Shifting Gears: March Blogging

I got a lot done on my book in February, but I got more done chasing big stories. Here are some:

They include disability and politics, job discrimination, higher education scandals, and more. I wrote some widely read blogs (1000+ is what equals widely read for me, in case you’re wondering). I feel like I had some impact, particularly pushing the Houston faculty senate slide viral, and breaking the story of widespread illegal clauses in HR forms. 
And now it’s time to give this month entirely over to the book (plus music and teaching and organizing a major expo and the release of a white paper on police use of force against disabled individuals I co-wrote. Ow. March is busy!). Blog posts will still come, but will be more of the “Here’s a link + 1 sentence descriptor” variety.
I’ll remain active on social media, and be plenty chatty. Just shifting gears here. Thanks for a great month!

Sexual Ableism, Facilitated Communication and Anna Stubblefield

It’s a story that the disability world has been following for months, if not years. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Review of Books published my thoughts about the Anna Stubblefield case, facilitated communication, sexual ableism, and the need for more complexity about disability in our rhetorics and our courts. Please read it:

I try to do a few things in this piece, mostly about the case, but want to highlight this side note about Facilitated Communication. Here is where I stand:

1. Facilitated communication received so much of the coverage, much of it nuanced, some of it despicably awful. The scandals from the 90s were real and terrible. But they weren’t worse than the “talk therapy” scandals in which children “recovered memories” of abuse that never happened. Somehow, talk therapy remains a fine method, untarnished by the earlier disaster. FC has never recovered.

In fact, FC’s scandals and talk-therapy recovered memory scandals seem much to me the same thing. Only everyone knows abled children can in fact speak for themselves, and many non-verbal disabled individuals are regarded as less than human.

2. I know people who use independent typing, and before that, they used facilitated typing. When they used FC, they’ve now reported independently, they were communicating for themselves. Therefore, at least some people must get to FC and are able to progress to independent typing, but are still communicating. This is a complicated string of conclusions, I suppose, but I don’t see how it’s arguable.

3. FC is still a vehicle for dangerous wish fulfillment. Parents and caregivers will continue to want to “cure” their children and discover the “normal child” hidden within. Any technology, therapy, or other intervention (think autism “cures”) trying to find the neurotypical within the neurodiverse is extremely dangerous. FC is at its worst when advocates said – there’s a fully normal person in there we just need to find! FC is at its best when it becomes a tool for a neurodiverse person to communicate as themselves, not as typical society wants them to be.

I spoke to a mom not long ago whose son is actually a lovely communicator with words, jargon, signs, and speech devices. At age 3, she did convince herself that he could spell, but it was the ideomotor effect, leading her to spell for him. At age 9, he’s communicating very well for himself. Both of these things can be true at the same time.

At any rate, I packed everything I could into this short essay, and thank you for staying with me.

Here’s an excerpt. Please read the whole:

What really happened between Stubblefield and D.J. is impossible to know. In the trial, D.J. was paraded into court by his family and his prosecutor, but the judge decided that the jury would not be allowed to see or hear him use FC to testify on his own behalf, accepting the opinion of psychologists that D.J. was mentally incompetent and therefore incapable of consent. The whole question of what is competence, intelligence, and communication lay at the heart of the case, but the judge refused to allow such questions in his courtroom. Instead, he declared D.J. “mentally defective,” based on New Jersey Title 2C:14-2 Sexual Assault. He rendered D.J. merely an object to consider, rather than a person who had something to say. At that point, the verdict was more or less assured.

The refusal to consider even the possibility that D.J. might be a person, able to move, to communicate, to desire, to consent, solidified the single story of the worst-case scenario. The jury accepted this narrative, grafting their own ideas about the undesirability of disability onto D.J.’s body. Reporter Bill Wichert interviewed a juror who “couldn’t understand” the relationship between Stubblefield and D.J. once she saw D.J. in court. “I was like … ‘You’re going to leave your husband and your kids for someone like this?’”

Side note: As possible, I’ll be encouraging people to tweet today my panel on medieval disability studies under the hashtag #MAA2016 #s13.

