Tips for higher education access, part 1

This is part of a series of posts on higher, further and continuing education and making sure that education is accessible for students, based on my own personal observations and experiences I’ve heard about from other disabled students.

Blanket tech bans are unintentionally disablist. Many people benefit from being able to take notes on their computers or tablets as opposed to writing longhand on paper. Some people have dysgraphia, which makes it harder for them to write neatly and clearly. Some people have a harder time keeping up with the teacher or guest speaker unless they’re typing. Some people have a hard time with organisation and may have an easier time keeping track of notes if they’re searchable and can be backed up to a cloud service. (This latter case applies to me. I’m terrible at keeping track of paper notebooks, but I’m fine when I’m writing on a tablet or computer.) Tech bans are also bad because they out people as being disabled if they receive accommodations to use technology in class.

There are people who actually benefit from multitasking. It can be difficult to concentrate in lecture-model classes, especially for those of us who are autistic or have ADHD. I have to do some degree of multitasking (in the form of doodling on my iPad, usually), or my attention will start flagging pretty quickly if I’m forced to sit still and not do anything with my hands. I was able to get through my undergraduate classes through a combination of doodling, active note-taking and web-surfing.

Sans-serif typefaces (fonts without the little ‘feet’, or serifs, on the ends of the characters) can be more readable for people with dyslexia or other disabilities. Examples of sans-serif fonts commonly available on PCs and Macs include Helvetica, Verdana, Arial, Calibri, Candara, Corbel, Gill Sans and Trebuchet MS. A lot of classes will require everything to be in serif fonts like Times New Roman and Palatino.

Clearly listed deadlines on a syllabus for all assignments can be helpful for people who struggle with executive dysfunction or time management. It makes it easier to track when homework is due, and which things to prioritise when you’re taking multiple classes.

Having both paper and digital options for things like the syllabus, essay prompts and other information related to a class is a good idea – there are people who are better at reading printed material than anything displayed on a screen, and then there are those of us who benefit much more from digital materials because we’re less likely to misplace them. (I’m one of those people who benefits from reading on screen and receiving digital material – I misplace paper really easily.)

A field guide to identifying far-right trolls

Here is a guide to spotting members of the Western far-right so that people can avoid dealing with them online if they don’t have the energy to argue with violent hatemongers. Generally speaking, these people will support some or all of the people and organisations lifted below. Not all of them have identical ideologies; this list contains a mixture of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, men’s rights activists, neo-fascists, alt-right/’Dark Enlightenment’ types, right-wing Eurosceptics, nationalists and ethnocentrists, and right-libertarians/Objectivists. Some of the people and organisations are instantly recognisable, like Donald Trump, but others are more obscure outside their home countries, like Tricolour Flame. This is not an exhaustive list; there are definitely going to be people missing from it, but I hope this is a start.

Click on the ‘Read More’ tag to see the list.

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Wrong does not mean crazy.

Casual ableism has cropped up multiple times in the international conversation surrounding the US presidential election, from Donald Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter to inaccessible spaces at candidates’ rallies, despite promises of ADA-compliant sections for people needing disability accommodations.

It’s not just about physical disabilities either: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns have both unwittingly engaged in mental illness stigma in debates and in advertising. Sanders joked that the Republicans would benefit from increased mental health care coverage in his health-care plan near the end of a Democratic debate. At the end of an otherwise excellent Twitter ad criticising Donald Trump and his alienation of large swathes of the American population, Clinton’s campaign included a shot of Jeb Bush saying that Trump ‘needs therapy‘.

I don’t support the Republicans or Trump’s campaign, but that doesn’t make it acceptable for Clinton or Sanders to use mental illness stigma as a means to criticise them. Trump deserves all the criticism he can get for his bigotry against Muslims, his misogyny, his racism, his endorsement of violence against protesters, his eagerness to use nuclear weapons in Syria and in Europe, his pie-in-the-sky plans to build a ‘great, great wall’ at the US/Mexico border that Mexico will pay for, and every other noxious proposal he’s mentioned during this campaign.

