Daily Archives: May 1, 2006

Barnard Power


It’s Blogging Against Disablism Day. This is my entry. There may be more, but this is my first.

I once attended a segregated gifted program (yes, I’ve attended both gifted and special ed programs, and been considered both gifted and a writeoff at different times, get used to it, both are to me illusions). The kids in the program had often not been accepted at their own schools, and the program was a chance for them to be popular for the first time in their lives.

Because they had never been popular before, many thought they were morally superior to the popular kids at their own schools. They thought since they had been bullied, that they could not bully. Even as they bullied those of us who were “different” in other ways, such as, for instance, autistic people or people with speech impediments. Even I, who was very conspicuously different, wasn’t always the designated “omega”, although I was always close.

Even years after the program ended, many of the same people insisted that they never saw a single person being excluded, shunned, or bullied at the program. I remembered many specific people this had happened to, and described the incidents. “I never saw anything like that there,” was the reply I heard most often, even from people who had engaged in it. They painted the experience as a utopian “coming home” experience, devoid of all the discrimination that the rest of the world had (while meanwhile most students selected for the program were well-off and white… uh… yeah).

From this background, I had been aware, before really encountering the disability community, that people who have been the objects of discrimination or oppression, often view themselves as categorically different from those on the other side of it, and believe themselves to be incapable of doing the same things. While at the same time, doing all the same things, when given half the chance to be powerful and popular. I had also been aware that in order to defend a “coming home” experience, a lot, even physical violence, could be swept under the carpet to preserve a utopian image.

Of the disability community, Cal Montgomery writes:

Even within the disability community, even within the communities that work on disability rights, various subgroups adopt a strategy of tinkering with meritocracy so that the “right” abilities are rewarded and others treated as irrelevant.

A wheelchair user tells me that public transit does not need to be accessible to autistic people. She says that people should not be denied opportunity on the basis of physical ability, but that those with cognitive impairments should be under 24-hour-a-day supervision and control in special institutions built for us. An autistic tells me that public buildings do not need to be accessible to wheelchair users. She says that people should not be denied opportunity on the basis of cognitive ability, but that those with physical impairments should be under 24-hour-a-day medical care in special institutions built for us. And while we’re fighting this one out in the disability communities and in the larger society, known barriers remain in place, barrier removal is treated as a handout and an unfair advantage rather than a just response to entrenched disadvantage, and I indulge in the guilty pleasure of imagining finding a group of like-minded, like-bodied people and seceding from disability rights. Wouldn’t be too many of us: we’d be leaving a whole lot of people out. But we’d be the insiders for once, not the outsiders; and wouldn’t it be great?

That is from Harry Potter and the Allure of Separatism. It’s also one of the most concise descriptions I have heard of the rampant ableism in the disability community.

Within the online autistic community alone, there is a lot of acceptance of standard-issue barriers, and standard-issue prejudice, against physically disabled people as well as people labeled mentally ill or mentally retarded. Many people want only to win acceptance for autistic people, and only some autistic people at that. As such, things like mental institutions, developmental institutions, nursing homes, IQ testing, group homes, standard psychiatric practice, forced segregation in education, beliefs about “quality of life”, and other things of that nature are pretty much unquestioned except when they might have impacted the autistics who regard themselves as “high functioning”. There are, of course, many exceptions, but that does seem to be the overall view of the overall community: “Change as little as possible, just enough to make ourselves fit, and then stop there.”

Meanwhile, because autistics have been excluded and oppressed and discriminated against, there is a lot of resistance to the belief that we, too, are capable of that. All the traits involved in that kind of thing become neurological traits of non-autistic people only. We’re supposedly constitutionally incapable of the kind of ableism and exclusion we ourselves have faced. And yet it happens so often in the autistic community that it should be obvious by now that we are not, that we are no different than those “gifted” kids who were insisting they never did these things.

What does it feel like to be prejudiced, oppressive, and unfair? It feels totally normal. It feels like nothing other than everyday life. It does not feel like going around feeling a certain way all the time. It feels like anything else feels.

A black woman activist, her name lost to history, writing in the United States over a century ago said, “All power seems natural to those who hold it.” This is an astounding observation. This means that once you have power in your grasp it seems so natural, so normal, so “the way it should be” that you don’t even realize it’s there.

— Dave Hingsburger, Power Tools

I have never experienced the massive “coming home” experience that many people report in many settings. I’ve never experienced it in the disability community, the gay community, the autistic community, the mad pride movement, or anything like that. I have never had the sense, even when respected by a group of people, that I really quite belong there, in the social sense of belonging.

