thoughts on alex barton and the way we organize

Recently, a young boy by the name of Alex Barton participated in an experiment on democracy.

Sounds harmless, right?

Way off. Wendy Portillo, Alex’s teacher, allowed his classmates to go around and tell him all the things they did not like about him. After the class told him he was “disgusting” and “annoying”, the teacher allowed them to vote him out of the class. After a 14 to 2 vote, he spent the day inside the nurse’s office.

Alex is five years old and in kindergarten. He is currently going through a process to see if he has Aspergers syndrome, a disability on the autism spectrum. Since being kicked out of his classroom, Alex’s personality has changed, he says he feels “sad,” and he is seen telling himself over and over “I’m not special, I’m not special.” Florida authorities have said that effects do not meet the standards for emotional child abuse.

At the end of this entry are ways you can tell Florida schools you think all people have the right to an education and to be treated with respect.

One aspect that really bothers me about this case is our strategy for addressing ableism (or not addressing it). There has been a HUGE outcry from the autistic rights community. Although I have not even begun to dip into all of the blog posts written on this case— it’s now estimated that 50 people have already blogged about this!—I am surprised at the way we as a community and as individuals frame this issue. Much of the outrage has come in the form of the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or, so they’ll do unto you when the tables are turned), which Lastcrazyhorn writes about. We’ve all talked about how NO ONE—aspie or not— should have to go through this trauma. Though this is all very, very obviously true, I’m left wondering why we can’t name what happened ableist. Instead we have to say that no one deserves this treatment, you wouldn’t want this, we’re contributors, and give other explanations. It’s like the word ableism has no power.

In my experience, it seems like we cannot talk about disability rights without explaining to other people why the other person will benefit from “giving” this right to us. When disabled people have to fight for ramps and elevators or the right not to be warehoused in a sheltered workshop or nursing home, we say things like “Well, if there is a ramp, it’s good for business! Older people and people with strollers can shop here.” or better yet, “If we’re trapped in a nursing home, we can’t make any money and contribute to society! Get us out and it’ll be good for you!” This strategy of equating our rights to our ability to be contributors (you help me, I’ll help you) is capitalist and US dominant culture based as I think BFP has said a few times. Do we know how to talk about disability in another way or does it hit a nerve because we’re undervalued and constantly need/want to prove ourselves? I think we HAVE to have this conversation on disability or we allow ourselves to be silent to classism, racism and other areas where extinction is based on the “bad contributor, zero contributor” like disability. Proving we’re contributors only address the symptom, not the problem.

Maybe this it’s-good-for-you strategy is based in some internalized shame, I dunno. Last weekend when I was on my crip trip, the power and water went out at the place we were staying. Our hosts were AMAZING (it would take me a whole page to write about how they came together and did everything they did to accommodate us.) The next morning, our group went around in a circle and praised them for their adaptability. After a good thirty minutes of this, a queer disabled activist from New Mexico, brought up a point about our thankfulness. Yes it was good to thank them and acknowledge their hard work, but was our gratefulness (again, that took over 30-40 minutes of a very short time together) just our appreciation or was it also our internalized belief that we didn’t deserve these accommodations?

There are benefits to the golden rule strategy too. Disability encompasses so many things so maybe this strategy makes sense. In an interview on EndeavorFreedom TV, Tom Olin, a long-time disability activist and historian, talks about his experience in the struggle for liberation. “The fight for disability rights transcended most politics. It was a common denominator. If people could understand disability rights, they could understand human rights throughout the world.” A friend of mine always says that talking about disability is talking about life because the conversation includes what is life and other questions. That’s the very nature of disability. Maybe this is why we have this strategies.

Anyways, these are just flowing thoughts though… curious to hear what yall think.

