Tag Archives: ableism

Regarding Neli Latson

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(For those who don’t know, he’s a guy who was arrested for sitting outside a library while autistic and black.)

Before I even heard much more of the story than those details in the last sentence, I wrote the following:

And the guy’s both autistic and black. In America that’s two counts against you and cops have been known to make up stories in either case and outright kill both disabled and black people who have not assaulted anyone and then make up some “well he was violent/he LOOKED violent” thing to cover their own asses. And as an autistic person who has been in similar situations (had the cops called on me multiple times for sitting and waiting outside for people, walking down the street, and other major crimes) the cops don’t even always approach you from the front. And if someone grabs me from behind without warning I am going to fight back because who knows it’s not a rapist and my reflexes work like that.  Because I’m female and white and a crappy fighter (at least that’s my guess) I’ve been either detained in the police station or institutionalized as a “danger to others” at that point (after fairly nasty but not life-threatening treatment by the cops) rather than jailed or shot.  So far. But I can completely imagine that being me, and when it’s the cop’s word against yours weird things happen. (And don’t get me started about the “psycho” and “retard” jokes I hear cops swapping at times like that — including the time I was picked up as a missing person for something as benign as running away from a day program after a fistfight broke out, which I still see as a reasonable response.  They do not value us highly.  Not enough of them anyway. Dennis Debbaudt is the exception.) 

And, surprise, when more details came out, he was grabbed from behind and threatened with racist language. How did I know this? From spending my life since adolescence in situations where cops have been called on me. In all but a couple instances all I was doing was sitting down outside, or walking down the street (the exceptions involved a few times when I screamed and one time I was trespassing, but mostly it was just sitting or walking).

As for how he remembers these things so vividly, first off lots of autistic people have good memories (or good memories when the right thing triggers them, as in my case). Second off, these sorts of events are pretty effing memorable. I can still remember details of similar instances over half my lifetime ago.

If you want to know more then google it. I don’t have any links handy and I’m posting from my iPod. Comments on this entry will be heavily moderated, people wanting to express the idea that this didn’t happen or that this doesn’t happen can go to any of the huge number of websites out there that welcome that sort of thing. And such people deserve a wakeup call about what life is like for those of us who have any (or all) of a number of differences that are obvious enough and devalued enough to get this kind of crap. But if that’s you, this incident has me utterly furious and I’m writing to a deadline which already makes me crabby so just go away.

Edited to add: makoto/pome has commented with several links:

Here’s some links for people:
http://autism-news-beat.com/archives/1146
http://autism-news-beat.com/archives/1137
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ken-reibel/teen-with-aspergers-arres_b_610530.html?page=2&show_comment_id=50670437#comment_50670437
Audio interview of Latson’s mother:
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/aut_toknow/2010/06/20/lisa-alexander-from-a-voice-for-nelifight-against-
A web page she has set up:
http://avoiceforneli.com/

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If only, oh if only

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[This is for Blogging Against Disablism Day.]

I knew Adam.

I didn’t know Adam’s mother.

That’s important.

I knew Adam in terms of who he was after he’d already been created. I knew this funny, smart kid who liked to grab my hand and walk in circles with me, who fearfully tried to hide in my room every night when staff came around to tie him to his bed, who looked and sounded very non-standard, and all of these things were just part of Adam. The non-standardness no more and no less than any other part of him.

The only time I heard about Adam’s mother was through those sorts of overheard staff conversations that let you know exactly what you are to them. Through them I heard that no mother should be blamed for “giving up” a child like him, that the unusual but not unpleasant sounds he made were animalistic and unbearable to listen to, and that people like him were, in general, impossible, and should be locked up for the rest of their lives. I heard a lot of pity for his mother. I never once saw her visit — and even the most screwed-up parents usually visited their kids. She had to have at least some money because this was a private institution. But she was never there, and staff made it sound understandable that she would never want to see her child again.

I didn’t know Adam through staff eyes, and I did not know him through parental eyes either. I think this was for the best, all things considered.

And the same has been true of any disabled person I’ve known. Not all of us have been friends. Not all of us have even liked each other. There can be all sorts of negative things in between us like status and power hierarchies, stereotyping, pity, and so forth. But at the same time there’s almost always something missing that I’m glad is missing, and something there that I’m glad is there.

