A history of progressive ableism that remains today

For clarity: I know that other progressive activists do great work. This is an anti-ableism post. It should be interpreted in this manner rather than as anti-progressive. 

Introduction

Too often, progressives use ableism to accomplish their goals. I do not mean just using some words that many disabled people consider offensive.  I mean things like advocating for ableist gun reform laws. I also mean things like attributing people’s worst traits to mental health disabilities, like people do with Trump.

In the 20th century, progressives gained momentum. Progressives of this time were not the same as they are today, but the ableism is still around.  Then, the cause to rally around was eugenics. I am providing eugenics as a historical example of progressive ableism – and will point out how it still lurks in undertows of thought.

Historical example: The early 20th century and Progressive Era eugenics

Eugenics was a movement that gained some level of popularity in the early 20th century (and still continues in modern forms today). Supporters of eugenics wanted to prevent the procreation of the “unfit” and promote “better breeding.” Eugenics was popular with progressives, including reformers and activists, of the early 20th century.

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), intended to serve as a hub for American eugenics research, was financed at one point by the Carnegie Institution. Teddy Roosevelt once wrote a letter to eugenicist Charles Davenport of the ERO about “degenerates” that said:

Farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… Someday we will realize that the prime duty… of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.

A reformer included Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist known for being the first woman to run for president (in 1872). Another was inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Several groups of feminist reformers, including the National League of Women Voters, had eugenics-based legal reform as part of their goals.

Stop making me have to defend insidious people from ableism

Bigoted actions and words from Trump are the result of bigotry. And bigotry is not a mental health disability, though people with mental health disabilities can also be bigots. We are people and vary in thoughts and opinions. But I’d really like prominent progressive activists to acknowledge this and stop making the case for Trump being crazy. That way, people with mental health disabilities won’t face as much ableism. And I won’t have to keep defending insidious people from ableism. 

I defend even people I loathe from ableism because public figure he may be, but attributing bigotry to disability hurts all people with mental health disabilities. And I do it also because when progressives pull out the “But no sane person would do that!” or “Trump is crazy!” lines, this is what they are saying:

Only crazy people can be responsible for such vile acts.

It’s the line of thinking that mental health disability must be responsible for acts society can’t explain, acts society considers terrible. The unintentional undertones of this speak of eugenics to me. Eugenicists of the past posited that many people, especially marginalized people, had increased rates of poverty and crime due to mental and moral “deficits.”

Today, mental health is blamed for everything, from mass shootings to having a poor moral compass – and Donald Trump’s actions and bigotry. Right-wingers and the GOP are the party of eugenics themselves, for sure, and I find that loathsome. But progressives should stop blaming mental health as they oppose damaging policies and actions.  

Related Posts:

Stop Telling Disabled People We Can Do Anything by Force of Will

Trying to Do What I Simply Could Not

On Monday, October 10, I accidentally gave myself a concussion. It was not glamorous as people would have you believe; I concussed myself on a wall of all things. I collected myself, went to work, and then work convinced me to go to urgent care after a persistent headache for three hours.

That is what I remember of Monday. It’s a really great thing that they gave me super detailed discharge instructions, because I remember almost nothing of being seen at the urgent care place. I don’t really remember Tuesday, but I’m pretty sure I slept for most of it. On Wednesday I went to therapy and to a psychiatry appointment to get my ADHD and other psych meds. I don’t remember much of what was said during either of them. I do remember not being able to sleep more than six and a half hours in two days.

Since Wednesday, I have been trying to work. I did manage to do some things on Thursday, but not as much as I would have liked (and it took me five or six hours to do one task). Apart from that brief time on Thursday, I have not written anything longer than a paragraph and besides informal communication, or done anything requiring more than two steps (in this case, opening the Google Doc! And then translating my thoughts into words). I haven’t been able to update my Psych Ward Reviews page with categories and tags, edit a draft of an article for a multimedia outlet, or figure out how to microwave anything that requires you to microwave it in two steps.

This is not for lack of trying. I have sat in front of the computer for hours, opening Google Docs and work related items. But whenever I tried to focus, everything coherent disappeared and many different things bounced around my brain. My brain simply hasn’t been able to connect the dots. Executive dysfunction, which I already have a difficult time with, has been several times more intense.

