Why Privacy Matters

… even when you are willing to disclose.

Tomorrow, Friday, April 26th, 2013 there is going to be a hearing about HIPAA. Well, that’s not exactly accurate- it is about HIPAA for those with psychiatric disabilities or seeking psychiatric care. But no, this isn’t an entirely accurate description either. It is about how some people truly believe that those of us who receive psychiatric care and have our HIPAA rights respected are somehow a threat to public safety.

They believe this even though our providers are mandated reporters, people who have an exemption for threats of violence to others or one’s self. They believe this even though we are more likely to be victims of violent crime than to commit it. They believe this even though when we report on the violence of others, our voices and experiences are discounted.

They believe us as such a huge threat, despite evidence to the contrary, so much that they won’t even be having any of us at the table as they talk about taking away our rights. That we aren’t able to be truthful, competent, or able to speak for ourselves to such an extent that Representative Murphey has gone on air with his belief that we would be incapable of testifying and that the most important conversation is one about parents and families’ experiences.

Those of you who follow this blog just for the Autism angle might recognize that sort of language. It’s the same sort of language that made our fight last November to get Autistics on the panel of another hearing so important, and that makes our objections to how we are portrayed in the media so necessary.

I’ve heard from some corners of the autism communities that the issue at these hearings isn’t about us, or that some of the efforts that autistics (and ASAN) are doing around this hearing are somehow conflating “mental Illness” and autism. Setting aside the fact that in some places autistics without ID are only able to access supports through the mental health system, and setting aside the fact that some of us have additional disabilities that happen to be in mental health, I still have to disagree. These are the same issues that we face, the same ways our voices are invalidated and our societal consent voided.

Even where we aren’t also people with psychiatric disabilities (and a number of us are, either by birth or because having society tell you you aren’t worthy tends to be traumatizing) , we should be giving our solidarity to the people who are fighting the same fights. And we are fighting the same fights against ableism, albeit from slightly different angles. We have a stake in this too- because ableism isn’t just actions. It is systemic. It impacts all of us, though often in different ways, regardless of our exact disability. There’s a reason we need a cross-disability movement, and the strength we have in supporting each other is just one (important) part of it. There is a song that goes, “None of us are free if one of us is chained,” and you know what? There is a certain amount of truth there.

There is also, of course, the fact that co morbid mental health disabilities or not, many Autistics will be served through the mental health system. The sort of policies this hearing may engender often don’t care if you are receiving services for mental health. They only care about what the services you are receiving are classified as.

I personally am multiply disabled. I have multiple reasons to care about this issue, and that is just reasons that have only to do with myself. There are even more when I think about the people around me.

I am someone who is all about disclosing. I’ve talked, in the past, about topics that are very personal and are too much information for some people. It’s ok if you aren’t comfortable with that, but I have done it for a reason: for every time I’ve had a comment or email expressing concern that I’ll disclose details of my life, particularly as it relates to medical care, I’ve received one if not multiple telling me thank you.  Because they? They don’t feel safe disclosing and it has left them feeling isolated.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? That people don’t feel safe, or comfortable, and they feel that way for a reason. it is the same reason that disclosure is currently a political act: because the negative consequences can be so great. People regularly face discrimination when they disclose, particularly when their disclosure is about a highly stigmatized disabilities. There is a reason both psychiatric disabilities and autism are on the list of such disabilities that the Department of Labor’s ODEP put out- people unfortunately are still fired or even denied a hire on the basis of disability, even though it is against the law. Housing, too, can be riddled with discrimination, leaving affordable and safe housing harder and harder to come by.

Even disclosing in the medical community has negative consequences. This past month, we had a prominent, multiply disabled, autistic voice who had to fight medical discrimination to have a life saving procedure. So, too, do people with psychiatric disabilities find their medical needs and wishes challenged. I cannot begin to count the number of stories I’ve heard in which people I know, either personally or through my advocacy, whose medical conditions were ignored or even blamed on their having had a mental health diagnosis. Either way, they faced a denial of timely and appropriate medical treatment, not because of a lack of disclosure between professionals, but because the stigma is so great that when we disclose even medical professionals have their judgement clouded.

