Some Notes on Disability and Body-Positivity

Disclaimer: The following is based upon my own experiences as woman with recent experience of physical disability. Please do not assume that my experience is exactly representative of all disabled women. If there is a disabled woman in your life, the best care you can give her is to be discovered by listening to what she has to say about her own experiences.

One of the most important strategies for coping with disability and illness is maintaining a positive attitude. This is not only fairly obvious to most observers, but also conforms to standard medical wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s also a hell of a lot easier said than done, in part because people with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, are constantly bombarded with messages of varying levels of subtlety that tell us our bodies are less valuable than those of people with perfect health, and that our accomplishments will always matter less, and that our relationships will always rest on a fragile foundation because of conditions that may be out of our control.

Unless you live under a virtual rock and just emerge occasionally to read blogs on WordPress (which might be a really healthy lifestyle, given the net these days), you probably use some service on the internet which tracks information about you: an online retailer, an email service, social media, online news sources, or any one of a variety of other websites that keep track of who reads what and what interests might overlap. The ads you see and the links with which you are presented are often selected to match specific data about you (sometimes with hilariously wrong assumptions – Facebook in particular is known for this). If you have a disability, chances are this information has made it into some kind of data aggregator and affects the messages you see.

These messages are crafted primarily for the groups in the world who possess privilege: white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, prevalent-religion-following (Christian, in the USA), vernacular-speaking (English, in the USA), wealthy, employed, non-single men. Some messages are specifically crafted for a group that changes one of these categories; the easiest example to find is advertisements targeted to a female audience – though even those usually contain messages that point women in the direction of pleasing men in some form or other, and conforming to male-dictated standards. Racial diversity is becoming more common in advertising and promotion, but still has a tremendously long way to go. It’s still a huge deal when a homosexual couple or family, particularly one raising children, is shown in advertising.

And here’s where intersectionality becomes important. When advertisers only have 30 seconds to get their message across, they don’t prioritize positivity toward not just women, but transgender women of color with disabilities, just to give one very complex possible example. Even simpler examples, combining only two of these categories, are hard to find in commercials in ways that really matter beyond basic representation (which is a vital step, but not the be-all and end-all).

As a disabled woman, I am constantly presented with “feminist” and “body-positive” ads that show women’s bodies being “amazing,” doing things that I can’t do. I see an ad of a woman running a race or climbing a mountain, and I’m told, “see, your body is incredible.” And the message underlying that, to a disabled woman, is “your body would be incredible, if it could do this; as is, sorry, that kinda sucks.” I am presented with “reasons you know your marriage will last forever,” that consist of “because you do X thing,” that… I haven’t been able to really do in years.

People around me see these messages as well, and it affects their attitude toward me and my body. This contributes to the fact that, when I use a wheelchair, employees at a grocery store tend to talk very! Slowly! And! Loudly! In! Small! Words! As if, because I am in a wheelchair, I can’t understand their speech.

It is very hard to maintain a body-positive attitude about my own body when I am constantly told by society that my body is lesser than other bodies.

Disabled bodies are not lesser than other bodies, any more than darker-skinned bodies are lesser than lighter-skinned bodies, or than female bodies are lesser than male bodies, or transgender bodies are lesser than cisgender bodies, etc.

I’ve seen this discussed in many an article, and most of them stop there. I’m going to continue by giving some positive examples of attitudes and expressions toward a disabled person’s body.

The degree to which I am currently disabled is a relatively recent development, and so it’s something that I’m still getting used to, both as a concept in my head and as a practical living situation. It hasn’t been easy, and I know I haven’t always made it easy for those around me. I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by supportive family, both family of blood and family of choice. These people have helped me maintain something of a positive attitude, though it is still a daily struggle for me.

I have friends who tell me I look great when I show up wearing the new outfit I’m excited about, or when I’m dressed up for Renaissance Faire. They don’t focus on what today’s mobility situation might be. They tell me I’m fun to be around, to do things with, and reassure me when I wonder aloud whether my lack of mobility sometimes holds them back from doing things.

I have parents who tell me they’re proud of me, and who are proud to point out ways I look like them.