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How to keep a heating pad on your head: Wrap a scarf around your entire self, basically. Begin image description: Kit, a white nonbinary person with tortoiseshell glasses, propped on a colorful blanket. Kit’s hair is mostly covered by a scarf to hold a heating pad in place. End image description.

Stop Telling Us We Can Do Anything

So, this is in fact a disability post (the discussion of temporary disability as a thing is complicated, so I’m not going to go into that. But some people do end up disabled from post-concussion effects that can last for a really long time). But my main point is that force of will isn’t enough to “overcome” sometimes. Multiple disabled people have talked about how “you can put anything you set your mind to!” is damaging for disabled people.

As Real Social Skills notes in the blog post “You can do more when you remember that you’re disabled,” when people assume others have the same cognitive and physical abilities, “This often leads to the assumption that people who aren’t doing a task either haven’t been told what to do, or aren’t sufficiently motivated to do it.” I internalized this – I kept sitting there for hours, berating myself for not being able to do things I usually could. When I ran out of ADHD meds once, I did the same thing.

A fellow disabled person, Ruti Regan, recently introduced me to the book “Can I Play Too?” It’s a children’s book, but it really illustrates one of my points – in this case, the snake wants to play catch with an elephant and a pig. The elephant and the pig aren’t sure how to include the snake. The snake has no arms or legs to play catch the traditional way, and (ironically to me at the moment) ends up with the ball bouncing off its head painfully several times before wanting to give up. But then the trio comes up with an idea to use the snake as the “ball” to toss back and forth, and everyone gets to participate.

It’s important to remember that disabled people have different physical and cognitive ways of being, and that we shouldn’t have to “overcome” our disability to be meaningfully included – and no, we can’t “overcome” things just by “putting our minds to it.”

Autistics in Mental Health Crisis (third in a series)

Autistics in Crisis Part Three: Stop Mishandling First Interactions with People in Crisis

Even if we had the best resources for Autistics to access, mental health crises in Autistic people will still sometimes occur, and there will still be situations where a non-crisis gets reported to authorities as such. I feel fortunate. My experiences, particularly at GW, were not ideal. But I did not have forcible intervention from authorities. I feel fortunate because even though I am at lower risk of injury from crisis intervention teams (as I am white), forcible admission to a psych hospital (also known as, you know, forced institutionalization, whether short term or long term) is probably doubly traumatic.

I want to talk about a couple of things in this post:

  • How crisis intervention often goes wrong in regards to the police, and the disproportionate risk that autistics of color (with and without mental health disabilities) face here, along with autistics of other marginalized groups
  • Some steps to improve the first interactions by police and first responders with autistic people in crisis, both policy and otherwise

How First Interactions with Autistics in Crisis Go Wrong

For Arnaldo Rios-Soto, an autistic Latino young man now institutionalized in Carlton Palms because the state of Florida fails to provide enough community supports to its disabled community members, even playing with a toy truck in the street resulted in a person calling 911 to report Rios-Soto being suicidal and a threat. The police shot and injured his black therapist, Charles Kinsey, and then claimed they meant to shoot Rios-Soto. The police responded to the scene of an alleged mental health crisis involving black and brown people, and shot Charles Kinsey.

As Autistic activists of color Lydia Brown, Finn Gardiner, and Manuel Díaz wrote for Sojourners:…Whether the officer was actually aiming for Kinsey or Rios-Soto, he has become part of a national pattern. Disabled people represent between one-third and one-half of all people killed by police. Black and brown people are extremely disproportionately likely to die in police-involved shootings… If you’re black or brown and disabled, your likelihood of being targeted by police only increases.”

When I asked Timotheus Gordon, Jr., who in his own words is  “an autistic African-American blogger, writer, event photographer and self-advocate in Chicago” what he felt when he heard what the police said about aiming for Rios-Soto, Gordon told me: “…the fact that the police tried to shoot Rios-Soto instead of Kinsey confirms my fear of walking on the street as an autistic person of color… Disabled people of color can play with a red toy truck, calm down from a meltdown, or rollerblade peacefully on the block and still get harassed by people.”

