Humanities and the Death Penalty – The Lennie Standard goes to SCOTUS

When I talk about the immediate relevance of the humanities and its skills to contemporary life (which I do), I always like to bring up Of Mice and Men. In Texas, people who are intellectually disabled are considered eligible for the death penalty only of they meet the “The Lennie Standard.” Now that’s being reconsidered. From the New York Times:

In 2002, the Supreme Court barred the execution of the intellectually disabled. But it gave states a lot of leeway to decide just who was, in the language of the day, “mentally retarded.”

Texas took a creative approach, adopting what one judge there later called “the Lennie standard.” That sounds like a reference to an august precedent, but it is not. The Lennie in question is Lennie Small, the dim, hulking farmhand in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

The Lennie in question is fictional.

Still, Judge Cathy Cochran of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in 2004 that Lennie should be a legal touchstone.

“Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt” from the death penalty, she wrote. “But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?”

Judge Cochran, who later said she had reread “all of Steinbeck” in the 1960s while living above Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif., listed seven factors that could spare someone like Lennie, whose rash killing of a young woman was seemingly accidental.

In other words, Texas is asking prosecutors, juries, and judges to engage in an act of literary criticism in order to decide whether to kill someone. 

In a recent review of The Secret Life of Stories, Michael Bérubé’s recent book on narrative deployments of disability in literature, I wrote:

Throughout, Jamie Bérubé is present. Jamie’s discovery of what stories are opens the book. Jamie’s continued contemplation of stories reappears throughout, either explicitly or implicitly. In the final pages, I suspect he is especially present during a sober discussion of Lennie Small, the disabled character in Of Mice and Men. In the state of Texas, Bérubé reminds us, a disabled individual can be sentenced to death if their “mental capacity […] exceeds Lennie’s.” Suddenly, how we interpret literary representations of intellectual disability becomes a literal matter of life and death. Bérubé writes, “the interpretive stakes are always high when the subject is intellectual disability, because the stakes are ultimately about who is and who is not determined to be ‘fully human,’ and what is to be done with those who (purportedly) fail to meet the prevailing performance criteria.” I can’t prove that Bérubé was thinking about his son when he wrote that sentence; I can only tell you that as I read, I was thinking about mine.

Now in Moore v Texas, the “Lennie Standard” will come up before the Supreme Court. SCOTUSblog has the documents. The New York Times piece quoted above summarizes the history of the case and the various opinions behind it.

In the end, here’s the real legal question: Do judges and juries get to decide who is not disabled enough to be killed or do medical professionals?

My position: Judges and juries are biased. Medical professionals, likewise, have a pretty dark history when it comes to assigning diagnostic labels. So let’s just end the death penalty.

Bad Disability Journalism: Autism as “Genetic Devil”

Notes: Ableism and extremely stigmatizing language follow.

Note 2: Looking for autistic responses to this piece, if any. Mostly folks I follow on Twitter just seem tired and really, what else is there to say? Let me know if you see something I should link to here to signal boost.

UPDATE: @Erabrand on Twitter produced an angry thread. Quoted at the bottom of the post with permission.


The San Diego Union Tribune has published one of the worst pieces on autism that I have seen in awhile, right up there with The Guardian’s my autistic son is going to kill me piece. Both pieces report on the intense fears of parents of autistic kids. I believe that those parents genuinely said the terrible things that they are quoted saying, but argue that the ethics in journalism mandate two possible options.

1) Quote the parents, but also quote autistic people.
2) Don’t write the piece at all

I lean towards one, because I think it’s important to track and report on attitudes, even hateful and harmful ones. But as a journalist, one’s job is not DO MORE HARM through one’s reporting, but to provide context and nuance. I want journalists to take these extreme perspectives on disability with the same care that they might reporting on an ardent racist or sexist. You interview. You quote. You try to understand where they are coming from. But you do not write their narrative without framing it in a responsible way.

Instead, we get this:

Rene is not a criminal; rather, a crime has been committed against him by a genetic devil called autism. It’s an affliction that seems to be growing in society like mushrooms under an autumn moon.
Causes and cures are still elusive, although experts have learned a lot about this complex group of brain disorders over the years.
Autism is a disease with a broad spectrum of symptoms that can start in the womb and last into adulthood. In one common definition, it is “characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.”
That’s putting it more nicely than it deserves. You can bet Sonia didn’t write that.