Boston Bound #MAA2016

I am heading to the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy to talk about disability studies. I have a peculiar relationship with the field, as my published work is in cultural history, focusing on Venice, political myths, narratives of materiality, hagiography, and the pre-modern Mediterranean world. My next book, though, will be on contemporary disability rights issues, as is most of my journalism. So I’m very pleased to be chairing a session in which I’ll have a chance to think about how my academic expertise and public advocacy intersect. Here’s the session:

Friday: 10:15 AM–noon: Concurrent Sessions

13. Disability Studies in the Middle Ages [Dedham]

Organizer: Kisha G. Tracy (Fitchburg State University) 
Chair: David Perry (Dominican University) 
  • John P. Sexton (Bridgewater State University) and Kisha G. Tracy (Fitchburg State University), “Disability Studies in the Middle Ages: Where Are We Now?” 
  • Wendy Turner (Georgia Regents University), “The Past, Present, and Future of Medieval Disability Studies” 
  • Moira Fitzgibbons (Marist College), “Managing Diagnosis in the Medieval/Disability Studies Classroom” 
  • Karen Bruce Wallace (The Ohio State University), “The Body That Is Not a Body: Wisdom’s Construction of the Impaired Body in the Old English Boethius and Anglo-Saxon Conceptions of Corporeal Form and Function” 
  • M. W. Bychowski (George Washington University), “Mad for Margery: Disability and the Imago Dei in the Book of Margery Kempe” 
5 short papers, and then … we’ll talk.

I’m particularly interested in thinking about the interdisciplinarity of pre-modern disability studies and glad to have colleagues from various disciplines on the panel.

Later today I will have a piece on “sexual ableism” and the case of Anna Stubblefield, published by the L.A. Review of Books, my first for them. I’ll update here with a link when it’s online.

Simulating Police Training – What’s the pedagogy here?

My friend RC alerted me to this piece on a police training simulator for learning how to reduce misuse of force when encountering autistic people or people with various mental disabilities. It touts the virtues of the virtual playback versus role-playing-based training.

Through the simulator, deputies are immersed in true-to-life scenarios — exactly the kind of situations they often find themselves in: A father calls the police because his bipolar daughter is off her meds and is destroying the kitchen; a man is wandering around a parking lot with a knife talking to himself; an angry young veteran, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, is walking down the middle of the street.

The simulator’s operator changes the scenario’s outcome based on how the deputy responds – and the system recognizes and records each type of response, whether it’s with a taser, pepper spray, a gun or verbal interaction. Just like in real like, no situation is ever the same

“The key here is decision-making. We can test and practice-decision making among deputies in a way that wasn’t possible before,” Lt. John Gannon said.
And Gannon can watch it all unfolding, as if he was on the call himself. He can see if a young deputy misses a knife sitting within arm’s reach of a suspect, or unnecessarily escalates a situation involving someone with mental illness. Then the supervisor and deputies can debrief, going frame by frame through the situation to discuss what was done right or wrong.

“How often do you have a chance to go back and see what someone did, see what someone missed?” Gannon said. “Rather than role-playing, rather than having them learn on the job, we can have them learn and make their mistakes here.”

A few thoughts.

  1. The pedagogy of police training continues to fascinate me. The police trainers I’ve talked to are often critical of the method but not empowered to try active learning models. It’s mostly talk at officers, dumping information in lecture format. 
  2. This simulator, like the more standard role-playing, is obviously active learning.
  3. I don’t see the evidence in this piece, although it’s interesting, that a simulator is better pedagogically than role-playing. In standard role-play scenarios officers work with actors who then go back after and debrief on what the officers did well or poorly in their decision making.
  4. Decision making in tense situations is hard.
  5. Finally ..
The piece concludes with this insight:

Lessons Learned:

Some of the same techniques can also help deputies when they are responding to someone with PTSD, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“You don’t always have to shoot, taze, pepper spray — sometimes talking works,” Deputy Shawn Walters said.

That’s true. The key is to take that insight out of disability-related training and apply it to every encounter, because people don’t broadcast their disabilities to the world. It’s why I’m skeptical of diagnosis-based training in general. It says: Apply these specific resources to specific cases.
I like police training models which use insights from the disability world to help officers fundamentally change the way they think. 

Threats to Academic Freedom: Guns vs Political Correctness Run Amok

Thesis: The idea that your students have guns will have a vastly more chilling effect on academic freedom than people asking for trigger warnings, less offensive language, or to be thoughtful about microaggressions. Coming soon from CNN.

(Update for new readers. Hi new readers! Here are some of my writing about Trigger Warnings and PC Culture – I’ve been writing about trigger warnings, political correctness, and safe space issues for almost two years now (starting with this CNN piece, but extending throughout my blog, including ‘trigger warnings are your friends.’).

NOTE: Revised for clarity and confirmation of authenticity. 2:00 CST, 2/23

This is from powerpoint slide with a bullet pointed list of advice for faculty members now that University of Houston students can carry concealed firearms. It reads:

“You may want to

  • Be careful discussing sensitive topics.
  • Drop certain topics from your curriculum
  • Not “go there” if you sense anger.
  • Limit student access off hours.
  • Go to appointment-only office hours 
  • Only meet ‘that student’ in controlled circumstances”
UH has confirmed the slide’s authenticity. Here’s the meeting page with attachments. Download the whole powerpoint. Here’s an image:

Description:” Red and white slide. Black text. 

