I got into the hospital in part by doing what everyone else told me to do. I got stress fractures in my spine. They got worse. I got all of this by doing physical work other people thought was important to proving my motivation or demonstrating independence. They took advantage of my pride in my work and other things to make me easier to persuade. But the end result was I broke my back twice.
I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t do that again. I wouldn’t listen to other people’s ideas of what I should do if it conflicted with what my body could tolerate. It doesn’t matter who they are or what their motivations.
If you can’t tell by now that I have a ton of motivation, nothing I say or do will convince you.
I don’t have to explain. Because I can’t always explain. And because most of the time people are looking less for explanations and more for things to argue with. Again if you don’t believe me by now that I know my limits, nothing I do will convince you.
Also it’s pretty condescending for all these other people to decide for me what I ought to be doing. There’s plenty I want to learn. So far, I’ve had to fight to get taught any of it. But when others decide I need to learn something, I’d better. This shows no respect for my choices and my body.
I’ve been living in this body for a long time. I have:
Stress fractures of vertebrae
Healed hip stress fracture
Congenital myasthenic syndrome
Severe adrenal insufficiency
Many other things
It’s difficult to understand these things and more put together at the best of times. I may not be a doctor or nurse but I know when something is taxing too many abilities, when something hurts, when something seems wrong or dangerous. I’ve learned most of it the hard way. I have an extreme tendency towards overdoing things and to push me harder in that direction can put my health and life in danger. Yes, even if what you’re asking me to do feels minor. Little things add up, and what looks little to you may be huge to me for reasons you’ve never even considered.
If everything I’ve said and done doesn’t convince you I am motivated and know my body, nothing will. I have nothing more to prove. I’m not going to do something just because someone else has decided I ought to. It doesn’t matter who. It doesn’t matter if they have good motivations. Enough is enough. It’s disrespectful and dangerous to continue to tell me what I ought to do in order to fit your definition of independent or ready to go home or willing to learn.
I’m done. You either take me as I am, or you don’t. You either trust my ability as a fellow human being to make my own decisions, or you don’t. You either respect me and my decisions, or you don’t. If everything I’ve done by now doesn’t convince you, nothing I say or do will. So let me learn at my own pace the skills I have decided I need, listen to me rather than trying to find new ways to persuade me why I ought to do as you want, and trust that I have valid reasons for my decisions even if they aren’t the same decisions you would make. Don’t make me tell you this conversation is over, because I will if I have to.
Listening to everyone else over the warnings of my own body is what got me into the hospital. I broke two vertebrae and continued to do physical labor with an unhealed fracture. I went out and did errands with a bad case of pneumonia until I almost passed out. I let people treat me like they always knew better. I ain’t doin’ that again.
To make medical decisions, I need the time to have a two way conversation with the doctor.
I need time.
Nothing changes this.
Shortcuts and attempts to speed it up slow it down more.
I literally walk faster than I run.
My brain is the same way kind of.
I get there. But I need the time. If it seems fast it’s because I’ve done it a million times already, many of them slowly.
Many times people assume based on the end product.
So if I have a complex thought they think it’s a fast thought.
I get to complex thoughts slowly usually.
Or they look complex. But they’re actually simple. But they translate as complex when they combine with language. Or people think lots of words means complicated. It doesn’t. It can mean I had trouble finding the right ones.
At any rate if people think they see complicated thoughts they often think that means fast thoughts. Or they think if I type or move fast I think and understand fast. Or they think fast in one context means fast in another.
None of those things are true.
I do best with things outside of what most people think like.
To get usual types of information and respond and have it be meaningful I need time. Lots of time. I get there but it takes a lot of extra time whether anyone sees that time or not.
To make it look fast I have to take dangerous shortcuts that harm me or confuse me.
I get confused easily.
I am good at not showing it. I suspect anyway. Sometimes.
But I get confused a lot. And it takes me time.
All of this is disability related.
I have developmental disabilities. I have cognitive disabilities. I have physical disabilities. All of these things are part of it in their own ways.
I usually tell people if you think of me as having a brain injury I make more sense. It’s the easiest analogy most people are likely to be familiar with.
But really as labels go I can identify a lot cognitively with people with dementia, stroke, brain injury, intellectual disability, epilepsy, autism, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, and lots of other things. Some of which are labels I’ve received or qualify for and some aren’t, but there’s cousinhood going on big time even when I don’t. Cognitive kinship.
It’s the way thinking works and the obstacles we face in the outside world that determine our similarities and differences, far more than what diagnosis someone decided to give us.
That’s one reason I don’t like communities based in a single diagnostic label. I’d rather seek out familiar people wherever they can be found. And there’s something degrading about being told that it’s the labels the medical profession decided to give us that determines whether we find that kinship. That’s one reason the developmental disability self-advocacy community insists on labels as less important than in some other disability communities. We’ve found a kinship based on common experiences and common values and desires among other things. And we prefer that to being divided up by other people’s ideas of categories. And we’ve had our categories used to erase our humanity. We have lots of reasons.
Most people with developmental disabilities have cognitive disabilities of some kind. And many of us, for many reasons, take time to figure things out, time to respond, time.
This is not just a personal request. It’s about accessibility. Accessibility isn’t just about what people want. In many places, including here in the USA, it’s the law.
Accessibility is a disability rights idea.
It has to do with the fact that societies plan for some people to be there, take for granted that some people will be there, build everything physical and social around the strengths and weaknesses of that kind of person. And then other people aren’t planned for or taken for granted and there’s all these obstacles to our participation in society. We are the disabled people.
Accessibility is about making it possible for everyone to participate by removing those obstacles and barriers that shouldn’t be there, and by building things in ways that make it as easy as possible for us to be there and participate and be part of things.
That isn’t the world’s best description but I’m trying. Most people if they’ve heard of accessibility they’ve heard if things like curb cuts and wheelchair ramps and elevators. Things that apply to physically disabled wheelchair users mostly.
Cognitive accessibility is different. Most people haven’t heard of it. Many physically disabled people who are big on physical accessibility don’t even believe in it. It’s part of ableist bigotry against cognitively disabled people.
But it’s huge. Just like physical access it can be life and death.
And for many cognitively disabled people, TIME IS ONE OF OUR BIGGEST ACCESSIBILITY ISSUES.
You need to give me time to think. Time to understand. Time to respond. Time to have a back and forth conversation. Time to put things together. TIME.
And the time needs to be without pressure. Without judging me for needing more time. Without making me explain why I need time. Without treating me as demanding. Without acting like your time is so utterly valuable that to give me even five seconds is a giant favor. Without acting like cognitive accessibility is a favor at all. Without all kinds of bizarre conditions in order to qualify as worthy of your time. Without treating me like I’m asking for special treatment. Without using the fact you gave me extra time to demand other things of me later.
