No, I don’t Worry about Alienating Allies

I have noticed in my online activism that if I call out problematic behaviour or comment on the cultural context of disability being mentioned in particular contexts either by an ally or by someone who is perceived as an ally, I will often be chastened for the nebulous offence of “alienating allies”.

When this happens, allies seem to stop being people who are devoted to the idea of meaningfully improving the lives of disabled people but are in fact thin skinned individuals who will reject the rights of disabled people if they are not rewarded with copious amounts of praise regardless of the impact of their actions.

As Ginny Di puts it,

The thing is, the pushback that I experience has never been from the people I am directly commenting on but either other disabled people who are concerned that the criticism will lead to the loss of allies or simply from people who don’t like seeing someone they admire being criticized for any reason.

People ask me why I criticize people publicly instead of trying to address my concerns with them privately. The answer to that is that I am invariably responding to something that someone has done publicly. If they have done something potentially harmful publicly, it needs to be challenged publicly because in this case, the response is not necessarily about directly educating the individual but about mitigating the potential harm of their actions. In some (if not most) cases, it is unlikely that I have any real potential of reaching that person directly. An example of this is my twitter response to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech.

People seemed very concerned that Meryl Streep would change her already purely sentimental stance that people shouldn’t bully disabled people to an active undermining of disability rights simply because I dared to point out that her speech didn’t actually achieve anything for disabled people and in fact effectively used the stereotype of the disabled victim to galvanize emotional support for a broader anti-Donald Trump message.

I was hardly the only disabled person who was concerned about the fact that a vague mention of “being nice to disabled people” was being treated like cutting edge disability rights activism. As Jay Ruckelshaus–who wrote not about Streep but political discussions of disability generally–pointed out in the New York Times,

That a statement on disability garnered sympathy from across the political spectrum was unsurprising, at least to me. I’ve grown used to my wheelchair trumping (forgive me) other political and moral concerns. Rarely, if ever, do people contest my claims that we must do more for those with disabilities: Greater access? Better employment training? More flexible school curriculums?…

Initially, this harmony would seem helpful. Free from partisan discord, advancements for the approximately 57 million Americans with disabilities should be easier to achieve, borne aloft by the wings of certain progress. Why, then, do rampant unemployment and educational disparities endure, and why does success remain the exception?

I think part of the reason is the insulation of our pro-disabled political consensus. Its logic is rooted not in any deep belief in the equal worth of citizens with disabilities, but rather in a general aversion to disability. This is related to the charity impulse that has always surrounded disability — and has constrained liberation efforts by assuming that inequities are unfortunate but natural realities to be mitigated through compassion, rather than politically structured injustices. There is also a profound lack of disabled people in the public sphere, meaning any substantive discussion that does occur is extremely rare.

Many have convinced themselves that positive sentiment is an effective stand-in for meaningful action. Unfortunately, that action has rarely if ever followed on the heels of a call for sentiment, that did not demand action for disabled people.

The irony is, I don’t even know if Meryl Streep is aware that disabled people criticized her speech. She hasn’t addressed it, and yet people were so very concerned that she would rescind her already rather ineffective support as a result of it.

I can just imagine the conversation that almost definitely didn’t actually happen (#alternativefacts)

Meryl Streep’s personal assistant: Excuse me, Meryl but it appears that a disabled person has criticized your speech on Twitter.

Meryl Streep: Well, fuck disabled people then.

I have no way of knowing if Meryl Streep is aware of the criticisms that disabled people made of her speech and if she is how she feels about it but I do know that my criticism had an impact on others. My tweets were widely shared with many people thanking me for the new perspective or simply saying that I’d given them something new to think about. Those people far outnumber Meryl Streep. They are allies gained. Allies who listened. Allies who will hopefully when it comes to taking action, will actually act for disabled people rather than falling back on the comfortable inaction of sentiment.

Now Sometimes, the person who is being criticized does become aware of the criticism but even this doesn’t worry me too much as long as the person being criticized is really an ally. Last month, I wrote a critique of a video on autism. The creator, Dylan Marron had good intentions but missed the mark. He not only listened to the criticism from myself and others, he redid the video and apologized.

Text of his full apology can be found here.

Allyship should not be judged by the initial intentions (or perceived intentions) but in whether the person is as concerned with the impact of the outcome. Simply expressing sentimental support for disabled people should not be sufficient to be considered an ally.

