Oct 212014
 

I’ve been taking part in the Save Wiyabi Project’s teach-ins on decolonizing the anti-violence movement. It’s hard to say important things in 140 character chunks, but we’re doing it, and I think it’s powerful. No, Twitter chats won’t change policies, but they will inform people, they will (or at least I hope they will) change the way activists do their work.

For me, talking with people of colour and Indigenous people–framing feminist issues around decolonization, poverty, community, and more–feels like coming home.

My formal feminist education (read: Women’s Studies degree) started this way.

Yes, I am beyond grateful to have had a first Nations woman, a First Nations scholar, as my first Women’s Studies professor. Some of my classmates didn’t appreciate this opportunity to learn quite so much as I did. Basically, they objected to the amount of material about First Nations people. I guess when they signed up for Women’s Studies 100, these young women, mostly White and mostly middle-class, expected to learn about themselves.

Yes, Women’s (or as it’s more commonly known now) Gender Studies does give students the opportunity to learn about themselves, much as the consciousness-raising groups of the 60s and 70s did. But, I say, (and not very charitably) if you want it to be all about you, go to therapy (and that’s no dis on therapy).

After all, the class we were taking was Women’s Studies, not Feminist Studies, so talking about the experiences, histories, beliefs, thoughts of many groups of women, not just the ones whose experiences mirrored our own, not just the ones who made what is commonly remembered as feminism happen, only makes sense.

Telling the story of feminism as “this was the first wave,” “this was the second wave,” and, “Oh, look, here’s a third and fourth wave” only tells part of the story. Framing feminist issues around the issues the leaders of these movements experienced and raised only tells about some women’s lives, of some people’s lives.

I’ve always felt more at home reading feminist writings by women of colour, Indigenous people, and other marginalized groups.

There’s a resonance to WOC (women of colour)and Indigenous writers, a truth-telling that moves beyond the individual…

Maybe I feel so called to these scholars, activists, and writers because even though their work doesn’t reflect my experiences as a disabled woman, they’re a lot closer to what I experience in this world than what a lot of white, particularly white middle-class feminists, have to say. The hot button issues of many white feminists just don’t speak to me as loudly. The “glass ceiling” means something very different to people with disabilities who regularly experience job discrimination before we’re ever hired—and frequently we’re not hired. Sexual harassment on the streets means something very different when our bodies are rendered invisible—when people push past a wheelchair user carelessly bumping them in the head with a grocery bag, or talk to someone’s service dog instead of to them, for example—and sexual abuse becomes much more a threat from people who provide our physical care or are in charge of our medical treatments, education, or rehabilitation.

I think all of us who call ourselves, or have called ourselves, feminist would do better to listen to WOC and Indigenous scholars, activists, writers, speakers—not only around their own lives and experiences (because it’s not often enough that White scholars, activists, social service providers, lawmakers, do this) but around everyone’s experiences. I think we can and need to adopt a more community-oriented approach…

Decolonizing the anti-violence movement means looking critically at the state. Here the state doesn’t mean Alaska or Florida (though both those states, especially the latter, would greatly benefit from learning a thing or two about how to treat people of colour and indigenous people). Here the state refers to institutions like the criminal justice system, social services, domestic violence shelters—basically any institution run by or funded by the government.

Decolonizing also means looking critically at the anti-violence movement—who controls it, what it’s politics are, whether it’s approaches are inclusive of everyone. Looking critically at the anti-violence movement means looking at who it doesn’t serve, and changing those imbalances. It means opening up the anti-violence movement to more diverse voices, not just the voices with the professional degrees and fancy words.

It’s hard to sum up everything I’ve learned from two-plus hours of nonstop tweets and reading almost two dozen articles.

Two things that came out of these conversations are that the justice system needs serious reform, and, we cannot adequately address the needs of people of colour or Indigenous people who have experienced violence without looking at the historical and cultural factors that have shaped their lives. I’m going to meander through these points a little bit here, touching on ideas that turn what I thought I knew on its head.

The current structure of the criminal justice system is harming more people than it’s helping. For a long time, I’ve bought into the logic that all abusers need to be locked away. Arresting an abuser and sending them to jail, however, often leaves the person who experienced abuse without financial or practical support. Arresting the abuser may not be what the abused person wants, may not be what is best for the household at that particular moment.

If the safest thing, and the thing the abused person wants, is to leave, they’re often limited in their choices for where to go. Domestic violence shelters, aside from frequently being full, or not culturally appropriate, aren’t open to or available to everyone. Natasha Vianna mentioned during the teach-in that many pregnant women aren’t allowed in shelters until several weeks into their pregnancies. Many shelters are not accessible to people with disabilities

Prison, in general, isn’t the answer to the problems of intimate partner violence. I was stunned to read some of the stats in this article.

  • 85-90% of women in prison have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse. (ACLU, 2011)
  • In California, a prison study found that 93% of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. That study found that 67% of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children when they wound up killing their partner. (California Sin by Silence Bill, 2012)

There are more people in prisons, but the rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence have not decreased.

The criminal justice system can do what it’s meant to—ensure justice. Lauren Chief Elk talks in this article about a law recently passed in San Francisco, requiring that all rape kits must be processed within two weeks of collection. This law doesn’t require anyone to report their assault, just makes sure that the evidence is processed in a timely manner if they do choose to report.

