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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Cripping the Mighty

I have on occasion read posts at The Mighty. Recently, an editor at the Mighty contacted me and I allowed the website to post a short version of what I had written about Donald Trump here at Bad Cripple. A link to the original post: I had serious misgivings posting an edited version of what I had written on the Mighty. I have long believed the vast majority of posts at the Mighty were dreadful. The site itself has always been a mystery to me. They are a well-funded start up with over a dozen paid employees. They do not pay contributors. The site struck me as obsessed with numbers. They claim to have 80 million readers. The tag line is "Real people. Real stories. We face disability, disease, and metal illness together". In reality the Mighty draws on two different audiences: first, it is a site for parents of children with disabilities and complex medical needs to vent their frustrations and seek support. Second, it relies heavily on inspiration porn to draw readers who know nothing about disability. A third readership exists. A small minority of people with a disability in an effort of good will try to express the importance of disability rights. In my opinion, this minimal nod to disability rights exists for one reason--it negates a disability rights critique of the Mighty. The bottom line is the Mighty reinforces well-worn negative tropes, cliches, and stereotypes about disability. Suffice it to say I am not at all impressed.

The Mighty churns out copy at an impressive rate. They have mastered the art of click baiting and, at no cost, vacuuming up posts from the rich world of disability based blogging This is a for profit enterprise whose mission is at odds with the disability rights. The disability rights movement does not resonate among those who know nothing about disability. Disability rights does not generate good will. There are no feel good stories. No one is inspired. Indeed, disability rights is perceived to be a costly and unfunded federal mandate. Institutions such as secondary schools, universities, federal buildings such as post offices and courts should be made accessible. The key word is should. All sorts of myths surround the ADA. Inaccessible buildings can be grand fathered in and are exempt from being made accessible. There is a hazy idea when it comes to access for people with a disability it is a matter of choice. If it does not cost too much then out of the goodness of our souls non disabled people will make access possible for people with a disability. All this, of course, is wildly wrong. Enter the Mighty to fill the void and make non-disabled people feel better.

People with a disability tolerated the Mighty. It bothered us. I read the Mighty infrequently and its existence did not bother me. I have seen first hand how hard it is for parents of children with disabilities and complex medical needs to live a life style resembling typical. I have visited various group homes some of which were a disgrace. I know the social supports for people with a disability are being slashed continually and are inadequate. I read about people with a disability who are reliant on Social Security and the Byzantine rules and regulations that keep people on the edge of poverty. It is a punitive system. As one who travels on a regular basis, I encounter inaccessibility in every city I visit. Inaccessible mass transportation abounds and flying on any airline is a deliberately humiliating process. I check in and out of multiple hotels and motels that are supposedly accessible but are not. Barriers abound, both physical and social. None of this is of concern or of relevance to the Mighty. The word that comes to mind is oblivious. All this changed on December 20 when the Mighty posted "Introducing Meltdown Bingo". The response to this post was swift and angry. I have no doubt the editors at the Mighty were stunned by the response. The post was quickly taken down and an apology posted. Link: The apology only fueled criticism from the disability rights community. Let me be very clear here. The individual who wrote "Introducing Meltdown Bingo" is far from fault. The post, as many have noted, was the straw that broke the camels back. No criticism should pointed to the author. The fault lies squarely with the editorial board at the Mighty. The post in question indicates how estranged the editors are from the disability rights community and the ill will they have been generating for over a year. The editor in chief, Megan Griffo, asked what could the Mighty do better. The Mighty asked for input from people with a disability. They got exactly what they wanted. The response was intense and long simmering animosity spilled out. Things got nasty real fast. I have refrained from expressing my reaction until the last 48 hours. The Washington Post took note of the controversy and has published two articles.


The initial story, "A Disability Focused Website Ran a Funny About Autism--Outrage Ensued", was not bad. It simply laid out what took place. The second article, "Writing for the Mighty, For My Son and with My Son", was misleading ableist propaganda. I was deeply offended. The author, Lauren Swick Jordan, is raising a son with autism and it is clear she views disability from the narrowest of perspectives: her life with a son who has autism. She individualizes disability. Disability is all about her individual experience as a mother raising her son. She reflects exactly what the Mighty proclaims itself to be: about real life and real experiences. This by itself is a huge program. Life with a disability is not about a corporate tag line created in a boardroom office with no disability representation. Individualizing disability is inherently destructive. Disability is first and foremost a social problem. The Mighty taps into the isolation of individual parents and empowers them to vent about how hard life is for them. I get this. Life with a disability is hard. Raising a child with a disability is hard. I  openly acknowledge this and ask the all important why? Why is parenting a child with a disability hard? Why are such parents isolated? And why is life with a disability hard? Life is hard because social barriers abound. Elementary schools often segregate kids who need "special education" from other students in a myriad of ways ranging from isolated resource rooms and "special transportation" in the form of a short bus. There is nothing special about kids with a disability. They might navigate the world differently or do not learn at the prescribed rate schools demand. Like their typical peers they are just kids. The issue is never the individual but rather the system that alienates the child and parent.

