When Social Justice Media “Allies” Get it Wrong

On Jan. 6th Seriously.tv–a social justice focused video producer–put out a new instalment of their series “Shutting Down the Bullshit…”. The series is characterised by host Dylan Marron confronting either a noted activist or a group of people who are linked by a shared experience (race, religion, sexual assault) with stereotypes that they encounter as a result of their work or lived experience. The videos give those being interviewed an opportunity to respond directly to those harmful stereotypes.

The Jan. 6th instalment was Shutting Down the Bullshit about Autism. It, unfortunately, ends up reinforcing more stereotypes than it debunks and displays some very problematic advocacy on behalf of a grout that Marron and presumable the rest of the Seriously.tv crew do not belong to.

The “interviewee” is Avery. I put “interviewee” in quotes intentionally because, for the most part, he isn’t really the person responding to the stereotypes that Marron brings. His answers often give little information that is often problematic.

Avery brings up Autism functioning labels which are a contentious and problematic way to categorise Autistic people. People who are labelled high functioning are generally seen as being more “normal” and thus more human. People who are labelled low functioning as a consequence are seen as less human (for more thoughts on functioing labels go here).

Avery seems not only unaware of this controversy but also buys into it. Marron prompts him to divulge his functioning level to which he proudly responds “very high”.

This reinforces a dehumanizing hierarchy that posits that the more “normal” you seem the better you are. It is a harmful hierarchical structure that extends beyond the Autistic population to disabled people generally and serves primarily the place varying disabled people onto a spectrum of social value (more on that here). Now that is some bullshit that needs to be shut down.

Ultimately, though, the interview isn’t really with Avery. The interview is really with his father which brings up a host of other problems.

Much activism has been done to try and centre Autism narratives from within the Autistic community. Much of this activism comes as a direct push back against the prevalence of parent narratives. This is an issue that extends beyond the Autistic community to the wider disabled community. Consider the pushback against the website the Mighty which centres a lot of parent narratives (see here, here, and here).

Avery is really little more than prop to give a visual for his father’s input. This isn’t even thinly veiled. Avery is clearly unable to answer some of the questions, so they are clearly designed for someone else. Marron asks Avery about the film Rain Man. A film Avery hasn’t even seen so he is unable to even understand the stereotype being referenced. Not that his father does much better when the video cuts to him, he says,

“Rain Man is a lovely movie about a man’s relationship with his brother. It is not a movie about Autism”

This answer is dismissive bullshit.

Rain Man epitomises a harmful and prevalent media stereotype about Autism. It is a caricature that utilises stereotypes about  Autism and savantism that are seen in many films that include Autistic characters. It features a character that is often parodied and involves the use of cripping up. The discriminatory practice of a nondisabled actor playing a disabled character. It is a film that has very much informed the cultural consciousness of what it means to be Autistic.

The lack of mentioning of the Autistic savant stereotype is even more telling when the video decides to highlight Avery’s “special skill” he has perfect pitch. His demonstration of this skill along with a lot of video of him talking is really just a backdrop for his father’s voice over.

The focus on Avery’s father is not just problematic because he’s taking up space that should really be filled by an Autistic voice. The video basically applauds him by including an old myth that Autism was caused by bad parenting. This moment seems more like a moment to say “oh look at this nice parent of a disabled child” than actually challenging a stereotype that needs debunking.

While the “Autism is caused by bad parenting” myth did exist it is hardly prevalent now. It is far more common for people to believe that Autism is caused by vaccines. Which is some bullshit that has already been heavily debunked but it still far to widely believed. It is a belief that actively stigmatises Autistic people and threatens people’s health and lives.

Patting Avery’s father on the back for not being a shitty parent is also problematic because it obscures just how much abuse parents of disabled children are forgiven for.

Consider the conciliatory tone the media took with Kelli Stapleton who tried to kill her Autistic daughter Isabelle.

A video that is ostensibly about challenging Autism stereotypes is no place for “yay, parents of disabled kids”. Regardless of how good of a parent Avery’s father. His experience and old stereotypes focusing on parents should not be the focus because it feeds into a dangerous “saintly parent” stereotype which is some other bullshit that needs shutting down.

This visual silencing of an Autistic person in favour of a neurotypical voice is actually hard to watch. It is also not in keeping with the other videos in the series which clearly centre activists speaking for themselves.

In other videos in the series where a single individual is interviewed, they are always an activist (with the exception of a less serious instalment where Marron speaks to a toddler). When multiple voices aren’t being heard, the individual is someone who it is easy enough to look up and fact check. It is possible to see where they fit into the experience they are speaking to and find out any criticisms of them and their opinions.

This is not possible with Avery or his father for whom we are not even given a last name.

