01 May 2009

Suicidal Ideation

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2009

At a recent presentation I did for instructors in my college I told the story of being an undergraduate student in a creative writing course. First I said that the course was really good, and that one of the stories written for that course eventually became a 'chapter' in my novel. But I told my assembled colleagues that what I most remembered was my first day in the class.

"Everyone come up to the board and write the title of a short story you'd like to write," the professor said. One of those innocuous ice-breaker activities creative instructors are so fond of. I stayed in my seat. "C'mon," he said, looking at me, "everybody." I still stayed. I do not like to introduce myself to people through my hand-writing. It creates an immediate impression that is often impossible to recover from ("I have a four year old nephew, he makes letters just like you." "What are you, dyslexic or something?") He looked at me again, "I really need everyone to do this." I groaned, got out of my seat, walked to the board, picked up a piece of chalk, and drew an "X." And then I sat down.

I told this story, at the end of a presentation on making online courses accessible, to illustrate a key point about making all courses accessible. I referred to this as "humiliation from the start," doing things which, on first meeting someone, humiliate by forcing undesired, unplanned disclosure of differences which impact how someone might be seen by the group. Later, in the elevator, a prof said, "I really learned something about those ice-breaker exercises, I never thought," he paused, "and I should, I teach our diversity course."

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

If you're a regular reader here you've heard this before, and you've heard the story which follows as well.

Recently, flying Delta Air Lines back from London, walking (badly) with a cane, I fell at US Passport Control. Other travelers, not the US Officer, ran to my assistance. A bit later, at the luggage area (with no seating) I fell again. This time my Delta flight crew literally stepped over me in their rush to get out of the airport.

What makes one feel a part of the world, a part of a community, a part of a school, a part of a place?

Since I wrote for BADD last year I have a lot of things I feel very positive about. I'm in a wonderful relationship with a wonderful woman. My kid is doing great.My family in general is doing great. I've made some big progress in my PhD program. I've presented internationally, and successfully. I've taught pretty decently. My Toolbelt Theory gets used more and more.

But still, I rarely am comfortable in any way. I rarely feel a part of what has become my world. Often, too often, I am uncomfortable enough that the thought of leaving creeps into the corners of my mind. Why is that? And, if I feel that way - and I'm pretty damn lucky - what about others?

This isn't about the anger I expressed when I wrote of "Retard Theory." And it is not about getting even with anyone. It is, instead, about all the ways we choose to divide ourselves, and to hurt each other.

When I sat in that class above, or in many others - including some in my Special Education PhD program - or as I lay on that floor at JFK airport, I was being separated from humanity. And when you are separated from humanity, life looks pretty grim.

In my education I read too slowly, even with literacy software, and I struggle staying on task, sticking with schedules, meeting the artificial deadlines of semesters. This makes me "a problem" for the school. Got to finish in a certain number of years, you know - the rules. Now I walk too slowly too. It takes me too long to get from here to there. If I wanted to get food during a 15 minute break in a three hour class I probably couldn't make it there and back. Outside of school, the guy in the DIY store races away from me trying to lead me to the door hardware section. Half the area's restaurant's have no handicapped parking spots. Other car park spots are too narrow to allow me to fully open my door, which is the only way I can get out. "We're too small," I'm told, "It would be a burden."

And with each of these I am diminished as a human, I am separated from the herd.

The instructor for a required course runs her classroom like a frenetic TV game show, setting off both panic and a migraine in me, driving a woman with a visual impairment to despair. I flee after session two, but the gap on my transcript remains an issue. The airline offers me a choice of a wheelchair or being accompanied through the airport by my companion, I choose to walk, and I fall, requiring numerous new medical experiences.

about 7 minutes in, you begin to see the classic school experience for struggling children

With every step then, the labels descend: dyslexic, ADHD, handicapped. I'm not against labels. Labels can confer interesting information. But when labels are used primarily as a method of discrimination...

I look around. I have been preaching the word of assistive technology in schools for a dozen years now. During that time the technology has gotten better and better as well as cheaper and cheaper, and yet, if I walk into a school I will not see it. I will instead see "special" students begging for handouts from schools which seem committed to the prevention of independence.

I look around. I see counters too high. I see elevators far away from traffic patterns. I see clueless clerks in banks. I see police and legal personnel untrained in human diversity. I see non-readers virtually unable to apply for aid. I see "standardized tests" and a "commitment to accountability" being used as an excuse for acts of terror against children. I see governments doing 'the legal minimum.' I see no enforcement.

I see a normalist culture, an ableist culture. A culture which wants faux diversity - where people might look different, and eat different foods, but really all do things the same way.

