Tag Archives: Disability Rights

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.

 

A bunch of stuff that needed saying

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The following stuff is important stuff I wrote elsewhere on the net. If some of what I'm saying doesn't make sense, ignore it, it's just context that I'm not able to describe right now. The main thrust of what I'm saying should make sense without understanding the full context of what I wrote. And I can't rewrite it all right now for this blog. So the following is pretty much as I wrote it. Also sorry for all caps in places, it was because where I was writing it I couldn't use other forms of emphasis. And please don't assume that this is all about autism. Everyone always assumes that everything I say is all about autism. It isn't. Most of it isn't. Not even the stuff that talks about autism is all about autism. I am fed up with just about every such assumption because my world isn't made up of only or mainly autistic people and when I talk about things I always get replies saying “This applies to people without autism too” and I want to say “no shit Sherlock, that's what I meant in the firs

This turned into a long post, and it may not apply to the people I’m replying too, but this conversation just brought up a lot of things I’ve been thinking but having trouble saying.

Thank you for writing that. It’s really important.

Also another point I want to make. There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. Some of us this is true of, can communicate well by speech or typing also. Some of us can’t. But we usually have trouble with receptive language — either some of the time, all of the time, or especially, during the early formative years of our lives. I’m one such person.

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at. Also, most autistic people who can talk about their experiences in words, are (or believe themselves to be) bad at nonverbal communication, and their experiences get seen as applying to all of us, when this is not true.

So for many of us — nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. I wrote about one such group of autistic people in my contribution (“Untitled”) to the Loud Hands anthology. Because I want people to know we exist. Because I want other people like me to know they aren’t alone, in an autistic community made up mostly of people who experience themselves as terrible at nonverbal communication. Where people even say that autistic communities are communities where people can use text or other forms of language, rather than having to deal with nonverbal communication. Even though there’s plenty of us who do better in person, BECAUSE we communicate best nonverbally, because words, whether we can do them or not, whether we are or seem good at them or not, are so hard and so difficult and so painful to keep using.

There are entire groups of autistic people out there who communicate with each other using our own unique forms of body language that are different from nonautistic body language, different from other autistic people’s body language, specific to ourselves, specific to each other. Who communicate best reading each others writing, looking for the patterns that exist between the words, rather than inside the words themselves. Who communicate best by exchanging objects, by arranging objects and other things around ourselves in ways that each other can read easier than we can read any form of words. Who share the most intimate forms of communication, outside of words, outside of anything that can be described easily, in between everything, seeing each other to the core of our awareness. Who see layers upon layers of meaning outside of any form of words.

In “Untitled” I was writing about my favorite communication ever, my video chats with AnneC (and her cats, when they show up, which Shadow absolutely loves communicating with me over video and reminds her every Friday at the right time because he loves it so much). I don’t necessarily do the best at visual stuff the way most people think of it. But I can see the patterns of movement in other people, including cats, whether or not I see them well in the usual forms of visual perception. And those patterns of movement tell me more than any word ever could.

I can even read nonautistic people fairly well at times — just not in the ways nonautistic people read each other well. That’s one of the problems with nonautistic research into autistic people’s abilities to understand nonverbal communication. Most of it relies on the understanding and use of words at the same time as understanding the nonverbal communication. And most of it relies on the kinds of nonverbal communication that nonautistic people are most aware of. This frustrates me to no end — how can people research forms of understanding that they don’t themselves have and therefore they don’t themselves understand even exists? I’ve actually told researchers ways they can research autistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication without having to resort to the faulty methods they usually use.

And one researcher told me, when I asked, that every parent of an autistic child she ever met said that their child picked up easily on things like stress in the household, but that SHE ACTUALLY DISREGARDED IT UNTIL I ASKED HER, BECAUSE SHE’D BEEN TAUGHT THAT AUTISTIC PEOPLE COULDN’T READ BODY LANGUAGE. I’m totally serious. If researchers are that biased themselves, how can they possibly hope to even notice that we can understand things they assume we don’t understand?! I taught that researcher a bunch of very simple ways to test that without relying on the painfully stupid research methods that guarantee researchers will find only what they expect to find — relying on us to use and understand words, relying on our understanding of actors and stage conventions rather than real people’s real nonverbal communication, relying on nonautistic people’s limited ability to read autistic body language, all sorts of other flaws that seem obvious but that researchers themselves seem never to notice. So hopefully she will set up some real experiments that show our real abilities.