Marron sought to defend his choice to use Avery’s dad in the video with a statement on facebook that he later shared on Twitter.

dylan-marron-excuses

Image description: A screenshot of a Facebook comment by Dylan Marron which reads “Hey all, I’d like to publicly address my decision to open up the conversation to include Avery’s dad Joey. Thank you to those who have asked about it (Thanks Jaden!). I work hard to make sure that ‘Shutting Down Bullsh*t’ gives a platform to those directly affected by the bullsh*t so they can shut it down themselves. This topic, however, provided a unique challenge as we were dispelling myths about a condition that inherently inhibits communication – not intelligence or capability, but communication. Avery is a friend of mine and I personally know how brilliant he is, but I also know that there were some social barriers that would prevent him from expressing the detail that he wants to convey. Joey, his dad, is also a friend of mine. We talked about this interview for a while and carefully discussed what would be best to make sure Avery was speaking for himself, but also how to make this video accessible to those who know nothing about autism. I figured that rather than relying on stats and graphics to complement Avery’s responses, I would also give that platform to someone who not only knows a great deal about autism, but someone who deeply loves a person with autism and could help illuminate more about this person to a neurotypical audience. The way I see it is that Joey wasn’t speaking for Avery, but rather was complementing him. Shutting Down Bullsh*t takes huge, gigantic, and complex topics and squeezes them in to a three minute video. None of my guests can speak for *all* people affected by the bullsh*t they are shutting down, but they can present a reflection of what *some* folks in that community *might* be feeling. Since I wasn’t able to interview all folks on the autism spectrum, this video is about autism through Avery’s eyes. And to honor that I thought the best thing to do would be to include the voice of someone who loves him deeply and has spent his entire fatherhood ensuring that Avery speaks for himself as much as possible.”

This defence is itself full of problematic Autism stereotypes that Marron is using to defend himself. Even though the video itself does (through Avery’s dad) mention the diversity of Autistic people, Marron says

“I work hard to make sure that ‘Shutting Down Bullsh*t’ gives a platform to those directly affected by the bullsh*t so they can shut it down themselves. This topic, however, provided a unique challenge as we were dispelling myths about a condition that inherently inhibits communication”

So much for diversity of the Autistic experience. Apparently, we are all incapable of speaking not only about our own experiences but responding to the stereotypes and stigma we experience. I must assume my entire post is gibberish then. You probably haven’t even read this far it must be such an incomprehensible mess.

Basically, the problem isn’t that Autistic people need to have neurotypical translators or spokespeople but that Marron chose the wrong interview subject.

Avery is clearly not knowledgeable about major stereotypes or issues within the Autistic community. How is he supposed to respond to things with which he is unfamiliar? It is an unfamiliarity that his father largely shares. He is not an appropriate replacement advocate.

The video format is also inaccessible to Avery. It is very adversarial and there was not attempt made to modify the format to make it easier for him. This is unsurprising as the video is so clearly geared towards speaking to his father and not him.

There are absolutely Autistic people who can and do regularly shut down bullshit ableist stereotypes. (like Lydia X.Z. Brown as just one example). There are entire organisations set up to promote Autism self-advocacy. (see here and here). It is more than possible to find Autistic people who don’t need an interpreter. It is possible to find Autistic people who can be researched so that like the other people featured in this video series, viewers can learn more and see how they fit into a larger activist framework.

Marron basically rejects that possibility. He also uses the “well not everyone is going to agree” cop out.

“None of my guests can speak for *all* people affected by the bullsh*t they are shutting down, but they can present a reflection of what *some* folks in that community *might* be feeling. Since I wasn’t able to interview all folks on the autism spectrum, this video is about autism through Avery’s eyes. And to honor that I thought the best thing to do would be to include the voice of someone who loves him deeply and has spent his entire fatherhood ensuring that Avery speaks for himself as much as possible.”

While of course, no one in this video series speaks for everyone in their movement at least it is usually possible to situate them within it. Marron wants it both ways, to argue that making a video about Autism stereotypes featuring an Autistic person is inherently difficult (because he generalises that Autistic people have difficulty communicating) and then defend his choice of subject as just a particular point of view. A point of view that by featuring in a video, he is supporting.

By framing it this way Marron puts the Autistic community into a box that we don’t fit into. By choosing to interview someone who has no clear public presence it is impossible to situate him in a wider discourse on Autism and advocacy and give a very singular view of Autism that doesn’t centre Autistic people and spews more bullshit than it shuts down.

I know I’m Autistic but hopefully, I communicated that effectively.

 

Update:

Seriously.tv and Dylan Marron have released a new Shutting Down the Bullshit about Autism video. This one uses only Autistic people and includes multiple voices.

Marron also directly responded to the criticism from the Autistic community in a tweet and on Facebook.

