Ableist Attorneys

I work at a national disability rights legal nonprofit, so I get a lot of calls from people with psychosocial, developmental, and/or intellectual disabilities who need legal help. Unfortunately, because we only have one office and there are restrictions on practicing law out of state, nearly all of the work that we do in other states has to be in partnership with local lawyers. As a result, we generally can’t get involved in someone’s case unless they’re already represented (and usually can’t get involved even then, just due to resources issues).

When I can’t help a caller directly, I usually try to refer him or her to local advocacy organizations. Each state has at least one Protection and Advocacy organization that represents people with disabilities in some kinds of cases (like institutionalization, abuse and neglect, and housing discrimination), and some sort of legal services organization intended to help people with non-disability-specific issues such as criminal matters, family law, or bankruptcy. Many states also have other nonprofits dedicated to representing people with disabilities as well.

These organizations play an important role and help lots of people, but I still all too often see situations in which people who really need legal help get turned down by the local nonprofits because they’re “difficult.” A potential client is “difficult” if she (and I really mean “she” – 90% of the people I’ve seen get labeled this way are women) is hard to keep on task, if she is “emotional” and gets upset easily, if it’s hard to explain to her what’s going on and what she needs to do, or if she has “too many problems.” Or if it’s someone who wants to complain about a previous psychiatric hospitalization – one that actually was manifestly unwarranted because they weren’t a danger to self or others – and who doesn’t believe she has a disability and doesn’t want to take meds.

It’s bad enough when general legal aid organizations refuse to take these clients, but it’s even worse when the culprits are places that are supposedly devoted to representing people with physical or mental disabilities. If you don’t want to work with people who are hard to communicate with, have “bad judgment,” or are otherwise high-maintenance, don’t go work for an organization devoted to representing people with intellectual, developmental, or psychosocial disabilities. Honestly, don’t even go into legal aid services at all. When your organization functions as a legal safety net, you don’t get to cherry-pick your clients.

This isn’t to say that every single person with an intellectual, developmental, or psychosocial disability is hard to communicate or work with. But those whose disabilities do affect their ability to communicate professionally and concisely and with perfectly even emotional tenor, and who do have impulse control issues who do frequently disagree with their doctors are often exactly the people who most need free and respectful legal assistance. They are often people who have nobody on their side and very limited ability to effectively represent themselves. If they’re lucky, they have supportive family members who will interface with attorneys and navigate the system for them – many of the same attorneys who’d turn down a “difficult” client would be perfectly happy to deal with the client’s less-“difficult” family member – but most of the people I talk to aren’t that lucky.

I am generally reluctant to publicly criticize members of my profession, but this is just not okay. Yes, it does take some extra effort to deal with people who need to be frequently redirected or need to have things explained to them multiple times or keep talking about how everyone’s out to get them. But there are plenty of resources available to help legal services lawyers learn how to deal with clients who have communication and comprehension issues as a result of a disability; there’s even a manual on it published by the American Bar Association that is pretty good.

Our legal system will only work if everyone has a real opportunity to enforce their legal rights. And that means everyone.



Filed under Disabilities, Feminism, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations, Uncategorized

Loud Hands

I’ve been pretty busy with work lately, hence the absence of posts. This post is something I wrote to help promote the Loud Hands Project; I hope that now that this one is done, I can start focusing on the other things I want to write here.

The length of time that I can “pass” as normal varies by situation. If I’m having a one-on-one conversation or engaging in some sort of physical activity like walking or dancing, I might be able to come across as relatively normal until I get tired. In any situation that involves sitting still, though, I don’t pass for long.

It’s my hands (and, to some extent, the rest of my body) that betray me: deprived of the ability to mask my movements as gestures or purposeful activity, I start ticcing, twitching, squirming, tapping, flapping, hair-twisting, and picking/scratching/biting at my own skin. If I’m in a chair during this time, it’s highly likely that I’ll end up putting my knees and feet up on it. I am in nearly constant motion.

