means of eradicating autism as an unwanted phenotype or genotype, and he wished he had never been born. And then, Christopher Krumm murdered two people and killed himself.

Christopher Krumm's story has been overshadowed and largely erased in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtorn Connecticut, and even after the shooting in Portland, Oregon, and the stabbing at the school in China. But his story is important and must be told.

I cannot condone Christopher's actions. I will never accept or justify violence for any reason whatsoever.

Yet I grieve for Christopher as much as I grieve for James Krumm and Heidi Arnold, as much as I grieve for the twenty-six victims at Sandy Hook, the twenty-three victims in China, and the two victims in Portland. I mourn for him. I mourn for all of them.

What might their lives have looked like?

Two of the children who were killed at Sandy Hook were autistic. One of them was killed alongside his aide. And part of me wonders what kind of world they would have grown up in had they lived.

I do not believe that Christopher Krumm would have believed what he did and then committed murder and suicide had he not been raised in such a profoundly ableist society.

In an alternative reality, Christopher Krumm would never have internalized ableism so thoroughly that he chose to commit acts of violence. In an alternative reality, Dylan Hockley and Josephine Gay might have  come to age in the Autistic community with knowledge of and access to Autistic culture. As much as Christopher Krumm was a perpetrator of horrific crimes, he was also a victim. The choice to end his life and to take the lives of two others was his, but it was not a choice he made in isolation, without any outside influences or other external factors that drove him toward it. That choice and the reasons he gave for it could only have occurred in the context of the absolute worst kind of internalized ableism.

This is not the kind of world I want my friends and their children to age into.

I have decided for this holiday season and for the New Year to make a simple request of my friends, acquaintances, and readers -- the Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking anthology was released a little over a week or so ago, and is now available on Amazon for purchase. I have compiled a list of some schools, libraries, and other centers to which I would like to see copies of the anthology donated (possibly in my name), in the hopes that the more the voices of Autistic people combating ableism can be heard and made accessible, the less the chances that tragedies like Christopher Krumm's will occur. Among a sizable list, I have included the libraries of the colleges where his father taught and where he attended.

Will reading an anthology prevent someone from committing murder? I don't know. But the voices challenging the ableist hegemony need to be made available in as many places as possible, because these are the voices of the future. These are the voices of our community. Take a look at the list. It's in a Google Doc to allow people to edit it, by moving the contact information of recipients to a separate column so that all of the targeted recipients can receive a copy eventually. You may add addresses of additional places to the wishlist column as you see fit. But spread that link.

I do not want to mourn for more lives lost. 

Grief is a hard, hard thing to process.

But this is my attempt, however small, to begin the process of recovery and healing from this grief, to begin moving forward, to begin to wonder what I can do to change the world, even if only a bit, for the better.

16 December 2012

Can I hide somewhere until it's over?

Trigger Warning: Ableism, violence, ableism about violence and disability, and ableist quotes.

17 December 2012: This post is edited to reflect additional Google searches. I have also added citations to peer-reviewed reports and studies.

Can I hide somewhere until it's over?

In the last twenty-four hours, various pages on this blog were found after Google searches for the terms
  • are autistic people more likely to kill
  • commonaility of mass murderers shootings autism aspergers
  • how many mass shooters were autistic?
  • aspergers mass murderers
  • are mass murderers autistic
  • percentage of all murders committed by people with autism
  • autistic violent "home anymore"
  • how often do autistics commit crimes later in life
  • has there ever been a mass murderer with aspergers
  • autism mass shootings 
  • how many autistic people commit murders 
  • are people with autism dangerous
  • how many of 2012 mass murderers had aspergers?

Part of me is horrified and appalled that people are searching for these phrases and finding this website. And part of me is thankful that they're finding and clicking through to this site instead of somewhere else.

