Let’s Contextualize the Suspension of that University of Guelph Prof who Bullied a Disabled Student

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Image Description: A monochrome image of a graduation cap

Yesterday, a story came out about a University of Guelph professor who had openly mocked a disabled student during lecture. This resulted in the targeted student leaving the room along with his aide. Many of his classmates followed suit. The professor in question has been placed on leave and the incident is being applauded as a victory for justice.

While the actions of the professor were abhorrent and he deserves to have been suspended, there is a lot of context that this story is leaving out in favour of celebrating the nondisabled students who walked out in solidarity with their classmate.

I wrote a twitter thread on this yesterday but based on some of the responses I got from it, I think that a full blog post is necessary.

This is only a news story because of the solidarity of nondisabled students. I wish nondisabled people understood how much power they have to improve or limit the lives of disabled people.

The story itself treats the abused student as a prop. They are not named and are never interviewed. The entire narrative is framed around the recollections of nondisabled people.

The sentiments expressed are generally positive and supportive but the issue is also clearly framed as a one off. One bad professor. The students imply they will stand against any other injustice. But will you?

More importantly, do you? The thing that makes the Guelph story unique isn’t that it happened. The more shocking thing is that it happened in public. Disabled students experience discrimination from professors regularly. I am willing to bet that professors refuse to accommodate disabled students daily. It just happens behind closed doors and they tend to use less inflammatory language.

Some professors write op-eds and publish academic articles advocating exactly that. Where were the mass walkouts in solidarity then?

Solidarity in the Guelph incident is positive but it’s important to put it in context. The stakes for protesting students were low. The professor was a sub. Students were risking walking out on a single lecture not the entire course for the semester. They were not challenging the actual course director who has control over their grades.

Would they have walked out if it had been the course director?

Would they have been willing to potentially sacrifice an entire credit?

As responses to my twitter thread have shown me, the professor in question is not popular. I’ve received several responses from his former pupils that are all along the lines of,

“Oh, I had him as a prof and he’s a massive douche”

That reinforces the idea that people who see this story interpret it as an isolated incident perpetrated by someone widely considered detestable. There is no consideration of whether his behaviour fits into a system of discrimination against disabled people in academia.

It is more comfortable to see his behaviour as wholly aberrant instead of understanding that the only thing surprising about it is that he did it so publicly. There are many more faculty members slowly tearing down disabled students in the safety of their offices.

Where is the protest over that?

The Guelph incident is tragic not just for the abuse that one student suffered but because the way it has been framed in the media allows people to believe such incidents are rare and that they are inevitably met with swift and effective push back when they do.

 

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Katimavik Completely Changed My Life for the Better but I have Misgivings about it Coming Back

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Image Description: A photo of nineteen year old me crouching in a refrigerator that has had all the shelves removed. I had short bleach blond hair and am wearing a white hoodie featuring characters from Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic.

 

When I was 18, I was diagnosed as being autistic. I finally had an explanation for all the social misunderstanding and interpersonal faux pas I’d experienced. I now knew that every time I was punished for some mysterious crime with the all too frequent admonishment ‘It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” were not my fault. All those hours spent relegated to my bedroom wracking my brain to try and figure out why I was even in trouble suddenly made sense. Diagnosis for me was freeing. It was, however, still a diagnosis which said that I was medically predisposed to be terrible at navigating social situations, particularly in new environments with people I didn’t know.

So, obviously three months later I got on a plane to BC with the full knowledge and intention of moving into a house with eleven strangers.

I did this through a government-funded program called Katimavik which took Canadian or permanent resident youths (between 17-21) from all over Canada and divided them into groups of 11 and over the course of nine months placed them in three communities throughout Canada with a different project leader in each location. The intention was for us to do full-time volunteer work, establish strong links to volunteerism and engage with the varied culture of Canada by immersing ourselves in the communities in which we lived.

It was without question one of the most important experiences of my life. I can say without doubt that I would not be the person I am today without having done it or having known my housemates.

Nearly 12 years later though, I am conflicted about my experiences in Katimavik because I almost didn’t qualify to participate and because I know many more disabled people were denied access to that opportunity.

I have sat quietly with my discomfort over the fact that I was privileged enough to be considered “not disabled enough” to not be deemed ineligible. I was able to do this largely because not long after I left the program, the Conservative government defunded it. First rolling back funding so that it was a ghost of what it had once been and then ultimately shutting it down altogether.

