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Nov. 21st, 2016

Q&A: Online IQ tests

Q: Where can I find a valid online IQ test?

It’s not really possible to get a valid IQ test online. They have to be administered and scored by humans because there are a lot of judgment calls involved, and a multiple-choice format simply doesn’t lend itself to that kind of thing.

I’m from the US, and I’ve studied IQ a lot because I’m fascinated with statistics and with tests and measures (I’ve got a psychology degree, plus I’m autistic, which makes a very obsessive type of researcher!). And take it from me: People in the US overvalue IQ. It means much less than it seems, and says less about intelligence than people think it does.

IQ tests break down whenever someone who's atypical in some way gets tested. If your neurology is unusual, your communication style is unusual, even your culture is different, IQ tests start to say less and less until in the end, they say nothing.

The tests aren't utterly useless. Generally, we can tell if somebody’s outright gifted or outright learning-disabled from an IQ test, if it’s administered carefully on a good day with no cultural barriers, but the precise numbers themselves are really very deceptive. The idea that somebody with an IQ of 112 is smarter than someone with an IQ of 110 is just ridiculous. It just isn’t that precise. Only once you get to two or more standard deviations worth of difference do I feel that the differences are worth making a note of—and since the IQ test has a standard deviation of 15 or 16, that’s a big difference, the difference between average and gifted or average and intellectually disabled.

That’s not so surprising, considering that the original IQ tests were meant to identify students who needed extra help. They still fulfill that function reasonably well. But they were never meant to rank people by intelligence.

If face-to-face IQ tests are of so little worth, fail so often and say so little about us, you really can’t expect online IQ tests to be worth much at all.

Instead of worrying about IQs, we should focus on what we’re good at doing, what we’ve worked hard on, what we enjoy learning. That’s what really matters.

To those who want to learn more about IQ, I recommend the book "The Mismeasure of Man", by Stephen Jay Gould. It’s old—written in 1981—but it addresses a lot of the issues with testing intelligence and cognition, and explains why it’s hard to do and why it's much less applicable to daily life than you’d think.

Nov. 12th, 2016

Q&A: Trump's America

Q: What will you do now that Donald Trump has been elected president?

I’ll do my best to help the minority groups that are going to be worst affected—poor, disabled, Hispanic, African-American, LGBT. I’m already into volunteer work, but I’ll start looking carefully at what my priorities should be, where I as a single adult can do the most good. I’ll probably be going back to work at the food pantry again, since I’m pretty sure they’ll need the extra hands as food assistance becomes harder to get and the inevitable economic issues tip people from “working poor” to “hungry working poor who don’t get paid enough to eat on”. As a single adult, I have more free time than people who are caring for families. I'm limited in energy and ability because of my autism, but what I can do, I will do.

I’ll strengthen ties with the non-white people in my neighborhood. My LGBT friends know that I am there for them and I am not going to let anybody pick on them. I’ll continue my disability memorial research, so that those disabled Americans who die because of neglect, abuse, or murder are not forgotten. I’ll stay in touch with fellow disabled people and trade tips on survival. I have a free couch, and I have no problems with letting somebody sleep on it if they need it.

I’ll keep up with the news, and I won’t neglect the international news. I never have—I usually listen to the BBC news—but I’ll put special focus on it now that I can’t trust my government to have the best interests of the world in mind. I won’t ignore tragedies just because they are half a world away, and if my government does something I don’t like, I’ll protest against it.

As always, I’ll vote in every election, and I’ll research each candidate and issue carefully. I won’t ignore local elections, but I will ignore political ads and focus on the candidate’s abilities and track record.

For me, this means that I won’t be doing very much different—I’ll just be working harder at it. I’ve always been aware of how quickly and how badly a country can go wrong. I’m German-American, naturalized. My birth country went very, very wrong in the 1930s, even though most Germans are good people. Americans are good people, too, and I won’t let what happened in Germany happen to my adopted country.

So what's your plan?