What it does do is make sure that individual law enforcement officers aren’t making decisions about whose rape is more valid. Should this happen? No. Does it happen? Yes. Discrimination, racism, classismhomophobia or transphobia, moral judgments, are not absent from law enforcement.

Victim-centered justice needs to be the starting point for correcting many of these problems. No, victim is not a dirty word. I initially learned that it was. Not all people want to be called survivors, contrary to my previous teachings within feminist sexual assault response circles that we never disempower people by calling them victims. For some people, acknowledging they were harmed, wounded, victimized, by their abuser(s) is crucial to their understanding of themselves.

Victim-centered justice seeks to deliver the power back to the person who experienced violence, however they choose to identify themselves. Victim-centered justice: It’s not about the system. It’s not about the offender. It’s not about the people helping. It’s about the person who was abused. They’re the best experts on their lives. They’re the ones who know what’s best for them.

A victim is much less likely to reach out for help if they know that a whole social service and criminal justice process will be unleashed just by them talking to someone about what’s happening or what has happened.

Yes, many people who are abused frequently doubt their worth, and may be less likely to seek help because of that. Being victim-centered means, though, offering support without presuming what sort of help is needed. The act of offering care, support and choices can help victims find their sense of self-worth, putting them into a position to make the right choices for them at that moment.

The desire to save people is strong. The desire to not see people hurt is strong, but deciding what people need without consulting them, without learning about their lives, is likely to lose you their trust.

I don’t know how this translates when offering support to children. Most people who work with children are “mandated reporters,” which means that if a child shares that they’re being abused, the person they share this with then must contact the police, Child Protective Services, or both. How do we help children not feel betrayed when they share their biggest secret and, next thing they know, their lives are turned upside down by court proceedings, moving house, and other forms of chaos? I really don’t know.

Victim-centered justice includes believing the victim, not insisting that they provide impossible sources of proof. Victims of (intimate partner violence (IPV) are required by the criminal justice system (CJS) to meet impossible standards of proof. They’re required to produce evidence of physical or emotional injury. Short of running a hidden video/audio recording device in the home 24/7, it’s often impossible to document empirical data. Do we have to wait until someone is fighting for their life in an emergency room before we believe them?

ON the other hand, The onus is so often on the victim to escape. That thing people who don’t know any of the inner working of a situation too often say: “She could have just left.” The prosecution in Marissa Alexander’s trial insisted, despite not having actually been there, that Marissa could have found a way to escape if she was afraid enough. It’s enough for me that she reports not having been able to escape safely. For many people in the midst of a violent event, the questions are: Escape where, escape how…will escaping put others (such as children) in danger?

Black and Native women have been bullied and harassed by the legal system since the beginning of colonized time, so the anti-violence movement’s centering of the legal system as a solution centres white women’s needs over those of black and native women.

Race has and does influence how many victims of domestic violence are perceived. Black women who’ve experienced violence have always been silenced, their experiences have been denied, or blamed on them. The dehumanization of black women, first as slaves, then as invisible but useful domestic help, has perpetuated this idea that what a black woman says just can’t be so. Historically, those times when the United States made it legal to treat black people as less than human really aren’t that far behind us.

The second leading cause of death for black women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five is murder perpetrated by an intimate partner.

So, Black youth are experiencing high rates of IPV that escalate. Perhaps supports we already have in place are ineffective. Are they ineffective on practical levels, or on access levels; that is, do IPV victims feel comfortable/safe/welcome in accessing existing anti-IPV infrastructure, such as shelters, support groups, social services to change circumstances like poverty, hunger, or homelessness. Do they feel like they have the power and safety in these spaces to work on figuring out what’s best for them, or do they feel cautious and on-guard?

It’d seem like mandatory arrests when police are called to a domestic violence report would be a good thing, but they’re not. When the police can’t figure out who the aggressor was, they frequently arrest both people, revictimizing the victim, taking both parents away from children, etc. Mandatory arrests may also take the wage-earner out of the house, as I mentioned above. Plus, murders in States with mandatory arrest laws for cases of IPV are higher than those in states without the arrest laws.
Victims realize that if they call the police, their abuser will be arrested. So, they don’t call, and abuse escalates. You can read more about that here.

Much of this discussion on decolonization of the anti-violence movement uses the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as a starting point for dialogue.

This Act, while helping many people, has benefitted certain groups over others. There’s a conflict between the anti-violence movement, which works with the state to draft things like VAWA, depends on government funding, and so on, and groups who are fighting against institutional violence, such as Indiginous people and LGBQ and trans people. For example, people of colour are unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system, and are resisting this targeting. (Yes, racial profiling does still exist, even if it’s not in written policies.) LGBQ and trans people are, and historically have been, targeted by law enforcement for presumed sexual transgressions.

The anti-violence movement is working with law enforcement, so feels reluctant to speak critically about CJS policies that harm people. Workers at domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centres are often reluctant to get too involved in a case of someone whose abusive partner works in law enforcement, because they fear that this will put them at odds with the same system they’re cooperating with on other cases. But, this means many victims don’t get served.