Placing to much concern on alienating allies is to tell marginalized people that they should be satisfied with whatever they can get regardless of whether it is ineffective or even harmful because intentions trump impact.

It’s essentially treating marginalized peoples who are fighting for their human rights like spoiled children who didn’t get what they wanted for their birthday.

If offering a critique of someone’s actions was sufficient to make them abandon disability rights, then chances are they weren’t really an ally in the first place. And if offering that critique gets other people to think more critically about their intersectional human rights activism then that’s a bigger gain. If it gets the person being critiqued to rethink and change tactics to be more effective then all the better.

So no, I’m not all that worried about alienating allies because critique actually helps recruit allies and helps make it clear who the real allies are and who is just using us for a sentimental talking point.

 

 

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I have Concerns about The March for Science

The presidency of Donald Trump has created a lot of social unrest. It has also resulted in significant protests. Most notably to date, The Women’s March on Washington which saw millions of people worldwide come out against Trump and his policies. The march was widely lauded but did garner significant criticism for issues of inclusion & intersectionality.

That is why it was so disappointing to discover that other movements, hoping to protest Trump or his policies were not paying attention. Trump

Trump, unsurprisingly took aim at science. He tried to stop scientific agencies from discussing scientific facts (that Trump disagrees with) on their social media. Which caused some accounts to go rogue and others to create alternate accounts that were separate from their official social media from which they share factual information.

Under this political climate, it is unsurprising that the scientific community decided to fight back. It is also unsurprising that after the success of the Women’s March that a March for Science is being proposed. Unfortunately, the organizers have not learned from the mistakes of the Women’s March.

The March for Science’s webpage does include a diversity statement. It reads,

Diversity
We will both have a diversity committee and a diverse steering committee that represents people of
many backgrounds and identities.Science is done by POC, women, immigrants, LGBTQ, indigenous people,
people of all beliefs and non-belief. We hope that this diversity is reflected in both the
leadership of the march and the march itself.

This statement leaves out disability. An oversight that disabled activists have been bringing to organizers’ attention since the page was published on Jan. 21. It took them five days to respond with this tweet.

Two days after that and they still haven’t even updated the text on their website as a placeholder while they work on a comprehensive statement on inclusion.

This is concerning because the March for Science has no transparency and this lack of transparency has me worried that the leaving out of disability may be just the beginning of inclusion issues.

It is, after all, easy to throw together a generic diversity statement. It is another thing entirely to follow through. Nowhere on the webpage, Twitter or Facebook is there a list of existing organizers or a system in place to ensure inclusion and diversity. When asked about any of this they point to a painfully insufficient Google Doc. There is no way to leave feedback.

People who ask questions are given the brush off with vague statements that answers are forthcoming.

Their twitter account has over 250,000 followers which speaks to widespread interest but there is very little evidence of follow through. They appear to be primarily running on popularity rather than concrete planning.

Basic things like a date and a visible organizing structure should have been in place before any social media went live.

Another major concern is the basic lack of a clear objective or message. The goal seems to simply be to “defend science” which is commendable, particularly when the President of the United States appears to be so averse to facts.

Officially their goal is,

The March for Science is a diverse, nonpartisan group that defends and celebrates

publicly funded and publicly accessible science

as a foundation of American freedom and prosperity.

Science  guides nearly every aspect of our lives and it is critical that political leaders and policymakers

support scientific research and incorporate science into their decision making.

Issues come up when the march is also billed as non-partison and other statements are made claiming that science apolitical. I don’t understand the first statement considering that this march is driven by a reaction to a very real political climate that is a response to government actions and statements.

The statements about science being apolitical, are just inaccurate and come from a very rose-tinted view of science as objective and free from bias. This is not true and the denial of a long history of scientific bias stands in direct opposition to the idea of inclusion seeing as disabled people,  women, immigrants, people of colour and the LGBTQI community have been on the violent receiving end of scientific bias for centuries.

For example Darwin’s interpretation of racial superiority in “The Descent of Man” or the Canadian, American (and yes Nazi) eugenic programs. Science has predominantly existed to serve and benefit nondisabled cis straight white men. That reality is not just ancient history it is a contemporary fact.

Science is not free from bias and is not some bastion of objectivity. Science is a product of the people who create it and we currently live in a world where the fear shouldn’t just be the silencing of scientists but accountability for the people performing it.