Original source was this tweet. Bug me, not the tweeter. My sources were unclear why this post and the official slide were different, but I have had it confirmed that the above is the official slide that was shown at the most recent meeting. 

Adventures in Rhetorical Brilliance: Black Law Students of Georgetown and Scalia

I’ve been writing about trigger warnings, political correctness, and safe space issues for almost two years now (starting with this CNN piece, but extending throughout my blog, including ‘trigger warnings are your friends.’).

There are at least two different strains of critique of the notion of microaggressions on campus. One is from mostly male white semi-liberals who find the critique from the left discomforting. A second, though, comes from conservatives in academia who simultaneously deny that microaggressions are a real thing, while claiming that conservatives face microaggressions all the time.

I actually do think there’s plenty of discrimination against conservatives in academia, which is a problem, but it’s also useful to leverage these moments to talk about broader and more powerful forces like racism, sexism, and ableism.

Enter the Black Law Students of Georgetown law. First, conservative students complained that anti-Scalia discourse was hurtful to them. Then the Black Law Students Association performed a kind of rhetorical aikido I find impressive. Some quotes [emphasis theirs]:

We recognize that many in the legal community, including some in our own organization, mourn the death of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an influential and widely respected legal mind. We also understand that his passing has left many Georgetown Law students deeply saddened and we offer our sincere condolences to these students.

One particular email response from Professors Nick Rosenkranz and Randy Barnett decries the lack of intellectual diversity at Georgetown, citing the experiences of conservative students in the wake of Professor Gary Peller and Louis Michael Seidman’s emails:

Although this email was upsetting to us, we could only imagine what it was like for these students. Some of them are twenty-two year-old 1Ls, less than six months into their legal education. But we did not have to wait long to find out. Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor Peller’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for Justice Scalia and his admirers, including them. How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?

This paragraph could be edited slightly, inserting black students for conservative and libertarian students, and the effect would be the same.

In fact, this description is nearly identical to the lived and voiced experiences of many students of color at our institution.

Many Black students were also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry” as “22-year-old 1Ls” when the law school declined to make unprompted timely statements last school year regarding the uptick in racialized policing, law enforcement, and the lack of indictments of violent police officers.

Many Black students were also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry,” when fact patterns on a practice exam directly referenced the facts of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

The letter goes on with other examples, deploying the conservative students’ own words back at them,

If cultural and political conservatives accept that language has power (see: “War on Christmas”) when used against them, then all language has power.

So let’s get to work improving modes of representation and calling out microaggressions, wherever we find them.

Inspiration Porn: Don’t Take Pictures of Disabled People Without Their Consent

Some suggested rules for life as a good person:

  1. Don’t take pictures of disabled strangers without their consent.
  2. Don’t share the pictures you shouldn’t have taken to the internet without their consent. Their story is not your story to do with as you see fit.

A picture of a Kroger employee helping a blind customer has gone viral.

From the video:

Spotted this touching sight while shopping at the neighborhood Kroger. This visually impaired gentleman was waiting for assistance at the service desk. As we both stood among the Valentine’s Day decor and discount candy making small talk, the young man gathering carts in the frigid parking lot approached us. He introduced himself to the gentleman, and reminded him that his name was Colin and he would be happy to help him as he shopped.
Trying not to listen and completely eavesdropping at the same time, I found out that these two know each other; as Colin has helped this gentlemen, who is a regular at this Kroger store, many times. Without missing a beat, the two set off to Sunday grocery shop–together. With Colin guiding the cart and taking care to navigate the busy store as the two discussed his shopping list.

Trying not to listen. Complete eavesdropping. This is not good behavior.

From the article. Emphasis mine.

The woman, Ashlee Fujawa, who is the director of public relations for environmental conservation organization Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, happened to snap a picture of the interaction between Coleman and the customer. She later shared it on the organization’s Facebook page, where the post went viral as Coleman’s kindness resonated with social media users.

It just happened that she took a picture of two strangers and put it on the internet.

The employee and the blind man seem to have a good relationship. That’s lovely. Their story is not fodder for feel good inspiration porn.


Umberto Eco – Dead at 84

The Name of the Rose was my first glimpse into what it might look like to interrogate, depict, and perhaps even understand medieval culture. It started, of course, with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, in the movie, but I soon moved to the book.

It was beyond me. So much Latin. So much assumed knowledge. But I worked at it, and then worked some more.