Here are some facts.
  • Autistics are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
  • When Autistics commit crimes, being Autistic rarely has anything to do with the actual crime.
  • Autism is not violence.
  • Mental health disabilities aren't violence.
  • People with mental health disabilities are also more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Here are some citations. (N.B. I use the language of the study authors to describe their results.) The links should be to copies of the PDFs where I was able to obtain them, and to the abstract where I wasn't.
  • This study showed no association between Asperger syndrome and criminal behavior. (Kalpana Dein and Marc Woodbury-Smith, 2010.)
  • This study also reiterates that most Autistics are law-abiding people. (Nachum Katz and Zvi Zemishlany, 2006.)
  • This study actually found a prevalence rate of violence of 2.7% in people with Asperger syndrome, which is below the prevalence rate of violence in the general population. (M. Ghaziuddin, Luke Tsai, and N. Ghaziuddin, 1991.)
  • This study found that adults with "severe mental illness" are eleven times more likely than non-disabled adults to be victimized by crime. (Linda A. Teplin, Gary M. McClelland, Karen M. Abram, and Dana A. Weiner, 2005.)
  • This study reviewed a number of other studies to demonstrate significantly higher levels of violence and abuse against people with developmental disabilities--which includes Autistic people--than the general population. (Joan R. Petersilia, 2001.)
  • This study found that "the mentally ill" are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, and questions the supposed link between "mental illness" and violence. (Heather Stuart, 2003.)

Here are some answers to those Google searches.

are autistic people more likely to kill
No. We're less likely to kill.

commonaility of mass murderers shootings autism aspergers
Not common, not by a long shot.

how many mass shooters were autistic?
No idea. Does it matter?

aspergers mass murderers
Asperger's doesn't make someone a mass murderer. Ever.

are mass murderers autistic
I'm sure there have been Autistic mass murderers. There have also been Muslim and Black and Women mass murderers. That doesn't make all mass murderers Muslim or Black or Women, nor does it make them all Autistic. And being Autistic doesn't make someone a mass murderer.
percentage of all murders committed by people with autism
No statistics. There was a study not too long ago that showed that autistic people have a slightly lower rate of violent crime than the general population. Citation is lying around somewhere. No spoons to get it.

autistic violent "home anymore"
No idea what you were trying to find. I can tell you though that we're not generally violent people, because, hey, autism doesn't create violence.

how often do autistics commit crimes later in life
Not as often as the general population, according to a study on "Asperger disorder and violence." Pretty sure that's the title of the paper. I don't remember the year or authors. If someone reminds me, I might upload a PDF that people can read.

has there ever been a mass murderer with aspergers
See "are mass murderers autistic" above.

autism mass shootings
See "are mass murderers autistic" above.

how many autistic people commit murders
See "percentage of all murders committed by people with autism" above.

are people with autism dangerous
Not any more or less in general than anyone else. Specific Autistics may be more aggressive than specific non-Autistics, but it's not a reflection on Autistic people in general.

how many of 2012 mass murderers had aspergers?
See "percentage of all murders committed by people with autism" above.

I'm sad.

I'm having difficulty forming words, and I have things to write and study. It's finals period. I have several pages to write about something tangentially related -- the abuse and torture of disabled people -- and I've got an exam coming up in one of the most ableist fields of all time. I scribbled out something to submit as an op-ed somewhere, and who knows, maybe they'll publish it. I wrote a short poem, an emotional response, really, to the shootings the other day.

I'm intentionally avoiding the news and the blogosphere and Tumblr and Facebook, really, too. I made the mistake of posting a link to one particularly good response to a problematic article on my own personal Facebook page, and it's been flooded with comments, only some of which are actually helpful and supportive. A lot of derailing going on there. Now I remember why I've been avoiding public conversations about this stuff.

I just want to cry. And hide.

Can I hide somewhere until it's over?

You can read my responses to similar media accusations about Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian gunman, at "The Dangers of Misrepresentation," or the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting at "All I want to do is weep."

14 December 2012

nameless things dismantle

This poem is my response to the shooting in Oregon, the shooting in Connecticut, and the stabbings in China.


nameless things dismantle

Those whispered words slipping from
brittle tongues in susurrus murmurs mean little to me now.
Pain slices open my lips, frigid and unforgiving as searing and merciless.
Fingers flutter for tender flesh,
and I, unknowing, surrender.
It's anger slipshod and terror all askew, and bits
and shards of jealous and happy spatter the bitter-spangled floor stained wistful.

Thunder rumbling behind my eyes, waterfall roaring behind my ears,
cavernous cacophony all in between the crevices—
I am smothered by the flitting, fleeting thoughts,
impressed by the crowded solitude inside here,
and I want to taste the silence,
but it only tastes like blood—
acrid, metallic, wrong.

I see ghosts of me move in behind their faces before nameless things dismantle,
before they bleed
and they come to gravity's cradle,
the words ripped out of their throats
understanding rendered stolen in lost breath.

02 December 2012

Not a child; don't treat me like one

Trigger Warning: Ableism and infantilization.