None of those things are how real accessibility works. Because all of those things treat me at best like I’m only welcome under certain conditions. Like I’m only welcome because you’ve decided you want to be nice to me today. That’s not welcome. And it’s not accessibility. A wheelchair ramp that disappears and turns into a staircase whenever a wheelchair user feels grouchy isn’t access either.
Time isn’t always easy to come by. But we can’t just make our brains run the standard way. We need more time than usual. Or we need the time we have used different than usual. Or something.
Not getting enough time is such a common obstacle to access for such a huge and diverse group of people. Yet time is rarely seen as an access barrier. And when people bother to give us the time we need, it’s treated like a favor. Or like something that isn’t actually necessary. Something that wouldn’t be a problem to take away. And it’s our problem if we can’t keep up.
I’m dealing with huge timing issues in the hospital. It affects everything from comprehension to communication. It’s interfering with some of the most basic parts of my medical care. I’m getting exhausted, scared, and discouraged trying to cram my abilities into a speed that’s impossible for me. And half the time I’m not even getting the time to explain what I need when it comes to time: people force the conversations so fast it distorts communication at best and they can’t even tell it’s happening.
I’m not the only one. I had a roommate who communicated complex thoughts when we were alone but couldn’t get three words out around family and staff before they’d all decide what she was thinking. That’s a lot of things including lack of respect, but part of giving her respect was giving her time.
Meanwhile I’m always getting lectured on how I don’t respect people’s time because I make timing mistakes directly related to being disabled. >_< From people who rarely give me time enough to understand or respond right to anything.
People turn my access requests into weapons against me. Requests for time become ways to paint me as demanding or entitled. If I’m granted time, people will later explode at me if I still don’t understand.
“I GAVE YOU A WHOLE HOUR OF MY TIME AND I’M NOT ANSWERING ANY MORE QUESTIONS!” A doctor who was paid for an hour of consultation about choices between different styles of feeding tube. Later he happened to be assigned to me for a totally unrelated procedure and apparently the “favor” of his paid time meant he couldn’t answer a simple routine question any patient would ask. All I needed to know was whether I was getting Propofol during the procedure. Instead he wouldn’t even listen long enough to find out what I was asking. And I got shouted at just before a stressful procedure taking place in a room that gives me PTSD flashbacks every time I see it. I ended up with somewhat dangerous cortisol issues all because he happened to be the same doctor paid to spend an hour with me once.
People go out of their way to tell me what a hassle it is to give me any of their time at all. Even when they’re paid good money for it. The same people go out of their way to insist I don’t value their time enough. Often based on a false equality. But also based on rules I can never predict or follow because they require cognitive skills I don’t have.
This leaves me in the permanent belief that my time has no value at all. But that everyone else’s time is worth something close to infinity.
Mind you, until recently, using words or ideas like “time being worth something” would never have occurred to me. I’m still not sure it sits right in my head. And I’m not sure if it not sitting right is for a good reason or not. It just isn’t a way I think of time. Not the way they seem to mean it. Of course I barely understand time at all. But this way still confuses me.
But I do understand the concept of everyone always has to take time for me. And that this is a huge waste if their time. Because I’ve heard that my entire life.
I don’t actually buy the idea that my trouble processing time makes me a bad person who doesn’t understand the huge value of everyone else’s time. Or a person who needs to be condescendingly taught about such things. Because that just doesn’t pass any of my mental smell tests. But the way I’ve been treated and what I’ve been told leads me to feel that way.
So one barrier to access for many of us is time. But an additional one is the belief that we barely deserve the time we get, don’t deserve more, and are just taking away from everyone else’s much more important time. These add together until we get less time and lower quality time (like when the person spends the whole time letting you know you inconvenienced them), when we need more.
I need time.
But this is more than a personal need. It’s an accessibility issue. It changes how I’m able to participate in society. Right now it’s messing up my medical care. It’s a huge important deal, not an afterthought. And I’ve rarely met anyone with developmental or cognitive disabilities where time wasn’t an obstacle to access.
So giving us time, when it’s possible, isn’t a favor. It’s an access issue. And be real careful declaring it impossible, because there’s usually a solution. A lot of the time when people say it’s impossible they really mean it’s not important to them or they’ve always planned their time with a lack of time for us just built in. I only mentioned possible because there’s some people with cognitive disabilities whose own time issues make it hard for us to do this for someone no matter how hard we try. But for most people that isn’t a problem. And there are often solutions when time is limited. You just have to start from the assumption this is both important and possible.
Time is certainly important to those of us who need more of it. And it’s an accessibility issue just as important as wheelchair ramps, curb cuts, or Braille. It seems like such a little thing but nobody wants to give it.
I watch a lot of standup. I watch good standup, bad standup, everything in between. I just watch standup whether I like it or not.
And I vastly, vastly prefer the comedy that allows for dick jokes and other things that aren’t considered ‘clean’.
Because it’s less likely to seriously offend me.
Because people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are acceptable targets of ‘clean’ comedy. So when they get rid of all the dick jokes and all the stuff that’s socially unacceptable and ‘dirty’, they’re left with acceptable targets.
Which includes me.
And no, hating r-word jokes is not the same as censorship or not being able to laugh at myself. I laugh at myself, and at disability, all the time, to the point it makes a lot of nondisabled people really uncomfortable.
The issue is that most r-word jokes are hate.
They’re not meant in good fun.
They say “You’re not a human being.”
It doesn’t matter if you cloak that message in humor, it’s never okay.
The primary targets of the r-word are people with intellectual disabilities. But it has a broader range than that — it’s aimed in general at a group of people who are harder to define. Anyone who can be easily mistaken for someone with an intellectual disability, certainly. And anyone who’s been, in the imaginations of most people, sort of lumped together as this blob of people who aren’t really human beings. That includes most people with developmental disabilities, some people with cognitive disabilities, and, as I said, it’s a group whose borders are fuzzy and indistinct. But we’re all lumped together under the r-word in the imaginations of the people who use it. It’s not a diagnosis, it’s a slur.
And I don’t use the word slur lightly.
To me, for a word to be a slur, it has to be a word that contains within it the notion that the people targeted by it are not really people or human at all.
It can’t just be an insult that’s often thrown at a particular group of people. It has to be more than that.
The r-word is probably the slur I have absolutely the least tolerance for.
People have been calling me the r-word since I was a child.
My voice sometimes has ‘that tone’ in it that people associate with the r-word. A sort of ‘dullness’. People imitating my voice have always taken advantage of that. And they imitate my posture and mannerisms as well.
