Blogging against Disabilism Part II

via Ms Magazine Blog.  In an article called “Kervorkian and the Right to Choose,”  reproductive rights activist Carol King (not the singer) reviews the new HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack.”  She claims:

“The opposition to assisted suicide in Michigan was led by the same people (Right to Life of Michigan) who oppose abortion. . . The “right-to-lifers” enlisted the disabled in their cause when they cautioned that allowing people to choose to die would soon become their “duty to die.”

First off, it’s not appropriate to use a term like “the disabled” — it objectifies persons with disabilities. Also, the position of disability rights activists on the “right to die” movement is far more complex than King presents.  The group Not Dead Yet provides a solid argument against the devaluation of persons with disabilities implicit in Kervorkian’s work, while also critiquing the anti-abortion movement for co-opting the rhetoric of the disability rights movement.  For more on how to be a feminist AND an advocate for disability rights, see the FWD blog.

Belated Blogging Against Disablism

Please forgive this late post, but I just returned from the American Association for the History of Medicine meeting at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.  Even though I had my brand new Netbook with me, I completely forgot about Blogging Against Disabilism Day which was Saturday, May 1.  While the AAHM meeting was fabulous, the conference organizers, or perhaps the conference hotel, or both, forgot about accessibility issues when setting up for the presentations.   The speaker podiums were mounted on platforms that were over two feet high, with no stairs.  It was hard for even a long-legged temporarily able-bodied gal like myself to climb up and down from the platform.  One presenter who has a physical disability had to make her own arrangements (music stand, hand-held microphone) so that she could present without injuring herself.

So, word to the local arrangement folks for the AAHM’s  future meetings — make sure that the set-up accommodates the needs of  persons with disabilities.

Disability oppression: Disabled African University of Florida graduate student shot by university police

via  I’m very disturbed by this case, but not for the same reason as University Diaries, who  includes this with other cases of “delusional” students.  Here are the facts of the case that UD reports:

“Police first met with [Kofi] Adu-Brempong [an international student from Ghana] on Monday to check on him after a report of possible emotional problems. Geography professor Peter Waylen had contacted police to say Adu-Brempong had sent an e-mail with troubling statements, which were redacted in the police report. Waylen told police Adu-Brempong had been having delusional thoughts for at least a year and that he previously had received help from a UF counselor because he believed the U.S. government was not going to renew his student visa, the report stated. … Waylen and an officer spoke Monday with Adu-Brempong at his apartment. “I asked Adu-Brempong if he had any concerns that I could help with. Adu-Brempong advised that he was fine and did not need anyone’s help,” Officer Gene Rogers wrote in the report. “I advised him that Waylen and I were concerned for his safety and were there to assist him any way we could.” The report states Adu-Brempong refused help from a counselor and stated several times that he was fine.”

My first reaction was — why is it “delusional” for an international student to fear that he would lose his student visa?  Seems like a pretty reasonable fear to me.

Other facts not included in UD’s excerpt:  the student is 5′ 8″, 150 pounds, and because of a childhood bought with polio, needs a cane to walk.   According to the local papers, the student had called 911 because he didn’t believe that the men outside his door were really police officers (keep in mind that in some foreign countries distrust of police is justified).

In other words, it appears that the U of Florida campus police used deadly force against an African man who, in addition to being in a disturbed mental state, was no physical match for five police officers.

I agree with this op-ed from the Independent Florida Alligator.  This is  a clear case of disability oppression, and a racist one at that.

Update:  The student’s brother, Dr. Kwame Obeng, contends that this is a case of police brutality.  Students at UF held a protest rally on Friday.

It’s not just in our heads, or the reality of mental illness

During the past week, I’ve read several articles discussing the alleged excesses of the psychiatric profession.  One of the most annoying is this one by Edward Shorter in the Wall Street Journal.   Although I agree with Shorter’s critique of the shady practices of some pharmaceutical companies, he goes too far in claiming that anti-depressants are nothing more than placebos (Irving Kirsch makes the same argument in The Emperor’s New Drugs).  As I said in my comments over at University Diaries, I’d really like to see Shorter’s evidence for all these claims [especially the dubious one that benzodiazapenes are not addictive]. While there may be some truth to the argument that psychiatric disorders are overdiagnosed, he hasn’t presented very solid evidence that this is the case. Readers should also know that he’s a strong proponent of electroconvulsive therapy — which may have its uses in intractable cases but has serious side effects of its own.  How is the direct-to-consumer advertising for anti-depressants any different from those for other drugs? I’m a critic of Big Pharma too — but Shorter throws out the good with the bad. I really don’t appreciate Shorter’s implication that I’m a fool for taking SSRIs. If Shorter had made this argument about treatments for arthritis or diabetes, would anyone take him seriously?

Shorter is not a scientist: like me, he’s a historian of medicine. He has no experience treating patients with mental illness. He’s made similar claims for patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome — basically saying that these diseases are not real but all in the heads of the patients (a large percentage of whom are women — in other words, women are stupid.  For an excellent feminist critique of this view, see FWD/Forward).   There needs to be a middle ground between critiquing the pharmaceutical industry and acknowledging the reality of mental illness. Unfortunately this is not a sexy enough topic to attract the attention of the mainstream media.

