No, I Will Not Agree to Disagree: The Prevalence of Platitudes in Disability Social Justice Discourse

I’ve never liked the phrase “agree to disagree” Much of this just stems from my self-absorbed desire to be right and acknowledged as being right. In practice, it does have some practical value, particularly when dealing with someone whose ideals are diametrically opposed to your own. Sometimes it’s just easier to not discuss some topics with certain people to avoid blow out fights that will never be resolved.

That is not to say that people should agree to disagree in all circumstances where there are ideological disagreements or social change would never happen but I think it holds a valid place in scenarios where the disagreements don’t lead to the continuation of oppressive or dangerous outcomes. Like deciding not to discuss the economy with your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.

I am instead going to talk about the use of “we should agree to disagree” where people’s ideals are generally aligned but one party doesn’t want to deal with the reality of the situation.

I see this quite a bit in discussions between disabled people online.

The scene:

A frank discussion of a specific social justice issue pertaining to disability is taking place. People are describing the reality of the negative impact of a particular oppression (ex. silencing the voices of disabled people in favour of nondisabled voices or the very real social rejection of disabled people by nondisabled peers)

Enter into this scene a disabled person (we’ll call them the late comer) who often self declares as “not wanting to deal with negativity” who then tries to refocus the conversation not on solutions but rather a generalized feel good statement like “I want to believe that human relationships are based on love and respect and disability shouldn’t have negative consequences in this scenario” This is usually followed up by an anecdotal story where a nondisabled person didn’t reject a personal relationship with a disabled person. This anecdote is then defended as the norm.

When the other disabled people not only share their own stories of rejection but present evidence that social exclusion and rejection is widespread. The concept of agreeing to disagree is floated by the late comer who just wants to believe in the goodness of people.

I humbly dissent. The issue with this scenario is that everyone is generally on the same page in that even the late comer, likely wants a better world for disabled people and are likely aware that the world is far from equal for us at the moment. I however have very little tolerance for people who enter activist spaces and offer platitudes as though they are solutions. It’s the ignore the problem and it will go away method. It is also entirely ineffective.

I will not pretend the world is a better place than it is, in hope that my positivity will become a reality.

This platitude phenomenon was particularly prevalent during #CrippingTheMighty where disabled activists were discussing the poor representation of disabled voices in mediums that purported to represent us. All of a sudden we would get replies like “I just think disabled people need to think positively”.

If you asked for more information or how their response related to the purpose of #CrippingTheMighty you would get more platitudes about positive thinking or that trying hard would lead to success. In this case the platitudes weren’t even focused on the topic at hand.

I suspect these sorts of things happen for a variety of reasons. In the first scenario the person likely feels like generalized discussions of nondisabled people rejecting people with disabilities somehow reflects on their anecdotal story that doesn’t match the dominant narrative. The idea that people leave disabled people with disabilities is uncomfortable and they may not want to contemplate what that might mean in their lives.

In terms of people who just throw random platitudes into activist discussions to try and shut them down, the cause is harder to pin down. A lot of it is likely getting involved in a conversation they haven’t taken the time to fully understand.

I also think that the excessive use of platitudes in disability discourse by disabled people is tied to an internalization of oppression. Many of us grew up in situations where we were denied accommodation or had it overtly suggested that not taking advantage of available accommodations proves that we are weak and to get by without does us credit. This go along to get along mentality is valorized. If we live a life with no or few accommodations we are told that we are better and stronger than those who do need and use them.

We are told not to rock the boat and to be suspicious of people who do.

The problem here is that if you were to ask either of these groups individually specific questions like,

Would you like to see more disabled people on TV?

Would you like there to be more job opportunities for disabled people?

Would you like disability allowances to provide more than enforced poverty?

Would you like public spaces to be more accessible?

and other questions of that nature, you would get far more yeses than nos.

The latter group discussed is harder to deal with because they can’t seem to articulate a position if you challenge the platitude, you just get more platitudes. They also aren’t even engaging with the discourse in a way that indicates that they know what’s going on. I don’t have a way to fix this though I do think it’s important to start bringing more people into activist discourse and fighting the fact that disabled people are far to often raised on platitudes and shielded from the reality of the world.