Swick Jordan needs a history lesson. Disability rights exists because of people with a disability that realized the barriers, social and physical, they encountered were a form of oppression. I recall reading the Body Silent by Robert F. Murphy in the reading room of Columbia University famed Butler library. I laughed, cried, and felt a range of human emotions like never before. As a newly minted cripple  for the first time I knew that I was not the problem. I was not damaged goods even though that is how I was treated. I was the same person I was before I was paralyzed. I was a human being. There was nothing inherently wrong with my body or brain. It was a life altering revelation. On that day in the reading room I knew all I was taught about disability was wrong. I had a social disease, a potentially deadly social disease. In the proceeding decades I have learned much about disability rights and history. It is a grim history that is not taught in secondary schools nor at most universities. Most importantly the history of disability is never about individuals with a disability. Disability is about a class of people who have been abused in horrifying ways. We people with a disability have been forcibly institutionalized. Hundreds of thousands of people with a disability have been sterilized against our will. To this day people with a disability remain on the margins of citizenship to borrow the title of Allison Carey's excellent book about intellectual disability and civil rights in 20th century America. Disability disturbs others, typical others in a way that is used to justify the rampant abuse people with a disability have experienced in the past and present.

When I read Swick Jordan I was disheartened. The enemy in her estimation were adults with disabilities. I am not sure which is more upsetting, her unquestioned privilege or demonization of those who champion disability rights. For Swick Jordan "The Mighty is wonderful". Furthermore there is a Face book group "I have been honored to be a part of, where contributors for The Mighty share ideas, stories, and support for one another. It has been a safe place, with a strong feeling of community. This has not been the case, however, since just before Christmas". She went on to write "Suddenly, on the Mighty Contributors Facebook page, I was seeing all these terms I had never heard of before: “inspiration porn,” “mommy martyrs,” “pity party writing,” and “#crippingthemighty” – a name given to the movement of protest. This group was furious about the post, and most posts written by parents, as they told us “nothing about us without us,” — one of the mantras of the disability movement". I understand the avalanche of criticism must have been a shock and upsetting. I get this. I regularly receive hate email for my opposition to growth attenuation and assisted suicide legislation. Yet it seems to me if Swick Jordan had never heard of the terms she mentioned I would take to the internet and do research. A wonderful world of disability rights oriented literature exists that is easily tapped into. The problem for Swick Jordan was that: 

"all of us “mommy bloggers” were collectively scolded by this disabled community. Suddenly, there was a published list of rules we were to told we must follow by the protestors, otherwise, they said, we are disgracing our children (if we should write at all, that is). That we can not be our children’s voice, and we can never know what our children are living through. That we need to listen to them – they are trying to teach us all something – and it’s time to shut up and learn. And do not respond, or you will be ripped to shreds. I saw it happening in this previously very safe, very comforting community. And it was splitting this community in two".

To reiterate, I appreciate the harsh comments directed at contributors to the Mighty were hard to take. Nothing good comes from hurling insults and hurting others. But in stating she was "terrified" to write from the perspective of a parent who had a child with a disability involves the basic question: who is she is afraid of? I can only conclude people like me who forcefully advocate for disability rights. She plays the part martyr: she is the all loving, compassionate mother who selflessly works to enhance the life of her son with autism who is harshly attacked by people with a disability. This attack is splitting the community apart! Spare me the misleading rhetoric. The split between those with a disability and the non disabled parents raising a child with a disability has existed for decades.

As for the so called rules, this is grossly misleading. There are no rules forced upon "mommy bloggers", a term I never use because it comes across as demeaning. Alice Wong (and other vocal critics of the Mighty such as S.E. Smith, David M. Perry, and Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone), has posted a resolution. This is a resolution not the imposition of rules as is implied. The resolution seems to me to be quite modest.

