Today is International Transgender Day of Remembrance

November 20th marks the annual day of memorial for persons killed due to transphobic violence.

 

TDOR.info maintains an international list of known victims whose murders are believed to be the result of transphobic prejudice and hatred. The list doesn’t tabulate numbers for suicide, non-fatal violence or domestic violence and is restricted by procedural differences between territories, as many jurisdictions to not record gender identity or circumstances that indicate a hate-crime. Those commemorated for this year total 81 in number.

This post will discuss violence against Trans* people in general and not just those assaults resulting in the loss of life.

 

The point of importance, is the aforementioned procedural difference between territories. In many countries, hate-crime legislation is lacking or nonexistent. Without sufficient legislation, procedures cannot be put in place to record and appropriately categorise hate-crimes. If this data were collected, it could be used to develop strategies to combat hate-crimes more effectively, secure more appropriate sentencing and provide support to vulnerable victims.

 

The problem is in truth, somewhat cyclical. Many hate-crimes go unreported or are reported without providing full details, often due to privacy concerns and fear, among other causes. In fact, “according to the EU FRA survey, 80% of cases of homophobic and transphobic violence or harassment are not reported to the police, often because of fear of further victimization due to institutionalized homophobia and transphobia.”(1)

 

This under-reporting, while understandable (and in some countries, utterly unavoidable at present), unfortunately also serves to undermine calls for more effective legislation, training and procedures.

 

It is for this reason, that much of the information we have on hate-crimes and in this case, transphobic crime, is derived from studies and surveys carried out by organisations like Amnesty as well as healthcare institutions and researchers. An analysis this information, entitled “Social and Medical Advocacy With Transgender People and Loved Ones: Recommendations for BC Clinicians” provides the following findings:

 

Like non-transgender people, transgender people may be abused by a family member, partner, acquaintance, person in position of power (teacher, law enforcement personnel, health professional), or stranger. One American study of transgender adults found that approximately 50% of respondents were survivors of violence or abuse,(28) and another found that 25% of transgender respondents had experienced hate-motivated physical/sexual assault or attempted assault. (29) In a recent survey of transgender people and loved ones in BC (n=179), 26% reported needing anti-violence services at some point in their life. In examining reports of hate crimes against transgender people, researchers found that 98% of all “transgender” violence was perpetrated specifically against people in the male to-female spectrum; (30) of the 38 murders of transgender people reported internationally in 2003, 70% were women of colour. (31)

 

Women, be they cisgender or transgender, are the victims of the majority of domestic and sexual violence within our societies. For transgender women, they may be turned out of refuges and even support groups, on the basis of their biological sex and prejudicial assumptions about their surgical status or intentions within the support group or safehouse.

 

Transgender women of colour in particular, face a heightened risk, as stressed repeatedly by advocate and actress Laverne Cox, who has been praised for bringing the issue into broader public awareness.

 

As with cisgender men, transgender men can also be victims of hate-crime, domestic abuse and sexual violence, but are less likely to encounter them (this does not mean that such cases should be ignored or considered entirely negligible, but that they should be considered in due proportion). For transgender men, this is partially due to their increased likelihood of attaining “passing privilege” with time. This is the privilege associated with retaining some privacy over one’s Trans* status and is more commonly bestowed upon transgender men due to the effects of testosterone.

 

We can learn a lot about the oppression faced by Trans* people from the statistics on violence and hate-crime. It is important to understand this oppression and the very real physical threat that it represents, if we are to properly appreciate Trans* issues in context.

 

Without acknowledging this danger, how are we to adequately appreciate the need for privacy? And without appreciating this need, how are we to fully understand the necessity for legislation pertaining to amended identification (passports, birth certificates etc.), education documentation, even amending details with financial institutions and government departments, for reasons of employment, further education and safe access to other opportunities, services and amenities?

 

Within these statistics, we can also see male privilege at work. Male privilege, the preferential treatment of men in society, is not the fault of any individual man, cisgender or Trans*, but it should be recognised. If it is not, then we cannot correct it. Furthermore, if those who experience this preferential treatment do not recognise it, they run the risk of erroneously assuming that it is the universal experience.