Genetic devil.

This should never have been published. It’s a sign of a bigoted opinion columnist without editorial oversight, in large part, I suspect, because ableism isn’t even recognized as a real thing by vast swathes of the public.


@Erabrand’s reactions start here:

Disability Rights and Reproductive Rights

Elizabeth Picciuto and I collaborated on a piece in the Los Angeles Times today on abortion and disability rights in the age of Zika. Two key paragraphs:

We are parents of children with disabilities who are also pro-reproductive rights. David Perry’s 9-year-old son has Down syndrome. Elizabeth Picciuto’s 6-year-old son has Cri du Chat syndrome and microcephaly. Rather than limit women’s rights, we believe we must build a more understanding, accessible society that supports people with disabilities and provides services to parents. That’s how we can safeguard access to abortion while ensuring that it isn’t the only feasible option following a prenatal diagnosis.


The answer isn’t to force pregnant women to give birth. The best way to open up new possibilities for women after a prenatal diagnosis is to guarantee that disabled children are well-supported with the services they need, that they have adequate medical care, and access to great schools. If the Rubios and Pences of the world really want to make a difference, they could work to ensure that communities are empowered to welcome and include disabled people, not to shut them out.

Please read the whole thing!

Some of my previous pieces on reproductive rights and disability rights:

New Triggers; Old Triggers – University of Chicago edition

In an unforced error, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago published a letter welcoming students to the university by telling them there would be no safe spaces or trigger warnings at his fine institution. The letter went viral, and we returned predictably to the same conversations we’ve been having about this for two years. On the one hand, people from Chait to Coulter decry trigger warnings as signs of mollycoddled youth and a sign of the death of America. On the other, more sensible people say that while sometimes administrations leverage student speech requests to punish freshmen, the practice of treating students with empathy in fact creates the possibility of speech from more diverse voices.

Anyway, we’ve been through this before over at How Did We Get Into This Mess.

Here’s a great piece by Kevin Gannon, including a copy of the original letter.

Here’s a key tweet run by Eve Ewing.

This morning, the Dean walked it back a bit, because the Dean has no authority over what the faculty do really.

My thoughts:

It’s not that student speech requests aren’t sometimes an issue, but they are way at the bottom of things that worry me. Here are two issues at the top:

And of course it’s really about power.

Here we go again.

Ableism is: Two Basic Readings

Today I’m part of a workshop on how Dominican might develop more curriculum around ableism. I’ll be talking for about 5 minutes on my basic definitions of ableism – focusing on violence – and then participating for a few hours in a group effort to propose a set of linked classes. It’s just the start of what I hope becomes a real institutional effort to engage with ableism throughout our curriculum.

It’s a new conversation. Usually, conversations around disability on my campus are about disability ON my campus, not the major societal individual and structural acts of discrimination that cause so much hardship, and I’m very much looking forward to the collaboration.

Here are my two basic readings from two of my favorite autistic , one new, one old.

1. Lydia Brown: Ableism is not “bad words.” It’s violence

Brown writes, in the wake of Sagamihara –
The Sagamihara attacker was targeting the disabled residents of the institution.
He told police, “I want to get rid of the disabled from this world.”
Don’t you ever fucking dare try to say, “but who could hate the disabled?” to me again.
Don’t. Dare.
We are not some innocent angels untouched by the realities of the world around us.
We are not unaware or oblivious to the existence of others, let alone of hate.
We know hate and we know violence, because it is written on our bodies and our souls.
We bear it, heavy, wherever we go. Ableism is the violence in the clinic, in the waiting room, in the social welfare lines, in the classroom, in the recess yard, in the bedroom, in the prisons, in the streets. Ableism is the violence (and threat of violence) we live with each day.

Language is part of ableism, just as language is part of racism, sexism, anti-LGBT ideologies, and more. But in the end, the language leads towards violence of all sorts.

