Skip to content

Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck published on No Comments on Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

This year, Adam Cohen came out with Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Buck, a white, working-class Virginian, was raped by the nephew of the Dobbses, the bourgeois couple in whose house she was working. The Dobbses thus had her categorized as “feebleminded” and institutionalized in the Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. There she attracted the attention of various assholes [Albert Priddy, director of the Colony, Aubrey Strode, the lawyer who drafted the Virginia law, and Harry Laughlin, veritable Nazi who served as expert witness for the prosecution] who wanted to use her as a test case to secure the constitutionality of Virginia’s recently passed eugenics law.

Like many other states at the time, Virginia was caught up in the burgeoning enthusiasm over eugenics. Ostensibly about improving the human race through selective breeding, eugenics was actually about breeding more straight, white, cis, able-bodied, rich, smart virtuous WASPs like us and keeping those defective, vicious, disabled, vacuous, non-white people out. Anyway, Virginia’s law allowed state-sponsored sterilization of people with various “mental defects.” Despite the evidence being made up entirely of unscientific, sexist, racist, ableist, classist lies, the Amherst County Supreme Court upheld it.

The assholes, however, wanted their law to be ratified by even higher authorities. Buck’s “defense” lawyer, who was so in cahoots with the opposing counsel that his picture appears in the dictionary under the definition of moral bankruptcy, appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The higher court upheld the appeal in 1925, and still the assholes carried bravely on. In 1927, Buck v. Bell went before the United States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land ruled in favor of state-sponsored rape, with a ringing endorsement coming from Chief Justice Asshole Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Three generations of imbeciles [Buck’s mother, also institutionalized at the same colony, and Buck’s daughter included, though no one had really tested Buck’s daughter’s mental abilities] are enough!”

Buck was re-institutionalized, given a nonconsensual salpingectomy, and not at all informed about the consequences of the operation. She was also deprived of the chance to form a relationship with her kid, who, for some reason, was being raised by the Dobbses, who institutionalized Buck in the first place. She was eventually released from the institution; she then worked intermittently as a household cleaner and seasonal orchard picker, married twice, apparently loved her husbands, and, when she heard about what the salpingectomy had done to her, always grieved her inability to have kids.

Laws such as the one tested in Buck v. Bell gained popularity, peaking in the late 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 drew attention away from “mental defectives” and toward a horrendously tanking economy. It also didn’t help that the guy who served as eugenics expert witness in Buck v. Bell, Harry Laughlin, enthusiastically sucked up to the rising Nazi regime. Despite these factors and the expose of eugenics as junk science, legal eugenic sterilization persisted in the United States till at least 1983, when Oregon finally dissolved its Board of Institutionalized Bigotry Social Protection. In fact, Buck v. Bell remains “good law,” according to Cohen, and courts continue to cite it, even in this millennium, as justification for sterilization of disabled people. Indeed, the current fetishization of the genome and the rising popularity of genetic testing for disease markers both raise the unsettling possibility that the eugenics movement will pop up again.

Anyway, not only is reproductive rights a timely topic, but Buck’s story is a dramatic one, so Cohen has potent, pertinent material here. In measured, well-documented prose, he tells the story of Buck v. Bell with two chapters each on Priddy, Laughlin, Strode, and Holmes, bookended on either side by a chapter on Buck. He applies keen analysis to some aspects of the story, but totally misses other significant opportunities. Thus it’s an uneven book.

Cohen excels at his treatment of socioeconomic class, his analysis of Strode, and his takedown of Holmes. In terms of class, he is always attentive to the ways in which class pressures and expectations shape the players’ lives. He observes that the Dobbses’ push for middle-class respectability required the disposal of their working-class servant in a “colony” for the “feebleminded” when she had the audacity to be raped by the Dobbses’ nephew. He also demonstrates the influence of class in Holmes’ life; born among the socially conservative, neo-Puritan snobs of the Boston Brahmin class, he owed every single advancement in his life to the behind-the-scenes connections fostered by this good ol’ boys’ club. With details like these, Cohen ably proves that Buck v. Bell exemplified contemporary concerns about social class — in particular, the nasty poor people, with all their vices and feeble minds, becoming too numerous and steamrolling the awesome rich people, who were naturally smart and good.

Also particularly strong is Cohen’s portrayal of Strode, the lawyer who drafted the original Virginia bill and followed it all the way up to the Supreme Court. Scion of one of Virginia’s elite families and avowed Confederate sympathizer, Strode might at first glance seem to be a garden variety Southern bigot, especially with his hand in having nonconsensual sterilization enshrined as the law of the land. However, Cohen shows Strode as a complex figure, progressive in the areas of women’s rights and higher education, who probably didn’t even support eugenics at all. He purposely drafted the initial law to be as narrow and restrictive as possible, and, unlike Holmes, who wouldn’t shut up about his magnificent majority opinion, barely mentioned the whole subject of eugenics in his life afterward. Cohen makes these points not to garner sympathy for Strode, since Strode clearly chose to draft the bill and serve as prosecutor for the case, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Instead, Cohen’s portrayal of Strode’s ambivalence neatly encapsulates the country’s own ambivalence on the subject of eugenics.

Finally, Cohen does a masterful job of replacing the saintly ideal of Holmes with a more accurate picture of the man’s full character and motivations. While Holmes may be remembered for his aphorisms on free speech, Cohen argues that his upbringing as a member of the hierarchical, ancestry-obsessed, self-important Boston Brahmins largely shaped his political views. He was actually more of a pro-business, anti-civil rights conservative who regularly struck down or dissented on cases of reducing work hours for laborers or improving working conditions. He had an essentially passive, reactive view of the law, which was basically that it shouldn’t be socially activist in a way that changed policy, but that it should just execute whatever was passed until someone stepped forward to challenge it. This passive, socially disengaged perspective extended throughout his life; for example, he bragged about never reading newspapers and seemed to make a virtue of being clueless to events and trends occurring beyond the tip of his nose [except for eugenics]. Enamored with his self-concept as a brilliant, eloquent, accomplished genius, he chose to ignore the fact that his brilliance was completely untempered by compassion and social consciousness, his eloquence called into service for arrogant, venomous, mean-spirited opinions attacks, and his accomplishments largely the result of the socioeconomic class in which he was born. Cohen uses both close analysis of Holmes’ opinions and a close reading of Holmes’ private letters to effectively puncture the myth of Holmes as practically perfect. It’s very satisfying.

All this said, Cohen only tells part of the story. He fails to include material that would make his book even stronger and more convincing. His treatment of Buck, disability, and race are ultimately unsatisfying. In terms of Buck, though she has two chapters, just like all other major players, they are ultimately scant. For example, though Cohen refers to Buck’s elementary school report cards as evidence of her average mental capacity, he quotes them only once. Even more egregiously, when he has the chance to use Buck’s own words, he doesn’t take it. He uses the most direct quotes in the final chapter, describing Buck’s later years, including her efforts to have her mom de-institutionalized. Yet he also refers to Buck’s letters in general, commenting on the neat penmanship and only sporadic grammar mistakes. This leaves the impression that Buck produced a lot of firsthand documentation of her post-trial years that Cohen omitted, except for a superficial comment on Buck’s ability to hold a pen. For someone so insistent that Buck’s voice was never heard at all in these cases [beyond her statement at the initial trial “that her people” would “take care” of her, which suggests that she had no clue what was going on], Cohen certainly devalues Buck and her experiences.

My close reading of Cohen himself reveals telling details about why he silences Buck. He wants to depict her as a pathetic, innocent victim who did nothing wrong whatsoever and was totally betrayed by mean, rich men. To this end, he is obsessed with the adjective “helpless,” one of his most-used descriptors for Buck. Indeed, Buck was helpless before the straight, white, rich, cis, WASPy men who used their privilege to rape her, but she also had agency in other areas of her life. I understand that this book focuses more narrowly on the Buck v. Bell case, but Cohen’s exaggeration of Buck’s supposed helplessness turns her into a bit player in her own life.

Cohen not only fails Buck personally, but he also fails in his portrayal of eugenics in general by inadequately addressing the ableism and racism at work in its rise. Yes, I am aware that Cohen is telling the story of a white woman, Buck, who has no intellectual or physical disabilities. That doesn’t excuse, however, his omission of the ableist and racist implications of eugenics, as well as the ableist and racist purposes to which the United States put eugenics laws.