By the way it’s very fucked up to have a common mannerism associated with people like you, be the actual American Sign Language word for the r-word.
But you don’t need to speak ASL to use our mannerisms and tone of voice against us.
And yes — people used the r-word on me even when I was technically classified as gifted. In fact, they told me “Gifted is just what they call [r-words] to convince them they’re doing well in school when they’re really going to special classes.” I’m not the only person I know with developmental disabilities who was told this growing up.
I was also told I looked like a [r-word] as a way to get me to behave more normally. It didn’t work. I never had any idea what they were talking about. (I also got called “blind” and “psychotic” in similar circumstances. There was always a tone of complete disgust, like I was a dog who’d just shat on the table at a fancy dinner party or something.)
At any rate, r-word jokes aren’t funny. At least, not the ones I’m talking about.
And the fact that they’re considered perfectly acceptable for ‘clean’ comedy to the point they seem more common there than in the ‘dirty jokes’ kind, says a lot too much about the society we live in.
R-word jokes are an expression of hate, not an expression of humor. It’s not just the word, it’s the way it’s used. It’s the acceptance that those of us targeted are not human beings. It’s the knowledge that every time someone accepts this kind of hate into their mind, people like me are at more risk of bullying, abuse, hate crimes. And that most people don’t even register it as hate. Even though it’s some of the most horrible and dangerous hate I’ve ever seen.
Sacha Baron-Cohen says, “I am exposing. I am airing prejudice.” The only problem is that the people [who] are laughing, are not laughing at the prejudice. They’re applauding the prejudice! When the joke is “Throw the Jews down the well, kill the Jews” it’s not funny. But even if it was funny, they’re applauding it.
Abraham Foxman, “The Last Laugh”
I agree with a lot of the people on “The Last Laugh”. It’s a documentary about where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable topics for humor. I don’t think there’s unacceptable topics for humor, but I do think there’s more and less acceptable ways to handle them. And a lot of it depends on who is saying the joke, how they are saying it, and what they are saying.
And when I talk about r-word jokes, I’m talking about people without any of the disabilities covered by the r-word making jokes at our expense. Telling a joke that has real-world consequences and hiding behind “It’s just a joke” is both cowardly and dishonest. And I feel like there’s a tradition among comedians to hide an immature impulse to do whatever you’re told not to do, behind some kind of pretense of moral nobility.
Give me a good dick joke any day. Seriously. Sex can be funny. Hate isn’t. At least, expressing hate is not funny. Tell some good jokes about asshole comedians who think hating people with I/DD is ‘clean’, though, and I might laugh.
I’ve probably said this before. But it’s so important I feel like it needs a standalone post.
I talk a lot about the dystopian hell that exists beneath the shiny surface of the developmental disability home and community-based service (HCBS) waiver system. Because I live in this hell. Because people living in this hell don’t get heard from enough, especially online. Because if something terrible is happening to me, it’s happening to the other people in this system as well. All kinds of good reasons.
But people misuse the horror stories coming out of the HCBS system. They use them to say that we need to bring back the old system. Traditional institutionalization. Or new shiny variants on it like those farm-based “intentional communities” — a weird word considering people don’t get a choice as to whether to live there. Those are still institutions, by the way. So are large parts of the HCBS system. Institutions are determined by who has what kind of power and control, not by the shape of the building or the number of people living there.
To be very, very clear.
The horror stories coming out of the HCBS system all come from the things HCBS has in common with traditional institutions.
So the problem is not that we have moved too far away from traditional institutions, and need to move backwards to make things better. The problem is that we have not moved far enough away from the practices of traditional institutions. The solution is to be less like a traditional institution, not to bring back traditional institutions.
Oh and about that “bringing back the institutions” thing. I know a lot of the larger institutions closed. But not all of them did. It’s not like we just have a world empty of traditional institutions, so “bringing back the institutions” is a concept that doesn’t quite make sense. We’re still fighting to close them.
But we have to replace them with something better, or people just get moved from one kind of hell to another.
And we’re supposed to be so grateful for this that we don’t complain about the things that have stayed just the same as traditional institutions. Which is a whole lot of important things.
The problem is not that we have left traditional institutions behind and need to go back to them. The problem is that we have not gone far enough away from them and we need to become even less like them.
Anyone using HCBS horror stories to promote traditional institutions is coming at the problem bass-ackwards. HCBS horror stories should cause people to want to close all the traditional institutions and make services resemble old-style institutions as little as possible. On a deep level involving power and control, not on a cosmetic level where all you’ve done is slap some new decorations on the walls of the old system.
In my last post, I discussed the way food and water are medicalized when you get them through a feeding tube. But the way I discussed it could’ve given the wrong impression. I discussed it mostly in terms of its emotional effects. The way it changes your relationship to food. The absurdity of having to argue with doctors about how much water you’re allowed to drink. When you have no medical reason for fluid restriction or any other actual excuse for them to act like they have a right to control something so basic. The importance of eating food that you enjoy, even if you’re eating it through a tube. The importance of food being emotional, sensory, cultural, all kinds of things besides medical.
But in all of that discussion, I never discussed the most sinister part of food and water being considered medical.
When food and water become medical treatments, they become optional. They become something you can refuse. They become something a doctor, or an ethics committee (what an Orwellian name, given the way they so frequently treat disabled people), can decide is futile or unnecessary or medically inadvisable or something else along those lines.
In other words, when food and water become a medical treatment, then it becomes much easier to kill you by withholding them.
I filled out a living will awhile back. Living wills are disturbing in all kinds of ways that most people don’t appreciate. Most people see living wills as a wonderful way for people to indicate their future choices about medical treatments. Most people don’t see the ways they’re set up to make it much easier to choose death than to choose life with a disability. And to subtly nudge you in that general direction. They’re not the value-neutral documents most people assume they are. They already have values built into them that may not be the same values as the person filling them out.
I could obviously go on at quite some length about living wills. I’m not going to do it here though. I want to talk about something very specific.
The structure of the living will I filled out basically went like this: “If you needed this treatment in order to survive, would you want to die?” The part that goes this treatment starts out with fairly noninvasive stuff. And progresses through a series of medical treatments, in order from what the creators of the document consider least drastic to most drastic.
Anyway, the first treatment I remember having to answer questions about was a feeding tube. Which does make sense within their structure: Feeding tubes are pretty noninvasive and completely reversible.
But it disturbs me.
It disturbs me that a feeding tube is considered something you should have to decide whether to live or die about.
It disturbs me that food and water are medical.
Because that’s where it all starts.
Where food and water are medical.
