Carrie Buck’s letters, and badly written narratives about them

Carrie Buck was the institutionalized plaintiff of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. In a case rigged against her, the Supreme Court upheld a 1924 sterilization law. The Virginia institution sterilized her, then later “paroled” her: they sent her to do poorly-paid housework for local families. For any arbitrary reason, the Colony could re-confine her. She repeatedly pressed for a full discharge, and eventually won it. These facts are not in dispute.

Dr. Paul A. Lombardo, an academic scholar on Buck v. Bell, writes about these facts in a recent Undark Magazine article. He presents some letters written by Buck during her “parole” and post-discharge period as an untold story. It is a disingenuous claim to say he is presenting a new angle on an untold story.

Buck’s story has been told many, many times, by journalists, historians, a film in 1994, and an upcoming film starring Dakota Johnson. And her letters are not undiscovered, her thoughts not wholly unknown: The letters have been around for years, in the state library of Virginia, and excerpted in journal articles and books. Yet he writes in the article: “We also now know that Buck left her own record.” Buck’s story is albeit being told in flawed ways:  the narrative of her being “mentally normal” as the reason it was wrong to sterilize her. It is a narrative that journalists and scholars have done little to correct, including Lombardo. In fact, he uses these letters to promote that narrative in his article.

And it is true that they have not been publicized in Internet articles such as Lombardo’s (that I could find). But to say that Buck’s thoughts have never been known before, to say that we just now know “Buck left her own record,” is to say that we did not know before that Buck had agency.  To use Buck’s letters to promote a narrative that fails to acknowledge that eugenicists used disability, real or not, as a reason to sterilize people – is also wrong. To use Buck’s letters as proof of “not disabled” meaning she shouldn’t have been sterilized is wrong. (Also, disabled people are often denied agency in a number of ways.)

It is not only insulting to disabled people, but it is also insulting to Carrie Buck and what she went through. Carrie Buck was sterilized under a government law by people who used public fear of disability and “defectiveness” to do it. It was not for people to claim “not disabled” was the one quality that made her sterilization wrong. It was not for people to deny her agency.

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Rewriting the Narrative on Psych Ward Abuse in Journalism

Psych Ward Reviews gained a new feature in January 2017: a news article repository of staff-on-patient abuse in hospital psychiatric wards. It is an ongoing effort, both of searches and a morbid set of daily Google Alerts with phrases such as “psychiatric patient abuse.” As part of my search process, I have read over about two hundred articles so far.

One thing of note was that many of the articles on staff-on-patient abuse I found were not in major publications. They were in local news outlets or smaller magazines. And as I knew, there are many failures of psychiatric wards as a crisis care model. These failures can involve staff-on-patient abuse, suicides, ill-maintained facilities, and Medicaid fraud. My focus here is how journalists cover abuse and other failures.

Journalists do so with a few different lines of thought. Many fail to address issues that come with psychiatric wards as the main method of crisis care. These problems include taking away patients’ rights and ability to make decisions. Instead, they discuss issues such as funding and staffing shortages, and overcrowding and bed shortages. However, the reasons for psych ward abuse are power dynamics and ableism.

The system requires institutionalization in secured wards away from the public. Patients then lose their rights (available in theory). The power shifts to doctors and staff, who make decisions about a patient. Many hospitals seek patients for profit. These are settings prone to abuse. We must build a stronger network of community-based crisis care, including peer respite centers and support. There must be meaningful oversight and accountability for any community care providers.

But why don’t journalists talk about creating alternatives to psych wards? The reasoning by many journalists is that shortages result in increased abuse and neglect of patients by staff. They then describe hospital failures as inevitable because of these shortages. But the psych ward system’s issues are structural, rather than wholly solvable with money. Journalists could instead talk about these structural failures. They could do so in many ways.

They could cite the various works around abuse in institutional settings, and question power imbalances. They could push for more accountability and data on abuse rates in articles. They could interview former patients, to see what community options they want. Depending on the size of their platform, they could craft a new crisis care narrative for the broader public. The narrative would present alternatives entrenched in community-based, rights-affirming crisis care.