Finn Gardiner, who co-authored the Sojourners piece, added: “The issue of police violence is compounded if you belong to more than one marginalised community. For example, if you’re an autistic, trans person of colour, the combined effects of racism, transphobia and ableism will make you even more at risk for harm… You may have your identity completely erased. People may only see your race and not your gender identity or your disability.”

Crisis intervention also went wrong in the case of Kayden Clarke, a trans man in Mesa, Arizona. Denied a recommendation for hormone replacement therapy by his therapist because of an Asperger’s diagnosis (placing him on the autism spectrum), he became suicidal. In early 2016, after receiving a report from a worried person, the police arrived at his apartment – and shot Clarke, killing him. The police knew Clarke had an Asperger’s diagnosis.

And in February 2012, Chicago-area police shot and killed Stephon Watts, a Black Autistic teenager as he panicked while holding a knife. I wrote in February 2016 (on my previous blog), “…the police had shown up to “subdue” him…. many, many times in the past. To have had such encounters with the police, which were undoubtedly physical in nature, would be traumatizing.  Even if Watts had not been panicking in the first place, to lash out from fear of being “subdued” again is the result of a fight or flight response… As a Black Autistic, Watts faced multiple marginalization from society, with ableism and racism as a reaction that killed him.” The police knew Watts was Autistic.

And the New York Times recently reported that the NYPD uses “restraining bags” for arrests and crisis intervention, particularly in situations involving those with mental health disabilities – as the Times noted, “the bags are used to restrain those judged to be emotionally disturbed.”

These are just a few examples of the way police handle crises. 

What Are the Solutions?

Like Brown, Gardiner and Díaz, Gordon notes which people are often the targets of such harassment and police shootings: “I also dislike [the] repetitive connection between police violence and victims being disabled people of color.” Gordon went to say what he thinks is a solution to police shootings and mishandling of crisis intervention: “I want racial justice and disability rights/justice organizations to collaborate…  The collaboration MUST include organizers and activists in the disability community and ensure that actions are accessible to all participants.” Gardiner agreed with Gordon on the need for collaboration.

In terms of policy work that advocates can work for, a broad measure for police accountability overall as opposed to just crisis handling is H.R. 2302, the Police Training and Independent Review Act, which would cover comprehensive reform – not just police training on disability and racial/ethnic bias, which many of the officers involved in shootings receive – it also requires states to appoint independent prosecutors to investigate and prosecute police-involved shootings before receiving certain federal funding.

More specifically, we also need to create mobile crisis teams that aren’t police. 911 operators can dispatch those teams instead of law enforcement. Gardiner told me that crisis teams that know how to “engage with marginalised populations” are vital.

Gardiner also recommended the creation of “comprehensive peer and community-based supports that take into account the effects of marginalisation.” He also recommended “peer support like… warm lines*, advocating for comprehensive, long-term training for law enforcement, [and] encouraging police departments to hire people who are aware of racial justice issues.”

*Warm lines are like hotlines people having a hard time can call when they are not yet in crisis and need someone to talk to. I elaborate on them in Part Two of this series. 

. . .

This is the third out of a series of posts.

About the Interviewees

Timotheus Gordon, Jr., also known as Pharaoh Inkabuss, is (in his own words), an autistic African-American blogger, writer, event photographer and self-advocate in Chicago. He is the creator of “The Black Autist”, a blog that emphasizes autism/disability acceptance among people of color, including people in the black community. Gordon is a first year Ph.D student at University of Illinois-Chicago, pursuing a degree in disability studies. Follow his Tumblr blog for updates: http://blackautist.tumblr.com/

Finn Gardiner is a Black, queer, Autistic advocate and activist in the Boston area. He currently works for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) as their Boston Community Coordinator, leads the ASAN Greater Boston chapter, and previously worked for the Institute for Community Inclusion as a Gopen Fellow. He has a B.A. in sociology from Tufts University and is currently a public policy masters student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Follow his blog for updates: http://expectedly.org/blog/ 

Autistics in Mental Health Crisis (second in a series)

Autistics in Crisis Part Two: Crisis Aversion or Resources We Need

But knowing all those things I talked about in part one would not have kept me out of their ERs (preventing the crises in the first place). Knowing all those things would not solve the systemic issues contributing to crises. There are a lot of reasons Autistic people have crises. Quality of care if accessed, past or current trauma, isolation, a lack of community mental health resources, and other systemic barriers – often alongside co-occurring mental health diagnoses – combine to put people in crisis mode.