NAMI Stigmabusters Alert: The Crazies and Shutter Island

NAMI StigmaBuster Alert: February 25, 2010

Different Movies, Different Strategies

Last weekend, Shutter Island was released. This week it’s The Crazies. They are two very different movies. Different movies require different strategies. In a previous alert, we asked for ideas.

The Crazies

It’s a science fiction horror film and remake of a 1960s cult classic. It has nothing to do with mental illness in the real world, but links an extremely stigmatizing title to an extremely stigmatizing plot. A town’s water supply is infected by a mysterious toxin turning people “insane” and violent. Those who are unaffected have to fight their way out or die from “the plague or the military.”

Language + stereotype = stigma. The plot is so extreme and disgusting that many people won’t take it seriously. Protest may seem ridiculous or only help sell tickets by giving the film more publicity-except it is an example of the most outrageous kind of stigma.

What’s sad is that Chris Albrecht, president & CEO of Starz Entertainment, which owns Overture Films, the studio that produced the movie, is “a long time advocate” for homelessness and children’s health. He has raised funds for Los Angeles’ Shelter Partnership and co-chaired a $250 million fundraising campaign for Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.

Send Them a Message

Please contact Mr. Albrecht to express disappointment that he is even remotely associated with a movie that undermines everything he stands for. Please send a copy to Los Angeles’ Children’s Hospital.

Mr. Chris Albrecht
President & CEO
Starz LLC
8900 Liberty Circle
Englewood, CO 80112
Feedback e-address

Gail L. Margolis, Esq.
Vice President, Government, Business & Community Relations
Los Angeles Children’s Hospital
4650 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Hospital feedback e-address

Tell Overture Films that the film’s title and linkage of violence to the buzzword “insanity” stigmatizes people with mental illness. The U.S. Surgeon General has warned that stigma and stereotypes, like the ones they have generated, are a barrier to people getting help when they need it. The company now needs to help set the record straight by funding public education on mental illness.

Mr. Chris McGurk, CEO
Overture Films
9242 Beverly Blvd, Suite 200
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(424) 204-4000
E-mail address for comments

Shutter Island

This one is a serious film with megastars, but its significance may be lost in too many dark or disturbing images. StigmaBusters have hated the promotional advertising, but those who have actually seen the film are split.

The story is about a 1950’s “asylum for the criminally insane” (authentic language from that era), a struggle for recovery and conflict between competing methods of psychiatry at a critical point in history- surgery, medication, and intense psychotherapy. The novel on which the movie is based credits Boston’s McLean Hospital and the book Mad in America, which NAMI NYC Metro once honored, for providing background.

Ask the Company for Help

Ask Phoenix Pictures, which produced the film, to help fight the stigma that surrounds mental illness in 2010 by donating some of the film’s profits to community mental health services in your community. Express disappointment that advertising around the film has been so extreme. If you have seen the film, offer your comments (pro and con).

Arnold Messer
President & CEO
Phoenix Pictures. Inc.
9415 Culver Boulevard
Culver, City, CA 90232
(424) 298-2788
E-mail address for comments

Use Them as a Teaching Moment

Use the publicity that has surrounded both movies to create a teaching moment in your community.

  • Call news editors and feature editors of local newspapers and news directors of local television stations
  • Shutter Island is about 1952. Local newspapers and television have run advertising about the movies. They should also run a story-or a series-about treatment and recovery in 2010.
  • Offer to help arrange interviews with individuals and families affected by mental illness.
  • Write letters to the editor, offer comments on local newspaper and television station Web sites and share short messages through social media like Facebook. Recommend NAMI’s Web site for up- to-date information about mental illness.
  • Remind them that the Surgeon General has reported that most people living with mental illness are not violent. Instead, they are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence.
  • The Crazies is pure stigma. Forget poison water supplies, insanity and violence. Movies like it create a real public health hazard-stigma-that the Surgeon General has warned against.

Out of the Inbox

Because of the large number of StigmaBuster messages received, they cannot all be answered individually; however, we appreciate every e-mail and do review every stigma report and prioritize them for action.

We also appreciate receiving copies of responses. They are important in helping to coordinate strategy and pursue genuine dialogue. You are our eyes and ears! Your help makes a difference!

Please send reports of stigma to the StigmaBusters E-mail address.

The Myth of Madness and Brilliance

As historian David Gerber observes in an article on the Blind Veterans Association, “positive stereotypes can be as big a burden as negative ones.” Gerber uses the example of the “cliche that the blind are capable of deeper wisdom than the sighted.” Blind disability activists, he writes, “denounce this flattering stereotype, just as they denounce negative stereotypes of the blind as helpless or doomed to live in existential or cognitive darkness.” [New Disability History, p. 313].

