Tag Archives: BADD

Love, Fear, Death, and Disability

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People fear and even hate disabled people because we remind them that they are both fragile and mortal. They don’t want to remember those things about themselves. And they find ways to physically shut us away, and mentally shut us out of their awareness. And they delude themselves that they are different. That something they do will prevent them from ever becoming one of us. And prevent them from ever dying.

I have lived a long time as what I’d call precariously ill. A person who’s precariously ill isn’t terminally ill. There’s no saying for sure that we’ll die of our illness. But death is a constant possibility.

In my case, my gastroparesis led me to frequently inhale large amounts of stomach fluid at once. I have bronchiectasis, which makes it easy to get infections and hard to clear them. And untreated, severe adrenal insufficiency, which can turn an ordinary infection into an adrenal crisis. That combination made my health, and my life, very precarious indeed.

I have a strong belief that if people were more open about death, people would be less terrified of their own mortality. And thus less terrified of things that remind them of their mortality. Like, say, disabled people and sick people.

I’ve never had what they call a “Near Death Experience” ™ where you come very close to death and have this fairly uniform experience of a light at the end of a tunnel and all that kind of thing. But I’ve had encounters where I’ve gotten too close to death for comfort. Usually I had an infection that wasn’t playing well with my untreated adrenal problems. I would become extremely weak, so tired that it felt like just keeping my heart running and my basic bodily functions going, was too much. and I was losing the ability to do those background things your body is supposed to do effortlessly. And then I’d see death hanging around, it’s the only way I know how to put it. Sometimes other people around me would see it too.

A light would fill the room. It wasn’t a visible light. It was something I’d see on the inside of my head. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. There was a sense of being more profoundly at home than I had ever been in my life. As if there was this one tiny piece of the universe where I fundamentally belonged, and I had finally found it. There was an overwhelming sense of benevolence and peace.

And there was the sense that if I wanted to, all I had to do was relax and stop fighting. All I had to do was rest. And I could be in that intense, profound place of love forever. But if I fought, and won, it would still be waiting for me when my time had come. It did not entirely urge me either way. It was patient. It had all the time in the world.

But while it didn’t actively urge me to die, death did have a gravitational field. That’s what I called it during my first conscious encounter with it. I was ashamed, at first, to tell my friends what it had felt like. I was afraid they’d think I was weak, or cowardly, or that I had a death wish. So with some disquiet, I told my friend what it had felt like the first time I encountered death in this manner.

It felt, at first, like I couldn’t fight. More than that, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t even conceive of fighting. I had a strong urge just to rest. To allow my heart to stop and my breathing to slow and to surrender myself completely to death. The closer I was to death, the stronger this feeling was. So I started referring to it as a gravitational pull. It was only when I gained a lot of strength back due to medical treatment that I even had the will to resist, let alone the power.

My friend gave me an explanation that made me feel much better about my reactions. It was not that I was weak-willed or wanted to die. It was entropy at work.

Entropy involves a system trying to go to the lowest energy state. In order to survive, living things are constantly fighting entropy. We do this by feeding off of other living things and converting it into fuel to give us the continued energy to survive. If we simply allowed ourselves to go to the lowest energy state without a fight, we’d be dropping dead right and left. Most of the time, we are good enough at temporarily cheating entropy that we don’t feel its pull on us.

But when we are severely ill enough that death is a possibility, then we begin to feel it. We feel how strenuous it is to stay alive. And if we are sick enough, and exhausted enough, we begin to feel an overwhelming desire to allow ourselves to go to that ultimate rest. To allow our bodies to wind down forever. And that is the gravitational pull we have to escape if we are to live.

Much like a black hole has a point of no return, death has an event horizon too. I’ve obviously never been past it. But I’ve seen people and animals who have. And I saw (in my head, not with my eyes) that same intense light around them, that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. I felt that same profound, unconditional love.

This is how I know that death is nothing to be feared. In fact, even though the separation between us and our loved ones can cause tremendous pain and grief, death itself can be a beautiful process for the person who is dying. It can be for those around them, too, if everyone lets it be what it is.

I want to emphasize something though. Yes, I believe that death can be benevolent, friendly, necessary, and even beautiful. But I also believe all those things about life. And given that we only get one shot at this lifetime (even if reincarnation exists, which I don’t pretend to know) then it’s very important to resist death until it’s actually our time to die.

Our life is something we owe not only ourselves, but the people and society around us. Whether or not we understand our contributions, we each have one, and the world loses something without each of us in it. Disabled people in particular get a lot of messages saying that we are burdens on society, that we do not contribute, and that it’s best if we’re dead. And that’s completely wrong. In fact it’s despicable, unforgivable, to do anything to convince someone that these things are true of them.

So I am not saying “Death is beautiful, surrender to it the first chance you get.”

I am saying “Life is beautiful and you are an important part of the world, whether you can see it or not. You have obligations to the living world, to stay here as long as you possibly can. But when your time truly comes, don’t be afraid. Death is a necessary part of life. And it can be friendly, benevolent, and beautiful in its own right. When your time comes, it’s possible to die with love, without fear.  And if you have ever existed, then some place in time, you always exist.”

One thing that facing death can do, is force you to reexamine your priorities in life. And that can be scary. It can be especially scary if there’s something in your life that you’ve been running from, hard, for a long time. As you near death, you won’t be able to keep up the fences in your mind that allow you to deny things like that. If you learn to face these things long before you get close to death, then death is less scary. And if there’s something you’ve done wrong that’s been a burden on your mind, it can be important to remove that burden before you die. That’s why some religions practice confession before death, but it doesn’t have to be in a religious context if you’re not religious. But the sooner you deal with things like this, the less they’ll hang around and make your death unpleasant.

But the biggest thing I have found, any time I’ve even faced the possibility of death. Even if I haven’t come close enough to feel that gravitational pull. Is that it’s forced me to examine what is really important in life, and what is trivial. And it’s actually pretty simple:

Love is all that’s important. The experience of love, the expression of love, living love and compassion as your highest and only principles in life. Living for what you can do for others, not what you can do for yourself alone. Everything else fades into the background.

I can remember an ambulance ride after aspirating stomach fluid. When that happens, you don’t know how long you’ll survive. You could get an infection and get over it, or it could do you in within a week. You don’t know if you’ll get lucky, at that point. And everything narrows down.

At that point, I always find myself faced with one question: “Have I loved enough, and have I expressed that love enough throughout my life?” Everything else falls away. That’s the only thing my conscience cares about in the end. Have you lived your life as a strong enough expression of compassion and love? The best way to have few regrets when you die is to get started living that love right now. Easier said than done, but worth the struggle.

This doesn’t mean becoming touchy feely and hugging everyone you meet. It doesn’t mean being serene and peaceful all the time, or never getting mad. (In fact anger is sometimes — sometimes — an expression of love at a particular moment. Not habitual anger problems, but anger as a reaction in a particular situation when everything fits together in a way that requires it.) Love is an active thing that requires constant evaluation and action. It’s not holding hands and singing kumbaya. It’s not feeling soft and fuzzy all the time. Expressing real love can be fierce and intense, difficult and demanding, even scary sometimes.

But if you want to have as few regrets as possible at the time of your death, it’s best not to wait: Get started living a loving life right now. And start facing things you’re trying to run from. And unburden your conscience from anything that’s been weighing on it. Because you don’t want to die terrified, fighting against yourself, feeling the pressure of unrelenting guilt or shame. It’s best to live your life now in a way that will leave you with no regrets when you die.

But that’s a hard thing to do. I’m aware of this stuff, but I can’t claim to be living the perfectly loving life that I want to be living. I know there are things I could be doing for others, right now, that I desperately want to do for others, that somehow never get done. Despite that, I know deep down in my bones that love is the only way to live a good life or die a good death.

It’s hard for even disabled people to talk about what a good death looks like, because we are under so much pressure from society to accept that death is better than disability, that death is an acceptable alternative to the unbearable suffering that we are supposedly enduring, that we will be happier dead than alive. The media is full of stories where nondisabled people kill us and we’re said to be better off, our deaths are said to be understandable. And stories where we become suicidal and instead of trying to prevent our suicides, our societies rally behind us to give us a ‘right’ to an easy death. That stuff is everywhere, and it makes it very hard for us to look at what a good death would actually be.

It’s especially hard to talk about accepting death, because people are always pressuring us to accept our deaths long before we are ready to die. I would quite possibly be dead already if I hadn’t had a lot of the online disability community fighting for me last year, when doctors tried to persuade me not to get a feeding tube. (They couldn’t deny it outright, because they knew I needed one. So they came into my hospital room every day while I was sick and weak and exhausted from pneumonia, and tried to persuade me that life with a feeding tube was so awful that ‘the alternative’ would be preferable.) I clearly disagreed with their assessment of when is the right time to die, and I disagree with anyone who tries to make it sound as if living with a feeding tube, on a ventilator, or with other ‘artificial’ means of living, is somehow the point at which disabled people should give up and die.

But there is a point when giving in isn’t a bad thing. And it’s not a matter of how many machines you’re on to keep you alive. It’s not a thing that can be quantified. It’s that nebulous time “when your time has really come”. At that point, there’s no shame in giving up the fight, because fighting when you’re truly beyond death’s event horizon just makes death more unpleasant, it doesn’t keep you alive. But I’m afraid to even say this, because I know someone, somewhere, will twist it around and use it to persuade disabled people to give up and die before our time is really up. It happens all the time, and disabled people have every right to be extremely wary of talk of ‘giving in’ as a good thing.

But regardless of that, death still has an event horizon. And once you know, for sure, that you’re beyond that point of no return, then there is nothing wrong with simply surrendering to love, surrendering to the light, surrendering to whatever gods you do or don’t worship, whatever you want to call it, however you see it. And you will become part of the rest of the world, and that is right, and true, and beautiful. And heartbreaking for those you leave behind.

Between my experiences lately, and serious medical experiences my parents have been having, I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

Normally, I write about the ableism involved in pushing disabled people towards our deaths. The ableism in thinking that disabled is just half-dead and that dying is good if you’re disabled. The ableism in thinking things like “They keep people alive too long these days, it’d be better if people just died without a long drawn-out time where they’re disabled before they die.”

But now, I’m writing about a different aspect of ableism and death: The way ableism against disabled people is tied to nondisabled people’s fear of sickness and death and physical imperfection, fear of their own mortality. And dismantling fear of death dismantles that aspect of ableism. Nothing I say here should be taken as supporting ableist ideas about how disabled people should just accept our deaths and go quietly. Instead, I’m talking about a more universal acceptance of death, one that should happen when our time has truly come and not before.

And I’m talking about love, because I deeply believe, more deeply than ever, that love is the only thing that can make things right in the world. Love that comes from the depths of what it is to be a person, love that comes from everything good in the world, love that demands a lot of us and changes us and is intense and powerful and fierce and real and sometimes demanding and scary. Love that leads to compassion that leads to actions people undertake for each other, not for ourselves.

And most of my sense of this love comes from my encounters with death. I don’t know why it works like that, but it does. I’ve talked to others who have had similar experiences. Sometimes facing your own mortality can make you scared and twisted up and angry and bitter. But sometimes it can open you up to new depths of love and caring about others, that you didn’t know were possible. And even if you start out scared or angry or bitter, it’s possible to change bit by bit, more and more towards enacting that love in the real world.

I firmly believe that if people were more willing to face our collective fragility, vulnerability, mortality, and death, then we would be less ableist. All of us, disabled and nondisabled.

I’m going to end with a video taken shortly before the death of Eva Markvoort, a young woman who had cystic fibrosis, got a lung transplant, and ultimately died of chronic rejection. I’m posting the video because she so clearly allowed her impending death to open her up to all of the love that the world has to offer. This wasn’t easy for her, it didn’t just magically happen, and it’s not meant to be an inspirational cripple story, which I’m sure she’d have hated — one of those things where we exist only to teach a lesson to the nondisabled world, when we are so much more than a lesson. Yet I hope that we can all face our deaths as well as she did in the end. At least, I hope that I can. When I look at her in this video, I see in my head that invisible solid light that I see whenever I or someone else is sufficiently close to death — it’s all around her, it’s coming through her, and it’s allowing amazing, beautiful things to happen to her and those around her in her last hours.

This was her farewell video to the world, don’t watch it without something to wipe your eyes:

 

She once wrote a love letter that read, in part:

When I sit outside on the ferry is when I most believe in love. I don’t know why. Something about the wind makes me feel alive…the seagulls and the sky…whether its sunny and bright or cloudy and grey or nighttime and I’m surrounded by vast darkness…I just feel…FULL. Full of love and energy….almost as though I’m porous and the wind soars through tiny holes in my body and I’m part of it all…the earth and the people and the relation of everything with everything…as though I don’t matter…but its not scary…its wonderful….i feel so free.

It’s the only time I’m not afraid to die. Cuz I can feel the wind and I know that I’ll always be a part of life…and the love and energy that are contained in my skin will be let loose into the wind and the world will just know how much I care and love and I will live forever. I believe that love is what defines us as human. I believe that my love for you will never die. My heart breaks to think of how lucky I am. How happy and hopeful and full I am. I love you so solidly. I am real and you are real and I hope we will always be real. I am in awe of you. My interest in who you are is infinite. Drop a stone in the well of my desire for you and you’ll never hear it hit the bottom. You amaze me. Your love makes me invincible…no not invincible…immortal. Because when I die I believe my love for you will surround you till your soul joins mine in the wind.

I hope that the world can learn to overcome the terror they associate with fragility, imperfection, vulnerability, and mortality, the terror that currently makes so many people fear and hate disabled people (and, in turn, drive us closer to an untimely death).

I hope that the world can stop fearing death, and stop fearing the disability and sickness that reminds them of death.

I hope that people will understand my meaning here, and not use it to justify the deaths of disabled and chronically ill people who need all the help we can get to survive already.

