Racism isn’t a Mental Illness, Stop Pretending that it is!

In the wake to the horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I and I’m sure most people are in shock. Unfortunately mass murders committed by white men are becoming all to common and we are justifiably frustrated by the lack of response that they get. I mean the news media is in overdrive churning out stories about the victims, the alleged perpetrator, the public response and the responses from politicians but in terms of a response that might actually stop events like this from happening there is little or no movement.

This is because atrocities committed by white people are all to often blamed on mental illness regardless of actual psychiatric diagnosis.

We know many things for sure about the nine murders at the Emanuel AME Church. We know that the alleged shooter Dylann Storm attended a prayer meeting there before making a statement, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”. He then killed nine people.

The Emanuel AME Church is historically black and has ties to the civil right movement. It has been targeted by racist violence in the past. It is a recognizable symbol for black people in the United States. This in conjunction with Roof’s words should lead anyone to the conclusion that the motive behind the shooting was racism.

Yet, there are many who want to label Roof as mentally ill, they do this to erase the racist motives of the crime. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush said “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes”. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said “we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

This is ridiculous, the motive was white supremacy and racism but they get away with claims of ignorance because the suggestion is that the shooter was insane. Mental illness in this context exists in isolation and is completely unknowable. This is false from two perspectives. The first being the automatic assumption that white perpetrators of mass violence are mentally ill at all. Secondly from the assumption that mental illness exists in a vacuum without social involvement.

The first issue is the assumption that actions that are widely viewed as horrific must be the result of mental illness, unless of course the perpetrator is not white (then they’re a terrorist or their entire race is somehow uncivilized). The idea that rational people can decide to do horrific things is really hard for people to grasp but it is true.

The second is that racism as my post title suggests isn’t a form of mental illness. People who are mentally ill can be racist, misogynist or other kinds of bigot but rest assured it’s because of society not because they’re ill.

There is also the issue of criminal culpability. Simply having a mental illness does not automatically keep someone from being held criminally responsible. A person has to either be unaware of their actions at the time of the crime or to have been incapable of knowing that their actions were wrong. That does not mean simply disagreeing with the standard public mores. Which is why Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was able to be found both sane and responsible for the 77 lives he took, despite his lack of remorse and personal belief in his actions. People who can rationalize can unfortunately use that rationality to make horrific decisions based on virulent racist ideologies.

So why then is it so common for people to focus on the sanity of white perpetrators? A couple of days ago, I asked this hypothetical question on twitter “How can mental illness be used to humanize white perpetrators of mass violence but dehumanize peaceful people with an actual diagnosis?” It was rhetorical, I know the answer. The answer is racism and white supremacy.

White people who commit mass violence are in an interesting position in that, their crimes are softened by the excuse of insanity. In situations where the perpretrator is not white, outsiders demand accountability from the entire group. Muslims must decry acts of terror that they have no personal connection to. Black people are constantly told to look inward as a community to solve problems whether they are the perpetrator or the victims of crime. Yet here with white perpetrators they are both humanized and made other all at once. The full force of personal responsibility is removed by the label of insanity, but it is also this label that serves to shield white people from being collectively scrutinized in the way that we actively scrutinize others.

People with mental illness are deeply stigmatized (I am not going to look at that to closely here because the focus needs to be on racism right now but you can read more about how blaming crime on mental illness unfairly stigmatizes the mentally ill here). It is just another category by which white people can use to separate a person from the white male ideal. So even though the skin colour is the same, white perpetrators are still made separate from the rest of white people. This absolves white people from having to address the issues of white supremacy and how they lead to violence. The issue of violent white supremacy isn’t really just about individuals who choose violence but about the culture that fosters racist ideals and refuses to take responsibility for them.

This idea isn’t just a problem for white people who are unwilling to acknowledge the racist motivations of this crime. Even progressive allies fall into the trap of labeling racism as insane, he says “the roads that black people drive on are named for confederate generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s…that’s insanity” (emphasis mine).

The video has been viewed over a million times. It has appeared in my Facebook feed over and over. The problem is that systemic racism isn’t some form of diagnosible mass hysteria. The following things were not the result of widespread mental illness.

The Holocaust

Apartheid South Africa

Rhodesia

British Colonialism

American slavery and subsequent segregation.

Canadian residential school system

The list could really continue. Equating systemic racism and white supremacy to insanity is a cop out, one that has been used to excuse white violence on both the individual and group level. It is not only false but actually fosters that idea that these incidents can’t be avoided. Which I know wasn’t Stewart’s intent, it just shows how far the rhetoric around denying white culpability is. Racism isn’t a mental illness and the evidence of systemic racism should not be explained in those terms because in the end it just excuses it.