Both access to and quality of mental health care are issues for Autistic people. Many of the Autistic people who do access mental health care have reported pressure to “treat” their autism, and other mistreatment by mental health professionals. Even among professionals who do not seek to “fix” autism, Autistics’ distinct and various methods of expressing emotion and language can leave unprepared professionals at a loss and Autistic patients frustrated. There are also other factors. Some have difficulty navigating the health care system and lack support. A large number of Autistics can’t afford care for any number of reasons.

One Autistic writer highlights many of the above systemic barriers in a piece on autism and suicide (suicide crises are not the only mental health crises that occur, but Autistic adults without intellectual disabilities are nine times more likely than non-autistics to die by suicide). The author also discusses unemployment along with barriers to autonomy and social connection as contributing factors to Autistics’ high suicide rates. Here are some of the solutions the author offers:

We can be attentive to people who seem isolated and intentionally include them. We can check up on people who are known to be struggling… We can make our community welcoming to newcomers who desperately need the shelter of Autistic space. We can spread the word about autism-friendly mental health services… We can advocate for policies that support independence, like employment first and walkable communities.

For me, it would have been really helpful to have a 24-hour drop-in center or peer respite center (an alternative program where people in crisis can stay, staffed by people who have experienced mental health needs) somewhere nearby. There weren’t other options for me to stay safe. One study has indicated that peer respite centers result in better outcomes (for a variety of mental health needs) than psychiatric inpatient treatment, and there is a growing evidence base for supporting peer respite centers. 

Another resource would be a mental health phone (and text-based as Autistics can have a hard time with phones) line geared for connecting a person with services or other peer support when they are not at a crisis point. They would get connected based on level of need and which care they wanted. It would have a diverse staff to help make sure people did not end up with people mistreating them if they have a certain identity. Some similar projects, though not quite with that scope, already exist. One project called Project Warmline – people who need someone to talk to can speak to someone who has mental health needs – is in Oregon and has received state funding. Some other warmlines are listed here. It is not inconceivable that these projects could expand. 

There are significant gaps in community-based mental health resources. There is also a failure to address systemic barriers for Autistic people and improve quality-of-life research and supports by the largest sources of autism-related funding. These factors create a complex push into crisis mode for many Autistics. We can push for policy changes and support one another as fellow Autistics.

. . .

This is the second in a series of posts.

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.

 

Ableism on the Left

Here’s some things that highlight for you that ableism is not just a right-wing issue:

My friend got called the r-slur for being an ally to the mental health community and penning an opinion piece on “Stop calling Trump crazy.” The sad and terrible irony is so great I don’t know where to start. Perry noted that people attacked him “who, in theory, are on my side in many issues.” Theoretically, people on the left and people who call themselves progressive Democrats are against ableism and bigotry. Bernie Sanders said Republicans were the reason we needed mental health care as a “joke” in one of the Democratic debates. The audience laughed. But wrong does not mean crazy.

Salman Rushdie, who supported President Obama’s election and has criticized Republicans before, stated the following in an August 12 Tweet: “No, I’m backing the non-insane candidate. And Flann O’Brien would be ashamed you’re using his name.”

salman rushdie assholery

When a disability activist, DandelionGirl on Twitter, expressed that Rushdie’s tweet was distasteful and ableist, lamenting, “<sigh> another fave using ableist language. Will the mental illness stigma ever end?” he responded with the following: ““Ableist?” Oh, sorry. Trump is not insane (unfair to insane people). He’s just “differently abled.””

salman rushdie being an asshole'

Someone commented on a Facebook share about a Trump spokesperson saying something factually inaccurate about President Obama starting the war in Afghanistan. They said of Donald Trump and his spokesperson, “I wonder what mental institution he found her in and why he got her out!”