Beyond being a way for rich people to try to literally cut poor people out of existence, sterilization — and indeed the whole eugenics movement — was also against people with mental and physical disabilities. Cohen gestures toward this when he follows the history of sterilization laws, in which blind, deaf, and or “crippled” people were sometimes included as eligible populations. For the most part, though, he strenuously avoids a disability rights analysis. For example, his preoccupation with arguing that Buck wasn’t “feebleminded” seems particularly wrong-headed. Her mental capacity is important insofar as all the pro-eugenics people flat out lied in their claims that she, her mom, and her daughter had intellectual disabilities. But even if Buck and her family members were intellectually disabled, re-raping her via salpingectomy would be morally repugnant as a breach of her right to bodily integrity. Again, Cohen alludes to such ableist violations when quoting some anti-eugenics rulings, but he doesn’t face the infantilization and objectification of disabled people head-on. He seems more interested in stoking reader outrage by harping on Buck’s average intelligence, the implication being that institutionalization and forced sterilization of a person without disabilities is worse than the same fate for a disabled person. I smell ableism — and not just in the historical record, but in the historiography itself.

Finally, the whole concept of eugenics is a racist fallacy, pitting white/Anglo-Saxon/Aryan proponents against people of other colors with other racial identities. Cohen illustrates this well in his discussion of Laughlin’s sucking up to the Nazis, who, inspired by eugenics work in the United States, expanded the racism to genocidal proportions. Strangely enough, however, Cohen leaves out the racist practices fostered by Buck v. Bell that occurred in the U.S. As Nancy Gallagher capably shows in Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, eugenics/sterilization laws disproportionately burdened not just poor people and/or people with [real or imagined] disabilities, but also people who weren’t white. In Vermont, the Abenaki Indians were seen as the racial undesireables and so particularly pursued for sterilization, but, in other states, other populations were victimized. Lack of attention to the racial minorities in the U.S. who were persecuted gives the unfounded impression that eugenic racism only happened over there in Germany, with those evil Nazis. No, it happened here too, and it’s vital to emphasize that it happened in the U.S. — indeed, pretty much started in the U.S. — because part of Cohen’s conclusion warns that the currents of eugenics may be at an ebb right now, but could easily swell again.

P.S. Cohen’s title, Imbeciles, also really rankled me. As I mentioned earlier, Buck was never categorized as an “imbecile,” but as a “moron,” both of which were official categories back then referring to putative mental age and ability. I assume that Cohen’s title derives from Holmes’ “three generations of imbeciles” bullshit and also the fact that “morons” just doesn’t flow off the tongue like the slightly longer “imbeciles.” Still, it’s a rhetorical flourish that’s factually incorrect. Furthermore, the placement of “the Supreme Court,” a group of individuals, right after the colon transfers connotations of “imbecility,” along with contempt and negative judgment, to the justices. Thus Cohen uses the tired ableist tactic of turning a term of intellectual disability, albeit outmoded, into an insult. In conjunction with Cohen’s problematic treatment of Buck’s intelligence and his general omission of eugenics’ ableist consequences, the title exemplifies Cohen’s own problematic perspective on disability.

Home invaders, vampires, rapists, kidnappers, and other people who think intent is magic

Home invaders, vampires, rapists, kidnappers, and other people who think intent is magic published on No Comments on Home invaders, vampires, rapists, kidnappers, and other people who think intent is magic

I detest characters who think that no means yes [fuckin’ Lovelace… >_> ], but I must admit I have a special depth of hatred for characters who manipulate others’ ambivalence.

For example, in no particular order:

  • Christian Grey. As I’ve discussed ad nauseam [most recently here], Ana thinks Christian’s pretty hot. However, he also terrifies her. Christian gives exactly zero shits about Ana’s terror. He assumes that her lust for him means that she wants him. He equates the presence of her lust with consent to sexual activity. Thus, in his mind, he is perfectly justified in raping her.
  • Frank from Rocky Horror. In my discussion of rape scenes I’ve missed, there are successive parts of RHPS in which Frank rapes both Brad and Janet. Both of them express distress in these scenes, as well as some indications that they’re turned on. Some twisted logic in Frank’s mind, same result.
  • That pervert in that movie who’s obviously watching that girl’s house, just waiting for her to give him an excuse to break, enter, scare her, and wangle her into his mind games. [Which movie? Find out below the cut.]


I have a particularly violent loathing for scenes according to the following template:

Protagonist [all by herself]: Hmmmm, should I do make this statement?

Audience: No!

Protagonist: I really shouldn’t.

Audience: Yes!

Protagonist: I mean, it’s not very nice…

Audience: Don’t say it!

Continue reading Home invaders, vampires, rapists, kidnappers, and other people who think intent is magic

Father of Lies part II: disability = difference

Father of Lies part II: disability = difference published on No Comments on Father of Lies part II: disability = difference

I just reread Father of Lies by Ann Turner, and I both love it and hate it in equal measure. Briefly put, it’s about Lidda, an unconventional Puritan girl who lives in the time of the Salem witchcraft outbreak. She feels compelled to denounce her town’s mass panic over the supposed machinations of Satan. Her developing relationship with an invisible man inside her, Lucian, who encourages her defiant, rebellious behavior and claims to give her the power to see the truth of the witchcraft accusations, makes her life somewhat more complicated. Much to my dismay, Turner completely misrepresents Salem, a failure that I have discussed earlier at great length. As the Goblin King would say, “What a pity,” because Turner does so well at other aspects of the story. For example, her depiction of Lidda and Lucian’s relationship — indeed, Lidda’s mental illness in general — is powerful, sensitive, nuanced, rich, and basically everything that I wish her treatment of Salem was.


Regarding Lidda’s mental illness, it is neither a surprise nor a spoiler that she has one. The Library of Congress data at the front of the book categorizes Father of Lies as a book about “1. Manic-depressive illness — Fiction,” even before “2. Trials (Witchcraft) — Fiction.” If that ain’t explicit enough, Turner dedicates the book to “all those with bipolar disorder who work so hard to make lives for themselves.” She also includes an afterword entitled About Bipolar Disorder, in which she makes it clear that all of Lidda’s strange and frightening perceptions [racing thoughts, seeing auras, uncontrollable movement, hallucinations] may be adequately explained by the disorder. Though she concludes with an open question about Lucian’s reality, Turner obviously characterizes him as a hallucination, an unreal product of Lidda’s imagination, and thus the most salient symptom of her mental illness.

Okay, so Lidda has a mental illness, and she directs much of her time, energy, and interest to Lucian, a person who does not exist outside of her head. Now, if this were a typical book written by an author without a mental illness and/or characters in their head, Lidda’s mental illness and her relationship with Lucian would be horrible barriers to happiness, fulfillment, or satisfaction. Lidda’s inability to be like everyone else would cause her no end of distress; her relationship with Lucian would just highlight for her what she was missing in relationships with people outside her head. In other words, she would be wretched and miserable because of her mental illness. She would only attain peace through managing her symptoms, denying her unique perceptions, and almost certainly killing off Lucian. And the narrative would stink of condescending pity for the poor little mentally disabled protagonist.


But this is not your typical book written by someone without a mental illness [and, I’m assuming, without characters like Lucian in her head]. Nope, in fact, Turner takes both Lidda and Lucian seriously in Father of Lies. While definite that Lidda has a mental illness, of which Lucian is a particularly egregious manifestation, Turner accords Lidda robust characterization without ableist authorial pity. Because of her mental illness, Lidda suffers physical and emotional pain that those around her do not: when she feels chilled and overheated in rapid succession, for example, or when she panics upon seeing flames emanating from her sister’s head. Yet she also experiences unshared joys: the sense of flight and freedom in a wild onrush of thoughts, the secret solace of a friend inside her who admires her for those traits that people around her chastise. As Turner writes it, Lidda’s mental illness makes her life different from that of most people around her, and it frequently contributes to the difficulties she faces. However, Lidda’s mental illness is never shown as inherently bad, wrong, pathetic, or burdensome. It may be disabling on occasion, but mostly it’s just a difference upon which the author places no negative judgment.

