Dear Meryl Streep: No Abled Savior Needed

Meryl Streep has managed to make headlines by attacking the world's lowest-hanging fruit: Donald John Trump. Apparently it is viewed as an act of bravery to stand up to the most blatantly and visibly racist, ableist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and all around assholish public figure of modern times. It is especially brave to do so as a wealthy abled white cis woman, in the process of receiving a nationally televised award.

At the Golden Globes ceremony on January 8th, 2017, Meryl Streep received the Cecil B. DeMille Award, and used part of her acceptance speech to dredge up a year-old news item: Donald Trump publicly mocking the mannerisms associated with arthrogryposis, the visible disability of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski. I call him that, not because I particularly value awards or titles (I didn't even watch the Golden Globes when it originally aired, and I'm an actor), but because Kovalevski doesn't appear to name himself a member of any disability rights movement, nor focus his journalism on disability topics. Thus a description of him as a "Pulitzer prize-winning journalist" seems to contain far more relevant information than "disabled reporter" does.

As I and many others pointed out over a year ago, referring to the mocking of a disabled person as some unspeakable evil, or as "the final straw" to sever support of Trump's campaign, is actually ableist. Mocking a disabled person qualifies as evil, certainly, but it is not more evil than creating a mandatory Muslim registry like the Nazis did with Jews. It is not more evil than grabbing women by the pussy without their consent. And it is clearly less evil than repealing the Affordable Care Act, effectively killing millions of mostly disabled people, not just making fun of us. Why weren't any of those things the final straw? Why is mocking disability met with greater outrage than actions that are objectively, measurably more harmful, to other minorities and specifically to disabled people? The answer to that question lies in the subtext, something all actors love, within Meryl Streep's rhetoric:
"It sank its hooks in my heart... It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it."
The underlying tone, neatly bookended here, is pity. Just as disabled people merely living our lives is inspiring and heartwarming, on the flip-side directly interacting with a disabled person in a mean way is a low blow, kicking someone while they're down. Of course in reality, being disabled doesn't mean we're "low" or "down" in the first place (unless you're literally talking about wheelchairs or dwarfism, neither of which describe Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski).

Making fun of disabled people is the unforgivable sin of the 21st century, not because ableism is bad - the speech didn't even contain the words ableism, discrimination, or bigotry - but because disabled people are already so tragic and vulnerable. Hiring people who aren't disabled to play us in movies is fine. Taking away our civil rights, that's fine. Literally murdering us, no problem. Just don't point and laugh. Meryl Streep says we lack "the capacity to fight back." While it's true that the president of the United States generally has more power than a given New York Times editor, first of all, Donald Trump hadn't yet been elected to any public office at the time, and second, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski can and has responded to Trump in the way that he himself saw fit. There is no abled savior needed to defend him.

Potentially the most troublesome word choice in the speech is when Streep said that Trump "imitated a disabled reporter." Not mocked, imitated. What happened to the old adage "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"? I seriously doubt that Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski felt flattered by Trump's childish antics. Meryl Streep, did you mean to imply that acting in the manner of a disabled person is what damned this action, not the fact that it was done for the sake of mockery? When an abled actor plays a disabled character, what's shameful isn't the stolen opportunity, but that a disabled character is portrayed at all? Maybe that's why you didn't even mention Kovalevski by name. He's just "a disabled reporter" to you, stripped of his personhood and of all his accomplishments. You also managed to mention the recently passed, openly bipolar Carrie Fisher, but as "Princess Leia" - neither disabled nor a person! You disrespected them just as much as you deservedly disrespected Trump. As you said in the very same speech, disrespect invites disrespect, so maybe I should call you "shit head" or something instead of Meryl Streep.

As I often say in presentations about autism, two people who are both ableist are always on the same page, even if they say and genuinely believe they're not. If you're a parent using Floortime to manipulate your child into acting neurotypical, you're not some radical revolutionary. You're not special for disagreeing with those in the ABA industry, 'cause actually, you agree with them. You agree that disabled people should not be allowed to be visibly disabled in our mannerisms, and your actions reflect that. If you're a doctor who says that vaccines don't cause autism, but if they did, you'd have to be "monstrous" to still administer them, then you don't disagree with anti-vaxxers. Not when they say being Autistic is worse than having polio. Hey Shit Head, do you think being disabled is inherently shameful? That being visible to the world, with uniquely disabled mannerisms, is shameful? If so, you and a guy who's basically famous for being an asshole are in total agreement.