Failure to recognize the fallibility of science is exactly how harmful science happens.

Sharing memes and platitudes about the supposed inclusiveness of the sciences obscures the reality and I’ve seen far too much of that when there has been too little concrete movement towards actual inclusion.

I have questions for the organizers of the March for Science that I would genuinely like answers for.

Who are you?

When is the march going to be?

How can you be planning T-shirt sales when there is no date set yet and so little transparency around organizing?

How diverse is the current set of organizers?

What is being done to ensure meaningful consideration of diversity at the march?

Why is the march slated as apolitical? Particularly because this march is clearly a response to a particular political climate?

Why do you think science is apolitical?

How can you defend the idea of science as apolitical when historically it has been used to predominantly benefit white cis men and has been used to dehumanize anyone who wasn’t a white cis man?

 

I also have some suggestions.

Get your organizational ducks in a row.

Set up a system of accountability so that your supporters know who you are.

Set a date so that planning for satellite marches can start to take place.

Create an actual document stating your goals and concerns. Something that is more realistic than “science is apolitical, for everyone and must be protected”

Talk about the actual dangers to scientific research we face and be clear who is threatening that research.

Set up a diversity team with diverse activists from within STEM fields

Stop celebrating how many twitter followers you have and actually start delivering on answers and planning.

Be more transparent about the planning process so that we aren’t stuck with vague “we’re working on it” answers.

Tell us what you are working on and give a timeline on when we can expect things to be done.

Learn from the mistakes of the Women’s March and help move us forward not backwards.

 

 

Update:

The March for Science has updated it’s diversity statement

science-march-diversity-updated

The text now reads

In the past days, scientists have voiced concern over many issues – gag orders for government science agencies, funding freezes, and reversing science based policies. We recognize that these changes will differently and disproportionately affect minority scientists, science advocates, and the global communities impacted by these changes in American policies. Addressing these issues is imperative in understanding how recent developments will affect all people – not simply the most privileged among us. We take seriously your concerns that for this march to be meaningful, we must centralize diversity of the march’s organizers at all levels of planning. Diversity must also be reflected in the march itself —both through the mission statement and those who participate. We hear you, and thank you for your criticism. At the March for Science, we are committed to centralizing, highlighting, standing in solidarity with, and acting as accomplices with black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, indigenous, non-Christian, women, people with disabilities, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex scientists and science advocates. We must work to make science available to everyone and encouraging individuals of all backgrounds to pursue science careers, especially in advanced degrees and positions. A diverse group of scientists produces increasingly diverse research, which broadens, strengthens, and enriches scientific inquiry, and therefore, our understanding of the world.

There is still no movement on a comprehensive mission statement and the website still has references to science being apolitical, which directly contradicts the new diversity statement. I took it upon myself to fix it for them

science-is-political

Image description: An altered screenshot from The March for Science Webpage from their FAQ section. The Question is “Isn’t science apolitical?” The original answer of “Yes. The march is non-partisan, but it is absolutely intended to have an impact on policy makers.” is crossed out with the following text added at the bottom,

No, of course it isn’t. If it was there would be no need for this march in the first place. Science has often been politicized or practiced for biased reasons. That being said this is not a partisan even. This is to champion the use of solid peer reviewed research by government. If you support that, this event is for you.

Here’s hoping that The March for Science works on the other issues I discussed in this post, or I’m genuinely concerned that the March for Science will never actually happen.

Disability as Punishment in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

This post contains spoilers for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I recently finished watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency on Netflix. It’s a show based on books by Douglas Adams (who also wrote The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The premise of the show really defies coherent summary. You have to watch all eight of the episodes to actually figure out what is going on. Which is in no small way, part of the appeal. I won’t try to explain the plot and this post really won’t spoil much of the plot. I am instead going to focus on how disability fits into the story and character development of two of the show’s characters.

The show largely follows Todd Brotzman who is mostly unwillingly swept up into the drama of the show. Todd is an underemployed (and eventually unemployed) loser. Despite this, he is the primary financial caregiver of his sister, Amanda who has a condition called Pararibulitis. This fictional disorder results in Amanda having vivid hallucinations of being in extreme pain. She hallucinates both a drowning and being on fire. The medications for Pararibulitis are expensive and Todd is Amanda’s only source of financial support as the disease has left her unable to work and primarily confined to her home. It is revealed early on that Todd is financially responsible for Amanda because their parents spent all their money on Pararibulitis (which runs in their family) treatments for Todd.