Just as other people with disabilities, people with psychiatric disabilities have our abuse and murders excused as treatment. Our families feel justified, or at least are told they are justified, in abusing or being complicit in the abuse of us. After all it isn’t just Autistics being shocked at the JRC– young people with psychiatric disabilities are also sent there. Indeed, there is a whole industry around sending young people with psychiatric disabilities away to isolating and sometimes dangerous camps.

I am someone who takes the risks that comes with disclosure, but no one should have the choice to take those risks taken away. It has far too dangerous a set of consequences to take consent to disclosure away from the people whose privacy it would expose. Far too dangerous to take away the right to privacy of a group that must rely on privacy in order to both get support and to avoid discrimination.

I would encourage all of you to sign the petition that ASAN has written calling out the chairman of the committee for excluding the voices of people with psychiatric disabilities in a hearing that could very well threaten their rights. If you are in DC and are reading this in time*, please try to attend the hearing, even if you just end up in overflow**.

Our privacy, even if we chose ourselves not to keep it, is a right that no one should be taking from us. Talking about doing so, let alone having that discussion without us, is reprehensible.

_____

* I’m sorry I didn’t get this out earlier. I tried, but kept getting stuck on the endless examples that can be found of both how we face discrimination when we disclose, and how the language that is being used to justify the lack of People with Psych disabilities is used to justify other miscarriages of justice.

 

**I personally cannot make it- not only because it’s out of my budget to go to DC last minute, but also because tomorrow I have to go face the housing system to prove I deserve to keep the voucher that makes being not homeless affordable. So please, if you can, go; there are many of us who would like our voices or at least persons represented, but cannot make it ourselves.

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I Was One of the Scary Kids

Content note: ableism, stigmatization of Autistics and other PWDs, the Sandy Hook shooting

I didn’t want to write about the shootings at all. I knew a number of people (who I’ll link to throughout this post) and organizations would be posting and writing, working to counter the inevitable stigma fail that would happen. I even was keeping to commenting on the links of people I care about, people who I know and who I want to have these sorts of discussions with. Then, it happened. I’ll leave the critiques of the post gawker promoted to others, but I feel obligated to make a comment about some of the assumptions it is based on and promotes.

That comment starts with a declaration: I was one of those scary kids.

It’s not some great proud thing to say. It’s a truth, a truth that when I reveal it makes people behave differently. Admitting that you were a “scary kid” means that people heighten their bar of behavior for you even more than a simple disability disclosure does. It makes even normal responses to threatening situations take on a sinister light to others. Telling someone to back off goes from angry to a threat. Pushing away someone who feels entitled to your body becomes violence rather than defense from it.

It makes people suspicious. It makes people question your ability to accurately report crime, abuse, or health concerns. When you are a former scary kid and let people know, they don’t want to hire you in meaningful positions — or sometimes at all — they don’t want you living in their buildings, and they don’t want you learning at their schools. Your opportunities are curtailed. You are told all the things you will never do.

All of these are true of having certain disabilities to begin with, but when you add in a confession of having been one of those scary kids it is heightened.

I was a scary kid. It makes me sad, but only because I actually don’t like scaring people, though I often can’t tell.

Before the age of 14, I was the sort of child that service providers recommend parents to place in a residential setting — that is, juvenile mental health institutions. Parents were — and are sometimes still — encouraged to relinquish them to the state, who would willingly pay for this kind of care. My mother fought it, and demanded community based services and the training my providers needed to provide it. But she was pressured the entire time, and when I was reviewing her records last year I found boxes of pamphlets and packets that she was given to encourage my placement in those settings.

I also found her private journals about our lives at that time. These were journals she might only ever show excerpts from to a therapist, but were meant to be private accounts. It was scary for her. I cried when I read them, because it was horrible to realize that I had made my mother feel so horrible and hadn’t known. I had not realized that anyone would have interpreted my behavior in a truly scary way, that they wouldn’t see the same causes that I was reacting to.  But she was terrified in those pages — the ones she never meant for anyone but herself to read. Even in her advocacy work, she wouldn’t say that certain events were from my life, just that they had happened to “a young person” she knows. Even the things that she was terrified about.