A screen-readable version of the text in the tweet images can be found at the bottom of this post.

It’s great to see a more accurate Autistic people shutting down the bullshit for themselves.

The text in Marron’s response reads

Being called out publicly when you think you’re already “woke” sucks. But it helps, too.

In a recent episode of ‘Shutting Down Bullsh*t’ I sat down with my friend Avery to dispel myths about autism. I also included an interview with his father to help illuminate more about autism from the parent’s perspective. I had no idea that allistic (non-autistic) parents speaking over their children is a harmful trope in the representation of autism. I should have taken the time to know that. That’s on me.

While many in the autism community reached out with thanks for beginning to tackle the issue on my show, a great number also expressed frustration with the video – even deep anger. My gut response was to say “No, this can’t be! I’m woke! I speak up against ableism!” But as the messages continued to come in, I realized that I had presented the autism community incompletely at best and, at worst, I had fallen into a pattern of silencing that folks on the spectrum are far too familiar with.

This was particularly tough for me to come to terms with as someone who has been so aware of the silencing that has gone on in my own communities; the centering of cis white masc-presenting men in LGBT representation, the favoring of light skin and Eurocentric features in Latinx culture… the list, sadly, goes on.

The messages pointing out the shortcomings in my video – especially from longtime fans – hurt to read. But ultimately it was for the better. And I’m thankful to those who took the time to explain to me why the episode missed the mark.

Through this all, I’m understanding that “wokeness” is in fact a process, and not a photo-friendly finish line. I still have much more to learn but I’m listening.

To all of us who identify as “woke”, may we not get too proud of our awareness. May we take a deep breath when we’re called out by the communities we’re seeking to serve, and offer a helping hand when we see others “miss the mark.” And finally: let’s accept that we will inevitably Get It Wrong sometimes. What matters is how we evolve after that.

Let’s keep making and let’s keep listening. We can’t afford not to.

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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.

Disability is Not the Bogeyman, Stop Using it as a Threat

About a month ago this video of Cosmologist Stephen Hawking was released onto the internet.

The video is not a lecture on physics as on might expect from someone who is perhaps the most famous scientist alive today. Instead, it is a video decrying the horrors of the “obesity epidemic”.

Vague statements are made about the dangers of being overweight or obese. I’m not going get into the science of health and weight. It’s complicated and contentious. I’m an academic in the humanities in no small part because of my total lack of aptitude for science.

Instead, I am going to look at the choice to use Stephen Hawking as the spokesperson for this message and some of the claims he makes in the video.

Stephen Hawking is widely considered to be one of the most intelligent people on the planet. This reputation tends to give him a great deal of influence. This is a problem. I’m not saying he isn’t extremely smart but a high level of intelligence does not translate into expertise in every subject. Stephen Hawking is not a medical doctor. His presence in the video serves two purposes.

  1. Using this veneer of expertise to lend credibility to the message in the video.
  2. Using the image of his disabled body as both metaphor and threat.

In the context of the claims of this video Stephen Hawking does not, in fact, know what he’s talking about. Obesity is framed as primarily an issue of laziness. A problem that could be easily fixed if people only had the strength of will to exercise and eat better.

The reality is far more complicated. Access to healthy food and exercise are not necessarily easily attainable.

In order to eat healthy food, you need to be able to both have access to it and be able to afford it. This is a major barrier for many people living in poverty.

Not being able either access or afford healthy food is not a=actually evidence of laziness.

Similarly, people need to have access to safe and effective exercise. As a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter,

I hate that no one will notice that he’s never lived somewhere that’s too dangerous to let ur kids play outside (link)

It’s not always as simple as just getting out and walking.

Then there’s the issue of time, depending on issues like work schedules, parenting, and housekeeping. Finding time to actually exercise can be difficult for many and none of the reasons come down to laziness.

These issues are additionally complicated if, like Hawking, you happen to be disabled. Access to healthy food isn’t just an issue of cost and availability. There is also the issue of physical accessibility of the food.

Access to exercise can be even more limited.

In the video Hawking says “And for what it’s worth, how being sedentary has become a major health problem, is beyond my understanding.”

Some possible answers are increased mechanization requiring less human involvement, more work that is heavily based around computers, etc. None of these things are inherently caused by laziness but rather the adoption of technology without considering and planning for the consequences of a widespread shift to more sedentary work.

Add that to issues of poverty and you have the makings of a widespread socially constructed and maintained problem where people don’t have access to healthy lifestyle options.

It’s an issue that won’t be fixed by labeling the issue one of laziness and trying to shame people who very well be unable to change their circumstances.

None of these concepts are I expect beyond Stephen Hawkings ability to grasp but then he’s a cosmologist and not a social scientist.