But I’ve experienced similar things with individual people. And I can imagine what it must be like to go from being treated like crap, to experiencing this sense of “People like me, people care about me, these people make sense to me, I may even be popular around here, and respected, and wow this has never happened to me before,” and so forth.

I can also imagine what it must feel like to have that threatened. Even if it’s not really threatened, exactly, but just seems like it’s threatened. “Things could go back to how they were. I wouldn’t be able to stand that. I like how things are now.”

And I sometimes think the hostility to self-examination in these communities comes from that. The notion, that thinking this community, whichever community, is less than perfect, might bring everything important in our lives crashing down around us. It might destroy this community, and then where would we be?

This is not to say that all criticism, or all accusations of ableism, are accurate. They’re not necessarily. But nor is all criticism, or all accusations of ableism, mere “negativity” that spoils this (whichever) amazing and wonderful community.

The reinforcement of ableism, prejudice, oppression… can take the form of “Things are fine the way they are. Your complaining spoils the atmosphere, and must be mean-spirited in nature, because I am happy here, and the problems only start when you start complaining. You’re just too bitter to see how wonderful things are.”

What this doesn’t take into account, is the possible experience of the person doing the complaining.

So a thought-experiment: Imagine that you are some kind of person normally called a Barnard.

Now imagine that you go into a community of people, of whom Barnards are supposed to be one subset.

And from the moment you arrive, there’s people talking all about Barnards. All the time. And you hear things like this, in conversations, online and offline, constantly, daily, in whatever community you’re in:

“We’re real people. We’re not like Barnards.”

“You know… I really feel sorry for Barnards. They have to live their whole lives in institutions. I mean, we don’t need institutions, but Barnards do.”

“She was being so Barnard about the whole thing, you know.”

“I used to teach a class full of Barnards once. I know all about Barnards.”

“Barnards are pure and incredibly spiritually sensitive. They’re not like us ordinary mortals.”

“You know… us, we can think, but with Barnards… there’s not really a lot there. Those Barnards, I wouldn’t want to be like that. At all. Scares me to death.”

“Look, I saw a picture of him. He’s a Barnard. There’s no mistaking he’s a Barnard. Just look at his face. My dad worked in institutions with people who looked just like him. He couldn’t possibly have written that. Barnards can’t write. I know this. I’ve worked with Barnards too when I went to work with my dad.”

“Calling the problems Barnards have participating in our events an accessibility issue is going too far. We may have accessibility issues, but Barnards have more serious problems, and we can’t do anything about that. There’s no possible way to remove the barriers they’re facing, in fact the problem isn’t barriers, it’s the fact that they’re Barnards.”

“You know, I can understand why she killed her son. I mean, I wouldn’t understand it if her son was like us. But he wasn’t. He was a Barnard. Do you have any idea that amount of stress having a Barnard in the family causes? Have you ever taken care of a Barnard?”

“We call ourselves the Everything-But-Barnard Community. I mean, we don’t phrase it that way, we call it the Barnes/Barton Community, so that’s not exclusionary. I mean, Barnards couldn’t even participate, so we’re just trying to be fair in not naming them.”

“We [inclusive of you, a Barnard] are Barnes/Bartons, not Barnards.”

“I think it’s really important that we prove that we’re not Barnards.”

And, you’re bombarded with this. Absolutely bombarded. And you’re a Barnard. So you’re not very comfortable. And it’s not random emotional discomfort, it’s more the little acts of degradation that Cal Montgomery enumerates in Project Cleigh. But somehow this one is supposed to be your community, and you’re experiencing them within “your” community.

And, you like what you seem to see in “your” community. You see people who share a lot of your basic values. You see people experiencing togetherness and community that they had never experienced before. And, you want to take the same things and go farther with them. Open up doors for more people. People like you, but also other people. You start seeing what it means for people to be excluded on the basis of, maybe not being Barnards, but being Collinses or Smiths. And you start to think, “Wow, I agree with the ideas, but I don’t fit here, how can I fit, how can others fit?”

And you start seeing what the consequences are, of all the words that people are saying. It’s not just that your feelings are hurt. It’s that you are being bombarded with reminders of the fact that people like you, and other people, are not wanted, are not desirable, are not real people. And these have consequences, these are the ideas that lock people in institutions, these are ideas that prevent people from having this sense of community, these are even ideas that kill people, and justify people’s deaths.

So, you say something. You think that, since these people have faced exclusion themselves, they’ll see what you mean.

