Tag Archives: disability

Is Walking Overrated?

A few days ago, Juliano Pinto kicked off the World Cup with a first kick.  It was a media stunt designed to make us verklempt.  Pinto is a paraplegic who wore a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton to make his move.

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We were to be awed by the technology, too, of course, which is being developed by the Walk Again Project, a scientific consortium.  Says the leading scientist on the project, “With enough political will and investment, we could make wheelchairs obsolete.”

Red Nicholson isn’t having it.

Ask any wheelchair user, particularly one who’s been in the game a while, and they’ll tell you that they’re far too busy living their life to sit there worrying about whether or not they’ll ever walk. We just get on and do.

From his point of view, the exoskeleton is for people who aren’t in wheelchairs.  Getting “non-walkers to walk again,” he says, is about making everyone else happy.  As for him, he says, he’s fine:

My wheelchair is a very capable tool and to be honest, the last thing I want is to be strapped to a District 9-esque robot and become a puppet in some corporation’s half-baked execution of an obsession…

In the meantime, he says, everyone’s concern with getting him to walk again suggests that he, and everyone else who uses a wheelchair, is living a pitiable life.  “These stories,” he says, “are unwittingly invalidating a unique way of life for millions of people around the globe who are really happy with their wheelchairs.”   So, he goes on record: “This is not my dream.”

William Peace, an anthropologist who also uses a wheelchair, goes further, arguing that the exoskeleton is harmful to people who are newly paralyzed.  The scientists developing the exoskeleton are “sell[ing] the dream of walking to newly paralyzed people who cannot imagine life as a wheelchair user.”  This is bad, he says, because it encourages people to reject their new body instead of accept it.   He writes: “the exoskeleton is symbolically and practically destructive to a newly paralyzed person.”

Instead of focusing on the one thing people using wheelchairs can’t do, Peace argues, we should focus on all the things they do everyday:

Work, make a decent living, and be autonomous. Own a home even. Have a family. Get married. In short, be ordinary. Walking is simply not required for all this nor should it be glorified.

Nicholson concurs: “My life as a wheelchair-user is a very good one.”

So hey, able-bodied media: quit making me feel like wheelchairs are a shitty, sub-par option. Stop beating your exoskeleton drum. And most of all, let go of your obsession with walking, because it’s totally overrated.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Should There be Trigger Warnings on Syllabi?

Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.

I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. The message is that no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.

In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.

It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart.” The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.

Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?

Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.

That is an odd business for higher education to be in… unless the business of higher education is now officially business.

In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.

If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

Issues, Identities, and Progressive Social Change

In the U.S., we tend to organize politically according to identities.  For example, we have a Gay Liberation Movement, a Women’s Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, to name three big ones.  All of these are personal characteristics made political.

The cartoon below, by Miriam Dobson, does a great job of showing one of the downsides of fighting for progressive social change in this way.  For one, it can make people who carry multiple marginalized identities (for example, gay black men) feel unwelcome. And, two, it makes it seem like people without the identity can’t be part of the movement.

One solution is to think about oppressions in terms of intersectionality: we are all a mix of identities that resonate with each other in complicated ways.  This is a rich idea, but one lesson that it has taught us is that the strategy of divide-and-conquer has been an effective way to keep multiple groups marginalized.

Instead of emphasizing identities, we could identify issues. And if our issue is oppression, we can join-to-resist.  As the graphic explains: “oppression of one affects us all.”

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Via Sociology SourceAnother Angry Woman, and The Sociological Imagination.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Male Friendship in the New Guinness Ad: A Thumbs Up

A recent Guinness ad has been getting a lot of kudos and I want to join in the praise.  It involves a set of guys who get together to play a pick-up game of wheelchair basketball and then join each other at a bar to celebrate the game.  Lots of people have mentioned that it’s nice to see (1) a lack of objectification of women as a form of male bonding  and (2) a nice representation of people with disabilities.  Both of those things are great in my book.

But here’s another thing I really liked: their retreat to the bar and their formation once they got there.  They sat in a circle.

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Why is this neat?  Because scholars have found that male and female friendships tend to be different.  Male friendships tend to be more “shoulder-to-shoulder” than “face-to-face.”  Men are more likely to get together and do stuff: they watch football together, go out and play pool, have poker nights, etc.  Women are more likely to spend time just talking, confessing, disclosing, and being supportive of each other’s feelings.

The benefits of friendship are strongly related to self-disclosure.  And so men’s friendships — if they don’t involve actual intimacy — often don’t offer the same boost to physical and well-being as women’s friendships.  The fact that these guys sit down together at a bar, in a circle, in order to engage in some face-to-face time after their shoulder-to-shoulder time… well, that’s really nice to me.

Thanks to Rebecca H. for submitting the commercial!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Are Blind People Colorblind?

Screenshot_2The short answer? No.