 

How then, are persons benefiting from male privilege, whatever other disenfranchisements they may face, to fully appreciate the need for action on issues such as street harassment (to name just one issue) and the context of potential violence in which such things happen?

 

Equally, persons with white privilege are unable to experience the world, including its prejudices, as it is experienced by persons of colour. Once again, within these statistics alone, we see white privilege. To run just one example where such a privilege might provide a somewhat better outcome for a transgender person, white privilege may secure a higher income, providing access to safer housing and in some countries, greater access to medical treatment. This before we consider situations such as that created by stop and frisk policies or take into account the benefits that might be accumulated over several generations of such privilege.

 

In short, if we don’t appreciate the issues facing others, we can’t appreciate the differences between the world as they navigate it and as we ourselves navigate it. This applies we have white privilege, cis privilege, male privilege, middle class privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, mental health privilege and so on.

Other relevant statistics include the following(2):

  • Transgender people experience double the rate of unemployment experienced by the general population, “with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.”
  • Ninety percent of transgender people reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination in the workplace
  • “Respondents who had lost a job due to bias also experienced ruinous consequences such as four times the
    rate of homelessness.”
  • Twenty-two percent of respondents who interacted with police reported harassment by police, “with much higher rates reported by people of color.”
  • Almost half of the respondents (46 percent) reported being uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
  • Forty-one percent of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population, with
    unemployment, bullying in school, low household income and sexual and physical associated with even higher rates


Transgender Day of Remembrance is not a platform for the issues. It’s just that, a day of remembrance. But the necessity for this day is a direct result of the issues. I hope, that we might all consider our privileges and not just our disenfranchisements, so that we may more fully understand the issues faced by others.  And that by doing this, we may all find ourselves with a greater number allies, to whom we too provide support. I hope that together, we might continue to create changes which will eventually see the end of statistics such as these.

Related Post: Better interactions with transgender family members, friends and acquaintances
Related Post: A rough guide to some Trans* terminology

Unlinked sources:

(1) Amnesty, Because of Who I am: Homophobia, Transphobia and Hate Crimes in Europe

(2) Grant, Mottet & Tanis et. all, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey

Russell Brand on the Irish Water Charges

You may know Russell Brand for his celebrity antics, but more recently his Youtube show Trews has been gaining a following for its outspoken, humorous and yet critical look at economic and civil issues in the UK.  In this video however, Russell Brand looks outside of the UK and provides an overview of just some of the reasons that people in Ireland have been resisting a governmental plan to charge denizens for their water usage.

I should state that this author personally believes in water rates and metering to charge according to usage, with appropriate discounts for those in need of State assistance – but only within a healthy and transparent infrastructure. Following accusations of government corruption involving the state-created utility company Irish Water, the meter installation contractor Siteserv and businessman Denis O’Brien for whom such accusations are not new, it’s difficult to consider any joint venture between these entities to be healthy or transparent.

In addition, there is reason to believe that water supply costs are currently being met indirectly through other taxation and that the average household cost estimated by Irish Water is significantly far from accurate. Other issues raised include wasteful and/or unethical expenditure of finance and fears that the utility company may later be privatized and sold for profit, leaving the Irish citizens with little or no control over their own water resources.

Unless and until all of these issues can be resolved and the indirect charge that householders currently pay through higher taxation, as well as the water rates already paid by businesses, are abolished to avoid an otherwise inevitable double payment for the supply and service, this author will remain opposed to Irish Water and meter installation in Ireland.

On perceptions of beauty and race, with film recommendations

The availability heuristic is often summed up as the human tendency to think that easier something is to remember, the more frequently it must occur. Another neat summary, this time from a Wikipedia contributor, runs as follows:

“The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind.”

 

It can cause us to make a number of errors, such as overestimating the prevalence of a given phenomenon following an increase in media coverage of that phenomenon. By extension, it also causes us to accept as ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ occurrences or phenomena that are in reality only one version from within a wide range of possibilities. Another error we make for this reason, is the association of groups of people with certain traits or characteristics based on depictions of those persons in the media.