To conclude what could be an even longer list of ableist actions, the founder of the DiagnoseTrump Twitter hashtag (arguments against this presented by s.e. smith for Bustle in the link) is a Democrat. Many disabled people/people with mental health needs have spoken out against the DiagnoseTrump hashtag and pathologizing Trump, as s.e. smith did for Bustle.

I am a mentally ill, twice-institutionalized in a psych ward person. I read your posts. I read your comments. Many of us do. We all notice. We notice how much you want to blame mental illness for bigotry and believe it’s because people are sick in the head that people could say and do such things. For distance – it’s easier to not acknowledge society’s shortcomings when you can point fingers at mental illness. We notice how much you are willing to throw us under the bus to try and defeat Trump. Defeating Trump is a good cause. Using ableism to do it is unnecessary and increases stigma. It hurts people, including me. We know what you think.

Do you think that actually helps our mental health? Encourages people to reach out to others when they’re struggling? Isn’t that what you want – for us to get treatment? You want us to get treatment, and then blame bigotry on mental illness and use it as a prop to try and defeat Trump. Note that I am not advocating for us to focus on treatment in mental health advocacy – we should have the right to self-directed services if we want them.

But if that’s what you want, then openly linking bigotry to mental illness and joking about mental institutions will not help. Maybe try working to decrease the amount of bigotry in the mental health system (that does not respect racial, disabled, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities). Maybe try advocating for changing the way it involuntarily holds people in psych wards and institutions (get us more community-based services). Maybe try working to make it more affordable? Maybe try not forcing us into a broken system that treats us as unpeople. Maybe don’t talk about us like we’re the root of all evil.

I am holding the left Democrats responsible for perpetuating discrimination and stigma. Trump and and the GOP are assuredly ableist – but for the Democratic Party, a party that sets itself up as being not-Republicans and not-bigoted and more progressive, this betrays their – and society’s – ableism. I have pointed out before that even when journalism is responsible, people’s comments bring out society’s ableism. People’s comments show how little they actually think before they make such comments – or if they do think, they find it acceptable.

We don’t need to throw disabled people, and people with mental health needs, under the bus to make our points. We don’t need to do that to ensure Trump’s defeat.

Ableism is not just a right-wing issue.

Trump and the Language of Mental Health around his Bigotry

A conversation that I wasn’t entirely enamored with occurred on Twitter recently regarding Donald Trump and mental health. This was between writers, journalists, and people with mental health needs (or people who fell into more than one of those categories) who agreed that Trump “doesn’t have the temperament to be President.” They disagreed about “whether [they] needed to frame temperament-issues in terms of mental health.” David Perry wrote about this – whether it was advisable to frame Trump’s behavior through a mental health framework. He presented varying arguments from multiple sides of the discussion. Some of the arguments included, several in response to each other:

  • argument 1: not talking about Trump’s mental health would increase stigma via silence on mental health
  • argument 2: “if he were dxed would… agree with you,” and that it was the armchair diagnosis speculation and use of “insane” as insulting that bothered them.
  • argument 3: temperament isn’t the result of mental illness
  • argument 4: mental illness is not a reason to be unfit for public office
  • argument 5: Trump isn’t right in the head and not even politicians are that self-centered
  • and it went on with other points, some that could be categorized under others.

I am quite inclined to agree with Finn of Expectedly that “Wrong does not mean crazy.” Finn wrote:

Trump’s disgusting plans are not the result of a mental illness; they’re the result of deep-set, unbridled bigotry that he’s exploiting to worm his way into the White House… The Republican Party as a whole deserves to be blasted… But this isn’t about mental illness; it’s about entrenched white supremacy, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Christian supremacy and other prejudices.
People need to stop claiming that politicians – and their supporters – whose political views differ from theirs as a sign of a mental illness, as though people can’t hold different political beliefs without considering them rationally. This stereotype also comes with the insinuation that mental illness necessarily means the lack of agency required to arrive at a reasoned political decision, which is grossly untrue.