Anyway. Back to what I was saying. There’s entire subgroups of autistic people out there _ not just my own — who rely on nonverbal means of understanding the world, and nonverbal means of communication. That’s one reason I usually put myself in my videos — because I know that certain other autistic people will be able to read me like a book, even if nonautistic people usually can’t. And that nonverbal communication is a crucial part of my videos. (See why the entire first half of “In My Language” has no words in it. I was trying to make a point about the best way I communicate, the best way many people communicate, autistic or not, verbal or not. Mostly lost on people, who think it’s a video about autism. It’s not. It’s a video about communication and understanding and personhood, that happens to be made by an autistic person. Big difference. I told CNN why I really made the video, and they left out that part of the interview in favor of putting their words in my mouth. I think my real intent was too political for them.)

Anyway. I may be a writer, but my real best form of communication has nothing to do with words. I use words because I have to. Because most people won’t understand me if I don’t. I don’t use them because I like them, or because I “can’t do nonverbal communication so text is best for me”, or any of the usual reasons most people assume. If I could never use language again, spoken or written, I would be really happy. But the world won’t let me do that, so I carry on using a means of communication that is outright painful for me.

I don’t know the people in the video, but I know that the way their bodies move makes intuitive sense to me and communicates things whether they intend it to be so or not. (The forms of nonverbal communication I understand best are unintentional, in fact. That’s one reason tests using actors don’t work on me. I know an autistic woman who failed a test of nonverbal communication because it used actors and she kept describing their real feelings instead of their acted ones. What this says about nonautistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication is… interesting.) Whether they are able to use spoken language or not, the video would lose a lot if it only relied on showing them speaking or typing the words.

And I really dislike a lot of the self-advocacy movement for relying mostly on the self-advocacy that happens through words, written or spoken. This leaves out people who can’t do either but who are nonetheless quite capable of advocating for themselves through their actions and movements. If I hadn’t spent a lot of my life forcing myself to do words, I might be such a person, so I am always aware of this. Words are not natural to me the way they are to some autistic people. They’re difficult and my development could have gone either way. There are also people who, no matter how much effort they put in, could never have used or understood words, and they are also extremely important, and they are also capable of self-advocacy, and they are still capable of communication that is more full of meaning than the communication of many people who use words.

I wish there were videos using their communication — which by definition wouldn’t involve words. Both people who would have been able to use words had they put in a crapload of effort at critical times in their development, and people who would never be able to use them no matter what. Such people exist. I sometimes wonder if they are too inconvenient for some autistic people to remember. I hate when people tell parents, “If you just gave your child a communication device they would be able to type words (or use picture symbols) and everything would be solved.” You don’t know that. You just can’t possibly know that. I hear that a lot, this idea that autistic people would all be able to communicate in words if only they were given a means to type them instead of speak them. And it’s so not true that its utterly ridiculous. I hear it both from people whose main way of communicating is speech, and also from people who use typing, and people who use both. It’s wishful thinking and it’s not true. There are people whose understanding of the world is just like a typical “aspie” except they couldn’t speak for motor reasons, and they are the most likely of those who use typing, to believe this myth.

Reality is that there are lots of people who will either never be able to use words, never be able to understand words, or both. Or whose use or understanding is so limited that they will never be able to use words as their primary means of communication. But they do communicate, whether the communication is intentional or not. And they do matter. And they are capable of self-advocacy. And they should be included in self-advocacy movements if those movements ever expect to represent autistic people, developmentally disabled people, cognitively disabled people, disabled people in general, whatever group is trying to represent itself in that movement. And in order to include them, you have to show their movements and their sounds and all the things they do that aren’t words.

