An odd thing happens to me–at least once every few months–when I go out in public. It’s been happening since I was a teenager, and my most “visible” disability back then was a pronounced limp on my left side. Strangers seem very eager to try to engage me in conversation about the fact that I have a limp, or (more recently) that I use a cane.
I’ll be going about my day and/or doing things that lots of people do–running errands, going to see friends, going out for lunch–and, like the worst clock ever, on some days the annoying alarm of someone being concerned or just curious goes off:
“You have a limp!”
With minutes left on the buzzer, high school athlete Kevin Grow managed to score an astounding number of points for his team on 8 February. His feat was remarkable given that despite the fact that he’d served as team manager for the last two years, this was his second game ever out on the court. He landed 14 points in two minutes to bring his team to explosive, and decisive, victory. These kinds of stories large and small happen across the US every day, and most of them don’t make the news, but Grow’s did. Grow, you see, has Down syndrome, and the video of his feat went viral, leading the 76ers to sign him to a two-day ‘ceremonial contract.’ Continue reading
Recently, the Tumblr blog Chronic Femmes–which positioned itself as a resource for chronically ill femmes–was the subject of controversy after one of its moderators answered a reader question by saying that it was important for people with chronic pain, chronic health issues, or mental health issues to not “[appropriate] disabled” when identifying themselves as chronically ill (along with some other problematic statements, such as one’s disability status only counts if that person can receive or currently receives public assistance because of their disability). Many Tumblr users with chronic pain and health issues took exception to this–although the moderator who wrote the response, Kendall, quickly apologized for her mistake, the incident itself demonstrates a common misconception about chronic pain and illnesses that feature chronic pain as a symptom–that neither are “really” disabling or debilitating.
Chronic Lyme disease is one of a rather varied group of disabling and/or debilitating health conditions that have in recent years become subjects of controversy within the medical community, as well as public and media scrutiny and skepticism—often to the consternation of people who deal with these illnesses on a daily basis. Similar to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Restless Leg Syndrome, chronic Lyme has been a subject of considerable debate amongst medical doctors (see these posts on Science-Based Medicine for some interesting background material), and has also been particularly galvanizing within patients’ rights communities.
Despite the ongoing controversy, people who have been affected by chronic Lyme or some sort of post-Lyme syndrome have fought to be heard by the medical establishment, the media, and the general public. In recent years, “chronic Lyme” has been getting more attention from the media and the public, and has even come up in popular culture in recent years. In Tamra Davis’s 2013 documentary film on influential riot grrl feminist and musician Kathleen Hanna, The Punk Singer, Hanna reveals that the energy-sapping health issues that have been plaguing her since 2004 (and which caused her to stop performing in 2005) stem from chronic, late-stage Lyme disease. A feature-length documentary about Lyme disease, Under Our Skin, was released in 2009.
The United States often refers to itself as a ‘post-racial’ society, using a Black President and other superficial markers as evidence that it is a nation no longer plagued by racism, by racial inequalities, by white supremacy, and by the dominance of white culture, Whiteness, and ‘white is right’ thinking.
Any person of colour or nonwhite person living in the United States could tell you otherwise, of course, as could any white person willing to pay attention and observe societal and structural imbalances. This is a nation where racial injustice is a pernicious and pervasive evil, one that allows young Black men to be gunned down in the street for holding bags of Skittles, to be executed on train platforms by transit police. This is a country that allows Indigenous women to be raped at a rate 2.5 times higher than women of other races, that allows trans Latinas to be raped, beaten, and murdered. This is what a ‘post-racial’ country looks like.
On many standard demographic questions, you may be asked to select your sexual orientation from a drop-down menu or a checklist. Most questions allow you to choose among heterosexual/straight, homosexual/gay/lesbian, and bisexual. (Many mistakenly list “transgender” as a sexual orientation.) More inclusive options may also allow you to choose among pansexual, polysexual, androsexual, gynosexual, or skollosexual.
But for many of us, none of these terms seem to fit.
Love your body! Stop hating your body; start a revolution! These are just a few of the popular third wave slogans that are fairly well-entrenched as directives, or at least as aspirations, within feminist activism both online and off. There’s Love Your Body Day, sponsored annually by the National Organization for Women (NOW), Love Your Body weeks on various college campuses around North America, and thousands, if not millions, of web pages, graphics, and digital art pieces online that celebrate this theme and encourage women to do so every day. Many liberal feminists have proclaimed that body image –and a matching emphasis on loving your body–is “the” issue for the third wave, as this widely-anthologized essay by Amelia Richards explores.