We need to focus on community-building. Arresting abusers and sheltering abuse victims may keep some people safe, but it also isolates people from their networks, and fractures communities. Since First nations tribes and families have been fractured by colonization, we need to do what we can to prevent fracturing from other sources. Only a couple of generations ago, First Nations children were torn from their families and sent to government-run boarding schools where their culture, their very sense of themselves, was stripped away from them. First Nations communities are still feeling the reverberations of that today, in ways only community members can truly know or understand.

The anti-violence movement has become a professionalized field, not as much of the grassroots movement it started out as…so people without the right professional credentials aren’t hired or included. Since people with economic and social advantages are usually the ones who have the most access to education and professional experience, the people working with oppressed communities are frequently not from those communities. Education is not necessary for many positions in social justice and organizing work. The education people get in schools and professional training isn’t better than the education people get through experience. People know what they need, are frequently in touch with what their communities need in ways social service providers, lawmakers, and activists who don’t belong to those communities can never be.

This brings us back to victim-centered justice, not only making plenty of space for a victim to make their own choices, but also recognizing our own biases around what sorts of choices we think they should be making. A shelter worker from a middle-class background may not be able to understand why a woman who experiences abuse in her home and who also lives at or below the poverty line chooses to stay with her abuser—who happens to bring in enough money for the family to eat adequately, if not well. The shelter worker may not be able to understand this both because she doesn’t want to see the woman hurt, but also because she viscerally cannot understand enduring physical or emotional abuse for the sake of having some kind of financial security.

Victim-centered justice involves not judging a victim, regardless of what choices they’ve made in the past, giving a victim choices, not assuming what a victim will want based on how old they are, whether they have children, etc, believe, explain what you can do and find out what the victim needs from you (that is, don’t assume what the victim needs and start giving it to them).

Victim-centered justice is not supporting the jailing of a survivor of violence who has refused to ttestify at the trial of her attacker.
Victim-centered justice is not saying that someone wouldn’t make a good witness to the crime that was enacted on her body so the crime won’t be prosecuted.

Here are more good practices to follow when supporting someone who has experienced violence.

What are the answers? I don’t know. I think it starts with allowing many systems of justice to work together. The criminal justice system can do what it does best—keep people safe from violent offenders. Restorative justice, which is not, as it is often portrayed, solely or even primarily about about forgiveness and reconciliation, unless the person who has experienced the violence decides is the best option for them. Communities can work on being more supportive of its members, less tolerant of violence.

People from different communities, people who have different experiences and different kinds of knowledge, need to continue to talk.

Want to learn more about decolonizing the anti-violence movement?

What is domestic/intimate partner/relationship violence?

Child survivors and victim-centered justice

Free Marissa, VAWA, and how anti-violence backfires

Mar 212014
 

Last weekend I was at Catalyst Con. A lot happened in my heart and mind; now that my body is recovering, I can write about some of it. This might take a few posts.

For now, in no particular order, a collection of snippets, both playful and serious, from my weekend.

  • My weekend started on Friday afternoon with Sex writing 101, a workshop on everything from writing craft to publishing know-how given by Rachel Kramer Bussel. This was a fabulous workshop—three hours of information, encouragement, creativity, companionship and a few laughs. To think I almost didn’t sign up for this! Rachel’s feedback was warm, inspiring, but also clear and targeted,. I felt safe and welcome in this writing space, and even built some confidence to keep working to put my writing and ideas out there.
  • There aren’t words to describe how deeply moved I was by the Living with An STI panel. Adrial of Herpes Life,
    Ashley Manta,
    kate McCombs and Raul Q created a friendly, accepting, and educational space to talk about the stigma around sexually transmitted infections. Among the many important messages shared in this space: STI prevention strategies are important for public and individual health, but never at the expense of anyone’s humanity and dignity. In other words, treat people like people, not like case numbers, not like robots that can be programmed to do exactly what we want them to do. Harm-reduction is meeting people where they are and giving them information that will help keep them safer, based on what their lives actually look like, not on what public health professionals and others in helping fields think their lives should look like. You can read more about the philosophy and practice of harm-reduction here.

    I think it was Adrial who shared this thought: When we talk openly, we can heal the wounds of stigma and feel more connected. kate, Ashley, Raul and Adrial modelled this beautifully and I hope everyone in that room passes that compassion and helpfulness on to others.