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language. (And surprise, that’s one thing that “In My Language” was actually about. And it would be about that whether I used typing or speech to communicate — either one would be my “second language”, and as such I can easily, easily envision a situation where I never learned and never would learn to use speech or typing, both of which I used at different points in my life.) And each person has one. Sometimes several people have a language that is in common but is not words. Sometimes each one has a separate way of communicating that is not words. But either way, you have to learn how they communicate, not force them to either communicate how you best communicate, or else be considered “non-communicative” for the rest of their life. And yes it’s possible to get consent to use their communication, it’s just sometimes harder work than asking a yes or no question in words.

And a community that doesn’t include such people isn’t my community. The developmental disability community is far better at including such people than the autistic community is, even though not all of the DD community manages it either. One reason I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t use words in any form is because I’ve been in the developmental disability system for pretty much my entire adult life and have spent a lot of time with a wide variety of people. And I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t and may never use speech or typing or even picture boards. And that’s something that certain segments of the autistic community are sorely missing. Even parts of the autistic community that involve people who don’t use speech, are often made up of only those people who were able to learn typing, and often put forth the (false) idea that everyone could learn typing if only they tried hard enough or were exposed to the proper teaching methods.

The response someone made is true: Some of the people in the video use typing, so they could never be shown speaking the words in the video. But I’d like to go further than people who use speech and people who use typing, because unlike a lot of people, my social world is made up of a lot of people who can’t do either one. And also made up of a lot of people who, even if they can use speech, typing, or both, those are not their best means of communication, and it would be better to show us using our best means of communication rather than merely the form of using words. Not everyone has words but everyone has a voice and a means of communicating. And not everyone who uses words sees words as their primary voice or their primary means of understanding things, and that needs to be respected. And I’m sick to death of spending time in communities where most people seem to miss these facts, and automatically see having a voice as the same as using speech or at least using language.

“I don’t know that person’s program.”

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That's a sentence I've heard a lot. And when they don't say exactly that, they say things that mean the same thing. Usually in the developmental disability system, for some reason, although I can easily imagine it in other contexts.

What it really means:

“DD people aren't like regular people. When people do things to them that would be horrible if they happened to other people, there's always a logical reason that justifies whatever is happening. Staff and case managers rarely if ever abuse power. All of their decisions have the best interests of clients at heart. So if something looks terrible, chances are that there's a reasonable explanation behind it. I just don't know what that explanation is. And I likely never will, so I'm not going to judge.”

They say this when staff scream at an old woman with an unsteady gait every time she falls, and refuse to help her get back up or allow her to hold onto things for balance.

They say this when staff publicly humiliate a man who clearly has trouble moving to avoid obstacles, when he accidentally bumps into someone.

They say this when staff do their best to keep a boyfriend and girlfriend apart. Or when staff are okay with boyfriend and girlfriend, but balk at the idea that two women with intellectual disabilities have fallen in love. As if it's even their job to decide who can love who.

They say this when parents simultaneously put on a big public show of wishing their son could move out on his own like he wants to, but sabotage his every attempt to do so. Because they had planned out a whole life for him in the group home they run, and can't handle the idea that he doesn't want to live under their control the rest of his life.

They say this when a staff person kisses a grown man's leg and says “I kiss you boo boo aww betta!” in baby talk.

They say this when, in the name of integration, staff prohibit disabled people from speaking or socializing with each other. I just saw an instance of that last one, which is why I finally remembered to write a post on the matter.

They say this when we get outright tortured. Tied down. Skin shocked. Slapped. Pinched. Made to smell ammonia.

I wish I could upload the scenes from real life that play out vividly in my head. But like as not, people likely to say these things wouldn't consider me a reliable observer. They never do, when you start pointing out the truth. When you see yourselves as people. With all that this means.

Suddenly you are either too severely disabled to understand what's happening, or you're not disabled enough to grasp why treating people like dirt is necessary. Or both at once. And they'd much rather you were highly submissive, maybe even the really cool type of client who helps staff out by giving them information about other clients.

All of this requires seeing DD people as less than. It just has to. There is no other way to justify these actions towards us.

And I know how people see us. As in, I know what we look like inside their minds. Sometimes we're human — almost, anyway. Not quite. There's something vitally important inside every real human. And to them, we either don't have it, or are missing large chunks of it. So we go around in human bodies but there's pieces missing in our minds and our souls. Even people who don't believe in souls in any religious sense, still perceive something inside us as only partial.