I am deeply sorry Swick Jordan is terrified. I understand her intent is good and that she does not want to hurt anyone. Yet the fact remains much of what the Mighty has published is in fact hurtful.  The Mighty will never change because it was and remains a "place where parents refer to themselves by their children's diagnoses, as though they have become entirely subsumed  by their children's disabilities, another way to signal that  they're utterly burdened. (Autism Mom, Kidney Mom etc). Its a place of shocking disregard for disabled people, unsurprisingly, and includes rather a lot of actively disabilist content". These words were penned by S.E. Smith and are spot on. The Mighty undermines disability rights in a way that reminds me of most universities and academic organizations I have worked with. Disability is always a once off. It is not about a class of people subjected to baseless social discrimination. This is a perfect way to disempower individuals with a disability. This is why the Mighty's focus on the individual is inherently damaging to people with a disability. 

In "Looking Back at #CrippingTheMighty" Crippled Scholar wrote:

The Mighty despite its stated aims (helping disabled people) is really a safe place for parents of disabled children and avid consumers of inspiration porn. Changing the site to be in line with actually helping disabled people would alienate its largest reader base.... They would no longer have venture Capitalists throwing money at them and their ad revenue would be less. The people who most often frequent The Mighty do not want to learn about disability, they want to have their preconceived notions confirmed. Disabled people who have ventured into the comments sections on the Mighty have found themselves attacked. If they point out ableism they are told to be forgiving and to understand that people just don't know any abetter, if they are not dismissed outright. These people don't want to learn, they hold up their ignorance as a shield. These people are also not ignorant internet trolls. They are not arguing for its own sake or to harass, they do it out of a genuine sense of righteousness.Link:

The Mighty is not at all about disability. It is all about asserting dominance. The Mighty has a axe to wield. Their axe centers on a profit model that is unique to the disability community. The voice of those that do not toe the party line will be quickly dismissed. Hence I love the line ignorance is used as a shield.This is, of course, misleading and dismissive. The Mighty relies on the antiquated notion we should be kind to the handicapped.This so called kindness is in reality a form of oppression. While I do not like it, the Mighty is laughing all the way to the bank. The only voices not heard are those that believe in disability rights. The word that comes to mind is despicable.  


Dr Margaret Kennedy said...

Brilliant! As a disabled 63 year old due to a rare neuro-degenerative disease in Republic of Ireland I never felt so 'dis' -abled until I had to interact with non -disabled so called health care workers. The crucifying disrespect, the annihilation of disability rights ( Ireland has NOT. Ratified the UNCRDP) , and the appalling denigration and abusive so called 'care' is worthy of nazi germany! My simple attempt just to get a decent powered wheelchair plunged me into suicidal hell! So when I read 'the Mighty' I am pulled right back into that quagmire of oppression that is the entrenched position of most non-disabled people's mindset! That we must either be 'inspirational' which usually means non -critical of non-disabled mindset but to adapt, overcome, achieve despite the obstacles or grateful buggers for what scraps those non -disabled politicians and in Ireland, HSE ( health services) give us! Down with oppression! All oppression. I will NEVER shore up the non-disabled disablist mindset that is perniciously erosive, abusive and annihilating.

Glee said...

I call this Power Warm Fu$$y Addiction (PWFA)

People with PWFA are usually non-disabled service providers, bureaucrats and Charity Organisations, parents and most of the human race who are addicted to the Power they have over a bunch of vulnerable people and their allies. They love it. 

They are also into the warm Fuzzies they get when their friends, acquaintances and even strangers say "Oh THAT'S SO WONDERFUL that you work with THOSE PEOPLE", "I couldn't do that. I admire you so much for the work you do" and "you're a saint" and also when they get awards (Fuzzies) from the government and rich people and poor people. 

I changed the word to Fu$$y still pronounced Fuzzy because those who are involved with people with disability in a work capacity love their pay day. Millions of them make billions of $ off our oppressed bowed backs and if they let us straighten up they might be out of a job. Can't have that! 

And Addiction because they would deny all of the above and because they are so frightened of losing their power warm fu$$ies.

They will bust their guts to maintain this hideous status quo.

Fabulous blogpost Bill. Thanks :)

Unknown said...

The Mighty practices temperamental discrimination. Some bloggers, whom I have identified as a variety of temperaments, have had their content changed to suit the temperamental pattern of The Mighty. I am an autistic ChlorSan.

Unknown said...

Lucy Gwinn of the former MOUTH magazine called them "do-gooders" and had "Warning" stickers in neon colors, that said "do-gooder" zone ahead!" Really a great article, and while I was once a martyred mother, I was goaded, challenged and yelled at by amazing people with disabilities until I got itYou have to shift perspective; its not about you!