Archive for the ‘appearances’ Category
One: I’m clinging to my roommate’s arm, trying to (re)learn how to walk in heels.
Two: a friend sent me a pair of shoes.
One: I wore heels, once. I was in a choir, a choir that was a Really Big Deal, and the high school girls had to wear character shoes. I got the lowest possible heel, and I was okay, mostly.
I liked how they sounded on the floor, so sometimes I wore them in college, or to DD council meetings, or when I went to Washington. I think they had maybe a half-inch heel.
I lost my character shoes in the move. Two years went by. I tore all the muscles in my left ankle, every last one, and I couldn’t go to physical therapy.
I put on a new pair of heels, and I knew, instantly that I didn’t remember how to do this.
Two: my life looks very different from high school. I am connected now, in some pretty formal ways, to hundreds of disabled people all across the world. A couple of weeks ago, one of those people, a Facebook friend who has done a lot to show me what living with pride and joy in a disabled body looks like, posted that she had somehow wound up with a pair of mary janes that were far too big for her. Did any crip femmes she knew want them?
They were a size 11. I usually only have 1 pair of shoes at a time, and let me tell you, finding cute shoes in your size when you are over six feet tall is not easy. I said so. She sent me a picture, I noted they had heels, we worked out the logistics.
A few days ago, they arrived. I was having a bad hands day, so my roommate helped me open the box.
I did remember how to put them on by myself.
I am autistic. Just like the screenings warn, I walked on my toes when I was little, and until I hurt my ankle this summer, I still did. I can dance, kind of, not really. In my own way. I have a lot of trouble with conventional femininity: I wear long skirts and long hair after a religious upbringing, but I don’t have the motor skills or the patience or the social-cognitive something for most of the work required to do femme traditionally. I can’t put on my own makeup or paint my nails; I can’t fasten any clothes that a typical six year-old can’t. I used to be able to pin up my braids, but I lost that skill sometime last year after going too long without OT. The day you see me with my hair perfectly coiffed and my eyes carefully made up, in a coat that buttons and boots with no zippers, is the day you know I’ve either been married or placed on a Medicaid waiver.
Like a lot of disabled women hoping no one notices we’ve snuck into the professional world, I cling to the few scraps of traditional femininity I can hold on to with my teeth. My friend, another autistic woman in the workplace, calls it “femme-NOS.”
Being able to wear heels again would be a big deal.
“We’re gonna walk around the room,” my roommate says, and I nod and hang on for dear life.
“Why did you want these?” he asks.
“The gala,” I say, grimly. One of these days I am going to be dressed to kill.
“Okay,” he says. At the last gala, he helped ferry me from guest to guest, guiding me through the crowd and staving off meltdowns and making the loudest night of the year mildly enjoyable.
“We’ll have to practice a lot.”
One of my other friends runs a blog called CP Shoes, about disability and shoes and some other things. I know as soon as I volunteer to take the shoes that I am going to want to write a thing for her. I’m writing, again, because some things worked out and I have a little more energy, a tiny bit of space for words left in my brain on the weekends.
Some of my friends and I are starting to talk, in various places and various ways, about #DressingWhileDisabled. There are a lot of stories about disability out there, and not a lot of them look like our lives. We have to tell them ourselves. We have to tell them together.
I sit down, and there are two stories I can write.
One: I’m autistic, and there are things I have to learn and struggle with and overcome, like wearing heels.
Two: a friend sent me a pair of shoes, and on a night dedicated to celebrating disability and community and the way my brain and my body glitch at each other, I’m going to wear them.
I want to write a story about shoes and disability, about the connections disability community makes between people who are very short and people who are awkward crashing giants, about the ways my life has gotten so much bigger, about objects and ideas that get passed from person to person, about the ways that disabled women or crip femmes or we take care of each other when no one else will.
We’re taking it one step, one story, at a time. And these are the stories I want to see.
There is this thing that happens sometimes.
Parent has an autistic child. Autistic child doesn’t speak, or their speech isn’t an accurate window into what they are thinking. Autistic child is presumed to be very significantly intellectually disabled.
Years later, a method of communication is found that works for the child, and it turns out that they are in fact very smart. Very smart! The parents are overjoyed. They begin talking about presuming competence, the least dangerous assumption, that not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.