I know this because this is one of those viewpoints that isn't content to stay in the minds of others. It tries to force its way as deeply into us as it can manage. Until many of us look in the mirror and see only part of a person.

I can't describe the violence that involves. It's horrible. And a whole system of relating to us, forces its way into our lives. It tells us that we are taken care of, that we can relax, go to sleep, almost. And then it suffocates from inside. There's no words for it.

I suspect the drive to say this about people comes from several places at once.

If you work in the system, there's not wanting to see yourself or your coworkers or people who could be you, doing something horribly wrong. Much less on a regular basis.

I also suspect a strong desire to trust the society they live in, not to do horrible things to people. Or at least, not to do horrible things to certain kinds of people.

A member of my family once told me that it took him a long time to believe what happened to me in mental institutions. He said that in order to come to terms with the reality of the abuse, he had to destroy a strong desire to believe that the society he lived in was safe and just. Him telling me that was far more honest than a lot of people are.

That desire to trust society gets in the way of understanding every kind of injustice. I am amazed that people trust a society that does its best to shut out and destroy all but a handful of people. But they do.

And not seeing us as quite exactly people, is the one thing that you can't avoid if you think like this. Because if you see us as people, you have to see what happens to us as dreadful. And you don't immediately, upon being told of the latest awful thing, say any variant on “I don't know that person's program.”

What Makes Institutions Bad

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[I wrote this in response to a Dave Hingsburger post. Andrea Shettle asked me to post it here. Summary of my very long response: Most people don't have the foggiest clue what's bad about institutions. What's bad is something you pretty much never hear about, which is the violence it does to people's insides at a very deep level. And that can't be stopped by just removing the things that LOOK bad and throwing a layer of glamour on top.]

Please, please, please everyone who talks about this in the past tense — STOP. This is still going on. Everywhere.

I can’t even explain what it feels like to read things like this. Because I think too many people get the wrong kind of idea.

They will think that this is over. It’s not.

They will think that the awfulness and cruelty of an institution is measured by the size, the shape, the physical beauty or lack thereof, the amount of money funneled into it.

And those things are not real.

And those things — the belief in those things — are hurting and killing people still.

People don’t understand what’s behind the worst institutions I can possibly imagine. They think I’m kidding when I say it. Understand that I’m saying this as someone with experience of institutions that people often remark (from my photographs) look just like prisons, and institutions that look absolutely lovely to anyone who doesn’t have to live in them.

The worst institutions have lots and lots and lots of staff. They have beautiful grounds that people are more or less free to walk around on. Every room is decorated in ways that suggest a regular, pleasant house — and if anything is stained or broken someone fixes it, washes it, and paints over it within a day. There are no locks on the doors.

All of the staff are gentle and would never physically abuse an inmate. They are highly trained at redirecting and calming anyone who becomes violent. If you go outside, they follow you at a discreet distance, where they think you can’t see, to give the illusion of freedom and privacy. Their every movement and tone suggests sweetness and gentleness.

But they treat everyone as if they were somewhere varying, between infancy and four years old. With everything — everything — that entails.

Because they do not use physical restraint, they have to restrain you in other ways. They do it by such skillful manipulation that if you ever find out you were being manipulated, it’s long after the fact. If you confront them on it they’ll sweetly and politely tell you they have no idea what you mean. And they will continue to somehow always get you to do what they want, or else to feel awful about not doing so.

Glamour is a word that can refer to a kind of faery magic that can make a hovel appear to humans as a splendid palace. I often use the word to mean a similar kind of deception — a beautiful facade over a terrible reality. I make it part of my life’s work to see through glamour. And I see a whole lot of glamour used in conversations about institutions.

The above institution I have just described has a layer of glamour over it as well. If you look beneath the surface, it’s utterly horrifying. Most people don’t know how to see beneath the surface. Even when you personally are in such a situation, it can be hard to see.

You feel as if there is something pressing down on you, muffling and suffocating. But when you look around, there’s no outward sign of it. So why are you not happy? You must be an awful person to feel so awful when all these nice staff people are doing so much to make you feel at home. You look around, you try to search for what is bothering you, and it’s nowhere. But you’re in agony. Whenever you think nobody’s looking, you cry, sometimes it feels like you’ll never stop. Deep down inside you, you know something is going terribly wrong. But trying to pinpoint it is like trying to get a firm grip on a cloud.

