When does a hateful letter become a hate crime? An Open Letter-Post to the Begley’s

Filed Under (Activism, Human Rights, Law) by Estee on 21-08-2013

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I returned home from Germany to find this story (the letter above) in my email box. How ironic. I had lived in Germany 26 years ago for school, and spent much of this trip marveling at the new Jewish museums, memorials and many new races living in Germany that did not do so to this extent when I lived there. Still, I didn’t get the sense that in cities such as Berlin, for instance, that these museums of hopefully-never-forgetting insures the security and citizenship rights for Jewish citizens or citizens of other races or disabilities. Work goes into protecting rights; they are not, sadly, given, and often impermanent. Therefore, there is work to be done.

During my trip, I brought my portable Hanna Arendt. I am thinking specifically of her essay, The Perplexities on the Rights of Man where she discusses inalienable rights and The Rights of Man which proved to be unenforcable: “The calamity of the rightless is not that the are deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law, but that no law exists for them…” She goes on to say how having a country was important for the Jewish people because without one, they were not considered people at all. Of course, we can’t produce a country for disabled people in order to obtain citizenship – it’s a silly thought if not a dangerous one; Arendt protests the classless citizen – one without rights – by arguing that the prisoner, at least, has a citizenship status; the Jews on the other hand, much like disabled people, have been targets for complete erasure from society. Similarly today, my concern is that autistic people continue to be status-less.

“The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer matter of choice, or when one is place in a situation where, unless he commits a crime, his treatment by others does not depend on what he does or does not do. This extremity, and nothing else, is the situation of people deprived of human rights” (Arendt, 2000, 37).

I conflate these situations – the disabled and citizenship status – with the recent story of this hate letter sent to the Begley family regarding their son Max playing in their yard. Waking at 4 a.m. this morning from Europe, I turned on CBC news to hear that this letter is not considered a hate crime (the other report suggests it is still under investigation at the time of this writing), and I thought that we must, as a community, ask just when, then, does a hate crime occur? Does it take more than one letter? Hundreds? Physical violence? Institutionalization? Calls for euthanization? Would this be in question if this letter was written about other “acceptable” diversities such as race, gender or sexuality? Why might we even have to accept this letter, regarding an autistic child, as escaping the category of harmful crime when it threatens, if not illustrates, many ignorances about autism? Why must we live – as autistic people and the families who love them – as second class citizens, or, as Arendt would probably argue, non-citizens? Are we not allowed, as this letter suggests, to go out and play, go shopping, be with others?

In Ontario, the disabled have the mechanisms under The Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Charter’s Section 15 for the rights of people with disabilities (although another discussion, I posit these Canadian instruments for reference purposes, not for the issues inherent in enforcing these codes or issues I have with the OHRC process). In 1976, the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation released the landmark statement that provided the beginnings of the social model of disability; “disability is a situation caused by social conditions…[d]isability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society (UPIAS, 14). While we have these new mechanisms that can be enforced, we know that until autism is understood in social terms, as a human rights issue, and not only governed by etiological interests that often occlude autistic personhood, enforcing autistic rights and cultivating understanding will encounter further discussions of citizenship, that merge with notions of capacity, various models of disability, and more.

For the purposes of this post, it is important, I think, to stick with a fundamental concern I have which is the right for autistic people and their families to live and thrive in their communities, to go to school, to have support, and be accepted as they are and to live a life without arbitrary labeling, diagnosis, testing buttressed by ignorance and the ignoring of a person’s right to live in society with their disability – to live free from harmful words and threat. As for the Begley’s and our families, we must not cave in to the violent words produced by their neighbour, but to protest against them in order that we too may partake in the fruits of life, to contribute to them, to be allowed to roam free with our whoops and flaps and delight in the lives of our children, and them in ours. For when these fundamental human necessities for life and well-being are threatened, particularly considering the tenuous status of the autistic human subject, we might consider this letter in and of itself the words of a hate crime – for words are the foundations upon which further human atrocities are built.