As a result of this shooting, if the rhetoric of mental health continues, you can be sure its connection to racism will also be lost. We won’t see calls to treat and pathologize those who participate on websites like Stormfront. No one really believes that expressions of racism are inherently insane, it is just a convenient excuse to avoid forcing us to look within. WE can continue to claim that these kinds of actions have nothing to do with white people as a whole. Our white privilege and supremacy intact even if we recognize the true motives of the Charleston shooting as racist.

More often than not mental illness is not the reason for a crime or tragedy but it is the excuse most often given to excuse the wider reality of white supremacy and white culpability

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Mayim Bialik’s Take on Sheldon Cooper and Autism is Wrong

The sitcom The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) has been on tv for eight years and has been renewed for at least two more seasons. In that time there has been a lt of speculation about whether the character Sheldon Cooper has either Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or both. He is never directly diagnosed or labeled on the show but his behaviour is easily recognizable as autistic.

As a result autistic viewers have been looking for verification from people associated with the show and we finally got it, sort of.

Actress Mayim Bialik (who plays Amy Farrah-Fowler on TBBT) was being interviewed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he asked her about the speculation. She gave a response that Radio Times lauded as “Brilliant”. She said,

“All of our characters are in theory on the neuropsychiatric spectrum, I would say, Sheldon often gets talked about in terms of Asperger’s or OCD. He has a thing with germs, he has a thing with numbers, he’s got a lot of that precision that we see in OCD. There’s a lot of interesting features to all of our characters that make them technically unconventional socially…

I think what’s interesting and kind of sweet and what should not be lost on people is we don’t pathologise our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them.

And I think that’s what’s interesting for those of us who are unconventional people or who know and love people who are on any sort of spectrum, we often find ways to work around that. It doesn’t always need to be solved and medicated and labelled.

And what we’re trying to show with our show is that this is a group of people who likely were teased, mocked, told that they will never be appreciated or loved, and we have a group of people who have successful careers, active social lives (that involve things like Dungeons and Dragons and video games), but they also have relationships, and that’s a fulfilling and satisfying life.”

Essentially TBBT is a utopian example of what happens when people are accepted for who they are and the lack of diagnosis is a radical move towards inclusion and building acceptance of people’s differences.

It’s a nice idea but it’s a false one both in how the show is structured and made and in how people who have autism and other behaviour disorders are treated.

It is true that diagnosis has been withheld on the show by design. The intention however was not to make a statement about the pathologization of people with behaviour disorders. We know that the creators of TBBT never intended for Sheldon to be seen as autistic because when asked, they deny that he does. Bill Prady one of the co-creators of the show has acknowledged the similarities but categorically denied that Sheldon was autistic. His reasons for denial are troubling. The avoided officially giving Sheldon an ASD diagnosis because it would put much pressure to get the details right. The other creator Chuck Lorre also denies Sheldon is on the spectrum.

So this idea that TBBT is a way for the awkward and possibly autistic audience to see that the world can fit them and that TBBT is just a big “It get’s better” message to those of us who were bullied for having characteristics similar to Sheldon are just false. Bialik’s excuse is just a way to push back against the criticism that TBBT gets for turning ASD into a caricature. She made a nice progressive sounding statement that just doesn’t happen to be true. There is no underlying moral of the acceptance of difference regardless of label in The Big Bang Theory.

There isn’t even really a veneer of it as most of the comedy around Sheldon is just how socially inept and different he is. The comedy comes all to often at his expense.

The show may not label Sheldon with OCD or autism but his behaviour is still pathologized. His friends constantly question and bring attention to his atypical behaviour. He is  even aware that people find him odd. He has on more than one occasion proclaimed “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”. The thing you should take away from this is not that he was seen by a doctor who failed to diagnose him and accept that at face value–My parents had me tested for ADD as a child, as I don’t have ADD I was not diagnosed, no alternate explanations were sought and yet I was and still am autistic. Heck, when my parents noticed that as an infant I avoided using my left hand, the doctor just said I was really right handed (seriously), I actually have cerebral palsy and failure to diagnose or misdiagnose is common–What you should focus on here though is that Sheldon feels the need to defend his behaviour because others are questioning it from a psychological way. So yes the show really does pathologize Sheldon, it just doesn’t give him the explanation or defense of a label. In so doing tacitly making the judgement and the laughter at his expense acceptable because if he were acknowledged as autistic, this treatment would be considered cruel.

As Jacqueline Koyanagi brilliantly puts it in an article on Disability in Kidlit (go read the article, seriously excerpts don’t do it justice)

Here is a character who is obviously coded as autistic, so much so that his behaviors often tip over into autistic caricature…. So, yes. Caricature it is, stripped of context. In this case, it’s all in the name of comedy, but it can and does happen in the name of entertainment of any stripe. Sidelining the issue does not erase it.