Then there is the issue of using Hawking in a video decrying a sedentary lifestyle at all. He is after all paralyzed from ALS. The video uses this and it horrifies me that Hawking let them do it.

He is shown immobile in his wheelchair opining about the laziness of others. The unspoken message is clear “how dare you lazy people choose to be sedentary, I don’t even have the choice”.

He’s used as an odd and ultimately false morality tale. Even if access to healthy food and exercise weren’t more complicated than the video lets on, ALS is a genetic condition which is not caused by diet or lack of exercise.

Yet, people are supposed to look at him and see a horrifying alternative life. They’re supposed to decide not to waste the opportunity to move because some people can’t.

This message entirely relies on the widespread adoption of the idea that a life with disability is one that is not worth living. That is a big problem that extends beyond Hawking and his personal views on his quality of life.

Stephen Hawking in this video is not just speaking for himself, he is exploiting stereotypes about the disabled experience and presenting them with all the power of his influence and reputation.

Disabled people have been thrown under the bus to promote exercise before. It often positions the idea of disability as a threat. The thing that will happen to you if you don’t exercise. Things like this position disabled people as outside the human experience because it both dehumanizes us by turning us into the monster that will destroy you because you didn’t eat your vegetables or go for that run.

As a result of being artificially positioned as the outsider, it both ignores the unique difficulties disabled people face while trying to access exercise. It also frames disabled lives as ones that are not worth living.

While that may be the belief of some disabled people, it is not the opinion of all of us (not by a long shot). The problem is that nondisabled people don’t see or hear that often enough. Getting that message from Stephen Hawking gives it more weight than it deserves.

Exercise and eating healthy is good for people. Now if only people with as much influence as Stephen Hawking could better understand the big picture of the social causes of why people don’t then maybe we could move away from the obesity shaming and blaming rhetoric which will I assure you, not fix the problems of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.

I also wish people would stop using disability as a threat or misplaced morality tale to advertise healthy lifestyles. Disabled people deserve to be treated better than that and I for one would actually like to be considered as part of humanity when they actually start coming up with real solutions to the lack of access to healthy food and exercise. An inclusion that is unlikely if I and other disabled people are positioned not as members of the community who face issues of access to healthy lifestyles choices but as the bogeymen representing the perils of noncompliance.

 

 

The Real Problem with “Drive-By Lawsuits”

On Dec. 4 the show 60 Minutes featured a segment on “Drive-By Lawsuits” hosted by Anderson Cooper. A drive-by lawsuit is a lawsuit filed by a disabled person based on an ADA (or other accessibility law depending on country of origin) violation. These lawsuits are framed as a nuisance as they are sometimes filed by people or law firms who do this regularly.

There are a number of problems with the segment.

It utilizes stigmatizing footage of disabled people

The segment utilizes background footage of Ingrid Tischer who has this to say about seeing herself in this context,

You know what’s awesome? Seeing yourself — excuse me, parts of yourself, the non-mouthy parts — on The TeeVee showing how disability access in built environments are achievable and cool in a segment where the talking parts of other people — excuse me, men people — explain the horror of running a business that doesn’t break the law or limit their customer base. Courtesy 60 FoxNews Minutes

The footage does not include her head. She is completely depersonalized.

It doesn’t delve into why there are so many ADA violations

There is no active monitoring of ADA compliance. Dealing with infractions of laws governing accessibility (in the US & many other countries) is often primarily done through complaints. So while the law may say what needs to be done, unless someone actually complains there is little incentive to actively comply. There is no independent body doing regular inspections and meting out fines for noncompliance.

The segment doesn’t question why so many of the people hit with these so called nonsense lawsuits are ignorant of the law but it shows that ignorance as reasonable. No one questions why business owners are so unaware of their responsibilities.

It suggests that compliance is only necessary if people are complaining

One of the questions that every business owner is asked is whether anyone has either actually used an accommodation or asked for it prior to the lawsuit. The answer is invariably “no”.

This is framed to seem as though the accommodation has been up till now unnecessary and that the request was ultimately frivolous. Ingrid Tischer provides insight into why disabled people don’t make requests and don’t forcefully complain if an accommodation is unavailable.

You know why I never used to ask for a pool lift and maybe never even sought one out? (Despite excellent legal reasoning that ought to render the issue moot.) Because I’ve been hardened by the indifference of business owners. You know – the people who admit on national television they weren’t following the law and somehow are the sympathetic victims of rapacious crippled people.

This segment ultimately frames accessibility law as overreaching legislation that demands things that are unnecessary but fails to look at the reality of living in a world that is routinely inaccessible. There is very real truth to the idea that if you aren’t expected to show up then you will simply learn not to. Particularly if your presence and needs are treated as an inconvenience.

It frames people who file these suits as nuisances

One of the glaring omissions of the 60 minutes piece is that it doesn’t look at how these ADA infractions would be ameliorated if not for these lawsuits (in fact it none to subtly suggests that maybe there didn’t really need to be accommodation in the first place).

The ADA is law and yet it is widely overlooked by the people who are supposed to be subject to it. The segment points out repeatedly that proprietors don’t think that the people filing are actual customers but my question is; so what? These accommodations aren’t supposed to be things people have to ask for. They are simply supposed to be available. Why is it relevant who points it?

Cooper also talks about the lack of warning before a lawsuit but he doesn’t actually look at whether warnings are effective. In fact, they go out of their way to make accommodations seem inconvenient and excessive. They point out both the specificity of the requirements (though brief lip service is paid to the importance of this) and the costs. Then they go out of their way to say that the expensive accommodation goes unused.

It basically undermines the very purpose of the ADA.

It doesn’t look at how poor enforcement of the ADA has led to the abuse of disabled people

The segment also looks at how unscrupulous lawyers recruit disabled people to use as claimants and then cheat them out of the proceeds. This is a real concern. The segment however, points at the ability to sue over ADA violations as the major contributing factor in this kind of economic abuse. However, if the ADA was actively enforced it would do away with the very need for widespread filings and thus make this kind of abuse less likely to occur. Suing over ADA violations would be less lucrative.

It puts the blame for societal stigma against disabled people on disabled people who demand access

Perhaps the most egregious part of the segment is that it makes a point of voicing the idea that demands for access breed ill will toward disabled people. The problem is that this ill will already existed. The proprietors just had plausible deniability. They didn’t accommodate because they just didn’t know any better and they didn’t know any better because they didn’t take time  to think about the needs of disabled people and their legal obligations towards them. This lead to the creation and maintanence of inaccessible spaces.

Ill will doesn’t only exist when people acknowledge it. It was just subversive and deniable. Having it pointed out and there being a financial ramification is not disabled people’s fault. Saying it is, only serves to encourage disabled people to stay silent.

***

It would be far better if government took an active role in monitoring and enforcing accessibility legislation. It would likely create a more accessible environment. It would also remove the need for mass lawsuits. It would also remove the proprietor as victim narrative because the law would be enforced more uniformly. People would not be able to opine that they had been hit with an infraction when the guy down the street did not.

Complaint based systems are not useful in enforcing legislation that is designed to help a marginalized group. It creates an adversarial environment where the marginalized are somehow always to blame because they can’t see and force everyone to comply equally.

Creating a law meant to create more equality but not including a substantive way of enforcing it says a lot about how unimportant that equality really is.

The real problem with drive-by lawsuits is not that they happen but that we live in a world that makes them so easy and in some ways necessary to create accessible spaces.

I only wish Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes had considered that before airing that segment.

The Problem With Paternalizing Disabled People to Protest Donald Trump

More than a week after the 2016 US election many people are still in shock at the result. People are still trying to piece together how Donald trump won and at the same time voice their horror at his election. This is entirely understandable considering the bigotry that was the backbone of Trump’s campaign which included suggesting that undocumented Mexican immigrants were rapists and that the US should build a wall on the Mexican border & the suggestion that the US should implement a total shutdown of Muslim immigration into the country.

Criticisms of Trump and his use of this sort of rhetoric absolutely should be criticized and protested. Particularly because these things could be acted upon and be used to harm the people being targeted.

I however genuinely wish that I could stop seeing things like this

15111106_10154510449195733_7100512809205767734_o

image description: A screenshot of a tweet by Damien Owens including an image of Donald Trump physically mocking disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski with the text “As long as I live, I will never understand how this alone wasn’t the end of it” (link to original tweet)

This tweet has been retweeted over 100 000 times and I originally can across it when the screenshot was shared on Facebook. This incident is considered by many to be Trump’s worst moment of the campaign.

Things like this make me feel sick and it’s not even the fact that I am repeatedly forced to see that image of Trump (horrific as it is). It infuriates me because it comes not from an understanding of what a Trump presidency will actually mean for disabled people in the United States but from pure paternalism.

Trump mocking Kovaleski is undeniably ableist. It is awful & worthy of criticism and commentary but it is far from the worst thing Trump said or did during his campaign and quite frankly the obsession with putting it forward as the quintessential example of how horrible Trump is, is deeply hypocritical.

First, let’s remember why Trump was mocking Kovaleski in the first place. He was angry that Kovaleski pushed back against Trump’s exaggerated interpretation of an article that Kovaleski had written about reports that Muslims were seen celebrating on 9/11.