 

2016 was lighting candles to mourn, but it was also carrying torches high

Year in Review: 2016

 Disability Rights, State of the Blogger, and Looking Ahead to 2017


  • Progress in 2016
    • #CripTheVote and disability on stage in U.S. politics
    • Disability Intersectionality Summit
    • Other moments in disability rights
  • State of the Blogger
    • Overview of the blogger’s 2016
    • Looking at, and valuing, disability and autistic history
    • Top five viewed posts and pages
    • Posts and pages that I liked but had fewer views
  • Looking Ahead
    • 2016 as an atypical year and the blogger’s plans for 2017
  • Conclusion

Progress 

#CripTheVote and disability on stage in U.S. politics

cripthevote-2

The logo of #CripTheVote, designed by Mike Mort. Blue text reads: #CripTheVote. There is graphic-design image of a voting ballot box with a ballot being dropped in. The ballot box has four blue squares, with line art in white of the standard wheelchair user disability icon, a brain, a pair of hands signing, and a person walking with a cane.

 

In 2016, Alice Wong (Disability Visibility Project, which chronicles disability stories), Andrew Pulrang (Disability Thinking blog and Center for Disability Rights), and Gregg Beratan started #CripTheVote, which is

a nonpartisan campaign to engage both voters and politicians in a productive discussion about disability issues in the United States, with the hope that Disability takes on greater prominence within the American political landscape. We hope to encourage people with disabilities to engage with the election at all levels from President on down, and to vote. We also want to hear candidates engage with disability policy issues and disabled people as much as possible.

They hosted Twitter chats, provided resources to disabled voters, and sparked a more organized engagement with politics from the disability community. It brought disability to the stage of politics in a major way, and enabled disabled people to have a central platform to organize around and put their resources and news.

Hillary Clinton released an autism plan and announced support of the Disability Integration Act after an autistic person stood up and asked if she supported it, leading to then-candidate Bernie Sanders co-sponsoring the bill. Then at the Democratic National Convention, a disabled person – disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza – took the stage. 2016 was the year, as Dylan Matthews writes, that disability rights broke through in national politics and disabled people became seen as a constituency by politicians.

Disability Intersectionality Summit

This year, the Disability Policy Consortium accepted proposals and held a Disability Intersectionality Summit. Presentations included topics on the intersections of being undocumented, being LGBTQ+, being a person of color, having mental health disabilities, on #DisabilityTooWhite – the hashtag and movement around the the disability community’s failure to represent racially diverse voices – and more. It was held in Boston on November 5.

Other moments in disability rights include: 

Disability rights groups struck a major blow to sheltered workshops.  Maryland voted to end subminimum wage. An investigation has finally opened into Illinois’ group homes for disabled people. A major Minnesota job provider for disabled people agreed to reform its hiring practices. Michigan banned non-emergency restraint and seclusion for disabled students. Georgia’s governor spoke in favor of Employment First policies for disabled people in Georgia.

The FDA finally put out a proposed rule for banning contingent electric shock devices like those used at the Judge Rotenberg Center. A major case involving a girl and her service dog went before the Supreme Court, and could open up an easier path for disabled students and their families to make schools comply with various laws. Litigation against Georgia’s substandard, segregated “education” system called GNETS for students with disabilities by the Department of Justice moved forward.


State of the Blogger

Overview of the blogger’s 2016

It was a hard year, like it was for many. I spent a serious amount of time dealing with badbrains. I wrote about the dehumanization of psychiatric wards here. I adopted a cat, though, so that makes up for a lot of things.

In terms of other advocacy, I continued volunteering for a non-profit’s social media that I have done since 2015. I also kept working for a non-profit that I been with since December and continued to blog. I began work on a great number of blogging projects like Autistic Community on Medium, and Welcome to the Autistic Community on Tumblr. I also ran Autistic History Month this year.

I also decided to turn my life experiences and history research into writings for publications and have published with the Establishment and the Deaf Poets Society on institutionalization and psychiatric wards, eugenics history and Buck v. Bell, and my experience with housing in college.

Looking at, and valuing, disabled and autistic history

In addition I have been working on my disability history/eugenics history blog more. I revamped my eugenics history 101 post into a downloadable PDF. and updated the resources list for that blog. I worry a lot about eugenics as a popular movement being back full force – it’s still here, in some areas and ways.