It is later revealed that an unscrupulous Todd has lied about having the condition to extort money from his parents. He supports his sister out of guilt because their parents’ money had run out by the time she manifested the disease and really needed the treatments.

Throughout the show, Todd goes through a lot of personal growth which includes coming clean about his lies and confronting his other less than legal behaviour (including theft from friends and his landlord).

It seems that by the end of the current season Todd is on his way to redemption by taking responsibility for his past. That is until the very end of the last episode which shows Todd talking on the phone with Amanda (who is still coming to terms with his betrayal), suddenly he drops the phone as he experiences a hallucination of his phone burning a hole through his hand. The last shot is of him writhing on the floor in pain.

Much of the show’s plot revolves around the idea of interconnectedness. The show’s titular character Dirk Gently is a pseudopsychic entity who succeeds mainly through happenstance. Things are predestined. Everything basically happens for a reason.

So, when Todd presumably manifests Pararibulitis at the end of the season, it is clearly meant to.

As soon as it became apparent that Todd had manifested Pararibulitis, I was frustrated at the use of disability as punishment. A punishment that was confirmed as the song First Things First by Neon Trees played in the background. The opening lyrics to which are,

You are never gonna get
Everything you want in this world
First things first
Get what you deserve

The disability as being somehow deserved trope is particularly disgusting because it is so prevalent outside of fiction.

The idea that disability is the result of sin is ancient and continues to be prevalent. Whether it be seen as a direct punishment for an individuals actions or a more generalized reminder of the sins of humanity.

Consider the stigma around HIV & AIDs. A lot of it stems from homophobia and the idea that people who contract the disease deserve it for their perceived sexual indiscretions.

Disability as just punishment is an idea so pervasive, that when it happens to people who have done genuine harm, it is framed as righteous. Consider Ava Duvernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma. At the end of the film while While King gives his speech at the Alabama Capitol, the camera revisits key historical figures in the film as an epilogue.

Amongst stories of activists who were finally able to register to vote or who eventually went on to win places in public office, they include an update on Alabama’s Governor. A man who fought hard against civil rights. This is what they shared.

george-wallace-1

Image description: A screenshot from the film Selma showing Alabama governor George Wallace (portrayed by actor Tim Roth). To his right is text that reads “George Wallace: Ran for President unsuccessfully four times. He was left paralyzed by an assassination attempt in 1972”

The choice to include disability along with his failure to move his political career forward after the events of Selma is clearly meant to show that he got his deserved comeuppance for his racist policies.

While Wallace was absolutely on the wrong side of history and did immeasurable harm with his racist policies and legislation, it is inappropriate to suggest that he deserved disability. Not because he didn’t deserve to be held accountable for his actions but because if we accept that disability is a just punishment then we must accept that disability is universally a negative experience.

Not only does the suggestion that Wallace got what he deserved reinforce the idea that disability is a punishment but it reinforces the idea that disability is and should be a negative experience.

As disabled people fight through deeply held cultural misconceptions about disability, it is harmful to have it suggested in either lighthearted comedies (Dirk Gently) or in reference to real people (Wallace) that those who do harm should suffer and that suffering should look like us.

Believing disability to be a punishment allows people to justify not supporting necessary services and accessibility.

Media needs to do better, even when it’s as surreal and unrealistic as Dik Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency because making it acceptable to say “What goes around comes around” in terms of disability is far from fictional. It’s probable the most realistic thing in that show and that’s a problem.

“The Accountant” Tries To Be a Unique & Authentic Portrayal of Autism Using By the Numbers Stereotypes and No Actual Autistic People

The Accountant (which stars Ben Affleck & Anna Kendrick) is a film about an Autistic forensic accountant who is also a highly skilled hit man. The people behind the film (which opens on October 14) were featured in a recent LA Times article regarding what they did to make sure that the portrayal of an “Assassin-On-The-Spectrum” honestly.

The writer, director & stars all commented on how they tried to both turn the film narrative of autism on its head and maintain authenticity.

The problem is that based on everything that is revealed about the character in the piece actually sounds pretty much exactly like the same old tired Autism stereotypes that have been done before.