Nov. 3rd, 2016

Voting Tips for the Neurologically Interesting

Election day in the United States is only a few days away. I've voted in every election for the past few years, ever since I was naturalized, so I have a little bit of experience. If you can't vote by mail or as an absentee, you'll have to go physically. Useful tips:

1. You need to be registered to vote. If you're not registered, check your local library; that's where I got the paperwork. Deadlines are 30 days in advance to just a couple days in advance. If you're registered, but you don't have the little card they send you that tells you where your polling place is, you can still vote-. Bring some kind of ID. A driver's license or state ID is ideal, but a utility bill will do in a pinch. In some places, photo ID is needed.

2. Do your research ahead of time. Know who you're going to vote for, and write it down. Voting takes place in a crowded, public location where you will have to deal with lots of people and brief social interaction, plus that "new thing" feeling that you get when you're breaking your routine. Writing down your choices ahead of time is absolutely critical. Expect yourself to be at least as overloaded as you usually are in a grocery store, and plan accordingly.

3. There will usually be propositions in addition to the candidates. This is where you're voting on laws. Most of them will be pretty easy to decide on, things like renewing funding for some public program or zoning some location in one way or another. Write down which way you want to vote on those before you go, or you'll be stuck reading the actual proposition summary and trying to decide based on that.

4. Remember that you do have the right to vote. This is true even if you are intellectually disabled or non-speaking or if you need help physically using the voting machines. If this is your first time, you might want to bring a friend who can tell them that yes, you do know what you are doing, thank you very much. And if you have an aide or a service dog who will help you with voting, yes, you can bring them.

5. It's okay to abstain. If you can't decide how to cast your vote, and you want to leave the issue up to the other voters, you can simply leave your ballot blank for that vote. If you messed up and didn't research some candidates, don't randomly cast your vote; just abstain. Your votes for other candidates will still be counted.

6. Expect to wait in line. This ballot will include a presidential election, and there will be a lot more people out to vote this year than there would be in a normal year. You may have to stand for a while, and you may end up outdoors. Prepare accordingly. Bring a stim toy, blanket, or whatever else you usually use to keep it together.

7. Expect a voting procedure something like this:

  • You go into the location, which is usually a public building of some type--a church, a community center, that kind of thing. Find a line of people waiting, and join it. If you join the line before the polling place closes, they have to take your vote.

  • At the end of the line you'll be asked to show your voter registration card or, if you don't have it, an ID. You may be asked other questions; for example, during the primaries in Ohio, I was asked which political party I wanted to register with.

  • The volunteers running the place will usually be older, and often female, and they tend to be pretty calm. If you can't catch what they're saying, ask them to repeat it. They will do some paperwork to check you off their list; then they'll let you vote.

  • You may be given a card, sort of like a credit card, to insert into the voting machine. Put this in and follow the instructions on the screen.

  • Return the card when you are done. In some places you might have to use a paper ballot or a mechanical voting machine rather than an electronic one. The voting procedure is a little bit different everywhere, so don't be ashamed to ask them how to use the machine.

8. Don't expect the ballot to have party affiliations on it; in my state, they don't. Know the names of the people you're voting for (another good reason to write things down). Besides, even if you normally support one party or the other, you might want to cross party lines to vote for a particularly good candidate nominated by the other party, or even for a third-party candidate. In local politics, unlike national politics, third-party candidates can and do win.

9. Etiquette: Voting in the US is by secret ballot, and we're not allowed to try to influence each other's votes. While you're at the polling place, don't talk about who you're going to vote for, don't try to influence anybody else's vote, and don't wear clothes that advertise any party or candidate. Think of it as like being in school and taking a test: You're not allowed to look at anybody else's paper, and you're not allowed to discuss your answers. If you want to talk about who you voted for later, after you get home, you can do it--just remember that everybody has the right to keep their votes secret; if you're curious, you can ask, but they don't have to tell you--and if you do ask, it's probably polite to say something like, "You don't have to tell me, but..."