On the front lines of this fight with me, every day, is my husband. He tells me I’m beautiful, and when I sometimes stare at him incredulously, he insists, “Even though you may not feel it right now, you are beautiful.” He doesn’t let me get away with hating my body. Hating my body is a bad habit that I can fall into easily, and he knows it. His response: “Your body is amazing. I don’t like that it hurts you the way it does, but you have to remember, that’s not all that your body is.” And the best part about hearing this from my husband? It’s not rehearsed or planned. It’s part of his attitude, and I work every day to make it part of mine.

This is such an important insight, that there’s more to our bodies than our health problems, and I believe we don’t hear it enough. Sometimes our bodies screw us over, whether we’re disabled or not. Most of us will, at some point, go through a serious illness or injury of some kind. It feels like a betrayal by our own flesh, and it’s easy to lose the trust that we once had in our bodies, and to lose a sense of ownership, and that positive attitude that can keep us healthy. But those failures of our bodies are just a fraction of what our bodies do. The human body is incredible, and science continues to explore it because we don’t really even know how incredible.

This is true whether or not we’re disabled. I’d like to see this message explored with real inclusivity, in advertisements and articles focused on something other than yoga equipment and New Age enlightenment practices.

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Politics Post: Colorblindness in High-Stakes Testing and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

I have read a lot of articles recently about the evils of high-stakes testing, and I agree with almost all of them. There’s just one aspect of the problem I feel has been massively under-addressed: racial justice in standardized testing.
First, a couple of choice quotations to share. These have been working their way around the internet for a couple of years now, and I’d like to put them together in this post.
“If we’re encouraged to differentiate our instruction, why are we suddenly standardizing everything about education?”
“Fairness in education isn’t every student getting the same thing. It’s every student getting what they need.”
A few years ago, my school had a guest speaker come to talk to the teachers about racial equality in our classrooms. We were all ready to be defensive, sure that we were going to be accused of deliberate discrimination, prejudice, racism, you name it. This defensive attitude existed for two reasons. The first is that, as teachers, we were already seeing the pattern of accusatory speakers at educational events, and it was in fact a reasonable conclusion to come to, that anybody coming to talk to us about improving our practices would take that particular tone. The second, though, was that most of the teachers who were present that day are White. And we were reacting out of a knee-jerk fear of being called on our own privilege. (For a great link on White and other kinds of privilege, and why it isn’t something we have to apologize for or be ashamed of, but is something we have to acknowledge and account for, check out John Scalzi’s brilliant remarks.)
Which, as it turned out, was totally unfounded anyway. Both of our fears were. The guest speaker, Ivory Toldson, was brilliant in every way, and one of the first things he did was point out that most of the inequalities in an individual classroom are not based on deliberate discrimination: they’re based on simple lack of knowledge of the background from which our students come, and based on a simple ignorance born of our own backgrounds – backgrounds we don’t have to be ashamed of or sorry for, but whose results we do have to do something about. His recommendation was not that we suddenly start giving out free passes to students of color, or any such thing that some of us expected to hear. He asked us, plainly and with passion, to get to know our students and their cultures, and to understand their individual needs in order to better meet them. Just as we would with students whose needs differed in any other way. I spoke with Dr. Toldson individually later, and he gave me some tips on reaching out to students, which have been incredibly helpful throughout my career since then.
He was the first person I heard say the second of the above quotations, by the way.
Since that day, which was about four years ago, the education field has become more and more about high-stakes testing, in ways that are increasingly destructive, and disproportionately destructive to our students of color.
How are these things related, you ask? Take a look at that first quotation again.
High-stakes testing works on the basic premise that all students are essentially the same, and that it makes sense to “handle” them all in the same ways. In racial terms, this is referred to as “colorblindness.” At first glance, this might seem like a good thing: not seeing race means seeing everyone as equal, right? Except, no, it doesn’t – it fails to acknowledge important differences in background, racial history, institutional discrimination, and numerous other things, including, yes, the existence of White privilege. For more on colorblindness and its deleterious effects, check this excellent article.
Now take that concept, and funnel it into the creation of a test with stakes that determine how we further label our students. Students who do well on these tests are labelled “successful,” and all sorts of opportunities come their way. Students who do poorly on these tests are labeled “failures,” and they find all kinds of new obstacles placed in their paths – as if they needed that, given that these students clearly already face numerous challenges. In particular, it is due to historical and institutional racism that students of color tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods that are already struggling, and have struggling schools.
This fuels another awful concept, one that makes me sad that we even need a term for: the school-to-prison pipeline. The ACLU’s page (here) on this defines this concept as the “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The ACLU files this concept under their Racial Justice heading for a reason: it disproportionately affects students of color, in particular black and Hispanic students, and this inequality is only getting worse due to high-stakes testing.
What’s the connection here? The fact that the failure to account for diversity in our school systems punishes students of color for their differing backgrounds, and labels them “failures” through the mechanism of high-stakes testing. This label then places them in a position to be shunted straight into the prison system through decreased funding to those students’ schools, which further stigmatizes their backgrounds… and the cycle continues.
This is absolutely unacceptable, and is a failure on the part of education reform. High-stakes testing has been touted as “the great equalizer,” when in fact it has become the reverse.