The Conservative government is no more though and the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau (who was a staunch supporter of Katimavik in his pre-politics days) has reinstated the funding.

Katimavik was originally conceived of in the 1970s. It’s 2018 and I fear the discrimination that was built into the original program with remain in its rebirth.

This is significant not only for the injustice of denying disabled youths the chance at this kind of formative experience but because of the opportunities it leads to.

Prior to Katimavik, I was completely unemployable. I spent the first year after high school futily looking for a job to pay for university. I didn’t find one. I mostly spent the year playing housekeeper for my grandmother. She did pay me but was also clearly more interested in having company. So I did very little work as she constantly derailed my attempts to clean with conversation. I maybe worked 1 hour in every 5 spent at her house. I was only paid for what I worked. I made almost no money.

After Katimavik, with a resume that had been boosted by the volunteer work that I had put in at an elementary school, an employment centre, and a publicly run internet café (many people in the area didn’t have access to computers much less the internet) I found work (of the retail variety) relatively easily.

Katimavik gave me the skills and work history necessary to do that. My physically disabled, undiagnosed autistic self was otherwise just utterly unemployable. This is a reality for far too many disabled people.

One of the great perks of Katimavik is that if you get in, you are guaranteed work throughout the program. It’s just unfortunate that the program aggressively screens out disabled people. I almost didn’t make it in.

They successfully hid behind the fact that the houses were inaccessible as were many of the work placements. An argument that I suspect was helped by the fact that so much of the infrastructure for the program was conceived of and implemented well before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added to the constitution.

Will that argument still get made in 2018? When they have the chance to start from scratch?

Part of qualifying for Katimavik hinged on passing a medical inspection. You had to get a doctor to fill out a long and detailed form that was then reviewed by the program itself.

It had questions like:

Do you (the doctor) have any reason to believe this person would have difficulty participating in physical activity?

Does the patient have any disabling conditions? Please describe limitations.

Anyone who used a wheelchair was immediately screened out. My cerebral palsy threw them and they assumed that my doctor must be lying or misrepresenting my physical capabilities. So I had to answer clarifying questions like:

Can you walk? (apparently, by not expressly saying that I could, they assumed that I couldn’t)

Can you run?

Can you swim? (I can, but it seems irrelevant because the nondisabled participants weren’t asked to confirm this and at least one of my nondisabled housemates couldn’t)

These types of questions do two things. They show that people will always assume inability from disabled people if the ability isn’t clearly stated even if other questions directly asking about physical limitations are also answered in ways that indicate ability. It also forced me to confirm that “I wasn’t that kind of disabled”.

As it was, my autism diagnosis came after I had jumped through those hoops so had again had to prove that I could participate. This time by acquiring a letter from the diagnosing psychiatrist saying that I was safe to be around children. A concern that didn’t exist prediagnosis.

I went through all of those indignities and I can’t claim that I didn’t know other disabled people weren’t making the cut. I had read a news story (that I, unfortunately, can’t find anymore) about a wheelchair user who tried and failed to force the program into accepting him.

I knew, that the program excluded other disabled people. I knew that but I went anyway. I went anyway and I reaped the benefits of the experience both at work and in the relationships I created with the people I met.

I absolutely would not be who I am now if I hadn’t. I probably wouldn’t be here feeling discomfort at the benefits of being not disabled enough to exclude.

I am uncomfortable though and Katimavik is back so that discomfort matters. It matters because I know what I got out of the program. I know I wouldn’t have a Masters degree. I wouldn’t be a PhD student.

Disabled people need access to coming of age experiences. Not just the work experience. The lived experience of navigating cohabitation with too many strangers in too small of a house. The experiences of misunderstandings and fights and learning to create boundaries.

Katimavik has always been fundamentally about creating a quintessential Canadian experience and by actively excluding disabled people, it reinforces how not apart of Canada we are unless we fit a narrow standard of “able-bodied enough” and a willingness to leave other disabled people behind.

It’s 2018 and I hope the new Katimavik does better but honestly, I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

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Why I Dislike the ISA and Why I Think it has Failed

International symbol of access

I hate the International Symbol of Access (ISA). That symbol that is intended to indicate spaces built to accommodate disabled people. It has however fundamentally failed to promote the accessibility that it meant to signify. If anything it has fostered misunderstandings both outside of and within the disability community. The symbol is tellingly often referred to as “The Wheelchair Symbol” and that is unfortunately what far too many people–disabled people included–seem to think it refers to, wheelchair users.