In terms of people who do actually engage with the topics at hand but counsel positivity over engaging with reality, at least you can point out the possible positive benefits of dealing with a negative reality and trying to change it.

We need to start creating strategies to include people in activist spaces that they aren’t necessarily comfortable in but whose outcome will impact them. I just don’t think agreeing to disagree will have a positive outcome for anyone.

We need to start combating the overwhelming use of platitudes as universally acceptable advice to disabled people or platitudes as world view.

 

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What Learning Other Languages has Taught Me About How I Learned to Talk About Disability

I am an anglophone, so I first learned to speak English and it is the language I use almost exclusively day to day. I however spent my first six years of elementary school in French immersion which despite having been nearly twenty years ago at this point has left me functionally fluent in French. By which I mean I can get by in entirely French environments. My vocabulary is extensive enough, though my grammar skills are lacking but good enough to make myself understood 90% of the time on the first try. I can also read the language. though don’t ask me to write anything down as my written literacy in French is terrible.

I also have some very basic skills in German after having taken it for a couple semesters in high school and taken it up again for four or five semesters in university.

In reflecting on my non English language training I came to a realization. I was never really taught how to narrate my experience as a disabled person in any language.

In school none of the activities we talked about as we learned to read or write (in English or French) ever related to disability. They were always geared entirely toward able-bodiedness. The proverbial Dick and Jane or Spot the Dog (and their French equivalents) all ran and played and tossed and caught balls. In these lessons the other children were learning not only the rudiments of grammar and literacy but how to describe their own lives.

I was never taught to articulate how or why I couldn’t do the things my peers did, like why I couldn’t cross the monkey bars. I knew even as a Kindergartener that I had Cerebral Palsy but no one ever taught me how to talk about how it affected my life. So I knew I couldn’t cross the monkey bars but I couldn’t articulate why. Words like disabled and disability were not in my vocabulary, much less an understanding of how cerebral palsy affected my body.

Most children start grade school with the vocabulary to list off the parts of the body (Head and shoulders,knees and toes etc.). Learning the French equivalents was much the same. When we did biology lessons on the body, everything was framed through a lens of able-bodiedness. When we studied the brain, we only ever learned about it through a neuro-typical lens. No wonder, no one ever considered that I might be Autistic as a child, no one around me even had the words to describe difference. A medical definition of normalcy was completely ingrained in the places I found myself.

We didn’t learn words like disabled, wheelchair or crutches. Disability was erased from existence by simply never being mentioned.

I had those words in English eventually but I didn’t learn them in school. They were not words that appeared on spelling vocabulary lists. I never had to look up their definitions in a dictionary.

I learned about the words that describe my life in an entirely medical environment in a completely hodge-podge manner, through overhearing snippets doctors told my parents. These exchanges were never directed at me. I just happened to be in the room when they took place. Terms like brain damage, hemiplegia (a word spellcheck doesn’t even think exists, apparently I’m supposed to have meant paraplegia). Terms like walker and crutches were learned from observing the other people who came to the local rehabilitation hospital. The only one I think I got out and about in society was wheelchair and even then it’s use was framed more in terms of something elderly people needed, rather than connected to disability.

I was never taught the French equivalents of these words. I think the only one I learned organically was the term for wheelchair. I think it was in a book we read for school. Other than that my limited disability related French vocabulary comes from me actively looking them up as an adult. Even so I think I can only explain cerebral palsy in French at a very simplified first grade level. I’ve never had to seek medical treatment in the French speaking places that I have lived so I just never got taught the words in the only place they seem to be imparted to people.

That is not to say that I never encountered disability related language in grade school. It all just happened to be of the slur variety. I was definitely called a retard on many occasions. Oddly, my French immersion peers would always follow up this insult with the bizarre claim that it meant “really smart” in French as if they could convince me I hadn’t just been insulted. It is bizarre because the word retard comes from the completely innocuous French word for late or slow. As a result I was pretty familiar with it.

The point of French immersion is to have the student completely fluent by the time they finish grade 12. Even though I didn’t get that far and transferred to an English school in grade 5, I doubt that I just left before the disability vocabulary list was assigned as spelling tests are abandoned for more in depth grammar and writing training around that time anyway. I also never learned about disability and language in any of the English classes I took after that and I doubt French schools were teaching more than their English counterparts.

