Thursday, January 7, 2016

Debriefing my phone call with The Mighty, and where we go from here

I just got off the phone with Megan and Vicki, editors of The Mighty.  We had set up this phone call over two weeks ago and I admit, I was skeptical that it was actually going to happen, particularly in light of the news that The Mighty hired a disabled parent of disabled children to manage their Mighty Voices portal (where authors can submit their pieces).  It seemed to me like they were putting the cart before the horse, and trying to fix things before they talked to everyone and fully understood where the problems were.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I actually received the phone call, right on time, from Megan and Vicki, and just that simple act made me respect The Mighty team much more.

(For background info on The Mighty controversy, check out the #CrippingtheMighty Storify and this excellent Washington Post article, in which yours truly is quoted!)

Megan and Vicki seemed eager to hear my opinions, particularly in reference to potentially sticky situations (authors using language to self-identify, the use of trigger warnings, etc.)  I think they were surprised when I told them that I had already drafted a list of demands for The Mighty as well as a list of potential editorial guidelines.  I emailed them my lists and they took the time to read through them while on the phone and to ask me to clarify relevant points.

All in all, throughout this process, I've found Megan and Vicki to be mostly well-intentioned and eager to learn, if a bit naive and somewhat lackadasical, especially when it comes to moderating the cesspool that is the Mighty Voices Facebook group (a private Facebook group for contributors).  However, they may simply be overwhelmed.  As someone who moderated a Facebook group for over three years, I certainly know the difficulties of moderating, especially when arguments happen and turn nasty.  The sheer drain of it was a large part of the reason I stopped moderating and even left the group altogether for a few months.

In any case, Megan and Vicki have certainly been better than most of the nondisabled parent contributors to The Mighty, many of whom have formed their own blog where they can presumably be free of actual disabled people, who might get in the way of the credo that a child's disability is ALL. ABOUT. THE PARENTS.

However, a phone call means nothing if it's not followed up with action.  Where we go from here is dependent solely on what The Mighty does.  I know I'll be watching.  I also told Megan and Vicki, point blank, that unless I'm comfortable with the changes, I will not be submitting any more pieces to The Mighty.  I doubt that the changes will be so radical as to make me feel comfortable submitting to them again, but I'm not ruling out the possibility of being pleasantly surprised.

Below are the list of demands I wrote for The Mighty, as well as the editorial guidelines I drafted.  Megan and Vicki know that these are being posted in the interest of transparency and accountability.  Feel free to chime in in the comments with any demands or guidelines you think should be included.

List of Demands for The Mighty

  1. Publicly make available all financial records on The Mighty website.
  2.  Pay contributors for their work (suggested rate of $50 per republished article and $75 per original article).  Compensate writers an extra $25 if their piece is picked up by another website.
  3. Establish editorial guidelines for pieces submitted and encourage contributors to edit their pieces if they do not meet those guidelines.  (Sample editorial guidelines below)
  4. At least half of the Mighty staff should be people with disabilities, and at least half of those should be people with disabilities who are not parents (25% people with disabilities who are not parents).
  5. Specifically hire at least one person (preferably disabled, can be a disabled parent of disabled children) to review submissions as they come in and offer editorial feedback.
  6.  Establish guidelines for what is shared on TM’s social media pages similar to the editorial guidelines (see I Am Norm’s social media guidelines).
  7. Make the Mighty Voices Facebook group a safe space by clearly outlining a list of rules (can be similar to editorial guidelines – no violating children’s privacy (unless it’s specifically stated that the child has given their permission), no harmful language, trigger warnings and image descriptions.  Establish a clear list of consequences for breaking the rules (such as a three strike policy).  Specifically hire one disabled (non-parent) person and one nondisabled person to co-moderate Mighty Voices group, with potential for more moderators hired as needed.  Moderators can refer difficulties to the editors if things escalate to a point where they no longer feel comfortable handling it.
  8. Establish a peer review process for parents writing specifically about their disabled children (can be used at the discretion of the person who is reviewing submissions – obviously a parent’s experience is going to overlap with their children’s to some extent, but if they are solely writing about their children, rather than parenting, peer review is needed).  For these types of pieces, as well as anything that could be controversial, one disabled (non-parent) person and one nondisabled parent will review the submission and offer feedback.  If one or both of the reviewers decide that the piece should not be published, the piece must either be edited to bring it more in line with TM’s guidelines, or rejected completely.  Peer reviewers will be compensated $25 for their review.
  9. Reach out to disabled-run and disability activism groups such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, National Council on Disability, etc. to partner with.

