If You’re Disabled in an M. Night Shyamalan Film, You are either a Villain or a Supercrip (Mostly a Villain Though)

I long for the days when M. Night Shyamalan was still mostly associated with his flops. Only making movies because of a vain hope that he would rediscover his Sixth Sense heydey. I look back yearningly at that moment I was sitting in a movie theatre and the collective groan of disappointment that the audience emitted at the end of the trailer for Devil (2010) because all hope that it might be good had been spoiled when it was revealed that the story was created by M. Night Shyamalan (though he did not actually direct or write the screenplay)

Shyamalan has recently recaptured some of his earlier success with his most recent film Split (2016). The film centres on a villain, Kevin (played by James McAvoy) who has Dissociative Identity Disorder and 23 distinct personalities (with a supernatural 24th). He kidnaps and terrorizes three girls. The film epitomizes the trope of to be mad is to be bad. I am not going to go into a long breakdown of how awful this is. Many others have already done so and likely better than I could have.

kevin-split

Image description: Still from the film Split. The character Kevin (played by James McAvoy) walks dow an empty street at night. He is bald with glasses and is wearing black pants and a jacket. His hands are in his pockets (image source)

I am instead going to talk about how Split’s Kevin fits into a pattern of stereotyped disabled characters in M. Night Shyamalan movies. Characters who are usually bad but who occasionally also fill the supercrip role.

Split is actually (as it is revealed in the end) a sort of sequel to Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable. Unbreakable is another film that relies on a disabled villain. Elijah Price AKA Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition that causes brittle bones. Price is inspired to villainy by comic books (Isn’t Shyamalan Meta he creates a superhero universe where the villains are inspired by comic books *sigh*). He makes it very clear that his disability is a catalyst for his villainy. He reasons that if he is so fragile then there must be someone is as impervious to injury as Price is prone to it (because logic I guess). He goes around causing disasters with mass casualties until he finds his opposite. He discovers David Dunn (Bruce Willis) after Dunn is the sole survivor of a train wreck.

elijah-price-unbreakable

Image description: Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) sits in a wheelchair in the aisle of a comic book store. He is holding up a comic in his right hand. He is wearing a grey sweater over a black turtleneck (image source).

Disability is so linked to villainy in Unbreakable that the hero is literally impervious to injury. He can never become disabled.

By linking Split and Unbreakable, Shyamalan has essentially created a superhero universe in which disability is synonymous with evil.

Shyamalan’s use of disability is not limited to these two films. It is also a theme in his biggest success The Sixth Sense (1999). The initial meeting between Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is set up as Crowe being Cole’s psychiatrist. But fear, not Haley Joel Osment is not another Shyamalan supervillain. He is not mad. He can actually really see ghosts. The film does not, however, avoid the insinuation that mad is bad. In the scene where Cole finds the evidence that a child–who had presumably died of some unknown prolonged illness–had been murdered by her mother through long-term poisoning. The film subtly suggests that the mother has Munchausen’s by Proxy and was carrying out the prolonged poisoning not for the direct goal of killing the girl but rather for the attention having a sick child provided her.

Funeral guests can be heard musing about how long the girl had been sick, how many specialists were consulted to find the cause of the mystery illness and sadly explaining that now that the older child was dead that the younger sister was also begun to exhibit similar symptoms.

So while Cole Sear is not mad. Madness in the Sixth Sense is still dangerous.

In the film The Village (2004), Shyamalan manages to include both someone who is dangerously disabled and a supercrip.

alice-walker-the-village

Image description: Still from the film The Village. Alice Walker (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) stands in a doorway in a white nightdress. She stares blankly in front of her while reaching her right hand imploringly through the door (image source).

Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is blind. Her blindness isn’t particularly extraordinary until she is forced to take on the supercrip role after the intellectually disabled and sexually frustrated Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs her beloved in a fit of jealousy.

Ivy’s blindness is a bizarre plot device because I never could fully understand why she was the only person who could leave the village in search of medical attention. It appears to mainly be a plot device to add tension to jump scares and an odd scene where she finds a miraculously well-tended gravel path in the middle of a forest. Allowing for a moment of “Oh look at how the blind girl recognizes the change in terrain without sight”.

Noah Percy is a standard movie caricature of intellectual disability. He his presented as a perpetual child. His violence is a direct result of sexual frustration which reinforces the idea that the sexuality of disabled men is dangerous.

There may be other examples of disability stereotypes in Shyamalan’s work but I admit that I have not seen all of his films. I can only hope that Split was an anomaly and that Shyamalan returns to his standard of flops because unfortunately as history has taught us failure does not stop him and he is unlikely to learn and stop using dangerous disability narratives. They are far too ingrained in his work.

 

 

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I was inspired to write this piece by David Perry who wanted a proper write up of a Twitter rant I wrote earlier in the day.

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No, I don’t Worry about Alienating Allies

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

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

As Ginny Di puts it,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meryl Streep: Well, fuck disabled people then.

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

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

Text of his full apology can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I have Concerns about The March for Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Officially their goal is,

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

publicly funded and publicly accessible science

as a foundation of American freedom and prosperity.

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

support scientific research and incorporate science into their decision making.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are you?

When is the march going to be?

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

How diverse is the current set of organizers?

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

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

Why do you think science is apolitical?

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

 

I also have some suggestions.

Get your organizational ducks in a row.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Update:

The March for Science has updated it’s diversity statement

science-march-diversity-updated

The text now reads

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

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

science-is-political

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

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

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

Disability as Punishment in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

george-wallace-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.