Discussing Trump’s mental health status is kind of getting into the territory where people will use it to say that people with mental health needs can’t be effective candidates for public office if they choose to run. People are also so eager to blame bigotry on mental health needs. It helps people, in my opinion, distance themselves from the thought that they could ever be bigoted about anything (when I don’t know one person who hasn’t screwed up in that regard at least once).

So, sure, being erratic and lying a lot could be a sign of mental health needs, but that doesn’t mean it’s the reason for things like Trump being a bigot. I’d like to make the point that people with mental health needs are people with many varying viewpoints on the world so if a person with mental health needs is a bigot, I would argue that the mental health needs are most often a coincidence. I know people with mental health needs who have done less than pleasant things – even, perhaps, said hurtful things about groups of people – in the middle of any sort of episode. I have had episodes where I’ve said less than stellar things, though I don’t think I’ve ever said bigoted things because of an episode – but I think it’s too easy to write Trump off as being a delusional, pathologically lying narcissist.

Finally, I really, really don’t think that talking about it in this context will lead to less stigma. In certain contexts? Remaining silent about mental health needs absolutely can increase stigma, can result in mental health needs being the bogeyman in the closet, a family’s dark secret, you get the drift – and I also advocate for the consent of the person in question. Even though Trump is a political figure and thus invites judgment, I feel like discussing it in this context invites severe judgment on people with mental health needs. It links bigotry to mental health needs because Trump is such a bigot that if people think Trump + mental health needs, they are going to start associating mental health needs with Trump-type bigotry.

*  * *

Everyone, particularly other people with mental health needs – and especially those with particularly stigmatized diagnoses like bipolar I/II/NOS, schizophrenia, or any mental health need involving psychosis, for instance – is welcome to weigh in on this. Read the comment policy before submitting a comment; I moderate comments. 

The Real Tragedy of Eugenics and a Primer on Buck v. Bell

Many of the victims were, like Carrie [Buck], perfectly normal both mentally and physically–and they desperately wanted to have children.

-Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

The tragedy of eugenics is not that it happened to ostensibly non-disabled people. The tragedy of eugenics is that it happened at all. The tragedy of eugenics is that people used the prospect of disability to justify it. The tragedy of eugenics is that anyone, disabled or not, lost their right to choose if they wanted children. They used the prospect of disability to justify sterilizing anyone they saw fit – disabled people, people of color, sex workers, women, low-income people, or a combination of those, for the most part.

Cohen is not alone in asserting Carrie Buck, the subject of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, was mentally “normal.” Journalist Harry Bruinius discusses it in his book Better for all the World. Paul Lombardo has many words to say about Carrie Buck’s normality as well as that of her daughter Vivian’s in his book Three Generations, No Imbeciles. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck  by J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson talks about Carrie Buck’s family being actually normal.

Cohen is not alone in therefore implying that there was a correctly targeted group. That Carrie Buck’s sterilization was wrong because she was “normal” and should never have been in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. In one regard, he is correct. Carrie Buck should never have been in that institution. Neither should anyone else have been.

.  .  .

Carrie Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1906. Eugenics took hold as Carrie grew up. Her father Frank was dead, or had simply left – no one knew. Her mother Emma took to the streets and got put on charity lists to try and take care of her children. Emma may have had substance abuse issues with drugs. Emma sometimes went to having sex with different men to try and make ends meet. She had more children. A family called the Dobbses took Carrie from Emma when Carrie was three or four. Emma Buck eventually was put in the Virginia Colony. When Carrie was seventeen, the Dobbses’ nephew Clarence raped her. A pregnancy resulted. The Dobbses wanted to avoid scandal. They packed her off to the Virginia Colony as “feebleminded” after she gave birth to a girl, Vivian. Facts of the case were not observed. 

The superintendent chose Carrie Buck for a test case of Virginia’s new sterilization law. Carrie went before the board of the institution. They voted to sterilize her. Her appointed guardian filed an orchestrated appeal. It was not really on her behalf. The appeal traveled through all the court systems until it reached the Supreme Court.