The mockery of Kovaleski completely overshadowed the fact that Trump was in fact trying to fan the flames of Islamophobia at the time. He was doing that because he had already called for a registry of Muslims. First question, why wasn’t declaring a registry for an entire religious group not big enough of a horror to be the last straw? Second question, why is the mocking of an individual (even if that mockery is grounded in bigotry) worse than the Islamophobia Trump was defending and the actual suggestion of registering Muslims,  an action that if taken would hurt millions?

Mocking Kovaleski was bad but it wasn’t a suggestion of action against disabled people, even Trump knew enough to deny that he was mocking Kovaleski’s disability. He knew better than to double down on that. An awareness that he did not extend to the other groups that he targeted and included suggestions on how he might actually hurt them like mass deportations and building a wall.

That is not to say that Trump’s policies are good for disabled people, they’re not. He’s threatening the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and disabled people are very worried about what a Trump presidency will mean for them. However, simply holding up Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski doesn’t help them. It doesn’t acknowledge how gutting the Affordable Care Act will hurt disabled people. It does not show Trump’s track record of dealing with disability issues (like that his properties have been sued at least 8 times for ADA violations).

It does not come with an active call of solidarity for disabled people with demands for greater access and ACA protection or plans on how to help disabled people when Trump implements harmful laws.

It doesn’t do those things because it isn’t actually based in the idea that disabled people are fully human. It’s based in the idea that disabled people are perpetual children who require coddling and protection. We are not people to be worked with but to be heroically saved.

This kind of focus also ignores the double standard of lambasting Trump for his ableism but ignoring the ableism used against the Trump campaign.

Apparently, Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski is beyond the pale but the widespread and concerted efforts to label Trump with a hypothetical mental illness were righteous and in no way totally stigmatizing of people with psychiatric disabilities.

Right Wing pundit Ann Coulter defended Trump by claiming he wasn’t mocking Kovaleski’s specific disability but was rather “he was just doing an impression of a ‘standard retard'”. As much as I hate to agree with Coulter in any way, particularly when she’s doing her level best to normalize slurs against people with intellectual disabilities, she may well be right. It is all to common to attempt to discredit someone by suggesting they are like someone with an intellectual disability. Trump was even the target of such associations.

During the campaign I came across images like this,

trump-sloth

Image description: A side by side image labeled “The Goonies Now” it shows then and now photos of the cast of the 1985 film The Goonies until the final comparison which shows a picture of the character Sloth who has an intellectual disability and facial disfigurement, it is shown next to a photoshopped image of Trump who has been changed to feature the same disfigurement.

Associating people with disability, particularly intellectual disability to discredit them is very common but the hypocrisy of focusing on the Kovaleski incident goes beyond that. It completely ignores the social reality of being disabled and that those realities were created or maintained by both political parties and extend beyond the borders of the United States.

Consider the fact that as soon as it became clear that Trump was going to win; a post that I had written back in April on disability and immigration to Canada started getting a lot of traffic. It actually maintained the top viewed item spot on my blog for over a week.  If you don’t have time to read it it boils down to: if you’re disabled you can’t immigrate to Canada unless you marry a Canadian.

The British government is currently under fire from the UN for violating the rights of disabled people with austerity measures. The government has more or less dismissed these concerns.

Socially on an international level it is entirely acceptable to treat disabled people like second class citizens. None of this reality is addressed by focusing on that one time Trump mocked a single disabled person. Lambasting just the mockery suggests that the world is supposed to be above treating disabled people badly but the lived experience of disabled people does not bear this out.

By simply suggesting the world should be above mocking disabled people without contextualizing it with the harms of ableist actions and policies, people are in fact covering up the fact that those things are widespread realities.

If the concern was a genuine concern for disabled people then the question wouldn’t be “why didn’t Trump’s mocking of a disabled person stop his campaign in its tracks?” but rather “Why didn’t ads like this one for Hillary Clinton which affirms the humanity of disabled people and the importance of inclusion guarantee her the presidency?”

The reality is that people are all to permissive of policies and laws that discriminate against disabled people regardless of political affiliation and fixing those problems or even acknowledging their scope is harder than calling Trump out for a single incidence of ableism.

People Are Scared of What’s Different & Other Revelations From The Accountant

The following will contain comprehensive spoilers of the new film The Accountant which opened today.

I am going to start with a brief synopsis of the film, followed by a review based solely on the plot. Then I will dig deeper into the portrayal of disability (specifically Autism but not exclusively). Bare with me the plot is convoluted.

Synopsis

The film is about Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) an Autistic mathematical savant who works as a forensic accountant for organized crime. Some of the promotional material for the film also describes him as either a hitman or assassin. This is less clear in the film though he is certainly very skilled at multiple forms of violence. He’s an unbeatable sniper, his hand to hand combat skills are unparalleled etc (you get the point).

When Wolff realizes that his less legal accounting activities have drawn law enforcement attention, he decides to let heat wear off while he takes more conventional legal accounting work.