She goes on to say and I completely agree,

Fictional characters exist to be consumed by real people, and real people live on the autism spectrum. Characterization, regardless of label or lack thereof, regardless of genre, has a real impact on these real people, myself included. Content creators must understand that they can be answerable for that impact. When they render a character into their world wearing an entire suit of autistic behaviors, reactions, and needs, responsibility-dodging only serves to hurt the population they’re representing, whether they wanted their work to be representative of that population or not.

Koyanagi and I have something in common, we we both diagnosed on the autism spectrum as adults and as she points out,

The difference between “generic eccentricity” and a formal diagnosis is just that–formal diagnosis. It seems absurd that it bears stating, but a person on the autism spectrum is on the spectrum even before they are diagnosed. Similarly, bullying is bullying regardless of when diagnosis/identification occurs–and, yes, even if it never occurs…

Aspects of a person’s being can’t be swept under the rug by denying labels with a shrug and a saccharine smile. Eschewing labels does not equate dodging responsibility, and mistreatment done in ignorance is still mistreatment. That goes for the actions of fictional characters and writers’ intentions alike. When autistically coded characters are dismissed as eccentric and worthy of disdain, it reinforces the idea that we are just being difficult. When the people around autistically coded characters are portrayed as Atlas-like martyrs for enduring such a burden, that is doing real harm to real autistic people. Media matters. Media influences, shapes, and deepens perspectives on real issues.

When Mayim Bialik says that they refuse to pathologize the characters on the show. She is essentially saying “we don’t see disability, we just see people” a sentiment that erases experience. Perhaps not for the fictional Sheldon but for people in the real world. People with autism are already people and they are often people with needs that differ from those of the neurotypical majority. Not labeling someone is just reinforcing the idea that disability is bad or shameful, even if it is couched in terms of universal acceptance. Because at the end of the day difference is treated differently (often in terms of discrimination and oppression) and it is those of us with labels who are more able to advocate for accommodation and change. People who are simply different are far easier to dismiss and ignore.

I am with Dumbledore on this issue “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself

Ignoring the autistic coding of Sheldon Cooper is harmful and unfortunately avoiding the label allows Lorre and Prady to create a caricature of autism with plausible deniability built right in.

So don’t be impressed with Bialik’s seemingly progressive interpretation because it is a lie painted over an issue that is finally being recognized to excuse past bad behaviour.

Radio Times gives Bialik a credibility bump by pointing out that she has a PhD in Neuroscience but she is not the person who has to live with the consequences of a world that internalizes her ideas. Autistic people do.

There is a reason one of the most enduring slogans of the disability rights movement is Nothing About Us Without Us. We deserve proper representation and not to be brushed aside when someone with credentials but no shared experience minimizes our concerns.

There is no TBBT utopia and things will not get better for the people who see themselves in Sheldon Cooper if the game plan is to pretend that neurological disorders don’t exist or more importantly that people will treat those exhibiting symptoms of ASD or OCD well without activism and advocacy. Ignoring social discrimination doesn’t make it go away, it helps it grow and gives it legitimacy.

Footnote/ updated

I would like to mention that Bialik does have one good point, the idea that people who are on as she puts it the neuropsychiatric spectrum don’t need to be changed or cured to have fulfilling lives is entirely correct. I also though don’t see that reflected in the show as the people around Sheldon are constantly complaining about how dealing with him frustrates them.

Fashion and Disability: Why are Adapted Bras so Hideous?

My relationship to fashion is a rocky one. Mostly due being autistic. As a kid I was extremely sensitive to the texture of clothing. If I wore something that was even slightly uncomfortable, I would get so stressed out that I felt like I was physically turning inside out. Consequently, buying me clothes was a major pain for my mother. We would have to go to multiple stores just to find a single outfit. An outfit I may only wear once because its texture and feel might change after it was washed.

Did I mention that I wasn’t diagnosed on the autism spectrum until I was 18? So my mother just thought I was being unnecessarily difficult. I got a lot of lectures about clothes and how frustrated she was about my behaviour towards my wardrobe. Add to that my hemiplegic cerebral palsy which left me unable to tie my shoes until I was nine and difficulty with zippers that lasted well into my teens.