Do I see a future? I don't know. On my good days I imagine employers who will welcome me for what I can offer. On my bad days I see people looking at me and seeing nothing but problems. I have wandered among jobs, among places, among nations, among interests, searching for the place where I did not feel "stuck outside." A place where success would not come with the qualifier, be that, "Super Retard," "Super Gimp," or the only slightly crueler, "that's great for you."

What would that place really look like? I remember, as a kid, walking down streets, looking in the lighted windows of homes in the night. Wondering, is that family normal? What does normal feel like? What's it like to be like 'everyone else'?

What would that place look like? I don't know. But I'm guessing it would be the place where the "Exit" sign no longer lit a corner of my brain. Where it's red light no longer interrupted my sleep.

- Ira Socol


Simon said...

Hi Ira --

I don't know whether you'd remember me at all (I was one of the kids in the Holland writers' group, went to BR) -- and if you did it would be under a different name --, but I wanted to let you know that I came across your blog via the disability blogosphere a while ago and was needless to say pleasantly surprised to internet-see you. I'm working toward teaching, and I feel like much of what you write here ought to be in pedagogy textbooks.

This post pretty much punched me in the gut. The questions of what it would be like to be normal, what it IS like to be invisible, experience compulsory humiliation -- close to home, as I expect they are for most PWDs. I'm fairly recently disabled, about a year since diagnosis now, and only just now getting into the thick of exactly what ableism is going to mean for the rest of my life. Here's to turning off the exit sign.


irasocol said...


I do remember you and it is great to reconnect. I'm also thrilled that you are heading into education - a place we need the most diverse set of voices.

I really did not write this to depress - instead, I needed to say it so I could deal with it - a selfish post indeed, but that's what blogging is for.

Email me if you can. I'd love to catch up.

- Ira Socol

Deven Black said...

I work in a middle school and the students here are all at that peculier age (but what age isn't peculiar?)at which they try to and are also afraid to establish their identities as individuals.

I think every single one of these kids looks around and thinks "What does normal feel like?"

It is my fervent hope that these students learn the most importand lesson I can teach them: that when it comes to people there is no such thing as normal.

imfunnytoo said...

You don't know me but I found your post and blog through Blogging Against Disablism Day.

When I was an academic (25 years ago, never finished, and later in call center jobs I always thought of myself as juggling all my impairments against the ableist expectations...and yes, I ultimately failed to do so...

The inside of yourself that comes through in this post...I feel that way often, and I loved the post.

rachelcreative said...

What a wonderful post. Such beautiful expression of such ugly failures in society.

Rae Andrews said...

Ah, that Exit sign. I see it too, and like you I wonder why - there are surely worse off people than me in the world so why should I see it ? You have coined the concept perfectly.

Nancy said...

Beautiful, poignant post, Ira. It helps me to be remind of what my students' days are like.

Like Spedteacher, I teach middle school. Every few years I put up a bulletin board the says "Great minds think differently..." with pictures of famous people who were famously non-traditional learners (Einstein, Edison - even a few pop-culture icons like Tom Cruise, who is said to be dyslexic). My students always find more to add. Perhaps next year I'll be really bold and use this quote from Spedteacher, "when it comes to people there is no such thing as normal." That should get an interesting discussion started!

v said...

I'm not invalidating any of what the narrator said. I want to say that there are all sorts of ways people react to humiliation brought on purposely or accidently. There are those rare individuals who are innately incapable of being humiliated (unfortunatley I am not one of them). Then there are those who refuse to be humiliated because they act out violently against their humiliators. If I had been in a similar situation as the creative writing class, at the age I am now, I would have continued to sit with a smile and just politely waved my hand for the professor to continue. Or i would have motioned for him to see me in private if he pushed things. I would have said something like 'I just want to sit back and observe at this point'. He still didn't get it? I exit and take it up with his superior or I don't take the class or I tell him I need to talk to him later in private and explain to him my situation. People like him I feel aren't that difficult to deal with- they just don't know. It's the people who try to ridicule/humiliate you on purpose that get on my nerves. At times I have had positive experiences where I was not considered normal, but above normal, so I can draw on those experiences when the haters come around. Because of those positive experiences I can speak up for myself and not care (most of the time) what the herd thinks. Is it too late for the narrator to have those kind of bolstering, positive experiences that would allow him to be angry but not want to exit? I think if you are always swimming against the current if can be tiring. Why hasn't finding an understanding community been enough to put out the exit sign?

Never That Easy said...

I think this is a beautiful and poignant post. The exit sign exists in my mind as well, sometimes flashing brightly, mostly dimmed and hidden, but always still there. Here's to losing it altogether.

Anonymous said...

i'm interesting in building resilience in children that can withstand multiple fronts of stress.