Oddly in terms of studying German, the instructor made a conscious choice to not teach us disability vocabulary.

Sure my semesters in high school were the same simplistic head and shoulders, knees and toes vocabulary, you get in Kindergarten but by the time I started taking university level courses, we started having more complex terms and learning to understand them in practical context.

I remember in one of my later intermediate courses, there was a word list in the textbook that specifically dealt with disability. It had words like disability, wheelchair and crutches. The professor for the course told us to skip it. I remember being disappointed but not being brave enough to ask her why. I did go through the section on my own time and the only issue I found was that the reading comprehension section, where they put the vocabulary in context did veer into inspiration porn territory. It was a story about a 19th century woman who used a wheelchair and ran a successful toy factory. The last line of the piece was something along the lines of “It just goes to show that a person in a wheelchair can be a success!” *sigh*.

While, yes I could learn these words and how to use them on my own time, I sincerely doubt that any of my nondisabled peers felt compelled to do so. So even when non-medical centred opportunities present themselves, they really only hold appeal to people personally affected. Learning about disability still isn’t seen as necessary, it is extra.

It is in reflecting, particularly on that experience in German class which really drove home how building my disability vocabulary was entirely medicalized when it really didn’t have to be.

I do wonder if things are different now at least for children (that German textbook incident wasn’t really that long ago). I didn’t have access to the internet as a kid. Discussions and debates around terminology like person first vs. identity first didn’t exist back then. There was no call to #SayTheWord.

I am worried that these important language discussions don’t really trickle down to children, whose worlds are still very much framed by the adults around them. Adults who are themselves often non-disabled. Just consider how strong the unflinching support for person-first language can be among certain parent bloggers.

So I wonder are we still denying children the language to speak about and understand their own lives? And if so how can we work to change it?

We Need to Stop Saying Things Like “The Last Acceptable Prejudice”

I came across an article yesterday entitled “Laughing at Dwarfism is the Last Acceptable Prejudice“. It’s a great article actually. It talks about how the author and other people with dwarfism have both experienced general prejudice and the added bizarre phenomenon of having people basically ask them if it is ok to tell a story or joke at the expense of someone (or all people) with dwarfism. It is important to talk about these kinds of social interactions and dissect how problematic this behaviour is.

It is however simply not true that there is only one single group that experiences prejudice that is either socially accepted or ignored as being not as big an issue as it is. A quick google search for “the last acceptable prejudice” netted me several groups that are currently vying for the title. The most common being Catholics. The list quickly extended to include; sexism in sports, obesity, ageism, LGBT people, rich people, and people with accents. There are like others who would also claim the title. In terms of actually experiencing prejudice some people who claim the title have more valid reasons to cite prejudice than do others (rich people for example, this assertion came from Donald Trump for those of you who didn’t click through). The fact remains that for the majority of these groups, their claims to experiencing prejudice–prejudice that was likely ignored by others–is entirely valid.

In 1989 Diane Driedger wrote a book about the fight for civil rights for disabled people. She titled this book “The Last Civil Rights Movement” I can personally think of a few advances and set back in civil rights for a number of groups other that disabled people that have occurred since 1989. Momentum on marriage equality only really picked up this century, racism is still very much a thing and attacks on women’s reproductive freedom are alive and well. I have heard Driedger speak and she spoke about joining the disability rights movement because all of the other major movements were over. I have always been troubled by this as other oppressions still clearly exist and there is still activism battling those oppressions. She is also not the only person to label a movement “The Last Civil Rights Movement

I know phrases like this don’t actively deny other prejudices and oppressions but they do unnecessarily minimize them which creates competing oppressions or the oppression olympics with everyone shouting over each other to either simply validate their experiences or even actively suggest that theirs is worse. It would be almost impossible to quantify this in most cases and I genuinely don’t think it’s useful to try. At the end of the day oppression and prejudice are terrible things to experience and I don’t think anyone should have to wait in line to have their experiences addressed just because someone else’s have been deemed worse.

Acceptable prejudice particularly is after all pretty subjective. We live in a world where a man who is running for president can say that he thinks a significant portion of undocumented immigrants are rapists. Last I checked, he’s still a strong contender for the nomination. The fact that a lot of people were horrified and shocked and actively protest him doesn’t change the fact that a significant and influential number of people actually seem to like that kind of rhetoric.