Consequently I was a very unfashionable child. It wasn’t that I was unaware of fashion, I simply had to be completely ambivalent to it in order to be comfortable enough to function. I wore a lot of oversize t-shirts and pants with elasticized waists. Any article of clothing that was even remotely restrictive was impossible. I never wore denim or anything lacking in stretch. Basically, I wore a lot of track suits of the 80s variety.

track suit

I had so many of these. This became an issue at my Christian Preparatory High School where track suits were considered unprofessional and were against the dress code. I had about 5 outfits that were comfortable that barely passed dress code muster that I just constantly recycled. I have a much more diverse wardrobe now. I’m not sure if I have better coping skills or if they just put lycra and spandex in everything now, rendering clothing generally more comfortable (I also love the trend of tagless shirts, whoever came up with those is a genius who should be sainted). One article of clothing I continue to have difficulty with however are bras. Bras cause difficulties for both my disabilities. I lack the necessary hand dexterity to actually put them on properly. Whoever invented the hook and eye system most commonly used as a bra fastening probably never has to use it and certainly didn’t have to use it one handed. I have also found that I find bra clasps against my skin to be extremely uncomfortable to the point that it impacts my ability to function socially. Yet there are so few alternatives for people with either hypersensitivity or limited dexterity. While adaptive bras so exist, they were absolutely not designed with fashion consciousness in mind. Silvert‘s has a small selection that include these,

silvert bra

silverts 2

Those two bras are pretty representative of what is marketed as adaptive bras. You can find similar products from other adaptive clothing retailers.

They are not the sort of bra that can be worn under a low cut top or even a tank top. They are also in no concievable way sexy. Pretty bras it seems are the sole domain of people with more dexterity than I have. It also just reinforces the idea that disabled people should not be sexy. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is entirely possible to make a pretty (or at least more fashionable) accessible bra without resorting to frumpy. The problem is very few companies do. A while ago I was fortunate enough to find the Bonds Pull Over Bra (pictured below)

BONDS-Pull-Over-Bra

I bought three. They offer good support, have adjustable straps and look pretty much exactly like a normal bra you would find in a store. They also don’t have clasps of any kind so are easy to get on and are comfortable. They have also been discontinued and are no longer available. I’m not sure why, the Bond’s website was full of rave reviews for the product. So while you can’t get them anymore they do prove you can make a supportive pullover bra. I wish they would bring it back and that other lingerie retailers would start making similar products in different styles. Most other pullover styles are bralettes which have very little support. They worked okay for me in my younger days but I find I now need something a little sturdier. I am also finding that on an increasing basis even bralettes have back clasps.

Free People bralette

Free People bralette

While I wish mainstream retailers would make the effort to include accessible bras in their lines, because who doesn’t want easy comfortable bras. It’s not like they’re something that is worn all day everyday… oh wait.

So they would have consumer appeal outside the disability community. I also find it disappointing that clothing brands that are specifically marketing adaptive clothing seem to care so little for esthetic (it’s not just the bras believe me). As I have grown further away from my track suit wearing youth, I find myself less able and less willing to force myself into ambivalence about what I wear because there is so little created with people like me in mind. I no longer accept the visible otherness that being unable to wear trendy clothing or at least wearing the same few things repeatedly creates. I like to express myself through what I wear and I find it galling that I am limited now in what is considered an essential clothing item.

If anyone knows of some comfortable accessible bras that my hours of trawling google haven’t found, please share in the comments.

The Bureaucracy of Disability Accommodation in University

So I will be starting my PhD in Critical Disability Studies this Autumn. In preparation for this I have been applying for housing. I learned my lesson about campus housing during my Masters. I need physical accommodations for housing.

I like many other disabled people have been taught to shun accommodation wherever possible. I grew up believing that the less obtrusive my disability was, the more value I had as a person. I know this wasn’t my parents’ intent, they just wanted me to be independent and were a bit misguided in how that should be achieved. If I asked for help with something, I was often refused under the assumption that if I just tried hard enough, I would eventually figure it out. In reality this lack of support led to a lot of frustration and often things didn’t get done.

That is not to say that disabled people shouldn’t strive to learn to do new things but the mentality of responding to a request for assistance with “You’ll just have to figure it out” is generally not helpful. It also at least in my case led to the internalized idea that I shouldn’t ask for help even if I needed it (you can read about how well that went for me in grade school here).

While I have been getting better at asking for and even demanding (when necessary) the accommodations I need, I still often find myself with the idea that there are certain appropriate accommodations and that if my needs don’t fit that narrow description that I don’t need accommodation.

Which is how for the length of my master’s degree I found myself living on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment building. I just assumed that because I don’t require adapted appliances or lowered sinks that I didn’t require accommodation.

As such I ended up in the general housing application pool and got what I was assigned.

As I mentioned, I ended up on the fourth floor of a four story walk-up. I managed but it wasn’t easy. Moving in and out were the worst, carrying everything up and down the stairs. I had help in those instances. While I walk well and can climb stairs, my balance is poor, particularly while carrying things. Added to that, stairs are difficult when I am wearing my AFO (leg brace) because it holds my ankle in a stationary position. Consequently I didn’t wear it much.

Getting groceries was particularly difficult, at first because I had to shop and get them on the bus and then from the stop up to my apartment. I was extremely limited in what I could buy because weight and balance were always a consideration. In order to avoid having to make multiple trips to the grocery store, I began having them delivered. Though it was easier for me physically, I still had to contend with delivery personnel  who were less than impressed with having to carry the food for me.