Turner’s respect for Lidda comes across most subtly and pervasively in the way that Lucian is written. As noted, Turner’s descriptions of Lucian as a voice in Lidda’s head, a sensation centered in her belly, and sometimes a shifting, flickering form on the wall demonstrate to the reader that he is an imaginary, unreal hallucination and byproduct of Lidda’s mental illness. To Lidda, however, he is a true, concrete, separate individual with his own agenda and personality. She jokes with him, argues with him, asks his advice, wonders where he goes when he won’t talk to her, fantasizes about him, and otherwise treats him like a real person. Turner reports all of Lidda’s interactions with Lucian in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. Turner never looks down on Lidda for believing in Lucian, nor does she invite the reader to do so.  Avoiding the evaluative and contemptuous distance endemic to so many portrayals of people with disabilities and/or mental illness, Turner’s portrait of Lidda shows that she is mentally ill, but also fully human, fully sympathetic, and fully dignified.

I must note that Turner’s treatment of Lidda isn’t perfect, verging as it does on the stereotype of Super Crip with Compensatory Powers. In the concluding paragraph of the afterword, Turner writes, “Was Lidda mad, or was she saner than the villagers? You decide” [p. 239]. Ignoring the artificially binary choice, we can discern that Turner wants us to answer yes to both questions. She wants us to think that, yes, Lidda was “mad” or mentally ill, and, yes, she was “saner” — or, more precisely, more reasonable and accurate in her analysis of the witchcraft outbreak — than the villagers. In fact, because Turner has Lucian tell Lidda that he gives her the wit to separate truth from lies, Turner effectively argues that Lidda’s reasonable, accurate analyses derive directly from her mental illness. Like Daredevil, Professor X, Daphne in Heroes, or any other superhero who loses some capacity, but then gains a magical ability that allows them to do way more than they ever did and thus basically renders the lost capacity irrelevant, Lidda has the superpower of seeing the truth. Her superpower comes from her mental illness and reinforces her unfortunate status as an insufferable Visionary Before Her Time Doomed to Pass Her Days Among the Small-Minded Masses. [See my analysis of this anachronistic concept in part I.] In other words, Turner risks defining Lidda by — and thus reducing her to and objectifying her with — her disability. Turner’s sympathetic and respectful treatment of Lidda ensures Lidda’s full humanization, but the deleterious authorial tendency to objectification yet remains.


Despite my caveat, I generally approve of Turner’s deployment of mental illness in Father of Lies. Though it occasionally smells like a crashingly obvious metaphor that Turner uses to highlight the “true” “madness” at play [i.e., the anti-witchcraft panic], Lidda’s mental illness mostly functions with a refreshing realism. Sometimes it contributes to her distress, sometimes to her happiness, always to her unique interpretation of reality. While Lidda’s mental illness sometimes estranges her from people and causes her difficulties because her perceptions don’t accord with others’, Turner does not ask the reader to pity Lidda because of her disability. The matter-of-fact way in which Turner reports on Lidda’s treatment of Lucian demonstrates that Lidda recognizes her difference from other people, but does not think any worse of herself for it. In a culture where the treatment of people with disabilities defaults to snide objectification, Turner’s well-rounded, compassionate characterization of Lidda is a radical [and depressingly uncommon] argument for disability rights.


Well, it looks like I don’t have time tonight to expatiate about Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams. More later….

Part I here.

Part III here.

Part IV here.

Part V here.

Kanya Sesser skateboards and surfs on hands, models lingerie, kicks ass, prompts ableist “journalism”

Kanya Sesser skateboards and surfs on hands, models lingerie, kicks ass, prompts ableist “journalism” published on No Comments on Kanya Sesser skateboards and surfs on hands, models lingerie, kicks ass, prompts ableist “journalism”

23-year-old Californian skateboarder, surfer, Paralympian in training, motivational speaker, and lingerie model Kanya Sesser is unusual because she is a successful multisport athlete and model who was born without legs. She is definitely newsworthy because of her achievements in realms from with people with disabilities are all too frequently excluded. Her challenge to ableist beauty standards — “I’m different and that is sexy; I don’t need legs to feel sexy…These images show my strength” — also rates coverage, as the idea that people with visible physical disabilities are sexy, sexual, confident, and okay with their bodies is, unfortunately, a mind-blowing concept for most people. Yes! She is a cool person with notable achievements in fields uncommon for people with physical disabilities! The news media should definitely propagate her story!


That said, coverage needs to nix the “overcoming disability,”  “inspirational,”  and “something missing” angles, especially when Sesser obviously doesn’t promote them herself. The New York Daily News article to which I linked describes Sesser as “determined to overcome her disability” from her youth. Never mind the fact that Sesser says nothing about overcoming anything. She talks about “expressing [her]self in a different way than people usually see,” enjoying herself [“It’s something fun”], making money, and “showing people what beauty can look like.” These are not the words of a person “determined to overcome her disability.” These are the words of a person who has decided to campaign against ableist conceptions of beauty and ability by demonstrating that she, as a person with a disability, is attractive, expressive, playful, and sexy. Y’all need to stop putting words in Sesser’s mouth, clueless journos.


As for the “inspirational” and “something missing” argle bargle, it shows up in articles like this one from Bustle. The article introduces Sesser as someone with “the biggest reason to be bitter about” her body, but then goes on to say that “she’s got enough determination, drive, and talent to make up for” the fact that she does not have legs. A clip of an interview with Sesser is introduced as “inspiring advice.” Once again, the coverage is ignoring Sesser’s actual story. She says nothing about bitterness; that’s an editorial aside on the part of the writer, who assumes that a person with a physical disability would automatically feel bitter because of her bodily difference. Sesser also says nothing about compensating for her physical disability by working extra hard; again, this phrasing speaks to the ableist assumption that her disability creates an emptiness inherent in her life. Finally, Sesser never describes herself as inspirational. She’s not doing a Supercrip performance to elicit the ableist hordes’ condescending admiration. As she herself states [see first paragraph], she is living publicly as an athletically active, commercially successful person with a physical disability because she is explicitly challenging limited conceptions of what people with disabilities can do and be and how they can act. The ableist media needs to stop silencing her with its patronizing templates and let her speak for herself.

“A path out of autism,” or, Parents who can’t stand it when their autistic kids don’t make eye contact

“A path out of autism,” or, Parents who can’t stand it when their autistic kids don’t make eye contact published on No Comments on “A path out of autism,” or, Parents who can’t stand it when their autistic kids don’t make eye contact

This article “Can an app for Google Glass offer a path out of autism?” really infuriates me. The Beta Boston post describes apps for the head-mounted eyeglass computer Google Glass. In development by Cambridge, MA startup Brain Power, apps aim to encourage autistic kids to maintain eye contact when people are talking to them. One app rewards eye contact with images of popular cartoon characters, while another highlights an interlocutor’s eyes, since kids with autism may tend to focus on someone’s mouth instead.

I support the ultimate goal here, that is, teaching commonly accepted social skills to people who might not have them [if the people want them] so that they can connect with conventionally socialized people. I’m all for increased communication, especially between people with disabilities and people without — mostly so that the people with disabilities have a chance to tell ableist dipsticks to take their assumptions and shove off. :p

While I advocate for the goal, I decry the means to the end. This article makes clear that no people with autism were involved in the development of Brain Power apps. Founder Ned Sahin has no personal experience with autism, even though he was keynote speaker at this month’s Autism Investment Conference. Creators of the apps didn’t even talk to kids with autism directly when they brainstormed. Do kids with autism who don’t make eye contact think that their lack of eye contact is a problem? Do they want to develop methods for maintaining eye contact? Do they think that cartoon characters and highlighted mouths might help them? Who knows?

Brain Power apparently didn’t think that the firsthand input from app users was important. Instead they asked parents what the parents wanted for their children. In other words, Brain Power’s apps result from asking a bunch of people who are not kids and not necessarily autistic what software they, the non-autistic adults, would like so that the autistic kids in their lives could better conform to their expectations of properly socialized human beings. Or, to put it more bluntly, Brain Power violates the dictum strongly associated with the U.S. disability rights movement: “Nothing about us without us.” With arrogant condescension, Brain Power’s non-autistic developers assumed that they knew what autistic kids needed and thus received praise from an ableist public that denies consideration of the voices of people with disabilities.