Trump’s disgusting plans are not the result of a mental illness; they’re the result of deep-set, unbridled bigotry that he’s exploiting to worm his way into the White House. I think he is a loathsome human being with little regard for anyone else but Donald J Trump. The Republican Party as a whole deserves to be blasted for their dog-whistle racism, homophobic and transphobic bigotry, opposition to reproductive rights, their attempts to erode the separation of church and state, ginning up of hatred against refugees and immigrants, and everything else they’ve proposed, from Reagan on down. But this isn’t about mental illness; it’s about entrenched white supremacy, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Christian supremacy and other prejudices.

People need to stop claiming that politicians – and their supporters – whose political views differ from theirs as a sign of a mental illness, as though people can’t hold different political beliefs without considering them rationally. This stereotype also comes with the insinuation that mental illness necessarily means the lack of agency required to arrive at a reasoned political decision, which is grossly untrue. People with psychiatric disabilities can – and do – have the agency necessary to come to their own decisions about their political beliefs. I vehemently disagree with anyone who supports Trump, but I’m not going to claim they’re crazy. There are a lot of things I can say about Trump supporters without saying that they don’t have the agency to decide that they want to vote for Trump.

Politicians can be wrong. They can be divisive, hateful, fear-mongering, venal, craven, wilfully ignorant demagogues. I don’t need to question their mental health to oppose their beliefs. And nor do their political opponents. Call them wrong. Call them misguided. Call them terrible, call them eldritch abominations, call them flaming racist cheetos or gasoline-soaked dumpster fires. But stop calling them crazy.

Who is the monster, and who is the man?

When I was ten, I connected strongly to Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was a child obsessed: I lived, breathed, dreamed, deeply felt that film with my being. I had nearly every variant of Quasimodo toy available, a Panini sticker book, bedspreads, a T-shirt, the soundtrack that I listened to constantly, and most importantly, the film on VHS which I think I watched over a hundred times. I didn’t know why I connected with it at the time, but I know I did, and drove everyone around me crazy with how often I talked about it.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why I identified with it. Quasimodo was visibly disabled and socially isolated. He belonged to an ethnic minority (his mother was Romani, mentioned at the beginning of the film) which was, and is, routinely scapegoated, marginalised and persecuted in the Western world. Quasi’s humanity and emotions were constantly disparaged. He was told that he was an ugly, deformed monster whom the world would never understand. That his guardian – his abuser – was the only person who could legitimately protect him and care for him. His path was clearly delineated for him, and if he trod off that path, he would encounter severe retribution.
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Speak truth to power. But don’t be a dick.

Being an activist shouldn’t mean being a dick.

There is no one true way to be an activist
Activism has a place for multiple kinds of approaches. In some circles, there seems to be a tendency towards valorising direct action and more radical approaches as opposed to pushing for change within an existing structure, and in others, radicals are marginalised and treated as fringe agitators who can’t effect change within existing systems. Different activists use different skills to accomplish their goals, and acting as though one means of activism is less valuable than the other diminishes the work that either side does.

Transformative justice requires effective activism, and the means by which a movement can become effective in creating change can vary from movement to movement or person to person. Sometimes the establishment needs to be dragged kicking and screaming. Sometimes you need to handle things in a more subdued way. There’s more than one way to get things done.

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Include all of us!

As a disability activist, I want to make sure that disability policy includes all of us. Here are some ways that we can include more people. This isn’t everything we can do, but we can start here.

Listen to disabled people of colour. People who have to deal with racism are sometimes going to encounter different problems from what white people may have to deal with. I’m both black and autistic. I worry about being targeted for my race when I go into a store or encounter the police. I also worry about these issues because of my disability. Autism means that my body language may be different from non-autistic people’s. This means that I may be seen as ‘suspicious’ even if I’m just minding my own business. You can take the issues caused by racism and add them to the ones caused by prejudice against autistic people.

Recognise the struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people with disabilities. Some people don’t take us seriously. They think that we can’t know who we’re attracted to, or what our own gender is. But this isn’t fair. People know themselves best and we should remember that. We have the right to be in relationships. We have the right to be seen as our own gender. Some of us are men. Some of us are women. Some of us are neither. Some of us are both. You can have a disability and be LGBTQ+.

Remember to support women with disabilities. Disabled women deal with sexism and prejudice against disabled people. Even women without disabilities are taken less seriously sometimes. This is even worse if a woman has a disability. Women are people. People have rights and they deserve a voice.