10. Expect to be exhausted afterwards. It will use up a lot of energy and a lot of brain space, because it's new and because there are a lot of other people. That's okay; it's worth it. Go home and rest.

Useful resources:

League of Women Voters: Vote 411
Despite the name, it's not just useful for women; basically, this is an organization that teaches the general public how to vote. They're not associated with any particular political party. At this site you can get information on what's going to be on your ballot, whether you need to bring ID, and what hours your poll location will be open. It will also tell you where you need to go to vote, if you don't know already. Your polling place is also printed on your voter registration card--or, at least, it's printed on mine.

Polling place locator.
Has a nifty little map, and more information. This one's run by the Democratic Party, so they do have a section that tells you which candidates are Democrats, but their information is good.

You can even type How To Vote into Google and get instructions for your location.

And if you do vote, thank you, from a fellow American, for participating in our democracy. :)

Oct. 30th, 2016

Growing Up Hyperlexic

We don't actually know that much about hyperlexia, even though it's fairly common. Hyperlexia is a weird cross between learning disability and splinter skill, and it’s found on the autism spectrum quite a lot. Hyperlexia is associated with atypical development, especially developmental disabilities, but it can be found in otherwise typically developing children. And it’s a different thing from a profoundly gifted child who learns to read at age 2; giftedness is much more global than hyperlexia.

I was a hyperlexic kid. I can’t remember ever not knowing how to read. My memories go back to about age two and a half; I don’t know if I was reading fluently by two, but I know I was reading fluently by four. That’s the splinter-skill part. But the learning disability part is notable, too: Hyperlexic kids can read very well, decoding the words with ease, but they have trouble understanding what they’re reading.

I learned how to read and how to speak about simultaneously. In fact, I’m pretty sure that reading helped me learn about language to a degree that hearing speech never could. Words on a page are right there to study for as long as you want. You don’t have to worry about auditory processing issues (which I have, making it difficult to understand speech in anything but a quiet room with one or two other people, or a group speaking in turns). When you can see the words right in front of you, especially if someone is reading to you, it’s easy to understand that the sounds correspond to the words. I don’t remember learning how to read, but I do know I was never explicitly taught.

I remember being six years old and reading Pilgrim’s Progress. I didn’t understand the allegory, and I didn’t understand some of the words, but I could read it, all right. My ability to read hit the ceiling in early childhood, but my comprehension was much slower to improve. By age 9, I was reading things written for adult readers. I understood the facts in the books, but I didn’t have a clue about the motivations of the characters and often mispronounced words that I had only read but never heard spoken.

The comprehension issue came out in speech, too. When I was a toddler and in early childhood, I had speech that sounded communicative, but actually wasn’t very communicative at all. Instead of generating my own sentences, I tended to say words that fit the patterns of conversation, and often used “pre-recorded” phrases and sentences. Even today I sometimes have issues with this: Instead of saying what I intend to say, I follow the conversational path of least resistance and say something that matches the pattern of the conversation, but may be irrelevant, unimportant, or outright incorrect. When it’s incorrect, I don’t notice that it was incorrect until I have a chance to think back on the conversation; it’s as though in my mind, generating words and generating meaning are disconnected. Being able to speak doesn’t necessarily mean being able to say exactly what I mean. For me, writing was always much more reliable communication than speech.

I spent a lot of my childhood with my nose in one book or another, both fiction and nonfiction. My mom did a lot of things that did worse than nothing to help me and my autism, but the one thing she did right was to allow me access to books. From the start, I was fascinated with books, attracted to them the way a cat is attracted to the red dot from a laser pointer. I loved words. My grammar was perfect. I made it to the state spelling bee, to be defeated only because I was given a word I had not seen yet. (I never really read phonetically—I swallowed words whole. Figuring out spelling of a word I hadn’t seen yet was a trick I hadn’t learned.)

