All posts by s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. smith delights in amplifying the voices of those who are often silenced and challenging dominant ideas about justice, equality, and liberation. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. Riling people up while also informing them about ongoing issues in the world around them is a favorite activity, along with taking any and all opportunities to discuss pop culture. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila and a flock of roaming chickens, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. Keep up with s.e. smith at: www.sesmith.info and @sesmithwrites.

Crazies, Guns, and Public Policy

2015 has been a grim year for the United States, with hundreds of gun violence incidents involving four or more victims, equating to more than one a day. This flood of horrors includes mass shootings (four or more victims, regardless of fatalities) and mass killings (four or more people shot and killed), and it accompanies the 1,100 and counting people shot by police in the US over the course of the year. Our collective crisis of violence is deeply disturbing, and so is the simplistic response: The instantaneous attribution of violence to mentally ill people, despite scientific evidence, and the pointed silence on mentally ill people shot by police.

For the mentally ill community, every single mass shooting results in a collective bracing against the tide of disablism that will result as the sane public insists that only crazies do this sort of thing, and that to stem the tide of gun violence, we need only make it impossible for mentally ill people to get guns. This rhetoric, complete with slurs, comes out of the mouths of presidential candidates. It crops up endlessly on social media. It appears in opinion editorials in major newspapers. It serves as a reminder that we are the dregs of society — that despite amply illustrating with statistics on mental illness and violence that we are not a threat, we will continue to be viewed as such.

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Here we go again: Oscar season and disability porn

The 87th Academy Awards are this weekend, so it’s a good time to talk about a familiar old friend: Oscarbait. Three films this year were definitely having a go at taking home a gold statuette via one of the most time-honoured traditions of Hollywood: Cripping up. On a routine basis, one or more actors dons disability for the year, usually in a film that critics refer to as ‘inspirational,’ ‘heartwarming,’ and ‘profound.’

This year, The Theory of Everything, Still Alice, and Cake all gunned for Oscar gold and other awards, with Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Aniston playing disabled characters for the big screen. None of these actors has publicly identified as disabled, while all three are being taken as authorities on disability — after all, they’ve done a bit of research and it can’t be that difficult. Moreover, the fact that these kinds of roles set actors up for awards hasn’t escaped them, rest assured.

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Accessibility in Utopia

In its simplest form, accessibility is usually defined as changes to the built environment designed to enable full participation by and inclusion of disabled people . Ramps and grab bars are common examples, with accessibility also extending to the presentation of materials in multiple formats to meet varying needs. Braille and sign language, for example, are provided for blind and vision-impaired people as well as D/deaf and hard of hearing people respectively. Likewise, accessibility can include modification of materials and curricula to accommodate disabled students, the provision of quiet rooms at conferences for autistic attendees, and other measures intended to make the environment more pleasant and functional for people with cognitive, intellectual, and developmental impairments.

These are measures that I term “physical access” both in my work and for the purpose of this essay. They are all intended to create more welcoming environments, and in some cases are required by law; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, for example, has stringent requirements for new public construction mandating features like ramps and accessible bathrooms in order to ensure equal access for disabled people. Yet, over 20 years after the passage of the ADA, compliance rates are still extremely low.

The fact that a law had to be passed in the first place is an illustration of ableism and how it functions in society: that people don’t think disabled people should automatically have access to all the same public spaces nondisabled people do is striking. And the surprise at the amount of agitation from disability activists on the subject is notable as well, with mainstream society behaving as though this is something new. The disability rights movement has been active for over 100 years, lobbying for the rights of disabled factory workers in the Industrial Revolution, returning soldiers in the First and Second World Wars, and more. Disabled organizers participated in the upsurge of civil disobedience and protests during the Civil Rights Movement, and fought hard for the passage of the ADA and similar legislation as well as court verdicts like Olmstead versus L.C. . Their fight has always been one for full access and inclusion.

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Not Your Good Fatty: HAES and Disability

Health at every size is a concept embraced by some fat and size acceptance activists. For those not familiar with it, it was popularised by Linda Bacon, and simply put, it suggests that there’s a wide variation of bodies and that people should focus on what makes their bodies healthy, rather than on eating and exercising for weight control. There are a number of components of health at every size, including ‘intuitive eating’ and the concept of ‘joyful movement.’