In the pages of that private journal, she talks about the times I would charge at or by her. To me, I was desperately trying to escape a scary situation for me. To her, it was a charging at. I would throw things, and at the time didn’t have the impulse control to find soft things in a safe space. I never aimed at people, but to her I just had really bad aim. I screamed, and I said things that made little sense — I was scared and angry and frustrated that I couldn’t articulate it. These were seen as threats. When I was put in a scary situation, I would flail and push to try to get out of it — and these were seen as violence. When she left on trips, I was taken with her because she was worried what would happen if I was left with a babysitter.

Most of the episodes she chronicled for her private memory keeping were ones that she never saw the cause for. So many start with, “I came home from work, and Savannah…” It took me until into my twenties to be able to articulate what happened before — that her second husband had provoked responses and behaviors. How he would tell me I was fat, lazy, and that I would never be competent. How he would threaten me with sending me away.  How he did any one of a number of things that would set off my behaviors. There’s no coincidence that the behaviors dramatically decreased a year after he left- at 14, I even was off medication.

Not all the behaviors were triggered by him — some of them were reactions that I didn’t know how to handle internally. Some of them were because of how my internal state from incorrect prescriptions made things harder to deal with. Some of them were from being unable to handle fear, frustration, and change internally. Change was a big trigger for me, and set off the start of my fear responses. I just didn’t have the skills to handle those states. I would go on to develop them, but I didn’t have them yet.

For me, those times were scary because of the outside world, because of confusion at people’s responses, and because of people using my being a “scary kid” as a weapon. To her, I was scary and she didn’t know and couldn’t predict fully why. She understands it now — time, observation of me growing up and learning, my finally being able to properly articulate what was happening for me in those times.

My mother doesn’t regret keeping it private, between her and her private journal or her therapist. Today she was at  a consumer and family advisory for our behavioral health managed care organization (BHMCO). They read that gawker article, and my mother was appalled. She has scary stories about me, but the idea of sharing them in a way that associated them publicly with me was a horrifying violation of privacy and good sense to her. She was struck by the negativity of the piece, of the author. And she noticed how it relies on and perpetuates stigma, and jumps to conclusions.

Having been one of those scary kids is scary.

It’s not scary in and of itself. What made it scary to have been one is what people assume based on it — and what they assume when you don’t disclose.

I’ve had people try to justify things from the JRC’s electric shocks to denying someone an integrated learning environment, to defend seclusion/restraint to “therapy” induced injuries and even deaths using my fellow former scary kids as their reasons. The kids with “significant disabilities.” The ways that other people saw my behaviors — things I didn’t know at the time- are the same things I hear from people trying to justify violence and isolation towards kids and adults with disabilities.

They also project forward to futures that are inaccurate, contributing to the problems that us scary kids face when we grow up. They say we will become criminals, or will commit violent crime, that we will be a danger to society. That we are “sleeper agents” of mass murder. They say that of course people who have had such and such a diagnosis, especially when you are also a scary kid, will do certain things or will never do other things. That we couldn’t successfully ever live on our own, that we’ll never graduate, never hold a job for long, will never have successful, healthy relationships. That we are doomed. And while not all scary kids have mental health disabilities (and not all kids with MHDs are scary kids), those who have developmental disorders with the right behaviors are lumped in.

When I- and others who are autistic, have Mental Health Disabilities, or both — talk back with truth, we are denied. When we talk about how having xyz diagnosis doesn’t mean we will do stuff, when we point out that we aren’t mass murderers, we are shut down. When we talk about how yes, mental health reform is important but that it shouldn’t come out of stigma, coercion  and false equivalence, we are told that we are calling other scary kids lost causes. When we point out that we don’t have enough information, we are dismissed. When we disclose, we are called too close to the issue. Even when our mothers join us.

In reality, only 5% — or 1 in 20 — of those in jail for violent offenses entered jail with a diagnosable condition. The other 95% did not present as diagnosable on entry. Most of those with diagnosable conditions are there on non-violent and drug offenses, including a number of which are a symptom of a lack of supports rather than their conditions themselves. Some estimates place the rate of Mental Illness at 50% of the inmate population, and yet only a very small percentage are there for violent crimes.

