Ableist Attitudes About People Who Use Wheelchairs

ableist attitudeFor some reason, I’ve seen ableist attitudes about people who use wheelchairs come up a lot in my social media feeds recently, and this article about a robbery in the British town of Coventry brought them all together.

I guess The Mirror figured that the thieves in question resembled two characters from the British comedy sketch show “Little Britain”, one of which uses a wheelchair. I’ve heard of “Little Britain”, but I’ve never seen it, and I’m not familiar with any of the characters.

Whether the thieves in question actually intended to resemble “Little Britain” characters or not seems unclear from the article, but it’s not really important for the purposes of this piece anyway. The point that I want to make is that this article clearly shows two very problematic and ableist attitudes about people that use wheelchairs that, despite efforts to educate the public that they’re inaccurate, are still just far too commonly held.

Ableist Attitude #1: No One Who Uses a Wheelchair Can Stand

Obviously this particular writer for The Mirror wasn’t familiar with the uproar a few months ago when George Takei posted an ableist meme to his Facebook page, because I was far from the only blogger to write about the fact that a person that uses a wheelchair suddenly standing up is probably not:

  1. Experiencing a miraculous healing or
  2. Faking a disability.

Plenty of people who can stand and walk use wheelchairs. I was standing up from my wheelchair not even a couple of weeks into stroke rehabilitation. I walked short distances with my cane but used a wheelchair for long distances for about a year after I left stroke rehabilitation. The whole “Only paraplegics use wheelchairs and people who walk don’t use wheelchairs” is another one of those binary ways of viewing disability that ultimately holds disabled people back and keeps society from fully appreciating the ways that we can facilitate true inclusion.

Not to mention, it helps people to justify dangerous, deeply ableist attitudes. If your reaction to seeing someone in a wheelchair stand up is that they’re faking a disability, and you already share the general opinions of say, Rand Paul or Conservative politicians in England that there are are a whole bunch of people who receive disability benefits that don’t actually need them them…well, it doesn’t help our case when budget time comes around. And disabled people in Britain can’t afford to lose more than they already have to the “scrounger” narrative – the austerity measures that have come as a result of it have caused far too many deaths already.

Ableist Attitude #2: People Who Use Wheelchairs are “Wheelchair-Bound” or “Confined to a Wheelchair”

People who’ve looked at the Facebook page since Sunday saw something I posted that talked about this.

Wheelchairs don’t confine disabled people. They actually free those of us who use them. Like I said, I used a wheelchair for a year after my stroke when walking long distances was just too exhausting. In that year I was was still very unstable – much too unstable to go out in with my cane in the winter for even short walks unattended. I was pretty much housebound, except for the times that my father drove me places. But because I had my chair for long distances, I was able to go out of town every now and then and go shopping, go to a movie, have dinner in a restaurant…I was able to go to the Toronto Zoo with my family…I spent a great day touring Kingston (where I used to go university) with my sister and her friends…there were even plans to go to Canada’s Wonderland, a large theme park about two hours away. I never got to go, but my wheelchair would have made it possible for me to do so.

Wheelchairs make it possible for disabled people to work, volunteer, travel, play sports, dance, and do all manner of daredevil moves that I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying as as non-disabled person, let alone a wheelchair user. Here are some videos:

Wheelchair dancing

Wheelchair tennis

And this one…as Dave Hingsburger said about this video:

“Next time a reporter writes that someone is ‘confined to a wheelchair’ I want them to be duct taped to a chair and made to watch this. Maybe they will understand what ‘confined’ means when they are ‘confined’ and see the liberation that chairs offer.”

Editor of The Mirror, Meet Me at Camera Three

Let’s talk about wheelchairs and ableist attitudes: ‘Little Britain’ Thieves Hunted After Wheelchair-Bound Woman STANDS UP To Steal Food’

Really?

“…the apparently-disabled woman leaps up and steals packaged meat.”

Seriously?

“The charlatan stands up!”

I object to this both as a disability advocate and a writer.