Around ten years old, my comprehension started to catch up to that of the other children my age, and after that, it steadily improved. Most of this has nothing to do with any innate ability; it’s a simple consequence of the sheer volume of reading I was doing. With that much practice, anybody would get better. I began to feed my interests in science, especially medicine and astronomy, with books. I learned how babies were made by reading medical textbooks. I taught myself the basics of algebra so that I could understand the equations in books about black holes.

My autism is not mild. It’s not extreme, but it’s not inconsequential, either. Many people with the degree of autism that I have are not able to live independently; as it is, I’m on the edge of independence, able to take care of myself but not handle new situations or earn my own keep—yet. My love of books and learning was a major benefit to me, even in those early years when I wasn’t quite understanding what I was reading, because it taught me how to find information and how to put it together into coherent patterns. I have a college degree now, though it took me until age 33. But even before I started studying psychology, I read a lot about the human brain and learned a lot about myself. That knowledge is why I’m as independent as I am today.

If there’s an object lesson to all of this, it’s that one’s strengths can prove to be extremely useful, even if they seem like useless parlor tricks and splinter skills at first. A six-year-old reading Pilgrim’s Progress and understanding very little of it might not look like she’s benefiting from the experience, but by the time she’s twelve and learning the facts of life from a medical textbook, or sixteen and studying astronomy, or twenty and reading journal articles, it can make a big difference.

Oct. 20th, 2016

Martin, Elisa, Maria

CW: Murder of the disabled by family members. Genocide.Collapse )

Oct. 14th, 2016

Q&A: Who would win if all the Disney princesses fought, Hunger Games style?

Q: Who would win if all the Disney princesses fought, Hunger Games style?

Putting these girls into a Hunger Games-style arena simply wouldn’t end with a Hunger Games-style brawl.

They’re all protagonists. They’re all strongly Good, philosophically and in practical terms.

Mulan is a soldier, so she’s capable of killing, but not murder. Merida can hold her own in battle, but won’t kill an innocent. Elsa could kill everyone, but she won’t. Many of the others—Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel—have primarily social strengths, as in charisma.

They wouldn’t fight each other. They would fight the Arena itself. And it’s likely that they would win. Why? Just think about their abilities, and then imagine the many ways those abilities could be used to break the Hunger Games.

Snow White: She’s an innocent, and probably the youngest. She’s the Rue of the group—so vulnerable that nobody can help but like her. Even small animals love her; in fact, she has the power to get small animals to do her chores for her. Never underestimate the power of a squirrel, bird, a badger in the right place.

Cinderella: Another innocent, and another girl with the power to communicate with animals. Her powers aren’t as extreme as Snow White’s, but she’s capable enough. She’s also an abuse survivor—which means she knows how to deal with trauma, because she’s done it before. And she has allies on the outside—a fairy godmother with transfiguration magic, who won’t be happy that her charge has been imprisoned in the Arena.

Aurora: She’s not much use in a fight, and she doesn’t have any particular powers (she’s animal-friendly, but not an actual animal-charmer the way Cinderella and Snow White are); but she’s kind and introverted, which means she won’t upset anybody. She’s also spent her entire childhood living in a cabin in the woods—she knows how to survive in the woods. With her around, they aren’t going to starve.

Ariel: She’s a specialist, the literal Aquaman of the group. In the water, she’s faster than anybody else, absolutely unbeatable, and she can talk to creatures that live in the water. As far as animal whisperers go, Ariel’s the only one who can actually talk in two-way abstract language with her animals friends, so that means that the group knows anything that’s happening anywhere near water once Ariel gets her fish spy network going. Unfortunately, out of the water, she’s very slow and probably has to be carried.

Belle: Is a nerd. That’s her strength and her weakness. She’s read every book she can get her hands on, and she has an inventor for a father. She’s got an extremely good brain in her head, and she’ll probably be the group’s source of information, though not their chief strategist.

Jasmine: Born and bred nobility, her primary power is her charisma and ability to communicate. Totally naive outside her native environment, she nevertheless has the wherewithal to think on her feet. She’s been on quite a few adventures with Aladdin, so she doesn’t scare easily. Jasmine won’t be a major asset, but she also won’t hold them back.