To add insult to injury the stated methods of attempting to ascertain that the film was accurate and inoffensive are deeply problematic and certainly don’t reassure me that due diligence was done.

This film hasn’t been released yet so I can’t actually speak to the full completed product but there is a lot in how those involved in the film are presenting both the autistic character, how they approached portraying him, and who they asked for feedback that is worth unpacking.

Let’s start by looking at the character Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck). They present the character as an edgy, unique autistic character who is different from other autistic characters that people have seen on screen before. This is why he is

A white male, unlike Raymond Babbitt, that kid from Mercury Rising, or Hugh Dancy’s character in Adam… Oh wait.

The vast majority of portrayals of disability not exclusive of autism are of white men. This is problematic in that it erases a visual representation of the huge diversity within the disabled population.

An autistic savant, unlike Raymond Babbitt, that kid from Mercury Rising, or Hugh Dancy’s character in Adam… Oh wait.

I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only autistic person who wishes that Hollywood would put a moratorium on autistic savant characters. Savantism is rare and does not accurately represent the average lived experience with autism. In film and television the opposite is apparently true. Autistic people who are not savants are basically an endangered species.

Does not achieve a lasting romantic relationship, unlike Raymond Babbitt,  or Hugh Dancy’s character in Adam… Oh wait.

Perhaps one the the most infuriating things said about Wolff’s character in the piece is when Ben Affleck says

“He doesn’t get the girl. … I thought it was so unique and surprising. It almost seemed too good to be true.”

No Ben. This is not unique. This is an insidious overly done stereotype in films in which disabled characters are routinely denied meaningful human relationships.

It’s only unique to actors like Affleck who are used to playing nondisabled leading men who get the girl as a matter of course.

As a disabled viewer of media the thing that would be to good to be true would be a film where the disabled character (who is preferably not a white  dude) actually gets the romantic ending. Not a film where either there is no suggestion of sexuality (Rain Man) or where the romance is destroyed as a direct result of the characters disability (Adam & potentially The Accountant. That remains to be seen).

Basically, the star of the film is excited about an aspect of the film that plays directly to  a harmful stereotype. It’s also so obvious a plot point that apparently it isn’t even a spoiler that should be kept under wraps at least until after the film is released.

*sigh*

The thing that is really supposed to make Christian Wolff different is the fact that he’s an assassin. I mean disabled characters being scary & dangerous is actually a pretty standard film trope (seriously pick a Bond film at random & see what I mean). So beyond the fact  that Wolff is the main character, I’m not sure how this is new or innovative. Dangerously disabled has in fact been done to death.

Then there is the issue of authenticity. The screenwriter Bill Dubuque says

“I’ve always been interested in how the mind works,” Dubuque said on a recent afternoon. “I thought: What if you could structure a story that was a mystery within a mystery? What goes on in this individual’s mind? How does he process information? How does he communicate with the rest of the world?”

How did they test if Dubuque got it right?

They screened it for Autism charities including Autism Speaks

The fact that they screened it for organizations rather than making a point to get the film in front of actual autistic people is already problematic but the fact that they highlight that they screened the film for Autism Speaks and present Autism Speaks as a reliable source of information is doubly problematic.

Autism Speaks has a particularly controversial relationship with actual autistic people. Ignoring that controversy and presenting Autism Speaks as an accurate gauge of the authenticity of autistic portrayal is basically giving Autistic people the finger.

Seriously, it is not hard to find autistic people criticizing Autism Speaks including Autistic People led advocacy organizations. Even mainstream media outlets have covered it.

Anna Kendrick asked the parent of an Autistic child

Anna Kendrick…admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.

“A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong,” she said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don’t even worry about that. Everyone is different.’”

The phrase “When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child” exists to fight stereotyping of Autism. The fact that it is being used to basically say “do whatever you want, it’ll be fine” is really problematic.

The fact that Kendrick asked a parent rather than an actual autistic person is also problematic. Parents aren’t mind melded with their children and shouldn’t be assumed to be accurate surrogates for the opinions of the disabled community simply because they live in close proximity to disabled people.

Again, it really isn’t difficult to find disabled people criticizing the trend of prioritizing the views of nondisabled parents over the voices of actual disabled people. Heck, it’s not uncommon for disabled people to actively push back against parent rhetoric.