Now it is time for university housing round two, I know a lot more and I know what I need. Getting it however is a different story.

I know that to live comfortably and safely I need the option to avoid stairs when I am carrying things or wearing my leg brace so I need a ground floor apartment or an apartment in a building with an elevator. In order to get this, I had to get a form filled out by my doctor who is unfamiliar with the housing arrangements at my university. I filled the form out myself and luckily my doctor trusts that I know what I need and signed it for me. Because I saved her the trouble of filling out the form, I also luckily saved myself the usual fee charged for such services.

This was annoying enough but it was after I submitted the form that things got even more complicated.

Most universities have a single disability services regardless of type of disability (psychiatric, physical, learning, etc.). All your needs are taken care of in a single location. Not so at my current university. There it is broken up into three separate offices; physical and sensory disabilities, psychiatric disabilities and learning disabilities. They also much prefer it if you are only registered through one of them. Heaven forbid you have multiple disabilities with diverse needs. You have to decide what your “primary” disability is and go through that office.

Trying to choose a primary disability is ridiculous and kind of depends on circumstances.

I have both cerebral palsy and an autism spectrum disorder. Because the entire point of university is to learn and my autism is the most likely to impact my ability to do that, I registered with Learning Disability Services during my master’s. My cerebral palsy is rarely an impediment to learning. I can get around buildings and classrooms with minimal difficulty.

Where housing is concerned however my cerebral palsy becomes the key consideration, though it is important to note that not being accommodated for my physical needs does inevitably negatively impact my autism as added stress makes my autism more apparent.

I however cannot request housing accommodations through Learning Disability Services, they are in the domain of Physical Disability Services. So despite having already gone through the bureaucratic intake for my learning disability, I had to redo the process for physical disability.

When you go through having to prove that you are disabled and therefor entitled to accommodation you learn a few things.

1. Your permanent disabilities are assumed miraculously cured if the diagnosis or documentation is not recent

I learned this when I registered through Learning Disability Services. I provided documentation of my diagnosis but because I don’t generally feel the need to get rediagnosed on a regular basis it was considered to be out of date despite the fact that autism is permanent. All of my accommodation were thus given very begrudgingly. The reason I didn’t have more current documentation? My home is over a thousand kilometres from school and I didn’t have access to doctors that know me and my medical history. Which brings me to…

2. Disabled people are not expected to be traveling long distances to go to school (I guess if a program isn’t offered locally we are supposed to just not go)

As I mentioned, I don’t live close to my university and am trying to organize accommodations for housing. Yet upon submitting my intake form. I am invited to an in person interview. When I explain that going isn’t possible until I return to school I am treated to an explanation as to how the interview and filling out of additional forms is usually necessary before accommodations can be considered. They eventually agree to allowing me housing accommodations without the interview as I need housing in place before I arrive at school.

I was also treated to questions about why I was already registered with Learning Disability Services and a not to subtle suggestion that if I needed physical accommodations that I shouldn’t have done that.

Having secured permission to apply for housing accommodations, I begin to fill out the request form. I am reminded of my past beliefs that certain accommodations shouldn’t be sought because on the form only 3 types of accommodations are listed.

1. Do you need an automatic door opener?

2. Do you need light flashing alarms instead of audible alarms?

3. Do you require adapted appliances and a wheelchair accessible space?

My answer to all three is no. The form offers no question or space to request accommodations that are not met by those changes. I end up using an unrelated text box to discuss my needs. Hopefully I will be accommodated but it is obvious that they are not used to getting requests that deviate from what they expect disabled people to need.

When Voices of Privilege Compare Oppressions to Make Oppression Respectable

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The above image shows a picture of Army Veteran, Noah Galloway crouching as if to start a footrace. He is a double amputee (left arm and leg). He wears a running blade prosthetic. The picture is captioned

Caitlyn Jenner won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The runner up was this guy: Army Veteran Noah Galloway, who lost an arm and leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq,and now competes in crossfit events, runs marathons, and competed in the 58-hour Death Race.

This image has been retweeted on Twitter over 50,000 times. It is a horribly transphobic image. It is also a lie. The idea that Jenner won over Galloway is pure conjecture. The is no evidence that Galloway or anyone else was even considered for the award.

So effectively someone was angry that Caitlyn Jenner who has a long and successful athletic career is getting recognized for both her contribution to athletics and her more recent contributions to social change in transgender representation. This angry person then needed to find a more suitable (read respectable) winner, one that people would have difficulty or even be shamed for criticizing. They picked Noah Galloway.

This obviously resonated with people as it was shared so widely. In fact a Canadian politician Rick Dykstra is facing criticism over sharing it. He also really wishes that people would just get over it already.