 

An example might be associating people from the Middle-east with violent extremism because international news coverage for that region is focused on warfare and violence, providing our minds with a disproportionate number examples of overlap between people of a certain religion, appearance or nationality, with those traits.

 

Similarly, media depictions of certain traits can be disproportionately linked to a given group of people. An example might be when national crime reporting unnecessarily specifies the nationality of a suspect when they are not native to the country, but often omits the nationality (or race) of a suspect when it is in line with majority of the population. Violence, theft or other acts are therefore disproportionately linked with minority races or nationalities in the public mind.

 

This undercurrent of media influence is what prompts much of the research on gender and media, such as the findings shared in this recent post on the visibility and representation of women in mainstream film.

 

Today’s post concentrates on a subject equally vulnerable to media-influence, our concept of beauty, particularly female beauty. Advertising, film, television, magazines and so on, heavily lean toward one, very specific, depiction of female beauty. That depiction influences our social norms and our beauty ideals.

 

We all know the depictions of female beauty in the media are less than genuine. We know about photoshop, professional lighting and make up. We also know they tend towards one body type, including weight range, height, bust etc. Considering how much alteration these images undergo and the very selective representation of women, we also know that the body type depicted is considerably more rare in reality, than it is in our media. These depictions present a fiction as a reality and make it the goal and the expectation.

 

But what about race? When you think of “female beauty” as depicted in the media, how many of the related images in your mind involve women of colour?

 

Media depictions of beauty also create another norm; they promote a predominantly white beauty ideal. Depictions that do involve women of colour often represent them as “exotic”, a distinctly “othering” term with highly sexual connotations. Black women in particular are sometimes portrayed as bestial, animalistic and thus quite literally de-humanized, while the implied “wildness” heavily sexualizes them. You may also notice that the media more often displays black women with features more typically associated with whiteness, such as lighter skin and chemically relaxed hair, rather than with natural hair.

 

This leads us to the first of two documentary suggestions, looking at predominantly female-centred beauty ideals as they intersect with race; Chris Rock’s Good Hair. As informative as it is entertaining, this film explores what is meant by the term “good hair”, the business behind it and the worrying perceptions that some people appear to have of natural hair, considering it less presentable, less professional and less attractive.

 

For me, the most affecting aspect of this film was seeing women in India have their hair removed, ostensibly for religious sacrifice, only for the hair to be later sold to distributors in the United States and elsewhere. Suppliers will eventually sell the hair to a predominantly female, African American customer base as one means of conforming to the innately prejudiced beauty ideal dominating society.

 

If you have a particular interest in this topic, you might enjoy reading, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” by co-authors Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, originally published in 2002 and now updated for 2014.

 

The second film I want to recommend is entitled Dark Girls, by film-makers D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke.

 

Dark Girls explores the concept of colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker to describe discrimination and prejudice based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. The term is usually only applied to prejudice occurring within one’s own race. The film doesn’t limit itself to the United States; and while it discusses the white beauty ideal in mainstream media as one factor, it also covers the historical causes related to white imperialism and slavery.

 

Following the release of Dark Girls, a news discussion featured a short excerpt from the movie, showing a brief clip of some telling research on children’s perceptions of others, based on skin colour.

Sadly, the clip is representative of the majority findings of the study, both black and white children displayed a bias in favour of whiteness. The bias was stronger among the white children. And the study also found little difference among the two age groups involved 4-5 and 9-10 years old.

Finally, I leave you with the video below, an award winning short film, entitled “A Girl Like Me”. Even if you watch nothing else recommend in this post, I urge you to watch this.

Despite a running time of only seven minutes, it manages to express the broad scope of its topic. In the interview-based début documentary by director Kiri Davis, a series of young black women express views on physical appearances including skin colour and hair, societal perceptions and expectations, and the impact culture can have on self-esteem and identity.

 

 

The rhetoric of gender equality; Emma Watson and other public discourse

As you have no doubt read, seen and heard, UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, recently delivered a speech for the launch of a new campaign, entitled  “HeForShe”.