Not everyone will recognize this as the sign of a disability; some will label me as simply nervous, hyper, immature, bored, or weird. There have even been a few times when I was accused of being on drugs. Whatever it is, it’s not normal. It’s not the way adults are supposed to behave, particularly in lectures, movie theaters, offices, restaurants, religious services, or day-long board meetings.

I was never told to have “quiet hands” as a kid. I was told to stop squirming, stop fidgeting, stop doodling, stop scratching itches (which due to tactile issues are relatively constant), sit on my hands, and get my hair out of my mouth.

Other kids were told this sort of thing too, but unlike me, they could actually do it. I on the other hand never quite stopped being the kid who spent all of class with her feet on her chair, chewing on her own hair (or, later, twisting her hair or scratching her head) while doodling and looking out the window and still managing to know what was going on. My blogging handle – Twitchy Woman – was something a friend used to call me, affectionately, in high school (meant to be sung to the tune of “Witchy Woman”).

It turns out that, in fact, I knew what was going on in class because I was doodling and looking out the window with my feet on the chair and chewing my hair. When forced to stop, my mind seemed to lose its anchor and float off into some other dimension.

Of course, I was also the kid with the weird, immature-looking walk, swaying a bit from side to side while holding my arms out in weird ways and, frequently, tilting my head to the side. When I ran I frequently looked (and still sort of look) like Orville the albatross trying to take off. I was the kid, and am the adult, who will if left to her own devices eat the same exact breakfast and lunch (and frequently dinner) every single day (If I lose this habit, I usually end up not having a clue what to eat and you don’t even want to know what I end up eating). At the office, I often have the urge to walk all around the office, trying to inconspicuously check in every office to see who’s in and in every office supply cabinet and the office fridge (sometimes twice) to remind myself what’s there. I’m the person who will with some regularity just start wandering off because I think a conversation is over when it isn’t.

These are all things that I absolutely cannot control for very long. The times that I’ve tried to inhibit them over the long term – mostly when I’ve worked in close quarters with others in very conservative office environments – tend to go badly. My productivity suffers and I end up getting sufficiently stressed that I end up picking uncontrollably at my face or head. The effort, and the knowledge that it’s not even making that much of a difference, is depressing and distracting.

So lately, as I’ve been becoming more and more “out” in various aspects of my life, I’ve been trying to not even try to control it. I walk through my apartment and neighborhood flapping, clapping, tapping my fingers, with my head turned to the side. I am a bit more subdued in the office and remain as subdued as possible in certain meetings, but overall am not spending much effort trying to suppress how I move. I attended a disability leadership conference earlier this month – which I’ve been meaning to blog about anyway but haven’t gotten around to – and spent a large part of it flapping and rocking side to side and tapping my fingers and ticcing.

I’ve been happier and more productive than ever. I think that maybe it’s actually impossible for me to feel happy when I’m not moving in certain ways. For such a long time there just weren’t that many times out of the day when I actually felt good, as opposed to anxious or angry or bored or something, because I wasn’t letting myself do the things that I need to do in order to actually feel good. It’s so much easier to transition from one activity to another when I let myself flap my hands. And it’s so much easier to think when I let myself tap my fingers, rock back and forth, or squirm into weird positions. I’m achieving levels of productivity that I normally only have when I force myself to stay at the office late at night when everyone has gone home, since those used to be the only times that I actually let myself move around in the office the way my mind wants my body to move around.

This, to me, is why the Loud Hands Project is important. It’s an opportunity for those of us with neurological disabilities to re-learn how to live in a way that many others take for granted: to go through our day without the constant self-policing, self-examination, and self-denial that it takes to look normal. To use all that freed-up energy for the things we want to do and the things we want to get done.