Listen to people with intellectual disabilities. Some people think that they can’t understand laws and other policies that will support or hurt them because of their disability. This isn’t true. There are ways to make information easy to understand for people with intellectual disabilities. You can write easy-read documents to teach people about candidates and bills. You can make sure your documents are easy to read for as many people as possible. We need to be fair and make sure that everyone can participate in disability policy.

Include people who have problems with reading. People can have problems with reading for different reasons. They may have an intellectual disability. They may have a learning disability. Or they may not speak your native language well. You can write things in a simple way that most people can understand. You can use different online tools to make sure your writing is easy to understand. You can also explain policy in other ways. There are people who can’t read at all. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be included. You can use pictures and videos. You can also explain things to people by talking or signing to them. If they speak or read a different language you can translate.

True inclusion means including all of us, not just some of us.

Campaignful

Between the Bernie or Bust people, Donald Trump’s virulent bigotry, Ted Cruz’s unbridled True Believerdom, John Kasich’s subtle misogyny and the behaviour of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters towards one another, I’ve had enough of this divisive, tiresome campaign. This means, of course, that I can’t tear myself away from it, and have fairly strong opinions about it, particularly with regard to the behaviour of Sanders and Clinton supporters.

Bernie Bots and Clintonites

Some supporters of the Democratic candidates seem to be incredibly vicious to one another this cycle. Definitely not all, but some of them, particularly online. I’ve seen more of it coming from Sanders supporters (the infamous ‘Bernie Bros’ come to mind), though Clinton supporters aren’t above reproach either. Everywhere I look, I see ‘fraud’, ‘neoliberal’, ‘oligarchy’, ‘banksters’, ‘Marxist’, ‘communist’, ‘cheater’, ‘liar’ and other snarl words flung back and forth between these candidates’ voters.

Some of the most virulent supporters on either side will use Republican talking points to denigrate the other candidate, to the point of linking to right-wing sources like Daily Caller, National Review, Breitbart, Fox News, Front Page Mag or The Federalist. No, Bernie is not a communist, either in the classic Marxist sense or in the Marxist-Leninist, Soviet-style fashion. He’s a European-style social democrat. And no, Hillary isn’t Satan in a trouser suit; her record is more progressive than her stereotype indicates, and the idea that she’s just as right-wing as Trump, Kasich or Cruz is preposterous. Criticising a candidate is one thing, but acting like far-right Republicans when both candidates are on the left – at least according to US political alignments – is unacceptable. When I want to read about why Bernie is a better candidate than Hillary, or vice versa, I don’t want to feel as though I’m reading the views of a Trump or Cruz supporter on Red State or Fox News.

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The Stigma Series 1: The Short Bus

This is the inaugural post in a series of blog entries that I’ll be making about stigma attached to disability, race, gender, class, and sexuality, with a focus on symbols. 

In the US primary and secondary education systems, “short buses” are school buses equipped to be more accessible for physically, cognitively, and psychiatrically disabled students. Systemic ableism has led to the canard that if people use these buses to school, then they are somehow worth less than those who don’t. Because cognitively disabled children and teenagers often ride the short bus, it has become shorthand for intellectual disability. “She doesn’t have a clue; she must have ridden the short bus as a kid.” “My computer is so slow that it must be riding the short bus.”

The problem with these jokes is threefold: first, they are intrinsically ableist by continuing to replicate stereotypes directed toward people who have, or are perceived to have, cognitive delays. If you’re riding that bus, you must be tainted just from being in contact with intellectually disabled students. Even having a tangential association with such people comes with the implication that you, too, must have significant cognitive delays and are therefore less worthy than others to exist as yourself. Intellectual disability turns into something rather like leprosy as depicted in the Bible and other historical literature: a communicable disease with concomitant social ostracism. It connotes impurity: should someone have an intellectual disability, according to this train of thought, they ought to be kept away from others lest they corrupt the rest of humankind with their condition. It doesn’t matter that intellectual disability is not communicable, nor does it indicate impurity; stereotyping doesn’t work that way. 

