Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Business Majors and the Liberal Arts

Yoni Appelbaum, who has a PhD in history and is Politics editor for The Atlantic, has a new piece on the importance of liberal arts education for people who want to thrive in business.
American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.
That presents a growing challenge to colleges and universities. Students are clamoring for degrees that will help them secure jobs in a shifting economy, but to succeed in the long term, they’ll require an education that allows them to grow, adapt, and contribute as citizens—and to build successful careers. And it’s why many schools are shaking up their curricula to ensure that undergraduate business majors receive something they may not even know they need—a rigorous liberal-arts education.
It's a good piece and you should read it! What's frustrating to me here is that Samuelson isn't saying anything especially new. We've had a generation of attacks on liberal learning from the anti-intellectual segments of American society and a generation of responses from educators and the otherwise venerated corporate leaders who point to all the evidence that liberal education works.

I don't know how to fix this, but I wonder if the direct focus on what job you get after graduation permits the wild escalation of costs, which in turn requires us to directly focus on jobs. The better approach might be to push for (as the Sanders campaign did, though in general I was not a Sanders supporter due to its failures on disability policy) wholesale transformation of the funding system for higher education.

Because rich business leaders or brilliant intellectuals promising young folks that, really, a liberal arts education will serve you best both in life hasn't worked.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tommy and Disability Narratives - My Fave is more than Problematic

As I blogged about yesterday, I can't listen to Tommy (the Rock Opera by The Who) any more. Introducing kids to music I loved as a teenager is a key nostalgic benefit of parenting, and unusually, they liked it a lot, my kids jamming out to Pinball Wizard. And then ... the lyrics filtered into my consciousness and I realized that the album was done for me.

On the other hand, it's fascinating to have such a problematic take on disability occupy such a central position in the history of rock, film, and theater. Here's a good article by Mohamed Khamis on the content and the debate about the issue at the time:
Townshend makes clear his reasons for choosing an autistic boy as the hero of his rock opera, but his justification may actually perpetuate the disablist tenor that underlies Tommy. In the CD liner notes to the 1996 digitally remastered version, Townshend explains, "…the hero had to be deaf, dumb and blind so that seen from our already limited point of view, his limitations would be symbolic of our own." Townshend uses Tommy's disability as a metaphor for our own spiritual impotence. Tommy's subsequent recuperation, then, provides proof that we can transcend our limited corporeal mentality and experience an infinite metaphysical reality. But by doing this, Townshend essentially pigeonholes those with disabilities as incompetent, as having limitations that are universally recognized. If so-called "able" people are supposed to relate with Tommy to recognize their own spiritual faults, with whom should the disabled listener relate? Townshend's argument is flawed because it classifies the disabled as those with whom "ordinary" people should relate their faults.
The author continues:
While I have already posited that Townshend is guilty of employing an array of disability stereotypes to support his narrative, I think that some of these warrant special attention. In his book Everybody Belongs, Arthur Shapiro (1999) contends that some people prejudicially believe that blind people can develop a sixth sense; Tommy clearly works to perpetuate this stereotype. In "Pinball Wizard," undoubtedly the most popular and best-known song on the album, Townshend writes that Tommy "plays by intuition" because he lacks the ability to see or hear. Such lyrics lead the listeners to believe that Tommy has a special ability, perhaps a supernatural ability, that other human's lack; these lyrics also help form misconceptions about blind people. Similarly, Rose and Kiger (1995) state some common stereotypes about deaf people, among which are immaturity and inability to reason. The description of Tommy in the song "Christmas" leads me to believe that Townshend also subscribes to these stereotypes. Townshend sings, "Playing proxy pinball/[Tommy] picks his nose and smiles and/pokes his tongue at everything." These lyrics portray Tommy as infantile, not as someone who is deaf and blind. In the rock opera, Townshend also relies on the assumption that disabled people are miserable, that they want nothing more than to be cured and become "normal." This attitude is evident in "There's a Doctor," in which Tommy's father cries, "There's a man I've found/Could bring us all joy!/There's a doctor I've found/Could cure the boy!…There's a man I've found/Could remove his sorrow." Some do not realize that not everyone with disability strives to become "normal," and not everyone with a disability is in the constant state of depression these lyrics suggest. 
The whole article is, I think, thoughtful and well written.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Disability and Pop Culture: Alice Wong on Finding Dory

Last week I wrote about Finding Dory and hoping it was good. Although complex and not without its issues (more on that in a second), Alice Wong (founder of the Disability Visibility Projecthas mostly very positive things to say.
People with disabilities do not see themselves very often reflected in popular culture with authenticity steeped in the lived experience. Not only are many disabled characters played bynon-disabled people; the storytellers are usually non-disabled who craft narratives about disability by using stereotypes and cliched tropes, robbing disabled characters and stories of agency and diversity.
Finding Dory has multiple characters with disabilities that live in the community (the ocean) and in institutions (the aquarium, the quarantine section of the aquarium). The characters are part of ecosystems (the coral reef) integrated with non-disabled aquatic creatures. Best yet, Dory, voiced by Ellen Degeneres, is a disabled character that is front-and-center. She is the hero on a journey.
 Also read - Elizabeth Picciuto on Finding Dory.