The issue isn’t just that the tweet was transphobic. It also created an argument that it is appropriate to compare oppressions and suggest that some marginalized people are more deserving of positive recognition. This is awful and dangerous.

Marginalized groups should not have to compete against each other or wait their turn in the fight for social justice and human rights. Even in the case for the group that comes out on top it is bad. The position is precarious and lasts only as long as the voice of privilege and power want to redirect attention away from something that makes them even more uncomfortable. They may find themselves in the lower position of competing oppressions when the situation and stakes are different.

Disabled people are not more worthy or deserving of recognition than trans people and there experiences except in instances where the two identities intersect aren’t really comparable. Any suggestion to the contrary is likely trying the justify the continued marginalization of one group by using the other as a red herring. In the end they don’t really care about either.

I am a cis disabled woman and I entirely support the recognition of Caitlyn Jenner’s contribution to sports and society. Noah Galloway’s experiences and athletic triumphs are indeed notable and important in showing how life doesn’t end after disability but even if I had to compare the contributions of the two I would still support Jenner. Society has been supporting and applauding disabled athletes for a while now. The same can not be said for transgender athletes. In terms of social impact celebrating Jenner has more potential for creating a cultural shift towards trans acceptance and inclusion. This is precisely because so many people are uncomfortable with the idea. Giving people the comfortable option isn’t really supporting change.

This in no way detracts from the accomplishments of Noah Galloway because celebrating Caitlyn Jenner isn’t the indictment of Galloway that the above image suggests that it is.

How Good is Your Social Justice Argument if it Capitalizes on Marginalizing Others?

So I came across this image on twitter

John Fugelsang gun control quote

It reads,

The only way background checks take away your Second Amendment rights are, my friends, if you’re a criminal, a terrorist or insane. And if you’re all three, you’re probably already a lobbyist for the NRA

Full disclosure, I am a Canadian, we don’t have a constitutional equivalent to the second amendment. I am generally flummoxed by the United States and its obsession with guns. In the end my main concern is not with gun control, it is how the speaker, comedian John Fugelsang obviously views common sense gun control as a social justice issue and that he is willing to capitalize on existing stigma around mental illness to further his progressive agenda.

While as an outsider to America’s debate about gun control, I support restrictions on obtaining guns because I have seen the horrors guns wreak particularly in the United States.

I however strongly object to the casual connection of criminals, terrorists and people with psychiatric disabilities (mad people, psychiatric consumer/survivors). Not least of my reasons being that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. That does not mean, that I disregard the fact that some of them can be violent and that people should be protected from that violence.

The quote further suggests that mental illness is connected to making decisions that are unpopular, like being a lobbyist for the NRA. This suggests that all opinions, decisions or actions that lead to violence are based in irrational thought patterns that can only be explained by illness.

Considering that people with mental illness are more often victims than perpetrators, it can be easily assumed that the vast majority of people committing violence are not sick. Unfortunately there are far to many people in the human race who are wiling to do others harm whether we agree with their reasons or not is not a good estimation of their mental health.

The problem is that people who experience mental illness are deeply stigmatized and the continued willingness for society to connect them to violence or general negativity only fuels that stigma even when it is done in the context of a joke. Particularly when that joke simply reinforces, rather than challenges that stigma.

It is made worse when that stigma is used to further what is otherwise in mu opinion a positive position. Any progressive movement which is willing to throw a marginalized group under the bus to further its aims is a problematic one.

There are many arguments for gun control that can be made without stigmatizing mental illness.

There were over 11000 gun related deaths in the US in 2013

Gun control laws enacted in other countries when properly administered are really effective (like Australia)

When I saw the above image on twitter, I responded with a simple desire to see social justice movements stop stigmatizing marginalized people unfairly to further their agenda.

I can’t link you to the conversation because the original poster blocked me and I no longer have access to it.

While I was unhappy to see pushback to a rather simple concept, I didn’t feel like getting into a big twitter argument but the original source of the image kept responding and insulting me, calling me a pedant. I was unaware that believing that social justice movements should not succeed at the expense of others was an overly academic and complicated position to hold.

I only responded after they claimed that the social stigma of mental illness was an old issue that shouldn’t overshadow the argument for gun control. To which I simply responded

“I reject the idea that one human rights movement must be thrown under the bus to support another”

The bigger issue isn’t even that John Fugelsang made the original quip. It is how quotable it is and how easy it was to make into a meme that is easily shareable allowing for the uncritical mass proliferation of the basic negative feelings around mental illness which give the idea power and credibility it does not deserve.

Fear should only be used against things that merit it. Generally speaking a group of people that are completely unconnected to one another other than a general type of medical diagnosis does not merit that fear.