And, you get things like:

“I don’t hate Barnards. You’re not a Barnard anyway. I’m not prejudiced. I’m really insulted that you think I’m prejudiced.”

“Well, Barnards never show up. You’re the first one. And… you’re different, than, you know, some Barnards.”

“I would have never known you were a Barnard.”

“Your negativity could destroy the community. Do you want that??? Do you realize what’s at stake???”

“Your issues are not accessibility issues. They’re Barnard issues. Deal with it.”

“You’re doing a lot of damage with your accusations. Stop.”

“We don’t really have the ability to accommodate everyone. We’ll win rights and justice for ourselves, first. You have to realize, a lot of us don’t really want to be associated with Barnards, and that is our right. Later on, though, you guys might be able to fight for your rights, but right now, let the rest of us handle things. Including people like you would just slow us down.”

“You’re attacking us! How DARE you after all we’ve done for you Barnards?”

“You’re being divisive.”

“We’ve had Barnards here before, and none of them complained. I don’t believe you when you say they did complain — to you. There have always been a couple Barnards and there has never been a problem until you.”

“Can’t you see that all you do is cause a lot of destructive bickering and negative energy?”

“I see that you’re a Barnard. You know, your deficits as a Barnard would make it impossible for you to see the real situation here. In fact, I don’t really believe that you’re the person bringing up these objections, I think you’re being exploited.”

“Thank you so much for sharing such important feelings with us. But in the future, can you please use I-statements? The formula for I-statements is ‘When you [x], I feel [y].’ That’s the only respectful way to talk to us, and we’re not going to listen until you can talk that way. Uh… what do you mean it’s not about feelings?”

“Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown that all communication supposedly coming from Barnards is not real communication, so she [speaking of you in the third person] isn’t really saying this, it just looks like she is.”

“A real Barnard would be spiritual and pure and loving. You’re too angry to be a Barnard. You’re a liar.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“You must just have a chip on your shoulder.”

“I… have really strong feelings… and… they’re hurt… by conflict… and you’re creating conflict… and I can’t deal with conflict… and so… stop the conflict… stop complaining… stop whining… stop bickering. I’m very sensitive to emotions… very empathic… so I know you’re not for real.”

You know, they told me, I don’t look — Nobody would have to . . . I could be just another crip.

And as if I were just another crip, they started with the jokes and comebacks.

“She asked me whether my toenails still grow; I asked her whether her hair still grows.”

“They want cognitive disability representation? Why don’t they just ask ‘SuperChris’: he’s cognitively disabled.”

“They may be able-bodied, but we’re able-minded.”

They didn’t mean me, of course. I wasn’t like that, wasn’t like them. They meant no offense.

Perhaps it is enough to say that my vision of “the disability community” and theirs does not coincide.

— Cal Montgomery, Critic of the Dawn

And, of course…

“I don’t understand. Things were just fine until you came along, and now I’m upset, and… stop it.”

Never mind that, things have not been just fine, for Barnards, all along. And never mind that there’s been constant and unrelenting and real negativity all along, just pointed at Barnards, and that pointing this out is not what makes it negative. It’s just that, if it’s pointed out how not-fine things are for Barnards, that might spoil the illusion that things are just fine. But from the perspective of non-Barnards, things really are just fine, and since they don’t feel like they’re excluding Barnards, they must not be.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible for someone to pull the example of Barnards out, to promote horrible things. I know a woman who always yells, “But what about the Barnards?!?!?” whenever people talk about torture at the Judge Rotenberg Center. Somehow, “Torture is good for Barnards” has never struck me as particularly humanitarian, but there are people who tell me on a regular basis that I’m inhumane for wanting torture to stop. Apparently, opposing torture is discrimination against Barnards. I’m not buying it.

At the same time, it’s very easy for people to say “I’m not buying it” when there really is discrimination against Barnards. When a physical-disabity-centric event isn’t cognitively accessible to most Barnards attending, it’s easy for them to say “It’s not discrimination, it’s just the way it is.” And they’re wrong.

So, I guess the point of all this is, there are many forms of ableism that go overlooked within communities, precisely because of what the communities mean to many of the people in them. Many people believe “I have been harmed, therefore I cannot do harm,” and do harm. Many people believe “If I examine ableism in this community, it might rip the community apart, it might no longer be there for me,” and don’t examine it.

So, when a Barnard says, “Hey, wait a minute,” don’t assume that things were “just fine” until they spoke up. They might just want to be broadening your community, and your ideas, to include more people. And ableism isn’t always obvious, it doesn’t carry a neon sign in our thoughts and actions saying “We are being ableist,” but it is no less there.