Pocahontas: It goes without saying that Pocahontas, along with Aurora, will be one of the group’s major food providers. Her biggest strength is her diplomatic ability; when the group threatens to fall apart when things get rough, she can keep them together. She has some minor animal-communication ability, but nowhere near some of the others’.

Mulan: The soldier. She’s a military girl, and she’s good at what she does. When someone needs to think fast, she can. She’s good at using the environment to her advantage, and she’s good at disguising herself and others. She’s likely to become their de facto leader. She can also train others in the basics of fighting, which is very useful because many of the other girls have no experience; while they won’t be fighting each other, the Arena itself is very dangerous.

Tiana: She hasn’t got any exciting powers, but she’s sure going to come in handy. She knows how to cook, naturally. She’s lived as a commoner for a lot of her life, which means she’s more independent than most of the other girls. She also has experience with magic, and has had to survive in extreme situations before (can you get more extreme than being turned into a frog?). She won’t crack, and she’ll be useful. Tiana will be just fine.

Rapunzel: If she’s still got her hair, she’s a serious asset. Rapunzel’s hair can heal anything, even old age. She can keep the entire group healthy. And the hair isn’t just a whole lot of dead weight, either; she uses it as an aid to do some pretty cool parkour-style moves. Rapunzel is also very strong, as shown by her ability to pull people up by her hair without breaking a sweat. If she hasn’t got her hair, she’s less of an asset, but her physical strength can still see her through (and quite possibly give Ariel a way to get around out of water). Don’t underestimate her charisma, either; if she can convince a bar full of ruffians to join her team, she can talk anybody into anything. Like Cinderella, Rapunzel has survived an abusive childhood. In her case, it was mainly psychological and emotional abuse, so she’ll be the one to see through the mind games the gamemakers try to play on the girls; she’s seen them all before from Mother Gothel.

Merida: Archery, obviously. She’s as good as Katniss, if not better, and she’s one of the few girls with the ability to attack at range. She can ride, survive in the wilderness, and keep her head in a crisis. No problems here.

Anna and Elsa: Have to be taken as a set. Each is willing to die for the other, and Elsa’s ice powers are prodigious. Anna and Elsa may be the main reason why the whole group is likely to try to defeat the Arena itself rather than fighting each other: Each sister knows she wants her sister to live, and each knows that her sister wants her to live. The only option for these two is defeating the Hunger Games together. Elsa has leadership experience, having been a queen; Anna may be younger, but she’s proven herself in crisis situations already.

There’s really only two ways this can end: The girls join together to fight the Arena, and win; or the girls join together to fight the Arena, and they lose. A win may still mean the deaths of several of the girls, and almost certainly at least one such death; but they’ll be deaths inflicted by the Arena itself. The first death will affect them deeply, of course; they may actually have to go through the entire ordeal with one or more of their number essentially disabled by emotional shock. But these girls have learned too much about the power of love, friendship, courage, and hope to give up in the Arena.

That says a lot about the Hunger Games, doesn’t it? A big part of the reason why the children in the Hunger Games kill each other is that they have lost hope. Their whole world says you can’t escape the Arena; their whole culture says you can’t defy the Gamemakers. There have been plenty of people as skilled as Katniss in the Arena, who didn’t manage to defy the games as she did, because they weren’t able to defy the basic concept of the Games: “You must kill each other. There is no other option.”

Ironically, I see a lot of Hunger Games fans looking at the Arena in the same way: A lot of people go in; only one leaves. They don’t challenge that; they focus on the strategy of survival. But as Katniss knows, and as the Disney princesses would understand, the other tributes were never the enemy.

Take a life lesson from this: When the power structure around you seems to be trying to pit you against other people, ask why. Challenge the paradigm. Chances are, the people you're being encouraged to fight aren't the enemy, and chances are, you'll be stronger together.

Aug. 24th, 2016

Q&A: Faking Normal

Q: Why do you "bash" autistic people who want to learn to be normal? Why do you encourage them to be autistic?