How Technology Makes it Easier for the Film Industry to Discriminate Against Disabled People

Lately there has been a lot of news about how the ACLU is pushing for a civil rights inquiry into the systemic discrimination against women in film and television. This investigation would look at the disparities in the number of women in position of authority in the industry as well as pay disparities. This is a completely valid complaint and I hope it goes forward and ultimately creates meaningful change in the industry. Reading about the initiative got me thinking about how rare it is to see disabled people in any capacity in film and television and how little call there is to rectify this from within the industry.

That is not to say that film and television completely ignore disability. They don’t, they just don’t necessarily use disabled people as actors or writers (or directors or producers etc.). There are some notable exceptions like Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lanister in Game of Thrones or RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr. on Breaking Bad or Sarah Gordy in Upstairs Downstairs. One of the things that make them so notable is that they stand out from the general portrayal of disability in film and television.

Disability rights activists have coined terms like cripping up, crip face**, disability drag and cripicature to describe the trend of nondisabled actors taking on disabled roles. There are many examples of disabled people protesting the practice and demanding better representation for disabled people on screen.

In my opinion there is no actual disability representation in a film or television show unless there is an actual disabled person involved. Simply putting in a disabled character and than casting a nondisabled actor is not representation. It is in fact the active denial of representation. I am not going to get fully into why the prevalence of cripping up is bad right now. Others have done that (click the links above for just a small sample of others making the case).

I am going to look at how the phenomenon of cripping up continues to flourish despite a more discriminating viewership that demands authenticity from its media.

The fact that nondisabled people have absolutely no idea what authentic disability looks like is certainly a major factor. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of disability when your reference point is always a nondisabled person’s interpretation of disability. That being said people are somewhat more aware that the physicality of physical disability can not be shown with the adoption of a limp or by sitting in a wheelchair. In the same way that actors playing pianists must now have some skill at the piano because closeups of hands on a keyboard no longer suffice to convince the viewer that those hands are attached to the actor, simply sitting in a chair on in a bed no longer convince people that, the character can’t walk.

Deborah Kerr on couch

Deborah Kerr sitting on a couch with her legs covered by a blanket, no longer cut it for authenticity.

Jake Sully

Nowadays we need shots of atrophied legs like this one of Sam Worthington from Avatar. The thing is, Sam Worthington isn’t paralyzed. In fact he usually looks like this

sam-worthington-lara-bingle-show-off-beach-bodies-in-hawaii-01

In order to get that atrophied look, Worthington didn’t sit immobile for months. Accurate physical depictions of disability are not a new extreme of method acting. They are achieved through CGI. They are created on a computer and superimposed over the actor in post-production. This achieves more physical realism without ever having to use a disabled actor.

The use of CGI for depictions of disability is becoming more common and it is increasing how disability can be used in film not only to amp up visual realism. It also helps make disability a plot gimmick.

I will go through some of the films and television shows that have been utilizing CGI and how that has affected the story and characterization of disability.

Planet Terror (2007)

In this film co-written by Quentin Tarantino (so expectations of realism for anything go out the window), the character Cherry Darling loses her leg in a zombie attack. Within hours of amputation she is using makeshift prosthesis to get around, starting with a table leg and ending up with a machine gun for a leg. The actress Rose McGowan is of course not an amputee and all of this right down to the amputation is done with CGI.

Cherry Darling

Avatar (2009)

I’ve already discussed Avatar a little, there are a couple issues that should be expanded on beyond the use of CGI to make the character Jake Sully look paralyzed. First of all the characterization of disability is abysmal. It plays on the idea that all disabled people are just looking to be cured. That is not the case for many of us. So it positions the role of disability as tragedy that can only be overcome by cure. While cure may be the goal of some disabled people, that narrative should come from them. Coming from nondisabled actors and writers just makes it into a fantasy for those without disabilities where they foist their fear about our lives into the public discourse. Secondly the film Avatar was groundbreaking in its use of CGI and changed the way films are made. This is primarily focused on the post cure alien portion of the film but when you look at the praise of the imagery in the context of how it was used on the human Sully, it tacitly gives approval for that kind of CGI as well.

Horrible characterization of disability aside, there was really no real need to cast an able-bodied actor in the role of Sully. A wheelchair user could have been hired for the human portions of the film and voice acted the alien portions while an able-bodied person was used for the motion capture for the animation. Somehow I doubt this was even considered.

Outlander (TV 2014)

I have written about disability and Outlander before and you can read my full analysis here. In Brief, there is a character named Colum MacKenzie eho has bowed legs. The actor Gary Lewis does not. His legs are bowed in post production with CGI. There is no real reason the character could not have been played by a disabled actor.

gif of Colum MacKenzie walking on CGI legs

The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS) (2014)

Based on the novel of the same name, TFIOS has numerous characters dealing with life with cancer. The main male character, Augustus Waters had his leg amputated as a result. The actor Ansel Elgort who plays him in the film is not an amputee and instead is given a CGI prosthetic.

fault_our_stars_895px

John Green the author of TFIOS is oddly enough a big supporter of the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign, which seeks to get more diversity in YA and children’s literature. The whole idea is that children (though I would argue everyone) benefit from seeing people like themselves reflected in literature and media.

