Friday, December 23, 2011

Why the abuse of disabled students needs to stop (and it needs to stop RIGHT. NOW.)

There has been a disturbing flurry of incidents breaking out lately about school staff abusing disabled students.  The latest one involves an autistic student being PUT INSIDE A DUFFEL BAG with the drawstring pulled tight OUT IN THE HALLWAY.  With gym balls.  Like he was no better than a piece of gym equipment.

You know what the most disturbing, terrifying part of all these abuse cases is?  It's not that they're happening in the first place, although that's certainly disturbing enough.  It's that these acts are passed off as being okay.  When this mother came to pick up her son and found him in a duffel bag, an aide was "standing by".  The school told her it was a form of therapy.  And they "told her it was not the first time they had put him in the bag".

Just casually - "and oh yeah, we put your son in a bag where he could've suffocated for THERAPY".

This is by far not the first case like this, and I shudder to think of how many more abuses are committed under the guise of therapy around the world.  Committed in the name of rehabilitation, in the name of making us magically stop being different and making us normal.  Does the world really hate us, fear us and our differentness that much, that kids' emotional and physical well-being would be sacrificed in the name of normality?  The answer seems to be yes.

There seems to be this prevailing attitude that disabled students - and especially those who receive segregated services like segregated transportation, therapy, etc. - are some sort of subspecies that are exempt from deserving respect.  Therefore school staff and others that work with the students can screw them over however the hell they want.  They're just bodies, vegetables.  They don't need to know if they're going to have the same aide or bus driver from day to day.  They don't need to get to school on time.  They don't need or deserve to be in class, because after all, it's not like they're actually learning anything.  They don't need or deserve to have an aide who does their job, without abusing the student or making the student feel like a burden.  And these students certainly don't deserve an apology when someone wrongs them.  I've seen this attitude in practice myself countless times, and it can lead to incompetence, neglect, and outright emotional and physical abuse.

Unless we stop this ableist attitude in its tracks, unless we embrace the radical notion that people with disabilities are - *gasp* - people, human beings, just as worthy of equality and respect as anyone else, this awful abuse is going to continue.  It's going to continue, because society makes us believe that if you're not perfect, you're not anything.  You're nothing.  And since you're nothing, people can do whatever the hell they want to you and get away with it.  How many more kids have to be traumatized, how many more kids have to be hurt, how many more kids have to die before this becomes unacceptable?  Before no one gets away with these acts, or better yet, does them at all.  Before the world is as outraged as we as activists, advocates, disabled people are.  Before parents can send their children to school - all their children to school - and know that each and every one of them is being treated with equality, dignity and respect.  Before no child is afraid of going to school.  I hope, for my sake, for the sakes of all the disabled children who came before me and all who will come after, that that day is within our reach.

Click here to sign the petition demanding the end of abuse of disabled students in schools, created in response to the duffel bag incident.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Visible vs. Invisible

Warning:  This is going to be a long, probably discombobulated post in which I word vomit a lot of thoughts I have on "visible" vs. "invisible" disabilities.

There's been a lot of talk 'round the disability community lately about "visible" vs. "invisible" disabilities.  From the way some people talk, you'd think you could take a big fat Sharpie marker and draw a thick black line separating those with "visible" disabilities from those with "invisible" disabilities.

The issue of "visible" vs. "invisible" disabilities is kind of like the issue of "high functioning" vs. "low functioning".  What label gets placed on you depends on who is doing the labeling and what situation you're in.

Take me.  Depending on the day, time, situation, and any combination of factors, I a) walk without aids at all, b) walk with forearm crutches or c) use a wheelchair or motorized scooter.  So does that mean I bounce back and forth throughout the day, going from visible to invisible and back to visible?  If I'm walking without aids, but no one sees me, does that still mean I'm "invisibly" disabled?  (And while we're on the topic of existential questions, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?)

What about someone with epilepsy?  Most of the time, they may look perfectly "normal" and thus be "invisibly" disabled.  But when they're having a seizure, especially if it's a grand mal, that's sure as hell visible.  Or someone with mental health impairments and self harm issues?  Persimmon Blackbridge, in the documentary, Shameless:  The Art of Disability, sums this up as she rolls back her sleeves to expose webs of scars from years of self injury:

That's the thing about invisible disabilities - wear a long sleeve shirt, you're fine.

When Persimmon is wearing a long sleeved shirt, she's "invisibly" disabled, but as soon as the scars come out, that's not invisible anymore.  This phenomenon of "invisible" disabilities is such a fluid concept that it's impossible to pin down who, exactly, qualifies as "invisibly" disabled, just as it's impossible to pin down who, exactly, is disabled in the first place.

And even if there are people who can be neatly categorized into "visibly" and "invisibly" disabled, what does that accomplish, besides dividing the disability community even more than it's already divided?  Just because I use mobility aids doesn't mean you know anything about my disability or how it affects me.  And it doesn't mean you have a clue about how to accommodate me, either.  And it shouldn't.  You know what the best way to figure out how to accommodate me is?  Ask me.  You know what the best way to figure out how to accommodate someone who doesn't show any outward signs of disability is?  Ask them.  There's no difference in the way you should treat someone.

And neither group has it "easier", either.  I've experienced it from both sides, both with my physical disability (and it's resulting oddities in my body) and my mental health impairments.  If you're more "out there" and visibly disabled, you get outright pity and ableist comments.  If you're less visibly disabled, and need or choose to disclose your disability, you're accused of "faking it", or get similarly skeptical reactions, and you STILL get pity and ableist comments once people find out.  Society pushes and indoctrinates people to "normalize" themselves and invisibilize their disabilities as much as possible, and then when they've expended time and energy and emotions jamming themselves as much into that "normal" mold as much as they can, they're accused of being fakers and benefit scroungers.  It's not "better" to be one or the other, if such defined categories even exist.  It's a different experience - just like all experiences of disability are unique.  People with the same/similar impairments may relate to each other, and there is often a nice tribe-like feeling when you're with people who have the same impairment as you, but it's still a very individual experience.

In conclusion:  The categories of "visible" and "invisible" disabilities are murky, at best, and only serve to further divide a very diverse and divided community.  So let's all stop meebling about how hard it is to be visibly/invisibly disabled and how the other group has it so much easier, ok?  Because it sucks to be visibly disabled sometimes, and it sucks to be invisibly disabled sometimes.  And it can also be MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME to be visibly disabled, and it can also be mind-blowingly awesome to be invisibly disabled.  They are both equal parts suckishness and awesomeness, just like any disability.