I also ran the Autistic History Month blog this year; a link compilation for autistic history can be found here and the posts for 2016 here. As Sarah Pripas-Kapit and I remarked in the closing post for Autistic History Month, history is essential to working for change today:

Thank you for furthering the knowledge of autistic history, and showing that we have a history. I am the first to admit that I don’t know everything about autistic history… Knowing history is vital, especially in this time of turmoil for many. Knowing autistic, and other disability history, is vital. If we don’t know how we organized and formed communities in the past, it’ll be harder to organize and sustain community now. -Kit Mead

It can be tempting to believe that history is an upwards trajectory, with things always getting better and better. Historians call this the “Whiggish view of history.”

Yet the Whiggish view of history oftentimes is not supported by evidence… While the past ten years has been a period of progress for the autistic community, I fear that we may be heading into a period of regression. As so many others have said, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is looking to be disastrous for people with disabilities. Like many of you, I am concerned about the months and years to come.

History tells us that civil rights are never a done deal. We have to work continually to uphold them.

But I hope that history can also provide hope. We are not the first generation of disabled people to face an ableist state and rollbacks of progress. By looking to the past, we can find a way forward during these turbulent times. -Sarah Pripas-Kapit

Top five viewed posts and pages

Posts and pages that I liked but had fewer views


Looking Ahead

2016 as an atypical year and the blogger’s plans for 2017 

Like s.e. smith says, 2016 was not normal and therefore, we should not allow ourselves to long for 2016 and make it a crowning glory of years that we look back to sometime in the middle of 2017 and go “well, things were so much better then!”

I really recommend reading the post by s.e. smith for how we cannot normalize 2016 because it wasn’t normal. We lost a lot in 2016 and our state of politics has steadily descended into even more chaos than usual. It’s not like I particularly look forward to the next several years’ potential events, but I will take a lot of pride in being alongside many other great activists, working to keep what progress we have made.

In 2017, I will continue to update my post-election resources page and continue my advocacy work, sharing and disseminating resources. I will continue to blog about the things that mattered before this election, and will blog on the things that matter more now because of the election.


Conclusion

2016 may have been holding candles up against a darkening sky in mourning, but it was also keeping candles lit and torches high against rain and darkness. We made a lot of progress in many different areas, and we also lost a lot – but we have faced dark times before, though never like this. We will work against the rapidly encroaching darkness of night to be lighthouses in the fog and darkness for many ships. Torches held high, we face 2017 and the years to come.

Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) Wrote Books and Had a Service Dog

carrie-fisher

[Image description: Three images related to Carrie Fisher. From left to right, Carrie Fisher wearing glasses and kneeling next to her service dog, the French Bulldog Gary, at a red carpet event; Carrie Fisher dressed in white as Princess Leia with her iconic hair buns, surrounded by Stormtroopers; and Carrie Fisher’s book Wishful Drinking, which has her name, the title, and an image of Carrie Fisher with hair buns facedown on a table with a martini glass in her hand.]

In high school, it was mentioned to me in passing by someone that Carrie Fisher, whom I knew as Princess Leia, had bipolar disorder.

I shrugged, and said, “Oh, okay.” She was still Princess Leia.

Sure, depressive episodes and generalized anxiety made up a majority of my days, a damp humid cloak like the Georgia summers I liked to wander down the streets in – alone. An autistic, depressed, anxious wreck, isolated and considered socially unacceptable. But Carrie Fisher was just Princess Leia, right?

I never thought she meant much to me besides her role in Star Wars until a short while ago. In college, I became invested in disability rights and later, after my first and second hospitalizations in a psych ward, mental health rights as well. Each discharge from the hospital read that I had major depressive disorder, not bipolar disorder. Each hospital had only seen me for suicidality. They didn’t see the times I felt higher than the hills I once wanted to die on, and faster than the too-fast DC Metro trains. I find the Metro a relatable metaphor. I too sometimes go too fast, experience frequent malfunctions, and occasionally derail.