At a basic level, LYB discourse can be a very positive thing, and it’s often a good stepping-stone for women who are new to feminist ideas. But it’s this very basic quality that can limit–and does –which kinds of bodies are acceptable to reclaim, have pride in, and even love. A cursory Google search for “love your body” brings up a plethora of images of white, visibly abled, young, cisgender, straight, and/or acceptably thin women encouraging other women to love their own bodies. From this cursory Google search, I found one image–the NOW Foundation’s LYB 2009 contest-winning poster designed by Lisa Champ–that shows a variation on the woman clip-art symbol with a (visible) disability. This single image was more than I was expecting to find, but even with this limited representation, there are still problems in how LYB discourse is built for and around abledness–not least of which is its leaving out of disabled bodies. The complex relationships that many women with disabilities of all kinds have with their bodies are left out as well.
Mental health reform in the US typically comes up in one context only: in the wake of incidents of rampage violence. Such incidents are tragic and horrific, and almost as soon as they hit the news, observers decide the person responsible must have been ‘crazy,’ absolving themselves of further exploration of the incident — crazy people ‘just do that,’ and that’s how it is.
Despite the fact that this is a rampant misconception, it’s a commonly held and supported belief, bolstered by media coverage of rampage violence and mental illness. Typically, the longtail aftermath of such incidents is to demand two things: better gun control (usually from the point of view that guns need to be kept out of the hands of mentally ill people) and better regulation of crazy people — for, surely, if mentally ill people were compelled to take medication, register with government agencies, and undergo similar indignities, they wouldn’t be prone to randomly shooting scores of innocent people. (Something the vast majority of mentally ill people actually aren’t prone to doing in the first place — to the contrary, mental illness is a very serious risk factor for being exposed to violence, and mentally ill people are usually victims, not perpetrators, of violence.)
I’ve been a lurker in the online skeptic community for a long time. I am also a feminist with fibromyalgia and several other health conditions (lifelong cerebral palsy and debilitating allergic reactions amongst them).
Whether it’s Dawkins-style puffery on which health conditions “actually exist” versus which are “somatization disorders” or, say, discussions of chronic illnesses that reduce said illnesses to strictly theoretical exercises instead of things (albeit misunderstood things) that impact peoples’ lives, there appears to be an unwillingness to make space for–and listen to–people with those very conditions.
Now, the notion of a skeptic and atheist with a “controversial” health condition will seem strange to some, and even stranger still because of the relative absence of skeptics with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and chronic health conditions in the online skeptic community. The feminist community — even online, where things like gender, ability, race, class, age, and sexuality supposedly “don’t matter” — suffers from similar problems when it comes to including and welcoming people with disabilities, as Neurodivergent K outlined in this excellent post at Feminist Hivemind. The old second-wave canard that women are physically strong is an unquestioned assumption in many modern feminist circles — and has the effect, unintended or not, of leaving out women with disabilities who are not strong or whose health conditions prevent them from being physical dynamos. The idea that chronic illnesses and disabilities like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and related pain/fatigue conditions are bad for the feminist movement–because women with these conditions apparently fulfill the stereotype of women as “weak” and fragile–has also gained some traction in feminist theory, most notably from feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter, who wrote a book in the late 1990s positing that CFS, Gulf War Syndrome and other “controversial” illnesses were media-spread, hysteria-driven epidemics comparable to alien abduction. Add to this the blithe unconcern that mainstream feminism has with disabilities of all kinds–and with women who have disabilities–and you’ve got a fairly unsafe environment for feminists of all genders who happen to have disabilities, or who think that (GASP) disability, chronic pain, and illness are feminist issues! After a while, it starts to look like current online “feminism” is only concerned about fighting for the rights of abled women–those without chronic pain, illness(es), physical disabilities, mental health conditions or who are neuroatypical. Thanks, feminism!
In a nation as obsessed with saving money and pinching pennies as the United States, it is not surprising to see a growing turn toward privatisation. This country is privatising its prisons, turning an already extensive prison-industrial complex into a for-profit empire for firms like the Corrections Corporation of America, it’s created an entirely separate incarceration industry for ‘processing’ undocumented immigrants in detention facilities, it’s privatised schools and police forces, and even fire departments.
In that context, it’s hardly startling to see that the nation clings to notions that privatised health care is the best option (despite appalling health outcomes when compared to other Western countries), and it was perhaps inevitable that states would start to lick their chops at the thought of privatising disability services, as well.