I have never mourned the existence of someone the first time I met them. (Or after that for that matter.)

I have never grieved that someone was not the normal person I expected and hoped for. Not even for a little bit. Not ever.

I have never “had to come to terms with” the fact that someone I knew was born different.

I have never had any urge to commiserate with anyone else over these sorts of things.

I do not look at a person and divide them artificially into the “normal” parts of them that I find tolerable and the “abnormal” parts that I find unbearable and tragic.

I do not look at my friends, compare them to other people their own age, and think how horrible it is that I don’t have the good fortune of experiencing my friends hitting all the ‘typical’ milestones for their age group, there is no sense of loss here.

These ways of thinking are just utterly and beautifully absent.

It’s right that they’re absent. It’s wrong when they’re present. I keep hearing we have to allow for the fact that it’s only natural for people (you know, real people, which I’m not) to grieve this part of our existence. How it’s just wrong, downright insensitive, to want more from people.

Want to know why I and many others I know get nervous about reading blogs by nondisabled parents of disabled people? Even many of the “positive” ones? Stuff like this (paraphrases of stuff I’ve really heard in dozens of variations for each one):

“I go into his room every night while he is sleeping. And he looks so normal. And my heart breaks wondering who he could have been if it weren’t for [insert condition here].”

“It hurts so much every time I see normal children her age. I realize how many milestones she hasn’t hit. How far behind she is. And she may never catch up…”

“Other people will grow and change, but my son will be left behind. Other people become adults, but my son will always be a child.”

“My daughter has to live in a group home because she lacks the skills necessary to live on her own.”

“They said my son would never walk, talk, or take care of himself. And now he’s done all those and more. I am so proud of him.”1

“I overflow with love and pride every time my daughter looks me in the eye, gives me a hug, or uses her words. I would not know how valuable such things are if she didn’t struggle so hard to accomplish them.”

“Life with my son is bittersweet. I love him more than life itself but I know the things he will never do and it makes me sad.”

“I am constantly having to fight to pull my daughter out of her own world and into the real world. If it weren’t for me, she would be lost.”

I could go on, but I won’t. All of these sort of comments seem to be commonplace among nondisabled parent bloggers. When I question them people tell me they can’t help their feelings. But the fact is that without certain disability prejudices, they wouldn’t feel that way. And there are right and wrong ways to write about prejudice-based feelings. The right way puts them in the context of ableism. The wrong way simply serves to reinforce ableism in readers. And for disabled readers who could actually be harmed by the prejudices behind the feelings, the wrong way can feel like the twisting of the knife.

The post I just wrote is actually from an old draft on my computer. It seems that I tried to write this in two different ways. Instead of trying to synthesize them into one post, it seems better to just post them both at once. It’s a little repetitive but I’d rather do this than lose the slightly different meanings that each one has.

Despite appearances not response to any recent discussion. Just coincidence brewing in my head for some time. Also despite appearances not poetry. Just way of handling language at the moment.

I knew you
I didn’t know your mother

I only heard about her
In gossip made by staff
The sort of words they always said
That told us who we were:
They pitied her for having a child like you
And said it was good she put you away
And anyone would do so in her place

I knew you after you were already created
And I knew you roughly the way you were

I did not wonder why you were the way you were
I did not mourn that you were not someone else
I did not have a grieving period when I got to know you
I did not compare you to other children your age and cry that you did not do the same things they did
I did not see you as a special angel or a holy innocent
I did not see you as a normal boy who was stolen and replaced by an empty shell

And that is as it should be
And that is as it should be
And that is as it should be
And that is as it should be

Nobody should experience these things when they meet someone else
Yet people stand around commiserating with each other over all of those things
I walk around on the outside
Knowing I can never be part of that
Hoping they don’t notice the knife-pain that they cause

I know I am supposed to understand
I am supposed to grant that this is all natural
I suppose I can see when the world teaches you to think a certain way
That good people will come up with horrible ideas sometimes
I know I have thought and done horrible things before

But how long do we have to be patient
While the groups of people meet with handkerchiefs in hand
And blow their noses about the existence of people like us?