In reality, these impressions of us make us targets of crimes. People with “Serious Mental Illnesses” are more than twice as likely to be a victim of a violent crime. We are targeted for sexual assault, particularly if we are or are seen as women. We are likely to feel stuck in abusive relationships, or to have people use our diagnostic status as justification for abuse. And that is just the violent crimes  — we are astronomically more likely to be victims of personal theft, and 4 times more likely to be victims of property theft.

In reality, the stigma and stereotypes that people are promoting mean discrimination in employment, in housing, even in healthcare and courts. It means having people turning their backs on friendships and relationships when they find out, even if you are relatively stable now, even if you have the supports that make it irrelevant. It means people leaving if you have a setback that they would stand by someone without your diagnostic history for.

It is facing stigma, or hiding from it, sometimes at great cost. I certainly made a lot of poor choices based on trying to hide having been a scary kid, even when I wasn’t hiding having Mental Health Disabilities.

Being a Scary Kid isn’t certain doom.

They told my mother and I that I would never graduate high school and I’d never get into college. Some speculated I’d need to live in a group home or a more intense, and that I’d never live on my own. Some thought I’d get sucked into crime based on my psych history alone. Some said I’d off myself before I turned 18, 21, or 25.

I graduated high school — my siblings, the non-scary kids, dropped out and either have or are working on their GEDs. I even aced a number of classes, and other than my last semester (which was sucked up in depression) was pretty much tops. I’ve had some unsuccessful attempts to live on my own in the past, but those had to do with daily living skills more than being scary. Right now I’m living relatively successfully on my own, even if it did follow a period of homelessness. I did get into college easily, even if I had to drop out for a mix of financial and ADL deficit reasons. I’ve never been in jail.

I celebrated my 25th birthday in August. I am alive, and though my health isn’t the best I am surviving and working towards my own personal wellness.

I have little in common with the things they assumed. My scary is now just the normal stigma that any of us, autistic, with mental health disabilities, or both, face. I do struggle, but not in the ways that were assumed when I was a scary kid.

Being a scary kid is just that — having behaviors that scare people when you are a kid. It doesn’t mean you have a particular diagnosis or neurotype. It isn’t predictive of being a mass murderer or anything else- heck, a lot of the people who are mass murderers, diagnosed with something or not, didn’t reach the heights of being “scary kids” when they were younger. Not scary the way I was, or others were.

When I point out to try not to link scary kids to criminal violence, particularly of the mass murder sort, I’m not saying that services and supports aren’t needed. I’m saying that they would be even if we never had a massive violent event. I’m saying none of us are doomed, if only we combat stigma and prejudice at every chance, be it ableism, racism, or classism that we are talking about.

When I tell you no, I mean that none of us are lost causes.

Stimming in Public (and Breaking All the Rules)

I recently put together a video of me Stimming in Public. Regardless of the reception (which has been great!), it has always been intended as an ongoing project for this year.

If you have been following me on facebook, you might have already seen the video I recently put out. In it, I document myself stimming in public spaces during my recent Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC trips, all set to “America” by Orphan Songs. (I really liked the song, and feel so glad that the artist had it up for Attribution and Share Alike use via Creative Commons.)

Some of it was organic- I was there, and happened to think of pulling out the camera on the train, at baggage claim at BWI, and at the Baltimore Waterfront. Others were planned in that I went there with the intent of shooting some video. I spent a long sunny day at capitol hill filming at the Supreme Court, the Capitol building, Library of Congress, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education. It was both exhausting and satisfying, not just as an art effort but also as someone who was made to feel scared of the potential actions that could be done in the name of these places.

(There are captions at youtube of the song, even if they don’t make it in the embed.)

This, as I’ve mentioned, was never intended to be a one-shot thing for me. I mean, I’m going to be doing the stimming when I’m in public anyways, so I might as well film it in case it does something positive for someone else, right?

Therefore throughout the year 2012, I’m going to be putting together a video of me stimming in public for every major trip. I’ll try to get some interesting/meaningful locations in when I can, but most of it will just be what I have access to since almost all of my traveling is for advocacy events.