Second, implying that all students who ride the short bus do in fact have an intellectual disability is factually inaccurate. Short buses are equipped with staff and tools that make riding to and from school more accessible to a wider variety of students than are typical, “long” buses, including wheelchair or walker (= Zimmer frame) lifts and extra aides available to take care of students. They are not designed to accommodate intellectually disabled students alone; they are meant to accommodate several kinds of disabled student. And even if said buses were specifically designated for intellectually disabled students, stigmatising them and the people who ride them based on that fact alone is dehumanising and ableist.

It’s time for a confession: between the ages of eleven and fourteen, I rode the short bus. My aversion to “riding the short bus” jokes stems from my personal experiences as much as it does my political beliefs regarding disability. I do not have an intellectual disability; in fact, when I was assigned to ride the short bus, I was in the gifted programme and took mainstream education classes except for a few pull-out special-ed classes whose frequency decreased as I grew older. There were other students on my bus that weren’t intellectually disabled, either; they rode them because of physical or psychiatric disabilities. I myself was there because of various perceived difficulties with the typical bus relating to my being autistic, including meltdowns, overload, and difficulty with adjustment. I didn’t really have any problem with the buses themselves: the drivers were nice, I got along with the vast majority of the passengers, and I endured far less bullying on them than I did in the classroom. It was the stigma attached to them that I struggled with, and by the time I was in high school, I asked to be driven to school because I was tired of feeling awkward and ashamed. 

Third, the stigma attached to using the short bus marginalises those of us who need accessible transport. It is treated as a means of segregating disabled students from non-disabled students, rather than a means by which disabled students can participate in education by being transported to and from school in a way that is accessible to them. This mentality does a disservice to the people who benefit from, and thrive with, accessible transport. The short bus—as well as other forms of accessible transport—is a tool, like a wheelchair, assistive and augmentative communication, canes or walking sticks, guide dogs, hearing aids, glasses, or the internet. Insisting on treating it as a tool, rather than as a symbol inscribed with deep-set stigma against intellectual disability, is an important step toward changing attitudes. 

Mocking the “short bus,” and by extension the people who ride it, contributes to the dehumanisation of disabled people. Call me humourless, but there are things out there that are just not funny

Contemplating—and complicating—race.

I often feel as though I am on the edges of Blackness, despite my experiencing physically embodied Blackness. When I look in the mirror, I see dark brown skin, tightly curled hair, a broad nose, dark brown eyes: things that are unmistakably coded as Black. It feels largely skin deep, however: I don’t feel culturally Black enough, especially around Black Americans who did not have recent immigrants from Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean in their families. 

My relationship to Black American culture is, and always has been, complicated and turbulent. My maternal family—except for the youngest uncle, who was born in New York—immigrated to the US from Trinidad in the 60s. My paternal family is Black American, but I was comparatively less close to that side of the family, so my idea of intergenerational Blackness is shaped by the experiences of my immigrant family, not my American-born family who moved up north during the Great Migration of the mid-20th century. My experiences of comfort foods, of family sayings, and of how Blackness is expressed—or not expressed—stem from being the child and grandchild of immigrants.

Like many immigrants wanting to gain respectability in a new country, some of my maternal family aligned themselves with White-defined respectability, rather than the Black Americans who superficially looked like them, but spoke a different dialect and carried themselves differently. Some didn’t, and had stronger pan-diasporic Black cultural identities, but they’re not the ones that raised me. Internalised racism and a desire to seem palatable to White people pushed my mother, and to a lesser extent my father under her influence, toward spurning African American Vernacular English, sneering at Black people who saw their race as being a defining aspect of their identity, deeming themselves more enlightened because they preferred White Republican candidates over Black Democratic ones, letting their White friends complain to their faces about “reverse racism,” and unthinkingly repeating worn-out right-wing canards quoted straight from Fox News about how we Black folks just can’t take responsibility for ourselves and need to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton don’t speak for us, those damn race-baiting radicals. I absorbed many of these toxic attitudes as a child and as a teenager, and though I’ve undone much of it in adulthood, I still have a complicated relationship with how Blackness is performed by Black Americans. 