But I find her more than a relatable metaphor. Carrie Fisher was a bipolar person who dealt with substance abuse issues. She was often considered socially unacceptable. She openly spoke about her mental health disability, and substance abuse issues (which were in part an attempt to keep her manic episodes in check). She was open about her dog Gary’s role as a service animal and took him to public events. And she was also the actress who played Princess Leia, a mother, an author, and a script doctor who edited scripts.

She was Princess Leia, and she was also an outspoken mental health advocate.

I owe her a lot.

For talking about about everything in the open. For being Princess Leia but also someone who employed a great number of coping strategies for her mental health, and talked about them. For sometimes being considered socially unacceptable.

For showing me that she, Carrie Fisher – Princess Leia – was as outspoken in real life as she was on screen. For showing me that it’s possible to be vocal about personal struggles and what you don’t like – and what is good – about your brain and yourself.

Autistic Unemployment: False Solutions and the Tech Industry Narrative

A Response to the WIRED Article “Autistic People Can Solve Our Cybersecurity Crisis” by Kevin Pelphrey

I have a familial connection who used to work for a medical technology company. Her then-supervisor knew I’m autistic. Then-supervisor would ask familial connection if there was a way to get me involved with the company. Familial connection would inform then-supervisor that autistics were not all the same: that I was not, in fact, a software programmer and also could not read code at superspeed and catch errors. Repeat cycle several times.

(I am good with social media, perhaps. But I can barely scrape together rudimentary HTML to put jump links on the Resources page for this blog, and it took hours of Googling and many failed attempts. I can’t write CSS. I can’t write JavaScript. I can’t design webpages or websites.)

There is nothing wrong with autistics who are good or excel at coding and software programming and technology and mechanical things. Autistics who are good at those things definitely exist. There are many things wrong with assuming all autistics are the same, that we all have the innate ability to be computer, mechanical, and software geniuses. To take it a step further: it is also wrong to assume that autistic people are valuable because of a handful of us do possess that kind of technological and mechanical ability.  

(…We’re people and have a wide array of skillsets and interests, and some of us are really good at computers, like some non-autistic people are!)

Those things are what is wrong with the WIRED article “Autistic People Can Solve Our Cybersecurity Crisis,” along with many other direct messages and subtle implications (including a not-so-pleasant quote referring to autistic children growing up as “the coming tsunami of adults with autism”).

Author Kevin Pelphrey, director of the George Washington University’s autism research institute, argues that we can fix the 70-90% unemployment rate for autistics by hiring us in the cybersecurity industry. He further argues that the this industry has a shortage of labor, so hiring us would fix that problem. His main evidence behind this argument seems to be the fact of Alan Turing’s existence.

In his argument, he utterly dismisses autistics with intellectual and/or other cognitive disabilities as having worth by writing, “At the same time, more than three-quarters of cognitively able individuals with autism have aptitudes and interests that make them well suited to cybersecurity careers. These include being very analytical and detail-oriented as well as honest and respectful of rules.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with unpacking the ableism toward autistic people, especially autistics with cognitive and/or intellectual disabilities, in that quote. It employs a number of tropes, reminiscent of the film Rain Man and common literary tropes. Lastly, he simplifies the solution to a complex issue around employment the cybersecurity industry hiring “cognitively able” autistic people.

Since only some of us are good at tech and we are not, in fact, all Alan Turing, this proposed solution will result in employment for far fewer people than Pelphrey envisions. This is a grievous disservice to autistic people, many of whom are struggling to find employment – and quite often in fields other than tech. This article tells employers that autistic people are only good at tech. It tells the general public that our only redeeming quality is being good at tech, and that we are only worth something if we stop the “monumental waste of human talent.”

The author heads a research institute on autism, but rather distressingly, cannot seem to move past a trope that all autistic people should be employed in tech. Our skillsets and interests are as varied and diverse as autistic people’s traits are. If we want employment, we should receive support to work where we want to. We should receive support to engage in our interests. Our contributions are valuable, regardless of whether they are in the workplace.

The solution to the unemployment rates lies not with increasing supported employment to only one industry. Whether it is through a government vocational program or an autistic youth’s transition planning in school for adulthood or a disability advocacy group, it lies with increasing support for us to do what we want to do.