I hope that the world can learn to love — in the active, difficult, demanding way that deep love entails — and that this can further all of the above. Because active love and compassion, caring about each other on every level possible, is the only thing that digs deep enough to create lasting change.  And love is the only thing that can end fear or hatred.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

After this, I am never again putting up with bullies telling me that my medical conditions are imaginary.

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After my diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency, then the last foothold that bullies had made into my mind, it fell away like sand.

It wasn’t just that the diagnosis was so obvious, so grounded in specific laboratory tests that nobody with any knowledge could argue with.  It wasn’t that, so much, at all.

It was what I felt in my body.

It was the way I felt life returning to my body.

It was the way I felt sturdy rather than fragile.

It was doing forty jumping jacks in a row, fast.

It was going up seven flights of steps to use a treadmill for ten minutes, then go all the way downstairs, and then back up to my apartment.

It was doing things, large and small, that my body couldn’t do before.  Couldn’t.  Not even a little.

It was feeling that fall away from me again, temporarily, when my body first adjusted to the dexamethasone dose I was on, and having it come back again when we raised the dose.

I realized that the reason the bullies got to me so badly was because deep down I thought maybe they were right.   I’d experienced a severe but undiagnosed chronic illness for years, and it had gotten much worse six years ago.  I painstakingly hid as many aspects of it as I could, let people believe there were other reasons that I could do less online, because every time I described an illness, I’d get bullied for it.  I’d get told I was making stuff up for attention.  When I was hospitalized last year, I sought help online with obtaining access to a life-saving treatment, and some bullies even had the nerve to capitalize on a life-and-death medical situation to give them a platform to denounce me again.  Then when I described the situation, one of them had the extra nerve to come here and tell me that because I was fat, I couldn’t possibly have enough eating problems to need a feeding tube.  (I’ve lost nearly 70 pounds involuntarily.  When it was only 40 pounds in 2 months, a doctor told me I was burning muscle and that it was going to affect my heart.  Do I have to be dead of starvation before I’m thin enough for my gastroparesis to be real?)

And on some level I accepted this.

And I accepted it because I thought that maybe I really was imagining things.  After all, I had no firm diagnosis for this mystery illness that was causing me so much trouble.  Maybe I didn’t want to get better.  Maybe if I just wanted to enough, I could jump and run and walk up stairs.  Maybe I didn’t have to be in bed all day.  Maybe the vomiting and burning hot and freezing cold and total limpness were something I could make go away, with everything else, if I wanted to enough.  Maybe I was somehow making it up, and then fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t making it up.

And I can tell you that nearly everyone I talk to with a hard-to-diagnose condition has thought this way.  But those of us who have been bullied or harassed, and had rumors spread about us that we’re faking everything?  We think this way more.  We may hide it well, but most of us think this way, at least on bad days.  And it’s a terrible way to think.  It winds around your head and makes it hard to take any action at all in life.  It makes you doubt the deepest things about yourself.  It can make you passive, it can make you lash out, but either way it makes you less effective at anything you’re trying to do.  It’s hard to get anything done when you’re divided against yourself, doing the bullies’ work for them.

Anyway, this has all changed.

I don’t think like this anymore.

The test results tell me that everything I felt wrong with my body all these years, has a measurable, physical cause that’s very simple:  I don’t make enough cortisol, because I don’t make enough ACTH.  Years of depletion has led to chronic and even life-threatening illness.  And this is clearly adrenal insufficiency (a medical diagnosis), not ‘adrenal fatigue’ (a vague catch-all that requires no actual proof of an adrenal problem at all).

But it’s not the test results.

It’s what I feel in my body now that I’ve gone on dexamethasone.

It’s being able to run and jump and climb stairs and go for long walks.

It’s feeling sturdy for the first time in years.  It’s feeling the fire of life course through me for the first time in years.

It’s realizing I could live to old age, and starting to wonder what it will be like to have grey hair and wrinkles.

No bully can take those realizations away from me.

And the change that has happened in me makes me realize how disgusting this form of bullying is, and what a low form of humanity anyone is who deliberately participates in it.  And I’m angry.  It’s an intense, focused anger.  Focused on everyone who has ever tried to make me doubt who I am and what I am experiencing.

Because I have a better fucking track record than most people with chronic illnesses, when it comes to having things show up on actual test results like this.  And yet every time, every time I have to prove myself.  Sometimes the proof comes at the last minute.  One day the proof may come too late to save me, and you’ll have that on your conscience, if you even have a conscience.

But seriously:

Problems urinating, dismissed out of hand as psychological in 2000, diagnosed around 2006 as spasticity of the urethra, treated with an implant that helps my muscles relax.  But not before I had infection after infection after infection.

A variety of really nasty symptoms, dismissed out of hand as being ‘fat and lazy’ and other things of the like, for years.  By the time, around 2003, that they found the problem, my gallbladder had not only produced two large gallstones, it had failed completely and was sitting in there dead by the time they pulled it out.  The surgeon was visibly angry at everyone who had delayed diagnosis and treatment.

Breathing symptoms.  Got me thrown out of emergency rooms more than once because treatments for asthma didn’t help — cyberbullies then proceeded to use those stories to convince people that “even ER doctors think she’s manipulative, see?”  They never thought to check if it was something other than asthma.  Eventually they found an infection and atelectasis in part of my lung.  Even after that was fixed, I was getting told that my continued breathing problems weren’t a big deal, were all in my head, all that kind of thing.  Until I got assigned a new pulmonologist, who did a CT scan and found “mild bilateral lower lobe bronchiectasis and scattered peripheral tree-in-bud opacities consistent with small airways disease”.  When treated for bronchiectasis, the problems got significantly better.  Imagine that?

I had ongoing joint pain that I knew wasn’t arthritis, so I avoided telling doctors about it because I didn’t want to tell them about one more thing wrong with me that didn’t fit in the usual box.  Finally a doctor badgered me into admitting that I had joint pain, then had me perform a series of movements.  He diagnosed me with benign joint hypermobility syndrome on the spot — a condition that’s characterized by overly flexible joints combined with widespread joint pain.  The test is really simple.  Bullies claimed I was faking this even though I posted pictures of my thumb flat against my wrist, which is impossible to do without a hypermobile wrist joint.  (I can also stick my foot behind my head and other fun party tricks that I really shouldn’t, medically, do.  But I do do it sometimes because it’s the fastest way to prove to a doctor that I’m not kidding around about being hypermobile.)

I had ongoing problems with nausea and food that stayed in my stomach for way too long, sometimes I’d throw up things I’d eaten days before.  This was eventually diagnosed as gastroparesis, using a test where you eat radioactive eggs and they test how slowly it goes through your stomach.

And now I’ve had this baffling array of symptoms, for years, and the blood cortisol test, ACTH test, and ACTH stimulation test confirmed that it’s a severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  My response to treatment, according to my endocrinologist, more than confirms it.

How many people with chronic illness can say they have a track record this good?  Of saying they had a medical problem, and having it actually show up on a test in such a clear fashion?  I mean, the problems I have tested as having have not by any means all been the problems I was expecting to have.  But they all eventually showed up as something.  And that’s more than a lot of people can say.

So why the extensive bullying about being fake, when I have more proof of my authenticity as a sick person than most sick people will ever have?

It’s not because there’s any actual evidence that I’m faking anything.  It’s because bullies will be bullies, and they sensed this as a vulnerable point for any person with a chronic illness.  It’s because, I’m sure, a few of them have actually convinced themselves that they are on a righteous crusade against evil, and I am evil.  It’s because I have some people who, for reasons unknown to me, really hate me, and they thought this would be fun.

But it’s also because there’s a cultural norm that says that disabled people are all potential fakers until proven otherwise.

It’s because everyone is always looking for whether the wheelchair user can wiggle her toes, whether the blind man picks up a book and reads it with his eyes, whether the nonverbal person can say a few words here and there when xe’s under sufficient pressure and all the stars align just right.  It’s because people believe that we are all getting away with something.  That disability is about getting something for nothing.  That being sick means getting special privileges.  That everyone would fake illness to ‘play hooky’ from life, if there wasn’t constant vigilance against the possibility.

Governments love to spur on this kind of hatred and suspicion.  Disabled people in the UK right now are afraid to leave their houses because hate crimes have risen.  And the hate crimes have risen as a result of a media campaign saying that disabled people are exaggerating or faking their conditions in order to get benefits that they don’t deserve.  People are afraid of getting beaten up in public, because they’re being scapegoated by the government for the financial crisis that’s plaguing the world today.  And disabled people are always among the first to get scapegoated for such things.  We’re too expensive.  We need too many special privileges.  This always happens, and horrors follow.

According to Paul Longmore in Why I Burned My Book, the idea that you need to watch to make sure disabled people aren’t cheating on our benefits goes back to the English Poor Laws.  I wish I had my copy of his book on hand so that I could tell you everything he knows about the subject.  But basically it made it clear that there were poor people who deserved help, and poor people who didn’t deserve help.  And that we needed to always be careful only to be helping the right people.  And that the wrong sort of people would always be trying to take advantage of our charity and goodwill, so we must always be on guard.

And that attitude is what’s behind the suspicion of any disabled person who isn’t 100% stereotypical.

Speaking of which — you want to find a disabled person who is faking?  Find someone who has absolutely consistent abilities that never waver in any way, who is always able to do the same things, always unable to do the same other things, and those things never shift around.  She’ll be very much like the stereotype of whatever condition she claims to have, and won’t deviate in the slightest.  She will be everything you expect of a disabled person.  And that is why you will never find her so you might as well give up looking.

The people you pick on relentlessly as fakers are the ones who are generally actually more typical of disabled people, but less stereotypical.  We don’t have just one condition, we have two or three or four at minimum.  Our abilities are a moving target that we can’t always predict, let alone anyone else.  We seem to be able to do one thing but unable to do something else that we “should” be able to do if we could do the first thing.  We don’t obey any of the rules people have in their heads of how disabled people are supposed to be like.  And because of this we are vulnerable and because of this we are targets for relentless bullying, harassment, and defamation.

So a lot of us hide things that aren’t stereotypical.  Or we hide how bad things are.  Or we hide how bad things have gotten.  Or we try to play the role of a more stereotypical disabled person, hoping it will free us from bullying.  But then if we are exposed as having hidden anything, ever, or pretended anything, ever, then bullies have ammunition to accuse us of faking, and it all gets worse.  So we’re trapped in a double bind:  There is no way to be ourselves and escape ableist bullying.

I realize how much I have come to accept that I am an acceptable target, when I think of a good friend of mine and what would’ve happened (and it almost did, but for a twist of fate) if she’d met up with the same bullies I met up with at a certain point in my life.  It makes me shake with rage.  It makes me cry.  The very idea of her having to go through this makes me furious.  And I realize that I need to be just as furious that I’ve been forced to go through this, often with very little support and backup, for so long.  Because I matter just as much as she does, and I’m just as real as she is.

I have to say, though, that I have met people who were faking or exaggerating disability in order to manipulate people.  Very few, but I have met them.  And I understand that when done in certain ways, such actions can be devastating to everyone forced to be around them.  It can destroy trust.  It can destroy the cohesion of communities that are important for disabled people.  It can become an almost vampiric scenario where someone is draining time, energy, and money from people who can’t spare any of those things.  That isn’t what happens the majority of times that people fake things (the majority of the time, it hurts few to no people, actually), but it can happen, and I understand why people are changed by it, why they have trouble trusting after something like that happens.  I’ve been through it myself and it left my head upside-down for a long time afterwards.

But I’ve seen much more damage done to disabled people and our communities, by people who are overly suspicious of everyone for faking, than by people who are actually faking things.

In fact, I’ve seen irreparable damage done to disabled people simply at the idea that someone might think they were faking.  It’s an insidious thought that gets into people’s heads and won’t let them go.  It’s torturous.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  And I’ve seen it all but destroy a lot of very good people who’d done nothing wrong.  And these aren’t even people who were directly targeted for ableist bullying the way I have been.  All they had to do was see that the bullying happened, and that was enough to instill fear and self-doubt.  Many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are dealing with so much self-doubt already, that bullying and witch-hunts simply pour gasoline on the fire.  I would not be surprised if some people who were already feeling they had no hope of being understood, had been driven to attempt suicide this way before.

My self-doubt is gone.

It was like a fog that kept me always looking in the wrong direction.  It made me unable to see myself.

I can see myself better now.  I am strong.  I am as real and genuine as everyone else.  I have done nothing that deserves being singled out and attacked.  I have far more proof of the reality of my medical problems than most people who are not being targeted have of theirs, and that tells me that I’m not being attacked because of anything I’ve done.  But I can see, clearly, that I am stronger than anyone who has ever tried to attack me.  Because I’ve now survived relentless attacks on my character, death threats, emotional manipulation, and head games.  Things they probably wouldn’t have weathered anywhere near as well as I have.

I don’t have any hope that they will stop what they are doing.  Because I can see now that what they are doing has nothing to do with reality.  No amount of proof is enough.  In fact they probably want me scurrying around trying to prove myself.  They enjoy that.  Because what they want is control over my life.  They want me to be scared and running around frantically trying to please them.  I’ll probably be dealing with this until they get bored or something, if that ever happens.

But there are things we can do to minimize the impact of people like this.

We can make it a community norm that it’s intolerable for people to bully each other about their disability status.

We can support people who are being bullied about their disability status.

We can support people who are not directly being bullied, but who express fears about whether their illness is imaginary, whether they are just somehow making things up without knowing it, that kind of thing.

We can make things safe for people to admit to feelings like that, without condemning them as guilty just because they’ve doubted themselves.

We can work against community norms that say it’s really important to catch disabled people “cheating” at being disabled.

We can make sure bullies know we aren’t listening to them, and we can make sure that their victims (both direct and indirect) know that we are on their side (because there’s nothing bullies love more than to make their victims feel as if we are alone and everyone is against us).