It was almost as though I was supposed to be a “person with Blackness,” rather than “a Black person.” It didn’t help that things were compounded by certain people at school—and in one case, my maternal aunt’s then-boyfriend—who accused me of “talking proper” or “actin’ white.” If I acted more Black, then I’d deal with my mother’s wrath being brought down upon me, but if I acted in a way that seemed less performatively Black, I would find myself ostracised by other Black youth. 

Of course, I gravitate toward certain people, or music, or writing, or art without any conscious design behind the process. The things I like are black things because I am black and I like them. Knowing that intellectually, however, doesn’t dispel the sneaking suspicion that I am doing it wrong. That my comparative lack of performative Blackness severs me from the rest of my community. 

I feel like a fucking Oreo. An interloper among real Black people. 

I don’t deliberately avoid other Black people, and nor do I deliberately avoid things traditionally associated with Black Americans.  I do, however, feel deeply awkward in spaces that are implicitly delineated as Black American spaces—in contrast to ones involving the entirety of the African diaspora—because of this feeling of “not being Black enough.” That I’ll come in, and they’ll expose me as a fraud and accuse me of actin’ white. Such spaces wouldn’t be explicitly coded as Black American spaces, but the mannerisms and cultural references would be.

I feel as though I’ve been thrown in this country without the “Black People’s Manual.” Well, except for the part about being terrified for your life because yet another police officer has shot an unarmed Black man. 

There is a constant knife-edge fear, a metallic tingle in the mouth, of the other intersections in my life interfering with this: Will they accept me as a queer, autistic pagan along with being Black? I have been burned by the Black church—by which I mean the American Protestant strain of Black religiosity—and its rampant homophobia and transphobia, but I would be foolish in the extreme to conflate one cultural institution with the entirety of the race. 

I want to find spaces where I can deal with the complexity of my racial and cultural identity. I want to move from the edges of Blackness toward the centre without changing who I necessarily am. I want to find community that uplifts, commiserates, and sustains, rather than one that pushes me aside. 

I’ve gone through this with my relationship to autism; would that I could find the same peace with my racial identity. 

Word feelings.

Words are sensory and emotional things for me and always have been, and I’m pretty sure it’s related to being autistic. Here are some examples. 

Random sensory impressions. While feels summery; whilst feels wintry. Maybe it’s because of the ‘st’ at the end, like frost or something. Towards feels meandering, like a river headed in a particular direction; toward feels crisper, more made of solid things than water. 

The little things. I notice really small details in how people talk and write. Not everything, but a lot of things. Like people using an S in towards or not. Or anyway, for that matter. I’ve noticed that people who say anyways exclusively don’t use toward as their primary variant, but people who say anyway can go either way. I personally alternate between towards and toward, but have never used anyways outside character dialogue. Apparently people don’t notice this much, because I’ve seen cases where both versions appeared in the same sentence! It’s something notice though, and I just try to keep the variant consistent within a document (I can’t predict what comes out of my mouth when I talk though…). I notice if you use the Oxford comma or not. (Admittedly I’m really inconsistent with this. Growing up, I used it without exception, but as an adult I’ve become more lax with it. xD I omit it about 3/4 of the time.) I also notice which punctuation style you use – logical or British-style (where a comma or full point appears outside the quotation marks if it’s not part of the quoted material), or American-style (where commas and periods appear inside quotation marks regardless). As an aside, it’s never correct to put semicolons, colons, question marks or any other punctuation inside quotation marks. I go back and forth between both punctuation styles, but I keep them consistent within a document. 

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… since this is a blog run by an autistic person, special interests will happen.

So, Tobias Frere-Jones, the designer of well-known typefaces like Gotham, Interstate, and Whitney, has recently come out with a new typeface called Mallory, which draws inspiration from British and American sans-serifs of the early twentieth century like Eric Gill’s Gill Sans, Edward Johnston’s typeface for the London Underground, and W.A. Dwiggins’s Metro. It feels like its own thing, though; the letters feel as though they’re more weighted toward the ground, unlike the taller Gill Sans and Metro. I think some of that is because there’s less contrast between the x-height (the height of most lowercase letters, traditionally defined by the letter “x”) and the height of the capital letters; there’s more distinction between the height of capital and lowercase letters in Metro, Gill Sans, and Johnston. It’s a wonderful typeface that I could see in a wide variety of applications. 