The Loud Hands Project has already raised $10,000 and will be putting out an awesome anthology on “essays, long and short, by Autistic authors writing on autism acceptance, neurodiversity, Autistic pride and culture, disability rights and resistance, and resilience (known collectively by the community as having loud hands).” But it’s still accepting money:

Here’s the deal. We’ve set three incremental benchmarks. As we meet each benchmark, we’ll be able to fund additional components of The Loud Hands Project. After all, as you can see from our description above, the anthology has always been just the beginning. The Loud Hands Project is a lot more expansive than a single book, and we have an opportunity to start putting down roots much earlier than we’d hoped. Take a look at what we’re thinking of:Benchmark 1: $15,000 “About us, without us”

“About us, without us” is a video about the Autistic community and our place in the conversation around eugenics and the prevention of autism. If we make the $15,000 benchmark, we’ll be able to pay for Julia to go on the road and collect interviews and footage, and cover production, editing, and initial distribution costs.

Benchmark 2: $20,000 “Welcome to the Autistic community”-With these funds, we can rush website development and have the Loud Hands project website complete, fully accessible, and ready to launch on April 2, 2012—Autism Acceptance Day.

-Use the website to commence the development of materials tailored to all ages and abilities explaining autism and welcoming the autistic person to the community.
-Initially, this will take the form of a letter drive, blog carnival, and pamphlet-design competition, with ongoing further refinement and eventual publication of materials.

Benchmark 3: $25,000: Connecting to Community Together

To begin, we will produce a DVD incorporating video and written content from across the history of the Autistic community, establishing our historical context. Then, to explore the state of the movement today, we will use the funds raised to establish a Conference Scholarship fund for Autistic self-advocates to use to attend Autistic and disability rights related conferences and events connecting to the larger theme of disability culture. Scholarship recipients will participate in a second video documenting Autistic community and culture.
There are still 46 days left, so please go ahead and donate at their indiegogo page!
ETA: And, of course, here’s their neat video in case you haven’t already seen it:


Filed under Being Weird

Lest Anyone Question My Diagnosis

I just retrieved from my parents a bunch of paper journals I kept as a teenager. Most of it is regular teenage angst, documented in obsessive detail, but there are also some kind of amusing gems like my account of a high school field trip to an amusement park.

I wrote for about two pages about a conversation I had on the bus on the way to the park (my friends and I made a list of the most annoying songs we knew, and the most romantic songs we knew), the decorations in the pseudo-Ancient-Egyptian food court where we ate lunch, and the arrangement of food on our lunch trays.

Here’s the full text of my food-arrangement rant:

For lunch my group and I ate at the ____ Cafe because it was inside [editor’s note: it was raining that day]. J__ and N__ both had cheesecake. They also both had red trays. A__ and I both had chocolate cake with little chocolate chips on the sides and little whipped-cream puffballs with the same consistency as Sculpey. Pretty stiff. We also both had orange trays. We also all had macaroni + cheese and garlic bread and a coke. When we were in line it was all nicely symmetrical. Red-Orange-Red-Orange. Cheese-Chocolate-Cheese-Chocolate. Then everything else was the same. Except A__ had a large coke and everybody else had a small coke. And other than the symmetry everything else was bad.

There’s an illustration, which I’ll spare you. It’s pretty clear that the symmetrical trays and weird decor in the lunch place were the highlight of the day. The only indication in the entry that I went on rides or anything was an off-hand remark that my friends and I had our picture taken while we were riding a roller-coaster.

Again, this isn’t totally representative of my journal, but it probably says something that this is one of the happiest entries I wrote.

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The Law of Excuses

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a particular legal double-bind faced by people with disabilities that affect behavior and, to a certain extent, people in commonly misunderstood situations that affect people’s emotional state (e.g., poverty, abuse, and certain crises of identity). When members of these groups find themselves facing criminal, financial, or disciplinary sanctions for behavior that they feel was related to their disability or situation-induced emotional state, it may be in their interest to seek leniency in light of their disability or situation. On the other hand, because such arguments for leniency are often interpreted by the broader society as confirming stereotypes that members of these groups are unpredictable, incapable of making sound decisions, and even dangerous. These stereotypes, in turn, can perpetuate the group’s exclusion from employment, segregation from the community, and even deprivation of access to their own children.