I’d like to do the same for the mythical link between  “madness” and “brilliance” that have emerged in discussions of the shootings at University of Alabama. This article from ABC news quotes a number of psychiatric experts who claim that the “insular lives” of professors — especially those in the sciences — makes it easier to hide a mental illness.  For example, according to Dr. Igor Galynker, associate chairman for the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein college of Medicine,

“They [scientists] work in solitude and they don’t need to interact in complex social situations and can be paranoid for a long time without someone realizing.”  Using the example of John Nash, the Nobel-winning economist from Princeton, portrayed in “A Beautiful Mind,” [pictured above], Galynker states, “”Brilliant scientists are supposed to be crazy.” Even the Chronicle of Higher Education reinforces these stereotype of the “nutty” genius, declaring academia  a “home to oddballs” and a “petri dish for madness”  because of a “high tolerance for eccentricity.”

I really wish these articles would actually talk to professors in the sciences instead of administrators and folks in HR.  Not only is it a myth that scientists work in isolation — collaborative work is the norm in the sciences — but severe mental illness is more often a hindrance  than an asset to productive work.

I would say the same about Kay Jamison’s “evidence” of  link between the artistic temperament and manic-depressive illness.  While I admire Jamison’s skills as a clinician and her courage in sharing her first-hand experience with bipolar disorder, as a historian I just have to groan at these “pathographies” or retrospective diagnoses of historical figures.

Targeting Weird People

She’s a brilliant scientist.  She’s been described as “weird.”  She talks excessively, often going off on tangents.  She’s socially awkward and often “tone deaf” to other’s body and facial language. No, I’m not talking about her.  I’m talking about her, the woman pictured at the left, focus of a new bio-pic on HBO.

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education observes that while there are counseling services for students, “fewer resources are available for assistance with faculty and staff mental-health issues, and we have a high tolerance for erratic behavior.” The author advises us in higher education to look for “erratic” behavior in faculty and staff.  But how does one define “erratic”?  Or “normal” for that matter? As I’ve said before in the context of shootings by students, will this latest incidence of violence lead to better mental health services for those at risk, or further ostracism of people with mental illnesses and others who are not “neurotypical”?

Female Shooter at University of Alabama

via The Human Condition Blog –, Historiann, Kittywampus, and others.   University of Alabama, Huntsville biology professor Amy Bishop shot and killed several colleagues during a faculty meeting on Friday. Campus shootings are always shocking, but this was is especially so since, as Historiann observes, men are the overwhelming majority of mass murderers and the overwhelming majority of people who kill with guns.

I was planning to wait until the weekend is over to comment on this and focus on my knitting, but even even the Ivory Tower Fiber Freaks group on Ravelry is abuzz about this.   The facts are still developing so I hesitate to comment about Amy Bishop’s mental state.  However, more than one article I’ve seen has raised the issue of Bishop’s mental state — e.g. did she have a psychotic break?  Was she taking SSRIs, which can cause mania or psychosis? Bishop shot her brother, supposedly by accident, in 1986.   Was that also the result of a psychotic or manic episode?

So, I’m just going to toss some initial thoughts out there, even if they turn out not to apply to this case.   Previous instances of campus shootings have prompted more attention to student mental health issues.   Will this case lead to more focus on faculty mental health?  Our campus has an Employee Assistance Program, but how many people actually use it?  How many more are afraid to get counseling because they don’t want to be labeled a “nut” — especially before they have tenure?

I’ll wait and see how this develops before  I say more on this.  Meanwhile, I’ll continue to stay calm and carry yarn.

Added later:  this article from SF Gate hints that bullying might have been a factor, although the author does it in a stupid assed intellectually lazy way (i.e. Southerners are stupid, hate intellectual Yankees, especially those who are from Harvard).

Update 2/15/10:  From the website Chronicle of Higher Education.   The ableist language in the comments is quite disturbing.

Here’s a first hand account from another UAH faculty member.  I hope they’re including faculty in the crisis counseling.

Caturday: Disability edition

via Bostonist.   Meet Nubbins, a kitty born without hind legs, who is the pet of the week at the Massachusetts SPCA.  I’m tempted to adopt him, but I don’t have wall-to-wall carpeting which he needs to get around.  I also have two flights of stairs. More information on adoption is here.  There are numerous other kitties and doggies for adoption too.

If the still photo isn’t cute enough, here is a video:

Speaking of Helen Keller

Here’s an announcement of a panel on “Becoming Helen Kellery” at the American Historical Association in San Diego by the folks at the Disability History Museum:  [via H-Disability]

If you will be attending the AHA in San Diego, please consider joining a
panel discussion scheduled for Saturday, January 9, 2010: 11:30 AM-1:30
PM, entitled "Becoming Helen Keller: Perspectives and Experiences
Integrating Disability into U.S. Survey, Higher Education, and Secondary
School Coursework."  Chaired by Laurie Block of Disability History
Museum,, the panel will include Richard Cairn
of the Hampshire Educational Collaborative, William F. Kuracina of Texas
A&M University at Commerce, Laura L. Lovett of the University of
Massachusetts, and Graham Warder of Keene State College.  We will be
sharing our ongoing work creating curriculum materials in disability
history and would greatly appreciate input from anyone interested.



Graham Warder, Ph.D.