Mouth Magazine reported once on a woman who’d had a stroke. She had a living will saying she wouldn’t want continued medical treatment if she had brain damage. She changed her mind once she had brain damage. She wasn’t considered competent to change her mind. They decided food and water were medical treatments — in her case, she didn’t even need a feeding tube. She tried desperately to get food and water, but they prevented her from doing so, saying they were honoring her wishes and that she was incompetent to make her own decisions.
Mouth Magazine had this to say about itself at one point:
During the last ten years, it is fair to say, Mouth has lowered the level of discourse on the subject of the helping system. About time, too.
Mouth brings the conversation down to street level, where well-intentioned “special” programs wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary people. People talk about calling a spade a spade. We call Jack Kevorkian a serial killer. And when maggots outnumber nurses’ aides at what others call a “care facility,” we call it a hellhole. We say it out loud: if special education is so darned special, every kid in every school ought to have the benefit of it.
In that spirit, I will call what they did to that woman exactly what it was: murder.
All the bullshit about honoring her wishes is bullshit. She clearly wanted to be alive. To declare someone incompetent to decide they want to survive, to declare someone incompetent to fucking change their mind… that’s some high-order bullshit. Dangerous bullshit. Deadly, murderous bullshit.
And this bullshit, and this kind of murder, happens daily. One person I know who worked in the medical system said the disturbing thing to her was that she was complicit in at least one murder without being aware of it. Because of the ways they warp your thinking to make it seem like something, anything is going on other than the intentional killing of another human being.
Except it is the intentional killing of another human being.
And often, it starts with the medicalization of food and water.
Food and water are not medical treatments.
Food and water don’t become medical treatments just because they take an unusual route into your body.
A feeding tube is just like having another mouth. It’s just that the mouth is located in an odd spot. That’s all it is. It’s a mouth that opens directly into your stomach or your intestine, instead of going down your esophagus first. (Then there’s NG and NJ tubes, which do go down your esophagus, but they’re still just another slightly unusual route for food to take into your body.)
There is nothing about a feeding tube that truly makes food and water medical treatments.
There is nothing about disability, including brain damage, that truly makes food and water medical treatments.
This reclassification exists in part to make it easier to kill us. Not that every single person who medicalizes food and water has that in mind. But that’s part of the point behind the reasoning’s existence. And even when it’s not initially intended that way. Anyone who wants to use it that way can easily just pick up the situation and use it in exactly that way. Once food and water become a medical treatment, starvation and dehydration become withholding medical treatment rather than starving or dehydrating someone.
You can’t even have an honest conversation about the issues involved here, when everything’s replaced with a medical euphemism. Because we’re actually talking about murder (the intentional killing of another human being) and suicide (someone intentionally killing themselves). And you can debate the ethics of murder or suicide in various circumstances till the cows come home. But you can’t even hold the debate in an honest or straightforward fashion when murder and suicide or even just killing are replaced with withholding medical treatment.
And when food and water are only considered medical treatment for a certain class of person (usually some subgroup of disabled people), I call that deadly ableism.
So medicalizing food and water is never just an annoyance or nuisance. It’s like a weapon: Someone can absentmindedly carry it into a room and leave it lying around for some reason that has nothing to do with killing. But then someone else can pick it up and seriously injure or kill you with it. So it’s never not sinister, disturbing, and dangerous.
And that’s important to always keep in mind: Once something fundamental to survival is considered medical treatment, it can always be withheld much more easily without raising many eyebrows. Hell, people who advocate withholding it can paint themselves as champions of your human rights rather than people trying to prevent you from exercising your human right to, well, food and water. It makes it way easier to turn everything on its head without anyone noticing what’s going on.
There’s a problem I’ve seen over and over in people like hospice workers (and this post is gonna focus on hospice, but it can be applied more broadly). And it’s one of the things that made me reluctant to out myself as a Deathling. Because there’s so many people with this problem, in Deathling-type communities, that I didn’t want to associate myself with it. Because this problem can kill people. And no matter how you feel about death personally, that’s not okay.
To describe it, though, I’m gonna start somewhere weird. I’ve been reading a book about octopuses. Or more about the author and her experiences with octopuses and thoughts about them. I’ve been struggling to find a way to articulate the problem here. And a passage from her book really helped, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with either hospice or death.
It has to do with wild-caught octopuses captured for aquariums. But understand that I didn’t choose this passage because of my own views on octopuses. Nor about Ken’s views. Rather, because of the way Ken approaches his views on the matter. Ken is an aquarium worker who, among many other aspects to his job, helps with transporting new octopuses to the aquarium. The author asked him his opinions on catching wild octopuses, and the following is what he said (bolding in this and any other quote on this page is my own, added for emphasis):
How does he feel about capturing animals in the wild and sending them to a life in captivity? He has no regrets. “They’re ambassadors from the wild,” he said. “Unless people know about and see these animals, there will be no stewardship for octopuses in the wild. So knowing they are going to accredited institutions, where they are going to be loved, where people will see the animal in its glory—that’s good, and it makes me happy. She’ll live a long, good life—longer than in the wild.”
Montgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (pp. 188-189). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.
He might be right that he’s doing the right thing. He might be wrong. I’m not even going to go there. That’s not why I brought this up.
He’s come to a conclusion about why it’s okay with him for this to happen. It may be a good conclusion. A reasonable conclusion. A justifiable conclusion. A right conclusion. He might be making the right decision. That’s still not the point.
The point is, it’s his conclusion that, for instance, the octopus is an ambassador.
The thing about ambassadors. Real life ambassadors. The literal kind who exist and do work that’s mysterious to me but has something to do with representing their countries to other countries. Is they choose to be ambassadors.
It’s not the octopus deciding to be an ambassador for her species.
The author, Sy Montgomery, a volunteer at the aquarium, does not explore this matter any further or deeper.
But it’s an exact illustration of something that happens with many hospice workers and other people in the death industry. And I’ve never heard anyone discuss this in public. But I’ve seen it enough times to know what I’m looking at when I do. And I know it’s horribly dangerous in a context where you’re working with dying people.
Deathlings like to think and talk about our relationships with death. Most of us feel that we fear death less than we used to. Or don’t fear it at all. Most of us see death as embedded in life itself, as a necessary part of the cycle of life, even as potentially quite beautiful.
Those of us who’ve spent much time around actual death and dying, whether our own or other people’s, might also notice the power of Death. The sacredness of it. A depth and beauty and meaning that can’t be put into words or fit into blog posts. When Death is near, either for you or someone else, the world can become transparent to love, transparent to light. There is power and meaning there, on a level that even many atheists and agnostics will acknowledge as sacred on some level, for lack of a better term.
And there’s probably at least one blog post on what happens when you notice all that but forget to give Death the respect She deserves. But I’m not gonna go there right now. Right now, I want to talk about what happens to a lot of people who work in hospice or similar industries, who are exposed to a lot of death and develop something close to this understanding of it. An understanding that I largely share — but as with the aquarium, that’s not the point.