The ISA was and is intended to be generic in reference. It is supposed to be a symbol of access for disabled people. It is not supposed to prioritize or define which needs are accommodated. It is as much for me, an ambulatory part-time mobility aid (a bioness L300 or an AFO) using person or any other embodiment of disability as it is for wheelchair users. Unfortunately, people often look at that image as a guide for who it is intended to benefit. People think the symbol is prescriptive and thus privilege wheelchair users not only in who they consider when they determine what accessibility looks like but also in who they think gets to claim the symbol as representative of themselves.

Nonwheelchair using disabled people absolutely experience discrimination because cultural understandings of disability tend to at the very least require some visible marker of disability of which a wheelchair is often the most recognizable. People who require accessible services but don’t match that cultural image experience judgement and cruelty. People feel righteous and justified in their discriminatory behaviour. They think they are protecting “the truly disabled”.

More recently the ISA has found itself at the centre of a debate about disability representation online. The ISA is the only clearly disability specific emoji available in an ever-expanding selection.

With the latest apple update in emoji again left out any emojis for disability leaving people wondering why there are a plethora of emojis for mystical creatures but the only emoji available to encompass all disability is the ISA. There are no real wheelchair using emoji much less cane using emoji or BiPAP using emoji or really anything that represents the diversity of the disabled experience.

Some outsiders have suggested that we should rely on those mythical creatures that abound in the emoji catalogue to create the nuance that the ISA lacks

We ought apparently resign ourselves to metaphors. Metaphors that also carry the baggage of monstrosity and fear.

Zombies are a scourge that as they shamble along to threaten the dominant parts of society.

Merfolk may have been sanitized by Disney but they were once fearful creatures who lured sailing men to their deaths.

The debate gets worse when disabled people buy into it and suggest that nonwheelchair using people should be further alienated from the ISA by suggesting that it really is only for wheelchair users and that its use by others could be offensive.

The very act of asking this question is problematic and feeds the broader cultural belief that the ISA really does just mean wheelchair users. And as we have no viable alternative, that narrative further marginalizes and delegitimizes the people who are very much disabled but don’t look like what people expect a disabled person to look like.

Attempts have been made to update the ISA. The most enduring of which is simply an updated version of the original.

 

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Image Description: Updated accessibility symbol. A white silhouette of an active wheelchair using stick figure

 

It maintains the same issues as its predecessor. Its primary appeal is that it is a less passive image but it still tries to encompass disability with the wheelchair so it is just as misleading.

There are of course more specific access symbols such as symbols which indicate the availability of braille, sign language interpretation or closed captioning.

I have seen some suggest that the current ISA should be replaced with a tableaux of all of the accessibility symbols but this too falls short. They still leave people out and might give nondisabled people the false idea that they have a more complete understanding of what disability is or at least which disabilities count.

The primary problem is that people do not understand what disability looks like and by extension that accessibility needs extend beyond the needs of wheelchair users.

I tend to be a bit jaded in my ability to have faith in the ability of nondisabled people to clue into the reality that they have been comfortably ignoring forever, so I used to believe that we really needed to find that magical symbol that would spell it out for them.

As a result, when a guest speaker in one of my graduate classes suggested replacing the ISA with a more generic symbol of an A to symbolize access I initially balked at the idea. I have since come around to either an A or at least something as vague.

I have come to realize that not only is the existence of an all encompassing symbol impossible. Looking for one just caters to the blissful ignorance of the people who use the ISA to justify defining who deserves access.

It’s time to force them to take responsibility for their ignorance and hopefully learn something in the process.

That is not to say that more specific symbols don’t have their place. It will always be helpful in informing people what specific services and accommodations are available but it would be helpful if people outside of the individuals those symbols benefit were aware that they do not encompass the entirety of access needs.

Embracing vagueness in an update of the ISA forces people to ask questions about why the change happened and reconsider what it means to be disabled and what that looks like. It might also make people wonder why the only thing we’ve had to represent to totality of disability for decades is that stick figure in a wheelchair.