Buck v. Bell was a devastating decision by the Supreme Court. The 8-1 decision – the only dissenting member Justice Pierce Butler – said that it was legal to sterilize Carrie Buck, a patient at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. They said it was legal to sterilize people, mostly those in institutions, without their consent. It upheld the Virginia law that had passed three years earlier. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote this infamous statement in the opinion: 

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Buck v. Bell was an injustice done to Carrie Buck. It would have been if it were proven today she actually had an intellectual or developmental disability. It was an injustice to the tens of thousands of people, mostly in institutions, who came after her. It was an injustice to the women in the California prisons who underwent forced sterilization as recently as 2014, and to the women who went before a Tennessee district court prosecutor who forced plea deals involving sterilization. Buck v. Bell has never been overturned in its entirety, permitting legal loopholes. People are still being sterilized today, in the United States and elsewhere.  It is not considered a priority to overturn Buck v. Bell in its entirety. State eugenics laws were not overturned until the 1970s and 80s.

Buck v. Bell reached beyond the borders of the United States. The Nazi Party cited it as justification for some of their war crimes. They drew upon American eugenic ideals. United States officials acted as the primary agents in prosecuting Nazi officials, doctors, and others. Despite its association with Nazism, eugenics is not dead. Nor is its height and prominence a distant memory.

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I encourage you to read the following if you have access to them. Sources to think about, and sometimes critique:

Books that Cost

  • The Nazi Connection by Stefan Kühl
  • Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius
  • In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel Kevles
  • The Sterilization of Carrie Buck by J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson
  • Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
  • Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul Lombardo
  • War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Quest to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black
  • A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, editor Paul Lombardo
  • Fit to be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 by Rebecca Kluchin
  • Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America by Steven Selden

Physical Archives

  • The Carrie Buck archives at the State Library of Virginia (Richmond)

Resources and Articles that are Online/Free

This Is What They Think: Protesting Autism Speaks

The ASAN-Atlanta chapter recently protested an Autism Speaks GA 5K Run.

Would you like to hear what autistics have to say about Autism Speaks?”

They kept walking. They said no. They flipped us off. They told us to go home. One person told us they knew everything about autism already because they had autistic children and had “full acceptance for them.” If one is running or walking for an autism cure, it means you only have acceptance of what you want your children to be. You’re accepting of a vision, not the people right in front of you.

This was with the exception of about twenty folks. They took flyers, which I really hope they kept.

An Autism Speaks staff member approached us and started condescending to us about how much Autism Speaks *actually* helps autistic people. The person condescended and acted like we did not have a complete story about Autism Speaks. The person also completely forgot Autistic adults existed in their spiel. “It’s so great that you’re out here, Autistic voices are integral to the conversation about autism!” Sappy and dripping with fake admiration, forgetting advocacy is not cute. Autism Speaks also really is not that interested in autistic voices. They have no autistic leadership anywhere. Their only autistic member of prominence, John Elder Robison, resigned in 2013.

Finally: “I’ll keep on loving,” the person declared, as if we did not also want the best for their children. As if we did not love anyone or anything.

At least it showed that we made somewhat of an impact. They wanted to placate us, lower our guard, not come back next year.

***

The children broke my heart the most. One person’s child tried to look at our signs. The parent physically turned them away.

This is what many of them seem to think. Autistics cannot think for themselves. Autistics cannot possibly disagree. They do not seem to want their children to grow up with the hope for anything other than a cure and being “indistinguishable from peers.”

To look at our signs and have them realize there are autistic adults who share a neurotype and who are protesting the event that their parents are at would be heresy. To start accepting themselves would be treachery and, to many, the appearance of giving up (it’sreally not). Many of these parents think that a cure is what society needs to do to help autistic people. They appeared bewildered and angered at our presence.

I really think most of these people do want the best. But they’ve been told over and over again, by society and since 2005 by Autism Speaks: Cure autism. At the least, make them indistinguishable from peers. It’s a disease. A burden.

I flapped at their children. It was the only way to say, “I am like you and you are okay as you are.”

***

Other Sources on Autism Speaks

Defining Ableism

Defining Ableism

Note: This is U.S.-centric

***

Sometimes it feels hard to define ableism when it is all around us and everywhere and so much more than language. Language contributes to, and perpetuates, ableism. Ableist acts can include language.