They are so, so excited.
And they start talking about all the incorrect assumptions they had. If we’d known, they say, we wouldn’t have done X. If we had known they could read, think, hear us.
And it’s a big problem, because the way they talk…..they think the problem was that they treated their child like they were intellectually disabled, and they weren’t. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that they thought their child was intellectually disabled, and so they didn’t treat them like a person.
These revelations, about presuming competence, human dignity, and the least dangerous assumption—they don’t apply only to kids who are secret geniuses. They apply to everyone. They are the most important for the kids who really do have intellectual disabilities, who really can’t read or use full sentences and who really do need extensive support. The people who came up with these terms came up with them for a population where there is very little doubt that significant disability is a factor. These terms don’t mean assume they aren’t actually disabled. These terms mean assume they are a person, and remember what you don’t know.
When the neurodiversity movement first got its legs, oh so many years ago, we got a LOT of pushback from people who thought we were denying disability. And we had to be clear that we meant everyone. And I worry, more and more, that certain very academic circles have left that behind, in practice as much as in theory. It makes liars out of the rest of us, and it makes a lot of work very, very difficult.
If I told the parents in question that I am thinking about this, they wouldn’t understand. They’re not saying intellectual disability doesn’t exist, they would say. But the truth is, they’re either saying that, or they’re saying thank god, it wasn’t my kid.
And it’s a slap in the face, every time.
The thing about not-being-a-person is:
They will say those people and the price of being a person is to nod and agree that yes, those people aren’t people at all.
They will have no idea who they are talking to.
You yourself will start to forget, too.
They will say a million small things that sow the seeds for violence done against you, and you will smile and let them.
You will do math, constantly.
How much do I want to be a person today? How much do I want this project to succeed? How much honesty can I afford? How much dishonesty will kill me? What is the cost of coming out? Is there a way to delay, soften, transmute? How long can I survive as half a person?
Your dreams will be reduced down to breathing.
And you will be grateful.
And no one else will know. And so it won’t be real.
You will become an expert at folding away pieces of yourself, quietly and automatically and with perfect obedience.
And you will forget that, forget all of it, forget yourself, and then come back to yourself violently as someone smiles and talks, academically or hatefully and there’s no deciding which is worse, about those people.
And you will remember that you are not a person. And you will have to decide, all over again, how much longer you can take that.
“I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m still a guy.”
First, an awkwardly personal moment.
Several months ago, I was outed by another teacher to several speech pathologists at work. One of the women was completing her practicum, and her supervisor and instructor were observing her session with our pupil. I was there to keep him calm, as being watched by five or six teachers as you complete a speech exercise when you are working through selective mutism can be rather stressful. I wasn’t doing anything to draw attention to myself, just sitting nearby and redirecting or reassuring him when he needed it. I was dressed appropriately; I made sure to sit just like the women around me; I kept out of their conversation but smiled and nodded and was polite and quiet. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I made my fatal mistake. I kept my hands in my lap, but it might have been when I answered a question about his AAC device a little too knowledgeably or with a little too much enthusiasm. Perhaps it was when I noticed the tightening of his movements and suggested he have a quick break. Either way, eventually one of the women wanted to know what my job was, exactly. “Oh, she’s our intern,” the teacher said, and I smiled and nodded and then she kept talking. “She’s like our translator for half these kids. She has a really unique understanding–she’s also autistic, like them.”
And I was out.
It’s not the kind of outing you were expecting, was it?
Would you believe me that it was more terrifying, more humiliating, with worse consequences than when I was outed as a lesbian in that room earlier that year?
That’s one anecdote. Here’s another.
As a simultaneously queer and developmentally disabled fan, one of my great struggles last season was watching the ship wars between Brittana and Bartie fans. There weren’t a whole lot of Bartie fans in the first place, and I quickly figured out that, as a lesbian, I was supposed to ship Brittana. It was practically compulsory. Their relationship was groundbreaking and I was supposed to be excited and moved and relate to it and no, no one wanted to hear my thoughts or see my excitement on seeing a couple with disabilities navigating high school together. Who cared?
I wanted to know why only one story, one half of myself, counted. No one could explain.
A third story, and then to the point. Perhaps you can see it already.