 

 

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Tommy Adaptive and the Complicated Ethics of Having No Alternatives

 

Tommy Adaptive

Image Description: Logo for Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive line. Navy Blue text on a black background which reads “Tommy Hilfiger adaptive clothing”

 

Tommy Hilfiger has come out with a line of adaptive clothing for disabled people and I am conflicted. There is so little truly good adaptive fashion available to disabled people and the Tommy Adaptive line is pretty and stylish. Something that is frequently decidedly lacking in adaptive clothing which often seems to presume an elderly clientele and that this clientele will not care if their clothing is hideously ugly (apparently this is somehow a dress and not a hospital gown). I am offended both for this unfortunate assumption about older people and for the fact that clothing brands tend to forget that disabled young people exist.

Adaptive clothing suffers from many pitfalls. If it isn’t hideous then it is still only available online and then may only ship to certain locations. This is true of the Zappos adaptive line (limited to the United States, most models of Nike’s accessible Flyease shoes (limited to the United States), much of Marks & Spencer’s “Easy Dressing” children’s clothing (United Kingdom) and Tommy Adaptive (Canada & the United States). Access to these products requires living in the right country, paying for an expensive forwarding service or knowing accommodating people in those countries. Thank you to the incomparable Alice Wong for sending me my second pair of Nike Flyease shoes after they stopped selling women’s styles in Canada (I will fight anyone who says the friend you make on the internet are fake or in any way inferior to the people you meet in the corporeal world).

The geographical limitations of so many of these products are in and of themselves a serious barrier to access. The fact that most of them are only available online (I’m not sure about the M&S products) requires what is effectively an expensive gamble because they cannot be tried on first (who knew that my autistic self would ever dare buy shoes online but what other choice do I have?). Returning items can be difficult if you are disabled and potentially impossible if you live outside the regular service area and have relied on friends or a forwarding service to get the item. If it doesn’t fit or isn’t flattering then you may be out of luck and out the money.

In terms of actual stylish clothing, Tommy Hilfiger rules the adaptive market. Zappos has a few stylish items designed to be accessible but most of their “adaptive” clothing is really just standard athletic wear. I did not need Zappos consumer research to know that sweatpants and leggings are both stretchy and comfortable. Luckily, I also don’t need Zappos to buy those things. They aren’t exactly work appropriate. They are also culturally stigmatized as the uniform of the lazy if they are worn anywhere except going to and from the gym. They are decidedly not adaptive.

So, Tommy Adaptive enters the market and there aren’t any leggings in sight. There are blouses and cute trousers and cardigans. These clothes are designed to make you feel pretty. It is a distinct departure from almost all preceding accessible fashion. Women’s pants sizes even go up to size 16 which while not an expansive size range is still two sizes higher than Hilfiger’s nonadaptive women’s clothing which tops out at 12.

Tommy Adaptive offers me a unique conundrum because I am both physically disabled and so could benefit from this clothing line (well the tops anyway, my hips and ass will not squeeze into a size 16) and autistic. This is where the ethical conundrum comes in. Tommy Hilfiger, the man is on the board of Autism Speaks.

Autism Speaks is an organization that is deeply unpopular with actually autistic people. (I’ve written about it before so I won’t rehash it all here). Sufficed it to say, I have serious issues with the charity and do not want to support them or people associated with them.

Yet, I cannot tell people not to buy Tommy Adaptive clothing and I cannot even say that I won’t buy any myself. Disabled people have so few options that we do not have the benefit of voting with our wallets and taking our money elsewhere. We do not have the privilege of taking our business elsewhere. There is far to often no place else to take it.

Tommy Adaptive has more or less cornered the market on adaptive clothing that is not either horribly ugly or simply drab and utilitarian. They are more or less the only game in town except the town is actually the world. They provide a product which functionally can make people’s lives easier and which makes them look good in the process. I cannot in good conscience tell people to not take advantage of that if they are able.

All I can do is scream into the void my rage that there are so few options that people are put into the position of having to support companies that they find morally repugnant because there are no alternatives. I am just as furious that the few options that are available are often limited to specific geographical regions and that even if we live in those places that we are relegated to shopping on the internet because products for us are not available in the same way comparable products are available to nondisabled people.

Accessible fashion is unfortunately far too frequently not accessible at all. Yet, these brands are publicly lauded for considering us at all even as they are designed and marketed to keep us separate.

 

 

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Euphemisms for Disability are Infantalizing

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Image Description: a hand places disability label cards onto illustrations of children. Still taken from this youtube video

 

I have written about the importance of language as it relates to disability before. To oppose the idea that clear language should be avoided in favour of what can best be described as pretending difference doesn’t exist to opposing the replacement of clear language with euphemisms.