Editorial Guidelines
  • Use either people-first language (people with disabilities) or identity first language (disabled people) if no preference is stated.  For specific communities who have a history of preferring one or the other, default to that if no preference is stated.  (For instance, the Deaf community and the Autistic community both generally prefer identity first language.  However, those with intellectual disabilities tend to prefer people first language.  This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is known that a majority of people in those communities prefer that language.) If the person you are writing about (if you’re writing about another person) or yourself (if you’re writing about your own disabilities) has a preference, use that preference.  Never use terms like “special needs”, “retarded”, “wheelchair bound”, “confined to a wheelchair”, or “differently abled”.  Those terms are disrespectful and do not encourage disability acceptance and pride.
  • Rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t share it about someone else, don’t share it about a disabled person.  This includes embarrassing details such as bathroom needs, or sharing about someone in a difficult moment without their permission (such as videoing a meltdown and posting it).  If it’s something potentially embarrassing or could be used against someone later on (like in a job search), and you have that person’s permission to post, indicate that at the beginning of the post.
  • Avoid inspiration porn.  This is a story (or an image, or a video, etc.) that objectifies a disabled person in order to make a nondisabled person feel good.  Examples of this are applauding a nondisabled person for doing something nice for a disabled person, without the disabled person’s consent or input, platitudes like “the only disability is a bad attitude”, and similar sentiments.  Make the disabled person an active participant in your story.
  • Include image descriptions and trigger warnings, if needed.  Image descriptions are a short description of what a picture looks like so that those who are blind or visually impaired can access that content.  Trigger warnings are warnings at the beginning of the piece that content may be triggering for people who are victims of trauma or who have specific phobias.  Trigger warnings are not about “political correctness”.  They’re about giving people a chance to choose whether or not to read content that may actually cause them harm.  If image descriptions and/or trigger warnings are not included in your piece, the editors may add them.
  • Make sure your piece has a purpose.  Complaining is fine, but specific complaints and ranting are usually more suited for private groups than a public website.  What is the purpose of your piece?  To shed light on a specific diagnosis?  To show how someone accomplished something specific?  Keep your purpose in mind as you write and make sure that that purpose shines through.
  • Disability is difficult, but it’s not just difficult because of symptoms.  If your piece discusses how difficult it is to be disabled or to be a parent of a disabled person, keep in mind that environmental barriers can be much more disabling than biological symptoms, and include those barriers in your piece.  This is the essence of the social model of disability, which says that disability results from the interaction of a biological impairment (the diagnosis of cerebral palsy, autism, etc.) with environmental barriers.
  • Make sure you’re not using humor at someone else’s expense.  Humor is great, but not when you’re using it to put someone else down or make someone else feel like you’re making fun of them.  Make sure your humor is fun for all.
These guidelines were developed in conjunction with Carly Findlay of Tune Into Radio Carly, and Nora Ruth of A Heart Made Fullmetal.  These guidelines and demands are not to be used without crediting Cara Liebowitz and linking back to That Crazy Crippled Chick.


Unknown said...

Great work on this.

I will probably use these policies with a new site I'm developing and seeking survey input on at the moment.

Thanks for the work you put in.


Unknown said...

This is fantastic. Thank you, Cara. I still think that some things you take to be obvious are not well defined and can't be easily defined. Still, an excellent primer.

Lisa said...

One question and one suggestion really.

Question: In a couple of places you suggest hiring disabled people who specifically are not parents.

What happens if they have kids in the future?

Suggestion: I'd also add "handicapped" to the words that are disempowering.

Celebrating Phoenix said...

I love the majority of what you said.

Why is Special Needs offensive? It's a very common phrase in the area I love and never used in derogatory way.

thefrozenspring said...

