Suicidal Ideation: a struggle with “disability” and identity

A little more than 10 years ago, for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2009, I wrote a piece about my battle with societal disinterest in the facts of disability. Blogging Against Disablism Day is an important event on MayDay that gives voice to the widest possible range of disability stories.(though it could not be organized in 2018–2019 we hope it will return, and as always I wish all the best to @goldfish who began it all)

When this old post was brought to my attention recently, I wondered about its continued relevance, but then I saw what was important. We live in a time when political leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom are busy dividing their nations into “citizens who matter and have rights” and “citizens who don’t matter, and have no real rights.”

“…the Republican Party of the Obama years didn’t just recycle its Gingrich-era excesses; it also pursued a policy of total opposition, not just blocking Obama but also casting him as fundamentally illegitimate and un-American. He may have been elected by a majority of the voting public, but that majority didn’t count. It didn’t represent the “real” America.

“And President Trump, of course, has repeatedly and falsely denounced Clinton’s popular-vote victory as illegitimate, the product of fraud and illegal voting. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he declared on Twitter weeks after the election, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” The larger implication is clear enough: A majority made up of liberals and people of color isn’t a real majority. And the solution is clear, too: to write those people out of the polity, to use every available tool to weaken their influence on American politics.” — The New York Times 1619 Project

Meanwhile, in England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists that Northern Ireland remaining in the European Union trading zone is “undemocratic,” dismissing the fact that almost 56% of voters in that province declared that they wanted to live in the European Union. The votes of both Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland do not matter to the English government — because only the votes of right-wing Unionist elites matter.

The Trump Administration has re-engaged the Disability Rights Movement in the US

Thus, the constant danger to a humane society lies in devaluing the humanity of those seen as “lesser.” Like Catholics forever under English rule, or Blacks at any point in time in the United States. Well, a group also consistently robbed of voice, robbed of identity, robbed of agency, are those deemed “disabled.” As US Republicans have always known what’s best for people of color (“President Donald Trump is claiming a groundswell of African American support in response to his comments denigrating Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings and the congressman’s majority-black Baltimore district, despite polling showing consistently negative numbers.”) and the English have always known what’s best for the Irish, those who are non-disabled way-too-often are certain that they know what’s best for people with disabilities.

If you don’t know what it's like to be seen as “lesser,” you don’t know. If you are — for example — a white, straight, ableist, protestant male — you probably don’t know — unless you have truly worked on your understandings and empathy, and then, well, I’m sure you know that still don’t know…

Suicidal Ideation (May 1, 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 logo
Blogging Against Disablism Day logo

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?

writing sample from dysgraphic student
writing sample from dysgraphic student
This looks better than my writing usually does

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.

Something about this scene from François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups has always resonated with me, it is about being unable to find a place of comfort.

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.

Font that attempts to demonstrate what text looks like to dyslexics.
Font that attempts to demonstrate what text looks like to dyslexics.
I have never been really able to explain what text looks like to me. This doesn’t really cut it. But text to me is not a constant, I am never sure of what I am seeing… and, well, I’ve been told that I begin reading from the middle of a page, my eyes going around in a spiral looking for meaning.

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.”

exit sign
exit sign

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

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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