The point is… there’s a level on which your personal revelations about death don’t matter. The realizations you’ve come to. The way they’ve altered your entire life for the better. The way you see your job differently, as a sacred duty of sorts, now. How you’ve accepted the deaths of your patients or clients, how that’s changed you, and them, and your relationshp to future patients. All of these things that matter deeply to you.
They also don’t matter one whit on another level.
Just like octopuses don’t choose to be ambassadors. People don’t choose to develop a terminal illness. Most wild octopuses will never face the possibility of being caught and put in aquariums. Everyone will die one day. But these situations share one important thing in common.
The octopus’s viewpoint on captivity will have fuck-all to do with Ken’s reasons, or rationalizations, for participating in her capture. The octopus has her own viewpoint. And nobody stops much to consider her viewpoint in all of this. They’re too busy with their own.
Everyone’s death is their own.
That’s my main point. I’m gonna go off on a very long tangent. But I do have a main point. So I’m gonna repeat it, in bold, a LOT:
Everyone’s death is their own.
Everyone’s death is their own.
Everyone’s death is their own.
Everyone’s death is their own.
Everyone’s death is their own.
Everyone’s death is their own.
Everyone’s death is their own.
Everyone’s death is their own. Everyone’s death belongs to them. Everyone’s relationship to death, and to Death, is theirs. Theirs. Not yours. Theirs.
That means it is not your job to bring their views of death more into alignment with yours.
That means it is not your job to sit there accepting and reveling in the beauty of their death for them when that may not be how they feel, or want to feel, at all.
And it is not your job to teach them that death is wonderful and beautiful and a part of life and everything else that Deathlings often believe.
That sacredness associated with Death… a lot of people don’t seem to realize this, or realize it fully enough to put it into practice, but coming into contact with that on a regular basis comes with responsibilities. One of which is a deep respect for Death. But there’s too many to count. One, though, is not to mess with someone else’s experience of Death, even if their experience is not the one you want them to be having.
I don’t mean you should never talk about your viewpoint.
But sick and dying people can be very vulnerable. This includes having reduced defenses against unwanted outside ideas. Which includes your ideas. Which means you have to approach any job involving death with the utmost caution and care.
And you have to stay on the other side of a firm line in the sand. And you have to be the one drawing that line. Your patient may not be capable of drawing it, or aware that it needs to be drawn. It’s not like terminal illness comes with an automatic manual given to you that tells you you’re vulnerable to accidentally absorbing the opinions of hospice workers. Or what to do if you do notice.
Thsi may seem like a weird thing for me to have such an adamant opinion about. It’s because no matter how it feels to you, this can lead to situations that are downright sinister.
Talking someone into accepting death sounds so wonderful, especially to Deathlings who usually have a particular view on death acceptance. It sounds like the right thing to do.
But you could be talking someone into making a different decision about their medical treatment than they would’ve decided otherwise.
They may decide against a medical treatment that would give them a little more time in the world, time they really very much want. The hospice system is already structured to discourage life-sustaining medical treatment, so it wouldn’t take much to tip someone over the edge into making a decision that’s against what they want at the end of their life.
They may decide against a medical treatment that would not make them live longer, but might help them live more the way they want to in their time left.
They may accept a medical treatment that they know is likely to result in them dying sooner.
They may accept the idea that they need to die on a certain schedule. (I know that sounds weird, but this happens in hospice a lot when deaths are treated as lot more planned than actual death tends to work. And when you’re barely hanging onto life to begin with, you can end up having more conscious control over your time of death than you’d imagine someone would.)
They may make decisions that have more to do with the convenience of their hospice institution, than with their own desires and choices. And these decisions may end up justified in the name of accepting and coming to terms with one’s own death.
They may start receiving a lot of praise and encouragement for adopting views similar to yours, with all kinds of consequences for all kinds of decisions they may make.
You might not understand their viewpoint. You might decide that all decisions to prolong life in situations you wouldn’t want your life prolonged, are actually because of an irrational fear of death that must be overcome in order to be at peace. And then you might persuade them and wear them down. Until they are making very different decisions than the ones in their own best interest by their own values.
Just because you can’t fathom a reason someone would want to see Alzheimer’s through to the end and be kept alive at all costs, doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons for this that have nothing to do with fearing death.
And. Even if it does have to do with an irrational fear of death. That is part of their relationship with death. It’s not your place to decide why they ought to be making their decisions, any more than it’s your place to decide what decisions they ought to be making.
And no, I’m not saying nobody should share their opinions, or persuade anyone of anything, or try to change other people’s minds, ever. But if you’re a hospice worker or healthcare professional, you’re in a position of great authority and power over your patients. And that power comes with a responsibility to do your level best not to misuse it. Which includes learning to guard against accidental misuses of power.
And when you’re dealing with the end of someone’s life, the potential for great harm from the misuse of that power is only amplified. The more that potential is there, the harder you have to work not to misuse it. And believe me, if you’re working on the end of the death industry where you’re dealing with the last days of the living, you’ve got more power than you are probably even aware of.
Michelle storms by with the crash cart. “They want everything done. She used the wrong language; she gave them an alternative. She said we can keep going.” She means Shreya, the resident. Shreya is in Michelle’s room. She comes out and goes up to the Pulmonary fellow. She looks concerned that she has done the wrong thing. I can hear her say, “Lactate’s seventeen, bicarb drip.” She opened a door she’s trying to close. They don’t know how to talk to families. They don’t know how to tell them it’s okay to stop. Doctors will almost never tell the family the patient is dying. Nurses will. Nurses have little phrases. Dana says, “actively dying.” Lori will say, “it’s irreversible.” When they ask me how the patient is doing and it’s bad, I’ll say, “You should prepare yourself for the worst.” Some nurses will try and sell DNR orders. They’ll ask, “Would you want to have chest compressions?” and they’ll clasp their fingers together and move their upper body like a jackhammer, or, “Would you want to be shocked?” and pretend they’re holding paddles onto a chest and then jerk their body like they got Tasered.
Kelly, James. Where Night Is Day: The World of the ICU (The Culture and Politics of Health Care Work) (pp. 76-77). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.
The above passage was written by an ICU nurse who has no problem with the practice of ‘guiding’ families in the direction of DNR/DNI (Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate) orders.