2. Julia Bascom: Quiet Hands

1.When I was a little girl, they held my hands down in tacky glue while I cried.
2.I’m a lot bigger than them now. Walking down a hall to a meeting, my hand flies out to feel the texture on the wall as I pass by.
“Quiet hands,” I whisper.
My hand falls to my side.
3.When I was six years old, people who were much bigger than me with loud echoing voices held my hands down in textures that hurt worse than my broken wrist while I cried and begged and pleaded and screamed.
4.In a classroom of language-impaired kids, the most common phrase is a metaphor.
“Quiet hands!”
A student pushes at a piece of paper, flaps their hands, stacks their fingers against their palm, pokes at a pencil, rubs their palms through their hair. It’s silent, until:
“Quiet hands!”
I’ve yet to meet a student who didn’t instinctively know to pull back and put their hands in their lap at this order. Thanks to applied behavioral analysis, each student learned this phrase in preschool at the latest, hands slapped down and held to a table or at their sides for a count of three until they learned to restrain themselves at the words.
The literal meaning of the words is irrelevant when you’re being abused.

We’re just at the start of our conversation on ableism – not just at Dominican, but globally – as it moves from within disability communities into broader discourse. Curriculum can be part of that.


Crusades Imagery and Modern European Racism – The Crying Templar

Modern xenophobic Europeans have adopted medieval crusader imagery for their cause.

As a medievalist, and more specifically a historian focused on imagination, memory, narrative creation, myth, and political culture focused around medieval crusading, I find this at once worrying and fascinating. Fascinating because it replicates many of the medieval processes by which crusading became a vehicle for articulating identity; troubling because it’s an identity partially dependent on the use of violence against non-Christians, including within Europe’s borders.

Which brings us to the crying Templar, courtesy of writer Saladin Ahmed on Twitter:


A badly drawn image of a lightly bearded man in armor, with blue line meant to represent a tear coming from his right eye. You can see the red-top of his crusader cross on his chest and a sword on his back.

The text is partial (and I haven’t found the source), but includes a series of statements about the medieval context taken directly from medieval myths about crusading, with a final anti-refugee pivot.

>be raided, enslaved, rape, murdered,and conquered for 500 years
>your homelands suffer from destitute poverty because of the constant sea raids destroying naval trade and transport routes
>Byzantium is begging for help, southern france is easy picking for slavers, Spain is conquered and france is invaded, churches are burned and nuns are raped en masse in conquered cities, southern italy and sicily live in fear
>call upon nobles, peasants, the poor and rich alike to put an end to the centuries of oppression and evil and retake the holy lands that are dear to you
>sell your lands, your estate, your everything to buy armor, a sword and enough food to make it halfway across the world knowing you won’t return but believe in the cause of justice
>lose hundreds of thousands of good men for over a hundred years in perpetual war
>a thousand years later your ancestors piss on your grave and bend over for the very people you traveled through hell itself to stop.

It’s a little funny, but only in the scary way because of the implicit requirement for militarization and the dangerous “clash of civilizations going back millennia” myth. Al Qaeda, interestingly enough, deployed similar historical perspectives.

Previous coverage of modern myths around crusading here, here, and here.

Disability Advertising: Nike and Kyle Maynard

Prosthetics are everywhere in advertising these days. They look “cool.” They don’t bother typical society (advertising is all about playing to the center, I suppose, when it comes to big brands). They are easily understandable and explainable. They feed our technophilia. After the 2015 Superbowl, I wrote (in a longer piece on inspiration porn):

Finally – and I know this post has been long – what is it with prosthetic legs right now and marketing? Do they rest in some kind of “canny valley,” in which they are just strange enough and new enough to be cool, but not so odd to fall into the “uncanny valley?” I’m not sure.

I’m still not sure, but I like the idea of the canny valley. This ad below, though, is supposed to make you feel a little “uncanny” at first, and gives you a narrator who reacts askance at a disabled man on a mountaintop. The climber responds with sarcasm and just keeps climbing. From Nike:

I had mixed reactions. At first, like the person who pointed out the ad to me, I didn’t like the paternalism in the narrator’s voice, and I hated the “Limits are only limits if you let them be” tag in the video description. Then I watched a few other ads in the “unlimited” series and realized that the whole schtick is a disembodied sarcastic narrator telling people they can’t do things (i.e. telling a kid they can’t race Usain Bolt, they can’t skateboard down a giant San Francisco (I think) hill, etc.) and the people on the screen, the agents, dismissing the naysayers.