Law professor Osagie K. Obasogie interviewed a series of people who had been blind since birth about their understanding of the concept of race.   Counter-intuitively, he found that race was as meaningful to them as it was to sighted people and that their descriptions and biases were largely in line with cultural norms.  The article includes really striking quotations from the interviewees and what Obasogie describes as an “empirical assessment of the metaphor of colorblindness.”  He’s also published a book based on the research: Blinded By Sight.

In this three minute interview, he explains some of his findings:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

New Symbol for Disability Unveiled in New York City

A new symbol to represent people with disabilities is being introduced in New York City. The symbol, designed by a team at Gordon College, looks like this:

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We’ve posted previously about the politics of the symbol and its history. The notable changes here are the moving of the arms to the wheels of the chair, suggesting that the person is pushing themselves, and the forward-leaning angle, suggesting active motion.  It tells a story about independence and ability, instead of dependence and disability.  A very nice change.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Comic Relief and Treatment of Deaf People

A couple of weeks ago I had a fever and sore throat that left me with laryngitis.  I lost my voice completely for two days and spent three additional days making no sounds at all in order to get it back.  In the meantime, I learned just a tiny bit about how people respond to the deaf.

Disclaimer: I’m sure that deaf people handle these situations with much more grace than I.  And I’m not claiming in the slightest that I know what it’s like to be deaf.  But other people thought I was deaf, and that’s where things got interesting.  (If I make any insensitive steps, please let me know.)

When I would approach someone and either hand them a note or point to my throat and shake my head, I would get a range of responses.

  • First, humorously, many people would go correspondingly mute.  I would write a note and their lips would squeeze tightly together, almost like they were trying to forcibly hold back sound.  They would assume that I couldn’t hear and I guess it didn’t occur to them that I could read lips. So I would write “Giant diet coke, please” and they would clam up and get me the soda, but then they wouldn’t say “Here you go” or “Have a nice day” or any of the other niceties that pepper daily life.
  • Second, I was shocked to discover that people would, in no uncertain terms, express pity.  They would say “Oh I’m so sorry for you!” or “That’s so sad!”  Deaf people are not necessarily sad about not being able to hear and many are deeply proud of their unique culture.  But many hearing people pity the deaf and apparently they are not afraid to say so to your face!
  • Finally, I encountered the classic reaction where people would just say what they wanted to say to me, but louder and with extra enunciation.  As if that would work if I were deaf!  I think, too, that in some of these cases they assumed I was mentally challenged.

In all, I was surprised to discover just how uncomfortable people were with the supposedly deaf me.  They were truly unprepared for interacting with a person who they thought couldn’t hear.  In their lack of preparedness and experience, they made all kinds of mis-steps.

These experiences inspired me to look up some humor and I found a comic called That Deaf Guy, written by Matt and Kay Daigle.  Matt is deaf and Kay is a sign language interpreter who can hear.  They have a little boy.  Here are three of the comics that illustrate how people react to Matt’s lack of hearing:

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Matt and Kay’s comic is a nice window onto life as/with a deaf person and it was interesting for me to get a peek into what some deaf people might experience sometimes.

Hat tip to my friend Robb, whose therapeutic silence and similar observations preceded mine.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Disability Rights and the International Symbol of Accessibility

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Justin J.W. Powell and Liat Ben-Moshe have written a great short history of the icon signifying accessibility for people who use wheelchairs for the magazine Stimulus Respond.  The story, they argue, is one of “exclusion to inclusion.”

For most of American history, they begin, there was no icon at all.  This is because people in wheelchairs were largely excluded from public life.  There were no efforts to ensure accessibility, so no signs of accessibility were needed.

In the late ’60s, however, Rehabilitation International partnered with the United Nations and the International Standards Organisation to sponsor an international competition for an icon.  The winner, a Danish design student named Susanne Koefoed, had submitted the icon on the left.  In committee, they noted that Koefoed’s design erased the person in the wheelchair.  They added a head, creating what people around the world recognize as a symbol of accessibility.

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The symbol is still evolving. Powell and Ben-Moshe note that recent revisions have been aimed at emphasizing that people in wheelchairs are active users, not passive ones.  Accordingly, some organizations have shifted to using a symbol that captures the fact that people in wheelchairs get themselves around.  I’ve snapped pictures of the icons used by the Huntington Gardens and a T.J. Maxx (both in CA): the former has the users’ arms bent behind them to signify pushing their chair forward, while the latter leans the figure forward and adds motion lines.

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Another trend involves trying to break down the categorical binary between abled and disabled people, instead recognizing that there is a spectrum of ability. For example, this icon (source):

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Ultimately, Powell and Ben-Moshe hope that access will be so universally designed into public buildings that it will eliminate the need for an icon at all: architecture would no longer be designed around a specific type of person considered “normal,” but instead would be designed for the range of people who will use the spaces.  This full integration would mean that differently-abled people would be considered just “people” and we wouldn’t need an icon at all.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.