The Mirror is a newspaper, and you should know better. If anything confines disabled people, it’s lack of accessibility and the attitudinal barriers perpetuated by articles like this one.

Your readers, disabled and non-disabled, deserve better.

 

What is Senate Bill 334 Really About and Is It what the Disabled Community Needs?

senate bill 334It’s been awhile since I’ve talked about abortion on this blog.

Several people have covered this story recently much better than I will, but I really want to talk about Senate Bill 334, filed by Indiana Republican Senator Travis Holdman. Senate Bill 334 would make it illegal for medical providers to perform abortions based on disability or gender.

I realize that Senate Bill  334 sounds like a bill that, as a disability advocate, I should support. As I’ve said before, even though I’m pro-choice, I don’t like that it’s a reality that women get abortions because of a disability in a fetus, or the high risk of it acquiring a disability. It makes me feel sad. However, I do understand that there are reasons why it happens, ranging from pressure from the medical community to abort to parental concerns about being able to handle the needs of a disabled child, to general concerns from all involved about the child’s potential quality of life.

And, as Meriah Nicholls said in her essay “How to Save a Disabled Baby“, written last week, “Our country is not kind to people with disabilities”:

“What mother, not knowing about or having access to communities of proud, educated, successful people with disabilities, would want her child to be subjected to what most people with disabilities in the United States are?”

Yes, I understand why these abortions happen.

Although, quite frankly, who cares if I understand? The decision is not mine.

That’s what it ultimately boils down to for me. I don’t feel that I can say to women, “You have the right to choose, except in this one circumstance,” no matter how sad I feel about the reason she feels to end a pregnancy.

So I can’t support Senate Bill 334. I don’t even trust the motives behind Senate Bill 334, actually.

I Don’t Think Senate Bill 334 Is What It Seems

David Perry suggests in “Anti-Choice Activists Try to Drive Wedge Between Reproductive, Disability Rights Activists” that the strategy behind Senate Bill 334 is to “divide and conquer” disability activists and reproductive rights activists, and I think he’s right. That sort of strategy is insidious, and makes me even more determined to insist that women have the right to choose, period. Perry says:

“We fight back with accurate information and coalition building. We say: A woman’s right to choose is inviolate. Then we say: But before that choice, let’s make sure that it’s based on reality, not fear-mongering or misinformation.”

Perry is talking about the medical community and its tendency to give outdated and often inaccurate information to mothers who are a carrying a disabled fetus, and how Louisiana has legislated that abortion can’t be presented as an option in those cases (although it certainly is in other states).

He makes a vital point. Women need the correct information about a diagnosed disability in a fetus in order to make the best personal decision, as well as the correct information about potential options. Anything else is infantilizing, in that there’s an assumption that women won’t be able to make a good decision when people are honest with them and provide them with the best available information, and profoundly disrespectful to both women and to disabled people – after all, this will just be a disabled baby, why bother to give the mother accurate facts, or to even learn the accurate facts to give?

“Our country is not good to people with disabilities,” Meriah Nicholls writes. We need to pay attention to this, folks. If doctors are lying about us before we’re even born, or can’t be bothered to learn enough about us to ensure that they’re giving the people who will parent us the right facts, then there’s a big problem with how this country sees us.

Senate Bill 334 – Deja Vu All Over Again

I remember writing a similar post to this in 2013, when North Dakota tried to pass the same legislation. (I thought it had passed; thank God it didn’t). If the government really wanted women to stop aborting disabled fetuses, it would make it easier for parents to raise disabled children. From that 2013 blog post:

“I submit that the lawmakers that put this new abortion law in North Dakota together that if they  were truly concerned about lowering the number of fetuses that are disabled or that may become disabled because of a congenital condition, they’d concentrate on making these social reforms rather than making an abortion law about fetuses with disabilities:

1. Make adequate funding for respite, personal development, special diet and equipment, early intervention programs, and a case coordination worker available to families of disabled children from the toddler years until adult services kick in.

2. Recognize that because of expenses associated with raising a disabled child, a family that might be “well off” otherwise may need to rely on safety net services such as food stamps and Medicare.