Here is what you can do to protest the way Alex Barton was treated (info from Bev):

Morningside Elementary School Principal: Mrs. Marcia Cully cullym@stlucie.k12.fl.us (772) 337-6730St.
Lucie County Schools Superintendent: Michael J. Lannon4204 Okeechobee Road Ft. Pierce 34947-5414 Phone: 772/429-3925 FAX: 772/429-3916 e-mail: lannonm@stlucie.k12.fl.us
St. Lucie County School Board Chair: Carol Hilson 772-519-0397 HilsonC@stlucie.k12.fl.us
Vice Chair:Judith Miller772-528-4545 MillerJ@stlucie.k12.fl.us
Please copy info@autisticadvocacy.org on any emails you send. ASAN asks that everyone use respectful language in addressing those listed.

(Hat tip to Aishwarya. I’m not sure if it means I’m a bad autistic rights ally since EVERYONE was writing about Alex, but I first heard of this issue on feminist blogs. Good to see feminists allies taking steps on disability issues though.)

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21 Comments

Filed under ableism, abolishing medical and charity models of thinking, activism, community, disability

21 responses to “thoughts on alex barton and the way we organize

  1. You and Aishwarya make 74 total. Thanks for the link. I’ve also written an email to the governor of Florida (and the Lt. Governor, and the school board chair and a few others). You might like it. 🙂

  2. threeriversfog

    disability really does cut at the heart of “the meaning of life.” it’s SO not uncommon to hear people say “i’d rather die” in regards to many sorts of disabilities. a lot of people really don’t understand how a person in XYZ condition could get any enjoyment out of life — or they do, but with condescending pity, looking down at this simple person beneath them.

    because really, it’s a challenge to the very foundation of their pride.

    that’s why I do have some problems with the “utility” sorts of arguments in favor of disability rights, tho’ they are true, we should not be basing the worth of a disabled person on how well they can mimic ability.

    but at the same time, it’s the only way a great portion of the public will gain any sort of understanding. and i suppose everyone is at a different point in their personal journey.

  3. bev

    I would appear that I am the one who is a bad ally! I thought I had included you in a group email about this Saturday morning, but I just checked and found that I had missed you. You are a great ally. Don’t ever think otherwise.

    My two cents: people fear disabilities more than other differences. They are all pretty sure they are not going to change into another race or gender. Homosexuality sits squarely in the middle, fearwise, because it is an artifact of a false dichotomy. But disability, man! That can happen to anyone without warning. And it will happen, in varying degrees, to anyone who lives long enough. Scary stuff. So it gets shoved under the rug.

    Okay, that wasn’t very original, I know. But it was my immediate thought.

  4. bev

    I meant that homosexuality is an Obvious artifact of false dichotomy. Most of these other differences are, too. Just not so intuitively for most people.

  5. Pingback: The Golden Rule « Odd One Out

  6. Verry interesting indeed. I recently posted on this as well. I had conflicted feelings about doing so though. I think it is more complicated than it is appearing in posts. It is wrong to treat any child like this but it does bring into light more issues than are being discussed.

  7. gallinggalla

    This strategy of equating our rights to our ability to be contributors (you help me, I’ll help you) is really capitalist and US dominant culture based as I think BFP has said a few times.

    Yes. I feel like capitalism values what people produce / consume, and does not value people themselves at all, except for those who sit at the top of the heap.

    I work at a liberal arts college, and they’ve been accommodating to my Asperger’s, but I shudder to think of what will happen when I try to get a job at a corporate firm with their cube farms, and ask to have a private office. I’ll have to go through rigamarole to prove ADA disability, and justify I’m somehow worth the additional expense.

    When I was at Chase Bank, they “justified” their policy on sexual orientation non-discrim based on “we’ll make more money b/c we have more diverse voices”. It’s never b/c it’s just the damned right thing to do to treat everyone like they have intrinsic worth.

  8. Polly

    Interesting that in listing the -isms (the acknowledged oppressions), so often agism is left out. Of course we who are aged are perceived not only as about to be less and less able (more and more a “burden”) with the years, but as a still-living reminder of time, illness, and death.

