Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Halloween and Ableism: We can do better

Full disclosure: I have never liked Halloween.  When I was in second grade, I went through a "haunted house" at my elementary school and, while I don't remember the specifics, I remember coming out crying.  The same year, I went trick-or-treating with my family and was extremely frightened by the "big boys" from the back of the bus who wore extremely realistic and gorey masks.  I hated it all so much, I decided not to celebrate Halloween the following year.  I had an on-again-off-again relationship with Halloween for a while -- I honestly just hate being scared.  I cannot, for the life of me, understand the enjoyment most people seem to derive from that experience.

That said, I have a problem with the way we celebrate and sensationalize Halloween in this country.  If people want to be scared, I see no problem with monsters and ghosts, skeletons, spiders, and even a little gore.  I don't have an issue with scary stories, coffins, mummies, or costumes.  If you're into freaking yourself and others out, you go for it.  Seriously.  If that's your thing, more power to you.  I'll be home with a cup of tea, watching something that makes me laugh.

My concern is that Halloween has a distinctly, powerfully, ableist side.  Halloween is not, at its core, an ableist holiday, of course, but there are many, many issues with Halloween today that are inherently ableist...and these issues go completely unacknowledged.  In fact, if I bring up these issues, I'm essentially told that I'm "overthinking" it, or that I just need to lighten up and have fun.  "It's harmless," they say.

From Pinterest
But it's not.  It's not harmless.  We live in a culture that routinely stigmatizes, others, shames, and belittles people with disabilities and their history.  This culture hurts people with disabilities, and it hurts us.  All of us.  Bystanding to this sort of routine and socially accepted violence is unacceptable, and I believe we can do better.

Let's break this down.

Ableism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the discrimination and marginalization of people with disabilities.  This includes physical disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis), developmental disabilities (e.g. autism, Down Syndrome, intellectual disabilities), and also mental illness and psychiatric disabilities (e.g. bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction).  Our language is riddled with words that are or were once pejorative and hurtful.  For example: idiot, imbecile, and moron were once the categorization levels for intellectual disability (what we now know as mild, moderate, and severe intellectual disabilities).  Similarly, retard (or anything ending in -tard), simpleton, stupid, derp, and cretin all refer to people with intellectual disabilities.  Lame, spaz, crippled/crip are referencing people with physical disabilities.  Crazy, insane, loony, maniac, mad, mental, head case, psycho, and wacko all stem from words or phrases used to refer to people with mental illness or psychiatric disabilities. 

We don't hear about violence against people with disabilities much in the news....but it happens.  A lot.  You can read my post (and lots of links) about two such (older) incidents here and here.  People aren't talking about ableism the way they talk about racism, and sexism, and homophobia...but it's just as real, and it's hurting valuable and important people in our society.  How good can a society be that marginalizes, mistreats, and devalues some of its most vulnerable and amazing citizens?

From Ebay
Halloween (and many, many television shows) instill fear around disability, and particularly surrounding mental illness and psychiatric disabilities.  For example, if you think about any given crime show, the murderer/rapist/"bad guy" almost always gets thrown a label: psychopath, insane, schizophrenic, lunatic.  In the news, when something bad happens, diagnoses are thrown about until one sticks: crazy, autistic, bipolar.  Now think about this: ever seen a positive story about someone with mental illness?  Can you think of a single time when a psychiatric disability was presented positively in the news?  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 17 experience a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder...and these numbers don't include the fact that roughly 20% of 13-18 year olds will experience mental illness.   The media would have us believe that it's a wonder any of us survive with all this "craziness" and "insanity" around, right?  (Ugh...typing that makes me feel gross).

Halloween is a time for scary things.  It's a time for supernatural, paranormal creatures and, apparently, a time for ableism to run rampant.  Think about it: how many costumes for "crazy" or "insane" or "mad" people/things do you see?  Let's think about costumes of straightjackets.  Mental patients.  Mad scientists.  Psychos. 

The thing that really gets me, though, is the "haunted asylums." 

Pennhurst Asylum in Pennsylvania (I will not link to the website, because I find the video that plays both infuriating and upsetting) is touted as one of "America's scariest attractions," and there are several other such attractions across the US.  In fact, I think the "asylum" idea can probably be found in multiple haunted houses/haunted attractions: one need only Google "Halloween asylum" to find a link to a website selling products entirely for creating your own haunted asylum ( Demented Products for Demented Minds), Halloween asylum party ideas on Pinterest, and an entire page of items to purchase from Party City (including handcuffs, and pictures which read "no one gets out!" in red "blood"). 