When I initially heard about HAES back in my nascent days of exploring fat, size, and my relationship with my own body, I was excited about it. I’d been reading a lot of stories about the false beliefs about fat and health, and I liked the idea of a movement specifically reinforcing the idea that being fat doesn’t make you unhealthy, since one of the most common charges levied against us fat folks is that we are unhealthy because we are fat, that fat makes people unhealthy.

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Arguing About Vaccines While Rome Burns

The United States is deep in the throes of measles outbreaks on two coasts, in the Bay Area and New York City, with isolated patches of the disease elsewhere. This fully vaccine-preventable illness, which was officially ‘eliminated’ from the US, is experiencing a renaissance for one simple reason: people aren’t vaccinating their children, and they aren’t getting their adult boosters to ensure continued immunity throughout life.

It seems absurd, given that measles can be fatal and it can cause long-term neurological impairments in patients who recover from the infection. This applies not just to children, but also immunocompromised adults who can’t get vaccinated; people who are HIV+ or have autoimmune disorders are at serious risk if they get infected with measles. When an easy preventative step is available to address an illness with potentially serious consequences and people aren’t taking advantage of it, one is, quite reasonably, led to ask: why?

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When Education is a Privilege, Not a Right

In the United States, the government promises free universal access to education through high school (grade 12), providing funding to a vast network of public schools across the nation. The education system in practice is a deeply flawed, troubled institution, one rife with discrimination, inequality, and gross imbalances; children of colour going to school in a facility with clogged toilets and peeling walls while their wealthy counterparts enjoy an airy, leafy campus with impeccable facilities and the best, most modern technology, for example.

But on the surface, education in the United States is supposed to be a fundamental right, something accessible to all children. In fact, the country so aggressively pursues it that to not go to school is to find yourself meeting the truancy officer; if you don’t go to public school or who have parents with the power to pay for private education, you must be homeschooled with a curriculum approved by the state. In other words, this is more of an enforced right, as it were, at least for some students; again, inequality shows here when it comes to which students are closely watched and encouraged to stay in school.

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‘People Collectors’ Use Disabled People Like ATMs

Content note: this piece discusses graphic details of caregiver abuse for the purpose of examining the scope and nature of abuse inflicted by people entrusted with the lives of disabled people who need assistance to complete tasks of daily living. Some of it may be disturbing. Be advised that linked stories contain explicit details. 

Impairments can be highly variable in nature. Some allow people to live more or less completely independently, while others necessitate more interdependent relationships, and others require regular supportive care. Disabled people with with impairments that require some level of support are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and, thanks to social attitudes, they’re devalued by the people around them — including the representatives of the very government agencies that are supposed to protect them.

The United States is experiencing an epidemic of caregiver abuse, a problem that extends to the elderly community in addition to the disabled community, and it’s a problem that’s not just limited to US shores. One of the most sinister forms this abuse takes is that of the so-called ‘people collector,’ the people who take caregiver abuse to an entirely new and horrific level. In 2011, for instance, the Tacony dungeon case attracted international headlines, but the most disturbing thing about that case may not have been the suffering endured by four captives trapped in a basement for almost a decade — rather, the true horror lay in how many cases just like it haven’t been discovered yet.

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Kevin Grow and Disability As Inspiration

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 “Kevin Grow and Disability As Inspiration” »

A Nightmare of Prison Mental Health

The United States has been convulsed in recent years with arguments over mental health services, usually in the wake of rampage violence, which is blamed on mentally ill people regardless as to the mental health status of the culprit — to commit such crimes, evidently, is to be a ‘madman,’ regardless as to any actual evidence for or against that thesis. The sane want to see the insane locked away where we can’t hurt anyone, while the insane just want to access some mental health services so we can live our lives in relative health, happiness, and safety.

In other words, all we truly want are some basic human and civil rights, along with a recognition of the fact that we are human beings and deserve the same respect accorded to all people. Living with a mental illness does not make someone a criminal, and the increasing trend towards criminalising mental illness is both frightening and dangerous. It is turning mental health providers into police, police into mental health providers, and patients into pawns to be moved around a very dangerous and sometimes explosive chess board.

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Racial Disparities in Health Outcomes: Let’s Play the Race Card

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.

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