I've been thinking about pop culture and disability a lot this weekend. I tried to play "Tommy," by The Who, for the kids while they were having breakfast, only to discover that I just can't listen to it anymore. I suspect there's room for sophisticated analysis of the use of disability by Townshend and lots of discussion (I'll blog about this soon), what I mostly found was that I just couldn't listen to it. I can't watch Veep because of the constant use of ableist slurs in casual banter among the staff. I stopped watching South Park at some point. I made the mistake of looking up how often Buffy uses the r-word. Here's one.
Jack: (not amused) What are you, r----ded?
 Xander: No! No, I had to take that test when I was seven. A little slow in some stuff, mostly math and spatial relations, but certainly not challenged or anything. (points down) Can I get you another soda?
I rarely make relatively few claims about whether you should or should not see something (though showing content to kids that perpetuates stereotypes of any sort is dangerous. Your kids should not watch South Park and I once lost a friend over that argument). Just that these words strike me, almost physically, and make it impossible for me to process the broader cultural product (see this on This American Life for an example of how such language triggers). This is especially true when I hear the words, rather than reading it in text. All of this is to stay that I can no longer listen to Pinball Wizard (or anything else really in that album).

Culture matters. Language and image matter. Having a kid's movie portray a sophisticated approach to disability culture has a kind of power that transcends almost any other kind of outreach.

Still haven't seen it!






Friday, June 24, 2016

#CripTheVote and Dante: Priorities USA Cuts a New Ad Featuring Disabled Child of Color Speaking for Himself



This is the new Priorities USA ad - Dante. It features a young disabled African-American boy speaking directly to the camera about Donald Trump.

A few weeks ago, Priorities USA released the ad Grace, which features who nice white parents of a disabled child criticizing Donald Trump for making fun of people with disabilities. I wrote about the ad, here, for The Atlantic, praising the intent but concerned about disability stereotypes. I also spoke to Alice Wong, Dominick Evans, and Vilissa Thompson, three disability rights leaders on whom I rely on most heavily, to get their opinions. Here's a few quotes:
Dominick: “It feels really exploitative to use this issue and speak about a disabled child and about disability and never include us in the discussion, at all.”

Alice said the parents framed their daughter as, "this vulnerable person who needs protection when disabled people have agency."

Vilissa: “Disabled children's images and stories are always used to evoke the sympathy feels among members in society.” The images used are almost always of white children. She said she understands why Priorities USA turned to a nice white family for this ad—they want to sway the hearts and minds of moderate, white voters who might be offended by Trump—but it “says a lot about what face is used to get to the hearts of America.”
Dante addresses all of these concerns, pretty much to the letter. The disabled child, a person of color, speaks for himself. There are no adults in the ad. I think he comes off as strong and independent, calling out Trump for his bigotry. #CripTheVote indeed.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

CN: ABLEIST SLURS - Disability and Community: The Challenge

The differences between different disabilities are so great that grouping all disabled individuals into a 'disabled community' is stupid. Physically disabled individuals are very different from mentally disabled individuals. People born disabled are very different from people who became disabled in their old age. The differences are too great for there to be any real 'community'. - Shawn, a comment writer.
Shawn wrote this comment on the Google+ version of this post - Why disability as identity matters. Please don't go find and mob them. I just wanted to post it here, though, so as to show the challenges that our movement faces in building solidarity across categories, of pushing the social of disability rather than the medical one.

Here's another comment, possibly from the same person which I deleted, but have been thinking about for days.
I want to comment on "Why Disability as Identity Matters". The differences between a blind person and a severely retarded person are great. The differences between someone who was born with a disability caused by a genetic disorder and someone who has become disabled in old age are great. Grouping all disabled people into 'the Disabled Community" is stupid and possibly harmful. Disabled individuals differ too much from each other for us to identify as a group. I was born with and have always had a physical disability. I do not want to be thought of or treated as if I were retarded.
I'm sorry for this person that they are so filled with loathing, but it's important, again, to face this kind of sentiment.

The social model of disability, itself now pretty old and being pushed at by various other models, teaches us to rethink disability not in terms of what our bodies and minds can and can't do, but in terms of the ways that society is structured to permit only certain types of bodies and minds to thrive. That's where I find the solidarity across disability categories and why I support disability-as-identity movements.