Between now and July1st, I know I’ll be going to Harrisburg, PA; Chicago, IL; Seattle, WA; Woodburn, OR; and Detroit, MI. Later in the year I’m hoping to get back to Washington, DC and to visit family in the area of New York, NY; Wallingford and Hartford, CT; Providence, RI; and similar locations. (I’m really hoping on the CT-RI trip to get a chance to film with some people in front of the JRC!)

If I get more things scheduled later in the year, I’ll be filming at those as well. It’s basically an every-chance-I-get thing for filming these. I mainly will be doing them on my own, though I hope as the year goes on to be able to have multiple people in the shots with me. Indeed, I’d love towards the end of the year to have a chance to film a bunch of people stimming together at once. I think it would be really. . .  evocative, to end a series with a community together, when it started with me all by myself. But that’s just a thought, not a plan.

That is the project summary.

I don’t want to act like this is an idea that is exclusively mine. First of all, I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of it or do something like it. Secondly, all I’m doing is filming myself living life as myself, something I hope to have be a reality for all Autistics. It’s scary, but someday it won’t be. Someday I hope to meet young Autistics who were never afraid to stim in front of Authority, who never had to deal with the ableism it can be met with. Autistics who won’t have to make the choice between safety inside of their heads vs safety from people’s bigotry outside of it.

That being said, if you decide to do something similar, let me know! I’d love to see members of our community going out there and doing this if they feel so inspired. I feel like that would be something amazing to see.

Inside and Outside Safety

[Content warning: Mentions of violence towards PwD, both external and internal. Passing mention of the R-word and of a cat dying.]

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

 -Zora Neale Hurston

I think sometimes when we talk about “passing” versus visibility we forget what that really means, what it is really about. We forget that it means a choice between being safe in the out there instead of being safe in the in here.

It’s a process of making a difficult choice for some of us. Which will destroy us sooner- the violence that others do to us or the violence we do to ourselves? How long do we defend ourselves from the violence that other people send us before we end up destroying who we are inside? Can we live in a world where we can be safe in our own heads without endangering ourselves from the violence of others?

A number of people have written about what it is to internalize oppression- ableism in particular. There’s one phrase I’ve seen that always strikes me- “outposts in our heads.” The place I remember coming across it was at Amanda Bagg’s blog, when it was used- along with the Sally Kempton quote- as the title of a post. Outposts in Our Heads was a big deal for me when I first read it back in 2008. It helped me form into language the things I was noticing about my own experiences, my own terrors, my own damages.

When we internalize the messages that tell us we are unreliable narrators of our own stories, that we are “bad” and “wrong” when we exist as ourselves, it creates violence inside of us. It’s not the physical kind of course- though sometimes people do hurt themselves as a result of this “inside” violence. But that makes it no less violence, no less an attack on our beings.

The more I reflect on my own behavior and the writings of others the more I feel as though a lot of our passing comes from this violence that has been pressed inside of us. Our passing is  an expression, in part, of the thousand little insidious things we were taught.  To remind ourselves that we are wrong, that we are “slow.” To remind ourselves that we don’t count as humans unless we take these “lessons” to heart.

With those lessons is one that gets pointed to as the “reason” for them, why it is so “needful” for us to find indistinguishable. Why the parent I will sit next to in a meeting next week will tell me that they just want their kid to have a shot at pretending to be normal. The outside world is violent towards us when we don’t accept these things, sometimes in more obvious ways.

I don’t think we have to go far to “prove” them their theory on how unsafe it is for us. Neli Latson‘s arrest- Young, black, and Autistic Neli- is proof in an of itself, however much it is also tangled up in racism. The bullying of kids who rock and flap are constantly held up against the bullying of queer youth by some parents, the violence that both populations face sometimes used to outline how bad it is not to pass. Sometimes I even hear the statistics about how 70% of women with developmental disabilities experience rape and that is used as an example of why we shouldn’t be obviously disabled. (Sometimes I even hear this from people who would fiercely remind you that how a person dresses or what they drink doesn’t make them responsible for the violence done to them.)