  • Seeing Crista of Dildology and her rainbow bustle made me smile. I’m guessing that bustle was a good luck charm, as I actually got to share many hugs and short conversations with Crista; usually we wind up missing each other completely at conferences. it didn’t hurt that my playful femme side perked up in appreciation after it encountered the bustle–rainbows and fluffy things for the win!
  • Del Tashlin’s talk on sacred sexuality reaffirmed for me that our sexual selves aren’t just about what we think and what we experience in our bodies, but include our connectedness with any sexual partners we have and with the world around us. In talking about how we transmit, perceive and talk about energy Del moved beyond the visual—so many introductions to sacred sexuality and connecting energetically with one’s sexual partner stop at eye contact—to encompass a whole range of sensations and perceptions (smell, touch, kinetic awareness, perceived temperature, etc). As someone who can’t see, I was grateful that Del’s introductory talk includes such a broad range of sensory experiences.
    Heightened sexual awareness can also connect us with other types of awareness. Del encouraged all of us to pay attention next time we experience a sexual release, to ask whether there is anything important we need to know, and be open to any answers that come to us.
  • Problem-Solving Sex with Disability inspired me to keep talking about this topic, not to back down or be afraid. Mara Levy is personable, dynamic, compassionate, and a brilliant presenter. I’ll write more about mara’s presentation in another post, but I just had to mention it here as a highlight of my weekend. Mara’s model for problem-solving sex and disability includes figuring out whether an impairment or set of impairments can be fixed, compensated for, or actually featured in the sexual encounter or experience. Plus, I was excited to discover that mara is local to the DC area. There are so few voices talking specifically about sex and disability that it’s marvelous to have another one in this part of the globe.
  • Hanging out at the Tantus display table gave me ample time to catch up with and be inspired by Ducky DooLittle and to handle many of Tantus’s aesthetically pleasing and sexy wares.
  • Last (for now), but very much not least, thinking about everyone who attended my Nuts and Bolts of Acccessibility presentation still fills me with joy. Thank you to everyone who attended for engaging so deeply with the topic, sharing of yourselves and making this early-morning presentation such a positive presenting experience. Thanks also to folks who live tweeted the presentation!
Mar 112014
 

You know those guides for telling you what to do when you meet a person with x, y, or z disability? Well, maybe you don’t, but please just take my word on this one. They’re full of crap. If you follow them, I almost guarantee (I have learned I can’t guarantee anything) you’ll wind up alienating the person instead of interacting with them. These guides actually really insult the intelligence of the people reading them, telling them they’re not possibly smart enough to figure out how to negotiate a possibly unfamiliar situation (I.E. talking to or helping a disabled person). It also forces them into the role of automaton as they struggle to remember what they’ve learned.

Actually, it occurs to me that guides for helping disabled people are just a further way our society reinforces the notion that we’re better off memorizing rules than developing our skills of reasoning, communication, and compassionate intuition.

Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Consider yourself lucky. Or take a look at these responses to such guidelines.
How to Talk to Normal People: A Guide for the Rest of Us

What To Do When You Meet An Able-Bodied Person

If you laugh while reading through these, as I did, that’s more than okay; they’re pretty ridiculous and I think the best way to deal with ridiculousness is to laugh. Sadly, this isn’t too far off the mark from what those of us with disabilities experience. I have personally served as Christmas angel or other ethereally inspirational being to many strangers, people who decided they knew all about me, and that I was of superior moral character, all based on my having a visible disability.

Thing is: We who have disabilities aren’t one-dimensional; our disability might be the most noticeable thing about us to others, but it is, for most of us most of the time, not what we notice most about ourselves. While it, depending on the nature of the disability, might impact how we run our day-to-day lives, it’s just one of many things we consider or think about. For example, someone who uses a wheelchair might have to plan the safest, most accessible route to the local knitting shop, or arrange for accessible transportation, or find an accessible knitting shop in the first place, but their focus is going to be on getting to that knitting shop to teach or take a class, or to buy goods with which to make holiday gifts or stock up for their custom-designed shawl-knitting business. The special arrangements they need to make to get to the shop don’t define who they are. Using a wheelchair and needing to find an accessible way to get to the shop is just one aspect of that person’s identity as a fibre artist, small business owner, yarn geek, or whatever their relationship to knitting happens to be. Once they get there, an employee or another customer engages our imaginary yarn geek in a question-and-answer session about their disability, that’s likely going to be a huge disconnect for them, since they’re not there as a disabled person, but as a yarn geek.

There’s no one thing that a particular kind of disability (or disability in general) can tell us about the person or people who are disabled in that way, about what they need and want access-wise, or really anything concrete about them at all. I heard a story once, from a blind guy who was sitting in on an accessibility training at his local library. The person giving the training suggested that if someone with a disability is in line at the desk to ask a question or get assistance, and there are others in line behind them, that the library worker should ask the person with the disability to wait until they’ve served the other patrons, regardless of their position in line. This blind guy spoke up, reciting his weekly schedule, and asked if the folks their thought that he had time to give up his place in line.

The accessibility trainer was operating under a few assumptions. 1. The person with a disability is primarily a person with a disability, not necessarily a busy parent, entrepreneur, community volunteer, etc. Following from that, they assumed it’s not unreasonable to ask a “person with a disability” to do something you wouldn’t ask another “person” to do. 2. That a person with a disability is necessarily going to need more help and take longer to serve than a person with no visible disability. This may or may not be true, but generally will depend on what they need, not on the fact that they have a disability. If their question requires extensive research, or a prolonged foray among the stacks, then certainly, they might be asked to wait, or to make an appointment to come back, but so would any not-visibly-disabled person.

In writing this post, and preparing the presentation I’ll be giving this weekend at Catalyst Con, I’ve gone back and forth with myself a lot on whether to give specific guidance or suggestions on appropriate protocol when interacting with disabled people. There really cannot be one protocol, for disability in general and for disabilities specifically.