But I keep thinking of the time in Fall 2013 when I started having seizures from a medication interaction. The seizures were atypical. No one knew what they were, least of all me, too out of it to tell that something was actually terribly wrong.

What I most vividly recall is not even the night I had my worst episode, but the day after, when my friend and I talked about it and she’d been terrified to call 911 because of the way I was presenting. Because I was slurring incoherently like I was having some sort of non-neurological or physically based episode, and she knew what happens to people in the psychiatric systems if they go wrong. She knew the way I was presenting would land me in the psych ward.

More drastically, I think of the man who ended up in the mental health system during a crisis, and the state of Maine put his cat down and sold his home.

When we have to be so afraid of our psychiatric system…? That’s the result of ableism.

Sometimes I think about all the dead and murdered people too, like Dustin Hicks, a recent one close to home. My chapter just had to write a statement on it. The news outlets declined to even reply to my encouragement to publish all or part of the statement. One news report discussed his mother and reasons why she might want to kill him. None mentioned that he deserved to live, or that his death was a tragedy. We know almost nothing about him.

When we have to issue statements over and over again urging people to report responsibly and call our deaths, not our lives, tragedies? That’s the result of ableism.

I think of all the various intersections we have between other identities, too. We are not a monolith. I think of the many, many people of color with disabilities who face racism and ableism, sometimes with deadly or injurious consequences. I think of the #FreeNeli campaign, and how long it took many of us white folks to start tweeting on it after the initial call for tweets. I think of Neli himself, unjustly incarcerated for being black and autistic, in isolation. The governor finally did issue a conditional pardon.

I think of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, one of the many students of color and students with disabilities disproportionately referred to law enforcement. An eleven-year-old charged with a felony. The school to prison pipeline is real…

I think of those of us who hold many identify facets, like being LGBTQ+, a person of color, a religious minority, as well as being disabled.

When we have those intersections meet in a dangerous way, amplified by multiple marginalized identities, the ableism and other -isms and -phobias become intertwined, and not the result of purely ableism. These intersections matter.

I think of how someone got kicked out of their house by their roommates for being autistic.


I think of history, too. I think of the sordid history of locking people with psychiatric disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disabilities in institutions…

I think of the nasty history of eugenics. (The .pdf is American and German history of eugenics only, as I lack a college library to find the other physical sources. Also, there’s a typo at one point where I meant to say “Indiana passed the first sterilization law in 1907.”). How it affected so many with disabilities (and other intersections).

I think of how nowhere was physically accessible, how Ed Roberts couldn’t go to school unless he lived in the infirmary.

I think of activists crawling up the Capitol steps to protest and demand the ADA’s passage. Don’t let the black and white photographs in the coverage of the Capitol Crawl let you think that this was long-gone history. We only just hit 25 years of the ADA.

I think of the long, long history ableism has. Ableism is not new.

***

Could I go on? Yes.

I fear being too depressing. I fear a lot of things. Mostly, I am sometimes frightened of the world.

We could stand to be gentler of people still learning the new words that change so much. Ableism is far more than a list of words and we need all the good hearts we can find. Clumsy language on the part of someone who is trying (and who may have communications-based disabilities!) is something to be less concerned about than the dead and wounded around us. Clumsy language on the part of someone who is trying should, perhaps, receive calling in, not calling out.

Ableism seems insurmountable, and there will never be a great sweeping moment where we crush it entirely. But I think we’re making a dent. We’ve come 25 years since the ADA. Seattle has some crappy curbs that Disability Rights Washington is taking them to task for. Ableism still goes on and on. But we’re making a dent. The largest non-profit in the nation dedicated to eradicating autism had its donations drop. Their president is resigning, though this may have been a planned move. We are producing documentaries of our pain and sorrow, of our challenges and stories, of our hopes and dreams.


We have people among us becoming lawyers and professionals and influencing that way. We have others in grassroots advocacy and policy advocacy. We have those whose advocacy is for themselves only, fighting to survive and be heard and respected (and that’s okay). We want our brethren to survive.