Here's the thing, though.  When we talk about skeletons, and coffins, and zombies and monsters and ghosts, no matter how gorey and gross and bloody and violent they get, they are pretend.  They aren't real.  There are not real people behind those stories, not real faces, and real lives that we are exploiting for "entertainment."

Props you can buy from Party City for your very own "asylum"
When we talk about asylums, we're talking about institutions that housed people with disabilities, and in which real people, with real stories and real faces often times suffered horrific neglect and abuse.  We're talking about eugenics.  We're talking about people with disabilities of varying degrees being locked up for their entire lives, never receiving any education or real stimulation, and never being given the opportunity to move out into the world.  We're talking about the fact that this didn't even really to change until the 1960s.  It wasn't until 1972 that people with disabilities were granted the right to live in the least restrictive environment, deeming confinement in institutions unnecessary for the majority of the institutions' inhabitants.  It wasn't until the 1970s that people with disabilities were given the constitutional right to due process, and protected from things like involuntary servitude and involuntary steralization. 

For those who live near me, "Pennhurst Asylum" in Pennsylvania is not so very far from home.  Per its website, Pennhurst was a "state school" that was closed in 1986 due to repeated allegations of abuse.  Apparently, upon release from the institution, a former resident filed a complaint that the conditions were unsanitary, inhumane, dangerous, and that the staff used cruel and unusual punishments.  After investigation, the site was deemed dangerous due to the physical and mental abuse, inadequate care, and the fact that the patients' wellbeing had deteriorated while in the care of staff at Pennhurst.
And this shit was happening all across the country.  In my lifetime, this sort of shit was happening.  We're talking about electric shock therapy.  Surgery without anesthesia.  Restraints.  Isolation.  This is an actual excerpt from the website, which details their excitement about finding the remains of this institution and turning it into a haunted attraction:
 "We have really strived to mix fact with fiction, folklore with fear, to come up with some of our unique room designs. There have been accounts of an old dentist chair that was located in the deep recesses of Mayflower, one of the more notorious dorms at Pennhurst. This chair is a little different than the ones you and I are used too; it has restraining straps attached to the arms, legs and headrest. This chair was reportedly used to remove the teeth of patients that were prone to biting the staff here. Imagine yourself being strapped into this device and having all your teeth ripped out without any kind of medication. This is just one more example of how unique this location is." 
Can I remind you that we are talking about real people...and real lives...and real pain that is now being sensationalized and marketed as an attraction?  Can I remind you that the people who lived at Pennhurst, or any number of other institutions -- they may still be alive and working to live lives in the community after living for 5, or 25, or 40 years in this environment?  What must it be like for them -- or for their families -- to see their lives, their histories exploited in this way?  
I get really worked up about this issue.  This topic can make me angry to the point of tears, and here's why: I have worked with people who lived in these institutions.  In graduate school, I had a side job conducting assessments for each resident's
From Pinterest
yearly habilitation plan at one of the remaining "institutions."  I have read their stories.  I have seen their faces.  I have seen the neglect they withstood, and I have seen the incredible loss and burden they carry with them.  I have seen what people look like after receiving no intervention, too much medication, no socialization, and little engagement for decades.  If you haven't seen what this looks like, if you haven't heard these stories, there is no way you can possibly imagine it.  I carry these people and these stories with me in my heart.
What a privilege it is to be able to erase and sensationalize an entire population's recent history.  What privilege is afforded to us that we are able to ignore the very real and very human pain behind this entertainment, and believe that we can enjoy it as an evening of innocent fun.  What privilege we must have to be able to bypass this dark chapter of our past without a thought as to who we may be hurting. 
And yet...people say, "it's harmless."  People say it's no big deal.  People say it's just scary fun, and all in the name of Halloween. 
But it's not.  This is violence.  Dressing up in a straightjacket, sexy or not, is colluding with history in a way that perpetuates the fear of disability.  Making asylum decorations from Pinterest may seem fun and harmless, but what are you really saying?  Are you, unintentionally, perpetuating the stigma of disability and/or mental illness as something scary, or "freaky," or dangerous?   
So here's what I ask of you this Halloween: just pay attention.  How many times do you see the word crazy or insane?  Ask yourself if the activity you are participating in could potentially be shaming, or othering, or aggressive towards another group.  
People with disabilities deserve to be heard, and seen, and respected as whole beings with inherent worth and dignity.  By using stereotypes about them as costume fodder, and by twisting some of their history into frightening holiday entertainment, we are denying their wholeness, worth, and humanity.
Quite frankly, we just have to do better.

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