Friday, March 15, 2019

What the College Admissions Scandal Reveals About Privilege Inequality For Disabled Students

Three students at computer workstations, seen from behind
Photo © US Department of Education  | Creative Commons / Flickr
[image: Three students at computer workstations, seen from behind.]

Shannon Rosa
Senior Editor

Wealthy people using their privilege to bypass regular people problems like paying taxes is nothing new. But using that clout to exploit disability accommodations—to give their college-aspiring children truly unfair and also illegal advantages—is infuriating on multiple levels. As disability policy professional Rebecca Cokley noted at Teen Vogue:
"This behavior is harmful because when celebrities and others with privilege use a marginalized community’s civil rights as a 'VIP pass,' it frames reasonable accommodations as something 'special' that you should be able to buy, versus actual civil rights that give people with disabilities an equal seat at the table."
Adrienne Wichard-Edds reported on the scandal for the Washington Post, from the perspectives of several irate parents of students with disabilities:
"For children who really do struggle with learning and other disabilities, taking those high-pressure tests is challenging. Those accommodations, which can include extra time to complete the exam, are there to create fairness for students who encounter daily challenges in their education. Parents work overtime fighting to secure these accommodations, to try to level the playing field a bit. So finding out that people are abusing that system is a bitter pill for them to swallow."
…and I was one of the parents Wichard-Edds talked to:
“The thing that makes me the angriest about this is that my kids are already very hesitant to ask for accommodations because they don’t appear disabled,” says Shannon Rosa, senior editor of the website Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and mom to three children ages 14, 18 and 20 — all of whom have disabilities. “There’s a stigma around receiving accommodations. Some people treat 504s and IEPs like they’re optional, but they’re the law. When you see wealthy parents gaming the system for things that people already have trouble accessing, it makes it even harder for those people who legitimately deserve and need them.”
I was grateful to be included, but the Washington Post article didn't include all of the points I discussed on the record, and wanted to emphasize. So I'm discussing them here:

One of the reasons my college-student eldest is hesitant to ask for accommodations isn’t just disability stigma, or anxiety about not being believed. It’s because she’s an intensely ethical person who knows that there are other students who need accommodations, but don’t get them because they're undiagnosed. And the reason they are undiagnosed often has to do with the privilege gap underlying this entire mess.

My family lives in a town that is adjacent to two of the wealthiest towns in the country, but our city has a high proportion of low socioeconomic status families and English learners. If parents can't afford to take time off of work to attend IEP or 504 meetings, and/or don't speak English as a first language or at all, that makes accessing disability diagnoses and supports difficult. In addition, parents who can't hire professionals to help them navigate the often impenetrable disability supports and disability education systems aren't even aware of the rights their kids are legally entitled to.

So it’s not only that kids with disabilities get penalized for seeking accommodations they need and deserve—and that those wealthy parents exploited for their own, non-disabled kids’ advantages. It’s that many families don’t even have the ability to get their kids legal access to IEPs/504s. And that's just wrong, in all the ways.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Inspiration Porn: How the Media and Society Objectify Disabled People

Florida State football player Travis Rudolph, a Black man with  short natural hair, eating pizza in a school cafeteria at a table with a  white boy with very short red hair and glasses, who is seen from behind.
Photo via Time
[image: Florida State football player Travis Rudolph, a Black man with
short natural hair, eating pizza in a school cafeteria at a table with a
 white boy with very short red hair and glasses, who is seen from behind.]
Kit Mead

A while back, an example of inspiration porn crossed my Twitter feed: a Florida State University college football player sat down and had lunch with an autistic boy in a cafeteria. The story got picked up by the New York Times.

I don’t fault the college football player very much, if it all (but I hope he asked the autistic student if the company would be welcome). The football player probably just saw a person likely excluded by classmates. He wanted to make sure the student was not alone. At worst, there is the element of pity involved, but the act itself was not ill-intended.