I actually started thinking about this in the context of the trial of Pfc. Manning, who leaked classified State Department memos to Wikileaks. Defense attorneys cited Manning’s growing discomfort with being perceived as male – discomfort that had been expressed to numerous people, including at least one superior officer – as evidence that Manning was unstable and thus should not have continued to have access to classified materials. (Washington Blade). Understandably, a representative for the National Center for Transgender Equality objected to the suggestion that people in the process of coming out as transgender are inherently unstable and shouldn’t have access to classified materials, arguing that Manning’s gender identity was “totally unrelated” to the leak to Wikileaks.

Here’s another (less recent) example involving autism, since I seem to talk about nothing but autism lately: Reginald Latson, a 17-year-old boy with diagnoses of Asperger’s, ADHD, and Intermittent Explosive Disorder was convicted of assault on a police officer when he fought back (and caused pretty serious injuries) against a police officer who tried to arrest him. His attorneys pled insanity, arguing that the boy’s disabilities, combined with the stress of being forcibly grabbed by the officers (for, as far as I can tell, just being an African-American guy sitting around doing nothing), caused an “irresistible impulse” to fight back (FYI, this kid’s state, Virginia, is one of the few states that allow an insanity plea to be based on the existence of an irresistible impulse. Other states usually require much more severe cognitive impairment such that the defendant doesn’t understand the wrongfulness of their actions).

ThAutcast took issue with both the Washington Post’s reporting on the trial (which implied that violent, explosive behavior was very common among Autistic individuals and which didn’t include an interview with anyone who was actually Autistic), with the suggestion that it was autism that made the defendant attack a police officer, rather than, say, Intermittent Explosive Disorder.

Now, most likely, the reason why they didn’t focus on Intermittent Explosive Disorder either in the defense or in the Washington Post article is because, most likely, you can’t actually base an insanity defense on Intermittent Explosive Disorder. IED, like Oppositional-Defiant Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder, is one of those DSM-IV diagnoses that are defined exclusively in terms of the person’s propensity to antisocial behavior (yes, I’m citing Wikipedia, but you can also check the DSM-IV if you have access to it), without any particular regard to the person’s capacity to inhibit it or the underlying root of the behavior (other than that it can’t be due to other disorders like ADHD or Alzheimer’s). To courts, an insanity defense based on IED sounds a lot like saying “I’m not responsible for going off on that cop because I go off on people all the time.”

ADHD and Autism, on the other hand, are particularly fruitful sources of an “irresistible impulse” defense, because both are known to affect individuals’ capacity for emotional regulation in at least some situations, and emotional regulation is (in most people) a key component of self-control. It’s something that I and many disability advocates don’t like to acknowledge because we don’t want to contribute to people’s unreasonable fears, but it’s something that can’t be totally ignored. To do so would be a disservice to people with disabilities who are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system – for example, African-American teenaged boys like Latson – and who may not be able to meet the expectations police officers have for how a “non-criminal” would act when confronted by the police (i.e. – verbally and physically compliant even when subjected to rough physical force by the police officer). As ThAutcast has suggested, it’s perfectly plausible that the defendant in this case lashed out, not because his Asperger’s made him particularly aggressive, but because his Asperger’s made him totally panic when he was unexpectedly confronted and pushed around by a police officer.

Going back to Manning, I wonder if anyone would bat an eye if, instead of being transgender, Manning had been in the process of losing a job or becoming estranged from family and had cited these as sources of emotional instability. Both of these are pretty distressing in and of themselves, and, judging from conversations that Manning had with the person who eventually tipped off the police, Manning potentially faced both of these as consequences of coming out as transgender. Some people might say that potential job loss and family issues are not good excuses for Manning’s behavior, but few would fear that such a defense was maligning all people who faced job loss or estrangement from family.

Perhaps such attempts to “normalize” requests for leniency, by phrasing them as similar to more commonly understood phenomena such as feeling threatened or feeling overwhelmed by a difficult life situation, are the best way to reconcile the need for leniency and the need for acceptance.