He is hired to determine the source of millions of dollars which have gone missing from a robotic prosthetics company. He is paired with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) the in house accountant who discovered the financial discrepancy.

As Wolff comes closer to discovering the source of the financial anomaly, the company’s CFO is murdered by being forced to overdose on insulin. It is seen as a suicide and the company’s president Lamar Black (John Lithgow) fires Wolff saying that the CFO’s suicide was an admission guilt.

Wolff can’t let it go. He can’t stand unfinished puzzles. He keeps digging and concludes that more is going on. His suspects keep turning up dead and he and dana Cummings are eventually targeted for assassination.

Wolff Thwarts these assassination attempts and takes Dana somewhere safe before returning to get to the bottom of the fraud.

In the meantime law enforcement is closing in and the film is interspersed with flashbacks of Wolff’s childhood. His father refusing conventional treatment in favour of immersive martial arts training for Wolff and his brother.

Wolff eventually determines that Lamar Black is behind the whole scheme and goes after him. Black is protected by his hired assassin & various goons. Wolff makes short work of the goons, realizes that the assassin is his brother (hey, I warned you that the spoilers would be comprehensive), they have a half-hearted sibling fight, reconcile and Wolff kills Black.

Review

There is to much going on in the movie. It would be better is the law enforcement angle had been cut altogether. It seems to be there only for the sole purpose of giving an excuse for unnecessary exposition and to set up the possibility of a sequel.

It turns out that the lead agent knew who Wolff was all along but set the junior agent on him anyway so that she could see how he functioned and realize that he’s really a criminal with a heart of gold (he’s been tipping the older agent off on some of his employers more nefarious dealings). The older agent is retiring and was the younger agent to continue taking the tips (she does).

Without that the movie would just be a cat and mouse plot, Wolff chases Black’s assassin who in turn chases Wolff right back.

The law enforcement angle just adds a dog into the mix, a dog that really just wants to play with the cat anyway so it’s kind of redundant.

The action sequences are underwhelming. Mostly because Wolff is set up to be such a good fighter that they lack any tension. There is no moment where you genuinely think he might be in mortal peril.

I also managed to figure out the twist before the reveal. That the opposing assassin was his brother so I wasn’t remotely surprised by the outcome.

So, from a purely plot based review it was convoluted and predictable.

Portrayal of Autism & other Disability References

The movie couldn’t really figure out if it wanted to have progressive message of accommodation and inclusion or an Autistic superhero who overcame his Autism through brute force. For some reason they tried to do both which was mostly just confusing.

The film opens with Christian Wolff as a child (in the 1980s). The family is visiting a treatment centre for children with developmental disabilities. Christian is sitting at a table doing a puzzle at extraordinary speed. His parents are talking to the proprietor  who refuses to diagnose Christian because “I don’t like labels”. He recommends leaving Christian there for the summer so that he can learn to adapt in an environment designed to accommodate his needs.

Aside from the cringe worthy remark about not liking labels labels this is actually pretty decent. Particularly if you consider it was supposed to have happened in the 1980s. The emphasis was absolutely on Christian’s comfort and he made a point of saying that stimming ( a common self-soothing technique involving repetitive motion) was completely normal and nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, Christian has misplaced the final piece of his puzzle and begins to have a meltdown (it’s a common theme throughout the movie that he doesn’t like not being able to finish things). Another child locates the piece for him and the camera pans to an overhead shot of the completed puzzle. It is completely grey. It is the first visual indication that Christian is really good at puzzles.

Christian’s father interprets accommodation as coddling and determines that if over stimulation is stressful for Christian than the best treatment is to subject him to as much over stimulation as possible (don’t do this, no seriously don’t do this).

So instead of giving Christian individualized care that recognized both his needs and his humanity, Christian’s father made him live a transient existence (he tells Dana that they moved over 30 times in 17 years) full of martial arts training. Even the martial arts masters think the father was taking it overboard but he just says they’re my kids (Christian’s brother was subjected to this too) I’ll decide when they’ve had enough.

This approach is infuriating for  several reasons. Not least of all that it’s actually abuse. There’s also the fact that a lot of harmful things have been done to disabled children because parents exert total dominion over their children (even if they’re not having martial arts masters pummel their children for hours). The most damaging thing of all though is that in the movie, this treatment works (again, seriously don’t do this).

Not only does christian grow up to be an unbeatable fighter, he also regularly overstimulates himself with audio and visual input. He turns off the lights, turns on loud music which is clearly stylistically different from the music that he likes while also using a strobe light.

The message appears to be that overcoming the issue beats “coddling” and yet the final scene is back at that treatment centre. That same proprietor is talking to parents. He no linger shies away from the word Autism and continues to advocate for individualized care and not placing unnecessary restrictions or expectations on an Autistic child.