How the Media and Society Objectify Disabled People

Introduction: Inspiration Porn 

The most recent example of inspiration porn has crossed my Twitter feed. It is that a Florida State University college football player sat down and had lunch with an autistic boy in a cafeteria. The story got picked up by the New York Times. I don’t fault the college football player very much, if it all (but I hope he asked the autistic student if the company would be welcome). The football player probably just saw a person likely excluded by classmates. He wanted to make sure the student was not alone. At worst, there is the element of pity involved, but the act itself was not ill-intended.

I do fault the Internet and the news media. We, disabled people, see these types of things spread like wildfire, time and time again:

  • A disabled person does something that a non-disabled person does, which often plays into the “supercrip” media model of disability
  • A non-disabled person treats a disabled person with kindness.
  • A non-disabled person helps a disabled person (whether the disabled person asked for help or not).

Two examples are the way the Internet took hold of the autistic store employee decorating a cake, and the employee at a Kentucky Qdoba helping a physically disabled woman eat when she asked for assistance. In the age of easy access to recording devices and uploads to YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms, these stories attain a viral ferocity. Journalists pick up on the fact that the video or story is trending across social media. News articles about the story crop up, fueling its spread even further.

We Could Be Next: The Risk of Being Filmed

The effects of these viral stories are quite damaging, even when one does not go to the most extreme consequences. Any one of us could be the next story by asking for help, or getting help even if we don’t want it. Since the conductor announcements of what train is approaching are hard to hear, a  blind person asks a subway stationmaster to help them get on the right train. An autistic person has a shutdown. Their friend helps them retreat to a quiet location without fanfare at the scene. A wheelchair user faces a curb cut, and they decide to complain to the city after finding another route. But a stranger rushes over anyway and helps get them over the curb cut. Someone could film any one of these situations and unleash the tidal wave of feel-good comments, shares, and news stories.

We are all too aware of the risk of being filmed for someone’s feel-good story (or for someone to mock, but that could be another post). We already face enormous pressure to not ask for help – to be the “supercrip” and “overcome” our disabilities – and the risk of being a viral story is yet another reason we might avoid asking for help when we need it.

Inspiration Porn Hides Key Issues

Inspiration porn also hides key social and policy issues. In “Inspiration Porn Further Disables the Disabled,” David Perry writes of these kinds of stories, “[the stories] all feature people doing good things. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the content of these stories, of course, but the way they’re told conceals the real issues faced by the disability community… Inspiration porn makes us feel that everything is going to be OK.” Perry also wonders: Why isn’t the state of Kentucky providing community-based supports to the wheelchair user at Qdoba, so she doesn’t have to rely on strangers to help?

In the case of the autistic boy eating alone at school that we started off this post with, why has the school failed to model social inclusion? What about the scenario of the blind person asking for help getting on the correct train – why aren’t conductor announcements for arriving trains distinct and clear? And for the wheelchair user facing the curb cut – why is there a curb cut to begin with?

The Destruction of Privacy

They also destroy our right to privacy. As one writer in the blog post “Deprivation of privacy and other thoughts” points out, “persistently violating someone’s privacy over time also just establishes a standard (to both that person and everyone around them) that it’s acceptable to persistently violate their privacy over time.” Even if we haven’t had our privacy eroded over time, often journalists publish our names, even if the original poster of the video or story did not. Everyone now knows us as “the person in that inspirational video,” and the person helping as our hero. The instantaneous destruction of privacy tells society that it is acceptable to sacrifice our privacy to make a feel-good news story, and to do it to any disabled person… over and over again.

How It’s Toxic for Us

Finally, we notice when we get objectified as inspiration porn. We feel objectified. It is toxic. Being objectified hurts our self-image and mental health. It erodes our ability to feel safe and like we can have even some privacy. It hampers our ability to set boundaries around privacy. It makes us feel like we have no control over our life and story. We notice, and it hurts in more ways than one.