By the way, anyone who tries to rebut me by pointing out that some kid who tried out the Brain Power apps said, “I think I am breaking out of an autism prison!” will be summarily ignored. I am not arguing against Brain Power apps’ potential ability to benefit people. Rather I am arguing against the viewpoint that spawned these apps: i.e., a world view in which kids with autism are problematic individuals with limited understanding who can only be made to sustain eye contact through rewards such as pictures of cartoon animals. Why are autistic kids who don’t make eye contact considered a problem? Why aren’t non-autistic parents who are so hung up on eye contact as a marker of interaction that they can’t accommodate other ways of being considered a problem? Why aren’t ableist startups who want to use technology to train kids out of their disabilities so that they parents can be happier considered a problem?

Paul Smith takes typewriter art to the next level! Also Reeva Steenkamp is still dead.

Paul Smith takes typewriter art to the next level! Also Reeva Steenkamp is still dead. published on No Comments on Paul Smith takes typewriter art to the next level! Also Reeva Steenkamp is still dead.

As much as I hate to draw attention to stories that portray people with disabilities as sources of inspiration, I’m linking to this story about Paul Smith. For decades, he used a select ten characters from a typewriter to create intricate works of art. I love the bold and yet sketchy lines he makes. Very cool!

Yes, it is relevant to Smith’s art that he had cerebral palsy. His inability to use a more traditional instrument such as a brush or pencil prompted him to employ the typewriter. However, there’s absolutely no need to describe Smith as "suffering from" a "terrible condition" and therefore "remarkable" and "awe-inspiring" because he created art. There’s no indication that Smith perceived himself as suffering, burdened or even awe-inspiring. In a video about his work, he says, "It’s something to do." As far as I can tell, he was enjoying himself as he listened to classical music and meticulously created his masterpieces character by character. I’m not claiming that Smith had a purely joyous existence — for example, he didn’t attend mainstream school, which leads me to speculate that he might have felt painfully lonely in his youth — but I’m not seeing the horrible suffering that this stinky article assumes he felt.

I desperately loathe the trope of disabled person as inspiration to non-disabled people. The OddityCentral article epitomizes the dehumanization implicit in this theme when it concludes, "He died on June 24, 2007, at the Rose Haven Nursing Center in Roseburg, Oregon, but left behind an impressive portfolio of typewriter art, and most importantly the inspiration that you can overcome anything in life, if you put your mind to it." This sentence dismisses the entire content, texture and detail of Smith’s life by depicting him solely as an oppressed person who miraculously overcame his oppression to make art. It assumes that Smith’s disability can be separated from his experience and art, that it’s a barrier between him and a fulfilling life — because there’s obviously no way a person with a disability could ever have a fulfilling, happy life while also having a disability. In short, this sentence dehumanizes Smith by assuming that an inextricable part of his life, his cerebral palsy, can be excised like an early stage of cancer.

But the article isn’t satisfied with chopping up Smith into neat little segments [Person vs. Disability] and comparing him to some  non-disabled person’s ridiculous standard of a fulfilling life. No, the conclusion dehumanizes him a second time as well when it dismisses his artistic accomplishments and legacy, claiming that Smith’s status as "inspiration" is more important. Yes, who cares about Smith’s life and art and disability and the relationships among these elements of his experience? Smith was not a significant person who deserved dignity and respect like all other beings. No! He was a superhuman exception to humanity whose primary purpose in this world was to educate the lowly non-disabled people about how we, too, can distance ourselves from the revolting materiality of our weak and mortal flesh and transform ourselves into pure creative mind, ascending to a plane where physical pains and distinctions are irrelevant.

I also hate the Supercrip narrative because of its creaky old Cartesian dualist underpinnings that smack strongly of racism and sexism. Relatedly, Eddie Ndopu discusses just such misogyny and racism inherent in portrayals of Reeva Steenkamp’s killer, athlete and miserable human being Oscar Pistorius. [My other discussions of sexism, ableism and racism at work in Steenkamp’s murder and the portrayal thereof can be found at "Reeva Steenkamp, 29, is dead" and "Reeva Steenkamp still dead; ex still to blame, but declared innocent of murder by courts."]

This entry was originally posted at You can comment here, but I’d prefer it if you’d comment on my DW using OpenID.

“Spastic” has NEVER been an “innocuous” term over here.

“Spastic” has NEVER been an “innocuous” term over here. published on 3 Comments on “Spastic” has NEVER been an “innocuous” term over here.

In one of Weird Al’s recent parodies, Word Crimes, about a prescriptivist’s rant against supposed language misuse, he sings:

Saw your blog post
It’s really fantastic
That was sarcastic
‘Cause you write like a spastic

When I heard this part of the song, my esteem for him immediately plummeted, as "spastic" is, in my world, a derogatory, dismissive term for a very energetic and/or clumsy and/or forgetful and/or fidgety and/or unintelligent person. It derives from "spastic" as a description for people, particularly those with cerebral palsy, because of their muscle spasms. Said spasms, which cause uncontrollable contractions and may cause involuntary movements, may cause a person’s limbs, head or core to shake. Speech may also be interrupted. People who didn’t know any better interpreted these spasm-induced movements as signs that disabled people were overly excitable, clumsy, forgetful, fidgety, uncoordinated, etc. It became a shorthand insult, which then itself was shortened to "spaz," a term most prevalent in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Let me tell you about muscle spasms, at least from my secondhand experience. My sister Jill, who has cerebral palsy, regularly experiences them. My ex-wife, who also had cerebral palsy, had them. Janna regularly has them as well. In all their cases, their muscle spasms manifest as uncontrollable twitching and jerking in the affected body parts. In all cases, the spasms cause them pain and sometimes keep them up at night. In none of their cases do their muscle spasms have any connection with their overall levels of energy, coordination, excitability, forgetfulness and/or fidgetiness. In none of their cases do their muscle spasms limit their brain functions. To take an adjective for disruptive, excruciating pain and transform it into a dismissive term for a silly person is a prime example of rank ableism.

This is why I object to Language Log’s discussion of Weird Al’s use of "spastic" and subsequent apology. Ben Zimmer, author of a post discussing the term, claims that "spaz" and "spastic" have "become innocuous playground slang in the U.S. but a grave insult in the U.K." He asserts that Weird Al apologized for using "spastic" primarily because it offended British listeners.

NO! You are wrong wrong wrongity wrong, Ben Zimmer. "Spaz" and "spastic" have always been derogatory and insulting because they transfer terms for disability into the realm of insult, thereby turning disabilities into insults. Weird Al should not have apologized because "spaz" is an insult over in the UK. He should have apologized because ableism is nasty and harmful in general the world over.

Anyway, even though he apologized for his ableism in Word Crimes, Weird Al’s ableism remains on display in his song Lame Claim to Fame. STOP USING "LAME" TO MEAN "PATHETIC" PEOPLE!

This entry was originally posted at You can comment here, but I’d prefer it if you’d comment on my DW using OpenID.

How not to write, part seven zillion and two in an infinitely extensible series

How not to write, part seven zillion and two in an infinitely extensible series published on No Comments on How not to write, part seven zillion and two in an infinitely extensible series

Today we’re examining The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker. I picked this up because it looked to be in a similar vein as Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, a silly but agreeably diverting series with occasional intelligent grace notes. In fact, Harkness endorsed Barker’s debut novel as "a marvelous plot [with] clever dialogue [and] complex characters…a perfect escape from humdrum reality." I mentally translated this as "fun, shallow escapism" and settled in for some entertainment.

I have not been entertained. Instead, Barker has been providing object lessons in how not to write, here presented for your delectation in no particular order:

1) Spend a significant portion of the book having the protagonist raped and brainwashed, and then forget about it. Nora, a 30-year-old unhappy grad student in English literature, somehow accidentally pierces from this world into the realm of Ye Olde Standarde Faeries: that is, supernatural assholes who appear like beautiful humans but really look disgusting and who enjoy kidnapping humans and messing with their minds. The first 80 pages of the novel detail her transformation into a thoughtless automaton, coerced into a muzzy-headed state of permanent compliance. She is essentially drugged, threatened, gaslighted, forcibly married to Raclin, a draconic fairy prince, raped by Raclin, beaten by Raclin and, finally, terrorized by Raclin’s mom Ilissa until she miscarries. By this point, the reader just wants the torture to end, but no such luck. Aruendiel, a human, male magician, rescues Nora, and we still have about four-fifths of the book left to go.