Not a child; don't treat me like one

I spent the last two days in Long Beach, California for the TASH National Conference where I was giving a presentation. This morning, I was sitting in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) waiting for my plane to begin boarding so I could return to Washington. The terminal was impossibly cacophonous. Scores of people dressed in red Santa hats or green Christmas elf hats jabbered in raucous conversations, competing to be heard over scores of children wearing identical white Fantasy Flight t-shirts and red Santa hats as they occupied four rows of seats at the gate.

I'd never heard of a Fantasy Flight before, so I asked one of the staff what they were doing. She winked as she told me they were taking the children to "the North Pole." Another member of the staff told me that they fly around California and look for snow-covered mountains, and then tell the children that it's the North Pole. "Basically," he said with a light smile, "we lie to them." The children, they said, primarily come from lower socio-economic background. It's a fun holiday tradition that the airline does across the country.

Sounds like a nice experience for the children, many of whom (if not all of them) probably are still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. Some of the staff perform for them during the flight. Others are dressed in costume as characters. And the event concludes with a visit from "Santa." And that's great, because it's always nice to do something fun for children around holidays.

Here's the problem -- not everyone participating in the Fantasy Flight event was a kid. There were maybe ten or fifteen adults with Down Syndrome, some of them middle-aged (and possibly a bit older than that). And that bothered me. There was something inherently, innately problematic with that, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was for the longest time.

And I realized what it was as an alarm began to blare in the terminal. (Someone had accidentally opened a door without keying the code first, and it actually took the next several long minutes before someone figured out how to deactivate it. I noticed one of the actual children covering his ears, and was relieved I wasn't the only one with that immediate impulse.)

However well-meaning the event organizers and coordinators and volunteers and staff were -- and I have no doubt that they were nothing less than extremely well-meaning and positively-intentioned -- the fact remains that they were infantilizing disabled adults. For those not familiar with the term, infantilization is when a person is treated or thought of as if they were an infant when they are not. It's an incredibly common occurrence with disabled people, and particularly with developmentally and intellectually disabled people. I wince when I hear service providers or teachers talking to disabled adults in a slow, high-pitched "baby voice." I have sudden, strong urges to bash my head against the nearest wall when I witness non-disabled people in positions of authority or power depriving disabled adults of agency by making decisions for them despite their clear ability to express (however unconventionally) their own choices.

What the people organizing this particular Fantasy Flight were doing was treating disabled adults as if they were children. The underlying ableist presumptions of this type of treatment are that a.) disabled adults are mentally like children or infants, b.) disabled adults should participate in the same activities as children because they're essentially "on the same level," c.) disabled adults, like many young children, won't realize that "Santa" doesn't really exist, or that the plane isn't really going to another destination, d.) disabled adults should be thought of as grown-up children in adult-looking bodies, and e.) disabled adults aren't competent and don't have agency.

Could a disabled adult make a voluntary and fully informed decision to participate in this kind of event? Of course. And while it's entirely possible that that was the case today, the evidence suggested otherwise. The evidence suggested, rather, that the adults with Down Syndrome participating in the Fantasy Flight had been taken along on a bastardized field trip by their service providers or support people as an "activity." I also noticed that none of the children seemed to be talking to the adults with Down Syndrome. And I couldn't help but wonder if any of them knew about organizations like Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), which is primarily an organization of people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, or TASH itself -- at the conference, there had been a large number of folks with Down Syndrome, including a few celebrity actors with the disability.

It was so easy to picture them participating in a local self-advocacy group or a national disability rights conference. And it was so cringe-inducing to see them dressed in the same shirts as what looked like six and seven year olds (or thereabouts), being treated the same way as the children, being shepherded along for the activity.

Disabled adults, regardless of the specific disability group, regardless of the nature and level of an individual's specific impairments, regardless of presumptions about an individual's mental or neurological state, should never, never, never be treated as if they are small children. It's more than insulting, offensive, and patronizing -- it's dangerous and it's dehumanizing.

14 November 2012


Trigger Warning: Murder, abuse, torture, and descriptions of specific crimes against disabled people. Also ableism in general.

This is a poem that I wrote and performed for the Education Week open slam. 