Politics Post: The Flaw in “Competitive School Reform” Logic

CONTENT ADVISORY: It saddens me greatly that I feel the need to put a content advisory on a post about education policy, but the fact is, education policy is killing people. This post discusses some of those mechanisms.

I originally posted most of this on my Facebook back in 2011. I am updating it now in the aftermath of the Vergara v. California decision, because I believe that the recent push to take away the last vestige of teacher rights is an extension of the same problems seen in the administration then – though it was early enough in the Obama administration that many of us were only beginning to realize the depth of the problem. Now that more of the effect has become visible, the Race to the Top initiative has also become an even clearer example of why pitting schools against each other in competition isn’t the right recipe for “reforming” the system.
First, some background on the initiative, since it’s been a while. Race to the Top was part of the education funding package which itself was part of the federal stimulus program. Some of the stimulus funding for education went toward prevention of massive layoffs in the public schools across the country, some of it went to renovations of school buildings to keep them structurally safe and make many old buildings asbestos-free for the first time. The rest went toward a program conceived by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called Race to the Top.
By the rules of the Race to the Top program, schools – including private and charter schools – would institute new reforms and practices to improve themselves, and submit the results for what amounts to a federal contest, with massive amounts of school funding as the prize. Schools across the country put resources toward self-improvement and reform, hoping to recoup the money later by winning extra funding.
The theory behind Race to the Top is roughly this: if schools are encouraged to self-improve by having a direct financial incentive, then more schools will discover new practices and products that work, which can then be replicated in programs across the country, thus improving all of the schools. Also, by putting the schools in competition against each other, it will further encourage the risk-taking that always accompanies any kind of reform.
It’s a good theory. It works. But what people don’t always realize is that it works because those schools were willing to put tremendous resources into their reforms. Everything comes at a cost, in any industry, and education is no exception. The money for everything has to come from somewhere. And the schools that instituted those reforms and improvements recorded very impressive results.
Then it comes time for the next step: replicating those innovations, and hopefully those results, across the country. That’s the point where our education system finds itself right now. Schools are attempting to implement those same reforms, because that’s the federal mandate: now we know some things that work, so do it. Immediately. Because it’s what our students need. As far as that goes, it’s correct. But the schools that are receiving these mandates don’t necessarily have the resources to put toward those innovations, and the result is that the employees just have to come up with it, somehow. Somewhere.
Schools in my area have been implementing some of the new practices and such that came out of Race to the Top. Some of them even work. I’ve seen huge improvements in our school. It’s great. Scores are getting higher, gaps are closing. It’s awesome. Others are not helping in the slightest, and it’s just making us all – students, teachers, administrators, and support staff – busier for no good reason. Reality check: just because something works beautifully at one school, does not mean it will work at all schools.
But since there’s no money being put into it, the cost has to come from somewhere else. And where it’s currently coming from is other things that make schools work. We’ve bought ourselves curricular reform by sacrificing the idea that teachers and students both have other things in their lives. We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing actual physical supplies (actual example: a few years ago, my school got all sorts of shiny new science equipment, but in mid-February completely ran out of copy paper for the rest of the year, and teachers had to purchase their own paper to make class materials for the remainder of the year). We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing class size (the average class size in my department was 36 for years after this initiative). We’ve bought school reform by requiring students and teachers both to spend hours of after school time picking up the slack left in the supports that used to exist. The improvements based on the Race to the Top program, while very real and significant, are being implemented as if they exist in a vacuum. Our schools are less safe, both physically and otherwise, for every person in them, employees and students alike.