The remainder of the book, however, doesn’t adequately address the aftermath of Nora’s ordeal. Barker discusses Nora’s physical healing from Raclin’s assault, as well as the disconcerting experience of having a huge amount of fairy glamour lifted from her. We also get a little bit of ambivalence from Nora about having a miscarriage, but that’s about it. We don’t, for example, see Nora angry or ashamed at her seduction, regretful that she has left behind the lap of luxury for a hardscrabble life with Aruendiel, proud that she managed to get out or even frightened that the fairies might come after her. She does not appear to have been emotionally affected by her torture at all. For God’s sake, she shows more impassioned feeling in her discussion with Aruendiel of his language’s sexist deployment of gendered conjugations and declensions than she does about her repeated mental and physical violation at the hands of the fairies.

2) Fail to establish credible antagonists. Of course, the fairies do indeed come after Nora once Aruendiel rescues her; Raclin, in the form of a dragon, chases her on a few separate occasions, but is thwarted when Aruendiel a) pop-flies him into the stratosphere, b) leaves him with a much larger and very pissy lake monster and c) turns him into a rock. Aruendiel’s casual [and silly — seriously, pop-flying him into the stratosphere?] dispatches of Raclin make the prince seem less like a truly threatening abuser and more like an annoying bug. Because Nora and Aruendiel always repulse the fairies, the fairies fail come across as creakingly obvious devices with which to move the plot [such as there is] forward.

3) Use ableist and racist stereotypes in place of character development. In the ableism department, Aruendiel represents one of the most tedious types, the Aloof And Commanding Cripple With A Broken Body, But A Restless Mind, Whose Rudeness And Grimness May Be Excused By His Secret Tragic Past [But It Wasn’t His Fault]. In Aruendiel’s case, he killed his wife because [somehow] he thought this would free her from an enchantment that Ilissa had put on her. Then he was fighting in some war with Ilissa, and he fell out of the sky, broke lots of bones and died, but his friends brought him back to life. He does not, however, think that he was worth reviving. Why are the Tragic Cripples always so whiny and self-pitying?

In the racism department, one of the most interesting characters unfortunately ends up being the most exoticized. Hirizjahkinis, Aruendiel’s friend, is the only female magician in a book where the main culture’s characters think of female magicians as highly improbable, if not impossible. Hirizjahkinis skirts the sexist restrictions of Aruendiel’s society by being a foreigner from some hot, jungle-covered, southerly place [lazy Africa equivalent] with a tradition of female witches. Physically, she is dark-skinned — the only non-white character in the entire book [a fact noted by the white characters] — with her black hair in cornrows. When Nora first meets her, Hirizjahkinis is so exotic and foreign that she wears both a kimono-like robe and a leopard skin over her shoulders. Yes, folks, a leopard skin: the stereotypical sign of a comic-book "jungle girl" or "savage!" Oh yeah, and she’s bisexual — the only non-hetero person in the entire book [also noted by the characters]. Even though she is warm, friendly, patient, competent, unflappable, sexy, badass and clearly the most lively and engaging character in the whole book, Hirizjahkinis suffers from intersectional objectification because, for some reason, Barker thought it acceptable to turn her into an egregious token, the embodiment of all that is different from the straight, white majority in the book.

4) Focus on a vacuous protagonist. I have no idea why Harkness thinks that this book involves "complex characters." They are the least complex I have come across in a long time. The protagonist Nora has no personality whatsoever, and the structure of the book, in which events happen to Nora through no agency of her own, certainly doesn’t help matters. Nora is stalled in her dissertation by her advisor, dumped by her boyfriend, accidentally sucked into another world, abducted and raped by fairies, rescued and healed by Aruendiel, etc., etc., etc., shuttling from one event to another like a pinball being smacked by paddles of plot. It is possible to write a fascinating story about a protagonist who experiences dramatic changes in her life that are outside her control, but this is not that story. Said hypothetical fascinating story requires a protagonist with an interesting inner life whose interpretation of events offers counterpoint and/or insight into the whole structure of the plot. Nora, who apparently has no phenomenological experience whatsoever [see her lack of reaction to her rape], is not that protagonist.

Barker does Nora no favors on the development front by depriving her of a history. Sure, she’s got an ex-boyfriend and a female friend, but we quickly breeze past these people so that Nora may be brainwashed and raped by the fairies. Quick summaries of Nora’s relationship with her ex or an explanation of her friend’s personality provide no revealing details about Nora as a person.

And what about Nora’s family?  Heck, it’s not until two-thirds of the way through the book, when she visits her 10-year-old sister through a two-way scrying spell, that we see that her sister has a shrine to their dead brother and that it now includes a photo of presumed-dead Nora as well. Why didn’t we hear about her little sister and dead brother earlier? Why does Barker pass up a chance to forge significant relationships and thus a bit of individuality for her main character? Why does she withhold such important information about Nora’s dead brother until practically the end of the book, when the reader is so stultified by the pointless plotlessness that they have no energy left to give a shit? The poignant conversation between Nora and her sister, who thinks she might be a ghost, contains more emotional heft than all the pages before it, but apparently leaves no lasting effect. In conclusion, Nora, a character apparently impervious to the effects of life, bores the poop out of me.

4) Tell the wrong story. Barker spends most of her time on a) Nora’s torture in fairyland, b) Nora’s physical recovery from her assault, during which she does a large amount of chores with Aruendiel’s housekeeper, c) Nora’s failed attempts to learn magic and d) her increasing, inexplicable infatuation with Aruendiel. To this, Barker tosses in interminable discussions of human/fairy politics that never seem to impinge upon the plot, scads of silly made-up names ["Hirgus Ext" being a typical example] with no logic behind them [she seems to think that telling the name of everything constitutes convincing worldcraft] and Nora’s continual frustration over the sexism in Aruendiel’s society. If there’s a plot or anything of consequence going on in there, I missed it in the wash of extraneous details.

Meanwhile, there’s a much more interesting thread running through the story: that of the conjunction between magic and death, fairyland and the afterlife. Nora enters fairyland through an abandoned cemetery, and it’s mentioned that she has always liked old graveyards [a fact that’s never enlarged upon]. When she determines how much time has passed in the magic world, she figures that her family must think that she is dead. In her adventures with Aruendiel, she encourages him to bring back to life a young girl. Her interest in life and death takes on new significance when she converses with her little sister and sees herself in the same category as her dead brother: enshrined in absence. Nora has a cautious, curious, mournful relationship with death, which is probably the only interesting thing about her.

Aruendiel does his own dance with death. As a magician, he has used magic enough so that his life has been extended to a few centuries, time enough to see generations of friends and family grow old and die. He has killed a bunch of people, including his own wife, which seems to affect him less than his own death and revivification. Part of him kind of wishes his friends had just let him stay dead, but part of him clearly wishes to keep on living. 

I’d like to hear that story — the tale of how two people so personally invested in death navigate the trials of life — but no. Instead we get the housekeeper teaching Nora how to chop up apples. I stayed up way too late last night, reading this book, waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did.

This entry was originally posted at You can comment here, but I’d prefer it if you’d comment on my DW using OpenID.

How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series

How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series published on No Comments on How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series

I picked up Eon by Alison Goodman after reading some laudatory reviews on Amazon and also being marginally intrigued by the concept, in which a young woman adopts a boy’s identity to compete for the chance to communicate with dragons and wield great magic, which is, of course, reserved for men. Of course, Eon wins the chance to communicate not just with any dragon, but with the super special awesome Mirror Dragon, the most powerful of all. Then she becomes involved in imperial politics, and eventually the fate of the emperor’s succession and the kingdom depends on her. Of course it does. :p

I did not expect this book to be quite so shitty. It really reminded me of The Diviners in that it was a textbook example of how not to tell a story.

Do you need to learn how not to write, kids? Okay, then pay attention to the following precepts, in no particular order.Continue reading How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series

Fuck you LiveJournal and your little dog too.

Fuck you LiveJournal and your little dog too. published on 1 Comment on Fuck you LiveJournal and your little dog too.