People assume I became a historian because my parents are historians, which they are, but I went into my first medieval class with Eco (and fantasy books; but especially Eco) in my mind. I became a medievalist really studying intellectual culture in Oxford during my junior year, again thinking about the fictional William of Baskerville as much as the Grosseteste, Chaucer or Piers Plowman I was supposed to be studying (and Ockham, of course. Dear Ockham). Eco wasn’t the only influence, but as I actually began to learn things about medieval culture, I realized the depths that informed his fictional world.

His other books did less for me. Baudolino was fun, especially as he played with the fabrication of relics and set Nicetas Choniates, the Greek aristocrat, as the narrator. When it came out, I was in Venice, working on a dissertation on fictional (in the Latin sense of fingere, not the modern literary sense) narrative on relic theft, so again I felt Eco was my companion. It’s a flawed book, on literary grounds, but I relished knowing this giant was playing around in the same ideas and sources as in my scholarship. Noting the proliferation of heads of John the Baptist in my source material, I cited Eco’s protagonists who fund their trip back from Constantinople by selling fabricated heads.

Then I became a public writer; a journalist, of all things. Again, I thought about Eco, who spent so much of his year writing columns in an Italian newspaper, successfully merging his role as a distinguished scholar of medieval semiotics, a novelist, and a public intellectual. I thought – though I am nothing like him, he shows this transition is possible. I can be a medievalist in public, and perhaps something that I know might be useful.

Umberto Eco died today. In a young year already so filled with the deaths of cultural creators who matter, I find myself uncommonly moved, reflective, and sad. There are and will be many and better obituaries, but here, on this Friday night, are my feelings.

Rest in peace. And thank you.


There’s a new hashtag campaign around saying the word “disability.” It is initiated and led by my friend and writing companion Lawrence Carter-Long. I am wildly in favor. I am trying, in my writing this year, to write the sentence: “There are no special needs, only needs” as often as possible.

We all have needs. Needs vary. Needs require different kinds of resources to meet. We all have needs.

Here’s a great recent post from “E is for Erin” on the tag.

There’s a social media campaign going on right now to #SayTheWord – it was started by Lawrence Carter-Long, the Public Affairs Manager for the National Council on Disability, and is an active Twitter hashtag. The word, of course, is disabled.The importance of this campaign is driven home to me over and over again as I see people performing ludicrous and painful contortions to avoid saying it. Reminder that when I make a criticism the way well-meaning people interact with disability, I am not attacking the people (parenthetical reminder that I was immersed in ableism myself not long ago), but inviting people to think about things in a different way.
Instead of saying disabled, nice people say things like:

  • differently abled
  • handicapable (yes, really)
  • physically/mentally challenged
  • special needs

It’s that last one, special needs, that I really want to take aim at, because I believe that seemingly innocuous phrase does serious damage to disability rights.

It’s an excellent post. I also quite like, for those not already familiar, Lydia Brown on “identity first language” and Lisa Egan on “I am a disabled person.”

Update: Brown (in a comment that isn’t showing up. Thanks Blogger!) says: See also, my post on differently-abled as a term: 

De-escalation for Law Enforcement in Park Ridge

Nice article in the local paper on de-escalation training for Park Ridge law enforcement.

Last year, a U.S. Justice Department grant secured by the Park Ridge Police Department allowed for officers to take crisis intervention training, a program that aims to prepare officers to deal with citizens struggling with a broad spectrum of mental health disorders, said Deputy Police Chief Duane Mellema.
The training, Mellema said, is largely aimed at de-escalating tense or potentially dangerous situations through communication techniques. Some of the things officers are taught include showing empathy, speaking slowly and calmly, and taking time with the individual.
“If a person thinks you are bothered or in a hurry, you’ll have a hard time communicating with them,” Mellema said.
Out of 39 incidents last year that involved police response to a situation involving mental illness, all but one was handled without the use of force, Mellema said. The single incident in which force was used involved an intoxicated man who was subdued with a taser because he was walking in traffic on Dempster Street and attempting to get into cars that were stopped in traffic, Mellema said.

Two caveats:

1. Median home value in Park Ridge is $378,000. It’s a gorgeous, wealthy, place. Great schools. If we ever decided to move to the north suburbs (which we might, for commute reasons) and our income increases significantly, we’d try to move there.

That means this is NOT a place where race, poverty, and disability intersect in policing. It’s easier to work on single-factor places. It still matters as one of my arguments is that the intersection of disability and policing can lead to terrible outcomes anywhere. It’s also important to call this out as atypical.

2. “If a person thinks you are bothered or in a hurry, you’ll have a hard time communicating with them,” – That’s true in every encounter. These findings need to be universalized, not compartmentalized to just mental-health cases.