We can work for love and compassion and against one-upmanship, bullying-as-funny-entertainment, and ego.

There’s all kinds of things we can do.

And inside of ourselves, we can dismantle this self-doubt.  Because self-doubt of this kind, it’s what this kind of bully wants.  They don’t just want to make other people doubt us.  The real fun comes from watching us squirm, watching us doubt ourselves, watching us tear ourselves apart.

I for one will never tear myself apart over this again.   Because I know now, know in my bones, that this has all been real, all along.  I feel it every time I walk up and down four flights of stairs without my legs giving out or even getting out of breath.  I feel it every time I exercise without vomiting.  I feel it every time I do jumping jacks, run, skip, and do all these things I couldn’t do before.  I feel it in the fact that I never anymore get so exhausted that I need a bipap to breathe.  I feel it in every single change my body has made since starting dexamethasone.  This is what reality is.  Anyone who thinks otherwise can screw themselves, but you won’t get a voice on my blog, not to tear me apart, and not to tear anyone else apart either.  It’s what Dave Hingsburger taught me years ago:  I’m okay, you’re mean.  That’s all I need to know.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

Feeding tubes and weird ideas

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My favorie BADD post: Tube-ageddon.

I haven't had much time to write anything here about the hell I went through getting my GJ tube. I had every indication for a GJ tube. I had gastroparesis so bad it was starting to affect my breathing, in a way that doctors said was likely to result in infection after infection until I died. From the emergency room onward, doctors were saying my best hope was to get a feeding tube.

Yet the pressure I got from doctors, while in the hospital for one of those infections, was to just keep getting infections, go home, wait to die. Most of them wouldn't say that outright. But some of them did. Some of them we confronted and they absolutely agreed that the only alternative to the tube was death — which could have happened to me by now, without the tube. But they still insisted on telling me not to get the tube, basically that I was better off dead than with a tube. We had to rally a bunch of people on the Internet to call the hospital before they suddenly changed their tune. My pulmonologist told me she could tell exactly when I started getting people calling the hospital, because the tone in my charts changed instantly to “let's get her the tube after all”.

Most people think of all feeding tubes as the same, all reasons for getting them as the same, and so they believe in false generalizations about their capacity to prevent lung infections, or indeed cause them. But they aren't all the same. They're all different, and the reasons for getting them are all different.

I have gastroparesis. That means my stomach is partially paralyzed. In my case it became severe before it was diagnosed last year and confirmed with testing this year. It's probably due to neuromuscular problems inherited from my mother, who has autonomic neuropathy among other things, a common cause of gastroparesis. My symptoms are similar to hers so doctors are assuming whatever we have is related. Anyway, it makes food remain in the stomach a long time. After awhile, this means that you can't eat very much and you drop a lot of weight. (I may still be fat, but they tell me by the end I was burning muscle.) by the end I was having trouble keeping down two small cartons of Boost a day, which isn't enough calories to live on. I was already on a liquid diet so there was no less food I could keep eating.

It also meant that the stuff staying in my stomach was riding up my esophagus again on gas bubbles formed by food sitting in my stomach for ages. I could feel it happening several times a day. I'd belch and food or bile would ride up with it. If this happened overnight, my bipap machine would shove the stomach contents down into my lungs from my esophagus. This began happening several times a week, and from January until March I had about five lung infections requiring antibiotics. I never stopped taking antibiotics, by the time one course was over I'd be on the next. Which is dangerous in its own right.

So when I showed up in the ER a few days after a CT scan showing what they called a “ground glass appearance”, they had no problem admitting me into the hospital, and even in the emergency room they were telling me if I wanted to live I needed a GJ tube. This wasn't news to me. They had been talking about a feeding tube since last fall, when one more nausea med added to the five they'd started me on, made me able to go home without one instead. I'd been discussing with my friends what kind of feeding tube served my needs best as a person with gastroparesis. And the GJ tube had always seemed like the best option.

A GJ tube is like a combination of a G tube and a J tube. Half of it goes into the stomach, which is a G tube. The other part goes into the first part of the small intestines, which is the J tube. The G tube gives you the ability to drain your stomach contents out into a cup, and dump them down the toilet. This means that if you do it often enough, you won't have anything building up in there and going up into your lungs. Right now, even bile and stomach acid can build up to dangerous amounts because of my stomach not emptying often enough, so I take acid reducers and I drain my G tube several times a day.

The J tube portion is the part that stuff comes in through. I eat through it. I drink through it. I get all of my medications through it. This means that nothing has to come in through my stomach. Which means we are bypassing the worst part of my digestive system. Not that the rest of my digestive system is wonderful. My esophagus is slow, my stomach is slow, and my bowels have been producing blockages since I was a teenager. But with liquid food going into my small intestine at a fairly slow rate (one feeding in roughly twenty four hours, I wasn't able to handle the twelve hour version without getting very sick) I seem to be able to handle things much better than when it was going in my stomach. I love it. It's so much easier than feeling horribly sick all the time.

I still take nausea meds, but half of them have been changed to PRN instead of daily. So daily I take Phenergan, Reglan (which speeds up my digestive system), and Marinol. And I can also take Benadryl. Lorazepam, and Zofran as needed. I used to have to take all six of those things every day, so this has really cut back on the amount of medication I need, which is good because every single one of these meds is severely sedating and it was badly affecting my ability to think straight. If I were still trying to eat, I would be taking every single one of those nausea meds at the maximum dose, and still wouldn't be able to eat enough to maintain my weight.

[Photo of me holding my tube. The J tube section is visible, the G tube is hidden behind my hand, and there's a little cloth thing from Trendie Tubies around the base, with owls on it.]

But I had to fight for this tube. Even though it was the only way to save my life. I had to fight against people who were certain I was better off dead. And I needed the help of a lot of people on the Internet, to do it. When I did get the tube, it was done without a working anesthetic. And even though the local anesthesia didn't work on me, even though I was yelling and screaming, they didn't stop to give me more, they just kept telling me that the Versed meant I wouldn't remember it later. Yeah right. It seemed like the entire process of getting the tube was one giant clusterfuck after another, and like people were making it as hard for me as they possibly could. (Later, when I had to get the tube replaced, we discovered that Propofol is the med, in combination with others, that really does the trick to keep me unaware of what's happening.) They treated me like a child, repeatedly expressing the fear that I would pull the tube out like young children often do, and blaming me when part of the tube got lodged inside me, probably as a result of over zealous physical therapy early on that was a clusterfuck in its own right.

But I got the tube and I couldn't be happier with it. I feel happier and healthier. After aspirating reflux several times a week for months, I haven't aspirated a single time in the month or so I've had the tube. My nausea is well controlled. My brain and body work better. Despite a couple complications since then, it's still the best thing medically that's happened to me in the past year. And I'm still alive, which even by now I might not have been if I kept getting infection after infection.

[The x ray showing the tube inside my body.]

Why did I have to fight so hard for it? I see two major reasons. One is that I'm perceived by medical professionals as someone whose life doesn't matter much, doesn't have much quality of life. I'm autistic, they read me as severely cognitively impaired, I am in bed all the time, they don't see that I enjoy living as much as anyone else does, and they make that decision somewhere in their heads without even noticing.

The other reason is the way medical professionals see feeding tubes. I've been trying to read the writing of nurses and doctors to find out their views on these things. Not just the horrible ones. The ones who snark at patients on their blogs. But the ones who think they're compassionate and sympathetic and good at their jobs. But in one area that makes no difference:

They all think of feeding tubes as the beginning of the end. They see getting a feeding tube as the first sign that your life as over. Possibly that you belong in a nursing home, as if anyone does. When I made out my living will, the first question of “Where do you draw the line where you want to stop living?” was whether I wanted to live if it meant I needed a feeding tube. They see people with feeding tubes as the first stop on the route to a living death. Other things they see that way are using a ventilator, having a trach, needing any sort of similar mechanical assistance to survive.

My friends see it a different way. They see me as some cool kind of cyborg, with the oxygen, the feeding tube, and the Interstim implant that prevents spasticity in my urethra, allowing me to urinate. They say the sounds my oxygen concentrator makes sound almost steampunk. But then all my friends are disabled, they see adaptive equipment as cool, and as a means to living, not a sign you're dying.

Medical professionals have been shown time and time again, to rate disabled people's quality of life lower than we rate our own quality of life. And yet time and time again, they see themselves as the experts on what our real quality of life is. One reason I try to keep my lungs and my guts in good condition is that as a person who is autistic and physically disabled, I know that if I ever got bad enough to need a transplant, I'd probably die. Because they would take one look at how I sound on paper, and they would decide my life wasn't as worth living as that of a twenty year old who wasn't disabled except for the effects of their lung problems or digestive problems. (Lung transplant is the end of the line for severe bronchiectasis. My bronchiectasis is mild, I'm working hard at keeping it that way. Transplant is also the end of the line for very severe gastroparesis combined with other gut problems. I'm hoping I don't get to that point despite severe gastroparesis. Given how hard it was just to get a feeding tube, which is the standard treatment when you start aspirating this much and being unable to eat even a liquid diet, I don't know that I stand a chance at making the transplant list should I need one.)

I also had trouble getting home. People were asking me if I belonged in a nursing home, or at least in twenty four hour care. I'm not sure why. It's not like it's hard to care for a GJ tube. It's unusual, but it's certainly easier than my old med regimen, which was truly difficult and time consuming. Now we just mix them up, put them in a syringe, and stick them straight into the tube. Easy. Eating is easier too, no more worrying I will throw up, and you only need to set up the food once a day and press a button on a feeding pump. But everyone has this illusion that it's incredibly difficult, and the VNA loves to take people with tubes and stick us in nursing homes claiming they can no longer care for us on the outside.

[The feeding pump on an IV pole with the food (Osmolite, low fat, high protein, no fiber) hanging above it.]

I still don't understand what the big deal is supposed to be. By the time you get a feeding tube, eating is really hard. Either you're having swallowing problems, or something is wrong with your stomach. In my case, my stomach was emptying so slowly that I was constantly severely nauseated no matter how little I ate, I was dropping weight way too fast, and I was aspirating reflux caused by all the food sitting around for ages. I was quite possibly going to die from repeated infections. How the hell is a feeding tube supposed to be worse than that?

I can't even begin to comprehend the fear of these things. I mean I literally can't do it. It makes no sense. It's all based in prejudice. It has nothing to do with the reality of a feeding tube.

I thought the worst part would be not being able to eat. The most I can do is drink a tiny bit of ginger ale, and I have to be very careful even with that. But I don't miss food. The feeding tube ensures that I am never hungry, and always have the nutrients I need. The only times I have ever started craving food, were two separate days where I spent all day at the emergency room unable to use my tube. Each time I came home and wanted to eat or drink something I didn't normally want to eat or drink. But when I'm getting food regularly, it's not a problem. I barely miss eating at all. I never even think about it. Even the vivid dreams I'd been having about all different kinds of food, all those months on Ensure, have gone away. My body seems perfectly satisfied with what it's getting, and it doesn't crave things unless I can't use the tube.

And it makes everything easier. Food is easier. Medication is easier. Absolutely nothing is any harder than normal. It's more like dealing with something easy and mechanical, than dealing with anything hard. We did learn the hard way to flush it with coke after every medication, because by the time there was a clog, you couldn't get enough coke in to dissolve it. So we are dissolving the clogs before they can even form, by leaving coke in for awhile after every single time we use meds. I've also discovered it's possible to reduce the pressure inside me — which can prevent the meds and water from flowing into me as easily — by relaxing my body, especially my rectum, and then everything usually flows in pretty easily. So there are a few tricks, but it has overall been much easier than my life was before I got the tube.

So what is so scary? I don't know. I can't find anything at all scary about this. It doesn't mean anything horrible. It means I'm alive. Being alive is a good thing. I don't fear death, but I only get one chance at life, and I don't want to die just because someone else has decided my life isn't worth enough to them. And so I'm very much interested in anything that will keep me alive longer, whether it's a feeding tube or any other “scary” device used for keeping disabled people around longer than used to be possible.

A lot of people I know have those devices, the ones that medical professionals think your life is over. Feeding tubes. Trachs. Ventilators. Catheters. Ostomies. Central lines. All those things that seem to scare people to death, even though there's nothing scary about them. They prolong life, not end it. And I'm furious at every single doctor who urged me to go home and die rather than get this feeding tube and get a chance to live longer. That is simply not their decision to make, and they were bound and determined to make it for me until I got enough people on my side to convince them that the entire world was watching the crap they were trying to pull.

I am going to work as hard as I can, to change hospital policy so that nobody gets pressured in the way I did. It's incredibly difficult to deal with pressure to die, when you're already sick and exhausted and have no energy to fight back. And they do it in sneaky ways, so that if I had been delirious or something, which I often am in the hospital, I might not have recognized what they were trying to do. My experiences are far from unusual, many disabled people have been encouraged to die rather than get a feeding tube, or a vent, or something else that would allow us to live. My mother, who has many of the same conditions I do, is going through a mess where doctor after doctor refuses to treat her or perform surgery on her, and she keeps having to go back to the Mayo clinic because they're the only ones who seem to be committed to making sure she can live as long as possible. And as a disabled senior citizen way below the poverty line, she gets the “your life isn't worth it to us” thing from at least three different angles. This stuff isn't unique to my life, the pressure to die is everywhere.

But most disabled people, like most people in general, prefer to be alive. Being disabled rarely changes that fact, not on its own. And the fact that anyone thinks we ought not to, that their pity goes so far as to be a death wish aimed at another person, is so disgusting I don't even have words for it. But they are the ones who are disgusted at my advance directive, which tells them to keep me alive no matter what. I can hear it in the sound of their voice when they ask me about advance directives. Advance directives are supposed to be about making your own choices, but the choice to live is the least respected among them. They would rather I not be here by now, rather I got my sixth, seventh, eighth infection until my lungs finally gave out. I refuse to give them the satisfaction. I love being alive and a tube doesn't change that one bit, in fact it makes my life better.