Get a glimpse under the glamour and you see that all that has happened is a bunch of substitutions. They stopped locking the doors, but they started following you everywhere and subtly guiding you where they want you. The institution itself is positioned so that even if you tried to run away you couldn’t get anywhere. They stopped restraining your body, but their manipulation is like a permanent set of shackles on your mind. Their sweetness in manner hides the fact that they are sweet to you the way they would be sweet to an infant — even when you’re pushing sixty. Treat you like that long enough and you begin to respond and structure yourself like an infant, and the damage that does inside can’t be calculated.

I literally have nightmares about that type of institution. When I’m wrapped up in the glamour, this terrible calm takes over. It feels like something soft and smooth pressing all over my skin, and the temptation is to surrender to it and feel its fake calm, fake happiness. Then I wake up and want to vomit I am so terrified and disgusted with what I’ve just experienced.

This past summer I attended a recreation program for DD people. And it was so much like a replica of my nightmare it was scary. Sometimes I would get smothered under the glamour, other times I wanted to scream. I cried more that week than I normally do in years, yet I was at every turn made to feel as if the problem was me. I can be so very passive but even my most passive wasn’t good enough for them.

One day I looked around and saw that everyone there was older. From the era of big institutions. Where they were used to being treated like this, and mostly could out-passive me any day (which is scary because I can get very passive). I talked to a woman whose roommate goes there — she said she goes in a grown woman and comes out acting like a young child. And not in a way that’s just her self-expression — this is one of those places that molds you into that form.

To survive in a place like that something inside you has to break. It’s impossible to fully explain to someone who hasn’t been in that position. Something inside you has to die. And it doesn’t die any less because you got one of the “good” (read: glamour-covered) institutions. The same forces are crushing down on you either way, the difference is cosmetic.

The worst part of institutions is not physical violence, obvious forms of abuse or neglect. It’s not even the experiences you don’t get to have. It’s the damage that is done right down to your soul, by living under the power of other human beings. Glamour makes no difference. Prettiness makes no difference. Size makes no difference. Even length of time makes less difference past a certain point than you’d think.

Until you understand that damage — what it is, what it means, where it comes from — you will never get rid of institutions. You have to understand it on a very intimate level or you will reproduce it without knowing what you’re doing.

I still can’t tell you how long I was institutionalized. I can tell you roughly the amount of time I lived in mental institutions and other residential facilities. But that’s not the same as the amount of time I was in institutions. I call what I got when I got out, “community institutionalization”. That’s where you live with your parents but you spend most of the day being driven between various places — segregated schools, segregated day programs, segregated rec programs, each one with institutional power structures behind it. I remember mental institutions where they walked us to different parts of the grounds for different parts of the day. There’s not so much difference between that and being driven.

The transition between a locked ward on a mental institution and later periods of my life was so absolutely gradual that by the time I was “free”, I never noticed. That’s how they wanted it. I simply created the institutional walls around me wherever I went. That’s why I put “free” in quotes. If I had been someone else, I would have been free. Because I was me — because of my particular history — I was not. There were invisible walls all around me and I certainly never noticed the real ones were not there. Which was exactly the purpose behind what was done to me. They didn’t think I could function outside an institution so they carefully built one inside my head, making me truly unable to function anywhere.

I can get over the physical violence. The attempts on my life. The neglect. The sexual abuse. The parts of “normal life” that I missed and still am missing. So long as I physically survive (which even the recent rec program almost avoided) I will and can get over these things.

I am not sure to what extent I will ever get back the parts of me that died in order for the rest of me to survive. Every now and then I notice I’ve gotten a little bit back, and I think that finally everything will be okay. And then a little time passes and I realize how much is still gone.

I’m not even saying I can’t be reasonably happy. But there are parts of me I still have no idea if I will ever get back. Those parts weren’t destroyed by ugly bare rooms, horrific physical or sexual abuse, the loss of normal experiences, or any of the rest of the things most people think when they think of bad institutions. Those things happened to me and they are bad. But on a real basic level they are not the cause of the problem.