To add, CBC also posted an essay, What is a Hate Crime? which highlights section 319 of the Criminal Code: “The Criminal Code of Canada says a hate crime is committed to intimidate, harm or terrify not only a person, but an entire group of people to which the victim belongs. The victims are targeted for who they are, not because of anything they have done…It is illegal to communicate hatred in a public place by telephone, broadcast or through other audio or visual means. The same section protects people from being charged with a hate crime if their statements are truthful or the expression of a religious opinion.” I would think that we should all take up this as a threat to the entire autism community.

So let’s ask the key question again and I challenge our autism societies to take this up – when does a letter become a hate crime? Or, why is considered not to be a hate crime – perhaps this question is more revealing in how we regard autism and autistic people, and that society-at-large considers autistics, non-persons. Therefore, how can we protect the future of our children and autistic adults living in society? As for me, I write this open letter/post in support of any legal action they pursue against the author of this letter.

Reference:

Arendt, Hanna. (2000). The Portable Hanna Arendt. Peter Baehr (Ed.) Penguin Books.

I Am In Here by Mark Utter

Filed Under (Acceptance, Communication, Community, Computing/iPad) by Estee on 08-08-2013

We met Mark this year; he was so sweet to Adam. Mark also wrote the script for this movie I Am In Here. Mark answered many questions after the filming of this, and Adam listened. Thank you everyone for your hard work. I believe we are getting to know how difficult it can be to learn how to type, to translate an experience into a language. Thanks to many autistic typists, so many kids are accessing AAC or learning how to type, and support workers are learning what support means in terms of autonomy. Thanks to typing, Adam is becoming a two-handed typist on some days. Some people will become fully independent and others will always need some form of support, and I certainly hope with a greater understanding of interdependent relationships, that support becomes better understood and accepted. I suppose the main message I would have for people would be: do we support people and enable autistic people by mitigating our proclivity to normalize (and over-value independence)? I think many of our practices are the taken-for-granted normate methods and attitudes that erase many autistic contributions. Are we supporting autistic people in order not to be frustrated, to self-advocate? I won’t go into the “system” which lays out how we value people and for what (such as productivity, independence) – in fact, I think these mechanisms are universal, except they are more difficult standards for disabled people to achieve, especially when they are not accommodated. I suppose any method could be used for normalization, and this is what we always have to be troubling; by thinking about autistic self-advocacy and autobiography as valid and primary information about autistic experience, and thinking of how our treatments, attitudes and supports can even affect these experiences. By thinking and talking about such topics, perhaps we can better support the community instead of rushing in to say how autistic people ought to be in society.

To Order the Film, Visit VSA Vermont By CLICKING HERE. Thank you, Mark!!!

Bring a Friend to Camp Day

Filed Under (Acceptance, Friendship, Inclusion) by Estee on 07-08-2013

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Here’s Adam with his buddy again. Inclusion and acceptance, not social or community isolation, please.

Blehhhhh!!

Filed Under (Joy) by Estee on 06-08-2013

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I’m just posting this photo because I love it. That’s it. Here’s Adam with his assistant and counsellor, obviously having some fun.

Okay, I’ll get political too…what opportunities that some kids could have if human support workers were part of the mosaic of supports that many people need in order to participate in society. Instead, Canadian governments and most autism charities will send our kids to ABA camps. I know… at least it’s something, but in the end, it’s still segregation. In the end, the goal is to make one like others, to normalize, and as a disability cannot be normalized, think of what we’re doing to autistic folks. Let’s lobby for the right to be autistic and the right to have the supports that people need, including other people!

That Loving, Fellowship Feeling

Filed Under (Adam, Family, Friendship, Inclusion, Joy, Living, school, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 05-08-2013

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Adam and Nolan lunch

This is Adam’s best friend. Aside from going back to camp this summer, which he is able to do with an assistant, this is the friend who Adam spends time with. We recognized it was a real, unscripted friendship when the two of them preferred to play without words, to roll around on the floor, or when Adam would lead his friend around the house to show him things. His friend is verbal and not autistic and seems to understand and have compassion for Adam, and I believe the feeling is mutual for Adam towards his friend.

There have been lots of events this past week, most importantly the decision to send him back to the school he attended two years ago, which is not an autism school, but a school for all kinds of wonderful kids. Adam had good friendships there; we could make adaptations in the way work was presented; he could show off his skills and he especially enjoyed the mentoring program when the older kids would teach him. There, he made lasting friendships that have stood the test of time – the same friends attend his camp, and they enjoy each other’s company. His typing stories is getting stronger this summer with our daily practice, and helping Adam with schedules and learning to be patient with me (I’m a single mom… I need his patience) is another important lesson he’s learning with success. Let’s just say, I’ve made these things my mission and I find when I attend to them carefully, we generally do well.