These things are brought out time and again, these dangers of the world. And too often- particularly when it is our families rather than disabled people ourselves- the solution offered is to teach us to pass. To not behave or exist as we are. To make eye contact and don’t flap or rock in public or don’t jump at loud sounds.

The solutions offered to individuals too often aren’t to make it so police know what to expect from Autistics (as well as unknowing the stereotypes of race), to end bullying through truly inclusive practice, to teach people not to rape and sexually assault people.

We are told that in order to save ourselves from the violence out there we must do everything we can to look normal out there.

And when we do look normal out there, they pretend that no violence is being done to us. Too often, they forget the violence that they did or dismissed to make us this way. Too often, they will always dismiss that it left us with violence in our heads.

As time goes on I try to unlearn the violence that was taught to me. I try to uproot the strongholds that tell me how wrong and bad it is of me, how selfish, to want to be okay with myself. This process isn’t helped by living in a society that reaffirms that all the bad things are because I’m wrong, I’m deviant, I’m disabled and I dare to try not to hide from it.

In June, I attended the Allied Media Conference as a Co-track Coordinator of the Disability Justice Track with A’ishah of ResistDance. Admittedly there were huge chunks of things that were issues in the physical world- for example, some people not getting what “scent free” meant, or staff members forgetting that sharpies can be toxic for some folk, or how incredibly echoy and not sensory friendly having closing ceremony in McGregor was. But the biggest thing for me had nothing to do with my external environment.

It had everything to do with my internal one. I was working so hard at uprooting the ableism inside of me, and yet while I was there surrounded by movers and shakers and hopeful justice makers I found more. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon sitting in a corner, crying and rocking and holding my arms tight. My outside was safe enough- someone even gave me a tissue as they passed. But on my insides the violence I had worked so hard to uproot from my mind was taking over.

I was alone and unworthy and bad girl. Of course you are having a hard time, I thought, you are wrong at the most basic level.  Remembered directives of Stop Crying and This is for Attention isn’t it? and You are selfish for wanting to be safe and everyone knows that retards can’t lead.

I eventually got settled enough to move, to look for my mum in the Healing Justice Practice Space. When I got there, though, it was obvious in ways I couldn’t know that there was a violence happening inside of me to some of the healers. I had some tea, and Mariposa had me do medicine on my self by way of chalking protection at my wrists. It is protection from the elements of the outside that give power to the violence inside, she told me.

And I did come back to me, to knowing that I am worthy and human and deserving of existance. To knowing where those thoughts were pressed into me from. To knowing that it is a violence taught to me.

I won’t discount that the violence outside of me is painful. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t devastated when the neighbor shot my cat Tribble knowing that he was in training to be my therapy cat. I will never deny that there’s still a spot on my back that when pressed makes me panic, to think that my mother’s second (ex)husband is going to put me in prone restraint again. But I think that the most devestating is the ways that violence is pressed inside of me.

I’m tired of doing violence to myself inside of me to avoid the violence that could happen outside of me. I’m tired of having no safe place inside of me because someone might believe that the demonstrations of my disabled person-ness gives them license to grant violence to the external face of me. I don’t think it’s right to give in to demands that I pretend that passing doesn’t hurt me.

This afternoon, I’ll go shopping. At checkout, while I’ll smile at the register and answer questions from the check out person, chances are I won’t make eye contact. Chances are I’ll startle when someone shouts or drops something. Chances are I’ll flap in line, wander in a way someone else’s parent would characterize as aimless and pathological, cover my face or eyes or ears when things are “too much,” flinch when someone touches me in passing unexpectedly. I’ll stare and not be able to process a shelf display or two, and forget how much I need to get some bottled water because it looks like there’s so much stuff in the cart already.

And I will  be safe.

_________

This Post was inspired in part by “Dear ‘Autism Parents’” by Julia Bascom, as well as other writings of her’s at Just Stimming. I highly recommend going over there and reading more of her stuff. I also want to direct people to the writings of Amanda Forest Vivian at A Deeper Country whose writings have been helping to “percolate” these thoughts all summer.

This has been reprinted at Shift Journal.