I cannot feel
But it is not because I am not able
Not because I am not capable

They hold me down
They sit on me
They pin my arms behind my back
And wrench my wrists til I go slack
They push my face into the floor
They hold my legs while I beg “no more”
They lock me in an empty room
They watch me though I can’t see them
They won’t let me be with the other kids
Won’t let me learn and play like the rest of them

I cry
I rock
I flap
I spin
I scream
I bang
I pick my skin

I want to talk but they won’t listen
They talk about me like I’m not there
I’m diseased, they say, defective, deficient
My mind is broken
There’s something wrong and they need to fix it
They pathologize every bit of me
If I laugh
If I smile
If I cry
If I’m happy or sad
If I want to eat or sleep at unusual times

They strap me down and leave me for hours
They attach wires to my arms and legs
And shock me for being me
Thirty times in a day

I can’t suffer this longer
They’re suffocating me
And if they kill me
I know they’ll go free
They did it to Katie and George and Daniel
To Tracy and Laura and Calista

In their eyes, I am not human
Less than human
Defective neural matter hidden behind a human face

They are the ones putting up with me
They’re the “heroes” for abusing me

It’s not that I won’t resist
I can’t
Not while they can do it again
Not while the law can let them
Not while they’re crushing me
Pinning me to the floor
Locking me alone for the crime of existing
Incarcerating me in some “group home”

They won’t let me try
Won’t give me the tools I need to succeed
Won’t let me communicate
Won’t listen when I do
Won’t turn off the lights and sound and smells
Won’t let me learn the way I can
Won’t tell me I can do whatever I dream
Won’t tell me I’m okay the way I am

They tell me I’m not capable of dreaming
They tell me I’m not capable of feeling
They tell me I’m not capable of being human

So they try to beat me out of me
Try to stamp my soul from my body
Try to sever nature from behavior
Try to pound me into a mold of their making not meant for me

If they have their way, I’ll never know community
I’ll never know my own history, the history of my people

But I know
Because I learned by nightfall from dark corners of safe spaces on crip space webpages
I know now who I am

And do you know who I am?

I am Carrie Buck
Sterilized without consent because my mother and daughter and I were disabled

I died in the Holocaust
I was the first among them, the first among the Untermenschen

I was in Willowbrook
Chained to walls and beds

I am the Blind laboring for twenty-two cents an hour
In the name of charity

I am the “idiot” and “insane person”
Disenfranchised, unable to vote in my own hometown

I am Hope Block
Unable to marry my love because we are disabled

I am Kalanit Levy
Wrongfully born
Should have been aborted had the doctor done the right thing

I am Katie McCarron
Suffocated by my mother for being Autistic

I am George Hodgins
Shot by my mother for being Autistic

I am Daniel Corby
Drowned by my mother for being Autistic

I am Tracy Latimer
Gassed by my father for having cerebral palsy

I am Laura Cummings
Tortured, raped, and murdered by my mother and uncle
For being disabled

I am Calista Springer
Chained to a bed and killed by my father and stepmother
For being Autistic

I am Andre McCollins
Tied down for seven hours
Shocked thirty-one times
Because they could, would, and did

I am the target of your pity and fear and scorn
I am your problem, society’s problem, your burden, society’s burden

You erase me
You silence me

I rage

I despair in your prisons
your schools
your cesspools of forced labor and segregation

For me there are no rights
No protections
No humanity
No decency

And I tremble, by God, I tremble
Because I know you’ll come for me next
You’ll come for me in the guise of treatment and protection
And when you murder me, when you slaughter my soul and crush my spirit
You’ll earn the accolades, the sympathy, the empathy

As you take your knives and guns and straps and wires and chains and pills
As you hammer me and batter me and choke me and beat me
As you win
As you erase me
As you kill me

What will become of me then?

05 November 2012

Protesting Autism Speaks

Trigger Warning:
Good amount of profanity, ableism, lots of ableist quotes, and extensive discussion of ableism. 
Summary of 95%* of the People from the Protest of Autism $peaks
*number metaphorical, not scientific
Lydia Brown, Autistic Hoya
Monday, 5 November 2012

(you can also click for larger image)