I agree with John Gruber, however; I think Hoefler & Co’s Ideal Sans is a more engaging execution of an Anglo-American humanist sans-serif (and I also like Roy Preston’s Prenton, for that matter), and prefer it over both Mallory and a similar modern reinterpretation of Anglo-American humanist sans-serifs, Matthew Butterick’s Concourse. There’s a warmth in Ideal Sans, and a pleasing texture, that I don’t think seems to be present in either Mallory or Concourse. I tend to think of these things as colours or sensations, and for some reason, Ideal Sans is gold and slightly knobbly; Concourse and Mallory are a bit slicker and have cooler colours, and generally, I tend toward brightly coloured and textured things. Semi-synaesthesia for the win. 

(Um. This is obviously just my personal opinion, and not a way to cast aspersions on any of the designers mentioned.) 

Tips for intersectional advocacy

Being effective advocates means paying attention to the ways different kinds of oppression can interact with each other. This is called intersectionality. Here are some ways that we can remember to be aware of this when working on advocacy projects.

  • Disability may not be the only thing that people struggle with. They can deal with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia (hostility towards immigrants or foreign visitors), classism or other issues as well.
  • Different kinds of oppression can interact with each other. For example it may be harder for a black autistic person to get a job in the mainstream workplace because of racial discrimination and ableism (black people are sometimes stereotyped as being bad workers, and autistic people can struggle with social interactions in interviews). A disabled immigrant may be stereotyped because they may still be learning the local language and because of their disability. Somebody who is poor may have even more difficulty with access needs because they’re less likely to be able to afford insurance to cover their needs, or find somebody with enough time to help them apply for assistance.
  • Remember that people’s experiences of a form of oppression can be different from yours in very blatant or very subtle ways.
  • If you are trying to understand somebody’s experiences, don’t assume you know more about their lived experiences than they do.
  • It’s fine to ask respectful questions if the topic comes up and you’re confused, or to do research. However, you can’t treat any one person as your automatic educator about different forms of oppression. People are all dealing with their own problems and you should be respectful of their time and energy.
  • People can make mistakes and we understand that. The best way to deal with it is to find out why something is offensive and avoid making the same mistake again.

Person-first language and oppositional models of disability

While person-first language—a way of framing disability rhetorically based on the idea that people should not be solely defined by their disability—may apply to people who experienced disablement later in life, or don’t view their disability as a pervasive part of their being, it is not a universal experience of conceptualising disability. 

I question the idea that person-first language is inherently inclusive toward all communities to which it is attached. In fact, when it is misapplied, it verges on being ableist itself. 

For some disabilities, and for some disabled people, person-first language treats disability as though it is something that exists alongside someone; it is an oppositional model in which one’s disability is a burdensome external force. This oppositional attitude toward disability stems from the ableist idea that disability is something that happens to “normal” people—or that disabled people are altered able-bodied or neurotypical people—rather than a natural aspect of human existence. This applies particularly to those of us who have lifelong disabilities—we cannot envisage a life in which we were not disabled relative to the societies in which we grew up. Using person-first language for those of us who do see our disabilities as being an intrinsic aspect of our being simply upholds toxic cultural scripts regarding disability, shame, and the idea that we should reject our bodies and minds—or somehow see them as not being truly ours—for not adhering to a socially sanctioned norm. 

I do understand that people who apply person-first language universally are well-meaning and wish to recognise that we have full value as human beings. Affirming our value, however, does not necessitate separating us from our disabilities if we do not prefer that language, especially when that separation is artificial. 

For me to call myself a person with autism is to create an artificial distinction between me and the autism that helps shape who I am. I do not exist in opposition to myself. You cannot rend me in two, with me on one side and the autism on the other. 

Recasting me as a person with autism constitutes rewriting my existence and cramming it into an ill-fitting mould that valorises the experiences of non-autistic people over autistic people’s experiences, and pushes me aside to the margins.

Am I a person with blackness? A person with queerness? No, of course not, and even the most diehard supporters of person-first language would not contort themselves to separate all marginalised identities from people who are rendered as subalterns within mainstream society. 

Were I not autistic, I would not be myself in any recognisable form, so why would I separate myself from being autistic? I am an autistic person. Do not call me a “person with autism.” 