So what they apparently didn’t do,

Ask Autistic People

The Accountant is supposed to be a film about an Autistic character who not only holds down a job which requires him to interact with people but who also plans and carries out assassinations. So it posits that Autistic people can in fact exist in society. It is therefor frustrating that it didn’t seem to occur to the people involved in making of that film to actually talk to Autistic people. Instead preferring third person accounts of Autism from people who are not Autistic.

The only way this makes sense is if Christian Wolff does not turn out to be a character who actually exists in proximity to other people and the events of the film (his job, being an assassin) are in fact all in his head. And I really hope that the movie doesn’t go in that direction.

The failure to actively prioritize the narratives of Autistic people is unfortunate and does not convince me that authentic and honest portrayal were an important aspect of the film.

When people claim that authenticity of disability portrayal can come from organizations and parents rather than the actual people being portrayed I am not convinced that authenticity was the goal. I am convinced that the producers of that film are only interested in creating a veneer of authenticity to fool the primarily nondisabled audience. A veneer maintained so that the film industry can continue to create inaccurate fictions of disability that do not in any way reflect the actual disabled experience.

The LA times piece only makes me wonder if I’ll be able to do the Autism stereotype drinking game with The Accountant.

Take a shot every time they mention

Theory of mind

Autistic’s lack Empathy (is this why he’s such a good assassin? if so Fuck You)

Does some unnaturally talented math thing.

I await a time when authenticity actually requires the active and widespread involvement of the people being portrayed. Preferably both behind and in front of the camera.

Disabled Women & Sexual Objectification (or the Lack Thereof)

Today in The New York Times Opinion pages there was a piece called Longing for the Male Gaze. It is a personal account of a disabled woman’s experiences of not being socially perceived as sexually desirable. I have mixed feelings about the piece. On one hand while it is reasonably well known that disabled people are either viewed as nonsexual by default, there is very little available on the lived experience of not being accepted as an attractive, sexual being. This piece challenges that trend and does so in The New York Times.

On the other hand much of the framing of the piece is problematic. It focuses less on being seen as attractive and sexual within interpersonal relationships and more on not being treated as a sexual object. Jennifer Bartlett (the author) focuses on her lack of experiences with cat calling and other forms of sexual harassment.

This is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one it gives a lot of social power and validation to harmful social interactions. For another, the author actively plays oppression olympics between sexism/misogyny & ableism. In so doing she fundamentally fails to comprehend the very real harm that can come from catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment.

I do understand her frustration with the fact that disabled women are left out of the sexual objectification faced by our nondisabled peers. It is a catch-22 of intersectional oppression that even being denied an oppressive force usually experienced by part of your identity as a result of its intersection with disability is in fact further oppression.

That disabled women are often denied sexual objectification only shows how disability has denied us the ability  to live up to social and cultural understandings of gender presentation and punishes us by denying us not only the consequences of being sexually objectified but also of simply being seen as fully women.

That is a conversation that hasn’t happened enough and needs to.

Unfortunately, Bartlett is not starting that conversation. She instead writes almost longingly of being sexually objectified as though being seen as worthy of catcalling would also mean she was worthy of being seen as a sexual being in healthier interpersonal interactions. Unfortunately, in this she is probably right.

That however does not negate the issue of her downplaying the seriousness & real dangers of sexual harassment and catcalling. She writes,

On one hand, I know that I am “lucky” not to be sexually harassed as I navigate the New York City streets. But, I am harassed in other ways that feel much more damaging. People stare. People insist that I have God’s blessing. People feel most comfortable speaking about me in the third person rather than addressing me directly. It is not uncommon that I will be in a situation where a stranger will talk to the nearest able-bodied person, whether it be a friend or a complete stranger, about me to avoid speaking to me.

I also do understand what it feels like to get attention from the wrong man. It’s gross. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary and tedious. And in certain cases, traumatic. But I still would much rather have a man make an inappropriate sexual comment than be referred to in the third person or have someone express surprise over the fact that I have a career. The former, unfortunately, feels “normal.” The latter makes me feel invisible and is meant for that purpose.

She does acknowledge that attention from the “wrong” men can be scary but still positions it as preferable to the erasure of the ableist interactions she does experience more frequently.

I would however argue that catcalling and sexual harassment is an erasure of the humanity and personhood of women. It can also be deadly (link to When Women Refuse a blog which collects stories of women who are either harmed or killed when they didn’t respond favourably to male attention).

