Yesterday, CNN published an essay of mine on the Ethan Saylor case. Following the advice of some friends, I emphasized a classic point from disability studies: We are all, at best, temporarily able bodied. This hook seems to have worked as the piece is receiving a good readership.
For new readers, twitter followers, facebook friends. I also wrote an essay about Saylor for The Nation, in which I talked about other disabled people who ran afoul of the police, and what lessons we might draw from that. I actually have a large file now of cases like this. I’ve also written about what I’m calling the “cult of compliance.” I think disability cases serve as warnings for a general erosion of our civil liberties.
Here are several points that emerged from emails, comments, and just me re-thinking the issue as I re-read the essay over the day.
First – “People-First Language” – I don’t write my titles. Editors write titles that they think will drive clicks, because it’s all about getting people to start reading. If no one reads the essay, it doesn’t matter what it says. My editor (who I love, in case she reads this!) chose – “Justice for Down syndrome man who died in movie theater,” and that didn’t please a number of commentators focused on language. I’m glad people are talking about this, as I think it does matter when we begin by emphasizing on our shared humanity, and then raise the conditions that make us more or less distinct. That said, we use qualifiers before nouns all the time, “Tall boy,” “smart girl,” “blond walrus” “sick child.” The question, for me, is whether “downs” is an appropriate adjective. I don’t think so, but I’ve been having trouble articulating why Downs is different than other adjectives – even other diagnostic adjectives. Any thoughts?
P.S.: If you want to get people to change their speech, ALL-CAPS emails is a poor way to convince people of anything. Be nice out there.
Second – Blaming the aide: In the comments, a lot of people, ignorant of the case, blamed the aide. Of course other people, ignorant of the case, blamed the parents or the theater manager or the police. There’s a lot of blaming. People argue that she should have stopped Ethan from going back in the theater, she should have handled it different, she should have just paid for the movie. Related, people suggest that Ethan should never have been allowed out into “normal” society if he was so dangerous.
Actually, one of the points that Dennis Debbault made to me, in my interview, is that the family should have had a safety plan written out, and that the aide could have given it to the officers when they arrived on the scene. In fact, all families should have safety plans developed, as an aside, though if communication skills are good maybe you don’t need it written out. I don’t have a good safety plan and I’m thinking of how to fix that. But to argue that the aide must be able to physically stop Ethan from going anywhere, that it’s her job to restrain him, that it’s the mother’s job for thinking Ethan could handle “normal” society and should have just got Ethan a DVD …. well, that kind of talk needs to be stopped. The aide may have made mistakes, and no doubt regrets them, but she was advocating patience, she called Ethan’s mom for help, she was trying to do the right things. When the deputies arrived, she was trying to get Ethan to cool off and then was going to try again. She was young and perhaps inexperienced (I don’t know many details about her), but she didn’t cause Ethan’s death. People with disabilities need to find ways to fit into typical society, even when it’s hard, even when it’s disruptive.
Third – Blaming the deputies: Well, I do blame the deputies. But if you read the report, there’s no sign that this was a case of deliberate police brutality. There’s no sign that the police decided to teach Ethan a lesson, or got mad and violent, or otherwise did something glaringly wrong. Every witness says they stayed calm and professional. In some ways, it makes the case worse. If a deputy lost his or her temper and threw Ethan to the ground in anger, we could easily identify the culprit, the wrong action, and hold them accountable. But if, in the full calmness of reason, the deputies decided the best course of action was to throw Ethan to the ground, forcibly get his arms behind his back, perhaps put a knee on his back (that is contested by witnesses), and in that process asphyxiate him … it’s scarier. They thought they were doing the right thing. .
What does seem likely is that they either weren’t trained or ignored their training, which leads me to …
Fourth – Training: If the deputies were trained (my evidence suggests that training was offered in 2012) and ignored it, that raises a serious question about the remedy that most advocates in this case are proposing. Training is good, but training has to infuse an organization’s culture in order to have an effect. Training is really just the start. I’m hoping we’ll figure out more as the story goes forward.
Fifth – Media Narrative – At 8:00 P.M CST yesterday, the essay has 1200 Facebook shares. As I write this morning, it has over 11,000. (Facebook shares start at about 10 clicks on the essay to 1 share, with that ratio getting smaller as time goes on and people are referred by like-minded readers. Today will be closer to 5:1 is my guess, but CNN doesn’t release reader numbers). Last night, WUSA-9 ran another piece on the case on local news. More Maryland politicians have signed on, asking the governor for an investigation. In this era of 24-hour news cycles, for a story that so many of us despaired of ever making matter to a wide swathe of people, it’s exciting to see this story take hold over the course of August. A group of us have been fighting for months to make this story spread, and now it’s in the public consciousness. I’m going to speak on AM radio tonight and NPR next week.
And if Martin O’Malley really wants to be president, he’ll call for an investigation I think, as the ball is in his court.