Monday, July 29, 2013

Believe and Live

I love this article by Anita Cameron about different kinds of disability advocacy tools. She argues that nothing will ever get done without direct action. "Right on, right on," I say. I believe that too. Nice is not enough. But still, taking direct action implies we all know, and agree on, just exactly what we are fighting for. Right?

So what is it? What am I doing here and elsewhere?

For me it all comes down to acceptance, meaningful inclusion, and equality.

None are currently a complete reality, but they all are the logical next step for humanity which evolves and progresses (and thus isn't on a crash course with some sort of an apocalypse). But most people don't seem to know that.

We need vision.

So much about all of this is vision. So much about this is expecting more than we think will happen, faster than we think anything will happen. It is expecting a large scale societal change and behaving as if this large scale change is imminent. Practically already here. Happening as I shout.

It is about not getting discouraged and just doing what's best for my specific kid or myself, right here and right now.

I don't want to only focus on the haters and the trolls, I want us to sway those who lazily vacillate, those who have good intentions, and those who just don't know any better. I want to scream our vision the loudest. To make it the all-encompassing truth, the reality, the now.

I want to kill the positive stereotypes and the well-meaning misunderstandings about a 'mystical' chromosome. I want to stop allowing for reductionism for inspiration's sake because it is the lesser of two evils.

In my vision the evil trolls will be recognized as the minority they are. Those closeted sociopaths. I'm not so worried about that anonymous, faceless person who spews his or her vitriol in an online comment to an article about a person with a disability. I'm more worried about my kid's future teacher, her friend's mother, my neighbor, and that guy who packs my groceries. I worry that they won't really believe in inclusion because they haven't experienced it, that they won't see it as the most logical thing to do because no one's told them that it is.

I don't worry so much about hate as I do lazy ignorance. I don't worry so much about someone blowing off steam, than I do those minds who've never even really thought about people with Down syndrome or other disabilities as fellow human beings, because they're so used to understanding 'able is normal' as a fundamental fact, just because it gets insidiously reinforced at every turn. I worry about those who perceive people who are disabled as inspirational, marginal, apart, similar amongst themselves, and here on earth for purposes external to themselves, purposes other than living their individual lives. A perceived unity of the experience of disability concerns me.

Most people follow, they adapt, they go with the flow. We, as advocates, need to define the current.

We have an audience.

We can set targets all we want and meet them, but unless we actively work to redefine the rhetoric - the way most people view disability and especially intellectual disability, language and all - we'll always have new targets, new ways of oppression, and the fight will never end. We can't just tackle the immediate, we need to reconstruct the foundation. Sometimes that involves peering inwards too, at our own world view and thinking. It has very much meant that for me, at least.

There is a lot of discussion about being united and unified in our efforts, but how can we? We don't agree. For me there are things that simply cannot coexist if an ableist way of thinking is to be dismantled.

I can't be all "accept my kid as is, but in case you do figure out how to suck that extra chromosome right out of her very cells, please call us, we're interested." You can't say "my child deserves to be included in everything her peers are, but you know, if she gets bullied or we feel she's getting frustrated with learning math, relocate her into a nice self-contained location, for her own sake." We can never say "achievements and normalcy are arbitrary social constructs and we need to understand that, but hey, more therapies to help my struggling child the better, before she falls too far behind her peers."

I will have to constantly examine my own thinking, my own language. Will it be my child who is frustrated, unhappy, struggling, or will it be me? Am I fixing my child for the world instead of the world for my child? When did a life of achievements become the life?

We have to turn the tables.

We have to say "There is no discussion. Inclusion has to be a fact as it is a practice that benefits all. Inclusion is the natural state of things. Through inclusion everyone's experience, everyone's life will be just that much more normal (pun very much intended), and everyone will be accepted as a member of the human race and society, with whatever that entails, attempts at peaceful coexistence and conditional love."

We can't try to sell or market disability: "please accept my kid, she is not just a useless eater, she can do all of these things." Doing things isn't a precursor to humanity, being human is. We can't mystify or romanticize the chromosome and ascribe to it some specific, sometimes even supernatural-sounding traits or abilities: "Looksee here, that chromosome's special, if we eradicate it, we eradicate our pathway to the mysteries of cancer treatments or Alzheimer's." Three copies of the 21st chromosome are a part of 6 million people worldwide, and that should be enough to warrant general scientific interest. Or at least I'm going to act as if it is.

I will believe it and live it.

Disability is natural. Down syndrome is natural. It's about time everyone knew.

This post originally appeared on 21+21+21=? 

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Brief History of Down syndrome - Part 7: Abused, Neglected, Forgotten

"Euthanasia through neglect..."
– Albert Deutsch

As World War II raged on, the number of admissions to institutions continued to increase.  The amount of workers in the institutions continued to decrease however, as more men were being drafted every day for the war effort. Overcrowding quickly became the norm once again, with patients in hallways and even sharing beds. Without privacy, without comfort, without possessions, without support, patients were completely dehumanized and ready targets for abuse.  Conscientious objectors, those citizens who refused to fight in the war for ethical reasons, were readily employed by the institutions to help fill the ranks.  It is these people that began to expose the horrors of mass violence and neglect.

Patient record from Letchworth Villiage.
Photo courtesy of The DNA Learning Center
Those with disabilities were viewed as sick within a system that was highly medicalized;  each institution was run by physicians and staffed by nurses.  In the US, "state hospitals" housed the mentally ill while "state schools" held those with intellectual disabilities.  Areas within both were referred to in terms of "wards" or nursing units. "Patients" had "charts" and attended "therapy" or "programs".  People were referred to by their disabilities, thereby fostering more dependance on the medical establishment.  As feeble-mindedness was "incurable", patients under this system would require complete care as it was due to their "sickness" that people were institutionalized.  At the same time, many cities in the US continued to uphold "Ugly Laws", passed earlier in the century which made being disabled a crime.  This piece from the Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034 includes the following ordinance (that was not repealed until 1974):
"No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense."
"We were greatly heartened by the appearance. It resembled a
college campus." Image courtesy of the Disability History Museum
After the war, doctors continued to urge parents to place their children in institutions.  During this time, having a child or family member with a disability was seen as a burden.  This story from The Rotarian in 1945 clearly displays the thinking of the day where "A Father" outlines the reason for institutionalizing his daughter for a "hopeless brain condition", diagnosed after a stay at a children's centre:
"After two weeks of observation and a brain X ray, the doctors decided that Mary Lou had a hopeless brain condition and recommended that for our own good and the welfare of the two children we place her in an institution."
The "brain x-ray" in this case is probably referring to a common diagnostic technique of the time, Pneumoencephalography, whereby small holes were bored in the skull, the protective cerebral spinal fluid drained from around the brain and replaced with gas, usually room air, oxygen or helium.  An x-ray was then taken.  The procedure was quite painful, caused headaches, nausea, vomiting and delerium that could last months until the body naturally replaced the cerebral spinal fluid. At worst, it could cause brain damage, paralysis and death.

"A Father" felt, if Mary-Lou was kept at home, it would disrupt family life and result in public ridicule and shame;
"If we did [keep her at home], we should have to curtail normal family activities, to make the environment as simple as possible, for, as is typical in such cases, Mary Lou became frantic over the bustle of the simplest household tasks. We knew, too, that we would have to devote the major part of our time to her, leaving her little brother to develop as best he could. We felt that he already had been neglected.

Also, having witnessed the ridicule and ill treatment which residents of our home town turned on the "village half-wit" and his family, we understood what keeping her with us would mean to our family..."
Her admission to a state facility was described as quick and efficient;  the results curative.  The story concludes with "And so tragedy came into a family that barely knew the word. We think, we pray, we have faced it wisely".

Between 1946 and 1967, the number of people with disabilities that were housed in public institutions in America increased from almost 117 000 to over 193 000, a population increase that was almost double that of the general post-war "baby boom".  As time went on, those admitted were becoming younger and their disabilities more pronounced. In regards to Down syndrome in particular, there were many cases where fathers and doctors conspired to have a baby institutionalized and then told the mother that the baby had died.

Albert Deutsch, who has been described as "a crusading journalist" wrote The Shame of the States in 1948, a compilation of his serial articles (previously published in major newspapers) which exposed the conditions of Letchworth Village in New York.  At the time, Letchworth was considered to be one of the better institutions in the US, as it had taken great pains in its creation to ensure that the overcrowding and abuses that had occurred in other places would not be repeated there.

Opening in 1911, Letchworth Village was one of the first completely encapsulated "state schools".  It included its own farm, power plant and hospital.  In the words of the first superintendent, Charles S. Little;
..."buildings should not be more than two stories high, nor should they contain more than seventy inmates; that the basements should not be used for purposes other than storage; that the dormitories should be at least two hundred feet apart, with sufficient space for each to have its own playgrounds; that there should be such separation of groups that inmates of one grade could not come in contact with those of another grade; and that in locating the buildings advantage should be taken of the natural beauty of the place."

Photo of Letchworth Village, looking like a college campus.
Patients were divided into separate categories or "grades" and were kept apart:  "moron", "imbecile" and "idiot", the last deemed "untrainable" and therefore initially excluded from admittance to Letchworth as they were unable, in his eyes, "to benefit the state".  As further described by Little:
" is a home where the feeble-minded and epileptic of all ages may be given the pleasures and comforts of the ordinary home. To this end our day rooms will be provided with games, colored pictures, flowers, music, etc. Each dormitory will have its own playgrounds where base-ball, football, basket-ball, croquet, etc., may be played by the children. Swings, hammocks, and picnic grounds will be provided for in a grove. Holidays will be celebrated in an appropriate and American fashion. A birthday party will be given each month for those having birthdays that month, making a gala evening for all. Inmates and employes will join in a weekly dance. There will be Sunday services appropriate to the condition and belief of the various inmates."
Residents tended to fields and flocks of livestock, built roads, shoveled coal and made toys at Christmastime.  It may sound idyllic, but by 1921, of the 506 people listed at Letchworth, 317 were between the ages of 5 and 17, while 11 were under the age of 5.  Their labour force consisted mainly of children and visitors and staff would report shortages of food and that the patients looked ill and malnourished. 

As time went on the population at Letchworth continued to grow.   Despite this, the state refused to construct any additional buildings and by the end of 1921, 1200 patients were housed there.  By the 1950's, that number had swollen to over 4,000.  Families were abandoning their relatives there to be forgotten.  Deutsch called it "euthanasia through neglect...".

Photographer Irving Haberman did a photo series on Letchworth which further exposed the conditions of the dirty, malnourished, neglected unkempt patients.  Residents are seen huddling naked in the day rooms. Similar exposés were done on many other institutions;  Time magazine would feature Byberry Hospital, also known as the Philadelphia State Hospital, in 1946 which exhibited appalling imagery of overcrowding, abuse and severe neglect.

The Nuremburg Code was created in 1947 and gave worldwide guidelines for human trials and experimentation.  However, many children in the state schools were still the subjects of experiments, including early testing for vaccinations. Many doctors at the time argued that these rules applied only to Nazi atrocities, not American medicine.  The first polio vaccine was in fact tested at Letchworth in 1950, after much lobbying by the then superintendent, Dr. Jervis.  By that time, Letchworth was considered to be highly regarded in the medical community, despite it's shady reputation in the greater community.  The Fernald Center in Massachusetts (superintended by eugenisist Walter E. Fernald) was the site of a joint experiment between MIT, Harvard University, The Atomic Energy commission and the Quaker Oats Company that exposed male patients to radioactive isotopes between 1946-1953.   Parents were given the following notice:
Dear Parent:
In the previous years we have done some examination in connection with the nutritional department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the purposes of helping to improve the nutrition of our children and to help them in general more efficiently than before.
For the checking up of the children, we occasionally need to take some blood samples which are then analyzed. The blood samples are taken after one test meal which consists of a special breakfast meal containing a certain amount of calcium. We have asked for volunteers to give a sample of blood once a month for three months, and your son has agreed to volunteer because the boys who belong to the Science Club have many additional privileges. They get one quart of milk daily during that time, and are taken to a baseball game, to the beach and to some outside dinners and they enjoy it greatly.
I hope that you have no objection that your son is voluntarily participating in this study. The first study will start Monday, June 8th, and if you have not expressed any objections we will assume that your son may participate.
Sincerely yours,
Clemens E. Benda, M.D.
[Fernald] Clinical Director
What was not mentioned to the parents was that the calcium given to their children in the milk was radioactive.

From the mid 1950's to the early 1970's, researchers at the Willowbrook State School in New York, carried out experiments on children that were deliberately infected with Hepatitis A and then treated with gamma globulin.  In the early years of the study, patients were fed infected fecal matter.  Later they would be injected with more pure versions of the virus.  Those that investigated the abuses surmised that the children would probably have gotten Hepatitis at Willowbrook anyway due to frequent outbreaks, so that it was probably "for the best" that they got it under such scientific circumstances.  At one point the school was closed to new admissions, except for the Hepatitis program.  This led to parents agreeing to allow their children to be the subjects of experiments, just to be able to admit their child to Willowbrook.  Either way, both parents and children were given very little choice whether or not to participate in the program.

Patients at Letchworth.  Photo courtesy of Bob Paley
Between 1917 and 1967, those that died at Letchworth, Willowbrook and other facilities like them, were buried anonymously. Steel or stone numbers were their only monument, possibly due to cost or at the families wishes of privacy.  Regardless, even in death, these people were denied their basic humanity, up to and including their own name.

In 1948 in Great Britain, the National Health Service (NHS) was introduced and institutions were now nationalized and transformed into actual hospitals (yet run like schools).  Emphasis then shifted to admitting only the most disabled and those with behavioural issues. Also that year, the National Assistance Act (which replaced the "Poor Laws" of Elizabeth I) made it a duty of local authorities to  arrange assistance for those who were deaf, blind, dumb, handicapped by illness, injury, congenital deformity or suffering from a mental disorder (which included developmental delays). This included increasing access to specialized education.

Image courtesy of The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities
In 1950, another surge of advocacy took place in the United States.  Parents had begun to organize and had created the National Association of Parents and Friends of Retarded Children (which would later become The ARC).  By 1952 many US states had created legislation for educating children with intellectual disabilities (although those that were classified "moderate" to "severe" were excluded).  As the 20th century would progress, the horrors of the institutions were becoming more commonly known, yet still persisted.  Sterilization, lobotomization, tortuous experimental "treatments" and physical abuse were still the norm and the numbers of children being admitted continued to climb.  Instead of "feeble-minded" "moron" "imbecile" and "idiot" the terminology of choice was now changed to retarded, a blanket term that included any and all learning disabilities and developmental delays. ("Mongolism" would still be used to describe Down syndrome until 1965).  With the ease of one word, society was now able to dismiss an entire segment of the disability community, while callously watching their plight on the evening news.
By the 1960's even the architecture of the institutional buildings had evolved to reflect the culture of medicine, of the hospital.  Staff had separate showers, lounges and toilets.  The floors were easy to wash tile, bathrooms were stall-less and completely devoid of privacy for ease of both cleaning and supervising residents en masse.  Furniture was sparse, hard and unwelcoming.  Medical professionals wore clinical white uniforms and jackets, their names and position clearly displayed on name tags.  It was a stark contrast to the patients who wore communal clothing of various states of (dis)repair. It was very clear who was in control.

Niels Erk Bank-Mikkelsen, the director of the Danish national services for Mental Retardation visited an institution in California in the 1960's.  His report included the following "I couldn't believe my eyes. It was worse than any institution I have seen in visits to a dozen foreign countries. . . . In our country, we would not be allowed to treat cattle like that."
From "Christmas in Purgatory".  Image courtesy
of the Disability History Museum

President John F. Kennedy Jr. formed The President's Panel on Mental Retardation in 1962.  The panel was comprised mainly of medical professionals and focused on both treatment and prevention.  "Retardation" itself was seen as something to "combat".

Senator Robert Kennedy toured Willowbrook in 1965, (accompanied by a TV crew) and compared it to a "snake pit".  It's population of 6000 children was 2000 over capacity.  He described the children as "living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo".  Later he would address a joint session of the New York legislation regarding the "dehumanizing" conditions at both the Willowbrook and Rome State Schools.  During his speech, he declared that the residents of the institutions were denied both access to appropriate education and their overall civil liberties.  The following year, Willowbrook was featured again as one of the institutions in "Christmas in Purgatory" when Dr. Burton Blatt and photographer Fred Kaplan used hidden cameras to capture images of the atrocities in several institutions.  According to Dr. Blatt "there is a hell on earth and in America there is a special inferno".  Senator Kennedy received a great deal of backlash from his comments, most insinuating that non-medical personnel would be unable to classify or understand what they were witnessing in "whirlwind tours".  Dr. Blatt reacted to them thusly:
"It does not require a scientific background or a great deal of observation to determine that one has entered the "land of the living dead." It does not require too imaginative a mind or too sensitive a proboscis to realize that one has stumbled into a dung hill, regardless of how it is camouflaged..."
"Christmas in Purgatory" also gives insight into the treatment of infants and very young children in such places.  Warehoused in extremely overcrowded, spartan surroundings and devoid of stimulation including human touch, it is easy to see how the people there never stood a chance.

From "Christmas in Purgatory".  Image courtesy
of the Disability History Museum
"The infant dormitories depressed us the most. Here, cribs were placed-as in the other dormitories-side by side and head to head. Very young children, one and two years of age, were lying in cribs, without interaction with any adult, without playthings, without any apparent stimulation. In one dormitory, that had over 100 infants and was connected to 9 other dormitories that totaled 1,000 infants, we experienced a heartbreaking encounter. As we entered, we heard a muffled sound emanating from the "blind'' side of a doorway. A young child seemed to be calling, "Come. Come play with me. Touch me."
"In other day rooms, we saw groups of 20 and 30 very young children lying, rocking, sleeping, sitting- alone. Each of these rooms were without toys or adult human contact, although each had desperate looking adult attendants "standing by."
"In some of the children's dormitories we observed "nursery programs." What surprised us most was their scarcity and the primitiveness of those in operation. Therefore, we were not unprepared to see several children with severe head lacerations. We were told these were "head bangers." Head banging is another condition that some people think is inevitable when confronted with young severely mentally retarded children. We challenge this. We have reason to believe that head banging can be drastically reduced in an environment where children have other things to do. The "Special Education" we observed in the dormitories for young children was certainly not education. But, it was special. It was among the most especially frightening and depressing encounters with human beings we have ever experienced..."

This news special produced by NBC in 1968 still clearly shows subhuman living conditions in The Pennhurst State Home in Pennsylvania.

"Suffer the Little Children" by Bill Baldini

Although these reports and many like it would spark legislation that would begin the closing of the institutions, many were open and still functioning like this until the early 1980's. Despite frequent exposés in the Staten Island Advance and other area papers, the allegations of abuse at Willowbrook continued to surface.  In 1972, Geraldo Rivera, then working as an ABC News reporter, went to Willowbrook to film "Willowbrook:  The Last Disgrace".  His story, which won a Peabody Award, showcased the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions and the physical abuse of the patients by the staff.

Even with all the publicity, even with all the images, stories and coverage, the institutions, according to one doctor at Willowbrook, had only worsened since Kennedy's visit.

The classification of "retarded" and related terms would continue to affect public perception and access to care for people with intellectual disabilities well into the 21st century.  In the UK, a pamphlet published by The National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children in 1973 (eight years after the term mongolism had been changed to "Down's Syndrome"), had this to say:

"when informed by their doctor that their child is affected with mongolism and warned that it may show some mental backwardness, parents often imagine the worst and think that their child will never walk or talk.  Although a few mongol children are as handicapped as this and they can live at home when young, they will probably later need permanent hospital care..."

"... Due to their slow intellectual growth most mongols are precluded from making satisfactory progress in formal education of the type provided by Local education authorities. However they benefit from the less formal type of education which they receive at the special centres provided by the local Department of Health although these are not always yet available in the more sparsely populated areas of Britain.

In addition to the two already mentioned there is a third considerably smaller group of children with mongolism who are even less backward and devlop intellectually from a half to two thirds the rate of an average child. Many of this group can profit from formal education, particularly when given in the smaller classes with specially trained teachers in schools for the educationally subnormal"
Doctors continued to refuse lifesaving procedures (such as heart surgery) to those with Down syndrome up until 1984;  in fact there were many physicians that still classified feeding a child with an intellectual disability to be a lifesaving procedure.  Until the institutions were finally closed, hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities had been discarded by their families, segregated, abused sexually, physically and mentally, not to mention violated by sterilization and experimentation.  All with society's blessing as it was considered "the right thing to do".

We may never know the full extent of the abuse, nor of how many people with disabilities were disposed of out of hand, like so much garbage.  It would take almost to the end of the last century for the final institution to be closed.  It would take even longer for the general public to begin to understand terms such as "dignity" "rights" and "civil liberties" in relation to those with intellectual disabilities.  The term "retarded" is just now being replaced in the medical literature; it will no doubt take many more to remove it from Western vernacular.

We in society have a responsibility to ensure that these victims are not forgotten.  We also have a mandate to ensure that such atrocities never happen to another human being ever again. 

Anonymous graves at Letchfield Village.  Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

[Next time:  The rise of the parent advocate]

----------- Applebome, Peter. "Giving Names to Souls Forgotten No Longer." The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Dec. 2007.

Buteux, Lindsay. "Letchworth: The Village of Secrets." Outlook Student Press. Outlook Student Press, 8 Nov. 2010.

Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034 (repealed 1974).

Christmas in Purgatory, Blatt and Kaplan, (Previously published by Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1966) current copyright, Human Policy Press, Center on Human Policy Syracuse University P.O. Box 35127 Syracuse, NY, 1974. 
Corcoran, David. "THIELLS JOURNAL; Graves Without Names for the Forgotten Mentally Retarded." The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Dec. 1991.

"Disability History Exhibit." Disability History Panels. Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Harkins, Don. "Federal Government Publishes Confession; 1995 Report to Clinton Documents 30 Years of Radiation Experiments." The Idaho Observer [Spirit Lake, Idaho] May 1999: The Idaho Observer.

"Legend Tripping in Letchworth Village." AbandonedNYC. N.p., 5 Aug. 2012.
Little, Charles S., MD. Letchworth Village: The Newest State Institution For The Feeble-minded And Epileptic.  The Survey, 12 Mar. 1912.

Paralells in Time; A History of Developmental Disabilities, The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities, 2012.

Staff (September 10, 1965). "Excerpts From Statement by Kennedy". The New York Times.

Suffer The Little Children, Pennhurst State Home: Eugenics + Social Services - Pennsylvania. Perf. Bill Baldini. NBC10, 1968.

Slater, Catherine, MA. "A History of Mental Disability 1000AD-2000AD:From Idiocy to Intellectual Impairment Web. 22 July 2013.

The Child with Mongolism: 80 to 90 Per Cent Can Learn to Do Simple Tasks. Great Britain: National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, 1973. Print.

"We Committed Our Child." The Rotarian (1945): Disability History Museum.

"Willowbrook State School." Asylum Projects. Asylum Projects, n.d. Web.

[Originally appeared on Down Wit Dat

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Year Ago Today, or Letting the Past Person You Were Deal With Her Shit

Last year, on the 11th , I spent the day in a fine state of anxiety. The Dr. who had performed my amniocentesis had said there was a possibility that the 11th might be the day they received my FISH results. I practiced being positive by telling my mom and H "Down syndrome is not a big deal. It's going to be okay." My inward reflections were a bit more complicated. I would go to the bathroom and cry quietly because I didn't want my mom or H to worry. At about noon, I started to relax because even while I did want to know, I also kind of didn't. There was a bit of peace in that in between land but if I was honest, it was peaceful because I would tell myself that Jude did not have Down syndrome.

The peace was shattered when the phone rang at 2:00. The results were in. Jude had Down syndrome. I  spent a lot of the day weepy. Not from sorrow or regret. I was scared. I didn't know much about Down syndrome. I cried from the fear. But I also cried because people reached out to me. Women on the pregnancy board at Baby Center told me it was going to be okay. My friends told me it was going to be okay. My husband and my mom told me it was going to be okay. The only one who worried it wasn't going to be okay seemed to be me. '

But what I did know was important. I knew that I wanted this little fetus growing in my belly as much as I had wanted all my other beasties. Love is a powerful thing. But sometimes even love's light doesn't chase the shadows away.

The real stuff happened in the coming months. The hard stuff. The good stuff. Because here's the thing. I wouldn't go back in time and tell the past Ginger anything. She had some shit she needed to work through you see. And yeah my bad ass future self feels a little bad for her tears and boohooing BUT...

Well let me haul out my favorite Audre Lorde quote: "I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as well as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices." I used to focus on the Master's tools part of the quote which I left out in this space because I realized how incredibly fucking important the remaining piece is to becoming a person of conscience, compassion, and action. You see the personal as political isn't about your warm fuzzy feelings, or about spilling your guts in a tell all memoir. Instead, it's something harder, something that requires work, and frankly, something that feels pretty damn awful while you're going through it. The personal only becomes political when you finish an examination of how you embody the power that oppresses you and others. When you root it out, acknowledge it, and turn into an impetus for change.

What happened is that for the next five months, I had to do this hard work. I had to face my own prejudice about people with intellectual disabilities. I'm not going to make any excuses for myself either. It doesn't matter that I didn't know anyone with Down syndrome. Not knowing people who are different in various ways is not an excuse for ignorance or intolerance. Nor does it matter that I was scared. I say this because I had to be frank with myself. I knew better, you see, because I have studied difference. I have lived with it in various ways. But there was still deep inside me a fear of a certain kind of difference. A fear that came from my own arrogance, my own insecurities. I who had placed so value on the academy was about to give birth to a child who challenged if that was even valuable. 

And trust me I believed some bad shit. I thought she was going to be hideous and thus had to root out all my bias on difference being beautiful.  Difference is beautiful I would come to see before I even laid eyes on my lovely daughter. People with Down syndrome are beautiful. Very. In fact, I think beauty is so much bigger than I ever allowed myself to see.

I thought people with Down syndrome were dull and uninterested in the world. I began to read about people with Down syndrome. They were clearly engaged and excited about the world. Many were artists. Some were activists. And most were just average people like me. Living life as it came at them. 

I thought that Jude would be a drain on her siblings. I worried that I would spend so much time "fixing" her that they would resent the lost time. I feared they would not want to take care of her when she was older. What I learned is that people who siblings with Down syndrome have more positive experiences than negative.

Somewhere along my dark journey to true love, I also learned that people with Down syndrome sometimes go to college. But by that point it no longer really mattered. Because what I had really learned through all this was that people with Down syndrome were different, yes, but different in the ways that we are all different. They were different from each other. Different from me. They were varied, individual with different interests, passions, lives. The only one common experience they seemed to share was that a lot of people didn't see them as being fully human. People like me. And then I shed some tears about my own small cruelty found in ignorance. But after those tears I pulled on my big girl panties. Because seriously? You don't want to fuck with my beasties. And there's a fight to be had here and now for Jude and for people like Jude. Human people. Real people. People who deserve equal care, equal rights, and the opportunity to live a full, varied life. 

The personal became the political before I even held Jude's tiny body in my arms. And that is how I became a better person. Not through Jude but because I wanted to be a better person FOR Jude. FOR my other beasties. FOR the world. So no I wouldn't go back and give the past Ginger any tips. She clearly had some shit to work through.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Picking Rocks

"Ableism is so pervasive that it is difficult to identify until one begins to interrogate the governing assumptions of well-intentioned society. Within the space allowed by these rhetorical premises, ableism appears natural, necessary, and ultimately moral discrimination required for the normal functioning of civilization."
[A]bleism is that most insidious form of rhetoric that has become reified and so widely accepted as common sense that it denies its own rhetoricity—it "goes without saying." To fully address it we must name its presence, for cultural assumptions accepted uncritically adopt the mantle of "simple truth" and become extremely difficult to rebut. As the neologism "ableism" itself testifies, we need new words to reveal the places it resides and new language to describe how it feeds. Without doing so, ableist ways of thinking and interpreting will operate as the context for making sense of any acts challenging discrimination, which undermines their impact, reduces their symbolic potential, and can even transform them into superficial measures that give the appearance of change yet elide a recalcitrant ableist system..."
[Excerpts from  James. L. Cherney's "The Rhetoric of Ableism."]
I'm a mother and a nurse, not a scholar.  I'm not going to make any pretensions about that.   I'm also a half-assed gardener and occasionally, I take a pretty picture of something I've grown or of someone to whom I've given birth.  As a "writer" I am one voice in the wilderness of the blogosphere.  I came into this role woefully unprepared and in the process have discovered many things about Down syndrome, our world, our Western society and indeed, myself.  I started this place as a "Mommy blogger" and am slowly growing into a disability advocate.  I started out thinking that I could try to change a few minds and that would help create a world that was more receptive to people like Wyatt.  I wanted to help build a garden where old stereotypes did not linger in people's minds. A world where the phrase "my son has Down syndrome" would not automatically generate uncomfortable looks, apologies or awkward exclamations of sentimental rubbish.

Lately, I've been preoccupied with the subject of ableism and how it impacts my son.  Western culture is rife with it.  It is buried, deep within the rhetoric, deep within the language that we use to share our opinions to one another.  When it comes to the subject of advancement of people with intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome, the tools that we advocates have chosen to use may appear to advance our goals of inclusion and acceptance. Sadly, those tools, in many cases, do the exact opposite.  How we view disability, how we see each other, how we as parent and friend advocates feel about the the world-at-large all impact our efforts. I've also realized that I shouldn't be planting anything for my son, but rather preparing the soil for him to sow a garden of his own.

It was those two quotes above that finally clarified what I had suspected for some time.  We are overgrown with ableist rhetoric, whether we mean to be or not, no matter how "good" our intentions. On the surface, the very words that we choose shape how others perceive us and how we see the world. The grand daddy of them all, the R word, is a perfect example of this.  However, the dialogue goes deeper than that.  Like rhizomes, negative concepts that shape our entire perception of disability are spread throughout our history, dating back to Aristotle.  As Cherney states, ideas such as "normal is natural", "disability is evil" and the "body is able" are rampant throughout the Western world.  Other rhetoric, including those that incorporate socioeconomic or religious ideals (such as "disability is uneducated", "disability is baseborn", "disability is ethnic") seem to sprout up everywhere.

These are all part of our great post-colonial tradition of "less than".  Our everyday language shows that we see others with disdain.  That able and functioning at optimum physical perfection is what we are all supposed to be and anything else is a failure;  lesser;  unworthy.  Even amongst "disabilities" there is a difference.  We in the Western world commonly refer to those that employ physical assistive devices such as wheelchairs and support animals as "differently abled".  Those that have cognitive impairments however are "developmentally disabled".

There's a fossil in there somewhere...As I've mentioned, I come from a medical background.  For years, I embraced a more mechanical definition of disability, which in its most basic form states "this part isn't working as it should, therefore the patient is disabled". The person is seen as broken, malfunctioning, stunted.  This quickly leads to pity disguised as empathy.  Then to romanticism, as an artistic touch is now given to what is "broken".  A more realistic viewpoint is the social model; this way, disability is described by a series of barriers, exclusions and negative attitudes (that includes language).  An individual may have a physical, cognitive or psychological difference from their neighbours, but it is the lack of societal provision that makes it an actual disability.  Humanity is diverse and flourishing;  it is only when a person runs into a situation where their needs are not met, can they be defined as actually having a disability.  Most can easily relate this model to well known things, such as ramps or closed-captioning. However, when it comes to DS and challenges of communication and interpretation, as a culture we cannot seem to move beyond the medical model.  No one seems to want to say that it is society that has disabled these individuals, not their neurological makeup.  Even within the whole of the disability community itself, those with Down syndrome and related developmental disorders are considered less than.

From the medical tradition you also get the -isms:  Infantilism, where those with DS are seen as adult babies,  "Baby Huey", or 'forever children'.  It is probably the most insidious, as it strips all dignity and sense of self and worth from the individual.  They are forever dependent, in the most basic sense.  There is also Anthropomorphism, where those with Down syndrome are referred to in supernatural or angelic terms or possessing traits that are more like "powers".   Quite possibly the most sneaky of them all (and one that I am guilty of as well) is Paternalism, where all decisions, beyond a point where they should be made by the person themselves, are removed and placed in the hands of those who are deemed--by the same abilist society--as being more qualified, be they parent, school, doctor or organization.   This model often decides "what is best" and assumes as Cherney states, that "it goes without saying", based on old, outdated practices and ideas.  For example, we are told that those with DS do not follow "typical" patterns of growth or development and that these ideals should not be applied.  Yet, we still continue to apply them with the attitude of "how else will we know whether the child is behind?",  instead of just allowing the child to develop at their own pace in a loving, supportive, caring environment.  IQ tests are culturally biased and archaic, yet we still continue to use them to determine 'level of cognition' and therefore predetermine a person's 'functionality' and thereby, worth.  Our organizations, both religious and philanthropic, readily fall into this trap too, as they betray their roots as the charities that they were originally founded as, to help "the poor unfortunates".   Regardless of the origin, regardless of some degree of "good work" having been performed, regardless of intent, the result is the same:  an abilist act grown of an abilist system.  Each and every time it is employed, it undermines those with Down syndrome.  It hampers efforts to become more visible, for those with DS to move out of the world of poverty and neglect.

Rocks Not surprisingly most of the Down syndrome advocacy movement is borne of this ableist system, myself included.  We allow the rhetoric to continue by ignoring demeaning language such as the R-word,  by describing our loved ones in childish terms, by giving them "angelic" or "superhuman" qualities, by romanticizing the medical definition of disability and by continuing to make all decisions for them.  We, the people that are supposed to be helping, are only perpetuating stereotypes.  Pictures of good looking kids with catchy sayings may sound like a good idea (and I won't deny that there was a certain purpose served by this initially), but they are not.  My son's extra chromosome is not kitsch, it is not property, it is not made of love.  He is not an angel and he himself is not perfection incarnate.  I did not design him either, nor do I believe a supreme being handcrafted him for our family... I only had the pleasure of providing half of his genetic material.

I've run into a lot of nationalism too.  Recently I read a Letterman-style "Top 10" list of reasons why one particular country was the best in which to raise a child with complex needs.  The article will no doubt be shared far and wide within the advocacy communities and it saddens me, as the article itself is so rife with inconsistencies, poorly researched half-truths and flat out falsehoods that it actually turned my stomach to read it.  Blogging communities seem to be often divided among these national lines as well.  There also seems to be some kind of hierarchy in the advocacy world;  the more disabled your child/loved one/you are, coupled with the amount of "time served" you have in this community, the more of an "expert" you are. Assuming there is such a thing in the first place. Politics within the movement itself are rapidly threatening its very life;  I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see those calling for inclusion acting very negatively and exclusive in their practise. 

Finding your niche...But what about the world outside?  Much of what gets published about Down syndrome or special needs in the mainstream these days might as well be misery peddling. Subjects that go well beyond simple anticipatory grieving seem to be de rigueur and are now perpetuating the negative stereotypes that we are fighting so hard against. Initially, I'm sure this trend was meant to be a way for parents to find fellowship in what can be some very long and seemingly isolating days.  But, how much negativity can one person read surrounding a certain condition before they start applying those traits to that condition?  In our sensationalist world, unless a piece about disability keeps things at status quo (ie: 'less than'), it is not publishable.  Full of anger towards your child's diagnosis?  Blame your child's diagnosis for your own personal issues?  STOP THE PRESSES!  Depression, disgust,  having to "force" one's self to play with one's own child... these are are all things that go well beyond the realm of a grief reaction or situational crisis and in the end only feed our detractors and probably belongs in a therapist's office.  In the end, which is worse?  Our own community disparaging those that they claim to represent, or those outside that hate our kids? 

Then there is the stereotypical "Down syndrome superstar", who by having a prom date or scoring a goal or participating in a major life event, allows all to feel misty, paternal feelings.  Add a little more anthropomorphism, in the guise of "angels" and "my child has made me a better person" and you have the  domain of inspiraporn, which is just more ableist rhetoric.  The reality is that not every child will be a superstar and the effects of the extra chromosome will vary from child to child, as well as the resources and supports made available to them.  I'm personally guilty of this one, not realizing that the reason I felt the way I did when Wyatt was diagnosed with his AVSD (and probable chromosomal disorder) in utero, was the ableist society in which I lived.  If my culture had not continued to push the idea of the "hardship" or the "broken child", would I have been as sad as I was initially with his diagnosis?  Would I have grasped blindly for for the first sign of positivity,  the first glimmer of "hope" in the form of staged photo-ops and over the top inspirational motifs?  Let me put it another way:  if one truly accepts people with intellectual disabilities and developmental delays as equals, these stories would not be news.  However, many cling to them desperately, willing to overlook the weeds of ableism and instead renaming it a wildflower of "awareness".

"Bucket of Rocks" shared with
permission from
What this civil rights movement needs is more visibility.  Not from parents or people like me, but from the self-advocates themselves.  That is why I share almost everything from VATTA blog on our Facebook page.  It is the people with Down syndrome who need to create the language that describes them, it will be the self-advocates that create the new rhetoric to promote neurodiversity.  It is happening.  Slowly, seeds are germinating.

As one of my children has Down syndrome, I've had to evaluate my perceptions of disability over and over.  How will this affect Wyatt?  How can we, as his parents, best guide him to adulthood and allow him the freedom to advocate on his own behalf, whatever form that may take?  To reach "his full potential" on his own terms, not our abilist ones? At what point do I stop "parenting" and become "paternalistic"?  For now, I guess, my job is to continue to expose the rhetoric and ableism while nurturing the creation of a new construct, a new set of definitions that not only include neurodiversity but were created within that community.  Despite how disheartening all this can be sometimes, despite how physically and emotionally exhausting it is, I will continue to prepare the soil of this revolution.  My family will continue to explore the world of Intellectual Disability and Developmental Delay the only way we can, through the eyes of others, including our son.  I must persist with preparing this earth for my kids as they grow.  I know, one day, my son will communicate "It's ok, Mom... I've got this" and I will happily put down my bucket and drink a Mojito in the shade.  Until that time however, there is much work to be done.  All are welcome to offer a little sweat equity;  there is a lot of weeds to clear, soil to turn and rocks to pick...

"Picking Rocks.." shared with permission from
Cherney, James L. "The Rhetoric of Ableism." Disability Studies Quarterly 31.3 (2011):  The Rhetoric of Ableism | Cherney | Disability Studies Quarterly. The Society for Disability Studies. Web. 03 July 2013. 

[Originally appeared on Down Wit Dat]