 

BADD: Pulling Back Curtains

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2012

This is my other post for Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) on May 1, both about caregiver abuse, this one about the most extreme kind. It’s in a heavy topic, but a necessary one given the public’s response to several recent murders of disabled people. The situations I’m describing are somewhat different from the recent murders that have come to light. But what we can learn from them is important to all such situations.

1. Introduction: Pulling Back the Curtains on Hate and Love

This is my first attempt to write about something extremely serious while avoiding a dark, focused state I recently realized was unhealthy. There are good and bad kinds of dark, just like there are good and bad kinds of light. This was the bad kind of dark, not the kind that protects but the kind that consumes and drowns you. It felt as if the entire world was engulfed in this place that was intensely dark, and focused into a kind of false but convincing clarity. Hiding inside that false clarity was a belief that this horrible state of mind was all there really was to the world when you stopped pretending that there was nothing bad going on.

Along with this state went a sense that I was doing the world a favor by constantly immersing myself in it. But while the information I was giving out was important, it was tainted everywhere by this state of mind. I felt like I was telling the world the truth, but it was only one part of the truth. Because the real truth allows for the possibility of fighting this stuff and winning. But the truth I was telling had all kinds of warping around the edges.

I felt like I was lifting away a curtain of ignorance among most people as to exactly how awful the (human, social) world can really be to anyone who isn’t valued. And in a way, I was. But I was not lifting away a second curtain. Behind that second curtain was everything good in the world, that remains hidden from most people as well. Behind that curtain is every possibility for love, compassion, cooperation, and hope. Not the fuzzy greeting card version, but something so powerful, fierce, and solid that it can evaporate all the awful stuff that lies behind the first curtain if enough people act on it.

It was painful events in my own life that led to my conviction that I had to tear aside the first curtain and make everyone stare into the awful facts I was aware of. But in doing it the way I did it, I was allowing the people who hurt me free use of my brain to hurt other people. Not that they were literally sitting there controlling my brain. But their actions caused a ripple effect. I was part of it and by my actions unwittingly allowed their influence to spread wider. This often happens to survivors of abuse and oppression. And it allows terrible things to spread around far beyond the original targets.

If at any point during this post, you end up feeling anything resembling that dark focused state, then try to resist it. Because this topic is scary, but feeling like you’re trapped in a world so horrible and terrifying that the good things about it are a long way off if they exist at all? That plays right into the hands of the kind of people I am going to write about.

2. Caregivers from Hell

The reason I have decided to write about this, despite that risk, is that very few people we aware of it. Some people work out parts of it but few people work out all of it. And in light of the way people have been excusing several recent murders of disabled people, it’s as relevant now as it was when it was written. It shows the flaws in the idea that our deaths are excusable or at least make sense. And it provides information that should make disabled people and anyone who cares about us careful in selecting, interacting with, and checking up on caregivers.

Please be clear: Not all, not even most, caregivers are like this. But just as disabled people have to be careful that caregivers don’t rob our money or possessions, we have to create other safeguards as well, to address the huge power imbalance that allows the events described in this post to happen without many people noticing or caring.

I found it in an obscure, out of print book called Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities: The End of Silent Acceptance? by Dick Sobsey. It’s one of those books that cites sources several times a page, and it’s out of date but as far as I know it’s the only book of its kind. I bolded parts of it for emphasis:

These five considerations for training and service delivery provide important directions for law enforcement. They also suggest two interrelated areas of concern. First, these five stated considerations arise from the perspective of family violence; however, many people with disabilities are victims of institutional violence, which has its own unique considerations. Therefore, police need training relevant to institutional, as well as to family, violence. Second, successful police work will require an understanding of the nature and dynamics of human services systems and the social realities encountered by people with disabilities, as much as an understanding of disabilities themselves. Law enforcement must be prepared to address the special needs of people immersed in the service system and the unique features of conducting an investigation in service environments.

For example, an investigation of 29 highly suspicious infant deaths in Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children led to the quick arrest of a registered nurse for the murder of the most recent apparent victim (Bissland, 1984). The nurse was charged because she had been assigned one-to-one supervision of an infant whom the police felt certain had been murdered, and they believed that she was the only one who had the opportunity to commit the crime. However, more thorough investigation revealed that the nurse who had been charged was not working on the dates of some of the most highly suspicious deaths and had been relieved on lunch and breaks by other staff on nights that children in her care had died. The murder charges were dropped, and a civil suit for wrongful arrest soon followed. In the end, the probable murder of at least 8, and probably as many as 29, children by Digoxin poisoning went unpunished.

According to Bissland (1984), some of the complexities that thwarted police were a lack of knowledge of hospital procedures, apparent reassure to make a quick arrest so that the hospital could return to its normal routine, and an apparent lack of cooperation on the part of some hospital staff. For example, police were told that critical records of nursing assignments at the time of the deaths had been destroyed, but the missing records resurfaced long after the investigation had gone astray. This pattern of less than enthusiastic cooperation from within institutions is not unique.

Police in Grand Rapids, Michigan, were more successful in securing the conviction of two nurses in the suffocation of six nursing home patients; however, a similar pattern of institutional resistance plagued their investigation (Cauffiel, 1992). Available evidence indicates that similar serial murders in hospitals and nursing homes are likely to be as common, if not more common, than serial sex slayings or thrill killings (e.g., Hickey, 1991) that are typically given widespread public and professional attention. Despite this fact, little research has been conducted on the part of law enforcement to develop profiles of these medical murderers or specific investigative procedures for the institutional settings where these offenses occur.

Better success in policing institutional offenses can only occur when the principles of community-based law enforcement are adequately applied to the ethnographically distinct communities and cultures of hospitals, residential schools, group homes, and other service delivery systems. Police must understand the internal dynamics of service institutions to perform their job effectively within these environments. Before this can be accomplished, police, and society in general, must identify this as a law enforcement priority.

Often this commitment appears to be lacking, and abuse and violence in institutions remain hidden or are rationalized. For example, in the case of the Grand Rapids nursing home murders described above. Cauffiel (1992) quotes Ken Wood, the estranged husband of one of the convicted killers, saying:

How much life did she really take? All of the victims weren’t even living. They enjoyed nothing, experienced nothing and were going to die. The families at the time of death were relieved at the end of suffering . . . I know they had no right to play God . . . but when you decide how much of her life should be taken or lost to prison, shouldn’t it be equal to what was taken from their victims? (p. 485)

Although these were the words of a husband pleading for leniency for his wife, Cauffiel (1992) suggests this was “a view not uncommon in Grand Rapids, in Michigan, or in America, among those who became familiar with the coverage of the Alpine Manor murder case” (p. 485). This view contrasts sharply with the reality that most of the patients killed were not particularly debilitated and perpetrator Cathy Wood’s own statement that “we did it because it was fun” (quoted in Cauffiel, 1992, p. 254). Such rationalizations that trivialize serious crimes against people with disabilities can only be seen as denying their right to equal justice. Progress toward reducing risk of violence and abuse for people with disabilities quirks that equal protection of the law is applied to all members of society.

Elsewhere in the book it describes people who deliberately go into caregiving fields for the purpose of finding easy victims. So not only that. But this kind of serial killer is at least as common, probably more common, than the kind you hear about on the media, that popular culture is obsessed with. Some of them are suspected of killing hundreds of people. And yet the media doesn’t give a shit and neither does law enforcement. So you never hear of it.

And people are willing to excuse it on the grounds of caregiver stress, our purported lack of a life worth living, the idea of mercy killing, and all kinds of other bullshit. Even when the description of our impairments doesn’t match our actual ones, which happens pretty much any time anyone kills us for any reason. And even when the killers specifically state they did it for fun. Which happens far more often than you’d think. I remember one account of a woman who killed patients in a hospital or nursing home so that their names spelled out words. Of course even when caregivers are burned out, even when they believe they’re acting in our best interests, even when our purported abilities seem to match our real ones — that still excuses nothing. But it’s amazing how much the public want desperately for those things to be true even when they clearly aren’t.

You do hear of some people like this though, just hidden in various ways under other guises. Many famous figures in the right to die movement were either murderers/serial killers or wannabe murderers/serial killers, people who clearly got off on death, rather than people who had any ethical interest in the subject. And you can bet there’s more hiding in plain sight that we don’t know about. I know someone who is almost certain his significant other, active in that movement and obsessed with serial killers, has killed people in their job as a nurse. But lacking evidence he can’t do anything about it.

Mind you, even if I don’t agree with them, I know there’s plenty of people in that movement because of a sincere commitment to their personal ethics. But it takes naïveté or wishful thinking not to notice that some of the leaders are really creepy and appear to be motivated by something other than wanting to help terminally ill people die with a minimum of pain and suffering.

One reason I oppose the right to die is not because there aren’t situations that, in a fair world, I would be fine with it. But rather because, in this world, it would make things too easy for would-be murderers and serial killers. And despite claiming to be all about autonomy, many right to die organizations jump in the moment they hear about it, to support parents who murder their disabled, non-terminally-ill children without the children’s permission. That tells me way too much about the motives of some of the leaders. Things are already too easy so I can’t support anything that makes it even a little easier. But I’m getting a little off track here.

And not only all that. But even though this is known to be a big problem, the media doesn’t care much and neither does law enforcement. Which is about typical when any of the “wrong kind” of people get killed on a regular basis, whether it’s disability or something else.

But what this means is that disabled people have plenty of reasons to be wary of our caregivers. I thought of posting this because I said I refused to be alone with a caregiver after they know they’ve been fired, and someone told me they’d never thought of the power imbalance there. This sort of thing is exactly why. You never can exactly predict who will become abusive, whether it’s emotional abuse, physical abuse, or even killing. I found that out the hard way in mental institutions, where I am absolutely certain that some of the people who worked there had actually succeeded in killing other people even if they didn’t succeed with me.

But as I said before. Being completely terrified about this only plays into the hands of the people who do it. Be aware. And be careful. And take precautions. But don’t let this sort of people have control over your emotions, because that doesn’t help anybody.

Please tell people these facts though. Because few people seem to even realize that not everyone in healthcare or caregiving professions is there for good reasons. Let alone how many serial killers there have been. One group of caregivers is even suspected of 49-300 murders according to this book. That puts them up there among the worst of other kinds of serial killers.

It must seem perfect to such a person, to get to kill people without as much chance of getting caught, and even if you do get caught people may still make you out to be a hero. People die all the time in nursing homes, even people whose conditions shouldn’t be terminal. That’s taken as normal by people who equate disability with being halfway towards death anyway. In most kinds of institutions colleagues will cover for you — that’s how you get so many deaths from “heart problems” and “seizures” in people who didn’t have heart disease or epilepsy. And lots of people think disability is worse than death so killing us is doing us a favor. Or if not that, they’ll at least excuse it on the grounds of caregiver stress and burnout. And the cops don’t investigate much anyway, since we aren’t valuable to them. It all adds up to a situation where any serial killer who truly didn’t want to get caught, would jump at a chance to take that kind of job.

So let people know about this. Let people know it happens at at least the rate of other kinds of serial killing if not more. (I suspect far more, because of the ease of hiding it.) And take precautions with even caregivers you trust. But don’t get trapped in fear or despair, that’s what such people want of us. It helps them, not us. Always remember there’s that second curtain that needs pulling back, especially when dealing with truly horrific situations like this. Behind it you will find all the love and compassion required to take a stand even when nobody seems to listen.

3. Commenting guidelines

As with many such posts, I’m explicitly making clear that I won’t accept comments that in any way excuse, justify, or condone murder. Including comments that deliberately skate close to the edge. And including comments that seem to be all about compassion… except it’s always for the murderer. Those are suspect because the only murders where there’s such an outpouring of compassion for the murderer, are ones where the murder victims were a type of person who don’t matter enough for the appropriate outrage to take place. You have the entire rest of the Internet to say things like that, so don’t grumble about free speech either. I want this one little tiny corner of the Internet to be a place where disabled people don’t have to put up with that bullshit. Don’t even try to ruin that.

In this context, posts supporting the right to die movement aren’t welcome either, even by people who sincerely want to prevent suffering. The reason is that in a discussion of murder and serial killing of disabled people, discussion of situations where killing disabled people might be okay, has the effect of adding support to people who kill us without our consent for reasons that are far from benign. This happens even when the individual person arguing for it doesn’t have that motivation. So I’d like you to respect that this is not the time or the place for that kind of discussion.

Finally, please respect that people are grieving for recently murdered people from several different minorities, including disabled people, right now. The fact that the people who killed them were unlikely to be serial killers doesn’t make their deaths any less awful, and people’s widespread defense of their killers any less despicable. I hope I have created one small place on the Internet where everyone matters, even when we belong to groups of people that those with power hate, fear, and consider insignificant.

There are no unpersons here. For everyone who has ever been killed for who they are, regardless of the reason: Rest In Peace. I will not allow anyone here to speak against you.

BADD: Caregiver abuse takes many forms

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2012

This is one of two posts I’m making for Blogging Against Disablism Day. Both are about caregiver abuse. This one is about misusing power in caregiving relationships. In particular, abuse that most people wouldn’t think of as abuse.

A note on vocabulary. Caregivers are called different things in different contexts. Caregivers, aides, personal assistants, attendants, staff, etc. Sometimes they also have more specific titles like LNA for Licensed Nursing Assistant. Regardless of how any of these terms are used outside of the disability world, every single one of them, in the context of disability, refers to someone with incredible amounts of power over disabled people. Not a person the disabled person has incredible power over. And that goes for even if we hire and fire them ourselves.

I get services from two agencies, a developmental disability agency and a physical disability agency. The DD agency calls caregivers staff. People from the physical disability agency can have all kinds of job titles depending on what their specific job is. The ones I see regularly are called LNAs. None of these terms are considered disrespectful by the agencies using them, or by the caregivers themselves. And when I refer to staff or LNAs, I am talking about people with huge power over me, not people subject to my own power. That will become obvious when I use events in my life to illustrate different abuses of that power.