What I like about this ad is it’s not just throwing in a person with a prosthetic to look “cool,” as has happened a lot lately, but it really is a disability narrative.

Sports ads – the you can do it! – are often inspiration porn for disability, poverty, whatever. Hardship narratives. Overcoming! That’s the genre.

I think, given the genre, this one is pretty good. What do you think?

#CultOfCompliance: Disabled/Deaf People Killed for Non-Compliance and Disability Erasure

Two disabled men were killed by law enforcement over the last few days. Details are still emerging. 
Both seem to be relatively young white men. Daniel Harris, in Charlotte NC, was Deaf and communicated via sign language. Joseph Weber, in Hays KA, has not been identified by diagnosis, but a local source tells me he was autistic.

A few weeks before that, a Deaf black man, Darnell Wicker, was killed in Kentucky.
All the news coverage of Harris and Weber seem to mention disability in the headlines and ledes. Almost none of the coverage of Wicker mentions disability, and certainly none of the headlines/ledes
So there are two issues: 
  • One – police killing disabled people for not complying. 
  • Two – media coverage of police killing disabled people for not complying. Disability is often erased, and especially so in cases of people of color (who are most likely to be the victims of police misuse of force). 
On the language issue, I spoke to Vilissa Thompson, creator of the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag and an essential writer in the disability community. Strongly recommend making her RampYourVoice a regular read. Vilissa told me:

The erasure of Wicker’s disability in media coverage doesn’t surprise me because it occurs not only within journalism/reporting, but also within the Black Lives Matter movement when the police incidences involving Black disabled people fail to provide this important aspect when discussing the injustice committed.

The disability status of Black disabled people, from Korryn Gaines to Sandra Bland, are omitted for reasons tied to racism and ableism, and it must be addressed. To erase someone’s disability status is both oppressive and offensive. To see it constantly portrayed regarding the lives and deaths of Black disabled people shows that we as a society do not value Black disabled lives, or the disparities they endure from having multiple marginalized identities.

There is work being done between Black disabled/deaf advocates to call out and demand that the experiences of Black disabled people who are victimized and murdered by the police receive the proper coverage that does not ignore their disabilities. This also calls for the experiences of Black disabled people to be fully included within activism conducted among Black liberation groups, disability advocacy groups, and other entities that seek to eradicate oppression and violence. We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand about the experiences Black disabled people endure when it comes to the police – that purposeful exclusion is harming and damning to those of us who hold these identities.

When it comes to the police use-of-force issues, my overall position on the issue of policing remains: disability-specific training is not the answer to these tragedies, only the implementation of police tactics that do not respond to noncompliance, on its own, as a threat justifying the use of lethal force. While new details may emerge, in each case police approached the situations in ways that did not take into account the likely presence of disability. Presuming the possibility of disability has to be built into the standard approach.

Here are links – 

On Harris:

Detectives say Trooper Saunders and Harris got into “an encounter” before he fired his weapon. Neighbors say Harris’ car spun out of control and was shot almost immediately after exiting the vehicle.

They say Harris was likely trying to communicate with the trooper using sign language before he was killed.

On Twitter, there was speculation that Harris may well have been trying to get to his home where someone could support him with communication, which seems reasonable to me. I’m waiting on a formal comment from experts within the Deaf community and will update here.

UPDATE: Talila “TL” Lewis, co-founder HEARD, wrote to me in an email:

The trooper wreaked havoc on Daniel Harris’ car, as evidenced by the videos taken in front of Daniel Harris’ home immediately following the encounter. Regardless of whether someone is Deaf, there is good reason to be fearful of police encounters, especially when they begin with this kind of violence. Relatedly, people with disabilities and Deaf people have a heightened awareness of just how easy miscommunication can occur with police officers who are enraged or in a rush.

In the past, Deaf and disabled people have been known to call family members, friends, interpreters to the scene of a traffic stop or other encounter to facilitate communication. This is Deaf and disabled people’s way of compensating for police officers’ lack of fluency in American Sign Language and lack of Deaf/Disability cultural competency. And so, it is not difficult to imagine that if Daniel Harris was in fear for his life, that he was trying to get to the one place where he knew there was effective communication access–his home–which really was just a few very short minutes away.