I am not Cara, obviously, but the term is ableist, degrading, and dehumanising.

Anonymous said...

The area you love is clearly NOT disability rights, and is clearly NOT controlled by actual disabled people. It doesn't matter if YOUR little ray of sunshine doesn't use it in a derogatory fashion, because it is, overall, used to insult and dehumanize, regardless of YOUR completely irrelevant "area that you love".

Anonymous said...

Long overdue, and I have the distinct feeling that The Mighty will refuse to incorporate these demands. THEY get paid. Hell, THEY get government and foundational grants! Why shouldn't contributors get paid?

apulrang said...

Special Needs is a euphemism made up and pushed mostly by non-disabled people, especially in education. It's another well-meaning effort that is wrong-headed in its conception. "Disability" is the most widely accepted and widely applicable word to fit the entire diverse community of people with disabilities. And there's nothing negative about the word, for most of us who have a disability. Also, because of its origins, the term Special Needs has a very childish, condescending feel to it. That is why we view it as "ableist, degrading, and dehumanizing." That said, there are some disabled folks who use the term, and others like it, because they do view "disability" as a negative term. And as I say, professionals use it a lot, so it's not surprising that you might think Special Needs is the right term ... you've probably been told so by others.

Celebrating Phoenix said...

It was supposed to read "area that I LIVE". But wow. Angry much? I was asking a genuine question to gain knowledge and understanding. Insulting those seeking to understand is not the best way to teach. For future reference.

Anonymous said...

All humans have needs, and those needs vary. Some people need to eat meat and some people need to eat vegan. Some people need help fixing their cars and some people need help going to the bathroom. If disabled people are human, then why are our needs called "Special"?

David Gillon said...

Celebrating Phoenix, "Special Needs" is denormalising. It says "you aren't normal", it encourages people to view us as somehow less. It is derogatory through its very existence. And when we get attitudes like that thrown in our face, day in, day out, then shouldn't we be angry? Shouldn't we challenge it wherever we find it, but most especially within our own community?

And if disabled people are angry, then shouldn't your first reaction be to try to understand why, rather than to engage in tone policing? For future reference.

And another great post, Cara!

Dora C. said...

Hi, just wanted to say that I found your blog on Google (in case you're wondering how some stranger randomly got here) while Googling about The Mighty. My first piece to the site just got published, & much of how I ended up making a submission came about from the sentiments that surfaced after Meltdown Bingo. I said I could write if they'd allow for my less-than-picture-perfect experiences, of having both physical and mental conditions for which The Mighty claims they are looking for.

Must say I do agree with some of your points raised in this post - especially the part abt paying for per published article (mostly to show that they value their actual first-person-perspective contributers), & also what you said abt inspiration porn, appropriate/inappropriate humour, & the general "if you won't say/do this abt a non-disabled person, don't do it to a disabled person" sentiment.

Personally I would love to see more articles on actual issues (eg, according to a friend who volunteers with the deaf community, they often get jobs that are too low level compared to their educational level/skill set bcos companies do not provide a deaf-friendly work environment etc - like these people have diplomas and etc but are unable to do tasks that match that qualification bcos companies do not have measures to facilitate a deaf person working there ..) - that kind of real experiences, not some parent who thinks their child with some physical disability/limitation is "inspirational" for acquiring a degree (or something, off the top of my head & arbitrary.)

While completing university education is an accomplishment in its own right, a "disabled" person doing it doesn't make them "inspirational". It makes them just like every other non-disabled person with ambitions, wishes & dreams - & that little bit of extra resilience to cope in an environment that does not always favour their chances of success. Add to that extra dogged determination to prove that they are just as capable as their 'regular' friends .. ta-da! Success & accomplishment from a student who happens to have a disability.

(I hope I'm making sense, admittedly it is the wee hrs of the morning where I am as I type this ..)

- from the girl who earned her teaching diploma & completed high school without any special privileges on exams or physical ed. classes, in spite (or maybe because of, haha - dogged determination to be on equal footing remb?) of congenital hydrocephalus, x

(psst - link to article here: