Your Best New Employee? A Theatermaker.

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Pictured: The cast of Black Angels Over Tuskeegee takes a bow, as seen from backstage at The Actors Temple in New York. (Source: TripAdvisor)

This pandemic means a lot of theater professionals are out of work. I know most corporate people think “flaky actors” and “workplace drama” when thinking about theater people, but the truth is exactly the opposite, and now is the time to jump on actors, playwrights, directors, casting directors, designers, technicians and more who have found themselves newly out of work.

Working in professional theatre requires intense discipline, the ability to leave all your issues at the door, and a level of multitasking and focus that most employers only dream of finding in an employee. Allow me to give you nine solid reasons to see years of theater experience as a major plus in a new employee.

1. Discipline, Focus, and Grace Under Pressure. I don’t care what’s happening, that curtain is going up at 8PM, and you must be ready for it. There’s no “Can I get it to you Thursday?” That schedule is utterly unforgiving, and every aspect of your work will be scrutinized in real time by hundreds of people, some of whom are journalists specifically there to evaluate the quality of your work and publish their evaluation on the internet for all to see, forever. Focused, disciplined work is the only way we function. If you can’t work efficiently with a team to deliver excellence on an unforgiving deadline, you won’t get far in theater. We are focused, disciplined, hardworking people, because there’s no other way to function in our world.

2. There’s No Drama in Drama. Theater workers are human beings and have messy lives like everyone else. But our work is deeply collaborative, and we work long hours in close quarters. The type of people who thrive in the disciplined, deadline-focused collaborative work we do are usually the kind of people who leave their drama on the stage. I’ve experienced far more drama working outside theater than I have within it. Everything you’ve seen in the movies about theater professionals being “dramatic” and “flaky” is as realistic a portrayal of our professional work as The Witcher is of medieval Europe.

Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg, a light-skinned woman with dark eyes and long black hair parted down the middle, from the Netflix series The Witcher.

Actually, very few people with disabilities were purchased by the headmistress of Abusive Hogwarts and trained as professional court witches. (Source: Netflix)

Oh, and don’t believe anything Jared Leto says about “method acting.” Actual professional actors don’t “become” their characters all day long off set. It’s embarrassing that this is such a prevalent myth that even actor-adjacent people like Jared Leto believe it.

3. Making Magic Out of Nothing. Theater is woefully underfunded. I tell my students that most of directing is finding artistic solutions to technical problems, and the most common technical problem is lack of budget. If you want something done beautifully, quickly, and exceeding expectations given the budget constraints, you want someone with professional theater experience. If you want a creative thinker who can craft an elegant solution to an intractable problem after everyone else has come up dry, you want a theatermaker. That props person built a 10-foot long sea monster puppet that squirts “ink,” is fully washable, AND lights up, all for $200 in one weekend. They’ll have a soltuion for you before lunch, and it’ll be under budget.

4. Project Management. If you’ve never run a theater company, you might not know how organized and efficient your project management skills need to be just to be minimally effective, let alone to succeed in professional theater.  Let’s take casting as an example. To cast a single season, a casting director needs to know the types, abilities, union status, and availability of hundreds of actors and successfully interface that with the script and with the director’s concept for each role, then manage the audition process, often a combination of video and live auditions. She must constantly manage an enormous amount of interlocking qualitative and quantitative data that all needs to be analyzed, processed, and applied in a rapidly changing environment that also requires deep personnel management and, in most cases, developing and maintaining a network of connections all over the nation.  The casting director is doing most of this work solo, on a tight deadline with little budget. That’s just casting, and I have barely scratched the surface of it. It’s the same level of complexity to produce, direct, manage a set build, or stage manage. The best project manager you will ever have will be that theatermaker you picked up in 2020.

5. Program Management. Producing theater is all about creating programming and ensuring its success. Most larger companies have an education arm as well that requires in-depth management to offer value, service, and– importantly– community. Competition is so fierce for after-school and adult education programs that a sense of community and belonging are critical for both initial buy-in and later upgrading. Look for “Artistic Director” and “Education Director” if you want to go right to the top, but people at all levels will have deep, relevant experience, and there are many companies that have other types of programs, such as a script development program or a teen outreach program. Creating programming for a specific group of end-users that succeeds only when it exceeds expectatons is our bread and butter.

A smiling redhead wearing a black beaded sweater, a black dress, black-framed glasses, and red lipstick sits in a theater with her hands folded in her lap.

A picture of me in my theater taken for the East Bay Express by Stephen Loewinsohn.

6. Personnel Management, Sales, and Customer Service. Anything with “Director” or “Manager” in its title will be an expert in personnel management in the theater. Everyone is working very hard on a very tight deadline, and keeping staff spirits high and minds focused is a basic requirement of the job. Additionally, staffing is a perennial challenge. We don’t have high salaries or stock options to lure top shelf talent; we have to rely on our skills as personnel managers. We are nothing without our ability to attract and retain talent.

While many people already see the benefit in acting training for sales people who must be able to give engaging presentations (hence the many acting seminars designed for business people), what you may not know is how much of our administrative work relies on marketing, sales, and customer service. As a service-oriented field, customer service is a critical aspect of what we do, and every theater employs marketing people with expertise in storytelling– remember, we’re selling an experience rather than a product. But also look for people in development. These are the people whose job it is to convince donors, foundations, and corporations to give them money. Asking someone to just give you money is some next-level sales work that involves storytelling, customer service, and the kind of relationship-building that creates brand loyalty in families for generations.

7. Multitasking. Because our deadlines are so intense and our resources are generally minimal, almost all of us have numerous balls in the air at all times. Even when it looks from the outside like it’s one task, such as acting, the multitasking involved is intense. While onstage, the actor must remember the lines, the blocking (the pattern of movement), and the latest notes they’ve received from the director and/or stage manager, in addition to staying emotionally in the moment, listening and responding to scene partners, manipulating props, and timing out how long to hold for a laugh or a reaction, all with lights blaring in your face and 100+ people judging your every move. Just “staying emotionally in the moment” has several moving parts. In a fight scene, being a foot out of position can land you in the hospital. In producing, there are always fourteen things happening at once, and the need to hold them all in your mind, prioritize, and manage your time well in order to gte them all sorted within the timeframe you have available are critical skills. In professional theater, one dropped ball can mean getting to 30 minutes before the show and realizing an actor has no pants.

 

A young white man wearing a tuxedo jacket, white shirt, black bow tie, white underwear, and a smile. He's opening a bottle of champagne because of course he is.

KENT: “Is not this your son, my Lord?”

8. Improvising and Creative Thinking. With so much in flux and so many unpredictable possibilities before us, now is definitely the time to snap up some quick-thinking, creative, solution-minded people for your team. In a live performance, anything can happen, and you can’t lose focus, bail, or start over. Theater people do not lose their cool when there’s a job to be done, and we can quickly improvise a creative, workable solution on the fly and make it look like that’s what was meant all along. Ask any actor whose scene partner missed an entrance or went up on a line about improvising dialogue to cover– even in a Shakespeare play. Ask any designer or tech who has had seven and a half minutes to frantically duct-tape, rewire, staple, or drill a solution in silence backstage during a show. Ask any producer who was told a week after announcing a season that the rights to a script were pulled because Sony optioned the film rights. If there’s a problem to be solved and you need a creative solution, you need a theatermaker.

A serene swan on a lake. ABove the swan, it says "The Show." Below the swan, it says, "The Frantic Paddling You Never See."

9. But they’ll leave, right? They’ll go back to theater when this is all over? Any of your employees can leave at any time. But the truth is, most of us have some kind of day job, and even those of us without one spent years working a day job while doing theater. There’s no reason your new hire can’t continue working for you when the theatres re-open, and for decades beyond.

The next time your see theater experience on a resume, ask for an interview! You will not be disappointed.

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Disability Cosplayers

Disability Awareness Month ended on July 31, but I have one more thing I need to mention: Disability Cosplayers.

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Not this. This guy’s epic. Follow him on the Twitter machine at @aracknoid3 and while you’re at it, follow the fine folks at @blerdover who were responsible for this photo, which made my whole damn day. Blerdover celebrates epic Black nerds like this badass. (Description: A man using a stand-up wheelchair is wearing a gorgeously crafted Iron Man/merfolk mashup costume.)

You know what I’m talking about: people who pretend to be disabled to take the accommodations that give PWDs access to public areas, events, and services.

One common aspect of this is misuse of accessible parking spaces. Of course I don’t mean the ableist notion that people use blue spaces who don’t “look disabled.” People with invisible disabilities exist and need those spaces. I mean the people who knowingly misuse the accommodation. When all the blue spaces are taken in a lot, I can’t park. I don’t need a space right by the door; I need a space with extra room to get in and out of my car. Parking is a minor issue, and one rife with privilege, since many of us cannot afford to own and maintain a car or adapt one for our particular disability. Yet it’s part of the endless stream of ableism we encounter daily that conveys to us that we are invisible and unimportant.

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Description: Two tweets are pictured. The first one is from @DanielLaw1998 and says: “Disabled parking should only be valid during business hours 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. I cannot see any reason why people with genuine disabilities would be out beyond those times.” The tweet in response is from @JenLRossman and says: “We’re disabled, Daniel, we’re not werewolves.”

There are hundreds of ways in which able-bodied people demonstrate that they are only willing to provide accommodations as long as it’s convenient for them and as long as they don’t believe the accommodation will increase their own comfort. Able-bodied people will place their comfort over our need so often that people with disabilities must fight every day for the disability accommodations supposedly reserved for us.

For example, ADA-compliant bathroom stalls. These are fairly new. The ADA was signed into law in 1990; prior to that, businesses were not required to provide them. Able-bodied people always say they’ll “only be in there for a minute,” but speaking as someone waiting outside the only accessible stall in an otherwise empty restroom listening to people cajole small children into using the toilet for a solid 20 minutes while I hold it, I can assure you that “a minute” is relative. Those stalls were created to give PWDs access to the public spaces able-bodied people were accessing all along. Able-bodied people take them because the extra space is more comfortable and convenient, not because they require an accessible space.

Having to wait for a bathroom stall is, of course, a minor inconvenience in most cases. But the idea that necessary disability accommodations can be withheld from people with disabilities if an able-bodied person simply wants them is the larger issue. This entitlement is so commonplace that it’s is a feature of our everyday lives. The widespread problem of disability cosplay is wholly a creature of that entitlement.

No one polices who uses which bathroom stall, so able-bodied people, by and large, feel free to just take them without pretense. But in many cases, accommodations are accessed through a human gatekeeper. This has, since the passage of the ADA, given rise to the disability cosplayer.

One of the stereotypes people with disabilities have to fight endlessly is that we’re entitled and demanding, and we don’t actually need the accommodations we use. Every disability cosplayer angrily demanding that they be given a disability accommodation they do not need makes it that much more difficult for people with disabilities to access accommodations we do need.

Every PWD has stories about able-bodied people disbelieving us when we say we need something. Most PWDs have a story about being told we’re “faking it,” or that our mobility devices are just “a crutch” (ironically) and that we would “get stronger” without them. We’re told that we would be “better at managing pain” if we stopped taking our pain medications and just “learned to deal with” disabling pain. Ambulatory wheelchair users are routinely scolded, mocked, or even shouted at by able-bodied people accusing them of “faking” because they stood up to reach something in a store, or because they walked a few steps.

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Description: A tweet from @eirpaC says: “I was an ambulatory wheelchair user for a year in high school, while I awaited spinal surgery. A peer told me I would get better if I just took the stairs, and she tried to block the elevator entrance several times. We were on the fifth floor.”

People with disabilities are routinely gaslit by healthcare workers who insist we’re lying or mistaken about our own bodies, our pain levels, our responses to treatments, or our needs. Nearly every PWD has heard at least a few of these:

  • “You don’t need that (test, treatment, medication)”
  • “It doesn’t hurt that bad”
  • “You just want drugs”
  • “Stop feeling sorry for yourself”
  • “You couldn’t have had that reaction”
  • “You just need to exercise”
  • “You just need to lose weight”
  • “You just need a more positive attitude”
  • “It’s all in your head”

And of course the famous “Are you sure?” accompanied by a skeptical smirk. The nurses and doctors who believe us and treat us with respect and dignity are worth their weight in platinum.

Being disbelieved by family, friends, healthcare workers, and even strangers is one of the most commonly shared experiences of PWDs, especially women and BIPOC with disabilities. When an able-bodied person cosplays disability, it makes our lives that much more difficult because it confirms the suspicions of able-bodied people that we’re all just “faking it.” Even people with obvious physical disabilities or clear diagnoses are told we’re “faking it” about some aspect of our disability– the level of pain we experience, the things our bodies can or cannot do, or our experiences of ableism. There will be people who will contact me after reading this piece to tell me I’m “faking it” about how often we’re told we’re “faking it.”

The newest disability cosplay comes from able-bodied anti-maskers. They’ve even formed a little club that issues laminated cards that pretend to be “official”:

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The cards say:

“FACE MASK EXEMPT CARD. I AM EXEMPT FROM ANY ORDINANCE REQUIRING FACE MASK USAGE IN PUBLIC. Wearing a face mask posses (sic) a mental and/or physical risk to me. Under the Americans with Disability (sic) Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you. Department of Justice ADA Violation reporting number: (800) 514-0301. If found in violation of the ADA you could face steep penalties. Organizations and businesses can be fined up to $75,000 for your first violation and $150,000 for any subsequent violations. DENYING ACCESS TO YOUR BUSINESS/ORGANIZATION WILL BE ALSO REPORTED TO FTBA FOR FURTHER ACTIONS.”

Also on the card is an official-looking seal that purports to be from the “Freedom to Breathe Agency,” with a web address. No such agency exists and the web address leads to a broken website. (I used a picture clearly labeled “FRAUD” for obvious reasons; that doesn’t appear on the original.)

This bit of disability cosplay is particularly egregious because people with disabilities are at higher risk of complications from Covid-19, and are protected from deadly infection by responsible public behaviors like social distancing and mask-wearing. There are very few disabilities that preclude mask-wearing, and those who truly cannot wear a mask are relying on the rest of us to keep our masks on. Your mask prevents you from infecting other people by catching the droplets that come from your nose and mouth. This is especially important with Covid-19 as so many people are asymptomatic in the early stages of infection, and some apparently remain asymptomatic, although we have no idea why, making us all possible asymptomatic carriers. The failure of the US to provide adequate testing means that people are waiting days or even weeks for test results when they can even access a test, making it even more difficult to contain the spread as people go about their daily lives awaiting results.

The internet is full of videos of people throwing tantrums as they insist they have a disability that prevents them from wearing masks while the poor, underpaid store worker is just trying to enforce store policy and commonsense public health protections. People pretending to be from the non-existent “Freedom to Breathe Agency” are even intimidating store workers with lies about how they can be personally held liable for enforcing store mask policy. Please note that every single one of these disability cosplayers who claim to have an unnamed “breathing problem” are breathing just fine through their lengthy, shouted tantrums.

And every single one of these disability cosplayers is making life more difficult for people with disabilities, especially the very few people who genuinely cannot wear a mask and the people with real respiratory issues, such as asthma and COPD, who are at enormous risk of complications from coronavirus and are relying on the rest of us to supplement the protection their masks give them by wearing our own.

If people want to throw a public tantrum about wearing garments, whether it’s safety equipment like a mask or a hardhat, or pants, please leave us out of it. It’s difficult enough to get the accommodations we need.

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Disability & Covid-19

It’s Disability Awareness Month, and in the middle of this pandemic, at the 30th anniversary of the ADA, there’s never been a more important time to center people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the national discussion around Covid-19 has been marginalizing, rather than centering, PwDs.

mask.rebirthgarments

All the images in this post promote independent mask makers. This cute design has a window, making it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to understand you! The maker is Rebirth Garments on Etsy.  (Pictured: A smiling person with very short black hair, wearing colorful garments and a face mask with a plastic window through which their mouth can be seen.)

We are not disposable. Although little is still known for certain about Covid-19, people with chronic illnesses and certain disabilities appear to be at greater risk. “It’s mostly just old people and people with other conditions,” is tossed out by people looking to shut down concerns. Some prominent conservatives have even gone as far as to say that the elderly and/or people with disabilities should be sacrificed to “save” the US economy.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this is around pediatric cases. In news stories about the children who have died, “[Name of child victim] had underlying conditions” is featured prominently whenever it’s applicable. I’ve even seen it on a line by itself. “Reduce your concern,” it seems to say, “This child was disabled, so it’s not as bad.”

PwDs and families of PwDs are facing the very real possibility that our access to life-saving medical care will be impacted by ableism. In areas of the country overwhelmed by serious cases of Covid-19, hospitals face the unpleasant task of triage, and while disability is not supposed to be a concern, ableism– like racism, like sexism, like transphobia, like fatphobia, like every other kind of bigotry– is often expressed in implicit bias. We believe we have “good reasons” for a decision that, when more closely examined, are actually the result of bias. When there’s one ventilator left in the hospital and three patients who need that ventilator, “quality of life” and “best chance for a full recovery” can knock a person with a disability out of consideration.

Both the widespread sentiment that the danger of reopening schools and businesses is overstated because most of the people who will die have pre-existing conditions and the implicit — and explicit— bias at work in triage reflect systemic ableism. Our lives are not just considered less important than the lives of the able-bodied, our lives are considered less important than the economy. Which means, at its heart, that our lives are less important than protecting the wealth of billionaires. It’s not about “getting people back to work,” as the US has ample resources to temporarily provide income to people who must stay home and childcare for people who cannot. We just choose not to because it would require raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires.

The lives of PwDs are considered a more acceptable sacrifice than 1% of the wealth of billionaires.

Our lives are as valuable and precious as the lives of able-bodied people. We will not be sacrificed so you can “reopen the economy” and hold in-person classes, football games, or two-for-one jello shot nights at McCovid’s. You cannot have our children to sacrifice on the altar of capitalism.

masks.mverse

The MVerse is making gorgeous silk masks. (Pictured: Five colorful, patterned face masks arranged in a fan pattern.)

The other group Americans seem more than willing to sacrifice for the economy are people of color.

Two of the most significant conditions correlated with serious Covid-19 complications are asthma and cardiovascular issues, both of which are over-represented in BIPOC communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities. The impact of systemic racism on health has been studied for years, yet there is still widespread white resistance to the fact that racism is a public health crisis. White health– like able-bodied health– is considered more valuable and important.

Anything that primarily impacts BIPOC or PwDs is not a “crisis”; it’s a “special interest.”

Too many able-bodied white Americans do not consider disabled lives or Black lives important enough to protect. We were all in favor of social distancing and shelter-in-place until it became clear that the higher risk was borne by people with disabilities and people of color. Immediately, conservatives peeled off and became stridently insistent that the pandemic was a hoax, masks were “mind control devices,” and every healthcare provider and scientist around the world were somehow lying for “profit.” Suddenly allowing people to die to strengthen the economy was an acceptable sacrifice.

People with disabilities:

If you are a BIPOC PwD, you face all of these same barriers at twice the intensity.

BIPOC, especially Black and Native people, are much more likely to live in poverty due to generations of aggressive economic disenfranchisement, making it more difficult to access medical care. When they do access medical care, they face enormous bias in the healthcare system. Both Black and Latinx people are less likely to have their pain properly treated in emergency departments and are less likely to be believed when self-reporting symptoms.

Black people in particular face shocking levels of bias and discrimination while seeking medical care.

  • Almost half of medical students surveyed in 2016 reported believing that Black people do not feel pain as acutely as white people, have thicker skin than white people, and have fewer nerve endings than white people.
  • In 2015, another study found that Black children with appendicitis were far less likely to be given pain relief in the Emergency Department than white children.
  • In 2017, the publisher Pearson was forced to pull a popular nursing textbook when a page teaching racist stereotypes was posted online. The text claimed, “Blacks believe in prayer and the laying on of hands to heal pain” and “report higher pain intensity than other cultures.”
  • While overall maternity mortality rates in the US are higher than any other developed nation, Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women.

BIPOC people with disabilities, especially women, face systemic barriers to healthcare that make their ability to survive any health crisis, Covid-19 or otherwise, extremely difficult.

mask.consciouschange

This little cutie is wearing a mask from Conscious Change, a Black-owned Etsy shop.  (Pictured: Adorable Black girl with pigtails wears a white t-shirt that says “Black Girl” in black cursive and a black face mask that says “I Matter” in white below a white heart with an black, upraised fist.)

Being a BIPOC PwD is an especially potent intersectional identity because white supremacy measures the worth of BIPOC lives by how useful they are to the white supremacist narrative: Are you making money for white people? Are you appropriately grateful to your white benefactors for the opportunities you’ve been “given”? Do you refuse to participate in protests against racism, including non-violent protests like taking a knee? Are you “happy” or “angry” and “rude”?

Nowhere is this more robust than in the white understanding of Black people. White people see the existence of Black people as being about white people. Every Black event, movement, slogan, or group is criticized bitterly if it does not center whiteness. If you doubt this, remember that they can’t even say “our lives matter” without white people angrily denouncing them as “racists” and responding with “white lives matter,” “white lives are better,” “only white lives matter” and support for white supremacy.

The angry and even violent white backlash to Black people publicly stating that their lives matter, combined with the widespread ableist belief that the lives of people with disabilities are less valuable, means Black PwDs face some of the most virulent and insidious bigotry in the country at the very moment when the nation is hotly debating whether we should sacrifice American lives to reopen schools and businesses.

mask.hipfruit

The Black-owned Etsy store HipFruit has a wide variety of masks, including both floral and BLM designs. (Pictured: A Black woman with long, straight hair and an off-the-shoulder top with navy and white stripes is wearing a face mask featuring white flowers on a black background.)

Government Apathy. This pandemic has highlighted the brutal impact of systemic ableism and systemic racism. Yet, as more and more people suffer, die, or survive with long-lasting medical complications, the government is less and less interested in providing relief. The Trump Administration, aided in large part by their ghoulish GOP allies in Congress, is insistent that unemployment and disability should be slashed, funding for Covid testing and tracing should be eliminated, and the CDC budget reduced in addition to pulling out of the World Health Organization. The press heaps praise upon Trump for wearing a mask in public and for making a speech without a single dangerous lie while his inaction and incompetence have caused the deaths of over 140,000 Americans (and counting).

The pandemic has put a spotlight on some pre-existing inequities. But what we choose to do about those inequities is the critical question. Thus far, we seem content with nothing better than comforting able-bodied white people with narratives like “People of color are at higher risk” and “People with underlying conditions are at higher risk” while half the nation insists that our deaths are irrelevant if the economy rebounds.

When you say, “Black Lives Matter,” please remember that some of those Black lives are disabled lives. When you say, “We should reopen schools and businesses because most of the people who die have underlying conditions,” remember that what you’re really saying is “the deaths of PwDs, especially the BIPOC PwDs at the highest risk, are an acceptable sacrifice to maintain billionaire wealth, since we can’t expect them to pay higher taxes for a few years.”

In a nation where months of conservative propaganda has resulted in 31% of people refusing to wear a mask regularly to protect others, , it’s impossible to predict just how deadly this pandemic will get in the US before we have a vaccine– which anywhere between 27% and 50% of Americans say they will refuse, thanks again to propaganda, this time on the standard sources for antivax hooey on the fringe left as well as the right.

There are many things in life that are “risky,” and “acceptable risks” are part of life. In this case, however, we’re not talking about “risk.” We know this virus is deadly; we know a certain percentage of people will die or suffer long-term debilitating consequences. In this case, “acceptable risk” means “it is acceptable to me that these people will die.”

We refuse to be your “acceptable risk.” Allies, accomplices, loved ones: stand with us. And we all need to remember that BIPOC PwDs are bearing the brunt of every aspect of this crisis.

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Anti-Ableism 101: How to Be a Better Ally

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Image: The standard disability icon, but carrying a flaming torch, and with this written on the wheelchair: Make is accessible or burn it down. Buy this image on a variety of products at the Etsy shop NecroticPixies

Happy Disability Pride Month!

July is the month people with disabilities express pride in our identities and accomplishments, and work to make the world a more equitable place for all PwDs. I’ll be devoting July’s posts to discussing disability and the able-bodied allyship we need from you. This post is designed to cover a few of the basics.

THESE ISSUES ARE SYSTEMIC. The vast majority of people who say and do ableist things just haven’t yet examined the ways in which systemic ableism has impacted their beliefs and understanding. One key thing to remember in work around allyship is this:

When you’re feeling defensive, when that “BUT I’M NOT ABLEIST, I DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY, I’M A GOOD PERSON” rises in your chest, it’s the X that marks the spot: Dig Here. There is something to find. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Sit in the discomfort. Think honestly and fearlessly about the issue at hand. Instead of resisting them, allow defensiveness and fragility to be your guides. When they occur, stop. Breathe. And then DIG. It’s not your fault our ableist society put those ableist thoughts in your mind, but it’s your job to honestly examine them and root them out.

If a PwD has told you that something you’ve said or done is ableist, thank them. It took an enormous act of bravery to be honest with you because so many able-bodied people react defensively and even angrily when told that their words or actions were ableist. Honor the trust they’ve shown in you by doing the work required. Is it easy? No. But honest self-examination is one of the central projects around learning how to be a better ally.

EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS.

  • Not every disability is visible. It’s not allyship to yell at someone who “seems fine” when they park in a space reserved for PwDs. There are numerous invisible disabilities that can make walking painful, difficult, or dangerous, and you are more likely to be shaming a PwD than fighting on our behalf. And there are many aspects to disability that aren’t about mobility. Learn about invisible disabilities.
  • Disability is not all or nothing. Ambulatory wheelchair users exist. Many people who use wheelchairs can stand and walk under certain circumstances. For example, I usually walk with a cane, but if I’m going to a museum or theme park, I will use a wheelchair because I can’t walk for very long. The ableist jokes and memes (“It’s a miracle!”) about ambulatory wheelchair users are an example of disability binarism— the concept that disability must be all or nothing. Either you can walk fine, or you cannot walk at all. Either you can see well, or you cannot see at all. This concept does real harm to people with disabilities.
  • Do not assume you know what we need. Once I taught at a school that rented space from a church. I parked in one of the blue spaces until the church complained that all the blue spaces were “theirs.” Rather than wrangle with them, the school generously provided me with a parking space right near the building entrance. The only problem: I wasn’t using the blue space because I needed to be close to the entrance; I was using the blue space because I needed more room to get in and out of my car. No one had asked me what I needed; they just assumed they knew. Ask us what we need.
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Image: An illustration of flags that say, “Nothing About Us Without Us” against a dark blue backdrop with many small icons representing various disabilities in light blue. This appears to be an adaptation of a Women’s March protest poster by Jennifer Maravillas, but if you have more specific information, please let me know. 

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US. If you’re creating disability-related policy, planning a public event, creating a product, writing a character with a disability, or educating yourself about PwDs, you must center the voices of PwDs in your work. I know this sounds like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s not often followed. The majority of public policy, corporate policy, event planning, and disabled character creation happens with little or no input from PwDs. When we do give our opinions, we are frequently shut down. I’m just one person, but I’ve been told all of the following when attempting to create a more disability-friendly workplace:

  • We don’t need that; we do great with disability
  • Maybe we’ll include disability in our DEI work in the future, but not right now.
  • People know that our program is not fully accessible. They can just choose to go elsewhere.
  • This area is occasionally used by able-bodied people, so we can’t make it disability seating.
  • But we’re not required to by law.
  • It’s too difficult.
  • It’s too expensive.

PwDs have written reams of material about making spaces, programming, events, products, and characters more accessible. There are hundreds of PwDs, myself included, who offer their services as disability equity and inclusion consultants. There is no need to guess, assume, or imagine what we need. “Nothing about us without us.” Just ask, and when we tell you, believe us.

DO NOT GLORIFY “TOUGHING IT OUT.” Once I heard a colleague say about a student with a mobility disability, “They did great! They walked for hours and never once complained. I’m so proud of them!”

This stood out to me because it’s an excellent example of the prevailing attitude of able-bodied people: It’s OK to be disabled, but it’s not OK to talk about it or inconvenience able-bodied people with our needs. It’s OK to come along, but you must never tell able-bodied people that you’re in pain or that you need an accommodation. This “push through pain; never show weakness” is one of the cornerstones of American ableism. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say, it’s ableist to glorify pretending that disability doesn’t impact us.

HANDS OFF. You would be astonished how often people with visible disabilities are grabbed, touched, pulled, or pushed. Apart from the obvious– never touch another person without their consent– you are more than likely not helping. Any time you suddenly grab another person without warning or consent, you risk pulling them off balance. I walk with a cane, and when you grab my arm to “help” me walk, it destabilizes me and makes walking more difficult. People who use wheelchairs all have stories about able-bodied people who lean on their chairs, try to sit on them, or even grab the handles and start pushing them in random directions, assuming they know where the PwD wants to go.

Always ask us what we need.

And while you should never pet or feed any domesticated animal without permission from its human companion, this is especially important with service animals. We don’t come to your place of business and pet you or shove an eclair in your mouth while you’re trying to give a presentation; don’t pet or feed a service animal while it’s trying to work.

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Image: A raised black fist with the infinity symbol on the wrist and thumb; to the right, the words “Black Disabled Lives Matter.” Source: Amazing artist Jen White Johnson. Go spend money on her stickers, prints, and other cool stuff. 

BLACK LIVES MATTER. Remember that these issues are intersectional. Our experience of disability is enormously impacted by other aspects of our identities. Consider the additional impact of racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, classism, fatphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of oppression as they interact with ableism. This is why it’s key to develop your allyship by reading the work of a wide variety of PwDs. Your ally reading list for Disability Awareness Month 2020 should lean towards reading the work of Black PwDs. One of my favorites is Crutches and Spice, run by Imani Barbarin, but there are dozens of excellent sources out there!

LANGUAGE. Refer to us as “people with disabilities” (“PwDs”) in the aggregate. Individuals may have different preferences, but in the aggregate, remember that we are people with disabilities, people who use wheelchairs, people with invisible disabilities, etc. Put people first! Please avoid “the handicapped” or cutesy euphemisms like “differently abled,” “special needs,” or “handi-capable.” If an individual has a different preference, use that! It’s not up to able-bodied people to tell a PwD they’re “wrong” for using a different term.

It’s also important to stop using ableist slang terms. “Lame” and “dumb” meaning “bad” are two of the most prevalent now that it’s common knowledge that “r****ded” and “r****d” are ableist slurs. (Also avoid variants of “r****d” like “fuckt**d” and “libt**d,” although it seems implausible that anyone who would use “libt**d” cares about people with disabilities.)

Two more critical terms to avoid are “blind” and “deaf” as metaphors for ignorance. (You can go back through this blog and find examples of my own unthinking, ableist use of these terms.) People with sight-related and/or hearing-related disabilities are not any more or less likely to be ignorant than anyone else. Another troubling trend is the use of blindness as a metaphor in books, films, TV, and theatre. Actress, teacher, and disability activist Marilee Talkington writes powerfully about this in her critique of José Saramago’s book, Blindness, now a sound installation art piece in London:

“The book is a despicable depiction of humans who have suddenly gone blind being herded into and imprisoned in an asylum where they devolve into animalistic killers, lose all humanity and sense of self, all while being ‘cared for’ and ‘lead’ by SIGHTED individuals. . . . Stop using us (BLIND folx) as your METAPHOR for the disintegration of humanity, for your ignorance, for the world’s chaos, for your lack of goodness, your lack of ability to adapt, and for the emptiness of your own soul.”

Disability should not be used as a metaphor for moral impairment. 

THERE’S SO MUCH MORE. My post barely scratches the surface, but I hope it’s enough to get you started thinking about disability allyship!

NEXT WEEK: Disability and Covid-19.

Want more? Become a Bitter Gertrude patron & get access to Bitter Gertrude Book Club, a bimonthly post with reading recommendations about BG posts, current events, and writers to keep on your radar.

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My Patreon is Launching!

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Pictured: A 1948 ad for the Hillman Husky, which says, “New Double Duty Hillman at a low price.”

Hello, Bitter Gertrude readers!

I’m launching my Patreon! My goal is to be able to devote more time to bringing you Bitter Gertrude’s cultural & political analysis with a focus on equity (and back-sass). For that, I need your help!

I have six different levels of patronage, all of which come with access to the Bitter Gertrude Book Club, a bimonthly post that contains reading recommendations related to Bitter Gertrude posts, current events, and writers to keep your eye on. At $20 and above, you also get access to “Words Words Words,” a monthly tip sheet about language & social justice, etymology, writing mechanics, and other aspects of word nerdery.

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ANNOUNCE IT TO THE WORLD      (Pictured: Medieval marginalia depicting a naked trumpeter holding one trumpet to his mouth and another to his butt. Medieval marginalia is full of butt-trumpeters.)

Whether you are able to join or not, please know that I value your support over the past seven (!) years, and my regular Bitter Gertrude content will always be free to access.

My next post comes out in a few days! It’s Disability Awareness Month, and I’ll be writing about allyship all month.

Thank you again for reading Bitter Gertrude! You mean the world to me.

Become a Patron!

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Back to School in the Era of Covid: The “Managed Risk” of Student & Educator Deaths

Pictured: The hand of a Black child raised in class.

As educators enter summer “break” each year, we begin planning for the fall. Never in the history of education in the US has that planning been more critical than it is now. The main concern in every other year has been delivering equitable, high-quality education. For the first time, the main concern for the 2020-21 school year is minimizing the number of students and staff who will die (while delivering equitable, high-quality education).

When we believed that white people and people of color would suffer and die in equal proportions, we shuttered all school buildings and sent everyone home. Now that we know that communities of color have higher rates of infection and death, we’re suddenly fine with reopening schools. It’s suddenly “safe” to reopen. Safe for whom?

THE PUSH FOR IN-PERSON CLASSES

School districts all over the country are deciding what to to about the upcoming school year right now, and there’s been a vocal push to reopen schools for onsite classes. On June 18, Texas announced that its public schools statewide will be returning to onsite classes in the fall. Texas governor Greg Abbott also announced that families with “health concerns” would be allowed to make arrangements for remote education. Texas has furthermore announced that masks will not be required, temperature screenings will not be required, and the details around how any of this will be handled (or funded) will be left up to the individual school districts.

Texas has over 5.4 million students enrolled in its public school system and employs close to 400,000 adults. While Covid-19 appears to be less dangerous for people under 18, it’s still dangerous. Even with schools completely shut down, over 90,000 children have been hospitalized nationwide, and the current surge in cases has seen a marked increase in infections among younger people. In California, for example, 44% of new diagnoses are in people under 35.

We know that indoor, in-person gatherings greatly increase infection rates, as we’re seeing with record spikes in areas that are re-opening. As cases rise, the death toll mounts, with many states posting record Covid deaths. If just .001% of those 5.8 million people in the Texas public school system die from Covid-19 contracted as a result of in-person classes, that’s 5800 people in Texas alone.

CDC has recently, due to expanded testing, discovered that about a third of cases are asymptomatic, which has reduced overall mortality rates to 0.5% of confirmed cases, but reveals how the virus is able to spread so rapidly in even brief gatherings in indoor spaces like churches, choirs, and classes. The only way to keep the death rate down is to slow the rate of infection. Yet here we are, proposing to force children and educators into in-person classes knowing full well that infections will spike as a result.

Infections and deaths won’t stay confined to school sites. Families of schoolchildren will see increased rates of infection and death after their student brings the virus home from school, and parents will spread that infection into other workplaces before they even know they’re infected.

How many deaths are we willing to cause to avoid the inconvenience of online classes? And why is it “managed risk” when the suffering and death will disproportionately impact people of color, but it was an intolerable risk when we believed white people would suffer and die in equal proportions?

Here’s the thing: We have a perfectly good alternative. Unlike a restaurant or a nail salon, education has a functional distance option. Is it perfect? No. Are in-person classes perfect? Also no.

If we decide right now to continue with distance learning in order to save thousands of lives, we can spend the summer preparing and addressing the problems of distance learning. And if we do, we will be beginning the 2020-21 school year far more prepared to address inequities than we ever have been in the history of American education.

Pictured: A Black high school student, pictured from behind, raises his hand as his Black teacher calls on him. (Photo: Getty Images)

INEQUITIES ONLINE AND ONSITE

The primary problem facing American education is inequity, whether classes are held in person or online. We have been, as a culture, singularly uninterested in addressing the inequity issues attached to in-person, traditional K-12 education.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. And the questions we, as a culture, have asked so far are all, in effect: How can we do something to address inequity in education without tackling inequity in society at large?

We’ve been content to pretend that failure to successfully address inequity in education is due to “bad teachers” or the lack of the “right” programming rather than systemic inequity in every aspect of our culture.

We’ve been content to accept that school funding is tied to property taxes, and that one child attends a school with state-of-the-art equipment while another comes from an underfunded and understaffed school with broken windows, no heating or cooling, outdated books & broken equipment (and not enough of either to go around), and daily police violence, both in school and out.

We’ve been content to accept economic inequity as part of a larger good– “American freedom” and “capitalism.” We’ve been content to shrug our shoulders about the fact that economic inequity hurts children. “What can we do about it?” We’ve been content to accept that a wealthy family can purchase higher SAT scores and better grades with expensive test prep classes and tutors while poor students don’t even have a local library, and have to race home after school to take care of younger siblings while mom is at her second job.

If that student is Black, they have to worry about whether they’ll make it home at all, whether they’ll successfully avoid police or get beaten, shot, or choked out in the street for “looking suspicious.” If that student is Black, they are many times more likely to be living in poverty due to years of aggressive economic disenfranchisement. If that student is Black, they are at higher risk of health complications from all sources due to the stress of racism.

And if that student is Black, they learn at a very young age that white people are more than content to gaslight them about these realities, mock their concerns, viciously condemn their peaceful protests, use state-sanctioned propaganda to dismiss racism and demonize Black people, and use state violence to silence them.

The impact of systemic cultural racism on students and on education is widely known, yet we have always lacked the political will to do anything about it except Make. It. Worse.

That’s our current reality. That’s the “ideal” we’re willing to sacrifice student and staff lives to return to.

Online education is inequitable, but it is not more inequitable than in-person education. And we have the opportunity to address equity in online education as we invent widespread online public schooling.

Pictured: A Black student works at a desk.

The inequity issues with online education are immediately apparent, and many of them are the same inequities that onsite education has: lack of equipment, lower rates of reliable internet connectivity, higher rates of reliance on older children at home to watch younger children (due to excessively high-priced childcare). If we start now, we can work to resolve many of those issues before mid-August and start school with less inequity than we would have if we just simply reopened in-person education.

We can (continue to) work with tech companies to supply districts with laptops at cost and wifi hotspots. We can provide federal funding to states to subsidize high-speed internet for families in need. We can require businesses to allow parents to work from home, and we can extend wage subsidies to cover those whose jobs don’t have a remote option, effectively extending paid parental leave to cover the 2020-21 school year. We can increase parent education around learner needs, and create a commonsense truancy oversight system run by trained specialists who can identify the problems and work with the families to correct them, connecting them to needed resources. We can increase funding to SNAP and make qualification faster and easier, ensuring our students are fed.

We could provide teachers professional development around distance learning, and create resources based on what we already know from years of pedagogy around remote education. It’s not like distance learning is an entirely new concept; the clunky rollout last year was due to the lack of preparation and planning. Teachers were given just a few days to turn their in-person classes into distance learning right in the middle of the year. None of our classes were designed to be distance learning from the start. Remote education requires a different pedagogical approach, but now we have the opportunity to prepare classes as effective distance learning from the start.

Yes, this will all require a significant increase in funding. No one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to give corporations and the wealthiest 1% a massive tax cut; no one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to increase police or military spending. But when we pit money against children in America, money wins every single time. It’s time to make a different choice.

BUT WHAT ABOUT HYBRID CLASSES?

“Hybrid” classes are perhaps the most popular approach amongst politicians. The type of hybrid education being proposed for social distancing means half of the students are onsite on any given day while the other half are at home in online classes. Students rotate from onsite to online, back and forth, to maintain onsite attendance at half capacity. Hybrid proposals also usually provide an option for parents to choose online education for their child all year if they have concerns about the safety of onsite classes– and they should.

The “hybrid” model is not new. It hasn’t been put into widespread use, in part because it requires a deep restructuring of every aspect of K-12 pedagogy. And while hybrid models are a fantastic idea for high school and college, they rely heavily on deep parent involvement for younger children. We often hear “our economy can’t reopen until our schools reopen” because schools provide the vast majority of the childcare in the US. But there’s no safe way for schools to fully reopen, and the hybrid model still requires an onsite parent/caregiver for most students.

Additionally, hybrid classes will only work with a massive influx of new staff at a time when most states are facing staff layoffs. The pedagogy of distance learning is different than the pedagogy of in-person learning. What this means in practice is that Mr. Nagel would have to create the same lesson on apostrophes twice– once for the in-person students and once for the online students– following different pedagogical approaches. Teacher prep time would double, which is– trust me– physically impossible to execute with the current workload. Most teachers are using the majority of their “off” hours doing prep work already.

Most people think that “instruction” is all we do. Graphic from weareteachers.com shows that teachers work more hours per year than average full-time employees for less pay.

And what, specifically, will the students at home be doing? Teachers who teach an online class are available to teach lessons in real time via Zoom, answer questions, and work with students online during class. Teachers who teach an in-person class are available to give the lesson, answer questions, and work with the students in their classrooms during class. But a “hybrid” teacher is supervising a class of in-person students who are working on the necessarily different in-person lesson, and no one is there to support the online students doing a different online lesson unless you hire twice as many teachers. No one can supervise 16 students in a classroom and 16 students online simultaneously.

There are proposals wherein online students are meant to work independently, with no teacher-led instruction, supervision, or assistance. That’s not even worth considering as a national K-12 model. That model will work very well for some students in some classes– heavily weighted to older students– but for every student? Of every age? In every subject?

There are proposals wherein all students meet onsite for four days and then everyone is home for ten. The thinking goes that the ten days at home will be enough time for those who were infected to show symptoms and isolate. Given that families of color will be disproportionately impacted by the ensuing suffering and death, this “solution” is also not worth considering. It’s especially trying my patience that people are not considering how many of those infected people will be teaching staff and how difficult it will be to replace 10 STEM teachers in a single district during an era wherein it’s difficult to find even one. Unsurprisingly, the national shortage in STEM teachers also has a disproportionate impact on communities of color— the exact demographic that will see the most teacher infections and deaths if we hold in-person classes.

The hybrid model posits that the online portion is made up of “online activities”– recorded lectures, educational games and videos, online worksheets. Who will create these? How will we fund their creation or pay for existing EdTech products? Educators need to be creating these materials and creating hybrid structures for them right now. We need access to professional development right now. Instead, funding is being cut, and– you guessed it– communities of color are always disproportionately impacted by budget cuts.

Pictured: The word “EDUCATION” stenciled in red on a yellow wall, partially covered by graffiti. (Photo: Harvard.edu)

BUT AT LEAST THE HYBRID MODEL IS SAFER, RIGHT?

LO– and let me be perfectly clear about this– L. The cornerstones of the hybrid model for 2020-21 are maintaining social distancing and sterilizing classrooms between classes. Both are completely, laughably impossible.

Even if students could be convinced to maintain social distancing– and they will not reliably follow the rules because they are children— there’s just not enough square footage in most classrooms to allow for it unless we break classes up into thirds or even, in higher populated districts, fourths. It’s not physically possible in most schools.

Students in a classroom on Hempstead, NY. (Photo: CBS2)

And remember that students spend a great deal of time outside the classroom in passing periods, at lunch, on their way to and from school, in the bathroom. Social distancing for the 50 minutes they’re in my classroom does not matter if they’re on top of each other everywhere else. If you think students won’t sit in each other’s laps, draw on each other, share food, or kiss each other, you have never met a teenager.

In addition to the impossibility of enforcing social distancing, there’s not enough time between classes to sterilize the desks, equipment, door knobs, window ledges, and other surfaces, and even if there were– even if we shortened every class by 15 minutes to make that time– schools have been so inadequately funded prior to the proposed 2020-21 budget cuts that teachers have been forced to purchase basic equipment like pencils and paper out of pocket. So who will be paying for all this disinfectant? Have masks and gloves been purchased? Hand sanitizer? What happens when a classroom supply runs out? Where is this funding coming from when schools are so strapped for cash they’re sending out pink slips?

There will be no social distancing and the classrooms will not be sterilized, period. Oh, the states will protect against liability by wringing their hands and saying, “But we told you that you had to have social distancing and sterilize classrooms!” But they have no current plans to provide enough equipment or funding to do so. Instead, they’re telling us, “Do more with less.”

Students will get sick. Teachers will get sick. And some will die. The families who will be protected from this are the ones who choose to keep their students home full time, and without state and federal subsidies, that will become more and more weighted to the wealthy.

When those students and teachers get sick, when death begins to stalk our schools, will we shutter them all and send everyone home, moving to online education anyway, but without preparation? Or will we see that the burden falls much more heavily on people of color, and continue to see that as a “manageable risk”?

That brings me to the bottom line.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Do you think the people in power don’t already know everything I’ve said here? If white people died in equal numbers, the risk presented by returning to in-person classes, either full time or in a hybrid model, would be considered intolerable. We’re considering in-person classes to be a “manageable risk” because the bulk of the suffering and dying will be done by BIPOC children, families, and educators.

Does your school district claim that “Black lives matter”? Here’s your chance to prove it.

Keep the school sites closed. Flood schools with increased federal and state funding for everything I’ve discussed above, plus partnering with special education teachers to create safe solutions for students with disabilities. It can be done. But we have to start now.

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Trump Is Unwell. How We Talk About That Matters.

Donald Trump’s obvious physical and cognitive decline over the past few years has been thoroughly documented.

His slurring and difficulty with language:

The worsening weakness on the right side of his body:

2017:

2020:

His inappropriate behavior:

His problems with balance:

This has led to a great deal of concern. The man with the nuclear codes clearly has a serious neurological problem that the White House is hiding from us.

Part of Trump’s brand, however, is his narcissism and self-aggrandizement. He’s not just healthy; he’s the most healthy president ever. He’s not just smart and level-headed; he’s a “very stable genius” with “unmatched wisdom.” This insistence on presenting himself as an Übermensch when he is very clearly frail is an irresistible target for his critics. In the past few days since Trump’s alarming performance at the West Point graduation, hashtags such as #TrumpWearsAdultDiapers and #TrumpIsUnwell are burning up Twitter.

This is a tricky issue. On the one hand, mocking someone for being unable to walk or run is ableist. People with difficulties in mobility, speech, movement, and bladder/bowel control are full human beings who should not be mocked for their disabilities. When we use disability as a club to beat a politician we dislike– even a monstrous one like Trump– the people who bear the brunt of that cultural ableism are not wealthy white men. Systemic ableism always falls hardest on people experiencing other types of systemic bias– racism, sexism, transphobia.

We cannot both be horrified at Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski and also gleefully mock Trump’s physical and neurological decline.

And yet.

Some people have equated this with people in the LGBTQ+ community leaping on the “Lady G” story about Lindsey Graham. and some of my fellow PwDs are leaping on the #TrumpIsUnwell trend. When a man with extreme cultural and political power lies about belonging to a marginalized group, people notice that hypocrisy. And when that man repeatedly and aggressively uses his power to harm the marginalized group he pretends he doesn’t belong to, the hypocrisy moves from a personal foible to a public danger. Distancing yourself from something by attacking it is the oldest of old tactics.

Graham (along with every other virulently anti-gay political and religious leader like this man, this man, this man, this man, and these people) will not firmly establish himself as “straight” by working to demolish LGBTQ+ rights, although he will continue to try, and real people will continue to be hurt. Likewise, Trump will not magically become young and healthy again by mocking people with disabilities and crushing disability rights and funding, but he will continue to try, and real people will continue to be hurt.

Men like Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, stuck within toxic masculinity, will do anything to avoid appearing “weak.” Trump has, through his words and actions, very clearly demonstrated that he associates being disabled with being “weak.”

The belief that a gay man is “weak” or a man with disabilities is “weak” is bound up in sexism as much as it is bound up in homophobia and ableism. Toxic masculinity labels certain things traditionally “feminine,” like sleeping with men or needing help with physical tasks, and therefore sees them as minimizing masculinity, as weak and laughable. Toxic masculinity’s homophobia and ableism are inextricably bound to its sexism and misogyny.

But in all the public discussion of “Lady G,” people were careful to point out that there’s nothing wrong with Graham hiring male escorts, and nothing wrong with being gay or even closeted. People were not mocking his actions. They were mocking his hypocrisy in lying about his sexuality while using his status as one of the most powerful men on earth to oppress LGBTQ+ people.

Trump refuses to admit that he’s a person with disabilities because he thinks we’re all “weak” and he doesn’t want to appear to be one of us.

This hypocrisy reveals a weak flank that presents an irresistible target. “You hate and attack who you are,” the thought goes, “so we will never stop mentioning it.”

To mention it, however, does not necessarily mean to mock it. 

It’s horrific to mock someone for needing help down a ramp, slurring words, or being unable to lift a glass. You think I don’t know I can’t run, or that I have difficulty with stairs? I KNOW. So the sudden onslaught of “lol he can’t walk lol look at all these videos of able-bodied people running because people who can run are better than people who can’t lol” was like a gut punch.

And yet some of those people are PwDs, claiming that we “get to” mock Trump’s physical/cognitive disabilities due to his hypocrisy. That the hypocrisy is, after all, what we’re mocking.

But are we mocking his hypocrisy– the fact that he insists (and forces his mouthpieces to stand before the press and insist) that what we can all see and hear is not, in fact, true? Are we mocking the Trump cultists who celebrate imaginary Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi “senility,” who celebrate cutting funding to programs for the disabled, who celebrate the mockery of Serge Kovaleski, who celebrate the mockery of a disabled child, but have an endless appetite for upholding an obviously frail Trump’s Übermensch self-image through gaslighting and lies?

Trump is one of us, but he pretends he’s not because he thinks we’re worthless and disgusting. Is that hypocrisy really what we’re mocking with hashtags like #TrumpWearsAdultDiapers?

If your answer is “yes,” then is it worth the possible collateral damage to the rest of the PwD community?

It’s overwhelmingly evident that Donald Trump– the man with the nuclear codes, the Commander in Chief–  is indeed unwell, and the White House is attempting to hide a worsening health issue from the American public. But it should also be evident that the majority of disabilities, neurological or otherwise, would not in any way impact someone’s job performance as president. The very fact that the White House is attempting to cover this up with awkwardly transparent lies is, in itself, alarming, and leads to speculation that whatever this is does indeed impact his job performance and will continue to grow worse. Trump is already much more visibly impacted by whatever this is than Reagan ever was by Alzheimer’s while he was in office. Continuing to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with the president of the United States when we can all see that there very clearly is remains the center of the problem here.

The American people should be informed of the truth about Trump’s declining health. Criticizing the lies and the coverup– and the ableism behind them– are fair game. It’s not fair game, however, to mock the impairments themselves. Trump will never see your tweet, but your friends with disabilities will. Your anti-ableism shouldn’t stop the moment you think you can get away with an ableist joke by using “punching up” as a shield.

These are attempts to minimize a powerful man by pointing out his disabilities.

Talk about the cover-up. Talk about the hypocrisy. Mock them both! Trump is ableist and sees disability as minimizing. That does not mean we need to confirm that ableism in our mockery of him. There’s plenty to mock without mocking disability.

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Diversity Training Will Not Save You

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Pictured: A smiling Black child in a pink flowered tank top stands on a green lawn holding a sign that reads, “We said Black Lives Matter. Never said only Black lives matter. We know all lives matter, We just need your help with #BlackLivesMatter for Black lives are in danger!”

Every company, every school, every nonprofit is scrambling to hire a “Director of Diversity” or relying on their current one to navigate them safely through this crisis. Nearly every organization has felt the need to respond in some way. White-run organizations– including police departments all over the country– are promising further “diversity training” for their staffs. The problem is: Diversity training doesn’t work.

Why it doesn’t work is not the fault of the DEI professionals working in the field. Quite the opposite. The problem is how we– especially white people in positions of power–approach the issue of racism. We think of it as “a problem” that can be “solved.”

White supremacy is not a workplace issue that a diversity specialist can “solve” for you. It’s a systemic cultural issue that manifests in the workplace in the same way it manifests everywhere else.

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A group of young Black people wear masks that say “I CAN’T BREATHE” as they attend a protest in Chicago. Photo by Nam Y. Huh.AP. Source: “Do the Work: An Anti-Racist Reading List” by Layla F. Saad.

Upper-level management is almost entirely white across the US, and white people don’t think of ourselves as “racist”– we think racism always lies somewhere else, with someone else. We think of it as a relatively simple issue– we’re “not racist,” so Jerry in Legal can just stop being racist by following a few simple guidelines and the problem will be “solved.”

We think this issue is about how individual white people treat individual people of color, and while that is absolutely one aspect of this, it’s not everything. You can fire a racist cop or a racist politician or a racist investment manager, but the replacement is just as likely to be racist– intentionally or unintentionally– if you don’t address the underlying issue of systemic white supremacy, and you can’t do that if white people aren’t willing to do the hard work involved.

Diversity training is an invitation to begin that work, not a “solution” to racism in the workplace or otherwise.

White people– especially white liberals who consider themselves “woke”– imagine diversity training will be our moment to stand up and denounce the racism of those bad people somewhere else while our Black colleagues clap. The moment we realize that this work demands examining our own complicity and the ways in which white supremacy has shaped us as white people, we react defensively, even angrily.

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What white people imagine diversity training will be like           (Pictured: A white woman with blond hair and a bright blue dress [Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones] is held aloft by a crowd of people of color dressed in earth tones, all reaching for her.)

Let me tell you two brief stories about diversity training.

I once worked in an extremely liberal workplace in an extremely liberal area. The org, despite its progressive identity and location, had never done any DEI work in its history, and there were some resultant problems. Three women of color & I co-founded its first DEI committee. I believed most of these progressive white people would embrace the journey ahead and we would Get Things Done. I was spectacularly wrong.

Most white staff were defensive; several were openly hostile. Many were offended at the very idea they might need diversity training. One of the worst offenders flat-out refused to attend; in staff meetings, others crowed about their hostility to the trainers (“I really got her!”) or pointedly stated that the “ideal community” was “homogeneous.” White leadership protected and defended the bad behavior. Eventually, the hostile work environment forced us all four of us out.

What a child I was. This was before Robin DiAngelo’s book came out, and I was still under the naive impression that progressive white people would “be better.”

Those employees (with one exception) sat through those diversity trainings. They sat through every single one. And it did almost nothing. The average retention there of Black staff is two years.

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Pictured: A tweet by comedian Ziwe Fumudoh that reads, “Right now every employer in America is terrified that their Black employees will be honest about their work experiences.”

You may have already heard my second story:

A few days ago at a protest, police in San Jose, CA shot their own diversity trainer at point-blank range with rubber bullets for daring to try to stop them from continuing to fire on peaceful protesters. They illegally aimed for his groin and ruptured his testicle. Witnesses captured the moment on camera, confirming that the trainer was standing, hands up, in broad daylight, speaking calmly. And they shot him.

I don’t doubt that this man, Derrick Sanderlin, is an excellent diversity trainer. What I doubt is that the cops who shot him had any interest in taking that work seriously. Yet the SJPD, just like the org in the first story, just like almost every company and organization in the nation, have “diversity” listed as part of their mission.

“Diversity” isn’t the same as “equity.” A “diverse” culture can still be a white supremacist culture. Whatever you think the presence of Black people will do for your org, it’s not going to happen if they know you’re hostile to their truth.

A universal truth of teaching is that you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. Diversity training  is useless if white people are not willing to accept that we’ve been just as impacted by white supremacy as people of color. We have to be willing to accept that our culture relentlessly produces and promotes racist ideas, and we have to be willing to fully accept that people of color are far more adept at identifying and defining them. And while this post is about racism, please remember that the same can be said for women and sexism, trans people and transphobia, people with disabilities and ableism, and so on for all marginalized groups.

White people must listen and believe when people of color identify for us the impact white supremacy has had on them. After that, cleaning up our mess is our responsibility. People of color, diversity trainers, and anyone else can suggest solutions all day long but it’s our individual responsibility as people– not just as working professionals– to act on those solutions.

Overthrowing systemic white supremacy is a revolution that starts in your own heart and mind. It’s a lifelong process of anti-racist work. Each new day will bring a new realization of a racist concept you have been taught that you need to confront, examine, and work against. That feeling of defensiveness is your clue that you’ve hit paydirt. Whenever there’s a discussion of race or racism, and you feel defensive, you’ve found an area that needs work. It’s your job to stop yourself from reacting defensively and do the anti-racist work required.

There’s no Certificate of Completion. That Certificate of Completion you got for doing your workplace diversity training is nothing but an invitation to reconstruct your own humanity, and that work will never be done.

The work is all there is. It’s one foot in front of the other, and you will fail. We will fail. But we must keep trying. To pretentiously quote Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The stakes could not be higher. Lives are counting on us to do this work, and those lives matter.

 

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The New Boston Tea Party

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Anonymous 18th c. painting. Unless otherwise indicated, all art posted here is from the BBC collection, “The Black Figure in 18th c Art,” curated by by David Dabydeen.      (Pictured: A Black man in a red waistcoat and vest with a white high-collared shirt. His hair is in a stylish queue. He looks directly at the viewer with a penetrating gaze, his forehead lit as a symbol of intelligence. He stands before a rich reddish-brown background.)

My fellow white people: The protests you are witnessing now– that you have been witnessing for years– have a long, storied history in American patriotism. What you’re witnessing is a 21st century Boston Tea Party. 

It’s important to understand that police brutality is not new– it’s just newly on video  Black people have, for generations, spoken about police brutality and most white people have minimized or outright denied the problem. Now we have the video evidence to prove Black people were correct all along.

It’s important to understand that this cannot be solved with “just obey the police and you’ll be fine.” Again, we have the video evidence to prove that that is not just untrue, but cruelly, horrifically untrue.

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“Portrait of Ignatius Sancho” by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768.     (Pictured: A Black man with lightly powdered hair gazes off to his right, his face illuminated. He wears a green waistcoat with gold buttons, a gold-trimmed orange vest, and a white high-collared shirt. He stands before a brown background.)

Black Americans have been victimized by violent oppression and police brutality for generations. We have the video evidence to prove that we should have believed Black people when they told us about their own experiences. These are undeniable facts.

We have allowed the violence and brutality to happen, even encouraged it, and continue to do so. These are undeniable facts.

When Black people stage nonviolent protests, we respond by ignoring the reason they’re protesting and denouncing the style of protest. We excoriated them for taking a knee. We excoriated them for using a Broadway stage to speak politely to the incoming Vice President. We excoriated them for wearing shirts. We excoriate them regularly for writing articles, books, and even social media posts. Statements as mild as “Black Lives Matter” and “Please Stop Killing Us” draw howls of indignation from white people. We have made it abundantly, indisputably clear that nonviolent protests are not only ineffective, but hated and ridiculed.

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“A Black Servant,” Anonymous. 1760-1770. Source: medievalpoc.com     (Pictured: A Black boy holds a full wine glass in his left hand and an empty plate in his right with a red serving cloth draped over his right arm. He’s looking straight out and slightly smiling, as a small back and white dog sits on the table, looking up at him sweetly. The dog’s front paws are on the plate, giving the impression that the dog wants the boy to stop serving at table and play. The boy wears a blue waistcoat with a red collar and a blue vest, both with tan buttons. He wears a high-collared white shirt with a vertical ruffle.)

We aggressively minimize Black oppression by smearing and defaming every victim of a police murder. “He was no angel,” we say, as if a Black person needs to be perfectly angelic to earn the right to live. As if we ourselves live up to that standard. As if perfectly angelic behavior protects unarmed Black people from being murdered by law enforcement. It didn’t protect Aiyana Stanley-Jones. It didn’t protect Botham Jean. It didn’t protect Ahmaud Arbery. We work so hard to smear innocent murder victims we point to the misdeeds of family members and even wholly unrelated people.

 

Think about this: The violent oppression is real. Nonviolent protests have been ignored, denounced, and mocked. Reports of police brutality have been met with stony silence, victim-blaming, and deflection. When American colonists began violent protests against the British, most of their ire centered around financial aspects of British rule they deemed unfair, like taxes and trade policy. American culture has enshrined “taxation without representation” as the centerpiece of British tyranny, and modern Americans passionately revere the bloody war we fought in protest as the pinnacle of patriotism. Yet white Americans angrily denounce protests over the murder of unarmed American citizens by our own police. 

“Not all white people,” right? Most of us seem to fall into two distinct groups:

The white people who valorize a bloody war against “the tyranny of taxation without representation” but denounce and mock all Black protests against police murders, no matter how mild or nonviolent;

The white people who valorize a bloody war against “the tyranny of taxation without representation” but denounce and mock Black protests against police murders that include property damage.

We can do better. We must do better. This revolt is a fight for justice against tyranny.

Is there any more obvious example of “tyranny” than the murder of unarmed citizens by police? “Taxation without representation” pales in comparison.

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“Study of a Black Man,” Sir Joshua Reynolds, c.1770     (Pictured: A young Black man gazes off up and to his right, his face illuminated. He looks determined, resolute, and radiant. He wears a white waistcoat and a white high-collared shirt. The background is a cloudy blue sky.) 

These aren’t “terrorists.” These aren’t “thugs.” These are Americans using the time-honored tradition of protest to fight against tyranny. These are Americans demanding that we live up to the promise of “all men are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all,” promises we have, for generations, failed to keep.

Black people cannot do this alone. If they could, it would have been over long before we were born. This is a problem made by white people, and we need to solve it. It starts by seeing these protests as a cry for justice. It starts by listening and believing Black witness, Black truth. It starts by examining our complicity, our failures, our willingness to believe the racist lies we were taught. It starts by understanding that there’s no difference– none– between throwing tea into Boston Harbor and throwing a brick through a Target window. The only difference is that these people aren’t fighting unjust taxes. They’re fighting for their lives.

 

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You’re Not OK? Glad to Hear It.

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Thanks, ableism! I’ll get right on that. (Picture shows a staircase with the words “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs” placed on the steps.)

Our culture is flooded with supposedly “inspirational” messages framing nonstop work as heroic. “Never let anything hold you back,” “Go harder and achieve your dreams,” and similar platitudes permeate our culture. People with disabilities are often the targets of it– “The only disability is a bad attitude,” “Don’t call yourself disabled!” and the whole “differently abled” and “handi-capable” nonsense. The worst of these are “inspiration porn”– people with disabilities used as props to inspire able-bodied people.

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Oscar Pistorius is famous, so I feel comfortable using this, but there are numerous memes just like this using images of children and everyday people. (Picture shows Oscar Pistorius, wearing his specially designed prosthetic legs and a yellow and green racing uniform, running in a race in a packed stadium. Emblazoned in large white letters across the picture is, “WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?” in all caps.)

Who does it serve to pretend that any admission of limitations is a sign of laziness, personal weakness, “giving up,” and moral failure? Who does it serve to frame pushing through limitations without asking for help as the highest possible good? Who does it serve to pretend that success is the natural end result of relentless work?

Who does it serve to tell people with disabilities that the highest good we can achieve is to live as if we are not disabled?

Who does it serve to pretend you are OK when you are not, in fact, OK?

I haven’t posted since July. That’s an eight month hiatus. In that time, my husband and I bought our first house. Just before closing, my mother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly, collapsing in front of our son as she was taking him to lunch.  While we were moving, I was bit by a venomous spider, leaving a large, blistered wound that took weeks to heal. I had a stalker, angry about something I had written, track down and contact a number of co-workers. Five days after that, I got a call from my husband’s workplace telling me he had collapsed with chest pains and was being rushed to Kaiser in an ambulance. Shortly after he recovered, our daughter had surgery, and had complications that resulted in her calling me at work and sobbing into the phone in pain and frustration. Then I had an extremely painful back injury. Then I lost my job.

That’s not even everything, and this was all before the virus. Today is Day 11 of shelter-in-place with no real end in sight.

The past eight months have brought me the greatest turmoil and upheaval I have ever experienced. The blog has taken a backseat to all this, and I hate myself for it.

I have constructed my entire adult identity around being reliable, hardworking, and extremely productive. I have been proud of my lack of work/life balance. Even in the midst of the turmoil and upheaval of the past eight months, at a time I was hiding in the bathroom and sobbing at work, barely able to get through each day, I took just two days off. I have answered work emails in line at Disneyland. I have answered work emails at midnight. I have answered work emails from a hospital bed. Our culture is awash in “Never Stop,” “No Excuses” propaganda, and I am clearly as susceptible to that as anyone else.

Yet the price we pay for that is brutal. We shorten our lives, spread dangerous viruses, and live lives that are less full. We work 70 hour weeks for companies that lay us off without a second thought. We take on punishing “fitness” regimens that drain our time, wallets, and health. We pretend that leisure is just laziness if we’re not using that time to work on a project. We even have to make our downtime about goal-setting and achievement. Meditation apps give rewards for achievements. Level up! Get those stickers! NO EXCUSES.

Even in the midst of this horrific pandemic, there’s pressure to ACHIEVE. What are you writing? What new language are you learning? Which of the 10,000 online events are you attending? How many online events are you offering to your community? What are you DOING? Don’t just sit around online, you lazy jerk! What are you DOING?

I ask again: Who does this serve? Who benefits from the propaganda that claims that smashing our bodies, minds, and lives against the rocks of relentless labor is the greatest moral good, and that any less is a moral failing?

Who benefits from a culture that demands we never admit to limitations?

When we refuse to accept our limitations, we prop up an ableist culture that sees any physical, mental, or emotional limitation as a moral failing. We prop up a culture that centers the bodies of able-bodied, neurotypical people and defines all others by their distance from that “norm.”

When we refuse to accept our own limitations, we are propping up an ableist culture that demands that others refuse to accept their own limitations, that frames limitations as laziness– as moral failure.

When we pretend that “anyone” can be wealthy, thin, or healthy with “hard work,” and that any lapse in relentless work is the “reason” we aren’t wealthy, thin, or healthy, we prop up an ableist, classist culture that serves only the wealthy and powerful. And while there are some wealthy people who “worked hard” to “get there,” they did not work HARDER than poor or middle class people. If hard work = wealth, every nurse and teacher would be wealthy. Most wealthy people inherited their wealth anyway.

Our culture supports the lie that anyone can be wealthy, successful, thin, and healthy through “hard work” because it benefits the privileged when those of us who are not privileged are fooled into believing financial privilege, thin privilege, and healthy privilege are merit-based. We are complicit in this lie when we refuse to challenge the idea that constant, unrelenting labor that ignores physical, emotional, and psychological limits is the highest good, and anything less is a moral failing.

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(Picture shows fluffy pink clouds and the words, “It’s OK not to be OK.”)

 

We are in the middle of a global pandemic worse than any we have seen in over a hundred years, and I say this as someone who had H1N1. I’m not going to list the many reasons people who live in a nation ruled by an incompetent, vindictive, childish narcissist have to be anxious. Suffice it to say: We are anxious. We are not OK.

Ableism demands that we never allow ourselves to be seen as “not OK”– not fully able. Because being dis/abled is a moral failing.

You don’t need to have a blue placard or a medical diagnosis to be dis/abled. You may not be a person with a disability, but the extreme emotional and psychological demands of this crisis– or of life in general– can leave you dis/abled. Unable to continue at the pace at which you’re continuing.

Those of us who identify as people with disabilities are right there with you. We understand. And we all need to agree together that it is OK to be disabled or dis/abled. It is OK not to be OK. Because the alternative– limitations = failure– is at the core of the ableist culture that oppresses us. We need YOU to be OK with not being OK to help us shift the culture toward greater inclusion of people with disabilities.

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Stella Young, 1982-2014. Photo credit: crippledscholar.com (Picture shows Stella Young, a woman looking cute as hell in a long-sleeved red shirt, red lipstick, and a light brown bob haircut, sitting in her wheelchair and looking into the camera with a slight smile and her eyebrows raised. The quote appears in red on a yellow background: “That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude,’ the reason that’s bullshit is . . . No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”)

People with disabilities aren’t inspired by posters of athletes with disabilities emblazoned with “What’s YOUR excuse?” or the label “handi-capable.” We don’t need “encouragement,” or a lecture about “You’re only disabled if you allow yourself to be” or “Don’t let your disability stop you from reaching THE STARS.”

What we need is cultural acceptance of limitations. And whether those limitations are physical and permanent like mine, or temporary and emotional like ::gestures broadly at the quarantined world::, the cultural function is the same. It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to need help, whether that’s an elevator or a day off.

Every time you publicly chastise yourself for skipping a workout, taking a day off, getting takeout instead of cooking, allowing the kids to watch TV so you can have a break, or otherwise acknowledging your limitations, you are building cultural support structure around ableism. You are supporting a world that sees limitations as failure rather than as a fact of human existence.

Take that break. Take all the breaks. And refuse to apologize for it.

You’re not OK? Glad to hear it, because it means you are creating cultural space for people with disabilities by using your able-bodied cultural privilege to claim space for limitations, to show that we all still have value– and can still achieve plenty– within our limitations.

It’s important to fight for the idea that limitations and accommodations are not admissions of weakness. PwDs are not “weak” or “lazy” if we don’t do wheelchair basketball or if we need to work from home. You are not “weak” or “lazy” if you need a day off or if you don’t learn quantum mechanics during shelter-in-place.

Accommodations are not burdensome. I cannot “work hard” or “positive attitude” my way out of my physical limitations. Accommodations level the playing field so that we can achieve as much as able-bodied people. The accommodations able-bodied need for their limitations are similarly not burdensome. The more space we create in our culture for acceptance of limitations and the natural and obvious need for accommodations– the natural and obvious need to allocate resources for accommodations– the more inclusive our culture will be.

“What’s your excuse?” I don’t NEED an excuse to have human limitations. And neither do you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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