For more on Deafness and police use of force specifically, see this joint ACLU/HEARD project. The inability to hear shouted commands places Deaf people especially at risk. The Cult of Compliance, generally, is a cross-disability approach to thinking about policing (and our culture more generally), but it’s worth pausing as well to consider each diagnostic profile and set of risks. Police must – under Title II of the ADA – be prepared for all of them.

On Weber:

According to a release late Thursday by the Ellis County Attorney’s Office, Weber was stopped for a traffic infraction and failed to obey the officer’s commands. As additional officers were called, he sped off from Plaza Avenue and made his way to Timber Drive.

There, the release said, he got out of his vehicle and again failed to obey commands of the officer. The officer fired a shot, hitting the 36-year-old. He died at the scene.

On Darnell Wicker, killed on August 8th. Wicker was carrying a knife and a saw. He did yard work in the area, so perhaps that’s why he was armed, but there are also reports that he kicked in his girlfriend’s door and they called the police. Either way, police must offer reasonable accommodations to disabled people they want to arrest. 

Malone and Proctor said the graphic body camera footage was difficult to watch. They said it was difficult to understand what happened because Wicker is not seen in the video until he collapses on the pavement after being shot multiple times.

“I don’t know about anybody else but it didn’t tell me nothing,” said Malone. “From my perspective he shouldn’t have been gunned down like that.”

“I looked at it a while ago and it just hurt me. My heart is full of tears right now for him,” said Proctor. “When they hollered ‘put the knives down’ I know he didn’t hear them so I know that was a tragic mistake, killing Lawnmower Man and Bicycle Man like that.” 

Family and friends have said Wicker was deaf in one ear and suffered from hearing loss in the other. Proctor said Wicker often relied on reading lips, adding that she was concerned that he might not have understood the officers’ commands.

During a news conference Monday evening Chief Conrad responded to the concerns saying, “The officers were in very close proximity at the time and they were very loud and very clear in their commands to drop it.”

I have not done a thorough survey, but here are some headlines on Wicker that I’ve found:

Disability, when present (and it’s so often present), needs to be part of our standard narrative – not just for media, but also for the professionals tracking police data, for the activists working on reform, for the policy makers, and just generally in our conversations around policing and society.

Thanks again to Vilissa for her contribution and work on this subject.

Bad Disability Journalism: Writing about Obesity and Disability Without Talking to Anyone Obese

Suggestion to health reporters: If you are writing about a condition, make sure your reporting includes people who have that condition.

From Quartz: How obesity became the new face of disability in America

The article opens by comparing “lean” hikers to obese former steel workers in Colorado, then interviews doctors, economists, and public health officials, but no actual disabled people. It would be better reporting to actually talk to the people being written about. Ask them about their lives, their ideas, their concerns, their happiness, their efforts to change or not.

Medicalizing Candidates – Clinton Nods

The current right-wing anti-Clinton meme is that she secretly has epilepsy (as evidenced by her nodding once and as evidenced by her needing support from aides while walking up icy stairs in heels). From that central meme, others have emerged, finding fertile ground in the segment of our country desperate to disqualify Clinton from the presidency by any means. I’m not linking to any of the main coverage, but it’s all over FOX and, I’m told, is dominating the alt-right media (Infowars, etc.). 

Here’s a Washington Post piece on Hannity’s prime-time “story” on Clinton’s health.

Every night this week, Fox News’ Sean Hannity has drawn attention to a story that was largely debunked before Monday morning. Again and again, Hannity has summoned a “Fox News Medical A-Team” to probe the claim that Hillary Clinton has serious medical issues, covered up by a press that won’t demand her medical records.

Hannity’s crusade has given the theories of a looming Clinton health crisis their highest-profile airing. A year ago, when Republicans hoped that one of several younger candidates would win their nomination, jokes about Clinton’s age and health were rampant. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the Democratic nomination fight looked like “an episode of ‘Golden Girls.'” The Washington Free Beacon ran jokey investigations of a photo that showed Clinton holding the back of a chair, asking whether she was using a walker. (She was not.)

With Trump’s recent moves hiring alt-right media leaders to help direct his campaign, we’re going to see a lot more of this coming out. It’s been permeating Trump’s recent speeches (“short-circuit” is, I think, code for epilepsy).  Stay tuned.