I do fault the Internet and the news media. We, disabled people, see these types of things spread like wildfire, time and time again:
Two examples are the way the Internet took hold of an autistic store employee decorating a cake, and an employee at a Kentucky Qdoba helping a physically disabled woman eat when she asked for assistance. In the age of easy access to recording devices and uploads to YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms, these stories attain a viral ferocity. Journalists pick up on the fact that the video or story is trending across social media. News articles about the story crop up, fueling its spread even further.

We Could Be Next: The Risk of Being Filmed

The effects of these viral stories are quite damaging, even when one does not go to the most extreme consequences. Any one of us could be the next story by asking for help, or getting help even if we don’t want it. Since the conductor announcements of what train is approaching are hard to hear, a  blind person asks a subway stationmaster to help them get on the right train. An autistic person has a shutdown. Their friend helps them retreat to a quiet location without fanfare at the scene. A wheelchair user faces a curb without a cut, and they decide to complain to the city after finding another route. But a stranger rushes over anyway and helps get them over the curb. Someone could film any one of these situations and unleash the tidal wave of feel-good comments, shares, and news stories.

We are all too aware of the risk of being filmed for someone’s feel-good story (or for someone to mock, but that could be another post). We already face enormous pressure to not ask for help – to be the “supercrip” and “overcome” our disabilities – and the risk of being a viral story is yet another reason we might avoid asking for help when we need it.

Inspiration Porn Hides Key Issues

Inspiration porn also hides key social and policy issues. In “Inspiration Porn Further Disables the Disabled,” David Perry writes of these kinds of stories, “[the stories] all feature people doing good things. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the content of these stories, of course, but the way they’re told conceals the real issues faced by the disability community… Inspiration porn makes us feel that everything is going to be OK.” Perry also wonders: Why isn’t the state of Kentucky providing community-based supports to the wheelchair user at Qdoba, so she doesn’t have to rely on strangers to help?

In the case of that autistic boy eating alone at school, why has the school failed to model social inclusion? What about the scenario of the blind person asking for help getting on the correct train – why aren’t conductor announcements for arriving trains distinct and clear? And for the wheelchair user facing the curb—why wasn't there a curb cut to begin with?

The Destruction of Privacy

They also destroy our right to privacy. As one writer in the Chavisory blog post Deprivation of privacy and other thoughts points out, “persistently violating someone’s privacy over time also just establishes a standard (to both that person and everyone around them) that it’s acceptable to persistently violate their privacy over time.” Even if we haven’t had our privacy eroded over time, often journalists publish our names, even if the original poster of the video or story did not. Everyone now knows us as “the person in that inspirational video,” and the person helping as our hero. The instantaneous destruction of privacy tells society that it is acceptable to sacrifice our privacy to make a feel-good news story, and to do it to any disabled person…over and over again.

How It’s Toxic for Us

Finally, we notice when we get objectified as inspiration porn. We feel objectified. It is toxic. Being objectified hurts our self-image and mental health. It erodes our ability to feel safe and like we can have even some privacy. It hampers our ability to set boundaries around privacy. It makes us feel like we have no control over our life and story. We notice, and it hurts in more ways than one.

Conclusion: The Vicious Cycle

And of course, the way these viral stories get reported and commented on further a vicious cycle, encompassed in the following:
  1. We (disabled people) get seen as other: less than human, or a lower level of human.
  2. Because we are other, acts of kindness toward us seem newsworthy. We are not real people, after all. We are other. Kindness toward unpeople is as newsworthy as large-scale natural disasters and transportation accidents.
  3. The writers of these news stories objectify us. We are pity objects and have no agency. We exist to make people feel good about their deeds. We reach the bare minimum of humanity, if we are human at all. They make us seem other by teaching people that it’s a miracle anyone is nice to us at all.
  4. We get seen as other. Kindness toward us is newsworthy. We get objectified. People learn that being nice to us is miraculous. We get seen as other
But we are here and human. We can tell our own stories, if anyone bothers to ask. If no one asks, we tell them anyway. We can be our own advocates, and we can also be activists and writers and professionals. The Developmental Disabilities Act says “disability is a natural part of human experience,” and this is true. It is past time that non-disabled people get accustomed to seeing disabled people in their midst as normal, rather than as a news story.