I went to a college, for a while, infamous for its lesbians. I’m sure there’s a more decorous way to put it; I never cared to learn. It was a completely and utterly different world from the one I grew up in, and I loved every last queer second of it. Finally, being a lesbian wasn’t an issue!
Having disabilities still was.
I mean, how was anyone supposed to navigate a relationship with someone who didn’t like to talk, who sometimes couldn’t, who wore massive noise-blocking headphones at dinner and who couldn’t manage parties or groups of people or sometimes even just one person? What were the rules for that? Did that even happen? How do you flirt with someone who won’t make eye contact?
It’s important that I am very clear here. It’s not that my classmates were horrible people. It’s not that at all. With few exceptions they were nothing but kind–and that’s a loaded phrase, but there’s not time for it here–and universally they did know how to relate to someone who could geek out about the neuroscience (and cognitive science, and philosophy) of vision, who could help with their linguistics homework or sing along to Last Friday Night or mix screwdrivers with alchemical precision. They just didn’t know what to do when that person wore glasses because she’d damaged her eyes banging her head repeatedly against walls, or who sometimes needed to pause in the middle of a conversation and diagram a sentence so she could understand it, or who learned music so quickly with the same ears that also made her scream when she wasn’t warned for a fire drill. There weren’t any stories about girls who went to college already well-verses in mixing drinks because they’d gotten so good at mixing 125 mls of Zoloft into eight ounces of pineapple-orange juice every morning.
There weren’t any stories about people like me. I was not something to be conceived of, I was not expected. There were no scripts. I didn’t exist.
(So I didn’t count.)
Now, to the point.
I am a lesbian with disabilities. I am an autistic lesbian; I am a lesbian with bad brains.
Glee fandom has taught me that exactly half of this identity is acceptable.
I am sure I should be grateful for this. It is an improvement, after all–outside my bedroom door, I’m not allowed any of it. Being a lesbian is a good way to get myself raped or killed in my, in this, town. I know this. So I apologize for my ungratefulness, for my stubborn, bratty selfishness, when I point out…
…being half a person means that I’m still not actually a person at all.
Here’s the thing. I can’t actually turn my disability off. I can pass as less disabled, sure–not as non disabled, but less, of course, in some circumstances, if I’m prepped enough. Hey, did you catch that? I can pass. Passing is a concept that applies to ability too, not just sexuality or race? Did you know that?
Probably not, actually.
The Glee fandom, at least the parts I’m in where I encounter this problem, seems fairly knowledgeable and progressive and all those other nice, soothing words about a lot of things. People generally know what I mean if I say Kurt can’t pass or Blaine passes as white. It’s not perfect, of course, but I’m far more likely to be understood than if I say Artie can normalize himself or Brittany has become increasingly unable to pass.
Pass as what? She’s bi, everyone knows that, what else could she possibly be passing for?
(Well, actually, she’s written and played as disabled, the actress has said so.)
No she’s not. You’re giving the authors way too much credit. That must have been an accident. Sloppy characterization, bad writing, lol Glee…no. They wouldn’t write that. She’s not.
(And then this is where I finally, finally, get nasty.)
Am I an accident?
Am I sloppy?
Am I not supposed to exist?
Is my story worth telling?
It’s not supposed to be personal, except for all of the years I’ve known the answers to those questions. Yes, yes, no, no.
I think the casual impersonality of it is what makes me feel unsafe, actually. It rests on the assumption that people like that aren’t reading or participating in these discussions (how could they, they’re retarded) and that our stories don’t even exist to be told. I mean, do disabled people even have sex drives?
And yes, to be clear, I absolutely do mean it when I say I feel unsafe. I’m not sure how else I’m supposed to feel when I realize that I do not exist to large swaths of people.
A great deal of the time, passing means passing as nothing at all. I don’t exist. And you know, still, I automatically typed and that’s fine, that’s whatever after that last sentence, because you’re not supposed to make an issue of it. Not supposed to draw attention. I don’t exist.
I’m not in your stories. When I see myself, I’m wrong. I’m bad writing. I’m not in your stories, and I don’t get any stories of my own. I don’t exist to the greater world, and ultimately I’m not allowed to exist to myself.
But that’s fine, that’s whatever.