I recently found this graphic developed by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and distributed by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. It’s called a Power and Control Wheel.

At the top, it’s labeled “POWER AND CONTROL WHEEL: PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES AND THEIR CAREGIVERS”. Around the outer edge, colored black, are listed physical and sexual violence. The middle says “POWER & CONTROL”. In between, in grey, are various forms of abuses of power and control.

Since this is a graphic, and since the PDF file is kind of muddled in terms of the placement of lines that a screen reader might use, I’m going to transcribe what’s on the graphic and then provide examples from my life and the lives of people I know. But first, the graphic and the PDF:

20120430-125810.jpg

A PDF of this file is available from the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence here. So on to descriptions of each section of the wheel.

COERCION AND THREATS:

Threatening to hurt the person; withhold basic support and rights; terminate relationship and leave the person unattended; report noncompliance with the program; use more intrusive equipment. Using consequences and punishments to gain compliant behavior. Pressuring
the person to engage in fraud or other crimes.

Threatening to cut off support is a huge one I see all the time. I’ve had people literally walk out the door in the middle of a shift without assisting me with vital things, just because they were angry with me. Or just because of things I can’t even figure out. Like more than once a person has come up behind me and startled me, and I jumped and shrieked involuntarily, and they said “That’s it, I’m out of here” and turned around and walked out the door. That’s basically denying a person disability services on the basis of the person being disabled, but it happens all the time.

Using consequences and punishment to gain compliant behavior is something that pretty much all institutions do, including the kinds of institutions that most people don’t call institutions. My special ed school was huge on that. And the consequences were things like being locked in a dark closet for hours.

I found it amazing that they listed the part about pressuring people to commit fraud. Years ago, I had a staff person who was very manipulative in general. He would do things wrong on purpose and then blame them on other staff, in an attempt to get me to trust him alone and to distrust other staff. I’d experienced that before, so I knew what I was looking at. He also claimed to have been fired from this job in the past because he was “just too political” about disability rights.

But the very last straw was one morning when he came in and explained that he had “connections” at the local hospital. He knew that I was having trouble obtaining a certain medication that Medicaid refused to cover. He claimed that if I was “already in the system”, Medicaid would have covered the medication because they only refused to cover it for people who weren’t taking it already. He told me that he could use his “connections” in the hospital to change my records in the computers so that it looked as if I’d already been taking it, and that then Medicaid would cover it.

The moment he was gone, I contacted my case manager and told him that I was afraid of this guy, and that he’d tried to get me to commit Medicaid fraud. The very last time I saw the guy, he must have seen the writing on the wall. Because he told me he was on the verge of being fired again for “being too political” so he was going to quit before they could fire him.

But one mistake they made was ever allowing him back into my apartment after I’d reported what happened. Caregivers can turn outright violent if they think you’ve reported them for abuse or incompetence. Not all of them do, but given their extreme power over disabled people, it’s dangerous to allow them to be alone with a client once they know they’ve been reported for abuse or that their job may be ending. I’ll get to an example of that later.

The times when people threaten to use more intrusive equipment have usually been when I’m dealing with the medical profession. I once refused to take a pill I was allergic to, and without even stopping to figure out why, a doctor threatened to stick a suppository up my ass. She wouldn’t let up on that and other threats until my power of attorney contacted Patient Relations on my behalf. In the psychiatric system, refusing medication often means being tied down and injected with it. There’s something very punitive about the way these systems handle someone not immediately going along with whatever they want.

I’ve also had people, both medical and otherwise, do things to me in ways that hurt. On purpose. That didn’t have to hurt. I once had a doctor order a blood gas not because I needed one but because he’d decided I was a bad patient. He pretty much said outright that this was why. My problem? Saying that his treatment for asthma wasn’t helping my breathing problem that wasn’t asthma. Because of him, they overlooked an infection that did permanent damage to my lungs. Other times it’s just a matter of providing the same services as usual, only in a violent way. It’s hard to describe the difference. It’s like there are gentle ways and there are violent ways to help someone transfer into a wheelchair.

There’s also the threat of being considered a bad client. The kind who complains too much. The kind who bans too many people from your house. I’ve put up with all kinds of things for the sake of not being considered that kind of client.

That includes sexual abuse. That’s another kind of abuse where sometimes it’s all about the way the person does things. In this case I needed to be bathed in bed and have different lotions appled to various parts of my body. And this woman… I can’t describe the way she did it. It was like a sexual caress. It was all wrong. And yet I put up with it every day because I knew that nobody would believe me, because the abuse was too subtle, because my sexual orientation would be called into it, because I would be told I was misreading social cues, all kinds of reasons. But mostly because I couldn’t afford not to get those services.

One of the worst threats to withhold care was explicit and came from a really bad case manager. Even though prior to coming to this DD agency, I had had one staff person for several years — an eternity in human services — he started spreading rumors that I was always refusing staff before I got there, and switching them all the time.

There were two people that I began refusing to allow into my apartment. One of them had a severe cognitive impairment that prevented him from understanding three-word sentences some of the time, in ways that directly endangered me. I reported this to the agency and he thought I was saying that as an insult. I told them I wasn’t. They told me nobody with a severe cognitive impairment would be allowed to work for them. Years later they figured out he had been hiding his Alzheimer’s from the company in order to avoid getting fired. I never got an apology.

But in the meantime, they didn’t know this. And there was this other guy who was constantly proselytizing to me. Two people out of dozens of potential staff.

Well they started telling me things like “Nobody really wants to work with you, you know.” When staff told me they liked me, this case manager would tell me they didn’t really, and that everyone hated working with me. He kept sending in the two guys I’d said could not come in, and telling me that if I refused them, I would not get services at all. And that he would write me down as unilaterally refusing all services from the agency.

Later he threatened to put me in this agency’s version of institutional care if I didn’t do what he wanted. I filed a complaint about all of this and more, and I won.

Back in California, there was an agency that had a policy of firing staff that clients liked, or pressuring them into quitting. Usually through blackmail, and setting them up to look like they were abusing people. Meanwhile, if any of us reported real abuse, they’d give that person a promotion. It was twisted but very deliberate on the part of two case managers who had the most power and who treated it like a fun game to mess with our lives. I’m not kidding.

One time, even, I reported one staff person for abuse. Later on, a very good staff person, well-liked by the entire company. Was fired for abusing clients. In the same, specific, way, that I’d reported the other person as doing. There was a client who couldn’t write for himself. So he’d dictate an email and they could write whatever they wanted. And so one day they wrote an email, as if from him, accusing the good staff person of abusing him in the same bad way as the person I’d reported. He had no clue what was going on when they fired her.

But anyway. Because of my role in reporting actual abuse. They refused to give me services at all. They blackmailed one good staff person into quitting a day before she was going to be fired. She refused to tell me what they’d done to her, but she was shaking the entire shift. They did this on purpose, because the next day was the day she would train the new staff person about what I needed them to do. This left me with a new, but good, staff person, who had to learn everything from scratch. This amused the case manager.

But then the new, good, staff person, was fired in the scenario I described above. And they just refused to give me services at all for months. This person ended up doing services for me all that time without much if any pay (she got a little from a different state agency) because she couldn’t stand what they were doing to me.

The way they did it, was they’d take careful note of things I couldn’t have in staff — for instance people who couldn’t lift wheelchairs — and then they’d say “We could only find a person who couldn’t actually do anything for you, so you’ll have to accept that or nothing.” It was really weird. At one point they deliberately triggered me into a meltdown, and then smiled at a (good) staff person and said “See what you made her do?” Then blamed her. It was a mess. But it basically all amounted to withholding services because I reported abuse.

CAREGIVER PRIVILEGE:

Treating person as a child, servant. Making unilateral decisions. Defining narrow, limiting roles and responsibilities. Providing care in a way that accentuates the person’s dependence and vulnerability. Giving an opinion as if it were the person’s opinion. Denying the right to privacy. Ignoring, discouraging, or prohibiting the exercise of full capabilities. Raising a hand or using looks, actions, or gestures to create fear. Destroying property and abusing pets. Mistreating service animals. Displaying weapons.

The very first time I saw anyone from the DD agency I get services from, I knew they were going to be trouble. I was in the parking lot before they were going to interview me for services. And what I saw made me nauseated.

A disabled man got out of a car. He banged his leg a little bit. The staff person swooped over to him and said, in exactly the baby-talk voice it sounds like, “Awwwww I kiss your boo-boo all better!”

I knew at that point that if they actually gave a shit about not treating people like children, she wouldn’t be working there, because she was doing it in public in a flagrant way that meant she’d had to have done it in front of people before.

And as an agency, they really don’t give a shit. There’s individual people who give a shit, but a lot who don’t.

The agency that really has problems with privacy, is the physical disability agency who helps me bathe. Yes, they normally see me naked. Yes, they normally clean my private parts in ways I can’t clean them myself. But that does not mean they should be allowed to deny me privacy in other situations. In fact, it means they should be giving me more privacy in other situations.

The big thing is walking in on me in the bathroom. I’ve never had much of a sense of body modesty. But when I learned that puts me at risk of abuse, I’ve been trying to learn it. This is not helped when people walk in and stare at me when I’m taking a shit. There is no excuse for that except in circumstances that don’t apply here. And yet if I complain to the agency about it, they’re puzzled as to why it’s even a problem. If I want to keep them out I pretty much have to lock the door, and then they’ll stand out there loudly complaining about how much time I’m taking.

The rec program from last summer was huge about treating people like children, making unilateral decisions, and all of that kind of stuff. We had to ask permission to do much of anything at all, and… I don’t even have the mental energy to go into everything that happened there. I already described it in another post.

Even otherwise good staff frequently make decisions about stuff without consulting me. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t, but people should at least ask.

And providing their opinions as if they were my own? That’s happened to me all the time. It’s made worse by the fact that people will talk to a staff person rather than to me. Then the staff person can answer on my behalf without even asking me what I believe.

ECONOMIC ABUSE:

Using person’s property and money for staff’s benefit. Stealing. Using property and/or money as a reward pr punishment in a behavior program. Making financial decisions based on agency or family needs. Limiting access to financial information and resources resulting in unnecessary impoverishment.

What usually happens with me is more subtle. Which is that people will spend money in ways that really screw up my finances, but nobody holds them accountable.

I have a friend who is very poor. She asked someone to send something by mail or Fed Ex or something, with whatever the normal fare was. They bought the most expensive option, like next day air or something, and brought the expense up to $100. She then didn’t have any money to spend the rest of the month. The person was never held accountable, and my friend didn’t have the cognitive or physical stamina, or money, to fight them in court or something.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people do similar things to me. Or they’ll spend over $100 on groceries without telling me. Which is why I now have a ledger system in place where people have to write down how much they spend. But it doesn’t stop people from spending it in the first place.

For someone without very much money, this is a huge deal. And yet there’s very little recourse, either when people spend too much, or when they destroy expensive property.

As far as using my property for their own purposes? I had this staff person years ago, who was always evangelizing to me about his religion. And was always trying to hold me to standards from his religion, when it wasn’t my religion to begin with. But then he began telling me things like “I provide these services for you, so you need to do things for me in return.” What I had to do in return, apparently, was use my printer to print off copies of a pamphlet regarding his religion.

I also at one point had been prescribed Vicodin after surgery. I didn’t use all of it. So a staff person started taking it. As in, taking it and using it. I couldn’t complain because I couldn’t afford to have her not working for me.

WITHHOLD, MISUSE, OR DELAY NEEDED SUPPORTS:

Using medication to sedate the person for agency convenience. Ignoring equipment safety requirements. Breaking or not fixing adaptive equipment. Refusing to use or destroying communication devices. Withdrawing care or equipment to immobilize the person. Using equipment to torture person.

I once lived at a residential facility that made a big deal about the fact that they didn’t use restraints or locks on the doors. What they didn’t tell people was that they used medication and behavior modification to ensure that there were restraints inside people’s heads. The same happens in a lot of systems that claim to be “more humane” than places that use locks and restraints. I’d far rather just be tied down, at least it’s honest.

I remember one staff person who had been great for years, and then something changed. Suddenly she began withdrawing support at random times, that seemed designed to hurt me and make me miserable. She made me sleep on the floor rather than on the only bed in the apartment. She would not allow me to lie down on that bed even when I’d just had a long airplane trip and desperately needed a place to lie down.

When I moved house, she refused to allow me any role in unpacking or deciding where my belongings went. And that was when I first experienced the part where she began messing with my head. She said, in a tone as if I had requested something ludicrous and impossible, “I am not going to sit here and ask you where to put every single thing!” I began to doubt myself so much that I spent years afterwards asking other staff people, “Is it wrong to ask for that when I’m unpacking from a move?” They all say no it’s not wrong, but I’m still afraid to even write this down lest someone tell me how I’m horrible to staff by expecting them to do things they shouldn’t be expected to do.

Then it started being things where I badly needed something. She had set things in front of the door so that only a walking person could get in and out, but you couldn’t get out in a wheelchair. When I asked her to move these things, way too heavy for me to move, she told me “I’m not your slave.” She convinced me that if I contacted my case manager about her not doing her job anymore, the case manager would see how ridiculous I was being to expect her to do things that she’d done for me for years without complaint.

She later told me that when someone is stopping any kind of relationship with her, she treats them like shit to punish them and to convince herself that it’s not going to be any loss to her. But that’s a really shitty excuse for what she did.

I don’t know who did it, but someone eventually reported her to Adult Protective Services. I don’t know what abuse they witnessed, but it was bad enough that a total stranger reported her. She blamed me and a friend, but we didn’t do it. She wouldn’t believe me when I told her we didn’t. I eventually did tell my case manager what was going on, and she was horrified and said I was not in the wrong.