For example, instead of forcing people with mental disabilities to use the “insanity defense” when they act out of a perceived need for self-defense, we actually gave them access to a modified “self-defense” plea that required only that they sincerely feel that they are in danger, and that this feeling be reasonable for a person with that disability? Similarly, what if, instead of focusing on Manning’s gender identity itself, defense attorneys had focused on the consequences that Manning anticipated as a result of coming out as transgender, many of which would, in and of themselves, cause most people serious distress? Would these arguments still risk encouraging stereotypes that members of these groups are inherently unpredictable or unstable?

These are all just initial thoughts; this issue probably deserves a much longer post. But it’s an interesting question to me and I wanted to bounce it off of people.


Filed under Crime and Punishment, Disabilities, LGBT Issues, Race, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations, Uncategorized

Dehumanization and the Brain

Here’s a great article, via the Situationist:

A Brain’s Failure to Appreciate Others May Perpetuate Atrocities.

No, it’s not about how Autistic people are responsible for genocide. Although the actual published journal article is behind a paywall, from what I can tell the researchers (including Susan Fiske, on whom I have a huge intellectual crush) are not really talking about autism at all but rather the general population.

The study showed that Princeton undergraduates (that is, not a representative sample of the whole population, but also not a sample of only people with a particular mental disability) systematically shut off the social processing centers of their brains (the centers generally associated with empathy and social reasoning) when looking at or thinking about people whom they considered disgusting and less-than-human: people thought to be homeless, addicted to drugs, immigrants, or poor. The social areas lit up normally when participants looked at pictures of other individuals.

This suggests that bias isn’t just about thinking some people are bad, but in at least some situations it’s about thinking of people as not human. This, of course, is something that activists have been pointing out for a long time, but it’s cool to see that their phenomenological, introspective description of what’s happening matches up pretty closely with the neuropsychological data (see also the same researchers’ findings that men who scored high on “hostile sexism” turned off the social centers of their brain while looking at scantily clad women).

What’s more, when participants looked at pictures of dehumanized individuals, their brains showed activity in the areas known to govern disgust, attention, and cognitive control. The researchers suggested that disgust may play a role in the shutdown of the “social” areas of the participants’ brains.

The fact that disgust is part of the equation here is particularly interesting, because it suggests (in my mind) that the underlying cognitive process evolved as a response to contagious disease or vermin. Although most people at least intellectually understand that people with contagious diseases are still people, societies historically have shunned individuals who appear to have a life-threatening contagious disease (most notably people with leprosy), to prevent the disease from spreading throughout the population. Of course, doing this was to some extent against human nature because we naturally want to be kind to others who are suffering, so it was necessary to develop a way for disgust to trump empathy.

The discovery of sanitation has made this tactic totally unnecessary (although people perceived as having a life-threatening contagious illness are still frequently subjected to serious discrimination), but the same mechanism is still being applied to people who are considered unworthy of empathy for some other reason, particularly outsiders (the immigrants), people who are perceived as “diseased” (the substance abusers and to some extent homeless people, who are widely presumed to have some sort of mental illness), and people dealing with unjust situations that are perceived as intractable and not worth trying to fix (poor persons).

The possibility that people are more likely to dehumanize a person when they associate the person with the idea of disease has important disability and human rights implications. For example, it may explain why promoting “medical” explanations of mental disability can paradoxically increase stigma while decreasing blame. It explains why, whenever people try to distinguish “high-functioning” Autistic advocates from the “really autistic” people who are not-quite-human and need to be cured, they invariably end up talking about gross things the person does, like playing with poop.

At the risk of over-interpreting this study, I’d say it supports the arguments of activists who object to medicalizing terminology that characterizes a long-term disability as a “disease,” “disorder,” “illness,” or “epidemic,” especially when the “disease” in question is considered severe and “incurable.” While medicalizing terms may discourage society from blaming the disabled individual, the individual may also be considered less than human and thus less deserving of human rights such as self-determination, bodily autonomy, and full participation in the community.