There’s a violence in invisibility, you know.
There are little speech patterns that creep in when we talk about Brittany, sometimes. About who deserves her, as if she has no agency, as if she can’t know her own mind.
(Do I? Do I get agency? Or do I just need to be grateful for whatever affection and attention I do get? Should I find the boys from ninth grade again and apologize to my abusers for kneeing one of them in the balls? Should I have known it wouldn’t get better?)
There’s a violence I still can’t talk about, in the end.
Let me take the focus off me. I’ve been debating whether or not to leave that sentence in. Let me take the focus off me, because this is not how you stay invisible. But…but keep the focus on me, because isn’t that the point? Isn’t that what this show, or at least this essay, is about? Keep the focus on me, because there are so many different ways to be invisible.
Quinn. Quinn and her slow, silent breakdown all last season. Quinn and Lucy. Blaine. Blaine and looking back and realizing that some needy, broken sophomore was trying to mentor an older, stronger kid, because he can be however you want him to be. Mercedes, swallowing a crush she knows goes beyond all reason, but reason never had much to do with it. Mercedes, good old reliable Mercedes, realizing that the moment she’s not so reliable, the moment she wants more, the moment she’s visible, is the moment she’s no longer wanted.
I’ve been all of those kids. I’ve lived all of those stories. So, so many of us had.
And when we hear that these stories don’t exist? That they’re just bad writing? Just lazy plotting, poorly executed versions of better, real, worthy stories? That they’re not worth telling on their own merits, that no one wants to see that?
We don’t argue, usually. How are you supposed to argue when apparently a story you’ve lived is just some hackneyed, inferior attempt at something worth attention?
We don’t argue, because our stories are judged unacceptable and by extension so are we, and that’s a conversation we don’t actually need to have again. Glee tells a lot of stories, and they aren’t usually the ones the real people want, and of course, we already established this, we aren’t allowed our own stories. No, of course not, and should they somehow be written and acted and shot anyways, they can still be grabbed and labeled as something different entirely, graded against an entirely different narrative, and thus still easily found wanting, derided, and thrown out.
And that’s fine, that’s whatever. That’s how it works. I just want to know…
I just want to know…who decides whose stories get told?
Who decides which are worth telling?
And why aren’t mine on that list?
Blogging: not actually an ADL!
Writing long-form: not actually the same as being able to have a conversation!
Writing things on your own schedule: not the same as employable!
Verbrose speech/writing: actually a symptom of ASD!
Autistic adults: once rumored to have been autistic children!
The people you’re undiagnosing: actually have issues with feeding, toileting, sleeping, self-injury, communication, and independent living!
Privilege: a word that means something!
I received the feedback forms from the presentation I gave in August. The responses were uniformly positive—I’m just not sure I can trust them. See, I was described by various respondents as “inspiring,” a “kid,” and “a very good role-model.” (But relatively “empowered” and “self-sufficient,” as opposed, one can assume, to the Real Autistic People.)
Can we talk?
First of all, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a kid. I am, indeed, rather young, and as embarrassed about that as I am, there is nothing wrong, really, with calling me a kid. I call myself a girl. But calling my co-presenter, who just earned her doctorate, a kid? Makes me suspicious. It makes me remember how in popular conception there are no autistic adults, only children, and the children never grow up (or even reach puberty.) It reminds of how I listened to a man giving a presentation about a “community” he was designing for “children with autism”—except every one of these “children” was over the age of 21. When asked, he explained that “I call them children because they will always be children to me.”
And when that is the dominant context for these discussions? Then no. You do not get to call me a kid.
Similarly, “inspiring.” I’m amused that the same qualities which make me a failure and a disappointment in one context make me inspiring in another. But it’s not funny at all. I write and present furiously about injustice, about violence, about the things they do to us. No one who actually hears what I say walks out of the room inspired. They walk out furious. This? Is not inspiring. It’s terrifying. I don’t write to move or to touch, I write to survive, and it’s only inspiring if you paint over all the pain fueling it and everything it’s about so that you can enjoy the utterly adorable sight of someone trying to advocate for themselves.