Here’s an example: Every weekend, he wants so badly to go to his grandparent’s house. There, he is soothed and served by my mother. My father gives him strong hugs and takes him on his long walks and subway rides. How could he not love the attention and understanding he receives there? (In fact, he loves them so much, I’m going to ask the TTC if they will take us on a special learning tour). If I don’t take him and I don’t have a plan, he had been getting quite distraught with me. I decided to let it be. I broke part of my foot on Friday and couldn’t do everything he asked. This prompted a teaching moment.

“Grandma’s house,” he demanded on Saturday, looking at me with determination in his eyes. I was a bit nervous he would bite his wrist if he got angry with me; he wears a chewy tube or heart around his neck so if he’s inclined to do so, he will choose that now instead.

“We can’t go today. We’ll go tomorrow,” I said, thinking whoops – that’s an abstract concept and I’m not sure if tomorrow could wait. What is tomorrow when we want it now? I tried making a calendar, and since he can read – I simply wrote in the plan for the days. We went through Saturday, then Sunday…

“Grandma’s house,” he said again emphatically.

“Not today. First we will eat lunch, then we will go for a drive,” I declared, thinking of my foot. Adam got out of the chair, he was sitting in, and I wondered what he was going to do next. Then, he walked towards the rotary phone I bought – to gain his interest in making telephone calls, since he seemed averse to talking on the phone. He picked up the receiver and began dialing. I quickly held up grandma and grandpa’s phone-number, just to make sure we weren’t calling Australia. He put his finger in each hole and dialed each number carefully. He began speaking into the phone, without my assistance.

“Hi,” he said quietly.

“Adam, may I listen?” I asked, knowing that my folks weren’t likely to be home. Sure enough it was the answering machine. “Okay, they’re not home,” I said to Adam. “Let’s call grandpa’s cell phone.” I held up the number for him to follow again and dial.

“Hello” he said into the receiver. Again, I did not know what was being said to Adam, or if anyone was even there. “I’m fine,” he said again. “I love you….can… I… go…to…your…house?” he asked softly, speaking each word deliberately.

“Adam,” I interjected. “May I please speak to grandpa?” I took the phone from Adam to ask my parents where they were and indeed, they were not going to be home. I asked if they would please tell Adam themselves (they were in the car on speaker phone).

“Tomorrow” I heard Adam say softly and he began to whine. “Bye.”

I was elated that Adam made his first phone call by himself. After that, we were able to follow through with the day without a hitch. I asked him if he wanted to go for ice cream, it went so well.

“What flavour do you want…raspberry?” I asked.

“No.”

“Lemon?”

“No.”

“How about chocolate?”

“No.” In fact, if you’ve ever watched Gumby,you might recall Mr.Nopey, from which Adam has earned one of his many nicknames; you’ll just about get the right intonation and speed of Adam’s replies.

I waited for a bit. Then Adam declared…”White!” I realized that someone told me he had tried lemon once and really liked it.

“I think white is lemon, Adam,” I said.

We drove to the frozen yoghurt shop and indeed, he loved lemon.

So today, with my broken foot, I sent Adam along with his friend to Canada’s Wonderland where they shared rides and won a couple of prizes. I’ve been thinking of the typing, the relationship we share when we do it together, preparing Adam the way he needs to be prepared, and Adam’s strong desire to connect. I think when I spend more time with Adam typing and sharing, and when he can spend more time in sincere relationships that aren’t always highly verbal and difficult for him, he is a happier kid. Then, as I finished my Master’s Research Paper (more or less) today, I was thinking of Larry’s line in the movie Wretches and Jabberer’s when he speaks to Tracy about their trip to Japan and Sri Lanka, and they’re in dialogue about how nice it was that they traveled together: “Larry loops twice on that loving fellowship feeling.” Indeed, there is something about the summer that triggers these feelings -perhaps it’s simply more time – and I’ve learned how important these feelings are…all year long.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.