Euphemisms are rampant in disability discourse. There is this misguided idea that disability must be softened and made palatable.

This comes from general assumptions that the word disabled is negative and shouldn’t be used to describe people and from watching words that relate to disability be adopted by society as insults.

The best example of this can be seen in the evolution of language around intellectual disability. In the early, to mid-20th-century people began to realize that language utilized to describe intellectual disability had been adopted by the dominant population as insults. Words such as idiot and moron which had been medical terms are now commonly used with the intent to offend. In order to combat this, a new term was adopted in order to have an accurate medical term which was not tainted by having become an insult. That word was “retard”. This word two has long since become an insult and there is a movement to have it struck from the lexicon.

As new words became insults, the search for new language continued but instead of changing direct medical terminology people began substituting euphemisms. Terms like “special needs”, “differently abled”, “physically/mentally challenged” and “diffabled” etc. began being used in an attempt to distance disabled people from the way language continued to be used to stigmatize disability.

The thing is though, this doesn’t work. While language has become a way to stigmatize disability by weaponizing it against both the people it was initially meant to simply describe and the general population along with inanimate objects. Basically, anything that causes people displeasure might now be described with a word originally intended to describe disability.

This really isn’t particularly surprising, the problem has never been language until it was used as a weapon. The problem was that disabled people are stigmatized and as a result, things associated with them including language become associated with that stigma.
And yet, many people continue to look for the right kind of faux positive wording that will magically erase centuries of systemic prejudice without actually engaging and challenging the core of that prejudice.

Members of the disability community have fought against the lack of clarity and reductionist nature of euphemisms by reclaiming a disabled identity and intentionally using the word disabled. Disability rights activist Lawrence Carter-Long created the #saytheword campaign to advocate for using the word disabled.

Despite this, many people outside the disability community and even some within it continue to hope that they can find that magical term which will somehow unlink language associated with disability from the stigma associated with disabled people.

I have repeatedly, made all of the arguments about how euphemisms for disability simply do not work how they undermine clarity and reinforce negative associations with disability by going to such ridiculous lengths to so much as mention disability. What I’ve been thinking about most lately in regards to euphemisms, however, is simply how infantalizing they are.

Euphemisms used for disability are either overly cutesy like “special needs” or linguistically awkward such as “differently abled”. Often they are a combination of the two like “diffabled”. A friend just posted on Twitter that they had also just heard a new term “specially abled” which again combines linguistic awkwardness with overly cutesy language. I am uncomfortable with all of it.

I am a 30-year-old woman and I cannot think of a single professional setting in which I need to discuss issues pertaining to my disability such as accommodation where I would go into that situation and say,

“Hi, I have special needs and I need to discuss workplace accommodations”

Or

“Hi, I’m diffabled, who do I talk to about getting speech to text software on my computer”

These terms have no place in a professional or academic environment. They sound childish and are ultimately confusing. The term “diffabled” is so awkward that it may simply be interpreted that the speaker has simply stumbled over the word disabled. Even if it is heard and received as intended completely lacks clarity and people might be confused.

There is also the very important reality that terms like disabled have legal meanings that come with legal protections such as rights to accommodation and dancing around with euphemisms could very likely create barriers to accessing those accommodations.
Cutesy language is for children but terms like “special needs” and “differently abled” are not words that we are meant to grow out of and find the appropriate terms and adulthood. These are words some people advocate should replace clearer words.
I can only surmise that whoever came up with these words genuinely does not expect anyone that these words describe to actually grow up. To actually have to interact in the adult world and present words that seem fit only to coo in a high-pitched voice at an infant about something other than disability.

So, in addition to rejecting the word disabled, euphemisms for disability are also creating cultural understandings of disability and those understandings do not support prolonged inclusion. They are fundamentally inconsistent with being taken seriously as an adult.

Their positivity is only true in the context of presenting disabled people as children.
In the end, euphemisms reinforce the very thing that they were created to challenge.

They reinforce negative understandings of disability and maintain false impression that disabled people are eternal children.

 

This is an inappropriate burden to place on any disabled person. Shifting from insults to being framed in childish terms is not an improvement.

It certainly hasn’t done anything to challenge the ingrained systemic prejudice disabled people face. If anything it has added to it.