From left to right: Arrow pointing off-page that says "other protester petting dog;" back of man's head, man saying, "Don't you fucking touch my dog! Don't even look at my dog!" with arrow labeling him as "mean asshole from previous protests who likes yelling at Autistics;" woman with short hair and glasses holding pile of flyers in left hand and offering a flyer in right hand, with arrow labeling her as "me" as she says "Hi, do you want to hear from Autistic people?"; man wearing scarf, coat, and pants, holding and reading flyer, labeled as "guy who takes flyer;" person of unidentifiable gender beside him without labels or speech bubble; woman with shoulder-length hair and bangs wearing winter coat, gloves, and pants, who is labeled as "typical response" as she raises one hand and scoffs, "No, thank you" with another label saying "yes you read that right;" two young blond females, one in a hoodie and the other in a stylish coat with buttons, labeled "college kids" as one glares and says "That is fucked up;" young male with short dark hair and a t-shirt that says Team David with the A$ puzzle piece below the words, labeled "Autistic kid dragged with family;"  man with short gray or blond hair turned toward the right and labeled as "guy who stares curiously;" and woman with short, curly dark hair, wearing a matching Team David t-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt and pants, saying, "Those are the people protesting the Walk. We don't need to take their paper; we have David."

Protesting Autism Speaks

Saturday morning, I spent about three and a half hours in the forty degree (that's about 5 degrees Celsius) weather on the National Mall with several other Autistics in a protest of the Autism Speaks National Walk Now for Autism sponsored by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. We held beautiful, hand-painted signs and staked others in the ground, informing passerby of the financial irresponsibility and ineffectiveness of Autism Speaks while asserting our right to be heard and respected for who we are, as we offered copies of the ASAN "Before you donate to Autism Speaks, consider the facts" flyer to anyone who would take them. My hands and legs went numb within the first half hour (inadvertently leading to my phone irreparable breaking because I couldn't tell what I was doing with it, and it went flying over the sidewalk), but a considerable number of people did take our flyers.

Before the walk began, a pair of fellow Georgetown students passed by on their way to the beginning of the walk. (I hope they didn't recognize me or know who I am.) I felt literally ill upon seeing people from my school, a school that I'm proud to attend, supporting an organization that would love to see a future in which I and people like me no longer exist. (It's a great way to be accepting and inclusive, fellow Hoyas.)

Later, after the walk had begun, I saw a man with an adorable dachshund and stooped to pet the visibly happy puppy. Immediately he noticed I was with the protest and shouted tersely "Don't you touch my dog!" Katie Miller, one of ASAN's Board members who was also there (and who had directed our sign-making on Friday), did the same, and he yelled at her, "Don't you fucking touch my dog! Don't even look at my dog!" She said that she recognized his voice from previous protests as someone who apparently enjoys screaming profane, hurtful, insulting things at Autistics who dare to voice opinions against Autism Speaks.

At one point, I saw a man I know and with whom I've conversed in the past as an ally. I thought I could trust him, because he seemed in the past to understand that the role of an ally is to do everything you can to amplify the voices and presence of Autistics and to support Autistics in letting us lead our own movement. And yet there he was at the walk, and he had the gall to tell me that while he knows I and others have serious problems and misgivings with Autism Speaks, he was there anyway. I had no words to say to that.

The worst were the people who didn't take them.

In the beginning of the protest and walk, a pair of young women, likely high school or college students, passed us, glancing at our signs, and one of them declared vehemently, "That is fucked up." What's "fucked up" is the deliberate erasure of Autistics from conversations about us, but I guess "well-meaning" non-Autistics have the luxury of picking and choosing whom they'd like to hear from and whom they'd just like to go away.

Then there was a man with autism (that's how he identified himself) wearing a baseball cap with the Autism Speaks name and puzzle piece, who got into my face and told me, "I have autism and I support Autism Speaks." When I tried twice to politely offer him our flyers, he proceeded not only to accuse me of "furthering the anti-abortion Republican agenda" and propagating "big lies" about Autism Speaks, but to repeatedly emphasize his own wish to be "cured of this disease" and to make sure no one else "has to have it ever."

Internalized ableism has tragic consequences.

But the worst, the absolute worst, was the most common response. We asked dozens and dozens of people "Would you like to hear from Autistic people?"

And dozens and dozens of people either gave polite smiles or frowns and said "No" or "No thank you" and kept walking.

Think about that.

"Would you like to hear from Autistic people?"


I don't think anything I can write can underscore the dehumanizing, erasing tactics that Autism Speaks uses more than that. To be at a walk ostensibly in support of Autistic people -- loved ones or strangers -- and then to say, explicitly, to Autistic people's faces, that no, you don't want to hear from us, thank you, and walk away without so much as looking at us reeks of ableism and silencing.

And it hurts.

"Would you like to hear from Autistic people?"