Not taking this well.

(Content warning: mass shooting, murder, death, disablism)

I am not taking the San Bernardino shooting very well at all, both for personal and political reasons. I have delayed emotional reactions, so it hasn’t fully hit me yet. But I know I will be upset. I will be angry. I will want to hurl imprecations at the world again and again for the injustices visited upon people who are disempowered, dispossessed and dismissed. I’ve been too cynical to believe in a just world for a long time, but what happened yesterday just adds to the ever-growing stack of things that make me furious at certain members of the human race. 

This, in many ways, is personal. I lived in San Bernardino for a year, between 1989 and 1990. By this point, I had already been identified as needing special-education services, and had this happened twenty-five or -six years ago, one of those victims could have been me. I don’t know if I personally received services at the Inland Regional Centre or an earlier equivalent, but it’s possible. I know people who live in the Inland Empire – disabled people – and I couldn’t stop thinking about them last night. 

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Donald Trump and the reactionary right in Western politics (or why the Hitler card actually applies here)

If you follow American politics, you’ll know about Donald Trump’s repeated hostile remarks about immigrants and Muslims (and especially Muslim immigrants), with the most recent controversy being his statement that Muslims should be recorded into a database

By doing this, Trump is targeting the Angry White Working-Class Man who feels that the economic downturn has been brought about by those horrible immigrants that have stolen his job. He’s talking to those people – the ones he considers ordinary ‘Middle Americans’ – who feel threatened by the increased visibility and civil rights afforded uppity feminists, LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, disabled people and everyone else who doesn’t fit into the platonic ideal of idealised humanity that right-wing politicians favour. These kinds of politicians home in on people who have already been designated as pariahs – immigrants, refugees, members of religious and ethnic minorities – and use them as a way to justify their politics. He is feeding into a recent tendency towards casting privileged white people as victims of an increasingly politically correct society, and using appeals to tradition and ‘taking their country back’ in order to bring followers into the fold. 

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A rant about linguistic homogeneity

People who know me well know that I have a particular interest in English dialects and the way they vary from country to country and region to region. Between my time living in a few other countries and my reading about different English dialects and their particular traits, I can do a reasonable amount of code-switching between some of them, though my typical writing style tends toward the Mid-Atlantic.

I happened to come across a site—and the associated Twitter account—that was mostly about design, typography, and art, written by a British designer. I found his writing style… kind of peculiar, to put it mildly. Why? Words like “colour” were missing their U—the most notorious Americanism of them all. I had a visceral sense of horror. “Wait a second. This isn’t a US-specific site. Why are you writing everything the American way?” It was like reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (as opposed to the original Philosopher’s Stone), wondering why the local colour of the story had been jettisoned in favour of Americanisation. I’ve seen this happen a few times in public-facing writing, usually by people who write for an audience outside the UK and Commonwealth and think that they need to Americanise in order to make themselves relevant. (And in the case of that specific site, it wasn’t even that good an attempt at Americanisation; see the aside below.)

It sounds like a silly thing to be horrified over, but there are reasons why I had the reaction I had: I don’t want to see the English language become a bland, flavourless, Americanised landscape.

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Fake black shills online? No way.

Apparently there are white people going around trying to pose as black people in order to back up problematic ideas they support. Laur Jackson has described this as ‘digital blackface’ – using racist tropes in order to simulate blackness as an attempt at humour, or to prove a point.

Um, no. You’re a really fucking horrible person if you don’t realise why this is a shitty idea.

There are two major problems with this kind of behaviour online: it’s disingenuous and tries to manufacture support for things that actual black people would be unlikely to get behind, and it resorts to tired old stereotypes about black people and the way we talk and express ourselves.

If your ideas are valid enough and grounded in anti-racism, you shouldn’t have to manufacture black characters to agree with you. All you’re doing is being demeaning towards black people and using a terrible (and really fucking racist!) rhetorical device in order to try to prop up your argument. If you want to defend the damnably offensive idea that it’s acceptable to host a ‘feminist’ retreat on the site of a former slave plantation, then do it as yourself. It says volumes about these people’s character that they would go out of their way to create phoney profiles on Facebook and Twitter in order to argue in favour of actions that would be widely interpreted as racist. 