 

The speech garnered criticism for several reasons. It framed the solution to gender inequality in terms that many found patriarchal. It extended what many felt was a naive and unnecessary invitation to men, inviting them to participate in the movement for gender equality. Critics also argue that Ms. Watson centred the issue on the benefits men can garner from equality, undermining the moral right and the true value of equality.

 

This post represents a considered view not only on Ms. Watson’s speech but also the general rhetoric surrounding the issue of gender inequality and feminism. Please note that this opinion is nuanced and as such I urge you to read it in its entirety.

 

 

Problematic Phrases

Rephrasing the problem of gender inequality in the terms of patriarchy, which is the social system of primarily male dominance that is responsible for the cultural mindset that passively or actively supports unequal treatment of women including their objectification and victimization, is not the solution.

 

We see this use of patriarchal language in President Obama’s response to a prominent domestic violence case, which used several problematic phrases,

 

“Hitting a woman is not something a real man does..”

 

Attempting to update or redefine the term “real men” only serves to maintain the fiction that there is one way to be a man. By definition, the term “real men” requires there to be men who are less than real. This reinforces rigid gender roles and more specifically, it promotes socially approved scripts that ultimately encourage homophobia and transphobia, that fuel peer pressure and that breed insecurity.

 

Speaking on the same subject, a White House representative issued another phrase which in this context, becomes somewhat problematic:

 

“The President is the father of two daughters.”

 

Though intended to be reassuring, this statement implies that a personal, vested interested is required in order to truly care about violence against women. For me, it was reminiscent of the phrase “someone’s daughter” as often used to discourage mistreatment of women.

 

“Someone’s daughter” belongs to a group of similar phrases, such as “Someone’s wife or girlfriend” or “What if that were your sister?” and so on. These phrases all attempt to re-humanise women to the hearer, by reminding them of a woman’s social connections and her significance to others. The worrying implication however, is that women are not fully fledged human beings in their own right. Their humanity is granted by association, often by association to male figures.

 

Women should not need to be contextualized. Humanity is not bestowed by virtue of belonging to a larger social or familial group. Equality is not deserved by association. The reason it is wrong to demean or assault a woman is not her association with some other human being, male or otherwise.

 

There is a similar statement in Ms. Watson’s speech,

“I want men to take up this mantle, so their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice…”

 

Whether intended to mean that men should strive for equality because of their “vested interests” or to mean that Ms. Watson’s wish that men to join the movement is caused by her own desire for women to be free from prejudice, this statement defines women by their roles in relation to men. It prompts empathy, but in a diluted form, encouraging men to think of women in relation to themselves.

 

 

“Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”

 

In connection with this statement, Ms. Watson makes the case for male participation in the movement based on the benefits that gender equality holds for them as men.

 

Certainly, the best advocates of equality are not those who seek personal gain but are instead driven by a sense of justice. That applies to all of us, not just men. We ought to strive for equality for those from whom we differ, as much as those with whom we share obvious commonalities. That sense of justice is the force behind truly inclusive, intersectional feminism.

 

In addition, this rhetoric places the emphasis on male-centred issues, when we know that the vast majority of gender inequality is to the detriment of women.That is not to say that there is no room within feminism to discuss areas of inequality that affect men, such as unmarried fathers’ rights, to give an example. Rather, it is to say that our conversations should reflect the work that has to be done, most of which involves primarily female-centred issues.

 

However, there is a common misconception that feminism is a synonym for misandry. Perhaps this is the reason that Ms. Watson refers to many men feeling unwelcome in the movement. This misconception is the product of misogynistic detractors, poor research and the sad but undeniable fact, that some people with misandric views do identify themselves as feminists. Given all of this, it doesn’t hurt to assure people that feminism is fundamentally about equality.

 

Some criticise Ms. Watson for extending an “invitation”, citing the thousands of years that the majority of men have been indifferent to or in favour of inequality and accordingly ignored the open invitation.

 

While this is very true, it has very little meaning to a seventeen year old boy from Lancashire, England, for instance. Surely he can only be held responsible for his own choices and certainly, for events within his own lifetime. However, upon seeing one such critic regard all men as an apparently immortal, collective consciousness, he may very well feel unwelcome. Such statements only perpetuate the misconception that feminism is rooted in reactionary misandry.