What about you?




Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Should Reporters Describe Disability?

Yesterday, the official AP Stylebook Twitter Account responded to a query about describing wheelchair users. Here's the exchange:

I understand what the AP Stylebook is trying to do here, but I'm concerned it leads to disability erasure. Having spent a few years now carefully tracking media references to disability and police use of force, I've noted that disability often quickly drops out of stories in ways that obscure the true scope of the problem.

There are, of course, many times in which referring to disability wouldn't be appropriate and might even be stigmatizing. For example, let's assume Jane is not disabled and Joe is disabled.

"Jane's neighbor, Joe, says she was always quiet."

There's no need to discuss disability status here, right? 

"Jane's neighbor, Joe, who uses a wheelchair, notes that Jane's tendency to leave shards of broken glass on the sidewalk was a source of tension."

Obviously, you've got to mention the disability in that case, as relevant.

Here's what I've come up with as a guideline, operating from the principle that disability functions as a core marker of identity, and that journalists deal with this question all the time (whether to describe someone's race, country of origin, sexuality, etc.):

If you would describe other markers of identity in a story (race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), also describe disability. If you would not, then only describe disability if it's otherwise directly pertinent to the story.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Disability, the States, and the Great Kansas Disaster

Over the past few years, Kansas has empowered a collection of radical right-wing politicians to put into practice every (Constitutionally-possible) idea that they could come up with. The idea was that they could cut taxes far enough to stimulate massive economic growth. The result has been a dramatic slashing of all mechanisms of funding the state, followed by draconian cuts across all sectors, a job collapse, and public schools in crisis.

Here's the CEO of Pathfinder, a major Healthcare management company, on why he's leaving Kansas [my emphasis]:
Under Brownback’s direction, Kansas implemented an unprecedented tax cut in 2012, eliminating taxes for LLCs and professional firms (for full disclosure, PHI is a C Corporation) and making the largest cuts in the highest tax brackets. He shifted taxes to create a heavier burden on property and sales taxes, which typically represent a larger burden on lower income brackets. Brownback declared that this tax cut would be a “shot of adrenaline” for the Kansas economy, but the reality is that the tax cuts have had the opposite effect. Kansas lags neighboring states in job growth. For 11 of the last 12 months, Kansas has dramatically missed revenue targets, falling deeper in debt and facing another round of degraded bond ratings.
The worst part is that the burdens for the shortfalls rest on the shoulders of those who can least afford it – children and the developmentally disabled.
Now, folks in Kansas with disabilities already know this, but I have some hope when CEOs, the priest-class of certain segments of conservative society, get involved, that change is possible.

States matter. States provide the bulk of support for people with disabilities. It's the kind of thing the trickle-down folks and libertarians like to cut first, claiming that with lower taxes, voluntary charitable contributions will fill the gap.

They never do.





Monday, June 20, 2016

Fundraising: Bringing Zhu Er Home

Nine and a half years ago, my son was born and immediately diagnosed with Down syndrome.I've written about his birth here, but I've also written about the four friends who did the most to help us adapt to our new reality. At a moment of grief (we were so ignorant), they arrived at the hospital, well-informed, to shower us with love and congratulations for the birth of our son. I'll never forget it, I'll never repay it, and I cannot write these sentences without tears.

One of those families needs help. Laura and David were the first people who we trusted to care for our son. We spent holidays in their home. When they adopted their daughter from Russia (just weeks before the ban!), she and our daughter became best friends. Now they need help bringing their new daughter, Zhu Er, home from China.
Zhu Er was born in China in 2011, and has been living in institutional (orphanage) care since she was a tiny baby. Zhu Er is pronounced "Dju R." Her name means Little Pearl. She was born with a bilateral facial cleft, and her left eye is missing. She has had one surgery to improve her ability to eat.

Little Pearl plays “family” with dolls. She loves to read, play games, music and singing. She has a sweet temperament, and plays well with other children. She is a charming little person, and we want—so very much!--to bring her home to our family.

Our first daughter came home to us from Russia. Since joining our family three years ago, Nastia has made great strides overcoming the delays caused by institutional care. These delays affect physical growth, sensory processing, language, self-regulation, and social skills. We’ve been fierce, unrelenting advocates to get her the early intervention services she needed in school and through health care to help her catch up. We will do the same for Little Pearl.

Little Pearl’s needs are not insignificant but we are confident we can meet them. We will have the outstanding support of the Adoption Medicine Clinic, and Craniofacial and Ocular specialists at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. During her growing years, Little Pearl will need multiple surgeries to enable her facial bones to grow correctly and eventually to allow her to wear a prosthetic eye. We will hold, love and comfort her through all those hard times to come.No child should have to travel that path alone.