For people who often talk about how they wish non-speaking children would learn to use speech to express themselves, this is pretty damn appalling and egregiously hypocritical.

"Would you like to hear from Autistic people?"


For people who claim that one of the "core deficits" of autism is in social and communicative skills, this is pretty damn rude and unapologetically so.

"Would you like to hear from Autistic people?"


For people who claim to love us, accept us, and support us, this is about as unaccepting as you can get.

"Would you like to hear from Autistic people?"


01 November 2012

A Troubling Trend at Sci-Fi Cons (or why we need more Autistics speaking)

Trigger Warning: Ableism, brief cissexist and binarist quote, and descriptions of ableist encounters. 

A Troubling Trend at Sci-Fi Cons
(or why we need more Autistics speaking)

Like many geeks around the world, two Autistic friends of mine, Kassiane Sibley (Radical Neurodivergence Speaking) and Terry Falk*, wanted to attend sci-fi conventions near where they live this year. Terry attended Arisia 2012 in Boston back at the beginning of the year. Kassiane has been planning to attend Orycon in Portland this weekend.

Several months ago, Terry sent this email to a private list-serv (posted with permission) about their experience at Arisia.
I was recently at a panel about autism with no one on the panel who was actually diagnosed or self-identified as autistic, and when I asked about it, the moderator (who was completely ableist even aside from this) said that the people who put together the panel had specifically selected against autistic people because "we would dominate the discussion with our own experiences."  Like that was a bad thing.  And like parents of and professionals who worked with autistic people who were on the panel were not "dominating" it by discussing their experiences. 
Asked for further explanation, Terry shared this formal complaint that they had sent to Arisia's organizers.
I am an Autistic person.  I attended the autism panel at Arisia this year expecting it to be largely a "101" panel, so to speak, about the autism spectrum and issues currently facing Autistic people, with unintentional ignorance that the members of the (hopefully representative) panel would correct and discuss.  Instead, there were no self-identified Autistic people on the panel - it was composed of one researcher, two educational/treatment providers, and two parents of Autistic people.  When I asked after introductions why there were no Autistic panelists, the moderator, Justine Graykin, responded that whoever had put the panel together had specifically opted not to include Autistic people, as it was thought that including us last year had resulted in us dominating the discussion by talking about our own personal experiences.  This was in spite of the fact that both parents of Autistic people were asked about their own personal experiences in that capacity.  When asked about this, two of the panelists - one of the parents and one of the providers - said that they could be Autistic (one was diagnosed as such earlier on in life and was unsure as to whether he believed that diagnosis, while the other was an undiagnosed mother of an Autistic person who suspected that she might be Autistic as well) - but neither of them were there in the capacity of representing the Autistic community as Autistic people.  This lack of representation goes against a key principle of the disability rights movement, that there be "Nothing About Us Without Us," and the fact that this was intentional is incredibly shocking and disappointing. 
In addition, Ms. Graykin did and said a number of ableist and otherwise disrespectful things.  Most notably, in discussing the children she works with in providing educational services, she - a(n at least seemingly) neurotypical and able-bodied individual - got up to do an imitation of the posture and movements of a person with a developmental disability to demonstrate what was "wrong" with it.  She went on to say that Autistic parents of Autistic children should possibly be sidelined or outright excluded from the process of developing their children's educational plan in favor of leaving it to neurotypical parents to make these decisions.  Additionally, she relied on categorizations of Autistic people as "low-functioning" and "high-functioning," which are considered inaccurate and offensive within the Autistic community, and refused to back down from using this terminology when the problems with it were pointed out to her.  Nobody on the panel questioned these statements or actions, though one of the parents, Aimee Yermish, did a nice job of explaining how the educational system and the people working in it could be the problem in a situation just as easily as the Autistic person having to navigate it and how trying to force an Autistic person to act in a neurotypical manner could be very traumatic and counterproductive.  The best thing I can say about Ms. Graykin's contribution to the discussion is that she stated that vaccines do not cause autism, but that should be a starting point, a bare minimum, not the standard to be met. 
I also felt that Ms. Graykin was incredibly disrespectful to me, both in her capacity as a moderator and otherwise.  At the beginning of the panel, I specifically asked (as this had been a problem in other panels and I wanted to be able to participate in the discussion) whether the discussion would be conducted by audience members raising their hands or calling out, and was told that it would involve hand raising only.  I followed this rule in attempting to participate in the discussion, but was repeatedly ignored, while she recognized members of the audience who did not raise their hands and instead called out.  When finally recognized, I re-asked about the rules of the discussion for clarification purposes and as a subtle way of calling this out before making my original point.  After the discussion finished, I went to ask Ms. Graykin about who had made the decision to exclude Autistic people so I could file a complaint with all the necessary information.  Instead, she told me that I was "out of line" for having asked for clarification of the rule, and said that she was "explaining how things worked" to me since apparently admitting that I was Autistic meant that I needed to be treated like a misbehaving child.  She insisted, in spite of my and two other audience members' observations, that she had been observing the rules, and that I was simply being disrespectful in questioning the moderation of the panel.  Thankfully, after the panel, the researcher, Stuart Ferguson, who seemed genuinely interested and receptive to the disability rights angle of this discussion, confronted Ms. Graykin about her excluding me from the conversation, and seemed interested in having an Autistic presence on the panel in future years.  Nonetheless, I was incredibly upset at having spent an hour being discussed in an exclusionary and ableist way in a space I expected to be at least somewhat safe and then being talked down to, arguably on the basis of my disability, for trying to bring attention to the ways in which this was problematic or even trying to be involved at all. 
While I do not object to having parents and professionals take part in a panel discussion about autism issues, I think that it is absolutely essential to have an (openly) Autistic presence on such a panel, representing Autistic people as equal voices in the discussion.  I also think that it's inexcusable to have someone - the moderator, no less - on the panel who can't be aware of their position as an outsider of sorts in this nor be respectful of the people that they are talking about.  I am convinced that many if not most Autistic people, if told what the focus of the panel is, can manage to stay on subject as easily as neurotypicals.  I also can't imagine that at a science fiction and fantasy convention it would be that difficult to find a qualified Autistic person to serve on the panel.  I hope in future years, Arisia will reconsider its position on allowing Autistic people to talk about their own lived experiences and general understanding of the issues involved with being on the spectrum.
Terry described Arisia as a sci-fi con with a social justice bent and mentioned that the convention had been both queer and kink friendly. This is a common problem in so-called "social justice" communities--when people who are good on one set of issues and inclusive of one marginalized community turn around and display staggering bigotry and privilege on another set of issues and toward another marginalized community. I know of a disabled person excellent on disability issues who referred to a non-binary person as "he-she." I know of a person of color very active on issues affecting people of color who confronted me to my face with the suggestion that I'm "too high-functioning" to understand what I'm talking about when I discuss neurodiversity and Autistic rights. 