Like Bartlett I am a woman with cerebral palsy. I however have not lived a life as free of catcalling and sexual harassment as she describes her life to have been. I have also experienced the stares, question, prayers and being ignored in favour of nondisabled companions. I am however not going to say that one is preferable than the other.

In every single incident of street harassment that I have experienced. I have felt either utterly dehumanized or genuinely threatened. I however cannot say that I have left every dehumanizing disability specific negative interaction feeling totally safe either.

Being a disabled woman who has experienced street harassment, I can also attest to the fact that it hasn’t done anything for my being accepted as a sexual being by society. In fact it is sometimes used to reinforce the fact that I’m generally not viewed as sexual.

As I’ve written about before, as a result of my disabilities I am not able to perform femininity to cultural expectations. This has resulted in men yelling questions like “are you a man or woman?” at me out of car windows or men foregoing the question altogether and simply loudly debating the question as I walk by.

When the harassment is actually sexually suggestive it’s threatening. Like the time I was lost in downtown Winnipeg at night and someone came up to me while I was trying to get my bearings told me I was beautiful and requested that I go home with him. Luckily when I visibly recoiled he moved on. This interaction was immediately followed by a second man who had witnessed the interaction using it as an excuse to get way to close to me in order to say “well that was creepy wasn’t it”.

These interactions didn’t affirm my femininity despite my disability. They made me terrified. The fact that I am also disabled and less physically able to run away or fight only exacerbated that fear.

So while I agree that in many ways the ability to be viewed as a sexual object is also tied to the more benign assessments on who gets viewed as a sexual being, I do not agree with Bartlett’s down playing of the harm of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment when coupled with disability does not actually reinforce a disabled sexual identity in a culture that continues to ignore that disabled people are sexual beings. Downplaying the harm of street harassment not only erases the real harm it causes nondisabled women who experience it regularly but also ignores that some disabled women do experience it and that it only makes them less safe not more fully human.

 

When Churches Discuss Disability Without Disabled People

Yesterday, a pastor friend sent me the link to a podcast from the Canadian Council of Churches (The fourth episode is the relevant one if you care to listen). The most recent episode deals with disability inclusion in Christian churches. They wanted my perspective on the treatment of disability. While I already shared some scaled down thoughts with them directly, I really feel it’s important to look at this more in depth in a public forum because religion plays such a huge part in the lives of billions of people and arguably particularly for disabled people, we are affected whether we want to be or not.

As I told my friend, ideologically most of the ideas are generic. A few might actually be considered progressive. What the ideas espoused in the podcast fail to do is challenge or look for meaningful solutions. There’s a lot of talk about moving beyond inclusion to making disabled people feel like they belong. Which is great but seeing as inclusion is still an issue for many and the men interviewed failed to deal with reasons for why exclusion and alienation happen, it’s all rather hollow.

The two men interviewed were a Catholic and a Coptic Priest. The interdenominational discussion is nice. It’s also nice that the issue of disability inclusion is treated as a Christian issue and not an issue for certain denominations.

The first real issue is that both of the men are nondisabled and that there seems to have been little effort to really include the voices of actual disabled people. This leaves an overly optimistic picture as all of the anecdotes about inclusive initiatives come from nondisabled people. It comes across as extremely rose tinted.

Both men mention that they have heard from disabled people that they feel excluded or alienated but the underlying reasons for this is never looked at.

This is one of the biggest problems with the interview. It talks a big game about inclusion and belonging but actively avoids a meaningful discussion about why disabled people are excluded.

The problems of religious inclusion for disabled people go beyond initiatives to hire more disabled people or make sure they are on boards. Though those are good and necessary steps.

In order for physical inclusion to move toward social inclusion and true belonging, churches need to actively acknowledge, churches discriminatory pasts and presents.

Dr. Thomas Hentrich, the Roman Catholic interviewee illustrates this when he shares a story about his disabled son being refused his first communion on the grounds that the church was concerned the boy couldn’t understand its significance.

Hentrich actively refused to acknowledge this exclusion as discriminatory. Framing it instead as just unfortunate and hurtful. I’m not sure what definition of discrimination he’s working from or if he thinks that a theological justification for the action shields it from being discriminatory. Either way, I have to disagree.

Theological justifications for treating disabled congregants need to at the very least be fully laid out and studied and then preferably actively challenged.