Nastia is ready to be a big sister. This process has been a wonderful opportunity to teach her about her own adoption story. She makes her little sister pictures and sewed her a small quilt. She is learning about what it means to have different abilities, about family members who don’t look alike, and about her sister’s birth country. We have all learned to speak a little Chinese. Nastia is excited for the day when we bring Little Pearl home. They should make quite a pair.
Please go to the site, learn about the family and the costs of international adoption, and help if you can.

Thank you.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Finding Dory and Disability

I want Finding Dory to be good on disability so badly that I can't even stand to go see it yet.

I want a kids' movie that, without being badly written, sappy, too on point (like Zootopia on racism), or otherwise laden with all the sins of bad writing for children, fully embraces disability as culture and identity and diversity while telling a great story and captivating kids and adults alike.

That's probably too much to ask.

Here's the New York Times:
But in time-honored tradition, the movie also has lessons to impart. “Nemo” made the case for indomitability in the face of fear. “Dory” is more about the acceptance of chaos. Dory’s inability to make or stick to plans is shown, in the long run, to be an advantage. And her memory issues, played mostly for laughs in the first movie, take on a deeper meaning here. She and Nemo, who was born with a deformed flipper, are both people — well, actually, anthropomorphized fish, but you know what I mean — with disabilities, an identity shared by most of the new secondary characters.
In a way that is both emphatic and subtle, “Finding Dory” is a celebration of cognitive and physical differences. It argues, with lovely ingenuity and understatement, that what appear to be impairments might better be understood as strengths. The inclusiveness of the film’s vision is remarkable partly because it feels so natural, something that no adult will really need to explain. Children will get it, perhaps more intuitively and easily than the rest of us.
Please let this work.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Audio Descriptions and Switched at Birth

I was recently contacted by two writers and advocates working on pushing digital media to provide audio descriptions for the show Switched at Birth. You can read about their efforts here. Audio descriptions are always necessary to make TV and movies fully accessible, but this show, with its frequent use of ASL, makes them especially important. Also, because it's a show about difference, disability, and identity, the irony of the show being inaccessible to blind individuals is particularly heavy.

Here's what the writers experienced when they first turned on the show:
As the first episode introduced Daphne and Bae there was a lot of dialogue. And so I could follow that story. Daphne’s mother was there and signed while she spoke which was nice. Shortly though it became clear that there were a lot of scenes shot completely in ASL. So there was just silence in those moments. Though I love audio description, and have never been so energized about advocating for it since meeting Robert, I’ve usually done pretty good with shows that have a lot of dialogue. But this was so different as part of a conversation could be going on in ASL and then someone talking in English so it was extremely difficult.
It strikes me that there has to be a better way to get audio descriptions added to a show. We went through this with Daredevil, when the irony that a show featuring a blind protagonist wouldn't be accessible to blind people generated lots of publicity and forced Netflix to make the change (I covered it for Vice). There's something similar going on here, and with sufficient push, I'm sure it's possible to get Freeform's streaming service (ABC Family changed its name; read about the fascinating history of the network here from Jacqui Shine) to add audio descriptions, or otherwise to push Netflix/AppleTV/whoever to do it? I suspect it might have to come from the network, though.

I wrote three pieces about Switched at Birth last Fall, when the show added a Down syndrome prenatal diagnosis plot.
For Al Jazeera America (RIP), I wrote:
The producers of “Switched at Birth” also play with sound and hearing. When two deaf individuals sign, ambient sound drops. American Sign Language (ASL) conversations sometimes take place without subtitles, replicating the perspective of hearing people who do not sign. A highly praised episode in season two is entirely in ASL, showing a dramatized teenage version of the real-life Galludet uprising, in which deaf students at Galludet University, in Washington, D.C., staged a sit-in to demand a deaf president. In the show, the students seize control of a deaf-only school in danger of being closed.
In another episode, police arrest Emmett and react violently when he doesn’t respond to shouted commands. The scene is shown both with and without sound. In the former, there’s just a bright light shining in Emmett’s face before officers suddenly tackle him. I frequently write about the violence experienced at the hands of police by people with disabilities, including deaf individuals, but I’ve never seen such a scene portrayed on mainstream TV.
Furthermore, in the break between the seasons (it returns next January), I consulted with Lizzy Weiss, the show creator, and other writers, about the experience of being a new father of a boy with Down syndrome. I have to tell you that there are plenty of scenes coming that make me tear up. There's also one scene in the finale which, at least in reading the script, simply left me breathless in its depictions of disability and agency. Stay tuned, as they say (do they still say that?).

I'm committed to the show. I want it accessible to everyone. But I don't want to get audio descriptions in this piecemeal way, where advocates have to band together and fight, show by show. We need to make it a default. I'm not sure how to get there.

Universal design for TV is TV with audio descriptions.