Thanks so fucking much for NOT GIVING A SHIT about users, especially visually impaired users who find your new Friends reading pane a horrible illegible pile of shit. You STINK, and I'm leaving.

Find me over here, peoples:

This blog is officially an ex-blog. All content will be transferred to DW, assuming I can get some archive/transfer service to work.

I blame the Knights of Columbus.

I blame the Knights of Columbus. published on No Comments on I blame the Knights of Columbus.

The elevator in the office building is not working. The elevator company can't fix it until the close of business today or the start of business tomorrow.


This is all the Knights of Columbus' fault. They're the assholes who pestered FDR to make Kill Indigenous Peoples Day a federal holiday in 1934, which is why the elevator company was off today in the first place.

The world is pissing me off today.

Poser 8 is so racist [and misogynist and anti-androgyny and anti-trans, not to mention ableist]…

Poser 8 is so racist [and misogynist and anti-androgyny and anti-trans, not to mention ableist]… published on 2 Comments on Poser 8 is so racist [and misogynist and anti-androgyny and anti-trans, not to mention ableist]…

The default shading colors for its 3-D digital human models make the people look Caucasian. Like this:

Continue reading Poser 8 is so racist [and misogynist and anti-androgyny and anti-trans, not to mention ableist]…

This sounds so stupid.

This sounds so stupid. published on 2 Comments on This sounds so stupid.

Elsie Chapman’s first novel, Dualed, sounds like a cross between a bad Hunger Games ripoff and the stupidity of someone who has never actually thought about what it’s like to be an identical twin. It’s about a city where people prove their worthiness by killing their identical twins, who are raised apart from them.

The stupidity hurts. Why is one half of the population murdering the other half? Are they in a competition for scarce resources? In that case, why keep both twins around at all? Why not selectively abort or turn to infanticide?

Furthermore, the ableist and eliminationist implications of this are disturbing, to say the least. If one twin has a disability and the other doesn’t, there are many ways in which the twin without the disability could exploit the other’s disability to kill him/her off. Has the author thought about the bias against disabled people inherent in her worldbuilding? To be clear, I have no problem with ableism in worldbuilding. I do have a problem, however, with ableist bias in worldbuilding done by an author without a grain of self-reflectiveness.

You know, if you really wanna run with this “kill your twin” premise, why not attack the inherent ableism head on? Give both twins disabilities. One could be a deaf person with agoraphobia and an anxiety disorder. The other could be a person with depression, narcolepsy and binge/purge syndrome. Then they could grow to be friends. Maybe they would even fall in love. They would decide that this whole “kill your twin” thing was, in fact, incredibly stupid and struggle to make their own lives in a society that a) expects them to try to kill each other and b) devalues people with disabilities anyway.

Man, that would be a much better story!

Disabled people aren’t your metaphors, Susan Gubar!

Disabled people aren’t your metaphors, Susan Gubar! published on 1 Comment on Disabled people aren’t your metaphors, Susan Gubar!

I was all excited to read Memoir of a Debulked Woman, Susan Gubar's account of her diagnosis and treatment for advanced ovarian cancer. Since Gubar is a noted feminist literary critic, I expected a powerful combination of personal details and polemic yielding a strong, thought-provoking critique of the medical industrial complex.

I did not expect gratuitous similes about people with disabilities. At least twice in the half of the book that I read [before throwing it across the room in disgust], Gubar compares her social withdrawal and disinclination to talk about her condition to having autism.

NO! Your social withdrawal and disinclination is NOT like having autism, Susan Gubar. More accurately, your social withdrawal and disclination to talk about your condition correspond to your personal stereotype [also a cultural stereotype at large] of how autistic people act in social situations.

In any case, please shut up. You are not like a person who has autism. Only people with autism are like people who have autism. And do I need to remind you that people with autism are actual, real people, as opposed to fodder for your literary flourishes?

While I'm on the same subject, people need to stop using "blind," "deaf," "crippled" and other words that refer to people with disabilities as metaphors. No, in fact, you're not "blind" to the obstacles facing you or "deaf" to criticism and therefore "crippled" by your inability to heed advice. You may be inattentive to obstacles, heedless of criticism and therefore challenged by your inability to heed advice, so use the right words, rather than ones that don't belong to you.

Also, everybody, stop using any form of the word "lame" to refer to something that you think is pathetic, insignificant, not good enough, unconvincing, etc. Look at how many synonyms I just listed in the preceding sentence! Pick one of them instead, not a term that shows how horribly prejudiced you are against people with disabilities.

No! You can’t use that word!

No! You can’t use that word! published on 2 Comments on No! You can’t use that word!

Do you have body integrity identity disorder? Well, that’s neither here nor there, since I really don’t care about your BIID.

I do care, however, when you start calling yourselves “transabled” and organizing your whole identities around the supposition that your experiences are analogous to those of people who are trans or who have disabilities.

First of all, you don’t get to use the word “transabled.” By doing so, you appropriate the terminology of the trans rights movement and disability rights movement. You dismiss the lived experiences and struggles of trans and/or disabled people by using their vocabulary as your metaphor. You’re therefore objectifying and dehumanizing trans and/or disabled people. You’re perpetuating discrimination and prejudice against these populations. Go find your own terms.

Second of all, neither do you get to claim that your oppression is like that of trans and/or disabled people. When you are murdered for your state of being and society finds your killer[s] understandable, justifiable, sympathetic and symptomatic of an entire social program that dehumanizes people like you with the goal of eliminating them, then we might be able to talk. Otherwise, you need to understand that being different does not axiomatically entail being oppressed.

[Prompted by a similar takedown on Womanist Musings.]

“Very special,” indeed!: Maxine Aston and authority in discussing Asperger’s syndrome

“Very special,” indeed!: Maxine Aston and authority in discussing Asperger’s syndrome published on 2 Comments on “Very special,” indeed!: Maxine Aston and authority in discussing Asperger’s syndrome

I was justing listening to Dan Savage's Savage Love podcast 289, in which a teenaged boy called up about expressing romantic interest in another teenaged boy, who happened to have Asperger's. This was the occasion to bring in British counselor Maxine Aston to discuss challenges and special considerations when communicating with people with Asperger's.

I immediately hopped over to Aston's Web site to investigate her credentials. She has a Master's of Science in health psychology. She specializes in counseling people with Asperger's and people who love people with Asperger's. She's also written a bunch of articles and books about people with Asperger's in relationships with non-Asperger's people. Sounds pretty qualified, right?

WRONG! The About Maxine section tells all: She writes, "I was once married to a very special man who was affected by Asperger syndrome…"

Pardon me while I barf! As far as I can tell, Aston does not have Asperger's. However, she presumes to be an expert on people with Asperger's because she's objectified them for years and years by studying them.

You can tell she has objectified people with Asperger's because she uses the dismissive and condescending term "very special" to refer to her ex with Asperger's. In my experience, the term "special" is frequently used by non-disabled people to place disabled people in a separate, subhuman category where they become silent, inspirational symbols instead of fully respected human beings. In fact, when I hear a non-disabled person describe a disabled person as "special," I interpret that word as a derisive insult. Aston does not respect people with Asperger's; instead, she feels pity and contempt for them.

Aston arrogates the authority to discuss Asperger's syndrome because of her neurotypical privilege. Paradoxically enough, she is assumed to be an expert in Asperger's syndrome precisely because she does not have Asperger's syndrome. She may be an authority on people without Asperger's in relationships with people with Asperger's, but that doesn't automatically make her an expert in Asperger's syndrome. The experts in Asperger's are the people who know what it's like to experience Asperger's day in and day out because they themselves have the condition. But they are frequently marginalized by the non-disabled majorities who participate in their objectification and suppression, therefore making it very difficult for people with Asperger's to communicate their experiences.

Man, now I have even more of a reason to loathe Dan Savage. Instead of having some people with Asperger's on to discuss their perceptions, communciation and advice, he perpetuated the dehumanization of people with disabilities by calling in a neurotypical "expert." Way to go, Dan Savage!

P.S. Is it pronounced "ass per gerrrrs" or "ass per jurrrrrrs?"