Image description: Side-by-side photos of Donald Trump (left) and Meryl Streep (right). In comic book speech bubbles, Trump says "I hate disabled people!" and Streep replies "Me too!"

It may seem like I'm over-analyzing a single 1-minute paragraph within a 6-minute speech. That's because that 1-minute paragraph is all Meryl Streep said about disability. The rest of the speech, well, it was a calculated action from beginning to end: After bullying, she segued into asking her audience to support the Committee To Protect Journalists, and indeed there was a reported spike in donations right after the Golden Globes. That's great for journalists and probably needed, but was the fact that Kovalevski is a journalist really the centerpiece to this story? Where is the spike in donations to ADAPT, or Not Dead Yet, or the National Council on Independent Living? With regard to disability, all this Golden Globes speech managed to inspire in its viewers was warm fuzzy feelings. It glossed over everything notable that disabled people did in the last year, and instead used one person as a nameless prop to add egos to the list of things being stroked in a rich abled white people's circle-jerk.

What about the parts of the speech before Kovalevski and Trump?

Before reading any other perspectives, I watched Meryl Streep on YouTube so I could start with my own opinions. She began with what sounded like a speech about diversity. I may not be a comedian, but that should inspire laughter: An abled white woman, delivering a speech, to an audience that is 94% white and 0% visibly disabled, praising that audience for being so diverse. She gave shout-outs to specific actors, and to her credit named their countries of origin including Israel, Kenya, and Ethiopia. But that's only a third of the names she chose. I'm sorry, but four (4) U.S. states, Italy, and Canada does not qualify as "diversity". That's just six (6) white people. To imply that it does reflects denial and rationalization.

Streep made no mention of disability when applauding the diversity of Hollywood. It was as though she did not see the connection within her own speech. No Affordable Care Act. No underemployment of disabled actors. No disability rights advocacy groups. No criticism of ableist movies like Split, The Accountant, and Me Before You, which undermine the work of disability rights groups and fail to employ disabled actors, many of whom are alive thanks to the Affordable Care Act.  If there were any invisibly disabled actors in the audience, I don't think they were very impressed with the bravery of Meryl Streep to utterly fail at addressing any of the real issues. I, a disabled actor, am not impressed. I, a disabled actor of color, am not impressed.


Your Fave Is Problematic: End The Stigma Badges

Image description: Red square graphic with bold white text that says “The End The Stigma Badges page is ableist and supports stigma hashtag intersectionalism fail hashtag ableism hashtag fake allies”

This is a story of the fastest falling out I have ever experienced or been witness to. Even the Art of Autism was not this petty. This all started in January of 2017; as I write this reflection, the date is January 8th, 2017.

The campaign began as a Facebook page, the brainchild and New Year’s Resolution of one person, who sought to "normalize mental illness", through a coming out process akin to that codified by the queer community. The concept was that "mentally ill" people will use the badges - simple images of bold text with a background color - to label themselves, in the eyes of their social networks, with a hashtagged message to “end the stigma”, and a second tag telling readers, presumably readers who are also "mentally ill" but unable to come out, that they’re not alone.

The term “stigma” has a sullied history in disability activism. First of all, there are far more people writing and sharing books, articles, videos, and social media posts, which talk about there being a stigma around "mental illness", than there are people doing anything about it. Even people who do at least claim to be combating stigma are mostly doing the opposite, i.e. perpetuating the very stigma they refer to. As it turns out, this “badge” campaign is NOT the exemplary shining beacon where someone finally does it right. It’s just another case study of disabled people being assholes to other disabled people.

The campaign picked up popularity very quickly: The Facebook page was “liked” thirty thousand (30,000) times within a week. As a result, the page’s founder decided to recruit a team of admins and moderators, to handle the immense wave of comments, messages, and new badge requests. Initially, I was one of those admins. I am no longer. These are my insights from that period.

Although my activist origins are within the Neurodiversity Movement, and this campaign is more aligned with the Recovery Movement, irreconcilable disagreements are not the reason I left, or rather not the reason I was abruptly and rudely kicked out. In fact, I recognized the differences between movements immediately and was quite deft in towing the party line and finding compromises. For example, when a bipolar admin insisted that bipolarity IS in fact an illness and should be referred to as “bipolar disorder”, I, a non-bipolar person, yielded to standpoint theory and dropped the argument immediately. Yet these "anti-stigma" folks cannot seem to allow a neurodiversity perspective the same leeway, even while explicitly claiming to.