How long before they too will see
Beneath their shawls of tears and pain
Lies naked bigotry?

How long before the world stops glorifying the parents’ pain
And sees it as a tragedy of prejudice
Instead of a tragedy of disability?
(If there must be tragedy

How long before we don’t have to tiptoe around
How long before we can say
This public exhibitionism of pain and suffering at our existence
Denies our full humanity

How many more disclaimers
How many more do I need to make
To show I am not evil
For pulling back the curtain on evil
Will there ever be enough
Or will this always be
That they’re victimized
By having to face the truth
Of how the way they see us
Affects the ones like you and like me

It interests me that the way you and I related to each other
Is not exceptional when it comes to us
We are those below and those below are seen as
Sticking with our own kind

It is exceptional for one of those above to like us
To not mourn for our existence
This is praised as if it’s an achievement
It is just the way things should be

When you and I liked each other
Nobody praised us
If they took the time to notice at all
They either seemed indifferent
Or tried to split us apart

Not all of us liked each other
We had our own hierarchies
And prejudices
We were not some utopia
We are just as much a part of the world
As anyone else
And some of what happened was ugly

But we still saw each other
In a way the others didn’t see us:
We saw each other as we were
Not as we could have been
The sense of tragedy was entirely absent

One day I want to walk up to a nondisabled person
Wipe the tears from my eyes and say
“How tragic — you could have been disabled
And yet” (sniffle) “you had to turn out normal” (wail)
“Oh well. There’s always hope of a cure.”

What? You don’t see each other that way?
You don’t wonder (constantly) what might have been
If only, oh if only you were disabled?

It’s very simple:
Through our own minds
We are not lost and diminished
We are not those who would otherwise have been complete
We are real and whole
Because we are


1 If the inclusion of this line seems offensive, please read the third comment on this post. I included it because the constant recitation of this line can be part of an overall pattern, that came up in a discussion between me, a nonspeaking boy, and his mother. If you use it outside of that overall pattern, I’m not talking about you. But the fact that the line is repeated to the point of cliche does mean something, and it’s not always something innocent. I also don’t mean in any context that it’s wrong to teach or learn those skills. But it can sometimes be part of a distancing, fear, and even hostility towards people who for whatever reason don’t have those skills, a sense of “If she had turned out like you, it would have been awful.” Again, if you truly don’t have that fear, I don’t mean you.

Aspie Supremacy can kill.

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A disclaimer: I don’t believe in real distinctions between aspies, auties, LFA, and HFA. When I use these words I am discussing the beliefs of people who do believe in them. Edited to add: aspie supremacy is a shorthand and people should be aware that the prejudice contained within it can and does affect many with the AS dx.

I think I am the person who coined the term autistic supremacy. At the least, I came up with it without having heard it before. It was 1999 and I came up with the term to explain certain trends to my psychologist. This, by the way, means that those people who are running around gloating about how us autistic activists brought these people’s offensiveness on ourselves, or ranting about how nobody cared until recently? They have no grasp of the history. None at all. I have been opposing this in all its forms for eleven years and know that others have been doing the same.

Others may use the terms differently and I don’t claim some kind of ownership over the definition but here are the ways I use these words.

Back then it was just a tiny number of people who thought this way. When I used the word, I meant people who went beyond just wanting equality. They thought they were better than nonautistic people. Not just in satire or jokes but for real. Some of them went even further and considered nonautistic people worthless or even worthy of death or being rendered nonexistent by (a distorted idea of) evolution.

A friend tells me this sort of thing is a normal, perhaps even necessary, part of a minority group’s journey to self-acceptance. Maybe, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Some people consider separatism a form of supremacy. I don’t, not unless the separatists are the ones with the power. A white separatist is a white supremacist and a segregationist. But when a minority (in terms of power) is separatist the reason is usually self-protection as much as anything. Sure, some supremacists become separatists but that doesn’t mean all separatists are supremacists. I am not a separatist but I understand the impulse to avoid those with the power to do you great harm.