Ableist child murderer gets only 9 years

Ableist child murderer gets only 9 years published on No Comments on Ableist child murderer gets only 9 years

This week has been a particularly enraging week. The NYT reports that Angela Norman "gets 9 years in teen's malnutrition death." Norman's daughter, Makayla, died at the age of 14, weighing 28 pounds, suffering bed sores and other signs of ill health. Makayla had cerebral palsy.

This was not a "malnutrition death." Norman murdered her disabled daughter by abusing her, neglecting her and starving her to death.

Ugh, I don't even know what to say any more.

OH MY GAWD, we have to obey the law?: whiny ableist dingdongs strike again

OH MY GAWD, we have to obey the law?: whiny ableist dingdongs strike again published on 2 Comments on OH MY GAWD, we have to obey the law?: whiny ableist dingdongs strike again

Some businesses in New York City are complaining that lawyers join forces with people with disabilities to sue said businesses into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Shorter article: “‘We don’t want to obey the law,’ some businesses whined. ‘P.S. We hate disabled people.'”

Look at me, playing the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin. >:

“Tale of Love and Illness Ends in Death” or “Long Marriage Ends in Ableist Murder”?

“Tale of Love and Illness Ends in Death” or “Long Marriage Ends in Ableist Murder”? published on No Comments on “Tale of Love and Illness Ends in Death” or “Long Marriage Ends in Ableist Murder”?

"Tale of Love and Illness Ends in Death:" Oh, it sounds so tragic, the way the New York Times frames that headline, right? It must be the tale of a long-enduring affection severed by the death of one of the participants, leaving those still alive to mourn and soldier on, right?


Charles Snelling, 81, murdered his wife, Adrienne, 81, who had Alzheimer's, and then he committed suicide. That's what happened.

The NYT article goes on and on about how much Charles supposedly loved Adrienne, but the fact remains that he killed a disabled, mentally ill woman, arrogating responsibility for her life and death to himself. If a husband thinks it's his prerogative to end the life of a disabled member of his family "out of love," we as a culture have just sadly demonstrated, yet again, how little we value the lives and autonomy of people with disabilities and/or mental illness.

Reasons that Dan Savage is a shit.

Reasons that Dan Savage is a shit. published on No Comments on Reasons that Dan Savage is a shit.

Dan Savage, a gay male advice columnist who writes for the Seattle Stranger, has some cachet among liberals/Democrats/progressives as being queer-friendly, pro-kink and open-minded, but he still has lots of privilege as a thin, white, rich, cis, married, U.S. man. I’ve collected several criticisms of his advice which should make you think long and hard before calling this columnist helpful, progressive and open-minded. In no particular order…here they are…
Continue reading Reasons that Dan Savage is a shit.

Ableism in American Horror Story

Ableism in American Horror Story published on No Comments on Ableism in American Horror Story

So FX network has a new series out this season, American Horror Story. The story concerns the Harmons, mother, father and teenaged daughter, who move into a haunted house in Los Angeles, complete with past murders, creatures in the basement and eccentric neighbors. Among the neighbors is Adelaide, or Addy, a young woman in her mid- to late 30s. She has Down's Syndrome and lives with her mother in the house next door.

At first I was all excited to see an actor with Down's Syndrome playing a character with the same condition in a television show. I suppose I was entertaining visions of Life Goes On, a feel-good sit-com from the 1990s centering around a family in which one of the members had Down's. I'm not here to discuss the complexities of the portrayal of Corky, the young man with Down's, but just to say that, in my memory, the show at least gave him a personality and character arcs, treating him as a well-rounded character.

No such luck for Addy on American Horror Story. Her primary function is to give warnings about ghosts to people, who then ignore her, and also to sneak inside the Harmons' new home and startle them. In fact, the first scene of the first episode has a young Addy warning twin brats who vandalize the house, "You're going to die in there." Naturally they do. Grown up in the present day, Addy continues pestering the Harmons with similar admonitions. From her initial appearance, then, Addy is shown to have unusual insight into the creepiness of the house, in the same way that so many blind characters in TV and literature can't see, but have unusual insight into people's souls [or something]. This subtle display of a compensatory strength — maybe Addy has intellectual disabilities, but, as a substitution, she can sense ghosts! — starts Addy's one-dimensional portrayal as a character solely defined and developed by her disability.

The TV show itself presents Addy as a strange sort of disabled object, and the able-bodied characters in the show continue such alienating, abusive treatment. In the first episode, Addie's mother refers to her derogatorily as "the Mongoloid." In the second episode, Addie's mother refers to tying Addy to a chair "again," about which the Harmons make no comment, thus passively colluding with the ableist, demeaning treatment of Addy. We are also shown a scene in episode two in which Addie's mother abuses Addie, locking her in a closet full of mirrors and telling her to "look at [herself]." Though Addy's screams follow us, the camera quickly cuts away, denying the audience any chance to sympathize with a grown woman being manipulated by her cruel mother by being shoved around and locked in a closet. The show doesn't care about Addy as a person, and neither do the characters.

In the two eps of American Horror Story I watched, I also noticed how Addy's mother subtly infantilizes her through controlling her appearance. As I mentioned, Addie is in her mid- to late 30s, so figured because she was shown to be somewhere between 6 and 8 in the initial scene in 1978. Addie now wears the same type of pastel pinafores that she did when she was less than 10. Furthermore, her mother keeps her hair in long curls. I assume that her mother controls these aspects of her appearance because she treats Addie like a stupid child on other occasions, so why wouldn't she continue this abusive attitude with Addy's dress and self-presentation?

I'd watch a show about a woman with Down's Syndrome growing up next to a haunted house, dealing with her abusive mother, if the show focused on the protagonist as a full, rich character who was affected by, but not defined by, her disability. But American Horror Story is not that show, and I will not be watching it any more.

Thanks to Fangs for the Fantasy for summarizing [and calling out various prejudices of] this show.

Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities, part III!

Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities, part III! published on 2 Comments on Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities, part III!

After reading my analysis of season 7, ep 15, “Manipulated,” of Law and Order: SVU, my sister Jill, who uses a wheelchair, added another stereotype to my list of those that the ep perpetrates:

1. Disabilities are horrible things. Linus obviously thinks so; as I pointed out in a previous entry, he calls his wife Tessa, who uses a wheelchair, a “victim,” that is, a contemptible object of pity. Jill points out that Tessa also uses negative language to describe her disability. She claims that Walter is persecuting her, saying, “If I weren’t stuck in this chair, I would kill him myself.” Tessa clearly adheres to the stereotype of a wheelchair user as someone who is “wheelchair-bound,” that is, limited and restricted by the chair, rather than enabled to move around.

Jill also notes that there is a long tradition of characters in various media faking disabilities, which only causes able-bodied people to regard people with disabilities with suspicion and hostility.

Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities, part II!

Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities, part II! published on No Comments on Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities, part II!

Law and Order: SVU season 7, episode 15, “Manipulated,” is the gift that keeps on giving. Every time I think about it, I discover more reasons to ferociously criticize its portrayal of people with disabilities. [Here’s my plot summary of the ep if you haven’t read it. And here’s the first part of my discussion of the depiction of people with disabilities in the ep. ] Here are some more wretched stereotypes that the show supports:

Continue reading Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities, part II!

Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities!

Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities! published on No Comments on Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities!

How many deleterious stereotypes does season 7, ep 15, “Manipulated,” perpetrate against people with disabilities in the character of Tessa McKellen? [Read the plot summary if you don’t know what I’m talking about.] Let me count the ways…

Continue reading Law and Order: SVU hates people with disabilities!

Law and Order: SVU on the subject of “crazy” people with disabilities

Law and Order: SVU on the subject of “crazy” people with disabilities published on No Comments on Law and Order: SVU on the subject of “crazy” people with disabilities

Oh boy, this ep is a treasure trove of stereotypes and virulent characterization of people with disabilities!

Law and Order: SVU, season 7, ep 15, “Manipulated,” plot summary:

Continue reading Law and Order: SVU on the subject of “crazy” people with disabilities

“Lame” and “retarded”

“Lame” and “retarded” published on 3 Comments on “Lame” and “retarded”

I can’t stand when people use the word "lame" to mean "bad," "undesireable," "contemptible" or "worthless." Every time anyone uses "lame" in such a context, he or she is telling me that he or she equates a mobility impairment with a moral failing. More specifically, he or she implies that my sister is morally objectionable because she uses a wheelchair.