Conclusion: The Vicious Cycle 

And of course, the way these viral stories get reported and commented on further a vicious cycle, encompassed in the following:

  1. We (disabled people) get seen as other – less than human, or a lower level of human.
  2. Because we are other, acts of kindness toward us seem newsworthy. We are not real people, after all. We are other. Kindness toward unpeople is as newsworthy as large-scale natural disasters and transportation accidents.
  3. The writers of these news stories objectify us. We are pity objects and have no agency. We exist to make people feel good about their deeds. We reach the bare minimum of humanity, if we are human at all. They make us seem other by teaching people that it’s a miracle anyone is nice to us at all.
  4. We get seen as other. Kindness toward us is newsworthy. We get objectified. People learn that being nice to us is miraculous. We get seen as other… 

But we are here and human. We can tell our own stories, if anyone bothers to ask. If no one asks, we tell them anyway. We can be our own advocates, and we can also be activists and writers and professionals. The Developmental Disabilities Act says “disability is a natural part of human experience,” and this is true. It is past time that non-disabled people get accustomed to seeing disabled people in their midst as normal rather than as a news story.

 

I Fear for My Fellow Autistic People: On Media Misrepresentation

Recently, a piece appeared in a major news outlet. The main premise of the article described a mother’s fear that her autistic teenage son will kill her, her other son’s wish that his brother would die, and the lack of respite services where she lives. It was a very personal piece. This article more than irks me; it plays into very dangerous stereotypes. It plays into the idea that autistic people are inherently dangerous, that we are burdens. And dangerous stereotypes in the media, whether in fiction or opinion pieces or livetweeting an autistic person’s meltdowns have real life consequences.  

First, let’s talk about autism and violence.

Autistic people have many dangerous stereotypes about violence, particularly mass shootings (the idea that we are likely to be perpetrators) surrounding us; the mass shooting one is false. However, when individually aggressive, we usually have an outside stressor. When I was in school before college, it was people touching me; the overwhelming sensory overload; the frustration of not being able to put words to all my feelings; and the constant wear and tear of terrifying social interactions and bullying. I was flailing hands, panic attacks and tears, bolting down the hall, and slapping anyone who touched me. Fortunately for me, I was not considered intimidating and dangerous for a variety of reasons, just in need of more support. 

But continual aggression is usually a sign that something is very stressful. This is a checklist that can help identify those sources. Tumblr user Lysikan, a non-speaking autistic person, has created a set of posts that can help reduce meltdowns – one of the primary times an autistic person can become aggressive while overloaded and panicked.

Next, let’s talk about her other son’s hatred and death wish for his brother, and media narratives surrounding autism, disability, and our murders.

And also what I fear almost more than anything, the murder of another autistic or disabled person by their caregivers or family members. Let’s talk about filicide. Let’s talk about how the same story occurs over and over again. A disabled person is murdered by a caregiver or family member. The media picks up the story. Sometimes they report on it as a mercy killing. They almost always talk about the burden of caring for a disabled person. The victim is a throwaway in their own story. Many people have already explained this in countless blog posts. It should be beating a dead horse, but it’s really not. Many people act on their wishes. I have heard of far less, if any, killings of caregivers by autistic people than killings of autistic people by caregivers. This is why I fear the death of autistic people at the hands of caregivers and family members far, far more.  

Finally, let’s talk about responsible journalism, disabled people’s right to privacy – and real life consequences.

I will absolutely agree that there is a need for more respite services. I will absolutely agree that more services need to happen! But there are frankly better ways to deal with this than publicly posting in a major news outlet the intimate details of an autistic person’s personal life. There are better ways to deal with this than to promote dangerous stigma. There are private actions that could be taken that would protect the autistic person’s confidentiality and not promote stigma.

One is to actively work to reduce the autistic person’s meltdowns using the strategies linked above. Another, if this resource is accessible, is to see a professional about your feelings of stress or anxiety. And – these kinds of stories are not isolated. They are patterns; “autism parents” routinely post in and on public spaces and blogs intimate details of their child’s life and how miserable their child makes them.