But evidently, Arisia isn't the only sci-fi con that has this problem of discussing autism without Autistics. 

Kassiane published a post earlier this week describing her experiences with Orycon after learning from a friend that the con "is having a panel about autism & whether there's an increase or not." Kassiane didn't recognize the names of any of the panelists. That was the first warning sign. After emailing the conference organizers, they sent several email replies, some of which included the panelists, essentially explaining away the exclusion of actual Autistic people as convenient and not-that-bad. Each of the panelists are non-Autistic parents of Autistic children. Kassiane received perfunctory responses from each of the panelists confirming their expertise and "sophistication" on the subject matter based on their having Autistic offspring. 

Among the more insulting of the emails that Kassiane received was one from Orycon's chair, self-identified as having Asperger Disorder, who defended the decision because it wouldn't "make the panel more valid" if he were to sit there uncomfortably in front of the attendees (given that he evidently dislikes public speaking). The conference's programming coordinators also called Kassiane's inquiry unnecessarily hostile and judgmental. This is the text of Kassiane's original email. 
Good morning, I hear with trepedation that y'all have a panel on autism. I hear with more trepedation that I do not know a single one of these people (I know a lot of Autistic people). Are any of the panelists Autistic? If not, why?
I may not have a doctorate in English or writing, but I can speak to my own experiences as a paid freelance editor and writer when I say that I'm fairly certain that the tone of that paragraph isn't unnecessarily hostile or judgmental. The only hostility I could detect in the entire set of exchanges came from Orycon's staff, the panelists, and the convention chair. (You can read all of the emails through links on Kassiane's blog.) Yet even were Kassiane's perceived tone unnecessarily hostile and judgmental, the frequency with which argument from tone is used to de-legitimize Autistics who dare to question systems designed to work against us is astounding. The condescension and derailing from the conference chair with Asperger's is not merely egregious in its paternalism and de-legitimization, but profoundly disappointing in its unveiling of the ableist and dismissive attitudes that even fellow Autistics can take toward their own. 