And yet still. I’m afraid to talk about this. Because on some level I still believe that I’m an unreasonable person who asks staff to do things that they shouldn’t be required to do. Even though since then I’ve asked tons of people and they all said she was in the wrong.

Elsewhere I describe what happens when people outright ignore that I’m typing anything. But another thing happens sometimes. Where they’ll just say to me, “I don’t have time for this” whenever I try to say something. Or they’ll talk over me too loudly for them to hear me, since communication devices don’t usually go up to very loud volumes. There’s this idea that communication ought to be a privilege, not a right, and that I’m only allowed to communicate at times when it’s convenient to others. Or that I don’t get to communicate at all if they’re angry at me for some reason. This becomes even more of an issue at times that I need physical help using a communication device. People seem to think of communication in general as something that’s nice if there’s time but otherwise forget it. It’s all about whether it’s convenient to them, even though times when it’s inconvenient to them are often the times I most desperately need to say things.

MINIMIZE, JUSTIFY, AND BLAME:

Denying or making light of abuse. Denying the physical and emotional pain of people with disabilities. Justifying rules that limit autonomy, dignity, and relationships for program’s operational efficiency. Excusing abuse as behavior management or as due to caregiver stress. Blaming the disability for abuse. Saying the person is not a “good reporter” of abuse.

Caregiver stress is the one that stands out to me here. People have used it to justify literally everything up to serial killing of disabled people. (No, I’m not exaggerating. I wish I was.) And the public buys it. They buy that it is just so stressful to work with disabled people, that abuse is bound to happen. They even say this about murder, even multiple murders, even when the murderers outright admit they only did it for fun.

I’ve done a lot of research into the murders of disabled people, and autistic people in particular. You hear things all the time like “She shouldn’t be sentenced to prison. She already served 15 years of being the parent of an autistic child.” Again, I wish I was kidding.

And if people will use this to justify murders and serial killings, they will use it to justify any abusive thing that happens to a disabled person ever. And they do. All the time. This is one of many reasons that I don’t trust most campaigns for awareness of caregiver stress and burnout. I’m not denying that those things are real. But they’ve become so ingrained in public consciousness, that the instant a crime against a disabled person makes the news, all you hear is “It’s so hard to take care of That Kind Of Person, you really can’t blame them.” Coupled with a lack of focusing ever on the fact that disabled people get burned out from having to put up with caregivers all the time whether we feel like it or not, the usual ways people discuss these things start seeming one-sided and scary.

How bad is it? I know several people who have contacted rape crisis hotlines to report rape by caregivers, and been told outright “You have to understand the kind of stress they’re under, it’s very hard to care for someone like you. They really have your best interests at heart and you should learn to accept that.”

I have told people about things I went through growing up that nobody should have to go through ever. And been told that “being a caregiver is hard, you have to understand that”. As the very first response when I try to disclose horrific forms of abuse. There is no escaping this excuse. And it’s a terrible excuse but people buy it because the disabled person’s side of the caregiver relationship is not taken seriously at all. Even though we’re truly the ones on the wrong end of that power relationship.

Mind you, I know caregiver burnout happens. But any discussion of caregiver burnout has to draw lines about what it’s used to justify. I’ll buy that people will get irritable and snippy. I won’t buy that truly abusing and killing people is ever an acceptable response. Any discussion of caregiver burnout also has to acknowledge the other end, the end nobody talks about. Which is that disabled people get burned out on our caregivers. But that we have no choice but to accept care every day. We can’t take a break without danger to ourselves.

Some places have respite services for caregivers. There are no respite services for disabled people. Ultimately, even if it would make them feel terribly guilty, caregivers can walk away and abandon us without dying. Disabled people cannot abandon our caregivers without dying. That shows one huge power discrepancy in the relationship.

As for all the other things, they are pretty much standard practice in most agencies and institutions. Everything is set up for the convenience of staff and other workers, not for the convenience of disabled people. It’s rare to find a place where this is otherwise. And that means that if abuse happens, it will either be justified as part of the program, or someone will make up ways to make disabled people sound like we’re unreliable reporters.

There was a woman who was a client of the same agency I am a client of. And her caregiver literally would not allow her into certain areas of the house. She insisted that her client could not be home during certain hours. One day, she had a serious bathroom accident at work. Her caregiver refused to allow her to come home. This was reported to Adult Protective Services by her job coach.

The entire investigation basically involved the agencies finding “evidence” that this client was a habitual liar. APS decided that abuse didn’t happen and that the client was lying about it. You hear the same things when it’s sexual abuse. Dave Hingsburger said he went to a rape trial where the agency brought out all the different reasons this person could not be trusted. She tried to say “But I only lie about little things, not about something like this.” As I remember it, nobody believed her. But even when someone isn’t a liar, you can bet that once they report abuse by a staff person the agency happens to like, they will be made into one.

ISOLATION:

Controlling access to friends, family, and neighbors. Controlling access to
phone, TV, news. Limiting employment possibilities because of caregiver schedule. Discouraging contact with the case manager or advocate.

Limiting employment possibilities because of caregiver schedule is the norm for one agency I get services from. They’re the people who provide personal care, which includes things that I absolutely can’t go without.

I don’t have a job and will probably never have a job. But there are two hours a week I ask them not to come, and one day a week where I ask them to come before noon. That’s it. Two are essential meetings with my case manager. One is a day when, if I’m feeling up to it (which is practically never these days), I go to an art program.

I have been told, explicitly, and continually, that even just those two hours a week alone. Without the day when people can’t come past noon. That just those two hours are limiting them too much. That it’s not fair to the LNAs or their scheduler. That essentially if I am not available 24/7, then I have no reason to expect proper care.

They’re the only game in town for the kinds of services they provide, and they know it. So they are able, as an entire agency, to regulate disabled people’s lives so much that if we have jobs, or even a couple meetings a week, we can’t expect care.

As far as isolation goes, the recreational program I was in last summer did that in spades. I was not allowed to use the phone except when they wanted it. When I was extremely ill, like on the verge of needing to be hospitalized, I was not allowed to call my power of attorney for healthcare. And when I tell advocates that we were not allowed to use the phone whenever we wanted, that is enough to send off huge alarm bells. They also only allowed contact with my case manager if they were the ones doing the talking and I was merely in the room. If they didn’t approve of something I wanted to say to my case manager, they refused to tell her what I was typing.

I’ve also experienced a really peculiar form of isolation that isn’t listed here. It’s happened to me several times in several forms with abusive caregivers.

It’s where they try to prevent contact with people, but they don’t do it overtly. They just start dropping tiny little hints here and there, that friends and other staff are not trustworthy people. That they, in fact, are the only trustworthy person in your life. That other people are saying bad things about you behind your back. That nobody else actually likes or respects you. This can be done so subtly that you barely even notice until you realize months later that this is the only person you’re talking to anymore, and they’re being horrible to you.

Related is something I never see discussed anywhere either. Where someone who is incompetent or abusive in almost all other areas, will have one thing they do to make themselves indispensible. It may be working longer hours than they’re technically supposed to, at a time when you’re not getting enough staff hours to meet your needs. It may be cooking you the best food at the cheapest prices that you can possibly imagine. It really accomplishes two things. First, you won’t want to fire them because you’ll lose the above-and-beyond support they’re giving you.

But the other thing is more directly related to isolation. They do all these extra things for you, but they also start doing things to make other staff look bad. It can be deliberately screwing things up for you and then claiming another staff person did it. It can be simply lying outright about someone else’s ability to help you. It can be implying that nobody else would ever do these extra things for you. The result is to elevate themselves while putting all other staff down, and making it so you don’t want to communicate with other staff because you don’t trust them as much as you trust this person.

EMOTIONAL ABUSE:

Punishing or ridiculing. Refusing to speak and ignoring requests. Ridiculing the person’s culture, traditions, religion, and personal tastes. Enforcing a negative reinforcement program or any behavior program the person doesn’t consent to.

I would add to this one something that specifically happens to people who can’t speak and use other means of communication. I have communication devices that speak, but a lot of time I have used ones that don’t speak to save time and energy. This means that someone had to read the screen. Sometimes when staff have been angry at me, they simply refuse to read the screen. That’s a level above and beyond the ordinary silent treatment because it makes it impossible to say a word to them even when it’s important.

INTIMIDATION:

Raising a hand or using looks, actions, or gestures to create fear. Destroying property and abusing pets. Mistreating service animals. Displaying weapons.

The last time I had a staff person raise a hand to me, it wasn’t even my staff person. This is the story I promised earlier about what can happen once you start challenging a caregiver’s power, or once they know they’ve been fired.

In this case, the person was a friend’s staff person. She was really good, except for one thing. She could not stay out of my friend’s stuff. If you asked her not to, she’d either pretend not to hear you, or laugh like you just made a huge joke and do it anyway. In fact, even if she wasn’t already doing it, the moment you asked her not to do something, she’d immediately do it. And it was getting to be a huge problem, because she was arranging my friend’s stuff in ways that made it inaccessible from a wheelchair and impossible for my friend to get any work done.

Every time my friend got out important paperwork, for instance, this staff person would “put it away” without asking, even to the point of putting it at the bottom of a box stacked behind and under boxes that my friend was unable to lift. My friend asked me to come along to help her advocate for herself when she finally drew the line for this person. She wanted to simply not allow this person into her living room.

At first, she laughed and tried to go in anyway. When we made it clear we really meant business, though, she began screaming at us. And I really mean shouting at the top of her lungs. She said that she was going to leave and refuse to cook dinner for my friend, who is unable to cook for herself.

I told her that was a form of caregiver abuse and not acceptable. She kept screaming about how she was “NOT THAT KIND OF PERSON” and that I needed to leave, now, and that she was not going to listen to a single word I said. In practice this meant shouting over the top of my communication device, which can only go to a certain volume. I of course didn’t leave, because leaving my friend alone with a staff person who was that angry would have been a serious danger to my friend.

But neither of us were prepared for what happened next. She actually raised her hand to me and took a swing, stopping short only when her hand was two inches from my face. Then she held it there shaking. After we got her to leave, she hung out outside my friend’s apartment for several hours. She claimed that she was out there doing work for another client, but she didn’t have another client during those hours.

Yes, all of this was reported. No, nothing happened to this staff person. That’s what happens in the system, especially in the kind of agency (most of them) that protect staff and not clients. Even in things like murder investigations this is usually true.

She also seriously distorted what we actually told her, when recounting it to other people in the agency. The things that made her the angriest were when we told her that withholding food is considered a form of caregiver abuse, and that the things she was doing with my friend’s stuff involved a power relationship that she wasn’t acknowledging. We carefully explained why it is that people who have this kind of power, often don’t realize it. We went out of our way to explain why she might not have noticed this and that we knew it wasn’t her fault. When she repeated it to others, it was “They told me that I was an evil, power-hungry person who abuses disabled people for fun.”

This is also an excellent example of why a staff person should never be left alone with someone who has reported abuse, has let them know they won’t be working there any longer, or that kind of thing. This woman gave no warning at all that she was going to turn loud and violent at a mere request to stay out of a specific room. I tell staff to stay out of a particular room sometimes for all kinds of reasons, and have never gotten a response that intense.

So basically…

There are tons of different ways to abuse power, and this only covers some of them. But this is the best description I’ve ever seen of stuff that nobody ever even acknowledges as a problem. Hitting people and sexually assaulting them are not the only kinds of abuse out there, and in some circumstances they’re not even the worst.

Also understand — I’m not saying that all caregivers are abusive, or even that all caregivers who do a few of these things sometimes are “bad staff” overall. But it’s hard to have power and not abuse it. And people need to be aware that caregivers have this unacknowledged power. And that lots of them abuse it. And that very few people care. Getting services is not a walk in the park. You will inevitably encounter people doing all these things and more. And you have to be prepared.

Contrary to what most people believe, caregivers are not selfless, self-sacrificing saints who never do us any harm, yet shoulder a great burden that leads to burnout, which excuses anything they might do wrong. That’s not even true of the best ones. Caregivers are human beings. Human beings do a lot of bad things to each other. Especially people they have power over. Caregivers have that power. And it is not wrong to talk about it, to point it out, and to say that what some of them do is very wrong and destructive, and not excused by burnout or stress.

And I’m not talking without experience here. I’ve provided care for other people. And despite the inevitable stresses, you have to find ways of handling them other than punishing the person you’re supposed to be assisting. You also have to be constantly aware of your own power.

I’ve also had caregivers who, while very good in some areas, did some of these things. And I’ve had to make decisions about that tradeoff. Should I find someone who does things worse overall, but who does fewer of these things? Or should I stay with this person and try to work out ways to manage the things they are doing wrong? That’s a decision a person can only make for themselves, and doing some of these things doesn’t automatically make someone the worst choice in caregivers. It all depends on the circumstances and the people. But it’s good to know these things are wrong, even when you can’t seem to avoid them.

Not everyone even knows these things are wrong to do. So I have a printout of this chart posted in my kitchen, and have given one to my case manager for training purposes.

And here are the contact information for the two places that came up with and publish this stuff:

Developed by: Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 307 S. Peterson St., Suite 2, Madison, WI 53703. 608-235-0539. Based on the model by the Domestic Violence Intervention Project, Duluth, MN. National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. 7800 Shoal Creek, Ste 120-N, Austin, Texas 78757. tel: 512-407-9020. fax: 512-407-9022. www.ncdsv.org.

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.

Excuses to be a jerk. (for BADD)

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This is my post for Blogging Against Disablism Day. You’ll have to wait on the poems/other writing, because I have to write this instead. I’m having trouble reading, so I am afraid this might be sloppy. And it is very long, getting into pretty high levels of detail on some things. I hope the intended ideas behind it are clear by the end. As usual, while I’m talking about specific sorts of situations with a narrowly-defined bunch of people, I’m thinking of something a lot more broadly applicable than that.