Hentrich’s solution of having his son receive communion at a Coptic church instead is also problematic as an example of a reasonable response for several reasons.

1.) By offering this as a simple solution it ignores the harm of the initial exclusion

2.) It ignores that many people see denominations as separate religions, so many people would not be comfortable simply leaving not just a particular church but a denomination.

  • This then could lead those individuals to feel unwelcome and possibly disconnected from God.

3.) Disabled people who want to be part of a faith community should not have to shop around for one that is going to treat them well.

The only other problematic belief that was actually mentioned and again not dealt with is the idea that many Christians hold that disability is a punishment either on the parents or the disabled person themself.

The idea was underplayed and again there was no discussion of the impact this still reasonably widespread idea has not only on disabled Christians but also on nonChristian disabled people who come into contact with people who hold those beliefs.

Instead of actually dealing with it, the podcast brushes it off with one interviewee basically writing off people who believe it as not understanding scripture, suggesting that Christ actually said the opposite and was progressive in his views on disability.

I assume they were talking about this story from John Chapter 9

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

While it is true that it actively counters concepts of disability & sin, it’s not hugely progressive and leads to two other issues that disabled people face in Christian churches. The idea of disability as symbol (often interpreted as object of charity) and faith healing.

So verse 3 Jesus says “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him“. This can be used to mean the miracles performed by Jesus himself but can also be taken to mean that disabled people are to acted upon charitably (which separates them out from others as unequal) or simply as symbols to other people of what could be and that others should be grateful.

Allow me to share a quote about Tiny Tim (Yes, the Dicken’s character) on his disability and his place in the church “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.””*

For a less historical & literary example about how disabled people theologize their disability as symbolic for others see the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada.

Now remember that Jesus may have denied that disability was caused by sin but he didn’t follow that up with “go forth and create an accessible society that includes and welcomes disabled people”. The above story is just one of many where he heals disability. This is followed by the Apostles healing people and a long history of healing by saints. Disability is very much framed as bad and that people are better off without it.

Which brings us to historical and contemporary beliefs in faith healing.

I don’t actually know a single disabled person personally, who hasn’t had someone pray that they be healed. These encounters don’t always happen in the church. The first time it happened to me, I was walking home from school.

These encounters often also include judgemental statements about people’s levels of faith along the lines of “if you believed enough you wouldn’t be disabled. God would have healed you”.

For the faithful this is a judgement on both their faith and their value. When it happens to nonChristians it just breeds animosity towards Christianity.

Saying that the bible doesn’t support the idea that disability is sinful but then saying that it is progressive shows the same selective reading that people who do link it to sin or at least a person’s level of faith. It also just ignores the reality of people who do think that way and the impact they have on disabled people not only in their churches but in society at large. For an account from an actual disabled person on this read Carly Findlay Morrow on her experiences.

Creating inclusive churches is going to take more than just inclusion initiatives. While it is nice to hear about things like the tradition in Coptic churches of hiring blind cantors and a general desire to get more disabled people involved in the church. This work cannot be done effectively or in a meaningful way if those churches are unwilling to accept and acknowledge that on both church & cultural levels they have created an alienating environment for disabled people.

In recent years there has been some work done on creating a theology of disability but unfortunately like this podcast it is far to often the work of nondisabled theologians.**

Churches need to be willing to be held accountable for their histories of harmful theologies and practices. They also need to be accountable for how these things are still happening.

They also need to be willing to acknowledge and accept that other churches may have even more harmful practices. People affected by these harmful ideas are not going to be comforted by flippant dismissals of biblical understanding. Those ideas need to be actively challenged even if you don’t share them. The fact that they exist and cause real harm needs to be actively dealt with, not glossed over.

Also in terms of physical inclusion, churches need to practice what they preach and try not to have podcasts about disability inclusion that don’t actually include disabled people.

There also needs to be more discussion of not only including disabled people at the church level but encouraging them to enter the ministry. Without disabled people at all levels of the church, true inclusion and belonging of disabled church members cannot happen.

Failure to include actual disabled voices and deal with the ideological issues of the church and disability, the belonging advocated for in that podcast cannot truly occur.

 

 

 

*Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol (Wisehouse Classics – with original illustrations) (p. 37). Wisehouse. Kindle Edition. find it here.

**an example of this is Thomas E Reynolds’ Vulnerable Communion