We also live in a world where calling out prejudicial behaviour is attacked. The backlash against political correctness is strong and growing. The number of people who think being able to say offensive things without backlash is already large and growing. People who disagree with them are labeled whiny and thin skinned. The fact that these people often know that they are saying offensive things is irrelevant, they are still actively trying to make it acceptable for them to do so without criticism.

I sincerely doubt there is a prejudice that is universally accepted by everyone who doesn’t belong to the targeted group and there is likely a large group of people who find prejudices against every marginalized group acceptable (even if that acceptance isn’t universal. There is no “last acceptable prejudice” I assure you there are many and it only hurts people when one experience of oppression is given unnecessary precedent over another.

There needs to be a way that people can talk about their own experiences of prejudice without erasing those of others.

Thoughts on Assisted Suicide as Canada Moves Toward Concrete Legislation

As a disabled person, I have concerns about physician assisted suicide (PAS). However, I live in a country that is swiftly moving toward concrete legislation that will make it legal and accessible to applicants. As a result I think the time for debating whether PAS should be legal is a bit unproductive. I don’t say that to silence discussion. I fully expect and endorse that the discussion around the morals and ethics of PAS will and should continue.

However, from an activist perspective, it is time to accept that this legislation is quickly approaching and it will be far more productive to highlight out concerns and make suggestions that will hopefully make a society which allows PAS to be safer for disabled people.

In terms of guiding legislation I would like to see the following requirements for applicants for PAS.

  1. The application must be made by the person seeking assisted suicide. There should be no allowance for surrogate decision makers applying on behalf of people who can’t themselves apply.
  2. There should be no advance directives for PAS in cases of dementia. A person must be capable of agreeing or changing their mind at the time the lethal action is taken (this is going to make many people very angry but I think it’s necessary)
  3. The term suffering must not be applicable as a general descriptor to disability in any part of the legislation. Only an individual can label their own experience. There should be no legislative bias.
  4. PAS must be patient initiated. Physicians must not be allowed to list it as a possible treatment option. They should only be able to elaborate on it as an option if a patient specifically asks about it.
  5. There needs to be criminal legislation specifically targeting so-called mercy killings, so that in a world where PAS exists people do not become indifferent to the murders of disabled people by family members and care givers.
  6. There must be policies in place to identify if someone has been coerced into seeking PAS. If coercion is found, there must be services available to make that person safe (such as if the individual’s care giver is the coercive force, making alternate care arrangements)
  7. Make very clear guidelines about who can qualify for PAS. Avoid using really subjective terms like suffering unless they are accompanied by a rigid definition and not open for interpretation.

In my experience, people are woefully ignorant of what rights people had prior to Carter v. Canada (the Supreme Court ruling that legalized Physician Assisted Suicide). I can’t tell you how many people I have encountered who didn’t even know that you could refuse treatment (I’m not suggesting that this is a preferable option to PAS, just pointing out the lack of understanding), or for that matter that Advanced Directives like Do Not Resuscitate orders (DNRs) existed. So many people actually think that the Supreme Court ruling that occurred just last year opened the door for all of that. There is another shockingly large contingent of people who seem blissfully unaware that Carter v. Canada even happened.

I say blissfully unaware because they will often be found saying things like “In Canada we believe in maintaining life and we believe that until the last breath there is hope”. Seriously people, Canadians have had the right to DNRs for quite some time now and BTW Carter v. Canada is a thing that happened. I guess some people really do just use the internet to look at porn and cat videos. I can’t explain this level of cluelessness otherwise.

In many ways I feel that this ignorance of the nuance of end of life care and the options available and how long certain options have been available is scarier than the legality of PAS itself. It is ignorance that allows disability to be synonymous with suffering. It is ignorance of the current legal system that has allowed disabled people to end up with DNRs that they did not consent to. This ignorance is what allows people to say with a straight face that there is no concern of a slippery slope and that disabled people do not need to worry about being targeted by family, care givers and medical personnel for PAS.

The only way to truly tackle the risks that legal PAS poses to disabled people is to acknowledge that those risks exist.

We live in a world where disabled people are devalued by society. Some medical professionals have advocated that disabled infants be actively euthanized. Academics (like Peter Singer) have echoed that argument and have gone further to advocate for healthcare rationing as a cost saving measure. They argue that life outcomes (which they and not the patient determines) should be considered when deciding who gets life saving treatment.