A: We encourage people to “be autistic” because we’ve tried faking normal ourselves, and it led to a lot of pain. We want to spare them that.

I was raised by a mom who was totally in denial about my autism. She taught me to believe that I was not really autistic, that I was actually lazy, strong-willed, and bad-tempered. And she taught me that the only way to accomplish things was to try harder. If you couldn’t do it, you weren’t trying hard enough. She would look at me, laugh, and say "Just do it!" as though I were pretending I couldn't. Sometimes she said, "You're so smart." She meant, "You're too smart to have an excuse for not being able to do this." And every time I took advantage of a good day and managed to do something that was difficult for me, as an autistic person, to do, she took it as proof that I could do that thing whenever I wanted to, and was just being contrary when I couldn't do it on command.

Well, I got out on my own and I wasn’t ready to take care of myself. I could neither use a bus nor drive. I couldn’t order at a restaurant. I couldn’t cook for myself. My sleep schedule was completely out of whack. I didn’t take regular showers. And I had never made a friend. I'd made friendly contact with others; many people were kind to me when I was a child. But I had never actually made a friend.

According to what I had been taught, the solution was to try harder to be as normal as possible, to tell myself that if I wasn’t fitting in, it was my own fault and I needed to change. Well, I tried. I tried to take care of myself, hold jobs, go to college. I pretended I was just lazy, strong-willed, and bad-tempered. I was burning out, but I didn’t know what to do other than try harder. I got to the point that I broke down mentally and ended up in the hospital. Twice.

Autistic brains are not meant to operate the way neurotypical brains are, and doing things the NT way is often not the way that works best for us. Forcing ourselves to go to crowded social events is not going to help us look normal; it’s just going to make us shut down. Whereas, conducting business one-on-one or even by e-mail is much more natural and easier for someone on the spectrum, and that way we actually get things done. Forcing ourselves to “sit still and stop fidgeting” can handicap our ability to think and process information; letting ourselves stim can free our minds to work efficiently. And so on.

For those of us who are “high-functioning” and can theoretically look normal for a few minutes or hours at a time, it’s a lot like trying to force a profoundly deaf child to lip-read and speak. Oh, they can learn it; the trouble is, it takes so long to learn it that they have no time to be a child. Even once they have learned, they’ll always have a harder time reading lips than a hearing person will have with listening to speech. Sign language is much more natural for that deaf child, even though it’s not the typical way people speak.

Now imagine being forced to do the equivalent of lip-reading in every area of life. There’s a reason autism is called a pervasive developmental disorder: Not just language but every little part of how you think and act and communicate is atypical in autism. You can try to mimic normal, but it’s always going to be slow, difficult, and exhausting. Or you can do things the way your brain was meant to do them, be your own person, and reach your own potential in your own way. Focusing on what works should be the goal of autism therapy and education, and what works is often as atypical as our minds are.

Jun. 29th, 2016

5 deaths, 9 days

I think we're having a summer homicide spike. Homicides of autistics have been coming in very fast lately.

June 19: Kevin Wilkes is killed by a fellow group home resident who was known to beat him up and bully him; staff kept them housed in the same location despite Kevin's previous injuries.

June 20: The body of Aaron Pajich is found buried under a concrete slab. He was abducted by two acquaintances, then murdered.

June 21: Tammara Killam is left alone in a trailer without air conditioning. Her twin sister, also disabled, watches her die of dehydration in the Las Vegas desert heat.

June 21: Lane Lesko escapes from a "therapeutic wilderness program". He is shot by police, though unarmed, after stealing a truck from the program's parking lot and crashing it.

June 28: An 11-year-old boy, his name not yet released, drowns in the bathtub when his stepfather puts him in the tub and leaves. A physical disability makes it impossible for him to keep his head above water.

I don't know if there's a connection, if this is one of those spikes that comes after a publicized case devalues autistic lives, or if this is just randomness clustering into pseudopatterns.

Either way, it's sad.