 

Many feminists are apprehensive to discuss any male perspective or experience. It’s an understandable fear too, since the main narrative within this community should generally be centred on the issues of those who have the least voice in wider society.

 

That being said, keeping the main narrative focused, does not require that we employ prejudice, deny the existence of other forms of inequality or display a lack of compassion and respect in our treatment of them. We can learn about those inequalities, we can even discuss those inequalities without losing all perspective or allowing them to eclipse other issues.

 

We shouldn’t allow fear to decide our discourse. We shouldn’t allow a fear that looks all too like anger, to become the public spokesperson of our community.

 

 

Considering the Speech in Context

 

Emma Watson is a highly influential figure, particularly to younger people. And while her UN speech uses the familiar phrases of patriarchy, it is an introduction. For the most part, it uses language and terms appropriate for an introduction, appropriate for its audience.

 

People engage with feminism on different levels. We rarely approach any new or unfamiliar ideology at the highest level. Introductory level conversations of feminism will make use of the familiar language and concepts of patriarchy because we must begin somewhere. We must begin with a common language and tangible, graspable concepts.

 

Ms. Watson’s speech speaks not to established feminists, but to the next generation of feminists and those not yet versed in feminism. Her speech encourages people to engage with this movement. From there, they can investigate, explore (find out that not everybody falls into one of the “HeForShe” titular categories) and learn that there is so much to feminism that we have yet to discover a “highest level”.

 

Not only does it take time to integrate feminism into our worldview, but even then, it is an unending education. Perhaps Emma Watson has more “to learn” as critics around the web have stated, but so too have all of us.

 

And perhaps, when viewed in context, her speech, which has moved its intended audience and started them on what we can only hope will be a lifelong endeavour to learn and engage, is not quite so naive as some have suggested.

 

Higher-level or in-group rhetoric on any ideology only appeals to those who are already familiar with its concepts, its terminology and so on. This speech, appeals to those who possess its sentiment, its sense of justice.

 

Furthermore, it brings a more positive representation of feminism into the public awareness, counteracting those misconceptions and lazily trotted-out stereotypes.

 

Yes, we should discuss the issue of patriarchal solutions to a patriarchal problem. But it’s not necessary to personally attack Ms. Watson, as some have done. The same is true of any high-profile figure who attempts to challenge stereotypes, spark interest in feminism or represent this multi-faceted movement in one neat bundle to an uninitiated audience. There will be errors, their feminism will differ from our own and so on. We ought to take a balanced view of these contributions, consider them in context, assess the positive and negative effects, not just the aspects we consider to be in error. In this case, one positive effect may have been to engage a previously disengaged audience, many of them younger people and men of all ages.

 

Personally, I welcome the next generation of feminists. I do so knowing they will hold different opinions, accepting that they will have different perspectives and personal experiences. But knowing too, that the learning process is ongoing for all of us – yes, their views will evolve as they engage more with feminism, but feminism will evolve too, in part because of their input. I welcome the next generation of feminists, knowing that we all share a common starting point, our sense of justice.

Postscript & Update

Some readers have heard of Iceland’s announcement regarding a UN-supported male-only gender equality conference on women’s rights and violence against women. While this Jackson Katz style approach can be beneficial in educational settings, excluding women from important dialogues between empowered leaders regarding gender equality and discussing women’s rights without women, strikes me as counter-productive, as I’m sure it does many others. Some newspapers have represented Ms. Watson’s speech and this announcement almost as cause and effect. While they share a use of patriarchal models of male protection and one has certainly popularised the notion of male-involvement in this issue, I feel quite strongly that it’s only appropriate to hold the conference organisers responsible for their own choices, their interpretation and over-stepping of that involvement and from the information currently available, what appears to be their major oversight of an inherent flaw.

Update: Following criticism, the conference organisers have decided to include women, full story here.

Ebola diagnosis in the US, racism and xenophobia

The West African Ebola epidemic has not led to any star-studded fundraising appeals, nor to donations adequate to meet the need for supplies and aid. Negative attitudes surrounding the crisis have included indifference, wilful ignorance, self-concerned panic and allusions to cultural inferiority instead of a focus on inferior conditions . Then yesterday, reports of the first diagnosis of Ebola made in the United States began to emerge and have since been confirmed.