Same with the word "retarded" to mean "bad," "silly" or "stupid." Such a use equates brain damage with a moral failing and judges my sister as morally objectionable because she has brain damage.  And I also feel personally offended whenever "retarded" comes up because it disparages the non-neurotypical, and I don’t think I’m completely neurotypical. "Lame" and "retarded" are stupid, hurtful, prejudiced words. STOP USING THEM.

I can’t believe I’m even writing this entry.

I really dislike most characters with disabilities in pop culture.

I really dislike most characters with disabilities in pop culture. published on 4 Comments on I really dislike most characters with disabilities in pop culture.

You know why? Because, all too often, characters with disabilities appear in pop media as one-dimensional fictional entities, lazily "developed" by having what I call compensatory strengths. Such compensatory strengths are supposed to sort of narratively cancel out the characters’ disabilities, but this never happens. In fact, the compensatory gifts just highlight the characters’ disabilities even more so that the characters, instead of being well-rounded, interesting individuals, end up being portrayed solely in terms of their disabilities.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about with compensatory gifts, look at a few characters from comics and movies. The X-Men’s Professor Xavier, who has mobility impairments requiring the use of an electric wheelchair, "compensates" by having a mutation that allows him to basically move mentally among all the mutants on the globe. Another comic superhero, Daredevil, gets blinded by radioactive waste, but conveniently compensates by developing his non-sight senses to superhuman levels. Another character with blindness, from the movies this time, is Ivy, protagonist of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 movie The Village, who is blind, but somehow sees the goodness in people instead. As you can see, in each of these cases, the characters’ super abilities are directly tied to their disabilities. In fact, their super abilities all offer workarounds for their disabilities, effectively canceling out the characters’ disabilities.

In an especially egregious example of compensatory endowment, Daphne from Heroes has the power of superspeed. Somehow her zippiness  "compensates for" and overrides her cerebral palsy, which is a disability so shameful that, when she loses her speed and has to go back to wearing leg braces [THE HORROR!] and using crutches [OH WOE!] in 3.10, "The Eclipse, Part I," she hides from the entire world in ignominy.  In Heroes, Daphne’s CP is equated with tragedy, limitation, reclusivity, sadness and rejection. Her compensatory gift, super speed, provides her with glamour, adventure, riches and happiness. Yet, though she may seem to have some interesting contrast between her past, disabled self and her current, speedy self, she really doesn’t. Heroes, like all other lazy pieces of pop culture artwork that use the trope of compensatory strengths, shows no interest in exploring the psychological flux that might realistically go along with great strengths in one area and great deficits in another. Nope, Heroes just wants to make a dramatically compelling character, so it gives Daphne a tragically crippled [I’m using this word because you can see the show thinking it] past. Wow. That’s so deep.

What the lazy shorthand of compensatory endowment ignores is the simple reality of actual people with actual disabilities, to wit: Amazingly enough, people with disabilities don’t necessarily go around bemoaning the fact that they have disabilities. In fact, people with disabilities are much more likely to bemoan the ignorance, stupidity and inaccessibility of people and institutions. Some people with disabilities even accept that they have disabilities and, instead of "overcoming" them or "compensating" for them, accept their disabilities as a fact of life and go on about their business. And, stupendously enough, when you take a look at the types of lives that people with disabilities are living, they’re not, at base, fundamentally different from the lives of people without disabilities [although people with disabilities do daily battle with ableist people and institutions that may not be apparent to people without disabilities].

Ya know — sometimes characters with disabilities are just your average, normal, run-of-the-mill people who DON’T feel the need for pity-based super-endowments given to them by lazy, paternalistic, condescending creators to soothe the supposed horrid angst that characters with disabilities have over not being people without disabilities. Newsflash to dipshits: Creating a disabled character with a "compensatory" ability is not inspiring, unusual, original or desirable. By making a character’s notable traits the narrative inverse of his or her disability, you still end up defining the character by his or her disability, and that is a dehumanizing, reductionist simplification demonstrating only your limited, shallow imagination and your inability to see people with disabilities as people first.

Dolls with disabilities are DETRIMENTAL?

Dolls with disabilities are DETRIMENTAL? published on 4 Comments on Dolls with disabilities are DETRIMENTAL?

From Shakesville. The Times Online covers a thriving tangent of the toy industry in its article “Disability dolls become more popular.” Dolls like this are nothing new, as far as I’m concerned, so what interests me about this article is the people who object — OBJECT — to the very concept of dolls portraying people with disabilities. 

Jenni Smith, a chartered educational psychologist in London, says: “I feel that children who have disabilities, including children with Down’s syndrome, tend to see themselves as ‘like everyone else’ and to offer a toy that ‘looks like them’ may only emphasise the difference.”

Does Smith know any children with disabilities? If she does, does she even pay attention to them? In my experience, people with disabilities — especially those whose disabilities have outward markers such as certain facial features, paralysis, speech impediments or the need for mobility/communication aids — do NOT see themselves as “like everyone else.” To take a mild example, I’m near-sighted, so I wear glasses. From the very first time that I wore them at age 8, I noticed the obvious, namely, that I had glasses, and most other kids didn’t. I had an outward sign of a mild visual disability, unlike many of my classmates. I was therefore not “like everyone else.” My conception of myself therefore includes my visual deficits, my corrective lenses and my resultant difference from everyone else.

From my personal experience and from my experience with other people with disabilities, people who have disabilities recognize that that are not the same as “everyone else.” However, while we may function or look differently from “everyone else,” we are the same as everyone else in one way: we want to see ourselves reflected in the books we read, shows we watch, toys we play with, et cetera. In my case, I want dolls with glasses. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find in-scale glasses for 1:6 figs, but I have pursued this goal to the point of importing them from Japan at exorbitant prices because, contrary to Jenni Smith’s claim, I do want dolls that look like me. As for my sister, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair, she too wants to see images in her media and her toys that reflect her own experience, which is why almost all of her dolls use wheelchairs too, even if they did not come with mobility aids. Toys that mirror the experience of people with disabilities do not “emphasise the difference” between people with disabilities and the rest of the world. In fact, dolls with disabilities validate the experience of people with disabilities, demonstrating that their disabilities are acknowledged by others [in the form of media companies or toy manufacturers]. To see representations of oneself out in the world is to receive proof that others see one and know that one exists. In some way, dolls with disabilities thus have an inclusive, affirmative function, saying to the people with disabilities, “Yes, you exist; you are people too; we acknowledge you.”

P.S. Raise your hand if you too want the little doll with Down’s Syndrome shown at the top of the article.

Visible disability encoded as “culturally feminine??”

Visible disability encoded as “culturally feminine??” published on No Comments on Visible disability encoded as “culturally feminine??”

Gauge, proprietor of the Radical Masculinity blog, muses on the struggles of those who have identities both as butch persons and persons with disabilities. Gauge observes that visible disability simultaneously highlights and erases those who have it. Visible disability highlights its possessors because the obvious physical symptoms and/or implements of physical disability catch viewers’ eyes rather than the people themselves. Relatedly, Gauge explains, visible disability erases the people who have it because viewers tend to concentrate on the manifestations of disability, the superficial signs, rather than the character of the people who have the disabilities. I think this is a great explanation for how stereotypes work; they HIGHLIGHT or emphasize certain traits of people in a stereotyped group, then ERASE the individuality of particular persons within the group because the perps of the stereotypes are too busy seeing the stereotype, not the people upon which they are projecting the stereotype.

Butch-wise, Gauge observes that butch identity has its roots in a working-class conception of strong, independent persons engaged in physical labor, those who protected, repressed their feelings and evinced strength both mental and physical. The brute fact of having a disability and experiencing physical weakness, dysfunction and/or need for assistance often conflicts with the conception of butch identity as physically strong. In lieu of such a limiting definition, Gauge argues for a definition of butch identity that focuses on the characters of those who evince it:

Being butch is about honor, pride, being a nurturer and protector of the community, about helping others, and many other qualities of character and identity both able-bodied and disabled butches share. 

It is possible to do that through the force of character, not necessarily through the force of muscles. Gauge boils down masculinity to its positive, helpful traits and demonstrates that one can be constructively masculine, something I don’t think many people, no matter what their gender identity, know how to do!

Primary Sidebar