Parents are angrier at the system than ever before, because they perceive – quite correctly – that their children are not being treated as human beings by the current administration. They’re being treated as test scores that happen to be walking around in an incarnation that resembles a teenage human. Students are turning to their teachers for help, but that’s not working either – because teachers are explicitly being told that we are not allowed to make accommodations for the stresses students are experiencing. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. I wish I could help,” is becoming a refrain in our schools. Since 2011, there has been an epidemic of student suicides in my area, due to stress. And teachers can’t give any more time to work than we already do – because, under the pressure of these expectations, many of us have now given up almost everything else in our lives beyond basic obligations, and still don’t have enough time in the day.
This isn’t about teacher pay, which is the argument most people seem to be using against it. It’s about the ways in which Race to the Top has failed the very people we are supposed to be serving with our schools: the students.
Teacher pay is an issue, of course, for a number of reasons. Teacher benefits are an issue. And there is a basic issue of equity for school employees that is coming to a head in states like Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, and now California. Teachers have already compromised, giving up potential salary increases to maintain benefits, things of that nature. If those bargaining rights are stripped away, those teachers will lose the things they have already sacrificed to keep. They will have more work, under worse conditions. The average length of time someone stays in the teaching profession is five years. That number is way too low, but it can still go down. There will be fewer and fewer experienced teachers in this country.
But the most important thing that so many people are failing to realize, is that unless the teachers are put in conditions where they can work productively, the people who bear the final cost of that are our citizens of the next generation. The way educational reform is being implemented in our country is taking away the adult support these kids need. When teachers are abused by the system, the results are passed on to the students.
Those results, ranging from student test scores dropping to students committing suicide, are absolutely unacceptable.
And with the recent decision in California, teachers’ ability to help students, and to ask schools for the help they need, and to advocate for their children – for our students really are like our children, if you haven’t seen the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips, go out and watch it right now – because we could be fired without due process for causing administrators inconvenience. Again, this isn’t about teacher pay or teacher tenure. This is about our students and our ability to help them in the ways that they need in order to be successful learners.
Much of the so-called “school reform” movement is based on a single, deeply flawed premise: the reason the schools aren’t better is that they don’t actually want to be better. This isn’t the surface rhetoric, but it is the assumption that underlies the entire basis of the competition-based funding and evaluations and high-stakes testing that have come to dominate the educational environment under the current administration.
Work with my logic a minute. “School reform” policy starts with the idea that all the resources really are there in the schools, it’s just a matter of how they are used, and if we put schools in competition with each other, they’ll all get better because they’ll be motivated. This implies that the schools aren’t motivated already, and that pay and funding are the only things that will motivate schools to improve – in other words, that schools aren’t actually motivated by positive results in their students. The same is true of the idea of merit pay: if one assumes that teachers will naturally improve if they are in competition with each other to improve, this assumes that they aren’t sufficiently motivated already by a desire to serve their students and to do well as professionals. This is insulting in the extreme, as well as untrue for the vast majority of us. So much for the campaign promises to “respect teachers.”
Spring is always a rough time for teachers, and this isn’t going to change even if some of these problems are fixed. But I am disturbed by the number of great teachers I know who are either leaving the profession or strongly considering it, because the environment has become so hostile not just to them but to their students. I know the same thought has crossed my mind numerous times this year.

This post is made in honor of all those educators in all positions, and all those students, who have been so relentlessly overloaded by the current environment in education that they have destroyed themselves, deliberately or otherwise, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.