It’s a relatively common point of view that runs like this: It’s cruel to prolong life when the only thing a person is doing is suffering. Quality of life is more important than quantity of life. Patients and families who don’t choose DNR/DNI are either:
irrationally afraid of death
driven by strict religious beliefs (and religious beliefs that contradict the medical consensus are treated as a bad thing in this kind of context)
unaware how severely disabled a person often is after a resuscitation
unaware they’re “allowed to let go”
unaware of what a resuscitation actually looks like (pretty brutal, often)
unaware of the low success rates of resuscitation (because on TV shows resuscitation almost always works, whereas in real life it almost always doesn’t, or doesn’t work the way people expect it to)
So they genuinely believe they are sparing a person needless suffering by using the above tactics talk to people into DNR/DNI orders. They think people who “want everything done” are simply ignorant of the medical realities.
My mother, who has coded before and probably will again (we have an inherited neuromuscular condition, hers is more severe at this point in our lives), does not have a DNR.
Doctors and nurses are always surprised, because she was a respiratory therapist for decades. They say they’d expect any former medical professional to want a DNR order.
She says it’s because she’s a former medical professional that she does not have a DNR order. She wants to live, is in her seventies, and knows firsthand the extreme bias in the medical professioin against both elderly and disabled people. She’s had doctors refuse to treat her because of her age. She knows we already have things stacked against us and that a DNR would be dangerous.
Laura Hershey, an activist from the Independent Living Movement (a branch of disability rights mostly made up of physically disabled people), had a friend in the movement who got talked into a DNR in this manner. This is Laura’s account of what happened, written November 2, 1999:
A doctor entered, on his rounds. […] Becky and I both jumped in to tell him that Ginny wanted to talk to him about the DNR, that we thought she wants it revoked.
For the next fifteen minutes, the four of us engaged in a conversation that was difficult, both mechanically and emotionally. Through a painstaking exchange of yes-no questions, nods, scratchy notes, and lip-reading, Ginny conveyed her desire for every effort to save her life.
The doctor heard this message, was willing to hear it; but his obvious biases made him subtly resistant. Here’s how he posed one question to Ginny: “Would you want to be put on a respirator?” Ginny responded with a fearful, uncertain look. I instantly insisted on rephrasing the question like this: “If you couldn’t breathe on your own, would you want them to use a respirator to save your life, rather than letting you die?” Still with an apprehensive expression, Ginny nevertheless nodded, yes.
By the end of the conversation, Ginny had indicated unequivocally that she would want ventilation if necessary to save her life; and that she would want attempts made to start her heart if it stopped beating. The doctor agreed to remove the DNR order immediately.
Ginny had been weak with pneumonia, and with a trach making communication difficult, and they talked her into signing a DNR she didn’t want to sign.
I can say from firsthand experience that being sick and weak really does make it hard to fight off other people’s opinions of what is best for you. This is even true when you’re 100% sure you disagree. When I was hospitalized for aspiration pneumonia (and was also weak from malnutrition) and they were trying hard to talk me out of a feeding tube — I knew I wanted the feeding tube. And without having had a lot of people in my corner, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to hold out for survival much longer. Being weak even simply on a physical level makes it very hard to fight these things.
Ginny’s story continues, by the way. This happens:
That was about a month ago. A lot has changed since then, mostly for the better. Ginny regained her voice, and began growing stronger once the infection left her lungs. She has repeatedly stated her intention to go on living, in front of a variety of witnesses. Her friends have stayed in touch with her, and her situation.
About three weeks after my visit with her, I heard that Ginny’s gradual recovery was abruptly interrupted when she went into respiratory failure. Emergency measures saved her life, and her recovery now continues.
Ginny would not have survived this if the DNR she was coerced into signing had stayed in place.
If you ever doubt the power your opinions might have, think of Ginny. Pneumonia made her weak enough to have trouble fending off other people’s opinions. It’s very likely that whatever nurse or doctor talked her into signing the DNR, used subtle persuasion of the sort described in that book by the ICU nurse. It doesn’t take much persuasion or pressure when you’re already vulnerable.
I was simply walking down the hall of the hospital last time I was there, and there was a group of residents speaking to an attending. The conversation I overheard was alarming. They’d saved the life of a cardiac patient. He was set to go home soon, without major complications. The patient was extremely happy about this. The attending was very unhappy about this and wanted to tell the residents why.
So the attending explained that while the man was going home without complications, that wasn’t the only possible outcome. And he didn’t think the man’s family should’ve chosen to tell the doctors to save his life. He said it was possible the man could’ve ended up with a severe disability. And therefore, it would’ve been a better decision to let the man die even though his life was saved and he was extremely happy with this outcome.
Medical professionals frequently believe this stuff is morally neutral information. That in trying to persuade people to choose death over life, they are simply giving people the facts. The thing is, you can choose which facts to give people, and what manner to present those facts in, and “giving someone the facts” turns into an act of persuasion. And you don’t even have to mean to do so, for this to happen.
If You’re Interested In Power & Control…
Anyone interested in the use and misuse of power in human services professions, could do a lot worse than reading Dave Hingsburger’s book, Power Tools. I always plug this book. It’s extremely short and easy to read, but contains a lot of important information on how to recognize your power over other people and how to do your best to avoid misusing it. It’s available from Diverse City Press. Or Amazon.
He also wrote another book of the same size, shape, and potency, called First Contact. It’s about communicating with people with (presumed) profound cognitive impairments. And it’s also well within the topic of this post, given that this level of cognitive impairment is often the fate that medical professionals are trying to save us from when they push DNRs at us. You might want to pick that one up at the same time you get Power Tools. They go well together, and both of them contain real-world wisdom that applies to a lot of everyday life situations beyond the ones explicitly described in the book.
While I’m shamelessly plugging Hingsburger’s work, he has a blog called Of Battered Aspect. And there’s a longer review of both Power Tools and First Contact on the website of the old disability rights magazine, Ragged Edge, called Same, Different, Human. A quote from the review that mirrors my thoughts on these books:
The subject matter may appear limited to the service systems concerned with people with intellectual impairments, and Hingsburger’s focus is the individual rather than society. Nonetheless, I commend these books to you.
I read Dave Hingsburger as an ethicist. Not an ivory-tower Ivy League ethicist, mind you, but rather one who worries how to live well amid the blood, the shit, and the chains that surround him. Instead of offering moral axioms from some fake-objective standpoint and then applying them to whitewashed situations, he acknowledges the ways in which the commitments he has made and the messy situations in which he finds himself shape his moral development and his moral outlook.
Many of the other writers on my shelf take a political approach to the problems of power and powerlessness, to the problem of disability, asking how communities, organizations, nations should act. What does justice demand? they ask. How can we address injustice?
Hingsburger’s stance is more ethical than political, though it is also concerned with disability. How, he asks, should I, an individual, respond to the people around me? Very often, the people around him, the people to whom he is responding, are disabled people. It’s not that he pretends injustice away, or that he treats it as irrelevant; it’s just that even when he addresses injustice, he confronts it in an ethical sense, as an individual. Even when he addresses the politics of disability — the self-advocacy movement — he is concerned with his relationship to it.