The idea that it is perfectly legitimate to allow panels consisting entirely of Autistics to speak about issues affecting Autistics is an infantilizing and erasing affront to our dignity. It happened at Georgetown around the same time as the Arisia incident, when the Psi Chi Psychology Honors Society was hosting a panel on "multiple perspectives" on autism with no Autistic speakers. It occurs with depressing frequency around the world in political, scholarly, and social settings. Yet it would never be considered appropriate within the Black community to host a panel consisting entire of white people to discuss any issues affecting the Black community, nor would it ever be considered appropriate within the Queer community to host a panel consisting entirely of cis straight people to discuss any issues affecting the Queer community. 

The common excuse that the organizers can't find Autistics qualified to discuss the specific topic at hand (whether therapies, parenting, education, public policy, research, etc.) is and always will be invalid. If Autistics represent slightly more than one percent of the general population, that means there are over three million Autistics in the United States alone and over seventy million among the global population. Among those millions of Autistics in the United States and in the world, there are researchers (including autism researchers!), educators (including special education teachers!), public policy advocates (including disability policy advocates!), parents (including of Autistic children!), therapists and service providers (including those who serve other Autistics!), and any other group of subject matter experts or professionals imaginable related to autism and developmental disabilities. Certainly, not every Autistic also falls into one of the myriad categories of ambiguously professional experts regularly called to speak on autism, but of the millions of us in the world, there are plenty who do. Your argument is invalid. 

(The same goes for Autistics uncomfortable speaking in public. For as many Autistics who cannot or will not speak in public, there are many others who can and do.)

In almost every venue where autism is a topic of discussion, including on almost every panel discussion about some topic related to autism, there are few if any Autistics involved with the organizing and planning behind the event, and rarely, if ever, any Autistics invited to speak alongside their non-Autistic peers. The absence of Autistic voices in political, scholarly, and social settings when autism is a topic of discussion only further perpetuates the myth that Autistics either cannot communicate at all or else have nothing worthwhile to say or to be heard. This erasure serves primarily to contribute to the overarching perception of Autistics as either unable to understand (because we are Autistic and therefore incapable of grasping complex topics like other people's perspectives--sarcasm) or unqualified to contribute (because we are only capable of understanding and communicating our own personal experiences and lives and never capable of discussing broader, macro topics). Both forms of de-legitimization result in the near complete silencing of Autistic people from every mainstream forum of public discourse. 

I've asked people if they know of any famous Autistics. The only name I hear consistently is Temple Grandin. (Fictional characters and dead people who may or may not have been Autistic don't count.) If I ask people if they know of any famous women or Asians or Muslims or queers, I'll get several names. If I ask if they know of any famous Autistics, I get one. Sometimes none. The absence of our voices is striking.

I need not spend much time explaining that the geek, gamer, and fan communities frequently overlap with the Autistic community. Many neurominorities are disproportionately represented in the very neurodiverse geek, gamer, and fan communities. A huge number of my Autistic friends and acquaintances fall into these categories and frequently attend sci-fi/fantasy/gaming cons. This reality gives these encounters a particularly painful sting that would not have occurred in a context with much fewer Autistics from the beginning. It flavors them with bitter disappointment. You would have expected better from a community already full of Autistics. This would have been expected from parents-only communities, from any community with few to no out Autistics. But not from places that Autistics call home.

We need more Autistics speaking because if this can happen where it hurts, it can happen anywhere, not merely in spaces already hostile to us. Evidently, the standard that anything can happen without us exists even in spaces thought to be safe and welcoming. We need more Autistics speaking because if strangers can name more than one famous Autistic and someone other than or in addition to Temple Grandin, then we've made some bit of progress. Ending the status quo that leaves us very much invisible because of silencing and erasure begins with amplifying the voices and presences of the many diverse Autistics who comprise our communities. We cannot allow those who would erase our presence and chip away at our existence any excuses with which to do so.

We need more Autistics speaking.

For additional writings on Autistic culture, see the Loud Hands Project and Autistics Speaking Day. That's today, November 1.

* Not real name.

31 October 2012

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

Trigger Warning: Direct quotes of ableist hate speech.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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 M. 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 east asian person with black hair and a blue lanyard around their neck. Shiva is a Desi (South Asian) woman with short-cropped grey hair. M. is a white person with brown hair in a ponytail and sunglasses. 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.