3. Develop ways for parents and caregivers to connect and support each other, to further their education about caregiving issues, and to quickly access appropriate supports in a crisis.

4. Ensure that schools are properly following the IPRC process for disabled students, including the piece about transition planning for when a student moves from elementary to junior high, junior high to high school, and high school to post-secondary school or the job market.

5. Explore options for community-based residential placements (and not just group homes). Give disabled people a fighting chance to be community members. Develop ways to monitor the safety of of these placements on a regular basis and to provide a timely and thorough response to reports of violations.

6. Work to identify and eliminate ablism within government systems and start discussing how government can help the private sector with the same process.

7. Start acknowledging that the unemployment rate for disabled people in the US is much higher than for non-disabled people, and plan how to address it.

If I saw even one of those those things moved up on the priority list along with this new abortion law in North Dakota, I might believe that this is really about protecting the lives of disabled people.”

I simply don’t trust that GOP-sponsored abortion legislation regarding disabled fetuses is really about saving the lives of disabled children. For a party that keeps talking about how it wants  less government intervention in peoples’ lives and objects so vehemently to the government being involved in health care, this doesn’t seem a logical way for it to ensure that as many disabled fetuses as possible as carried to term – but for a party that has consistently displayed a vested interest in eroding a woman’s right to choose wherever it can, it makes perfect sense.

And it makes me frightened for my friends in America.

Oh, if you look at Senate Bill 334, you’ll see that it’s also trying to stop abortions being performed on the basis of gender. This is a concern too, of course – except that I’d rather find out how many of these actually happen in America before commenting on it.  Recent data indicate that 75% of mothers who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome terminate the pregnancy – obviously that sort of thing isn’t happening on the gender front in America. In fact, Perry suggests that the sex-selection portion of Senate Bill 334 is a “smokescreen“.

I don’t like any of this.

What do you think?

 

Hayley Bicker Spends “100 Hours in a Box” for Autism

hayley bickerDisability simulations leave me (and many other disabled people) cold. So I wasn’t really impressed by Haley Bicker’s “100 Hours in a Box” to raise autism awareness just on principle.

It’s not that, as Andrew Pulrang wrote recently, the people who use disability simulations to raise awareness aren’t (usually) well-intentioned. It’s that, as Emily Ladau wrote, they’re not really effective, they don’t have a whole lot of logic behind them, and they’re kind of insulting to disabled people anyway (read her wonderful essay here).

I’ve always seen participating in disability simulations as something akin to the mandatory 40 hours or volunteer service that the Ontario government makes students do while they’re in high school. It’s a well-intentioned policy, it’s certainly not a bad thing to make students do, and hopefully they get something out of it. But even if a student does all 40 hours in one year with an agency – by the end of 40 hours, they’re probably just only getting a sense of how things work and what they’d really like to do. It’s not a lot of time in which to get involved with anything in-depth. The same way, when someone sits, say, wheels themselves around in a wheelchair for a day, or has someone else wheel them around, how much can they really learn about the experience of having to use a wheelchair? To be honest, I don’t know whether you could fully appreciate what even the experience of living one-handed is like after just a day of it (unless you were willing to let me make you try a LOT of stuff).

But that’s not even why Hayley Bicker’s “100 hours in a box” rubbed me the wrong way.

Hayley Bicker Puts Herself in a Box

Hayley Bicker, upset by an incident in the shop in Britain in which she worked where no one offered to help a mother when her autistic child got upset to the point of physically acting out, decided to raise awareness about the sensory sensitivity and communication difficulties that can accompany autism. She did this by spending 100 hours in a large glass enclosure in the store, her objective being to show that the difficulties that she had hearing and communicating through the glass and the sense of isolation that these difficulties produced for her was what autistic children experienced every day.

First, let’s give credit where it’s due – Hayley Bicker saw something that upset her and went to great lengths to do raise awareness about it. She got a charity involved and raised some money that went toward buying support equipment for families with autistic children in her community. There’s no doubt that her heart was in the right place, and kudos to her for acting when most people would not have.