His primary ethical concern is interpersonal, and his rule is awareness: awareness of the moral risk in any important action and awareness of one another. “People don’t hurt people. People hurt things,” he quotes Dick Sobsey as saying (First Contact, p. 20). And he acknowledges that such awareness, such self-knowledge, is much more difficult than it looks.
Like Cal Montgomery, the author of the review, I can’t stop recommending these books. To the point I keep a supply of multiple copies each because people walk off with them and forget to return them.
Now back to your regularly scheduled blog post on death and octopuses…
When I was writing this post, I tried to Google statistics on resuscitation. I found a news article alarmed me. Not because of the statistics, but because of the way it was point of the article was to inform people that resuscitation in real life is not like in the movies, either in terms of statistics, outcomes, or the level of violence it does to the person’s body. But the article made it impossible for me to understand the statistics.
See, every time it mentioned death, it mentioned severe disability in the same breath. I was trying to look up survival rates. But it was so ambiguously worded that I couldn’t tell whether survival with a severe neurological impairment requiring lifelong care counted as survival for the purposes of the article. And no matter what you think of the “quality of life” issues involved (I, like Laura Hershey and many other disability rights activists, am extremely wary of that phrase), being alive and unconscious is still being alive. And there’s plenty of new evidence that people presumed unconscious based on outward responsiveness are not always unconscious at all. Which may horrify you in completely different ways, but it’s still being alive. And I never did figure out what the statistics in the article meant.
Disability is often considered a fate worse than death. And while I consider the fear of death and the fear of disabiliy deeply intertwined, many Deathlings, and many hospice workers, have conquered one without touching the other at all. An extreme fear of disability, combined with a lack of fear of death, can make people view death as the answer to a type of disability they greatly fear.
This is an extremely common perspective among medical professionals, including hospice workers. And it’s the entire point behind DNRs, living wills, and the like. These are not documents that were created to offer a neutral set of choices to people. They were created to make it easier to say “This is the level of disability at which I would rather die.” You can use them to say other things, but there’s pressure not to, and it’s harder to get such wishes upheld in any circumstances where someone disputes your wish to stay alive. It’s much easier to use a living will to die than to use it to live.
Anyway, medical professionals have been shown to rate disabled people’s quality of life lower than we rate it ourselves. There’s a very jargon-heavy paper called Quality of Life, Disability, and Hedonic Psychology (that’s a PDF link) that deals with the topic of disability and quality of life (abbreviated QOL in the article) in a fair bit of depth.
One belief about QOL has been very widely demonstrated. Nondisabled people believe that the QOL of people who live with disabilities is extremely low. This belief will be termed the standard view of the QOL of disabled people. The standard view is faced by an apparent falsification: When disabled people report about their own QOL, they rate it only slightly lower than when nondisabled people self-report their own QOL. This produces the anomaly of the QOL of disabled people (Amundson 2005). The anomaly is the pair of conflicting assertions: the standard view on the one hand, and the conflicting self-reports ofdisabled people on the other.
In fact, nondisabled health care professionals judge the QOL of disabled people to be even lower than the judgments made by nondisabled people who are not health care professionals (Duckworth 1988; Brillhart, Jay, and Wyers 1990; Bach and Tilton 1994; Gerhart et al. 1994; Albrecht and Devlieger 1999).
If hedonics researchers believed that disabled people were kidding themselves about their own QOL, nothing would stop them from saying it. I therefore propose that we ask them who’s right about the QOL of disabled people. Does hedonic research support the standard view that disabled people have an intrinsically low QOL? Or is there evidence that the standard view is mistaken, and the disabled people who report a high QOL are correct when they do so? Hedonic psychologists may not have the last word in the debate, but their contribution must be considered. The results are these: according to the experimental results of hedonic psychology, the judgments of nondisabled commentators about the QOL of disabled people are far more likely to be mistaken than are the self-reports of disabled people.
So basically, nondisabled people in general assume that disabled people are much unhappier than we are and have very little in the way of ‘quality of life’. And medical professionals judge our quality of life to be even lower than your average nondisabled person judges our quality of life to be. Meanwhile, disabled people are roughly as happy or unhappy as nondisabled people (there’s many possible reasons for our quality of life to rate slightly lower that don’t actually reflect disability as much as the way it’s tested, but I don’t have the time or space to get into all the details), and certainly much happier than either nondisabled people in general, or medical professionals, assume we are.
So if you’re a medical or hospice professional, advising dying people on life and death decisions involving disability, you’re also likely to be judging our quality of life much lower than it actually is. And as a medical professional, you’re more likely to be biased in that area than someone who isn’t a medical professional. The presence of a known bias, like the presence of power, requires much more increased carefulness to be taken with how you wield power around people.
And the above is just one major way this can go wrong. It’s a way I and many other disability right activists are highly familiar with, which is why I was able to go into so much depth. I could really go on all day. But hopefully it’s enough to show you there are dangers you might not even be aware of.
So now that I’ve tried to get way too much information crammed into one blog post, the basic point I want to make?
Everyone’s death is their own.
Being accepting of death is a wonderful thing, in my eyes. But there are many different ways of accepting death. And no matter how valuable it is to you that you have accepted death, you have to be really careful as a healthcare worker, not to impose your own ideas about death on people who might not want them. However an octopus feels about captivity is the business of the octopus, and how a dying person feels about their own death is the business of the dying person.
Everyone’s death is their own.
Given the biases of healthcare professionals around disability, and the power they have over disabled people (and dying people are generally either disabled or about to become disabled), it’s especially important for them to keep this in mind. It’s very easy for death acceptance in these circumstances to become something much more sinister.
Everyone’s death is their own.
But it’s also a matter of respect: People’s death is deeply personal and for lack of a better word, sacred. And people’s own death belongs to them. It’s not yours to mold into a shape you find more fitting. No matter how appealing your own beliefs about death are to you. The other person might have very good reasons for beliefs that mean something to them.
Everyone’s death is their own.
There really is an idealized death, or an idealized set of deaths, that is pushed wholesale on hospice patients. People who work in hospice often come to absorb this view of death, and of how death should happen. But actual patients of hospice may have very different experiences. Experiences they are afraid to even bring up out loud, because of the power relationships inolved.
Everyone’s death is their own.