This is extremely dangerous for autistic people.  First, it effectively outs them to the world, and could make it impossible for them to do things without people realizing it and judging. Second, it directly leads to real life consequences. Elizabeth Bartmess notes in “Autistic Representation and Real Life Consequences” that

This is shown in several similar ways in fiction and in real life. Autistic people are represented as burdens on others, particularly their families, when they embarrass neurotypical siblings or have greater support needs. This is more common for characters written to “low-functioning” stereotypes…. In real life, we are presented as burdens as well… This has consequences. At the extreme end, media or other parents justify parents murdering autistic children. Abuse is common, by friends, people on the street, caregivers, and others such as paid service providers, foster care providers, and transportation providers. In general, people with developmental disabilities have drastically higher rates of abuse; abusers may target autistic individuals…

The Pacific Alliance on Disability Self Advocacy (PADSA) resource guide on media misrepresentation states, “Even when people don’t directly cite these stories, they seep into culture. People form their opinions and take their actions based on prejudices.”

Both the autistic teenager’s mother and this major news outlet had a responsibility to autistic people to report in a way that does not increase stigma and cause more consequences for autistic people. They chose the stigmatizing, stereotyped, and dangerous way of talking about autism. I am afraid of these stories and will continue to speak out against them. I am not afraid for myself, but for all my autistic brethren living in dangerous situations. I think of all the people that may make harmful or fatal choices because of this irresponsible news story and fear for all my autistic and disabled brethren.

Additional Resources

On Disabled People’s Right to Privacy (Especially Those With Caregivers) and Media Misrepresentations

On Responsible Reporting and How to Respond to Media Narratives of Disabled People

For Parents on Autism Acceptance, Meltdowns, and Aggression

On Filicide

Other Articles Related To This

Me Before Ableism

This post is loosely tied to the new film Me Before You. It is a story of me before ableism (#MeBeforeAbleism– a hashtag that sprang up in response. But in some ways, this post has nothing at all to do with the film, insofar as it does not talk directly about it. There’s a good article here by Emily Ladau if you need a primer on Me Before You.

.  .  .

Me before ableism: not pure. Not innocent. Certainly not. But I moved through the world for quite a while not really caring how other people thought of me. I was happy to be alone, digging in the dirt with a stick and creating rich tales of a city for ants – and building it in the old roots of the pine trees with raisin boxes. Yes, I knew I was different. I had received the diagnosis of ADHD in the first grade. To me, all that meant was that things were vivid and bright and I could move fast and talk fast. It meant that I could create the most beautiful stories and sit at my desk at home and write story after story about Tabby the brown tabby spy cat. At 14, I was diagnosed as autistic.

I am not sure when not caring what people thought about me and how they treated me and how they told me I was weird changed. Maybe it was in the third grade, when I had sensory issues about sitting next to my best friend’s much younger sister and did not know how to say it properly before I had a small meltdown. My best friend’s parents shunned me for the duration of our friendship. Maybe it was sometime in elementary school when someone sneered at me, “I heard you have a behavior chart.”

I am not sure when I started trying to stop being myself and started trying to be impossibly good. This made me feel even more broken because I didn’t know how to be the “behaviorally perfect” child. School constantly overwhelmed me through much of my life – the loud and jam-packed hallways, the jeering students, the constant not having room to breathe, the bullying. The only places I found true refuge was in the art teacher’s classroom and sometimes in other teachers’ classrooms. I never understood why I couldn’t just stop interrupting in class, why I couldn’t stop lashing out at people who touched me, why everything was too loud and and impossibly crowded for me. I knew I sometimes scared people and that everything I did was fodder for cruelty. I set a bar too high for myself.

.  .  .

I never went through any abusive therapies. I still learned that the way I moved through the world was wrong to people. I still learned that I was too difficult. The kid on behavior charts at school. The kid who freaked out at everything. The kid who lashed out with little to no provocation. To the kids at school, slurs.

Despite, for some period of time, making efforts at this – I never stopped looking visibly disabled in some way. Now I have come into autistic culture and community and the broader neurodiversity and disability rights community, and I am trying to unlearn the damage ableism has done with the help of friends and community.

Already I am less ashamed of being visibly different. Already I am less ashamed of not ever being able to hide. Already I am learning how to help others with the same feelings of shame.

Already, I know (even though I thought I knew already) that I am undeniably – and not regrettably or tragically, but proudly – Autistic and disabled.

Using People with Mental Illness as Clickbait Hurts Us

Bad articles on the problems we face can hurt and kill people. Write better.

Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.
I have been on medication for a long time, first for ADHD, then anxiety, then depression. I have intermittently had periods of wanting to die since age 14. My most recent full-blown crisis landed me in the hospital. It was not a question for my friends whether they still wanted me alive, even as I lay bare every problem and feeling I was having. They wanted me alive.
Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.

Evidence suggests that there is an increase in suicides following media reports of suicide, which is frequently referred to as copycat behaviour or as the Werther effect… The risk is thought to depend not only on reader characteristics,2,3 but also on media content. 35 


While the author of a certain xoJane article did not report the person’s death as a suicide, she left open the implication with a “supposedly” and the method of “supposed” death. She wrote an article that openly told us what we should do and tried to tell us how much she thought our lives were worth. It was a grim reminder of some people’s mindsets, but we do not have to bow to her desires.
With that knowledge, writers, know you are writing about people who deserved to be alive, and your audience are people who deserve to be alive, and your audience includes people who may already be prone to suicidal ideation. You are responsible for encouraging us to die if you write a sensationalized drama with explicit details. That is not a thing to take lightly or relish. It is a thing to make you hold yourselves accountable in your writing.
Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.
What do we do instead? What do I do instead? My friend wrote on how to talk about suicide, and about taking care of ourselves and each other in advocacy-based communities, which see a lot of burnout and stress. We should demand that people write more responsibly, as per what my friend gathered information on. We should take care of each other when they don’t. I will try to stop writing so much about things when I’m off work. We should set healthy boundaries for each other but still show support.  

And writers should stop writing sensationalized dramas about mental illness, regardless of whether it’s about suicide. Writers of all kinds, this applies to you. These are our stories and our lives, and we want them respected by all, not showcased as some kind warning story, some kind of pity-narrative, some kind of revenge-story, some kind of sensationalized odd horror feature story. You can hurt people. Take some accountability. 
Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.

People with Mental Illness Deserve to be Alive

Originally published on Medium

XoJane recently published an article about someone with schizoaffective disorder’s death being a blessing. Outrage ensued. The author’s name became anonymous. The editors of xoJane, at least temporarily, locked their Twitter profiles, then released this apology:

Screencap of: “I apologize for an article that was posted here yesterday, entitled “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing.” I deeply regret the hurt that this article has caused and understand that it has perpetuated stigma and diminished the lives of people with mental illness. I am committed to immediately reviewing our vetting process to ensure that this experience has a positive influence on the ways in which we at xoJane present all women going forward. I appreciate all of you who took the time to let us know how you felt about this issue.”

I will not link to the archived version of the article right now. I would like to focus on what happens when you write about these topics like that. When you write that it’s better that people with mental health needs — especially people with particularly shunned diagnoses — die, this is what I know about you: I do not trust you with anyone. And I do not trust anyone who would post such a thing. I do not know the motivation of an editor allowing it to be posted. There are a multitude of reasons people have suggested, most of them related to increasing page hits and profit. A lot of people already think our lives have no value. They will continue to visit the page. Or, people outside the disability rights/mental health communities will not hear about it.

What happens when you write this way is a lot. It first of all tells people with mental illness — and again especially those with more shunned diagnoses — that people think we’re better off dead. It confirms some of our worst fears, our darkest, deepest worries. I do not think there is any data on this, but I suspect this way of writing about us encourages people to kill themselves.

It also presumes to know what the person with mental illness would have wanted. It presumes that we always think of ourselves as shells, better off dead, and that our suffering will always outweigh our right and desire to live. And indeed, some of us do feel that we are suffering a lot, and/or have suicidal ideation. I spent time in a hospital this January to prevent a suicide attempt! But writing that you know they’d be happy with the way they died and that being dead is better for them perpetuates in a very active way negative self-value and more fear and more, “Well, no one will miss me if I die.”

Then, it reinforces the narrative to other people, casual readers, that we are miserable, soulless unpeople. That with how uncomfortable we make people, we ought to be dead. Like I’ve mentioned in other pieces, we are at best inconvenient and uncomfortable to people. People are allowed to be uncomfortable with actions and statements, and assert boundaries — I have said awkward things to people in episodes of my cyclical mental illness and done my share of sometimes screwing up — but to capitalize off it and further the idea that we’re inherently bad and wrong and unpeople is unethical.