The cause of the problem is a certain exercise of power. Of person over unperson. And in order to survive it the inmates have to become as much of that unperson as they can manage. And that does violent damage deep inside the self, that can be incredibly hard to repair. It’s violent even when it comes with purported love and sweetness and light.

And until people can stop forcing us to damage ourselves in this way, institutions will continue. That, not anything else, is the core of what is wrong with them. But it’s much harder to put that into songs or images or even just words, that the average person would comprehend.

R.I.P. Harriet McBryde Johnson

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I only knew her from her writing, but I cried when I heard.

And I’m still having trouble believing she’s dead. She was so fundamentally there, and now she’s not there. I’ve edited this to include a lot of the links that were missing last night, plus a quote.

Unspeakable Conversations is her most famous article.

The Disability Gulag is another.

Not Dead At All is another.

She wrote a book called Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life. One excerpt is here.

She wrote another book, this one fictional, called Accidents of Nature.

She did a talk at the Holocaust Memorial Museum called Medical Ethics: Legitimizing the Unthinkable, and she answered questions like What is a disability? and Can we talk about cure?, Why as a kid did we protest telethons, and So let me ask you, when you think about this question of cure and what you saw in Deadly Medicine.

New Mobility named her Person of the Year in 2004.

I’ll end this with a quote by her from Too Late to Die Young. I wish all autistic people who think that they’re non-disabled just because they find pleasure in being autistic, would read it and rethink what they think they know about the experience of disability. I think it exemplifies the core of what she was trying to do, what a lot of us are trying to do. And in the end it speaks for itself:

My path is constrained but endlessly varied. I watch the sun move up in the morning sky and in and out of clouds, take in the changing light that constantly reinvents the cities classic, composed beauty. I feel the moist air roll over my just-washed skin, breathe in the odors of sea and flowering trees and restaurant grease. Some of the best mornings are the mornings when nothing happens, when there is no story but the continuing relationship of this old city with the ocean that roars just out of sight and with the living jungle that tentatively tolerates our existence here.

How is it possible that nondisabled people tend to feel sorry for me? It still takes me by surprise. Peter Singer couldn’t imagine a disabled child enjoying a day at the beach and he’s hardly alone. The widespread assumption that disability means suffering feeds a fear of difference and a social order that doesn’t know what to do with us if it can’t make us fit its idea of normal. When we seek what we need to live good lives as we are, we come against that wall. Why bother? the thinking runs; all they can do is suffer. When nondisabled people start learning about disability, what seems most startling, most difficult to accept, is the possibility of pleasure.

For decades, little noticed by the larger world, the disability rights movement has been mobilizing people from the back rooms and back wards, along with more privileged people like me, to speak plainly about our needs. We make demands. We litigate. Run for office. Seize the streets. Sit through the meetings. Mark up the drafts. That kind of work has changed the world and we need to continue to do it.

But we need to do something else besides, something that may be difficult but is, I think, vital. We need to confront the life-killing stereotype that says we’re all about suffering. We need to bear witness to our pleasures.

I’m talking in part about the pleasures we share with nondisabled people. For me, those include social engagement of all kinds: swapping stories, arguing hard, getting and giving a listening ear. A challenging professional life. Going to movies, concerts, and exhibits. Wearing a new pair of earrings. Savoring the afternoon hit of Dove dark chocolate. I enjoy those pleasures the same way nondisabled people do. There’s no impairment; disability makes no difference.

But I’m also talking about those pleasures that are peculiarly our own, that are so bound up with our disabilities that we wouldn’t experience them, or wouldn’t experience them the same way, without our disabilities. I’m talking about pleasures that might seem a bit odd.

Let me give some examples.

John Hockenberry rolls across the Brooklyn Bridge self-propelled in a manual wheelchair. As he describes it, it’s a high no one but a hotshot para can really know.

A nation within a nation, of Deaf people, capitalizes its name to demand recognition as a language group, equal to any other in dignity and ferocious beauty.

Barry Corbet, a hotshot para now falling apart, is stuck in bed for several weeks with a pressure sore. As he lives with one marvelous view, he says life doesn’t go away; where would it go? he says life has never been richer or more juicy.

In an essay on smell, Helen Keller wrote that she could never warm up to another person who did not have a distinct and recognizable body odor.

After decades of torment, Professor John Nash recognizes his delusions for what they are and lets voices and visions and mathematical creativity cohabit in a mind unlike any the world has ever known.

My friend Kermit, a quad on a budget, goes out to lobby the legislature and finds a coffee under way. He can’t grasp with his hands so he makes a legislator feed him a donut. The last lobbyist out removes his clip-on tie.

At a summer camp, a mentally retarded boy badgers a girl in a wheelchair to teach him to play checkers. He knows he’s slow and she’s bored, but he won’t give up. Then something clicks and her explanations make sense at last and he sees the patterns and wins the game. For the smart girl in the chair — for me — it’s a humorous, humbling lesson. For the slow boy, there’s joy in pushing his intellectual limits. The peculiar pleasure is unique to each of us, but it’s also shared; the sharing makes a bridge across our differences.

Throughout my life, the nondisabled world has told me my pleasures must be only mental, never physical. Thinking to help me, it has said my body is unimportant. I respectfully disagree. For me, the body — imperfect, impermanent, falling apart — is all there is. Through this body that needs the help of hands and machines to move, that is wired to sense and perceive, comes all pleasure, all life. My brain is only one among many body parts, all of which work through one another and cooperate as best they can.

Some people, disabled and otherwise, conceptualize a self distinct and apart from the body. I may at one time have done so. I’m not sure. I know it is somehow possible for me to talk about me and my body as though separate, even though my mind and heart say we are one. At this stage in my life, my body constantly makes its presence known as needed, telling me with an urgent pain to deal with a wrinkle under my seat belt, or reminding me with a tremble or ache or flutter of its desire for food or rest or some other pleasure. Now the body I live in doesn’t only affect me. It is me.

The nondisabled world tells disabled people generally that our lot is unavoidably tragic, and if we’re smiling, we’re smiling through tears and despite suffering. In the face of these powerful social forces, I believe that living our strange and different lives, however we choose and manage to live them, is a contribution to the struggle. Living our lives openly and without shame is a revolutionary act.

This post is mainly for three sorts of people, who are in some ways really one sort after all.

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I’m going to post a link.

If you ever argue that autism and/or Asperger’s is “not a disability” because you think this configuration of our bodies partially, mostly, or entirely provides something positive in contrast to typical people, then please read it. The person who wrote it directed it mostly at you.

If you ever argue that autism and/or Asperger’s is “a disability” because you think this configuration of our bodies partially, mostly, or entirely provides something negative in contrast to typical people, then please read it. This goes double if you argue it for something you call “low-functioning autism” but not for other autistic people. This goes triple or even more if you want to cut “high-functioning autism” and/or “Asperger’s” off of the “autistic spectrum” because they’re “not disabled” and “low functioning autistic people” are disabled. The person who wrote it only directed part of it at you, but from the standpoint he’s talking about, your viewpoint is nearly identical to the viewpoint I described in the first paragraph.

And of course, the viewpoint he’s talking about is also really important for you to read if you’re the sort of person who says it’s “neither an ability nor a disability,” or “composed of both abilities and disabilities,” or “both an ability and a disability,” or similar wording, because it’s also from the viewpoint he’s talking about pretty identical to the first two paragraphs.

And for everyone else, including those who know the general viewpoint he’s coming from already, the advice he gives is still really good, so go read it too.

His post is called Welcome to the disability community. In general, go read it. Multiple times if necessary. Then seriously consider taking his advice.

Last night, I got involved in a discussion of disability rights with people who mostly had some background in that area. Some of them were autistic and some of them weren’t, but most of them had heard, at least somewhat, of the standpoint on disability I come from, which is that disability is the intersection of your body with a world that has planned for some sorts of people and not others, when you’re one of the “others” that wasn’t exactly planned for. Things that would not be barriers to people that it was planned for, become barriers to you because you weren’t among those planned for.

The most common examples of barriers are physical, both because they’re concrete and easy to describe, but also because there’s an often-unspoken hierarchy in the disability community that has fought for the removal of these barriers, and we’ve got more practice talking about wheelchair ramps in the offline world and blind access in the online world than we’ve got talking about making the online world accessible to assorted kinds of cognitively disabled people or making buildings accessible to people for whom the most common forms of fluorescent lighting impair their ability to think or move.

If either I or my friend want to visit each other in the public part of our building, for instance, it’s almost perfectly wheelchair-accessible. The hallways are wide and flat and there is elevator access to the entire building. There are stairs, but they are optional. Many wheelchair users in the disability rights movement would stop right there and claim that the building is “accessible”. However, the public areas of the building are also fitted with old-style fluorescent lights. This gives us both some combination of migraines, seizures, and general levels of confusion. (How much confusion? When I was a teenager I took a night class under fluorescent lights, they were the only source of lighting and there were lots of them. My mother would pick me up in a brown minivan. I came out at one point and tried repeatedly to get into a little white car. I was pulling on the handle and everything. The driver did not look close enough to my mother for even me to confuse them, and the dog in the car didn’t look like my dog either.) Tinted glasses help to an extent but they don’t fully solve the problem. So the hallways are actually not fully accessible to us.

Cal Montgomery wrote some interesting stuff about this in the essay The Way Things Are. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s about Foucault if you’re normally (as I am) put off by postmodernism. She makes some good points and she makes them in everyday language. She, like both me and my friend, finds both stairs and fluorescent lights to be access barriers. She writes about a meeting of her local CIL (Center for Independent Living) that she was invited to. They told her it was “accessible” when they really meant wheelchair access. It was really held in a room with fluorescent lights, by people who both knew that was a barrier to her and had access to a room that was both wheelchair-accessible and lacked fluorescent lights. Then she invites us to think about the fact that we often think the way things are is the only way they ever could be. She writes:

Some of us believe that “high-functioning people” or “the invisibly disabled” or “people who only use wheelchairs” don’t face any real disadvantage and therefore don’t need either cures or rights; some of us believe that “low-functioning people” or “mentally retarded people” are disadvantaged by medical conditions alone and therefore aren’t the concern of the disability rights movement; some of us believe that alcoholics drink for moral and not medical reasons and others believe exactly the opposite; and most of us have probably never seriously questioned all of our beliefs along these lines.

The way the “cross-disability” sections of the disability rights and the independent living movements are dominated by certain categories of disabled people seems natural to many people, but it could have gone another way. The movements have come to believe that it’s important to get wheelchairs into classrooms and jobsites and housing and CILs that are built to accommodate them. They haven’t come to believe that it’s important to do the same thing for people who can’t manage under fluorescent lights. But it could have gone differently.

Imagine for a moment that the disability rights movement had not arisen during a time when there were not so many white-collar jobs in America, but rather during a time when the majority of us were expected to do physical labor.

In such a time, with an “able body” being more important than an “able mind” it’s entirely possible that people with cognitive impairments might have come to be the paradigmatic disabled people around whose needs the whole thing was organized. After all, our physical accomplishments would have a whole lot more to do with our places in society than our cognitive accomplishments. We might have come to see a fluorescent-infested environment as unjust earlier than we grasped the injustice of stair-infestedness, and my local CIL might have mentioned, under “Access Accommodations,” that the annual meeting would be held on the second floor of a building with no elevators.

An interesting thing about the disability rights movement, that many people in the autistic community have not yet realized, is that a lot of the fights for access do not depend on what condition you have. Standard fluorescent lighting is inaccessible to many autistic people. It’s also inaccessible to many people with migraines, epilepsy, people who don’t have epilepsy but who are on medications that lower the seizure threshold, multiple sclerosis, and a number of other conditions. And people with these various conditions can all work together to make sure that there is some kind of lighting, whether incandescent, some other kind of fluorescent that causes fewer problems (especially, if bright, if the lighting is indirect rather than direct), or light-emitting diodes, that is accessible to more of us.

At any rate, it makes sense to me that people haven’t heard a lot of these ideas, but there’s a really good reason for familiarizing yourself with these ideas, which is that a lot of the groundwork has already been laid for us, and a lot of us are spending a lot of energy, as Joel put it, reinventing the wheel, when we could go a lot further than that a lot faster if we knew the background of what’s already happened that makes a lot of things possible — and if we knew what was possible.