It would also be interesting to see further research on exactly when this dehumanization response occurs and when it doesn’t, so that we can think of ways to prevent it. I suspect that people will show less of a dehumanizing response when the “disease” is perceived as either mild (such as the flu), presently curable (such as malaria), or the result of an injury and not a disease. This coincides with findings that people are more likely to empathize with individuals with mental illness if they are told that the person’s distress is caused by adverse life situations (that is, an “injury” model rather than a “disease” model). Moreover, one of the pictures used in the present study was of a “disabled” woman (they don’t say what the woman’s disability was), and this was apparently not a picture that elicited a dehumanizing response. My guess, without seeing the article, is that this woman’s disability appeared to have been caused by an injury (for example, a person who looks “normal” except that she is using a wheelchair) rather than a disease.

By analogy, would people be more likely to, say, view homeless individuals as fully human if they were told that homelessness is often a temporary life situation and that many people who experience homelessness ultimately find housing and have stable, fulfilling lives? Would people be less likely to dehumanize poor people if they were told that poverty arises from external social forces that can be changed? Or if they saw poverty as an injury caused by some sort of injustice?

I really like this sort of research. Understanding how people think about marginalized groups is a great step toward getting to think about them better. And I’m not self-deluded enough to think that anyone can truly understand how people think without doing some actually good research on the topic.

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Filed under Being Weird, Disabilities, Experimental Psychology, Health Care

Self-Disclosure Angst

I just spent a long weekend up in Cambridge, MA, where I participated on ASAN’s symposium on the Legal, Social, and Ethical Implications of Autism Research. It was a great experience and I enjoyed the opportunity to meet some old and new friends. Discussion topics included bias in interpretation of research, issues in allocation of research dollars, ethical implications of genetic research and interventions designed to make individuals more compliant and less “autistic-looking,” and approaches to underdiagnosed populations such as adults and women. The symposium will be posted online soon (both transcript and video).

This was the first time I actually stated, in front of an audience, that I was Autistic (and, I think, only the third time that I said, at a public event, that I had any sort of disability). I was nervous at the time and am still nervous now. I don’t think I knew, when I signed up for this, that the whole thing would be webcast and put on YouTube for all posterity to see. That means I can’t really take it back. I had no plans to, but the finality of it is sort of frightening.

Moreover, for political reasons, like everyone there who was on the Autism spectrum, I referred to myself as “Autistic” (because, once people reach adulthood, it’s often very difficult to tell the difference between Autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger’s, and making distinctions can create perceived hierarchies among diagnoses). But the rest of the world does think that there’s a significant difference between “autism” and “Asperger’s,” and might either:

  1. Think that I’m way less capable than I am, even more so than if I’d told them I had Asperger’s;
  2. Think I’m totally exaggerating or making up my disability because they think I’ve got “mild Asperger’s” and that autism is “way more severe” than that.

Finally, I am very self-conscious about how much I was fidgeting and stimming throughout the thing. I basically can’t sit still for more than about 20 minutes before I start fidgeting in some way. While I have some strategies for making this less noticeable in professional situations (like if I’m in a courtroom), I didn’t inhibit it that much while on this panel because, hey, they already know I’ve got a disability so it seemed silly to spend lots of effort concealing it.  That said, I tried to keep it from showing up on the webcast because I didn’t want potential non-allies seeing it. I had a laptop in front of me that was showing the live video feed and I tried to only fidget when the camera was not on me, but the feed was on a bit of a delay so sometimes it was a few seconds before I realized I was again visible on camera.

I understand that I am lucky in that I can conceal my disability somewhat, or at least the nature of my disability. Others can’t. Still, any possibility of losing that advantage is scary. I was particularly unnerved by the (Autistic) participant who kept asking how I could possibly be an attorney with “all of your social skills problems.” I don’t think I had any notable social issues at the conference (besides acting nervous when people were being very chaotic and loud while milling around, something I felt entitled to do given the context), so his assumption that I was horribly socially incompetent probably just came from the diagnosis itself. If that’s what my own community assumes about me, what can I possibly expect from everyone else?