 

Many people in first world countries were indifferent to the growing death toll in West Africa, primarily concerned that Ebola stayed “over there” and far away from “over here”.  Others blamed the victims of this latest outbreak for having contracted the disease, suggesting that unhygienic burial rituals and the consumption of bushmeat constitute evidence of the disease being almost self-inflicted. This, despite the fact that almost one tenth of Ebola fatalities thus far have been healthcare workers.

 

While it’s true that unhygienic burial practices have advanced the spread of disease in regions where those rituals exist, it’s also worth noting the many other transmission and mortality factors.

 

Hospitals: Problems of staffing, funding, hygiene and equipment

Many hospitals are under-staffed, under-funded and ill-equipped. West African hospitals and healthcare centres don’t have the supplies to treat every patient. Some healthcare centres don’t have running water.

 

With disposable syringes constantly in short supply, some hospitals and healthcare centres have re-used needles or used unsterilised needles. As a result, a patient admitted with Malaria, may contract Ebola while in hospital, be discharged and unknowingly incubate the virus for several days before symptoms begin to appear, at which point the virus becomes contagious.  The contaminant in this case would be a needle previously used on an Ebola patient misdiagnosed with Malaria, as often happens. Misdiagnosis could be reduced with sufficient funding for tests and screening.

 

These situations are also partially responsible for a general feeling of distrust and aversion to medical facilities in some areas, causing people to hesitate before self-reporting suspected cases. In a developed country, patients are more likely to self-report and willing to enter medical isolation but this wasn’t always the case. One only needs to look at past laws and practices governing quarantine to see how our relationship with hospitals and even quarantine has changed according to improved outcomes and quality of treatment.

 

During England’s plague of 1665, “Searchers of the dead” were those who sought not only for deceased plague victims, but also reported the households wherein they were found and the names of possible plague victims. These were then seen by a “plague doctor” who was by no means a qualified medical professional, but their decision could result in a family home being boarded up from the outside and marked with a red cross. That, once upon a time, was quarantine. The public were aware of this fate and self-reporting was understandably low, hence the existence of “Searchers of the dead”.

Of course this inhumane treatment is not found in West Africa, but the lesson remains: The more hope held out by hospitals and physicians, the greater the instance of self-reporting. So long as hospitals and aid workers continue to struggle with cross-contamination, poor conditions and low supplies, self-reporting will suffer.

 

Bushmeat

Bushmeat is the meat from non-domesticated animals including mammals and reptiles, hunted in many parts of Central and West Africa. The consumption of cooked bushmeat is not a risk-factor in the spread of disease, but the handling of uncooked bushmeat is a danger. The risk therefore is to the hunter and the person responsible for preparing the meat for consumption.

 

In some areas it has been banned for environmental reasons as well as medical ones. Such bans are in vain however, where people have no other source of sustenance. Some areas are not entirely dependent on bushmeat, with other options available, but these options are not always reliable and sustainable enough to completely remove the necessity to purchase and consume bushmeat.

 

 

Bodily fluids

There are burial rituals that involve unhygienic contact with bodies and this is undeniably advancing the virus. There is an effort to spread awareness of the issue in the relevant communities, encouraging families to desist in the practice or wear gloves and so on. These efforts are meeting with some resistance and workers are faced with limited supplies of personal protective equipment including gloves, in hospitals and in the field.

 

However, Ebola can also cause a great deal of bleeding, vomiting etc. The bleeding occurs at a number of sites throughout the body, internally and subcutaneously. In other words, it’s not all burial rituals and bushmeat. There is a risk of contamination just by the very nature of the disease. In more privileged countries, with access to personal protective equipment, disinfectant, running water and with it, the capacity for frequent hand washing, this threat would be greatly reduced and more easily controlled.

 

And should a patient survive the virus, it stays active in semen for weeks to months. It’s not surprising that many people in affected areas don’t know this, given the communication barriers there may be in hospitals with international teams, the fact some people don’t report to a hospital at all and in some places, the absence of many centralised channels of information and general lack of accessible sex education.