The No. 1 rule really is, of course, just to treat us like human beings. If you wouldn’t walk up to a not-visibly-disabled person and ask how they got dressed in the morning, or how they can possibly take care of their child, don’t do it to someone with a visible disability. If you wouldn’t touch a not-visibly-disabled person without asking them, then don’t do that to a visibly disabled person. All of this is pretty obvious, yes?

Good.

While I would like to be able to leave it at that, I don’t think it’s ultimately helpful to do so.

I think that disability is something pretty foreign and frightening to a lot of people on a gut level. Some of this is because people find the prospect of losing any sort of functionality in their day-to-day life to be terrifying. There’s a cultural element too, as there aren’t a lot of good models in media for relating to people with disabilities, both around our sameness and around our difference. Come to that, there aren’t generally a lot of representations of people with disability in media sources, and what representations there are tend to hold us up as either inspiring (I wasn’t joking about that Christmas angel bit) or helpless. Even for those who recognize the one-dimensionality of these representations, I think they can still affect people on an emotional level, making disability seem foreign and difficult to understand.

The harder people try to understand disability, the more separated they become from the recollection that we’re just human beings like everyone else.

So, I present to you a small list of suggestions. While these read like dos and don’ts, they’re intended more as thought starters, and as “things you may not have thought of because they’re not part of what you encounter in everyday life. Honestly, I thought this list would be a lot longer than it ended up being, but boiling down the basics ended up being pretty simple.

Mobility Devices (canes, crutches, wheelchairs, service dogs, and so on): Do not touch someone’s mobility device without their express say-so. Our mobility devices are there to help us navigate, not for you to navigate for us. Grabbing someone’s service dog, or cane, or wheelchair, or walker, is akin to grabbing a car’s steering wheel out of the driver’s hands, and, depending on the mobility aid, could be akin to grabbing the steering wheel from a driver and kicking an ambulating person’s feet out from under them. Unless someone explicitly indicates that they want you to push their chair, or hold their cane for them, or otherwise interact with their mobility device to be helpful to them, it’s hands-off!

Yes, this also goes for guide or other service dogs. I don’t care how winsome those eyes are, it’s always best to ask before you pet and respect whatever answer you get. Touching someone’s assistance animal without permission is like touching them or their small child without permission.

“Can I pet your dog?” also needs to not be the first question you ask someone upon meeting them.

Communication: Small talk is the same whether we have a disability or not. Small talk (whether through speaking or other forms of communication) is about shared topics. Maybe you feel like you don’t know what similairities you have with a person with x, y, or z disability that makes their life and how they experience it different from yours. Really, though, the things you’d talk about with any stranger–the weather, latest movies, anything related to the space you’re in (if at school, questions or comments about classes are always appropriate)—is suitable. Disabled people are not that different from you, and while our disability might be of interest to you, trust me when I say that to us it’s more boring than talking about the weather!

If you’re talking with the person who has the disability, always look at them. If you’re communicating with them through a sign language interpreter, still look at them. Think of the interpreter is useful furniture. Their job is just to interpret what you’re saying, and, if the deaf or hard-of-hearing person doesn’t speak your language, to also “voice” their responses. That’s basically it. Here’s a great Wiki on communicating with a Deaf person through an interpreter.

You want to look at the person or people you’re talking to even if they can’t look at or make eye contact with you; for example, if the person is blind, or is physically unable to move their body in such a way as to look at you. Speaking as someone who can’t see, it really does make a difference when someone looks at me while talking with me, not out over my head, or at anyone I might have with me.

Our family and friends generally don’t speak for us, unless we ask them too. Even if a family member, friend, or personal support attendant (someone employed to help a disabled person do things they need help doing) voices for a person with a disability, or appears to be taking charge of the disabled person they’re with, it’s still courteous and humanizing to address the person. For example, if you want to know what someone wants for lunch, ask them. Regardless of who responds, it’s still so much nicer to hear “what do you want for lunch?” than “What does she want for lunch?” It’s also sound not to make assumptions about what someone might or might not understand just because they’re not verbal or otherwise not communicating with you.

If you keep that No. 1 rule I mentioned above in mind (always treat people with disabilities like human beings) at all times, you’ll be just fine!

I hope I’ve provided some food for thought here. If you have specific questions about interacting with people with specific disabilities, or have encountered situations you’d like some feedback on, please leave your question in the comments or email me privately so I can address specific concerns in this space.

Mar 032014
 

A lot of people worry about what language to use when talking about disabilities, and about people who have them. People want to be respectful, or at least PC. Some people want to protect themselves from what they see as hostile attacks when they use what we who have disabilities recognize as defamatory, hurtful, or belittling language. Others know that the language used means something, that words have emotional resonance and cultural meaning (sometimes multiple cultural meanings), as well as literal definitions.

What I’m about to tell you is not the final word on disability language. I’m not the expert on this—no one can be—and my aim is only to present some facts and theories for your consideration, and share what I find works for me both personally and professionally.

Many people are confused because the terms we are and aren’t “supposed” to use around disability seem like they change on a dime. These language changes are not random; the changing ways in which we use disability language is directly affected by a global community of people (or perhaps communities of people all around the globe), with various disabilities or impairments, and our growing voices and presences.

So, how do we figure out what words to use, especially if we’re not plugged into disability politics and activism?

