Swamp Monster Betsy Devos: Nominee for Secretary of Education

Going to protest the possibility that Betsy Devos could become the Secretary of Education of this country tomorrow at BMCC in lower Manhattan. Watch her avoid responding substantively to any questions about equal protections for all students who have disabilities, who suffer bullying, who take out student loans, who are taken advantage of by for-profit career colleges.
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Here are some of the reasons why I’m demonstrating tomorrow:
  • Devos is a dominionist, which means she believes in Christian education and doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  • She is a billionaire whose family has funded anti-LGBTQ social actions in the South
  • She is pro-charter school, pro-privatization, pro-voucher (which Senator Hassan (D, NH) in the first video pushes Devos to say she will make available to students with disabilities, instead of signing away their rights to protections they have now), anti-public school and anti-protection at the federal level of fair and decent public education for American children
  • She still has not completed her ethics questionnaire and thus has dodged the proper vetting procedure needed to evaluate her fitness as the country’s lead figure in determining education policy
  • She has never worked in a public school as an educator or an administrator
  • Her work has signaled a desire to protect corporate profits over the needs of children of color, children with disabilities, children who are poor, children who are non-Christian, and other children whose civil rights have consistently been compromised and attacked historically
  • She clearly is unfamiliar with federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and debates about “growth” vs. “proficiency” (see the Franken video)
I love this last exchange in the first video:
Hassan: “I would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and I do have to say, I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and that you seem to support voucher schools that have not honored, you know, have made students sign away their rights to make sure that the law is enforced. That’s very troubling to me.”
Devos: “Senator, I assure you that I, if confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.”
Hassan: “And with all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high-quality public education, and the reality is that the way that the voucher systems that you have supported work don’t always come out that way…”

The objects of our mission: disability and subjectivity in social media

A friend of mine wrote an article recently about an interesting phenomenon in the ubiquitous conversation about social media: the use of the Internet to access voice, subjectivity, and visibility in new virtual spaces. The article refers to a mildly ironic story of a Russian website, “Dvach,” which in the past has opened up space for misogynistic attacks by regular citizens on women who been in pornographic movies (no men were pursued in the witch hunt, I’m guessing), yet whose comment boards have recently given rise to a different, more socially progressive outcome. Evidently, a woman calling herself Yelena Ovechkina who lives in Kazakhstan posted a video on YouTube about her life as a real live PWD (person with a disability). She speaks to the camera during the video, stating “invalids are people, too.” The article wrapped up with an important idea:

Ovechkina says she loves the Internet, especially because it lets her reach out to fellow disabled people and learn more about their lives. But most of the information available about disabled people is depressing, she complains, and that’s why she decided to record videos about her own life, which she says is a happy one. “I want to show the other side of disabled people’s lives. After all, it’s not all lousy, hard, and sad,” she says, smiling.

The story is a poignant one about the ways in which public opinion shifts via the ticker tape of information on social media, as it translates into awareness of different ways of being. A single user on Dvach drew the attention of the other participants on the site to the video, and the connections made across the world included tributes and well-wishing. Of course one can comment that social psychology plays a hand; who hasn’t seen a Facebook post that they liked because they thought they should participate in some sort of ethical box-checking not unlike signing a yearbook in a certain way because you know others will see what you wrote (or didn’t)?

Still, the story is meaningful and important, not least because of Ovechkina’s comments about her life with disability. She is a real person with individual experiences in disability, someone who has subjectivity in her experiences and her ways of articulating them. It is easy to make assumptions about others as they are represented to us by media or by hearsay, something which is particularly complicated when we think about people who are depicted as the downtrodden, the lost, the pushed aside by society.

I experienced similar changes to my understanding when I wrote a blog as a graduate assistant at UMass Boston a few years ago. Every week, I posted about different topics regarding inclusion in the workplace, as well as the community(ies) who participate in the conversation about disability in society. A powerful shift in my own thinking came gradually, as I realized that it’s one thing to post on/about and another to dialogue with ideas and people, and that positionality is central to the construction of truth in the public space. Did I think I speak for people with disabilities? Did I choose to represent them, and if so, who was I to do so? How did my representations contribute to (mis)information, and how could I be more interested in acting as a moderator or facilitator than simply a conveyer of a version of truth that kept me in a posture of authority while the people I was writing about were simply my latest subject?