I have noticed a trend online, which is for people to say to others, “You are not autistic/AS, you are just using that as an excuse for poor social skills or an excuse to be a jerk.” I have an online friend who frequently gets this reaction, when she says something she considers just direct and someone else finds it insulting and flames her, and she tries to explain, only to get that response. Indeed, things like “Asperger’s is just an excuse to be socially inept” or “people who use Asperger’s as an excuse” have become givens in some parts of the Internet community. It is even accepted (with little to no apparent evidence) by some autistic people as fact.

There are several layers of disability stereotyping around this, and I want to attempt to disentangle as many of them as I can.

To lay some foundation, though, I want to talk about who autistic people are, using ‘autistic’ in the broadest possible sense. Please note that the statistics that bring us ‘1 in 166′ and ‘1 in 150′ and the like include people under the medicalized categories of not only autism but also things like Asperger’s and PDD-NOS, not that those three can even be distinguished at a superficial glance without knowing anything about a person’s early history. I don’t intend to talk more about who we are in terms of some sort of medical criteria though. I want to talk about who we are in the lives of people who know nothing about autism, or even those who know a little but believe themselves to know a lot. Because, with numbers so high, virtually everyone has known at least some of us.

Like a lot of autistic people, I have pretty good radar for other autistic people, or more broadly, other people who are neurologically atypical in some way. This doesn’t mean I can’t be wrong, but in all cases where I’ve been able to test it, I’ve been right. And these have been primarily places where a person would not be expected to be autistic. Prior to knowing about autism, I picked up on these things, but was only able to put them in relation to people I knew — people “like me” or “like my brother” or “like my father”, etc.

I have noticed, though, that other people, even many professionals, don’t always know what to look for. They think of “looking autistic” in a narrow way that has to involve, for instance, certain repetitive movements and a total lack of speech. When this is only one of many ways autistic people can look.

So I am going to attempt to describe what autistic people often look like. Be aware that non-autistic people can look like some of these things some of the time, and autistic people won’t all look like all of these all of the time. I’m trying to put into words something that I unconsciously map in a matter of seconds, and that will always be imperfect, much like all attempts I’ve seen so far to explain typical facial expressions to autistic people. But I hope to give other people some idea. It’s certain combinations of these things, not just one of them. And some relate directly to being autistic, while others are more about how autistic people might pass.

Some Of How I Notice Other Autistic People

One set of things I notice involves unusual patterns of movement.

The one most people know already, is what most people describe as ‘stimming’. Repetitive, unusual movements. Rocking of the torso (many different rates and rhythms are possible), rocking or shaking of head (front to back or side to side), flapping of hands (different directions, rates, and rhythms are possible), twisting and flicking of fingers and wrists, bringing the hands together and apart again, wringing the hands, moving from foot to foot, and many complicated movements that defy description, involving twisting, rocking, flipping, flicking, etc of lots of different parts of the body.

This can be movements that are just there in the background, it can be ones that seem to be related to emotion or level of overload, and it can be ones that seem deliberate.

There are also many people who have learned to disguise this to some degree or another. They might do mannerisms that are more typical-looking, but with an odd rhythm or intensity. They might do less typical-looking mannerisms with lower intensity, or switch between them so rapidly that they would pass as little mannerisms a person might ordinarily have.

One woman I know developed a whole series of ‘stims’ to do that cannot be seen if you are sitting in a desk, because she went to a fairly stereotypical Catholic school where you got whacked with a ruler for things like rocking. So she fidgets with her hands in front of her belly, and bounces her legs constantly. However, if she is forced to keep those body parts still, she will end up rocking or doing other things with her upper body. She can’t stop the movement, she can just move it to some other body part. Other people can actually stop these movements entirely.

I will also notice an unusual lack of movement. A person might move only as many body parts as they absolutely have to, in order to get the job done. Their body may, in between expressions and actions, remain as much as possible in a particular neutral position. This neutral position is one that other people can usually cover over more easily than autistic people, although some autistic people do manage to cover it well. I particularly notice their hands — slightly curled in, and their mouth — shaped like a trapezoid.

Their posture and walk can be unusually stiff or awkward-looking, or looking like someone much younger than they are would walk. Their arms might be straight down at their sides, held up with elbows bent near their chest, or clasped together. They might lean over slightly when they walk. They might have what seems to be a normal walk on one side of their body, and an unusual one on the other side. All of this may be more obvious when they run than when they walk. They might run with one arm held up in the traditional jogging position and the other flapping loosely at their side, or one rigid and one loose.

They might move with unusual speed or unusual slowness, or even a combination of both, with little to no movement in between the two extremes. Their movements may look heavily deliberate and premeditated, sometimes even if they’re not either one of those things, or not the sort of thing that ‘should’ be either one of those things. They might be clumsy, or extremely agile, or a combination of both in a way that is very odd compared to standard movement. They might have a wide discrepancy between ‘triggered’ or involuntary movements (which might be agile, or at least more agile or rapid), and voluntary movements (which might be slow, clumsy, or non-existent). This may be similar to people with other sorts of movement disorders (such as parkinsonism) without actually being those same movement disorders.

They might seem to string together movements in an unusual way, going through an entire series of movements on autopilot just to try to do something that comes in the middle of that series of movements, and then having to trigger another set of movements in order to get to the next part of what they want to do, and so on.

Here is a video of an extreme version of what I mean, being my rendition of what an attempt to boil water in a teapot can look like on a very bad voluntary-movement day (simulated by using the camera by remote control while not putting a lot of effort into suppressing the triggered responses seen in this video; on a truly bad day that way, I would not be able to suppress this sort of thing even with a lot of effort):

But such things can also be a lot subtler, involving fewer tries to get it right, and lesser degrees of overshooting the mark. A person can also be unable to move voluntarily without involuntarily moving other body parts that aren’t at all necessary to the movement, and that also aren’t the kind of movement that neurologically standard people do. (Neurologically standard people do seem to move more than they have to, but the moves are all coordinated into particular expressions and postures and such that are very different than what I’m describing here. A person doing what I’m describing will normally look awkward or unusual when doing it.)

The person’s facial expressions can look blank, oddly plastered-on, or unusual for the situation. They might also have standard facial expressions, but in a way that is more fleeting than usual and only possible involuntarily, looking fairly fake when they try to do them on purpose. They might be giving only fake eye contact, or giving very intense eye contact. They may have exaggerated expressions, or expressions that are barely discernible (I have two different smiles for instance, both genuine, but one of them is impossible to tell is a smile unless you know the position my mouth starts in, and the other looks like a regular smile).

An autistic person who is passing for non-autistic can have the movement pattern normally seen by a person who is extremely insincere. Sometimes similar to the “used car salesman” look, or the “Hillary Clinton” look for that matter. Except that in an autistic person, the apparent insincerity is usually due to a poorly-concealed effort to pass for normal, rather than an effort to manipulate people into spending their money/votes/whatever (not that a person can’t be doing both, but I’ll get into that later).

Another thing I notice is unconscious echopraxia, involuntarily engaging in the same movements as someone else, with no conscious intent and outside the normal realm of social mirroring (although it might sometimes be in addition to what looks like social mirroring, because an echopraxic person will often mirror things in both standard and nonstandard ways).

And of course, less social mirroring than usual, too. When I was 12 years old, the person who’d go on to become my best friend told me something, both of us totally unaware of autism at the time. She said that if I was in a room full of people, she’d bet that I would be the one person whose body language, breathing, and other movements were not unconsciously synced up with everyone else’s. I was perplexed by this at the time, but it’s now one of the ways I can pick up on people who might be autistic, in a crowded room.

There can also be attempts to mask involuntary weirdness by appearing to be voluntarily weird. Since chosen non-conformity can in some circles have higher social status than involuntary non-conformity, and since it can lead to an internal sense of being in control of one’s own weirdness, even though of course the person isn’t really. The person can seem afraid of being discovered as doing this, in some cases, too. So there are often autistic people among people who appear deliberately and ostentatiously eccentric, just as there are often people with learning disabilities among class clowns who’ve figured out it’s better to be considered funny than considered stupid.

(Be aware, though, that it can be very hard to tell, in an autistic person, the difference between something done deliberately and ostentatiously, and something done without having any other choice. This is because some of us have subtle motor or proprioceptive trouble that can lead to that impression in people who don’t know what they’re looking at, just as people can sometimes believe that people with Tourette’s are just ticcing for ‘negative attention’.)

Another thing to look for is a certain surprise factor. I’ve spent my entire life watching people be surprised at me: They’re either surprised by my intelligence and other abilities, or surprised by what I can’t do. Surprised is the wrong word sometimes. Sometimes they’re so surprised that they either try to disprove my abilities, or try to disprove my difficulties. Autistic people can be that bright person that you just can’t believe is really so dumb or spaced-out sometimes, or that dumb or spaced-out person that you just can’t believe is so bright or talented sometimes. Many of us spend our lives either being accused of cheating or otherwise pretending to be competent, or accused of being lazy or otherwise pretending to be incompetent, and a surprising number of us get both at once from different people, depending on whether they saw a talent or an area of difficulty first. This happens because most people fill in the blank areas of someone who looks capable at one crucial thing with “all these things I haven’t seen them do, they must be able to do, and if they’re not doing them it’s just because they don’t want to right then” and fill in the blank areas of someone who looks incapable at one crucial thing with “all these things I haven’t seen them fail at, they must be unable to do, and if they’re doing them there must be some kind of trick to it”.

Another common feature of autistic people’s abilities is day-to-day variability, and variability based on situation. In one situation, we can do things. Change one thing, or wait until we’re tired, and we can’t. Autistic people of all perceived “levels of functioning” tend to be accused of laziness, manipulation, or “playing dumb” at that point unless people understand that it’s really that variable, or that changing one thing can really make that big of a difference.

If you’re not autistic, keep in mind that in our areas of difficulty, we often have to work hard just to get to the level that you might consider the most basic level possible, and that expecting us to sustain even that level of ability, let alone those above it, is like expecting most people to be able to do calculus all day. There’s just no way.

So what this all outwardly looks like is a lot of surprises and a lot of variability in what we are doing, or can do. People who are trying to mask their incompetence at certain things will sometimes portray themselves as either “lazy,” “just screwing with you,” or as free spirits doing what their whims tell them to do and passing from one desire to the next in some sort of floaty and ethereal way. There are always social roles these things can be masked by, and even when they’re not positive ones, they can be more positive in some situations than being considered truly incapable. And being unable to do something can always be masked by “not caring” about it — “I don’t care about these ridiculously strict notions of personal hygiene anyway”, whether true or false, is a great way to mask an extremely low level of self-care skills that would, if noticed for what it is, potentially lead to real trouble. Affecting an intellectual-snobbish air of indifference to “such trivial matters” as ordinary social interaction can work for some people, too.

In a person who is passing, there is also often tension between who they’re trying to appear to be, and who they are. It can look like the usual angstiness some people go through; after all, most people hide certain aspects of who they are in order to fit in. But passing as non-autistic is a bigger disconnect than pretending to like bands you really hate, or even than pretending to like people you really can’t stand, or to feel feelings different than the ones you know you have.

Passing can mean, in its most extreme forms of disconnect, having no or close to no understanding of most of the words one is using, most of the interactions one is engaging in, etc. Possibly even not understanding the true nature of words, while using them all the time. It can mean not just feigning interest in things one is disinterested in, but feigning interest in things one doesn’t even understand, while, further, not even understanding what this ‘interest’ thing is that one is feigning. It can mean not just putting on different feelings than the ones you have, but not understanding what feelings you are putting on, nor how (or even that) they are supposed to relate to those sensations you do intuitively understand that occur inside of you in response to situations.

Basically, a skilled enough autistic person can take patterns of behavior and language they see around them, absorb them for long enough to acquire a huge repertoire, and recombine it into something resembling an entirely different personality than they actually have. And they can, again if skilled enough, do this with a level of unawareness more than most people can even imagine. Most people assume it stops at “saying things you don’t mean,” rather than “saying things without awareness of that particular concept of meaning,” or even “saying things without knowing what language is for”. For an autistic person, it really can be that extreme (and with the usual fluctuations and shutdowns and juggling of abilities, can vary between that extreme and less extreme).

So one outward thing to look for, is gaps in this kind of act. Seemingly incongruous statements. Insistence in someone who seems otherwise normal or eccentric, that people don’t really know who they are (especially insistence despite people trying to tell them this is the usual existential angst, rather than the result of a profound disconnect between comprehension and behavior). Sudden and seemingly over-reacting levels of rejection of another person’s identification with the persona they’re passing as. Pauses during speech that occur at slightly unusual points in time. Seeming to have two “layers” to their actions that are utterly contradictory in nature, with one set of actions pointing to their actual levels of comprehension and thinking and interest, and another set of actions masking it that might seem to point to higher levels of comprehension than actually exist.

Be aware that when the above happens, the disconnect is on the level of a disabled person passing as non-disabled, not a whiny person who just doesn’t realize how much like everyone else they really are. Yes, there are things all humans have in common. No, that doesn’t solve the severity of depression, disconnect, and alienation that autistic people often experience when passing, particularly when the person they’re passing as (or being passed off as by others, since passing can be entirely in other people’s heads, too) understands things they don’t. It’s a lot closer to a deaf person passing for hearing (while entirely missing at least 80% of conversations as a result), or a blind person trying to drive a car without crashing it or letting on that they’re blind, or a person from one culture being thrown into a totally alien culture (where nobody’s ever even heard of one’s own culture) with no preparation and trying to pass as comprehending, than a person with certain abilities trying to pretend they are similar to someone with roughly the same set of abilities but a different personality. Not that that’s easy either, but there’s an order of magnitude or two here that needs to not be missed.

Of course, not all autistic people are in a situation where passing is possible, whether due to their own abilities, the expectations of those around them, or both. And passing has gradations, too. It’s not like there are those who pass and those who don’t pass. It’s more like there are those who pass to different degrees, as different things, and in different situations. Passing can also be wholly unintentional and unnoticed, but I’ll get into that later.