#saytheword

 

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The Ineffectiveness of Sentiment Masquerading as Disability Solidarity

UN quote

Image description: Abridged quote from 2016 UN Report. It reads “The State party have met the threshold of grave or systemic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”

We live in a world that is fundamentally inaccessible to disabled people. Physical access to public space is still a significant barrier. Social policies also make it difficult for disabled people to participate in society. Yet, these issues rarely make the news unless they are perceived as particularly callous.

Consider when Calgary Airport removed wheelchair accessible spaces to put in reserved space for Lexus Vehicles or the proposed dementia tax in the UK. These issues cause outcry and change to those specific incidences. The rage that these situations is inspired by the idea that these sorts of things shouldn’t and generally don’t happen anymore.

It is a long-standing sentimental response to overly callous behaviour. Consider the 1993 Canadian federal election where the Progressive Conservatives were faced with fury over an attack ad that was perceived to belittle then Liberal Leader Jean Chretien based on his facial paralysis as a result of Bell’s Palsy.

Video Description: Audio attacks Liberal policies while still close-up images of Jean Chretien’s face are shown.

This was met with a large amount of backlash. Some even credit it with the Progressive Conservatives (PC) losing the election. Though that is impossible to prove and unlikely considering the PC’s were already low in the polls before the ad ever aired.

Quick rage at easily identifiable wrongs against disabled people is common but it rarely leads to meaningful action or even comes from an awareness of the lived reality of disability.

This is probably best exemplified by the continued referencing and indignance around Donald Trump’s 2016 mockery of Serge Kovaleski. Though he is tellingly most frequently referred to not by his name but simply as “the disabled reporter”.

Outrage over that incident both obscures the racism and Islamophobia that inspired Trump’s actions and essentially reduced solidarity to disabled people to the ability to identify and condemn specific incidences of bullying or discrimination against specific individuals.

This ability for callous treatment of disabled people to inspire the ire of nondisabled people extends beyond election campaigns. Consider this tweet I can across yesterday.

It includes an image of text from a Dear Prudie segment from Salon which reads,

Q. Daughter’s friend being in wedding: My 27-year-old daughter and her best friend, Katie, have been best friends since they were 4. Katie practically grew up in our house and is like a daughter to me. My daughter recently got engaged to her fiancé and announced that Katie would be the maid of honor (Katie’s boyfriend is also a good friend of my future son-in-law). The problem is that Katie walks with a pretty severe limp due to a birth defect (not an underlying medical issue). She has no problem wearing high heels and has already been fitted for the dress, but I still think it will look unsightly if she’s in the wedding procession limping ahead of my daughter. I mentioned this to my daughter and suggested that maybe Katie could take video or hand out programs (while sitting) so she doesn’t ruin the aesthetic aspect of the wedding. My daughter is no longer speaking to me (we were never that close), but this is her big wedding and I want it to be perfect. All of the other bridesmaids will look gorgeous walking down the aisle with my daughter. Is it wrong to have her friend sit out?

Prudence quickly takes the questioner to task for her easily identifiable bigotry.

The key here is that the bigotry is overt and easily identifiable with a clear individual victim.

This is I suspect largely why incidences like this illicit public censure. It is less to do with an understanding of the social realities of disability as a disabled person who responded to the tweet points out,

The issue for nondisabled people is the public display of horrific behaviour, not a real desire to understand how widespread the issue really is. As long as the harm happens out of sight. People don’t seem to care. It is a purely performative and self-serving kind of solidarity. The response is simply condemnation without action or even a real awareness of the extent of the issue.

Horror at these incidences rarely results in meaningful action. Consider when ADAPT activists were protesting the proposed ACA repeal. People stared at the news in horror as images and videos of activists being dragged from their wheelchairs by police. The response predominantly stayed at horror and condemnation. Sure more people than ADAPT were actively protesting the ACA repeal but in the face of horror and condemnation of that specific treatment of disabled activists. The response stayed at horror and condemnation. It did not spark a large solidarity protest at Mitch McConnell’s office. People stayed home and clutched their pearls at the images on their computer and television screens.

Disability solidarity far too often stops at sentiment and condemnation and I can only credit this to the continued widespread ignorance of the realities of being disabled and continued systemic ableism.

How can people express shock at isolated incidences of the mistreatment of disabled people but not me moved to protest the systemic inequality disabled people experience.

In the UK for the second time in two years, the UN has condemned grievous state sanctioned human rights abuses against disabled citizens. That situation did not come from isolated incidences of cruelty performed by a single easily identifiable villain. That situation was created and maintained by the systemic willingness of millions of people across political lines to disregard the humanity of disabled people.