Apparently diversity only needs to go so far as diverse fictional characters but not actually diverse people to represent those characters. I would think that a logical extension of advocating for diversity in literature, would be to also allow people to see others like them in visual media. Without this it is just reinforcing the idea the disability in the media is not for disavled people at all, it is for the nondisabled.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

This spy film features a double amputee villain, Gazelle whose running blade prostheses come equipped with actual retractable knife blades that she uses as weapons.

Gazelle

Gazelle is a gimmick disabled character. As much as a badass disabled character is refreshing, the depiction is entirely unrealistic. Blade prostheses are designed for running and are not meant to be worn during everyday activities. They would negatively affect posture and balance if worn for just standing and walking around and yet Gazelle is never seen without them and has impeccable balance and posture no matter what she is doing.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

In the latest installment of the Mad Max franchise, Max takes a backseat to Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron. Furiosa has an amputated arm.

Furiosa

Charlize Theron is not an amputee and CGI is used to create the effect. That is not to say that there aren’t any good things about the characterization. In fact Furiosa is quite the revolutionary portrayal of disability as Laura Vaughn explains in her Tumblr,

Watch Furiosa load a shotgun. Watch Furiosa punch Max in the face, with her nubbins. Watch Furiosa drive a semi tractor trailer. Watch Furiosa fire a long shot, using Max’s shoulder to stabilize the gun barrel, as an alternative to using two hands! Watch Furiosa do anything you can do, but better, and with half the number of fingers.

The effortless manner in which this film has presented a character’s disability is incredible. I literally could not ask for anything more. It’s ubiquitous. No big deal. Her body is never a plot point. It is simply allowed to be. Let’s have some bullet points:

  • The existence of her missing hand is never mentioned in dialogue. Not once. I find this simple fact so powerful.

  • It is not made into something ludicrous for the lulz a la the gun leg in Grindhouse. Her prosthetic is realistic – it looks like something a real amputee would actually wear and use.

  • There’s no reference made to any tragic backstory regarding her limb. We have no idea how she lost it, or if she lost it. It may very well be a birth defect. More on that later, cause that’s totally my interpretation.

  • NO. ONE. EVER. FEELS. SORRY. FOR. HER. BECAUSE. OF. HER. DISABILITY

Where Vaughn and I differ in opinion is that she calls this representation and I would simply classify it as a very good portrayal.

As I mentioned above, In my opinion, representation requires the actual presence of disabled people. Everything else no matter how good is portrayal only and disabled people deserve representation.

That being said it is good that a post apocalyptic film recognized that disability would be a common occurrance in such a world. Furiosa isn’t the only disabled character and it isn’t an issue for anyone except the poor who depend on the sporadic benevolence of Immortal Joe (the dictator) for survival. Even then they are in the same position as all the other poor people.

By consistently casting nondisabled people in disabled roles, the entertainment industry is saying “People like you don’t belong here.” It also keeps the disabled experience as something that can only be defined and told by nondisabled people.

By creating technology that makes it easier for the industry to shut out disabled people, they maintain this status quo while giving a population ignorant of disability te impression that portrayals and representation are getting better. The number 1 search type that brings people to my blog are queries about whether Gary Lewis (the actor who plays Colum MacKenzie in Outlander) is really disabled.

It also keeps the industry from having to find ways to accommodate disabled actors. In every other industry, there is an expectation that employers have a duty to accommodate disabled employees and that disabled people cannot be passed over for employment because an employer doesn’t want to implement accommodations. Accommodations can only be denied if they cause undue hardship to the employer. Many films that include disability have huge budgets that could easily cover accommodation, particularly if they’re saving having to pay the multimillion dollar salaries of celebrities who are currently taking those roles.

While some of the roles I have discussed could arguably not have been played by disabled people, like Gazelle because she performs feats that are simply beyond the realm of reality. It is important to remember that reducing disability to a gimmick is problematic in and of itself. It goes back to how nondisabled people have taken over the narrative of disability with no regard to how it impacts the community in real life.

Roles like Gazelle could be taken as harmless fantasy but in order for that to happen, there must first be a true understanding of disability by wider society.

The dearth of disabled actors in film and television in favour of spending money to make nondisabled actors look disabled is clear evidence of systemic discrimination from within the industry.

** crip face is a contentious term as it is viewed as appropriation of the term black face, I include it here because it is still widely used.