Speech opens up a whole other set of possibilities of things to notice.

Tone is important. Often I’ll notice someone having more of a monotone than usual. This can range from subtle lessening of tone variation, to absolutely robotic-sounding speech. Some people have very little variation in tone, but more variation in volume. Their voices can sound flat to most people, but do show inflection, just not by changing pitch.

A person can also have a rhythmically varying tone that varies always according to the same rate. It may be just as unvarying in some ways as a monotone, except on a broader range of pitches, like a sing-song voice that repeats the same tones over and over again.

A person’s voice could also sound like they are making speeches every time they talk. I know of a few autistic people who mastered public speaking before they mastered conversational speech, and it can sound like that.

Their voice can also sound like a mishmash of different tones, sometimes a totally different tone, and accent, for each word or clump of words. When it shifts very often, it can sound like one of those automated telephone services that have different words programmed in with different intonations for each one, and a computer picks the order they go in.

It can also sound like a more smoothed-over version of this, with longer uses of the same tonal pattern, but still spliced together to some extent. Or it can vary between several of the things I described above, based on a whole lot of different factors.

A lot of times people are easy to spot by not having normal levels of modulation to the volume or sound of their voice. A lot of autistic people have what most people would consider a very annoying voice: Too loud, too nasal, the wrong pitch, the wrong tone, etc. But we can also have voices that are too quiet, very breathy, almost whispering. And, like movement, some people can do one or the other, but have trouble finding a middle ground for long. Many autistic people I know have some ability to control the volume of their voice if they concentrate on it, but the moment they slip up, they go back to loud or quiet.

Many autistic people have a sound in their voice that I do not know how to describe, but it’s a sound I associate with being cognitively very distanced from the production of the words. Some other autistic people could hear it in my voice when I spoke with seeming fluency, and they pointed it out to me. I can hear it in the voices of some of my friends, and have one friend where I can always tell when he’s having more speech difficulties because the sound gets more pronounced.

Someone tried, without ever hearing this sound, to convince me it was just a matter of nasal resonance or something, but it’s not that simple. I can hear it the same way other people can hear excitement or anger in each other’s tones by recognizing what their own voices would sound like. I know from the inside what it feels like, and what I sounded like when I spoke, so I can hear it in others. So much for a lack of empathy.

In people who use delayed echolalia as a functional means of communicating, or even of feigning communication, there are often certain telltale signs as well. The phrases used might seem slightly out of place. There are pauses in unusual places during the person’s speech. There are sets of sentences and phrases they commonly repeat to fill space while trying to come up with more words. There can be, if the mechanism is not working right or if the communication is only feigned, things said that are not the sort of thing you would think the person would ever really mean. The person might on the other hand come up with entire paragraphs beforehand, and then spew them all rapidfire out of their mouth.

There is always immediate echolalia, which tends to be pretty obvious. But there are also hidden forms of that too. My father and I both sometimes mouth things that other people are saying either right along with them or just after they say them, and if I hear a sound of a certain pitch my throat tightens as if I were trying to sing that pitch. We might echo noises in our surroundings too, not just words. I often involuntarily do cat, bird, and microwave oven noises, and I have heard of other autistic people who do car alarms. Some of us repeat noises or words over and over to ourselves, or have vocal tics causing forceful and involuntary noises or words. (These may be disguised as “just being silly” or “nervous habits”.)

Also I often hear autistic people who don’t talk at a standard rate for the society they’re in, either very slowly or very quickly. Sometimes almost too fast to understand. I hear people having trouble pronouncing words, too, which makes some people sound almost as if they’re not speaking at all, and other people sound slurred or indistinct in other ways.

And some autistic people seem more likely to stutter, either on sounds or on entire words. Or not to talk at all.

Many autistic people, maybe even most, seem to have real trouble with keeping language consistent. So they may vary a lot in how often they can speak, or how fluent or relevant to their thoughts it is.

And language itself is a whole different thing. Some autistic people seem completely lost without it, some seem to have extreme difficulty with it, and some seem to have both situations going on. If I see a person who absolutely can’t seem to function in any situations except those using language, I do think of whether they might be autistic. But same with if I see someone to whom all language is foreign, regardless of how proficient they are or seem to be. (For instance, I’m a very fluent writer when I can write, but language is very foreign to me, and I know people who are not as fluent writers but the only way they understand anything at all is through language.)

Another thing I notice is when people relate to things around them in an unusual way that suggests they perceive them differently than usual. Sometimes this involves noticing the texture, pattern, material, and shape of something more than the identity it acquires with words and social understanding. It can also involve physically interacting with objects in an unusual way, like smelling or tapping them.

One thing I find hard to put into words is an aspect of noticing that is different. It’s not just noticing things other people don’t, although that is a part of it. It’s also that there seem to be a set of things that people, especially in groups, are locked into noticing at the expense of other things. If a group of people is sitting around all seeming to pay attention to the same things as each other, and one person is noticing and relating to something outside that set of things, that is another clue, and an important one if it happens often and there’s no other explanation for it.

There’s also an odd thing I notice where, despite our tendency to stand out in other situations, many autistic people seem to not be noticed by other people. They can be standing right in front of someone, talking right to them, and everyone acts like they’re not there. It’s not a malicious sort of thing, they just don’t seem to notice the person at all.

I notice that when in groups of people, autistic people will often laugh just after everyone else laughs. They might have an odd laugh, and laugh harder than necessary in an attempt to prove they “get it” (which usually backfires).

I notice people talking so much that other people get bored and want them to stop, and they don’t notice, and keep talking. And also having trouble starting to talk. (Even both in the same person.)

I notice reactions to things that change, that other people might not react to. Even changing over from one room to another might be difficult, or from sitting to standing, or from any action to another. When change is unexpected, there’s a sound I can hear in people’s voices of barely-suppressed panic. And of course sometimes panic becomes more obvious.

And some autistic people seem to try to get used to riding change like a surfer rides a wave. Or find ways of masking a difficulty with change (and all that new information to process). Often having familiar objects helps, although what these objects are might not be obvious: Many autistic women I know, including me, have at some point or another used jewelry for this purpose, because it can be easily and unobtrusively carried just about everywhere and fiddled with, and is culturally accepted for women.

I notice autistic people in various levels and kinds of of overload, shutdown, and meltdowns. I also notice autistic people reacting very strongly to specific sounds, colors, etc. Whether because it hurts them because they’re sensitive to it, or because they just hate the stimulus or something associated with it, on an involuntary but emotional rather than perceptual level.

I notice some autistic people seeming what most people would call very rigid, and others almost the opposite.

I could probably go on for the length of a book, but I won’t right now. I think I’ve made the point that there are a lot of ways that I notice autistic (and other neurologically atypical) people. Next, though, I want to talk about what other people generally seem to see autistic people as.

How Other People Often See Us

One really important thing to be aware of is that, even if everything I just discussed and more would now seem really obvious, most people don’t seem to think of autistic people as autistic people, because they don’t know this category. They have different ideas about who we are, and their perception of us tends to blend in with categories of people they’re more familiar with. We’re not one set of people, in the eyes of most people. We’re assorted specific people, but we’re not seen as who we are, either. We’re just seen according to what roles people perceive us as having.

Here are a number of qualities I’ve seen attributed to autistic people. I am not saying they are right or wrong. I am just saying, these are the attributes other people often tend to give us based on qualities that are specific to being autistic, or specific to being an autistic person who is passing or being passed by others as someone else.

We’re the people who try really hard to fit in, but everyone knows we don’t. Some of us might be able to fit in as long as we’re content to be used by others in various ways — as the butt of jokes, or to get back at each other.

We’re that person who everyone played jokes on, but who kept coming back for more, being excited to be in on the whole thing even if it was only as the target.

We’re that person who always makes a point of laughing at that other weird person, in a bid for acceptance. And we get only partial acceptance at that.

And we’re that other weird person, too.

We’re the person everyone loves to hate, and can usually come up with some excuse to do so out of a repository of things we’ve said or done. But it’s really not that thing we said or did that makes them hate us. It’s something else, something intangible, about who we are. The particular thing they cite is just an excuse.

We’re that person people are embarrassed to be around, but also embarrassed to be embarrassed by.

We’re the people that get called spaz, retard, psycho, nerd, dork, jerk, loser, idiot, flake, space-case, and geek, among many other names.

We’re just plain weird.

We’re that person who always seems to do weird things, which must be for attention, because that’s why people do weird things. Or something.

We’re the people who just don’t want to do things, and that’s why we don’t do them. It has to be disinterest, not difficulty.

We’re the people where people always say of something we aren’t consistently able to do, “He can do that. When he really wants to, ya know.” And the people who say the flip side about: “She can’t really do that, someone must have helped her,” or “He can’t really do that, you must be imagining things,” or “She can’t really do that, she must’ve cheated.” Often we’re both in the same lifetime, even sometimes at the same time.

Our silence can be interpreted as everything from lack of the ability to think, to being stuck up, to being the “Strong, Silent Type” to not feeling like talking.

We’re the people who others look at our strange reactions to things and say we’re on drugs, even if we’re not. We might also be people who consequently find acceptance of some amount among drug users.

We’re the person who everyone calls “retarded” who suddenly comes out with things that seem very intelligent, and the person everyone calls a “genius” who can’t do some really simple stuff.

We’re flamboyantly, deliberately weird, intentional nonconformists who don’t care what people think about us, or who want to feel special.

We’re stupid, boring, and self-centered.

And it goes on and on. The one thing we don’t have is a place in most people’s heads as who we are. There are already all the above explanations and more. (Not that medical explanations of autism say who we are either. But there’s a whole lot of who we are that gets missed if you take our differences in thinking and perception, the ones that get called autism in the end, out of the equation.)

Disability Stereotypes

There’s one particular disability stereotype that’s going to become very relevant here. It’s the idea that disabled people get so many cool things and exemptions from things everyone else has to do.

It doesn’t matter that the parking spaces are close to the building because we need them to be, other people often will see them as a luxury.

Instead of seeing accessibility as barrier removal, a lot of people see it as giving disabled people special rights, privileges, and luxuries.

And there’s one other common attitude towards disabled people that’s relevant here: There are a lot of disability-themed insults, and lots of hatred and bigotry towards disabled people, not to mention all the systemic injustice and all that. But at the same time, a lot of people would feel extremely guilty about teasing or bullying a disabled person, or getting mad at someone for being disabled.

Just combine those two perspectives about disability, and stir a little.

And then… cognitive dissonance.

So there’s all these ways that autistic people can stand out, but most of us don’t stand out to most people as autistic. Even the ones who are the most obvious, often are mistaken for some other kind of strange or disabled.

People already have these ways of relating to us.

And many of those ways are not complimentary. They have a lot bad to say about us, and to say or do to us.

And then it turns out… we’re autistic.

Then the little “I must feel guilty about this if they’re autistic” thing kicks in, if they’ve absorbed that particular way of seeing things.

And most people don’t want to see themselves as mean, or the “sort of person” who would do these things to a disabled person.

Some people will at that point apologize.

Others, though, will want to stay mad at us (because people who are mad at someone often do), or else want to continue to have their excuses (based in estimations of our character, covering for discomfort with the fact that we’re unusual in the first place) to treat us poorly.

It’s really hard for some people to go from, bullying the outcast nobody likes anyway (so it doesn’t even quite count as bullying, does it?), to bullying a person with a genuine disability. It’s really hard for some people to go from “I’m mad at someone because they said something offensive,” to “I’m mad at someone because they’re literal about language.”

It’s a lot easier, to think any of the following, “This is a jerk. This is a person with all those bad qualities that make them someone we love to hate. This is just some idiot who keeps coming back for more, so he deserves what he gets. This is a gullible person it’s fun to mess with.” Etc.

It can even seem like you are granting one of those special privileges out, if you say “Hold on, I was wrong to do this, or think this, about this person, because they’re being literal, not obnoxious.” Or whatever.

And so there’s guilt, there’s cognitive dissonance about not being “that sort of person”, there’s resentment of what seem to be special privileges.

And so it becomes either, “You don’t have Asperger’s, you’re just using it as an excuse,” or “You may be autistic, but that’s no excuse.”

As with any set of negative stereotypes, if a person comes a long who is both autistic and mean and seemingly uses autism as an excuse to be mean, they confirm the stereotype. And then everyone who is just doing things an autistic way, gets to confirm the stereotype without even fitting it.

By now, people at least ought to know that the presence of women who are or seem irrational doesn’t mean women are particularly and specifically irrational. But stereotypes like that are still confirmed in people’s heads by the existence of people who fit or seem to fit them.

And of course, if you hear something often enough, it seems true even if it’s not.

So then there’s this sort of urban legend, that the Internet is filled with hordes of jerks who use autism as an excuse to be jerks. And the moment an autistic person shows up using autism as an explanation of something about themselves, then that stereotype is thrown in their face.

And autistic people ourselves have certain choices of how to respond to that.

We can say, “Yes, that stereotype is true. But the people who fit it, make the rest of us look bad, make it worse for the rest of us by confirming it, etc.”

We can just watch it happen.

Or we can say, “Hey hold on a minute, that’s a stereotype, and a harmful one at that. An explanation isn’t an excuse. We do have this particular kind of trouble with language, or engaging in typical interactions, and we are going to make mistakes that can be explained by being autistic.”

I’m sure there are other things too.

But every time an autistic person uses the “They make the rest of us look bad” thing, they’re falling into the same trap as women who direct their anger at being considered irrational, at particularly irrational women, instead of at the source of the problem. They blame those who fit, or seem to fit, the stereotype, for its existence and continuance, even though that’s not the source of negative stereotypes about people.

And they then continue it.

And people then continue to use it against autistic people.

In the end, this stereotype itself looks to me like an example of something that is frequently as an excuse in order to be a jerk… towards autistic people.