  9. Pingback: Mamita Mala - One Bad Mami › Wrong Lesson for a 5 Year Old : You’re Disgusting

  10. threeriverfog, i love how you put your words together. “mimic ability” is such a great way to put it and you’re so right. i wonder if our strategy for this comes from our leaders, i.e. people who are better able to act nondisabled are at the top so this is prioritized by them?

    marla- do you have a link to your post? i went through your blog but couldn’t’ find it and what to read what you wrote.

    gallingalla! AHH! i didn’t even make the connection that the way we talk about job accommodations and ADA is based in this and that’s been such a large focus of our movement. our whole argument for transportation, job accommodations, everything is about this. you’re right, what happens to us if we no longer balance out productivity with accommodations?

    polly— definitely yes. i didn’t originally include ageism b/c it’s also another ism that is underrecognized like ableism and i wanted to talk about the ones that have power in the word itself because long painful histories and social meanings. you’re so right. i was thinking the other day about a post Daisy had up about ageism and all the stupid stuff i said on it. though i believe ageism and ableism are so so so interconnected, i still have a lot to learn.

  11. The story about Adam was circulated around here. You better believe lots of us here at the Center for Disability Rights wrote letters to the school principal and the Governor of Florida, among others.

    In addition, I “went there”, because sometimes, you have to. I blasted Al Sharpton, and the NAACP about why they aren’t standing up for Alex, and other people with disabilities who are being abused. These high-profile folks are strangely silent when someone who doesn’t look like them is suffering injustice. Civil rights is for EVERYONE, not just Black folks. As an African-American, I feel that they need to speak out against wrongs that happen to ALL kinds of people! In my opinion, they’d have more credibility. I apologize if I have offended anyone, but I feel that the issue had to be addressed.

  12. I’m sorry, I put my friend Adam’s name where I meant Alex. Adam is a young friend of mine with disabilities who is dealing with being bullied by his classmates because of his disabilities. He lives in Colorado, and his parents are having a hard time getting his school to do anything concrete to address the bullying.

  13. Pingback: links for 2008-05-30 « Exposing the cherry

  14. I think you bring up a very interesting point about internalized ideas about self-worth and what one deserves.

    In one of the classes I took in college, we read a paper that studied various University’s literature on “diversity.” The paper argued that this literature, which was mostly aimed at alumni (who presumably are being targeted to contribute to the University), made the case that diversity would expose majority students to the minorities making them better workers. My professor (and the paper) argued that we should acknowledge that trying to make Universities more accessible to minorities was a matter of social justice, not “making things better for the majority.”

    I think people who are being criticized or asked to change have difficulty framing these discussions as “social justice” because to do so means admitting, both to yourself and as an institution that social injustice is occurring and that something needs to be righted. I think some people just don’t want to see that.

  15. sanabituranima

    The reason I didn’t use the wrd ableism in my Alex Barto post was that I didn’t want to give the impression that bullying is ONLY wrong if it’s done against disabled people, or ONLY wrong when it’s done in the name of an “ism”. I’ve been in debates before where people argued about whther it was worse for ateacher to be racist/sexist/ableist/whateverist or to just tohate all ther pupils and be vile to all of them. I’m not sure what I think, but I know that both are wrong.

    By theway, PLEASE can you enlarge the text on your site?

  16. sanbituranima, thanks for stopping by. i definitely hear what you are saying, i guess i am frusterated not so much at the way we as a community responded to alex barton but the way we always handle these things. (i.e. recently FRIDA, a feminist disability org, held a memorial for a disabled woman who was brutally tortured and killed in her home. they were the only ones who called it ableism, the general media just made it a tragedy.)

    thank you for calling me out on my website not being fully accessible. i’ve been playing around w/ CSS for the last hour and haven’t figured out how to make it accessible yet. i will ask for some help from other people and hopefully i can get it fixed in the next few days. if i’m not able to change it with this theme, i’ll make sure that all future blog entries are in a larger font.

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