 

Ebola Diagnosis in the United States

“Despite the tragic epidemic in West Africa, U.S. health professionals agree it is highly unlikely that we would experience an Ebola outbreak here in the United States, given our robust health care infrastructure and rapid response capabilities.”

White House issued fact sheet

 

Yesterday, news broke of the first diagnosis made in America. Before we consider what this means for a highly industrialised nation with all its advantages, let’s consider what further impact this might have.

 

Firstly, where empathy has failed, self-concern and fear will succeed. Those who have ignored the Ebola virus or looked the other way while West Africa and international aid workers endure “their problem”, suddenly care a great deal more about this virus.

 

From this, we will likely see an increase in the funding provided to the very few labs* currently researching the virus. This doesn’t immediately help those in West Africa, but in the absence of a united, global concern for their danger, further funding research would be an improvement, however self-interested it may be.

 

In addition, the drastic difference in living conditions between countries with very different economic outlooks, has a major impact on the spread of disease. Access to health care, medical supplies, disinfectants and personal protective equipment, accessible channels of reliable information, all of this is entirely different to the current situation in much of West Africa. And yet, much of the global reaction to this crisis has been the resounding cry of: What about us? What if it happens to us?

 

If that’s not how you feel, if compassion and not self-concern is at the forefront of your mind, the good news is that it’s easy to donate to Doctors Without Borders to assist in the immediate relief of suffering in West Africa.  There are suggested amounts but you can also stipulate the amount within your means.

 

 

*Footnote on laboratories

 

According to GOA in 2007, there were only fifteen labs in the United States with the highest biosafety level (BSL-4) which is the required BSL for work on the Ebola virus. Not all of these labs are actively working on Ebola, some are working with other BSL-4 agents, some currently only work with BSL-3 agents and at least one is still under construction.

They are composed of four different sectors, as follows: 9 federal government laboratories, 4 academic labs and 1 state and 1 private lab, totalling 15 labs with the facilities and training necessary to do this work.

In contrast, there are 1,356 recorded laboratories in the United States with a BSL-3.  The same is true worldwide, we have very few labs with the capability to work with BSL-4 agents like Ebola. To my knowledge, America has more BSL-4 labs than any other country.

 

 

Invisible Disability Stigma

If your reflex is to imagine a wheelchair user when you hear or read about people with disabilities, there are several poignant issues that can pass you by. There are plenty of disabilities not readily apparent to the onlooker, these are termed “invisible disabilities” or “hidden disabilities”. They include some chronic pain conditions and mental illnesses, to name just two broad categories. For some people, the visibility of their disability fluctuates with the severity of symptoms on any given day.

 

Not everyone with a disability, visible or invisible, is prevented from working. For those who are however, most developed countries provide a State benefit of some kind. A recent post discussed the design of these benefits.

 

People with invisible disabilities are often subjected to harsh judgement for not working. The reason they don’t work may not be common knowledge and some people may assume they are long-term unemployed by choice or doubt the validity of their disability because it’s not apparent to them as casual onlookers.

 

Amidst the criticism from relatives or acquaintances, there is also the dreaded question from strangers; “What do you do?” Anyone who has ever been unemployed for even the shortest length of time knows the discomfort this question can cause. For those with invisible disabilities, the choice is between deception, deflection or facing potential judgement as an indolent fraud.

 

Disability is not shameful, but social stigma is humiliating.

 

The decision to grant state disability benefit involves the consideration of their full medical file, communication with their own doctor and any consultants, in some cases an interview and/or a home visit (which may or may not be announced in advance).  After all of this, the benefit was granted. Yet, these people still face suspicion from people who have no access or right to that wealth of personal information.

 

There are systemic issues that unnecessarily expose people to these social difficulties. The following section provides some examples from just one sector of the public infrastructure, public transport. However, it’s important to note that people with invisible disabilities face well documented challenges and prejudicial preconceptions in many areas of life, including healthcare, education, employment, socialising and even parking. Parents of children with invisible disabilities also encounter negative attitudes and judgements.