If the founder and/or other admins choose to respond to this post, they will surely claim that I was being “argumentative”, hostile, insulting other team members, and that I acted like a rogue agent, intentionally defying clear agreements made among the team. Anything to deny, rather than confront, their own prejudices. It is no different from a business deciding that their disabled employee is too much trouble, but then claiming the person was fired due to “excessive lateness” or something similarly generic to avoid lawsuits.

The real reason they kicked me out was in reaction to a certain message found in my Facebook profile picture, conveyed using international sign language: That message is colloquially known as “flipping the bird” and customarily interpreted into English as “fuck you.” We talked about the picture within the team’s secret Facebook group, where I made it clear that it was not directed at anyone in the group. I even agreed to change it, as soon as I had a campaign-related picture to replace it. Still, the team was not satisfied, because their prejudicial feelings had already fermented, noting me as an enemy in their minds.

That is the gist of the falling out story, but not a complete summary of why this campaign is problematic. The rest I feel is best suited for a top ten (10) list:
  1. The admin team has an irrational prejudice (or another way you could say that is a STIGMA) against words like “fucking” and signs like the middle finger handshape. They refuse to post badges that contain words on their personal “swear word” lists (without even offering any copies of those lists, of course), thus preventing “mentally ill” people from talking about “mental illness” in their own preferred language. They specifically deleted a fan-requested badge that said “I am a fucking survivor.”
  2. They made an album of “Neurodiversity Badges”, allegedly recognizing the perspective of neurodiversity activists who don’t necessarily accept the concept of "mental illness", yet this album includes, said in these exact ways: “Nonverbal Learning Disorder”, “Oppositional Defiance Disorder”, PDDNOS (both as an initialism and spelled out), “I have autism”, “I am a person with autism”, and “I have ASD” (in fairness there is at least a separate “I am Autistic” badge). The album also briefly included “I have bipolar disorder” (not “I am bipolar”) before it was deleted.
  3. Within the admin team, there are no explicitly written rules, guidelines, or boundaries, only loose tentative agreements made in a fast-paced Facebook chat in multiple timezones. Despite this, team members who are lower in the hierarchy (founder at the top, then “core” admins, then admins, then moderators) are held accountable for breaking these unwritten rules.
  4. They attacked me on the grounds that I was “taking too much credit” based on a post which acknowledges me as a team member, written by another person who is not me.
  5. They made a set of “Badges for Men”, but then kicked out their only transgender team member.
  6. Their ultimatum offered for not kicking me out was that they needed me “to monitor comments and bring any concerns to us. NOTHING MORE”. In other words, my opinions are not valued, nor even permitted. After I was doing a perfectly fine job of not just monitoring comments but also responding to them appropriately.
  7. They use weasel words (not blatant lies, but essentially lies) when interacting with public comments. For example, they said in the team chat that there won’t be any abortion or miscarriage badges because the conversation would be too difficult to moderate, but to the person who first suggested one, the public response is just “we will discuss it.”
  8. They explicitly decided NOT to include LGBTQ-related badges, because in context those badges could wind up supporting, rather than combating, the stigma against queer identities, since a big part of that stigma is comparing queerness to illness. That makes sense on its own, but they apparently DON’T mind making badges for things like autism and ADHD, where the exact same danger exists. They even explicitly reference autism and ADHD as part of the neurodiversity movement (whose core founding principle is that neurodivergent people should NOT be labeled as mentally ill) but include them in a “mental health” campaign anyway.
  9. Once again, they gaslight and bully their thankless unpaid team members when one of them expresses a disagreement.
  10. Speaking of the neurodiversity perspective, “end the stigma around mental illness” is a self-contradictory statement. Calling neurodivergent people “mentally ill” is inherently stigmatizing. So this campaign was already flawed in its premise. This problem was actually brought to my attention by other people, I thought it was a valid concern and brought it to the admin group. Nothing was done, because they can’t take criticism.
In conclusion, I first would like to allow a reminder, that problematic does not mean there are no positives to be found. In some circumstances, largely depending on the specific label, some of the badges are accomplishing legitimate anti-stigma work. But for every anti-stigma action from the team running the campaign, they have also taken an equally pro-stigma action (insert your Newton’s law of motion joke here). Taken as a whole, this campaign is NOT a welcome addition to disability activism. If there are any attempts to monetize the campaign, I will be the first to declare that I boycott them, and will encourage you to do the same.