It is really not that hard to imagine a family member nudging a patient towards PAS whether it be to avoid caring for the patient or out of a desire to benefit from an inheritance. It is equally easy to imagine a stressed and overworked medical staff of dropping hints to a patient whose care is both expensive and time consuming. Considering that society has already done a great job of framing disabled people as burden, that people would not be susceptible to such hints.

The biggest danger of the slippery slope is having those in power assume that their good intentions are enough to negate the risk of it happening. Acknowledging the risks and taking steps to stop them is the best hope of actually avoiding them. Good intentions are not enough.

 

Disability, Discrimination and the Job Search

Disability discrimination in the job market has been making the round lately. It’s far from a new issue but something happened which on the face of it seems particularly bad (though isn’t that surprising when you think about it) that drew attention to the phenomenon of job ads immediately disqualifying disabled applicants by including job requirements that aren’t actually required for the job. The most common offenders include the capacity to carry at least 25lbs for jobs that generally don’t require physical labour like office work (there are definitely jobs where this requirement makes complete sense but it far to often pops up in places where it doesn’t) or the requirement that applicants have a valid driver’s license (a personal pet peeve of mine because it’s the one that affects me most often). I was actually fired from a position on my second day because I don’t have a license even though they forgot to put it in the job description and didn’t mention it once during the prolonged hiring process.

The ad that inspired the most recent scrutiny into how employers discriminate against disabled people before we even have a chance to apply came from an organization that purports to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities (person first language intentional as per the organizations preferences). The fact that it was a disability focused organization was the reason it garnered so much shock. The Arc of Texas posted two job openings which took the usual preemptive discrimination way beyond unnecessary requirements for driver’s licenses and ability to carry arbitrary weights. For the position of CEO they required (quotes taken from David M. Perry’s blog which includes screenshots of the original job postings)

CEO

Physical and Mental Requirements: 

  • Seeing
  • Hearing/Listening
  • Clear speech
  • Ability to move distances between offices and workspaces
  • Driving

Their job posting for Advocacy Coordinator took it even further

Advocacy Coordinator

Physical and Mental Requirements: 

  • Seeing
  • Hearing/Listening
  • Clear speech
  • Touching :dexterity hand and finger
  • Ability to move distances between offices and workspaces
  • Minor pushing and pulling
  • Lifting up to 25 lbs.
  • Carrying up to 25 lbs
  • Driving

These requirements clearly exempt most disabled people from qualifying and none of them really reflect abilities required for either position. David M. Perry contacted them about the job descriptions and The Arc of Texas has since apologized and removed the language excluding disabled applicants from the job listing (to see the full apology click the link above to go to David’s blog.

These types of overly specific job requirements are becoming more common and the fact that they popped up in a job listing for a disability organization does not surprise me. I mean, yes it’s a big face palm moment but not shocking. I say this even acknowledging that their apology is likely perfectly sincere.

The Arc of Texas is not an organization run by disabled people. I can’t say whether or not they have disabled people working for them or if they do what positions those individuals hold. It was however set up by nondisabled people to advocate for disabled people. Whether this origin model remains, I don’t know but I would be quite surprised if they were completely untouched by the charity model of disability. The charity model is closely related to the idea that disabled people need saving. This rescue inevitably is not meant to come from within the disability community but from the outside.

Whether they considered it consciously or not, a disabled person in the position of CEO or Advocacy Coordinator does not really fit within the saviour mindset of the charity model. The oversight was likely unintentional but influenced by ingrained bias.

The faux pas did however shed light on the fact that this issue is widespread and exists outside the nonprofit sector. These overly specific criteria exist in my chosen field of academia. This is personally troubling as I invest years and thousands of dollars into my doctoral studies. People entering academia already have to contend with the shrinking number of job secure tenure track positions as universities increasingly rely on short term contract, poorly paid adjunct positions. To add overt discrimination to that already precarious future is daunting.

The question becomes, What do individuals do about discriminatory hiring practices. Sure The Arc of Texas apologized and fixed their job listing but David Perry (who called them out) wasn’t an applicant. He wasn’t risking anything.