An example of alternative authority and subjectivity in such speech is called Autistic Hoya, an eponymous blog written by a young person who identifies as “queer, trans*, asexual, fat, disability, gender, and sex positive; anti-oppression, anti-imperialism, and anti-racist; and inclusive of, accessible to, and affirming of all bodies/minds.” Autistic Hoya has published since 2011 on a number of topics related to a critical view of dominant paradigms, forces of oppression, and injustice enacted through ableism in American society. Yet also, the blog, like Ovechkina’s YouTube video, expresses the real voice and real face of a real person with disabilities. It is not seeking pity or attention. It is speaking to express one lived experience in a shared space where norms are highly dynamic and ideas pop and splash constantly.

This is the remaking of power relations and definitions through access on a new stage to an audience that didn’t know it wasn’t listening. Attending to this construction of meaning in fluid spaces of sharing and dialogue demands that the self-righteous banner of saviorism be lowered and real action, through listening and interrogating assumptions, become possible. While we in the able, dominant groups believe we have a mission, it may not be one which includes the voices and leaders it should truly have.

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PHOTO BY SUE AUSTIN

Whitewashing disability

Apparently, today ends National Patient Accessibility Week, a fact which I didn’t know in spite of my experience over the last couple of years in the disability world as a graduate assistant at the Institute of Community Inclusion, a member organization of UMass Boston founded on a diversity of missions and a collective force of intellectualism and commitment to social change. Disability organizations often focus on the prejudice people with disabilities struggle with over other social issues – such as racism, poverty, and so on – which makes sense. In my work and nowadays, the glossing over of other intersecting issues would bug me; more often, I would simply note them and move on. Today I just couldn’t.

Sun Life Family Health Center, a health care provider based in Casa Grande, Arizona, put a photo campaign on Facebook to bring awareness to National Patient Accessibility Week, which is great. However, upon a moment’s reflection, you’d swear the ad was made in the 1950s. Two blond, slender, pretty white women are engaged in conversation; the younger of the two is holding up a paper for the elder woman, who smiles and sits in a wheelchair, to see. The latter is wearing a silky, elegant blouse, with her hair equally soft-looking and coiffed; you get the feeling that these women really get each other, as though in another life they were family or friends.

Statistically, people with disabilities have a higher poverty rate than average people in this country (click here for more information related to socioeconomics and disability), and are certainly not well-represented by a wealthy-looking white woman looking the picture of health except for her poor body. People with disabilities come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and it is just as likely – though much less reassuringly Barbie-esque – that they will have other health challenges in addition to their disability, especially people who are non-White. All of this not to mention the fact that people with physical disabilities tend to be the group the general public feels most comfortable with and historically have used to represent disability, in contrast to the harder-to-categorize subgroups of people with cognitive, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. We don’t know how to feel about people who are homeless in general (are they lazy? are they unlucky? are they unwell? is it the system?, etc.), and we tend to look askance of people who break the law and are incarcerated; however, in both instances (see here and here, respectively), the rate of disability tends to be much higher than in the general population.

We cannot whitewash these people, those multicolored, often lower-income folk, the worst-off of whom shift between existence in psychiatric institutions, prisons, and the streets, so it’s often easier to sweep their stories away from the public eye and focus on the easy stories. The veterans. The kids who get into accidents. The pretty white women who still show up with a smile on their faces, the poor dears. The fact that the photo showed women who were most likely models doesn’t excuse the choice; in fact, it’s more of an indictment. How about not worrying about the marketing involved in getting new clients with disabilities (one of the goals of a health conglomerate like Sun Life), and considering the fact that money spent on these Disneyland, myopic views of people with disabilities could be better spent on raising awareness of what disability really is and who people with disabilities really are?