Jun. 5th, 2016

History of the oppression of the disabled

Q: What did people with disabilities have to deal with before laws were made for them?

Well, let’s see… Infants with disabilities have always been subject to infanticide. Ancient societies, as well as some modern ones, kill or abandon disabled infants at birth. These disabilities can be quite mild—a club foot, a cleft lip.

If you were disabled and couldn’t work, in many places you had to beg for your sustenance. That would have been a hard life—on top of whatever illness was making you disabled, you’d have to deal with homelessness, malnutrition, and probably repeated assaults.

Some people with disabilities were accused of being possessed by spirits. Epilepsy was seen that way. It was not unusual to exclude people with disabilities from society; for example, in ancient Israel, a disabled man was not allowed to become a priest.

Elderly disabled people did a little better, because their disabilities came on late in life and it was then still customary to respect people who had managed to live to grow old. Their families generally provided for them, if they had families; if not, they would have had to try to survive just like their younger counterparts.

Some of the first institutions were founded by people who really meant well. They were supposed to be refuges for the disabled and mentally ill. But unfortunately, institutions quickly became hellish places where disease ran rampant, sanitation was nonexistent, and abuse was commonplace. Most people did not live long in institutions, and even during those shortened lifespans, they could not live up to their potential because they were not offered education or training of any sort. Modern larger institutions and group homes, though now subject to legal oversight, still have some of these same problems, and it is not unusual for a disabled person to die in an institution because of abuse or neglect or, notably, by being restrained so severely that they cannot breathe. The difference is that, nowadays, their family can sue.

Being able to work has always been difficult for disabled people. In ancient times, if you could do physical work, you might be okay. People with intellectual disabilities, if they weren’t too severe, might do well enough as farmers or laborers. But people with physical disabilities were unable to support themselves in a world where non-physical work was very hard to come by, and had to depend on “charity”. The workhouses of Victorian-era Europe tried to solve the problem by putting the poor and disabled to work, but workhouses ended up being places where you worked as hard as you could for no pay and starvation-level food, where families were separated and abuse was commonplace. Nowadays, we have sheltered workshops—places where people work for pennies an hour at menial tasks like shredding paper or assembling simple objects. Minimum wage laws usually have specific exceptions for the disabled, who can legally be paid little or nothing.

Disabled children usually haven’t been allowed education. In early human history, disabled children didn’t get education, but that wasn’t so unusual because very few children did. Once education became more widely available, though, schools simply did not accept disabled children. They were assumed to be unteachable—even if their intellectual development was quite typical. Blind children weren’t taught to read because raised text was cumbersome and nobody thought of Braille for a very long time; even once it was invented, it was viewed with suspicion by many teachers. Deaf children were assumed to be incapable of speaking and unable to communicate, intrinsically, and their sign language was suppressed by “teachers”. Children with physical disabilities were assumed to also be intellectually disabled; children with intellectual disabilities were assumed to be incapable of learning anything at all, and so were never taught anything, so that the people around them concluded that they had been right that the children were unteachable. Modern disabled children are offered special education or integrated into mainstream classrooms, but the problem of inadequate education still exists because they have a hard time getting the accommodations they need, and many children are still segregated in special-education classrooms where their curricula are dumbed down and they’re not challenged. Colleges are much less accessible than primary and secondary school, and it is still legal to refuse to admit a college student on the basis of a disability, simply by saying you cannot accommodate their needs.

Disabled people have always been convenient victims of murder and of genocide, whether they made good targets for the local ruffians or were wanted out of the way by the community as a whole. In the early years of the 20th century, the US eugenics movement sought to deny disabled people the right to reproduce, especially those with mild intellectual disabilities, who were called “morons” and painted as inevitably criminal and a dire threat to civilization. Many disabled people were sterilized; some died from the sterilization surgery. In Europe, Germany took the baton and ran with it, using disabled people as the test subjects for their infamous gas chambers. Aktion T4 killed 75,000 disabled Germans, and hundreds of thousands more disabled non-Germans were killed by firing squad, gas chamber, disease, or starvation. In the United States, the eugenics movement died out as we discovered the horrors it led to, but lobotomies became popular, and many mentally ill people had their frontal lobes destroyed in the name of treatment.