However.

Hayley Bicker and Why “100 Hours in a Box” Is Problematic

I’m not sure how Hayley Bicker’s disability simulation raises awareness of issues associated with autism when she was the one in the box. She already knew about the issues. I’m not suggesting that other people should have been in the box, because I think that the logic behind the whole thing was a little flawed to begin with, but the odd execution of this particular disability simulation arguably made it even less effective than standard disability simulations, to my mind.

I thought about this later, however. My initial reaction after hearing Hayley Bicker say, “This is what autistic children experience” in a television interview was that she’d missed a couple of more important ideas

  • You can’t (and shouldn’t) say what autistic people experience if you’re not autistic. I guarantee that if I said to someone who’s always had the use of both hands, “Make a list of what’s difficult for me to do on a daily basis,” her or she would miss things. Why wouldn’t that be the case? I’d not expect that person to be able to speak with authority on my disability, any more than I should be able to speak with authority on the experience of what someone with, say schizophrenia experiences on a daily basis. The difference between me and Hayley Bicker is that I would not presume that I could, even though I’ve learned about schizophrenia in school and know people who have it. Bottom line, if you don’t have a given disability, you don’t know what people who have it experience, and people like me get irritated when you presume that you do know what we experience.  Who knows, maybe you educated guesses based on reading or on observation or on experience with someone in your life who has that disability come very close to describing what they actually do experience, but you don’t know. I’m not as militant as I sound on this – even if Hayley Bicker had said, “I consulted with some autistic people before designing this” or “Some autistic friends have told me that this is what they experienced as children,” I’d be prepared to give her a lot more leeway.
  • Not every autistic person experiences everything the same way From what I understand of autism (acknowledging that I’m still very much learning about it), it manifests differently from person to person. Some people may struggle very much with say, sensory issues, some not so much. Even if the experience of being in a glass box perfectly described what communication felt like for one autistic person, it may not describe it well at all for another one. If we’re going to spread awareness, let’s do it accurately.

The glass box itself is also problematic. While I understand the point that Hayley Bicker was trying to make, it’s my understanding that autistic people are trying to get away from imagery that portrays them as shut in their own little world and unable to communicate with the rest of us. Who wants to be associated with the image of being boxed away while the world goes on around you? We’ve already got groups like Autism Speaks speaking of autistic children as “gravely ill” and equating them with children who have gone missing. Awareness initiatives need to emphasize as much as possible that autistic people (and disabled people in general) are contributing members of our families and communities, and that communication barriers are largely society’s constructions that society must remove. Enough boxes, separation and isolation.

If Not Disability Simulations, Then What?

Andrew Pulrang asked what the alternatives are to disability simulations. I think that one alternative is making sure that disabled people have the means, vocabulary, and opportunities that they need to talk to others about what being disabled is like and what it means to them, if they so desire. I’ve worked with disabled people that others have assumed aren’t able to describe what their disability experience feels like, and heard them do with a great of insight. But I didn’t hear this from them right away. They first needed to know that it was safe to express those thoughts to me.

I also think that we need to make sure that non-disabled need to know that it’s okay to ask, “Is it okay if I ask you some questions about your disability?” if they want to. Not that disabled people should feel obligated to say “Yes”, or that they have to answer every question that’s asked. But I think that non-disabled people want to ask questions, that they’re genuinely curious, and are often unsure about which questions are okay and which aren’t, or if questions are even appropriate. Personally, even though I’ve heard some questions from non-disabled people that definitely are too personal given the relationship between the two people, I would much rather that people ask and, if necessary, have to pleasantly say, “I’m going to pass on that, if you don’t mind, because it’s a little too personal, but is there anything else that you want to know?”

This way of learning about peoples’ disability experience through talking with each other may take some training and practice for both disabled and non-disabled people, but I like it much better than the idea of learning about disabilities through disabilities through disability simulations.

If you have ideas for alternatives for disability simulations, Andrew Pulrang is collecting them over on his blog.

What do you think? Am I being too hard Hayley Bicker?