I think we do this by changing our approach a wee bit.

I think we’re best off not worrying so much about whether we’re using the wrong words, or the latest PC terms, as whether we’re actually saying what we mean, saying what we want to say.

For starters, when talking about disability, there’s a tendency to talk about disability itself, or the people who have it, as one big homogeneous thing. This often comes out as talk of “the disabled” or “the blind,” or some other disability group. Honestly, I can’t think of too many scenarios in which talking about disability (or people with disabilities) as a whole would lead to anything close to accuracy. Also, and this is a biggy, we’re not “the disabled.” People talk about making sure the person comes first when talking about us—will flesh that more in a bit—and there’s no better way to make sure that our personhood is completely erased than by using disability as the sole way of addressing or describing us.

The other big problem with referring to disabled people as a homogeneous whole is that this is often done when talking about accessibility or inclusion. It’s always nice to know that we, as a group, are welcome somewhere, but if the practical needs of one disability group aren’t met in a specific place or situation, saying that this place or situation is disability accessible is misleading, and again, dehumanizing.

For example:

If we’re trying to indicate that an event is being held in a place accessible to people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices—that is, a space with no stairs (or that has alternatives to stairs), spacious doorways, et cetera—we need to say so, not just say that the space is disability-accessible. After all, if the event only offers sign-up sheets, educational materials, etc in printed form or there is no sign language interpreter or captioning service, the event is not accessible in general. Maybe it sounds like splitting hairs, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s important to indicate what kind of accessibility we’re talking about when we say “accessible.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the differences between disabled people, not to place disabilities on a hierarchy (as is sadly often done, and sometimes by people with disabilities ourselves) but as a way of acknowledging individual needs, and, I think, of acknowledging that the disability is just one part of the person.

In other words, the more specific we are in what we say and how we say it, we can end up placing less overall emphasis on disability, and more on the whole person. This is particularly true when we’re talking about access, as if people know up-front whether their access needs are more or less likely to be met, the more everyday their disability becomes. Access isn’t about doing special things, after all, but about levelling the playing field or balancing the scales.

What about terms for disability and disabled people? Do we say disabled people or people with disabilities? Is handicapped okay? We’re not allowed to say crippled, right?

What terms are acceptable will vastly depend on who you are, who you’re addressing, where in the world you live, and what you’re trying to do with your words.

Yes, “crippled” is generally not an okay term these days. But many disabled people call themselves crips (or sometimes “krips”) as a way to reclaim the word. As with most reclaimed words, it belongs to the population reclaiming it. Unless you personally have a crip identity, you’re probably best off not using the word in your writing, unless you’re quoting someone talking about their own crip identity or unless you’re writing or talking about crip theory/activism as a movement.

One of the newer terms—and the current darling of the PC brigade–is “differently abled.” Words cannot describe how much I personally detest this term. It is saccharin, infantilizing, dismissive, and ultimately meaningless. It’s meant to emphasize that we all have different abilities and strengths, but since it’s a term reserved for people with disabilities and not used to describe everyone else, it still promotes that there is a norm, and then there is other, and that we who have disabilities are other.

The term “differently abled” almost literally hurts my teeth when I think about it, hurts in the way that biting into candy that is just pure sugar and food colouring often does. I’ve personally felt the othering impact of this term. Once upon a time I was participating in a sex education event where I heard one educator blithely discussing things that were “good for the differently abled.” This person’s supervisor had just reacted negatively to my presence upon discovering that the person (me) they had previously just conversed with online was someone with a disability. As I listened to the talk of the “differently abled” I couldn’t help but marvel that I, a “differently abled” person, was sitting right there, feeling totally alienated from what was supposed to be an accepting, inclusive space.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about “differently abled,” though. In Twitter discussions with other disabled folks, the point was raised that politically correct terms have not affected any obvious change; we still have stigma against people with disabilities; we still have unequal access. I agree with this. I’d suggest that having PC terms allows people to skate through without giving what they’re saying or doing a lot of thought. See how this ties back to what I was talking about earlier—being sure to say what we mean, and say what will be most useful to others?

So, what terms do we use? I’m partial to people with disabilities and disabled people myself. Again, I also think that, wherever it fits, specifying which disability we’re talking about is useful.

So, is it people with disabilities, or disabled people? Depends who you ask. This is also a question that has gotten a lot of dialogue going.

Many folks with disabilities believe in people-first-language; that is, saying or writing the person before the disability. Others, me included, think that doing this 100% of the time is grammatically cumbersome and unnecessary. Some people, I’m still on the fence about this, think that the person-first construction puts more emphasis on the disability, not less. Others prefer “disabled people” as a way of asserting disabled identity and claiming disability pride, much as the folks who’ve reclaimed Crip, gimp, and other words-formerly-known-as-insults are doing.

Grammatically, it can get pretty awkward pretty quickly when we’re always saying “people who are disabled,” or “a person who is blind,” or “women with intellectual disabilities.” Because I’m personally not completely wedded to person-first language, and am also not completely opposed to it, I tend, when writing, to start by using the person-first construction, then use either one, depending on what grammar and sentence structure call for subsequently.

Calling people “differently abled” also puts the emphasis on the individual person. Disability is understood by many disability activists to be partially or wholly a product of society’s lack of physical or cultural accessibility to different impairments.