When I use the term aspie supremacist I mean something more specific. I am referring to “aspies” who think they are superior to other autistics, or to “AS/HFA” who think they are superior to “LFA”. In practice this means, “We aspies are just different but autistics are defective”. “AS/HFA is part of human diversity but LFA has no value”. It’s the Carleys of the world cringing at the very idea of sharing a label with people who wear diapers (the joke’s on them as many “aspies” wear diapers too). It’s any and every way that the value and contributions of “AS” and/or “HFA” people a put above the value and contributions of “autistic” and/or “LFA” people.

Aspie supremacy is disgusting and despicable. I understand that all of us absorb certain cultural values but that is what makes aspie supremacy more dangerous than general autistic supremacy.

Autistic supremacy can do damage but it’s limited damage. They have neither power nor numbers on their side. They can rage on the Internet. They can cause damage to the few people around them offline. Even if one decided to cause as much harm to everyone around them as possible it would be tragic but in no way equal to the harm done autistic people all the time. Usually the most harm they do is getting people to believe that most autistic activists are like them. They just don’t have the power to do wide-scale harm.

But aspie supremacists… where to start. Their ideas are essentially very similar to the ableist society we all live in. A society that values “high functioning” whatevers over “low functioning” whatevers where the further you are from the norm the more “low functioning” they call you. Have you ever wondered why some of the people who hate autistic activists the most are often just as willing as the aspie supremacists to put AS/HFA in one corner and LFA in the other? To say “Maybe aspies are part of human diversity but Real Autistics ™ are defective?”. It’s because the aims of aspie supremacy are very close to the views of those in power. And to someone like me it’s a fricking slap in the face, and worse.

I am far enough from the norm that even my talents and objections do not keep me away from the idea of “LFA” and out of grave danger that puts me in. My body has permanent and life-threatening damage, the kind most common today in places where there are no doctors or vaccines, and all but forgotten in America. That’s because medical professionals have not seen me as a valuable enough person to treat. Once while I was beginning to go septic I heard one medical professional tell another I had the cognitive functioning of an infant (something I don’t believe of even people with the lowest IQs). I had no way to contradict him because I can’t speak and was too weak to type or do anything but squirm and wail.1 I have heard professionals say out loud that my life was not worth saving, that I really wasn’t a person, nobody home.

This means I am vastly more in need of being seen as an equal than people closer to the norm are. This is the part that neither aspie supremacists nor anti-autistic-activist types ever seem to want to get: On average the further from the norm you are, the more it is literally a matter of life and death that your value be seen as equal with the people with the most power. (I know there is life and death stuff for those closer to the norm too but we are talking averages.) So aspie supremacy is a threat to my life in a way that general autistic supremacy is not. Aspie supremacy is telling those in power, “You are right about those auties/LFAs/whatever, but not about us aspies. Why don’t you just let us in to that big room full of valued people, and close the door in the face of those who need the protection of that room even more.”

Also, anyone who argues that aspies should be protected from institutions (of all shapes and sizes), aversives, unproven medical treatments, and the like, but that LFAs “need” those things? That it’s a tragedy when someone kills an aspie but understandable (and perhaps even preferable) when someone kills an LFA? You and anyone who listens to you is doing the exact same thing. The more vulnerable you are to the worst of the ways we can be treated, the more protection you need from the idea that it’s all worthwhile or understandable for you if not for the more normal ones. This too is reminiscent of aspie supremacy in different clothing. It’s all more and more devaluation and it’s endangering the rest of us.

I know that to many aspie supremacists it doesn’t feel like that’s what they’re doing. It feels like they are just stating common sense, that aspies have more valuable skills, more logic, less dysfunction, whatever, than other autistics. But that’s because having a bit of relative privilege renders them unaware of the full consequences of their actions. They don’t realize that they have things backwards — the more devalued you are, the more you need equality, the more you need to be considered another important part of human diversity, etc. Not the less. And “less” is what aspie supremacy ends up meaning to those of us who (even when we have some very valued skills in a few areas) are more vulnerable to devaluation and all of it’s effects. Including the lethal ones.

1 Edited to add: When I say this I am not meaning to imply infants should be devalued. Generally when a medical professional makes the rapid judgement that someone “has the mind of an infant”, it’s a code word for “nobody’s home and we can do whatever we want”. This does say a lot about how infants are devalued.