But sure Donald Trump being an asshole to a disabled guy that one time was bad.

In Canada, disabled people experience unequal access to healthcare and are screened out of eligibility to immigrate to the country.

But sure pat yourselves on the back for the 1993 Liberal election victory by misguidingly associating it with a nationwide moment of solidarity against bigotry.

I have intentionally made this post about international realities to really highlight how much farther we have to go than the mere condemnation of easily identifiable moments of bigotry.

Disabled people need more than sentimentality. We need action. We need change. We need people to question their own prejudices and how they might be contributing to the systems that oppress us and keep us from fully participating in the world we live in.

People need to get over the idea that society has moved beyond cruelty to disabled people. It hasn’t and the misguided belief that it has actively maintains systems of oppression.

 

 

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Invisible Disability, Policing & Tracking as a De-escalation Tactic

In the last couple of days, I’ve been seeing more and more discourse on using databases and tracking as a supposed tool to help police officers de-escalate situations involving people with invisible disabilities.

The first article I saw was from Fox and was a mixture of poor journalism and inconsistent framing. I took to Twitter to voice some of my confusion around the consistent framing of these databases as a tool for parents and caregivers despite only talking to an actually autistic woman who used the technology herself independent of a third-party caregiver. That was more a commentary on how stories that primarily impact disabled people continue to centre nondisabled people even when the content of the article does not warrant that centring. I however, want to look at the actual issue being addressed in the article.

I did briefly mention on Twitter that the Fox article does not look critically at the issue at all. It does not question the fact that the service will eventually cost money. Meaning that assuming the initiative works (and that’s a questionable assumption) people have to pay to have their disabilities considered by police. It puts an additional price on safety to be borne by a marginalized group that is disproportionately poor.

The article also doesn’t in any way question whether this initiative will actually help police de-escalate situations involving disabled people without resorting to violence. There are far too many examples of disabled people killed or injured by police even in situations where the police knew they were disabled and even situations where the police were specifically called to assist with a mental health crisis.

It is also important to note that all of the above examples involve people who are multiply marginalized by the intersection of disability with race or gender identity. So it is also worth asking who will these programs actually work for?

Neither the Fox article or a Pioneer Press article about the initiative really engage with that reality. Both articles re specifically about a program called VITAL in which disabled people carry a card which signals an app on a police offer’s cell phone when they are in proximity.

This by itself is alarming in that police will potentially just be informed that there are invisibly disabled people nearby and offer up medical information on those individuals whether they are in distress or not. As the latter article notes,

“Users with disabilities pay between $9 and $15 for the beacon and an additional $9.95 per month for the application — a small fee to pay for the freedom it provides, according to Nelson. She’s had her beacon since February and said it’s “pinged” her information to officers more than 50 times.”

That distresses me. Nelson and I share a diagnosis and I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of police being routinely informed of my proximity just because I decided to exist in public space. It seems like a recipe for potentially increasing police interactions rather than minimizing necessary ones.

The piece continues by profiling another user of the app,

“Wilford’s 14-year-old autistic son was one of the first people to use the app. Wilford said officers have used the information available 10 times since she downloaded the app.”

I have questions.

Was that child having that regular of contact with police prior to using the app?

This is a child of colour. Has that impacted how he has had 10 actual uses of the app while Nelson whose race is not apparent has had (according to the Fox article, she was quoted in both) only one but 50 proximity notifications sent to police?

Did all of those incidences actually warrant police accessing that information?

The article does not answer them and thus reinforces my concerns that technology like this might increase unnecessary police contact with disabled people by effectively labelling them as potential crises and placing what amounts to tracking devices on them.

Since this story has been getting attention, I have seen other disabled people voice similar concerns. Creating a database for a marginalized population (even if it is currently opt-in) should be a red flag.

Why do police need an app to remind them of de-escalation techniques?

Why is the burden on disabled people to try and inform police not only that they are disabled but give them a step by step guide on how to de-escalate the situation if they are found in crisis?

If police resort to force with a disabled person not registered will they be blamed for failing to inform police that they are disabled?

If the listed de-escalation tactics of someone registered don’t work and police resort to violence, will the disabled person be blamed?

Why is the onus on disabled people and not on police to incorporate de-escalation tactics as a natural part of policing?

So many necessary questions without answers and the safety of disabled people are at stake so why are only disabled people asking them?

 

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