There’s also the assumption that if you’re going to present as black online, you’ll have to be a walking minstrel-show stereotype in order to ‘keep it real’, when real black people’s speech and writing patterns are as nuanced as anybody else’s. We don’t all use AAVE (African American Vernacular English) on a regular basis. This applies both to black people outside the US and Black Americans who may have backgrounds that don’t really include the use of AAVE, primarily those of us who are first- and second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa. I don’t really use AAVE at all, because it’s just not part of my specific cultural background. And those of us who do use it use it in a way that’s a lot subtler than what the fake black posters I’ve been talking about do. Just because your character isn’t called Stepin Fetchit, Buckwheat, Amos or Andy doesn’t mean you’re not dragging out the same anti-black stereotypes that have persisted for years. I already feel super self-conscious for not using AAVE in either my speech or my writing, and white racists like this who think that using AAVE is required in order to seem authentically black really don’t help.  

If you want to defend your noxious attitudes, don’t use phoney black shills to do it. At least you could be honest about your intentions. 

Stop presuming incompetence, Autism Parents.

This is my entry for Autistics Speaking Day. There are content warnings in place for emotional abuse, shame-based training, anti-autistic sentiment and fundamentalist religion.

Edition to clarify, 1 November 2015: My family and teachers did know I was autistic; I was diagnosed at a very young age, in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Their actions toward me were an example of wilful ignorance and shame-based thinking, but it would be unfair to say that they didn’t know I was autistic.

My childhood predates the widespread phenomenon of the “autism parent” who infantilises their child well into the adult years, writes long jeremiads about how burdensome their child is and how much better off they would be if their child were dead, constantly presumes their adolescent or adult child’s incompetence, and avoids facing the reality that their child is an independent and autonomous person. Nevertheless, despite the different social landscape surrounding autism that existed in the late 80s and early 90s, I had much of the same destructive rhetoric and behaviour directed toward me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, primarily concerning the pervasive presumption of incompetence and ignoring the root cause of particular behaviour patterns.

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The AutCom 2015 clusterfuck

I am utterly appalled by the lack of attention given to true accessibility and inclusion on the part of the non-autistic organisers of Autcom. Kassiane Sibley, one of the autistic presenters (and one of my co-presenters!) who also has a seizure disorder, has written about certain Autcom organisers’ callous attitudes towards the potential risks of seizure triggers like flash photography here

People who make a big deal about presuming competence and supporting human rights for all need to practise what they preach. Don’t use fancy slogans if you don’t actually mean it, especially when this is literally a life-or-death matter. People can die from seizures and it’s one of the last things people should be taking lightly. 

I had my own incidents of fail. They’re definitely not life-threatening like a seizure trigger, but they’re still shitty enough that they need calling out.

When I was there there was a woman who would constantly try to touch people without their consent. I’d feel a light tap on my shoulder or back nearly every time I passed her. You’d think she would have been told that this was an access issue because a lot of us autistic folks have startle response issues or sensory needs regarding touch, but no! I did hear somebody say ‘don’t touch’ to her once, but she didn’t stop and continued to do it throughout the conference. This woman turned out to be the sister of one of the people who was presuming incompetence on the part of the flash photographer so… I really don’t fucking know what’s going on, but if you want to talk about accessibility, look at your own damn family. I don’t like people randomly touching me at odd times without my express consent. Your right to do what you want ends where my body begins. 

Later, I presented on a panel about autism and race with some of the only people of colour/non-white people who were at the conference: Kassiane, Lydia Brown and Morénike Onaiwu. My portion of the presentation was about racial profiling and how it intersects with autism, primarily about how ‘odd’ behaviour can be interpreted as seeming drunk or high, and how many people end up with dangerous – or even fatal – interactions with the police. At the end of the panel, Sandi (she of ‘maybe you don’t belong here if you have epileptic seizures’) asked me ‘as a black man, how are you afraid of the police’ (paraphrase). Like, seriously, what the fuck? I spent ten fucking minutes talking about why law enforcement is such a danger for black people and you ask me THAT question? If you’d actually listened, maybe you’d have avoided parting your lips to ask that nonsense. 

(More from Wandering Autistic and Turtle is a Verb)