An applicant in the same position might get an apology but they have no way of knowing how their complaint will be perceived by the employer.

In my own job search experience, I’ve started reading the required qualifications before I even read the job description. If it contains the hated driving requirement or any other physical requirement I can’t meet, I don’t apply, regardless of how unnecessary that requirement seems in the context of the job description. It just isn’t worth the trouble. Particularly if you are applying in a smallish community where news of being the squeaky wheel might get around to other potential employers.

In scenarios where I have been directly discriminated against I may take some low key very careful diplomatic action. As in the case where I was fired for not being able to drive because I was also framed as being dishonest despite their lack of communicating the requirement. I went home, cried for about an hour then wrote a very carefully worded e-mail to HR, pointing out the lack of communication about the need for a driver’s license and even proposing an alternate way for me to do the job at no cost to them. In this case, I had my job back two days later but I should never have been fired in the first place. Over the two contract terms I worked for them, I conclusively proved that you did not need to drive to do the job I had been hired for.

In another case my diplomatic protest was more a futile act performed to  both soothe my pride and force them to face me.

I had applied for a customer service position that was primarily described as working one on one with people. Some minor computer use would be required but not extensively. I was offered an interview but it came with the added requirement of a typing test which required me to be able to type 60wpm to pass. I type one handed so this is an impossibility for me.

Before being offered the interview, I had already been required to get a low level of security clearance (more than a criminal record check) so I had already invested quite a bit of time and effort into this job opportunity. I knew that the computer use was described as minimal so I identified my disability to HR saying that I would not be able to pass the typing test and asked about possible accommodation to which my HR contact responded

This position is 100% data entry at high volumes. No accommodation can be made. We will keep your resume on file and contact you if you fit a future position. (emphasis mine)

It wasn’t even signed. I was shocked and very confused. I went back and checked the job listing which still said customer service with emphasis on in person service. The term data entry did not appear at any point in the listing.

I spent the day being hurt and furious and unsure how to proceed. Eventually at around 3:00AM (I was so angry I couldn’t sleep). I again fell back on my diplomatic e-mail skills. I wrote back expressing my confusion and pasted the entire text of the job listing into the e-mail, making a specific point to highlight that the words data entry did not appear much less reference to data entry at high volumes.

Later that day I received a response with no less than three effusive apologies and a claim that they had gotten confused and thought I was applying to a separate data entry position (to which I did not apply). A confusion that only came apparently after I had disclosed a disability. I was invited to come to the interview.

At this point I knew I didn’t have a shot in hell of getting the job. I refer you back to the text of their e-mail, not only did they change the job description to something they could be sure I was not qualified for, they had made the false offer to consider me for positions I was qualified for. Like the one I had applied to and they were actively interviewing for. The last line of the abrupt e-mail might as well have read

We have shredded your resume and application, you will never work here.

I doubt the HR rep even reported our unfortunate exchange to their boss because they were the person I faced when I showed up for that interview. The organization is a big one and they have other HR personnel who could have done the interview but the incident wasn’t mentioned.

I knew going in that I would never get the job now under the circumstances but I challenged them anyway and still showed up. I did this because unlike an overly specific job listing I knew I was qualified for that job and I had e-mail proof of their mismanagement of the situation. Even though the job would never go to me, I could make a point by showing up.

Challenging specific job criteria is harder because it gives them a chance to make excuses.

The real problem is that discrimination is easy whether it be from the gamble that no one will challenge a discriminatory job listing or by simply not hiring the disabled applicant. Instances like the two I experienced are far rarer. It’s way to easy to discriminate without leaving evidence and making a fuss can hurt a failed applicant’s future job prospects.

In my rebellions against my ill treatment, I had evidence of wrongdoing and I only ever took it so far as challenging the specific employer so the risk of further backlash was minimal.

Sure Canada has human right’s law which people can use to challenge discrimination but doing so can come with a price. Those actions are generally public so future potential employers can find out that you have made a complaint. They may decide that you are a potential trouble maker and not even let you get to the interview stage for fear that you may file a complaint against them.

Unfortunately self-advocacy, particularly when fighting discrimination is far to often perceived as trouble making. In a society where disabled people are already far to often unemployed or underemployed, it is not surprising that we far more often choose to not rock the boat at all for fear of the ripples coming back to bite us later.