The Disabled People’s International explained the difference this way.

Impairment: is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment.
Disability: is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. (DPI, 1982)

Viewed this way—and please do understand that there are many, many other models for understanding disability and disabled people’s experiences—we can think of the way “differently abled” has been embraced by the PC brigade as a societal shedding of responsibility. It’s much easier to talk about the words we’re supposed to use than to stretch out of our comfort zone, and do the emotional and practical work of having a fair and just society for everyone.

I’m leaving you for the moment (I’ll be bac, I assure you) with a few links sussing out some of what I’ve pondered here. If you’re wondering where to do more reading beyond these links, I’d suggest focusing your search on material written by individuals with disabilities or by disability advocacy groups. As always, if you have questions, thoughts, or would like to discuss anything I’ve written here, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Autistic Hoya: How “Differently Abled” Marginalizes Disabled People
Wheelchair Dancer: Differently Abled — Disability Language On My Mind
Disability Definitions, Models and Terminology | Western Cape Government

Feb 262014
 

Web Access for everyone

Well, technically not for everyone. How we design our Web spaces isn’t going to make them any more accessible to someone who doesn’t have or can’t afford a computer or mobile device, or who doesn’t have or can’t afford Net access.

For those who do have net access, either through their own machines or through community settings such as public libraries, how we design our web spaces can very much influence how welcome people feel in the space we’ve created for them online.

Web space is real space, and as such deserves the same kind of attention and care we give to our in-person spaces when we invite other people into them.

Web space is different only in that it’s easy to invite nearly everyone in.

For those of us who provide information or are promoting our services around sexuality and relationships, making our Web visitors feel welcome is especially important. Many people come looking for what we offer from a place of fear or uncertainty; making their cyber-visit comfortable and easy not only ensures that they get the information they were looking for but that they’ll feel welcome to come back.

When talking about Web accessibility, we generally mean not whether someone can access the web as a whole, but whether different sites and services are usable by people with disabilities. In general, I’d say that accessibility translates to user-friendliness.

Accessibility is akin to making a physical space comfortable. When someone comes into a physical space where they feel comfortable and safe, where water and bathrooms are available, the people around them are pleasant, and what they need, whether for work or pleasure, is readily available, you can usually perceive the stress and worry lifting away from them. When the space is cluttered, people are unfriendly or disorganized, when it’s not readily apparent how to access what we came to that space for, the tension builds up.

Web space is the same.

Speaking as someone who uses access technology to interact with online spaces, I can frankly tell you that it can feel like a slap in the face to go looking for information or entertainment only to find that a site is confusing, tedious to navigate, or is designed in such a way that assistive tech freezes up as the page is loading.

Speaking of assistive tech, a lot of people think of Web accessibility as being primarily about and for people who use assistive technology, such as for people screen readers that read the material on a screen aloud or those who use speech input software that allows people who cannot use a keyboard or mouse to control their computer through speaking aloud.

Web access extends far beyond this, from meeting the needs of People with different cognitive or learning disabilities to ensuring that multi-media is made accessible to people with different sensory impairments (E.G. transcripts for audio material, well-worded descriptions for visual material).

Learning and cognitive dis/abilities are as wide-ranging and individual as the human population. Just as we’re not going to meet the needs or wants of the entire human population with what we provide in our Web spaces, we won’t always be able to be 100% accessible to everyone. There are lots of changes, both in basic Web design and in actual content, which will improve the general usability of our spaces.

You’ll find when reading Web design guidelines specific to cognitive impairment, two great resources for which are here and here that many of the suggestions given feel more like common sense than special accommodation. Plus, web tools have fantastic potential for making written and multi-media information more interactive and user-friendly than it would be offline.

Knowing the variety and types of access considerations can help you design your Web material to be as inclusive as possible. Doing this helps you reach more people, makes your work inclusive in action as well as word, and modelss what I’ll cheekily call good behavior for the rest of web space.

Having this information can also help you advocate on behalf of people who cannot access mainstream sites. Some forms of inaccessibility won’t be immediately apparent to you, but many will be once you know what to look for. Changes to ameliorate these forms of accessibility will generally also make the site more accessible for you. Large-scale changes (such as having the internet be more accessible than not) generally don’t happen on their own

Overall Web accessibility won’t happen until we all advocate together, until the general population is speaking up.

While you likely can’t make your Web material accessible to all populations, here are some things to consider.

If you’re setting up your own space on the Web, your best bet is to use the KISS model—Keep It Simpler Than Simple. Yes, I know that’s supposed to be Keep It Simple, Stupid, but I don’t hold with calling anyone stupid; the sole exception is if they’ve hurt me or those I love. You can use these guidelines from the W3C accessibility project to evaluate your site as you go. If you hire a web developer, make it clear to them that you expect them to familiarize themselves with these guidelines and follow them. Most of the guidelines are pretty clear to we non-tech types, so even if someone else is designing and building your site, you can collaborate with them on equal footing when making sure it’s accessible.

Bottom line? Making Web spaces accessible isn’t any harder than creating the spaces themselves. It may take a little more time to create alt-text tags to go with the screen shots on your blog. It may take more care to ensure that all your links are properly labelled. But doing these things, and others, is just part of good Web design.