 

It becomes clear that two problems exist. The root problem is this; people with invisible disabilities face prejudice and social stigma. The secondary problem is that many areas of public infrastructure are entirely insensitive to that experience.

 

Public Transport

Some governments provide free public travel passes to people with disabilities, visible and invisible, in order to supplement the State benefit or meet additional needs. Passengers with disabilities usually have to display these passes either when purchasing a ticket or in lieu of one.

For those with invisible disabilities, having to proclaim their disability status in public can expose them to prejudicial hostility and social exclusion or disapproval. So long as this remains the case, these passenger transactions should be made as smoothly as possible and restricted to the necessary personnel. Disability is not shameful, but social stigma is humiliating.

 

Readers can investigate the travel passes and tickets provided to persons with disabilities in their own territory and compare them to the suggested layout below.

I’ve witnessed the queue-halting scrutiny of a travel pass when the passenger has no visible disability. And I have heard drivers demand identification from persons they had assumed were not the rightful owners of such passes because their disability was not visible.

 

To verify the authenticity of a pass is part of their duty and rightfully so. However when it comes at the expense of a person’s privacy and results in public humiliation, I have to wonder if there’s not a better way?

 

In the ideal world, all free travel passes would superficially resemble common forms of travel card, being similar in shape and size, though clearly marked for drivers/conductors as a free travel card. In addition, a photograph should be included on the card, rather than requiring the passenger to produce separate photographic identification on demand. This also reduces the prevalence of travel card theft and subsequent fraud.

 

Furthermore, such travel cards should be compatible with electronic turnstiles and entry points, if any exist within the infrastructure. This removes the necessity for persons with disabilities, visible or invisible, to request assistance from staff. For those with invisible disabilities, requesting special assistance not only separates them out from others, often unnecessarily, but it also forces them to disclose their disability to any travelling companions. While invisible disabilities are still publicly regarded with such suspicion, that disclosure to people who are not in official positions, should be a choice.

 

Finally, tickets provided to persons with disabilities should superficially resemble other tickets. Some governments mark these tickets or colour them differently, to ensure that drivers or conductors are aware that this passenger may have additional needs. However, if the differences are so distinct, some passengers with disabilities will feel they have to hide their tickets, or even purchase standard tickets, just to maintain their privacy in the company of others or avoid judgment.

 

It becomes clear that two problems exist. The root problem is this; people with invisible disabilities face prejudice and social stigma. The secondary problem is that many areas of public infrastructure are entirely insensitive to that experience.

Related Resources:

Invisible Disabilities: “The challenges of identifying and disclosing disabilities that others can’t see” – Psychology Today.

Invisible Disability in the Workplace – Yonge Street Media.

Living with an Invisible Disability – [Video] One man with an invisible disability dispels myths and discusses his first-hand experiences prejudice and stigma.

Deafness and Hearing Loss

Deafness, re-imagined in a cultural and social vacuum, would not be a disability. But deafness in a hearing world is disabling. Not all of that is directly related to the inability to hear.

A recent post briefly referenced the social model of disability. It used this neat summary:

“The social model of disability identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people.” –Wikipedia

Rachel Kolb’s TEDx talk never explicitly references the social model of disability. Nevertheless, some of the information Ms. Kolb provides, particularly the surprising statistics on outcomes for deaf children born to deaf parents compared with those born to hearing parents, can be seen as evidence of our society disabling people in unexpected and completely unnecessary ways.

 

I also want to suggest this video which provides excellent advice for hearing people on how to communicate with deaf people and those who are hard of hearing:

 

Learn More

If you have an interest in learning more about this topic, there are plenty of resources out there, it’s not just limited to video media. Youtubers however can offer some insight by uploading advice, examples of daily life and their personal experiences. Just bear in mind that no one person is representative of an entire community.

The playlist below provides a sample of those videos. It ranges from people delivering personal experiences and opinions, to explanations of assistive technology that people may use. And if you’re wondering what assistive technology means in a broader sense, here’s a video for that too.

 

Related Links:

Rachel Kolb on Lip Reading – Standford Magazine