Basically, it’s like the opening and closing scenes should be on a different movie and very likely a better movie. It’s like the writer really wanted a “and the moral of the story is…” ending but the content of the film simply does not lead to the final scene. In fact it utterly contradicts it. So any good that might come from what is really set up as preachy exposition is hollow because nothing that is said is modeled in the film. The entire body of the film actually serves as an active rebuttal. The film mostly just tells you that you can mold an Autistic child’s behaviour through violent regimented force.

Christian Wolff’s character is the ultimate supercrip. He’s only Autistic in the sense that he maintains a number of physical behaviours of a fake Hollywood Autistic. He has the movie monotone that is almost universally present in fictional portrayals of Autism but never present in any of the many real life Autistic people that I know. His only stimming is a pretty innocuous tapping of his fingers. He does have an eating ritual in which he must blow on his fingers before commencing. These things are really just an actor trying to physically act something that you can’t actually see and the effect falls pretty flat.

The two big stereotypes are that he’s socially awkward–the movie even includes an “I’m Autistic and have difficulty connecting with others but totally want to” speech–and he is of course a mathematical savant. He and pretty much every other movie and TV Autistic are sitting over there with their ridiculous math skills and I’m sitting over here in the social sciences cringing at my pretty solid D- high school math grades (I got a B in math once but it was an anomaly) and happily never taking math ever again.

Why does my sad history with math matter? Because even in the Autistic population savants are rare and I’m willing to bet my story is more common than the math geniuses we Autistics inevitably become when we end up on screen.

When I wrote about my concerns on how the film was being promoted, I mentioned my frustration with Ben Affleck’s excitement over having a role where his character didn’t get the girl. Admittedly the chemistry was lacking between Affleck and Kendrick but it confirmed my fear that the romance would be aborted as a direct result of Christian’s Autism. He decides to leave her right after a flashback in which his father forces him to use his exceptional fighting skills to beat some bullies who had broken his glasses. His father told him that he was being bullied because he was different and that difference always becomes frightening. To which the logical solution is to prove to them just how scary you can actually be and beat the ever loving shit out of them or something, I guess.

It is not his capacity for violence that makes him leave Dana but his father’s words that people always come to fear what is different ringing in his head.

This is just one more in a long line of movies dealing with disability where the character’s sexuality is acknowledged but ultimately unsatisfied as a direct result of their disability. So Fuck That.

It’s hard to determine how he feels about killing people. He does it so dispassionately that he appears unfeeling and yet he supposedly has a very strong though poorly defined moral code. Is it that he only kills bullies? or criminals? I mean he’s technically a criminal so I’m confused. All I know is that you know that he’s never going to kill any of the people that the film has set you up to like. So that nice elderly couple who hired him to do his taxes. They’re safe even though they watch him kill at least two people. So there are people that he’s clearly fond of and willing to protect but beyond that all bets are off, there’s no restraint or remorse until it comes to fighting with his brother. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that his brother is a mercenary commanding assassin who tried to kill him and the girl he has a crush on? is kind of fond of? (I really don’t know).

I know movie ethics are different than real world ethics but this takes it a bit far.

Interestingly, the film moves somewhat beyond Autism with the villain. No, thankfully Lamar Black is not disabled but his company makes robotic prosthetics. So in the climactic scene when Christian faces Lamar, Lamar gives a “I did the crime for the greater good speech” pointing out all the people who are helped by his technology. While he’s far from the first villain to try the “for the greater good” defense, there was something satisfying in Christian not falling for it. People being portrayed as saints for being nice to disabled people is something of an insidious real world trend.

Conclusions

So, I clearly think this movie is objectively bad (a lot of critics agree with me), so why does any of this matter.

Even if this movie completely bombs at the box office (it’s to early to tell) this film did something different, not in its content but in how it marketed the film. Disabled people have become much more vocal about calling out Hollywood for harmful stereotypes and demanding better stories and more meaningful representation.

The marketing of this film was an obvious response to that. They emphasized how much research went into the role, they emphasized how honest it was. They spent a lot of time saying that the story was original and that the portrayal was honest. This authenticity trolling was not only inaccurate but it shows that instead of working to better incorporate disabled community into the film industry that they would rather build discrediting it as a part of the the promotion process.

The fact that they did this with an action movie which would normally be defended on the grounds of it’s general unbelievability –hey shouldn’t the protagonist have died seven times already?–actually co-opted a lot of activist language to try and preemptively absolve it  from accusations of stereotyping. Then they went on their merry way and stereotyped & regurgitated hackneyed story lines to their hearts content.

And that is why it is important to care about how bad the portrayal of Autism is in this movie even though the movie isn’t even good.

 

“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.