Edit to above: I should acknowledge that it also really felt good to be able to speak openly about my disabilities and still have my opinions heard, and to be able to sit on a panel without having to worry all that much about fidgeting, tapping, scratching, or whatever. If I didn’t find it somewhat rewarding, I probably would never have done it. Especially when I was there, and surrounded by awesome people who actually got it, it felt great to be authentic and open. Nevertheless, it was (and is) also pretty scary.


Filed under Being Weird, Practicing Law While Weird

More on language

Putting aside for a moment the controversy over “person-first” language, I wonder if we can at all agree that the following expressions should be banished:

  • “The disabled”
  • “The mentally ill”
  • “The homeless”
  • “The poor”
  • All other uses of mass nouns to describe minority demographics that are seen as the object of care and concern.

Even worse is the use of such mass nouns with possessives, like “the nation’s mentally ill.”

To me, these phrases turn groups of individuals into an undifferentiated blob that is to be somehow “dealt with” or otherwise cared for by the rest of the population (“population” is also a mass noun, but since “population” includes everyone in a particular place, it doesn’t come across as demeaning to me).

I can imagine cases in which that connotation wouldn’t be there. For example, people tend to view certain kinds of social movements as masses (“the Army,” “Anonymous,” “the resistance”). If you’re saying something like “the disabled should riot in response to proposed Medicaid cuts,”  that seems relatively fine because the use of mass nouns is based more on perceived cohesion than on lack of agency.

But more often than not, mass nouns are instead used to portray a group as a passive object of concern and charity. Consider, for instance, a line from this story on the warehousing of people with mental illness in nursing homes:

“As states have closed down mental hospitals, they’ve struggled to find housing for the mentally ill. In Florida, assisted-living facilities have become the de facto solution.”

Here, “the mentally ill” appears to be defined as people whose long-term residence was, until now, “mental hospitals.” It doesn’t include the large numbers of people with psychiatric disabilities who were living anywhere else, either independently or with their family or without permanent shelter. This kind of attitude makes it harder for people to “come out” as having a mental illness because they’re afraid of this sort of stereotype: “if you’ve got a mental illness, why do you have a job? Either you’re not really mentally ill, or you shouldn’t be working and living independently.”

Moreover, “the mentally ill” aren’t having trouble finding housing with help from the state, the state is having trouble finding housing for them. Overall the question the article seems to be asking is “what should be done about the mentally ill?”

It’s telling that, despite the fact that the reporter actually came into contact with one of the residents of the facilities mentioned in the article, the only quotes from her that make it into the article are a banal conversation in which she asked her son how her grandchildren were doing. The only reason I can see for including that conversation in the article at all are as an attempt to “humanize” her (“she has a family and even knows that they exist!”). But she wouldn’t have to be “humanized” in such a way if the journalist had actually discussed her as if she was a human being all along, including by allowing her to have an opinion. Imagine if he’d instead asked for her opinion about the place she lived and she complained about it in the same way that anyone else would complain about a similar living situation. Wouldn’t that make her seem even more “human”? You can program a robot to ask polite questions about people’s kids; it takes a living, feeling being to complain.

This is exactly the kind of attitude that I tend to associate with use of mass nouns: “the mentally ill are people just like us, except totally helpless. We should do something about them so that they have a place to be and are protected from abuse and mistreatment.” Not “it’s horrible that people with mental illness are forced to live in violent neighborhoods and facilities where their lives are controlled by abusive people. We (i.e. a coalition of people with mental illness and allies) should pass better laws to ensure that people who need housing assistance and services as a result of mental illness aren’t deprived of the right to live in a safe place and exercise control over their own lives.”

I don’t really care that much if someone says that I “have ASD.” I will correct someone if they call me “mentally ill” instead of saying I “have a mental illness,” but overall I won’t mind. I get a bit distressed if someone calls me “disabled” instead of saying I “have a disability,” since to me “disabled” sounds like I can barely do anything useful (like being a “disabled vehicle” or “on the disabled list”), but again, I can get past that if it’s sufficiently clear that that’s not what the person is trying to say. But I really hate when people use mass nouns.

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