(At the conference, Zoe asked DJ how he dealt with hate-speech. He told her to be brave, because that’s all you can do in the moment. A woman sitting next to us was so touched that she teared-up and put a hand over her heart. Not appalled that we live in a world where people argue about whether or not it’s morally justifiable to kill us. No. Inspired by our adorable attempts at bravery.)
I’m not performing for you.
This is not about your reactions.
This is not supposed to be easy.
It’s not easy for us at all.
I’m not a good role model. I’m far too angry and unpredictable for that, and if I were to mentor anyone the first thing I would tell them would be “figure out how you want to be.” There’s not a correct way to do this, there’s not one right way to be an adult autistic, there are no acceptable autistics, and it terrifies me and sickens me and makes me worry about what I did wrong to make someone think I could be any of those things.
Finally. I am utterly fascinated by the use of the descriptors empowered and self-sufficent. Those are great words, and I plan on adopting them. But saying I am those things, and other autistics aren’t or can’t be, tells me, if I had any doubts still, that you sat down for an hour and fifteen minutes and didn’t hear a word I had to say.
They say I’m articulate.
(I think about all the words that stay locked in my throat, and I give a small and terrified smile and look over their shoulder and into nothing at all.)
I’m really quite lucky I have such a command of language.
(There are maybe five people in the whole wide world I can talk to face-to-face without wanting to die, without having a panic attack, without needing to hurt myself or sleep for hours afterward. Two of them receive speech therapy. None of them obey the usual laws of dialogue. I know that, really, I’m lucky to have anyone at all.)
My verbal agility is a sign of something, they’re sure.
(When I’m trapped into a conversation in the kitchen of someone else’s home, I stare at the table and see nothing at all, and my throat closes and my ears ring and the world is small and distant and hot and I am agile because adrenaline alters our capabilities.)
I’m really quite social.
(If I am asked how are you I will always say fine. If you ask me anything at all I will throw as many words as I can in your general direction. I can have quiet hands but the loudest mouth, I’m very advanced, and for my next trick I’ll even ask what’s up with you.)
I can answer every question you might ever have.
(Except for what do you need or how do you feel or do you want anything or is this okay.)
I can request independently and answer yes-no questions reliably.
(I can request independently because I never make requests, which means independence, which means I must not have to but I could if I did, right? But if you ask me if I need help I will say no, and if you ask, as my hands fly around my ears and my shoulders go tight and small, if I’m okay, I will say yes because I can’t say no and if I could it would mean more talking and less space and I will say anything at all to get you to go away until my brain is my own again.)
I am verbose and prosaic in my speech.
(I am as helpless to stay silent when you speak to me as I am to move when I need to do laundry. I freeze, staring at my dirty clothes, and every cognitive break I own clamps down because I can’t, because there are too many steps, because this has been the Summer Of Laundry Wars and I have lost. But there are no steps at all in unhinging my jaw and going somewhere very far away and echoing, echoing, reciting and remixing scripts about Why I’m Not In School and What I Did This Summer and Why We Deserve Human Rights until the tape runs out.)
I have such a good grip on the English language.
(And such a poor grip on reality, going somewhere still and quiet and out of my head while my mouth turns tricks for you.)
I’m never told I’m impolite or out of place or off script.
(Bad, too serious, perseverative, disconnected, hateful, boring, too enthusiastic, dogmatic, of course. All of those. And that’s just for talking about a show I like, without even stepping on anyone’s toes. For being happy, for getting excited about something, for trying to share. For saying something that wasn’t an answer to a question. But everything’s fine, and I’m very polite, I’m very well trained.)
I can say whatever you ask of me.
(I’m very obedient.)
I’m an Acceptable Autistic.
(I never disagree with you to your face, and you’ll probably never hear about it because the gore in my stomach when you tell me I must be very high-functioning gets pulled down by the fear of quiet hands and you must not understand and I know putting yourself in other people’s shoes is hard for you.)
I’m a Forgettable Autistic.
(As a child, I didn’t cry when I broke my wrist, which meant I didn’t feel pain. I read about social skills when I was bullied, so I wasn’t mistreated. I didn’t cry when I was abused, so it wasn’t abuse. Now, I tell you it’s fine and I walk away, and maybe I sat in a hallway for two hours the other week, unable to remember how to stand, but I can tell you I’m fine so I must be.)
(So you don’t have to listen.)