If you have specific questions, please leave them in the comments or contact me directly.

Feb 132014
 

Next month I’ll be giving a presentation at catalyst Con on the Nuts and Bolts of Accessibility. I’m super-excited about sharing this knowledge with people in sexuality fields. It’s an exciting balancing act; walking the tightrope of educating while not instructing. In putting this presentation together, I’ve worried a lot about how to not make it sound like there’s just one way to serve the needs of all disabled people, or even all people with one kind of disability because there’s never just one way, beyond the one way of being respectful, caring, and treating all people like people.

Yet, one way is often how it’s framed, whether an event site is labelled “accessible” without specifying for whom, whether a sex toy is touted as being good for the “differently abled” (that term is like nails on a chalkboard for me, but I’ll explain that in another post), or some other all-encompassing statement.

Over the next few weeks I’ll explore here how we can talk about disability and accessibility both inclusively and expansively.

The nuts and bolts of accessibility aren’t just one thing, and they’re not literal. I won’t be handing out monogrammed Allen wrenches at the presentation to go with leaflets proclaiming “10 steps to make your service accessible.”

But nor is accessibility wholly theoretical.

Much of (though certainly not all of) being inclusive of most minority populations falls under the umbrella of developing compassion, recognizing and working with prejudice (our own and others), challenging stigma (our own and others’), and specifically not dictating what people should do with their lives (sexual or otherwise).

Making our spaces and services available, however, very often requires us to change what we do, not just how we think or act. It’s that “what to do” part of it I want to help people with.

I’m excited about talking to people at Catalyst, in particular, I think sexuality professionals are already perfectly positioned to incorporate accessibility thinking and action into our work. We’re already supporting people around deeply stigmatized parts of their lives. We already work with people as individuals and reject one-size-fits-all approaches.

The balance here is maintaining that individualized approach—not all people will need or want the same kinds of accommodations or assistance–while bringing our spaces and services in line with accessibility guidelines.

Accessibility is more of a practice than a philosophy.

We can be as inclusive of disabled people as we want, but if our Web sites look like so much nonsense to a screen reader, or our business is at the top of an entire flight of stairs (or even just one step), or the group activities we’ve planned for our empowerment retreat require listening, reading, or moving around, there will always be a group of people, or more than one, that will be excluded by the services we have to offer.

While what we have to offer cannot always be accessible to everyone—a painting class isn’t going to be much use to a blind person (though it can’t be assumed that all visually impaired people can’t engage in visual arts), and a talk deconstructing feminist philosophical writings might not be comprehensible or enjoyable to people with certain intellectual disabilities—most of us have services that can be tweaked to be available to pretty much anyone who might need or want them.

Establishing an accessibility framework or universal design of our programs or services means that any tweaks for individual customers or clients are just that, tweaks we’d make for any individual because of their marvelous individuality.

One thing I plan never to do, or at least not without a lot of thought and self-questioning first, is run disability simulations. A common disability awareness tactic is to have people don blindfolds, or move around in wheelchairs, supposedly to give them a sense of what it’s like to be blind or mobility impaired, or any other disability they try to simulate.

This is one of the most overused, and, in my opinion, useless and even harmful, “awareness” strategies.

We cannot learn what it is like to be another person, to have their feelings, experiences, histories by taking on one aspect of their existence for a short period of time. These so-called awareness activities simply give the experience of what it’s like to be oneself, without the senses or abilities one usually relies on. Any fear, nervousness, or trepidation a person feels cannot be attributed to the disability in general or to people who have that disability, but to their experience of temporary loss. Put more clearly, your experience of suddenly not being able to see your surroundings is very different from my experience interacting with my surroundings as a blind person, something I’ve done for twenty-eight years now.

What immersion exercises like these can do, I think, is make people more aware of environmental barriers.

To take another context, whenever I read about
We don’t need to do special exercises to develop this awareness. Understanding what being in a wheelchair in your place of business is like could be as simple as wheeling yourself around on a wheeled office chair, not to see what that is like on a feelings level, not to claim any sort of kinship with the experiences of people who need to use a wheelchair all or some of the time, but to see if you can still reach things, move through doorways, get to all parts of the room or building—in short, can you do everything you could do if you were walking?

I think impairment-immersion exercises are about as useful for raising awareness of the human condition as, say, homelessness tourism is for understanding homelessness. Spending a night in a shelter or hanging out with homeless people pretending to be just one of the guys can’t give one the sense of the days, weeks, months, or even years of being homeless (not to mention the days, weeks, months, or even years of circumstances that led up to that homelessness). All it can do (and this is a pretty significant all) is give politicians, and other decision-making folksa sense of how the services work, and of how society in general works for (or as is usually the case, against) homeless people.

When people do supposed disability immersion exercises, the response is often nervousness, titters and laughter, and a general sense of either silliness or disorientation. There are more respectful ways to break tension, and more useful ways to start dialogues and promote change. Much better, I think, to have intelligent conversations and use creativity from the vantage points we already have to understand our spaces and activities differently.

Stay tuned for more thoughts, and a few tips for starting to think about practical accessibility concerns.