Today, it is technically illegal to kill a disabled person, but that doesn’t mean that we always prosecute the murder of the disabled the way we prosecute the average murder. It is not uncommon for the parent or caregiver of a disabled person to kill them by starvation, neglect, or abuse, and then to be let off with a short sentence, or none at all, by a judge who reasons that they have suffered enough having to take care of the disabled person that they later murdered. There are “mercy killings” that happen when the caregivers kill their disabled charges—not by request (that would be assisted suicide), but because they decide that their disabled charge should not live. These tend to result in quite short sentences, too. And though the killing of black people by police gets more press, disabled people are just as much at risk (and God help you if you’re both black and disabled). It’s not unusual for a person to be in suicidal crisis, staring at a knife and thinking about stabbing themselves in the heart, only for the police to be called and shoot them because they are holding a knife.

But despite all of this, there has been steady improvement. Public buildings in many countries are required to be wheelchair-accessible. Employers are forbidden to discriminate overtly on the basis of disability (though they do often manage to find someone “more qualified” or find a reason unrelated to the disability to “lay off” a disabled worker). People with disabilities can get government assistance to help them stay alive, though this income level is about 30% below the federal poverty line and recipients are not allowed to save more than a very small amount of money. Though disabled people who are abused often have a very hard time being believed when they ask for help, such abuse is still illegal and they do have a chance at justice. And people with disabilities themselves are banding together, often via the Internet, to advocate for each other. Nowadays, when someone kills their disabled child and the media call it “understandable”, a rather large number of disabled people cry out against it, and people are starting to listen.

We’ve come a long way—but we’re nowhere near equality yet. I have confidence that someday, we’ll be equal not just in theory but in practice—that we’ll get what we need to live, that we’ll work alongside our neighbors, go to school and learn what we can learn, and have our lives valued just as much as other people’s.

May. 10th, 2016

School bus alarms

In the news:
California bill targets school bus deaths
SB1072 would require school buses to have child safety alarms. The alarm sounds when the engine is turned off and requires the bus driver to walk to the back of the bus to turn it off.

Paul Lee was a 19 year old autistic student who died of heatstroke when he was left alone in a school bus on a hot day. It's well-known that babies and pets can die of heatstroke when left in cars, but so do disabled adults--often.

The alarm idea sounds good at first glance, but I don't think these people are thinking it through.

What comes to mind when you think about alarms? Annoying. Loud. Harsh. Maybe even scary. A school bus driver would want to turn off that alarm ASAP, not just because it annoys the driver, but because it can literally cause pain to every student with even a little auditory sensitivity.

So here's the likely scenario.
1. Driver parks bus.
2. Driver turns off engine, triggering alarm.
3. Driver turns off alarm.
4. Driver helps children off bus.

Notice the order that happens in? The alarm isn't going to force the driver to check for children left in the bus. The driver will turn off the alarm, and THEN get the children off, because the alarm is annoying. There will be no enforced checking of seats, just an extra step to distract the driver from the passengers.

Does it really take a human factors degree to understand this? People behave in predictable ways. We're trained to respond to alarms, and this alarm would train the driver to respond by turning it off as soon as possible. Even if the driver insists on leaving the alarm blaring until the bus is empty, that's just going to torture any auditory-sensitive children on the bus which, since this is a special-needs bus, is going to be quite a few of them.

Don't get me wrong; I'm firmly against par-boiling autistics in school buses. I just don't think this is a good way to prevent it. There have to be better ways.

Anything that required the driver to physically touch every seat after the children left would be adequate. Require the driver to re-buckle seat belts, put up hand rests, anything that's easier to do after the children leave the bus. Doesn't matter what it is, though it can probably also function as leaving the bus in an orderly state. Alarms, though... I don't see how they would even help.

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