And if you care about a person, you want to meet them where they’re at. It’s impossible to truly know another person, to even begin to understand them, if all you can do when you see them is look in the mirror. And when you get too wrapped up in your own reflection, you can’t see anyone else, you can’t know anyone else, you can’t connect with anyone else. And if you can’t see who someone is even a little, you certainly can’t accurately perceive their relationship with death. Nor can you respond to it in a way that’s even halfway adequate.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Dave Hingsburger’s First Contact:
When considering making contact with people who have multiple disabilities – those who are considered to be so significantly mentally disabled that they are in a “vegetative” (that’s what it’s called) state – there is a huge obstacle. Prejudice. Yours. Mine. Ours. Against them. The difficulty here is that prejudice will feel like pity. You may be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness first, and then, if you examine the feeling long enough, terror.
They can’t be “like us” because then the logical extension of that is that they must be “feeling in there” and what they are feeling in there is what we’d be feeling in there – desperation, hopelessness, isolation, loneliness. The misuse of your sense of identification with the person inside that body will lead you to think horrible thoughts.
“I’d rather be dead than be like that.”
“If I was like that I’d like to be smothered.”
Well, back off. This isn’t about you. Catching a first glimpse of a soul inside a body that is so different from your own can be frightening, true. But it can, if you work hard enough, be exhilarating. I know, I know, I know, you have to “walk a mile in their moccasins.” The temptation is to engage in an incredible waste of time and psychological energy – spending time imagining what it would be like to be you inside them. How egocentric is that?
The issue is coming to understand and to get to know what it’s like to be them, in them. That’s the joy of contact, of connection. It allows us other perspectives. The placing of ourselves inside someone else and then imagining what it would be like, is not learning – it’s like masturbation but without the stickiness. And while it’s fun, and it is fun, it’s not particularly valuable.
And it gets in the way.
How can you make contact with someone when all you see reflected in their eyes is your sad face? Get out of the way. Understand that you are you. You are only you. Now look again, look past your own reflection and what do you see?
Some one else.
Cool, huh? Even cooler is to discover who that person is. To do this you need to step by prejudice. Please, please, please, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you don’t harbour anti-disability sentiments inside your heart. Please don’t say, “but my child…” “but my best friend is…” or even “but I’m…” We everyone of us is prejudiced against those who are different. Awareness is the first step.
And that is why obtaining a copy of those two books is so very worth it.
And remember — everyone’s death is their own. If you work with dying people, don’t stare at your own reflection. Get out of your own way and deal with them, and their relationship with death, on their own terms, not yours. And whatever you do, don’t use their death as a vehicle for your own desire to be close to the beautiful side of death. I promise it will be better for you, and more importantly, for them.
This is a series of graphics promoting the Disability Integration Act, an important piece of legislation in the United States right now, that is not getting anywhere near enough support. From the Disability Integration Act website:
The Disability Integration Act (DIA) is civil rights legislation, introduced by Senator Schumer in the Senate and Representative Sensenbrenner in the House, to address the fundamental issue that people who need Long Term Services and Supports (LTSS) are forced into institutions and losing their basic civil rights. The legislation (S.910, H.R.2472) builds on the 25 years of work that ADAPT has done to end the institutional bias and provide seniors and people with disabilities home and community-based services (HCBS) as an alternative to institutionalization. It is the next step in our national advocacy after securing the Community First Choice (CFC) option.
Credit for most of these goes to Cal Montgomery. His dogs Murdo and Erastus are featured too. Image descriptions are in the alt and description tags, the captions contain my personal responses to each graphic.
What I like about these is they show how simple and normal it is, what disabled people want. And they have adorable animals on them, and draw parallels with the actual lives of the animals, and people care about animals. They might see things about disabled people they wouldn’t otherwise see without the analogies being made. For real.
But seriously my favorite is the one about being able to poop whenever I want. That one really encapsulates why it’s important that I stay in my own home, and why making me move to someone else’s home is unreasonable, cruel, criminal, and a whole host of other choice words.
And yet disabled people and elderly people are expected to not only accept restrictions on our freedom, but to do so gracefully and without complaint. In fact, the more readily we accept these things, the more we are praised. And then we lose our freedom.
And usually we die faster too. Not that anyone notices. They think we die because we’re elderly or disabled. Actually, lifespans (along with various other measures of physical and mental ability) for various disabilities have had to actually be updated over the years entirely because of fewer of us living in institutions. Institutions kill people faster. All institutions, whether large state institutions or small nursing homes. They reduce our lifespan and nobody notices or cares. That’s not the only reason they’re bad, but it gives the lie to the idea that they’re really there to “protect our safety”.
There is nothing that happens that is good in an institution that can’t be done, and done better, outside of one.
There is a lot that happens in institutions that is bad and doesn’t need to happen at all.
There is nothing that happens in institutions that is special to institutions, good, and requires an institution in order for it to happen. Anything you hear different is a lie used to keep institutions open.
Institutions are our modern equivalent of Victorian workhouses.
Workhouses were institutions for poor people. Think the sort of thing Charles Dickens wrote about. They had terrible living conditions and people died in them. Many poor people would rather die than go to the workhouse, just as many disabled people would rather die, live on the streets, or go to jail than end up in an institution. People considered workhouses necessary. People considered workhouses natural. They were neither one. These days, people consider workhouses an atrocity and a thing of the past.
But we still have institutions for disabled people, and they are everywhere. Some of them are large and obvious, others are hidden in plain sight. But all contain the same thing: A power structure that puts administrators on top, direct support staff in the middle, and disabled people at the bottom. If you want to know how institutional something is, follow self-advocacy leader Roland Johnson’s advice and ask the question “Who’s in charge?”
Also, anything that requires a disabled person to move out of our own home — even if it’s “just” moving into the home of an existing staff person — and gives no option for the disabled person to get the same help in the home we already live in, shows that something is institutional in nature. Even if it’s entirely “community-based” otherwise. Real community-based services let you live wherever you want to live.
And there are institutional-style services that masquerade as community-based services and get funding through home and community-based services (HCBS) waivers. Even some that let you stay in your own home. If living in a system seems more like a dystopia than it ought to, chances are thre are at least institutional elements. It’s plenty possible to have an institution where each person lives in their own home but it’s otherwise run like any other institution.
I grew up on stories of a great-grandma who slept with a hatchet under her pillow.
She was afraid the sheriff was coming for her, you see. This was supposed to confirm she was crazy.
Maybe she was crazy. I don’t know. But the thing is, the sheriff did come for her.
And he took her to the state mental institution.
And she eventually died there.
So if she was “paranoid”, if she was sleeping with a hatchet under her pillow, maybe she had reason to be.
Society treats institutionalization as the inevitable result of disability. It’s not. It’s a widespread, ongoing crime against humanity. Just because it’s socially acceptable doesn’t make any less of one.
“She draws on an old and familiar series of clichés: disability as dependence, disability as innate limitation, disability as political voicelessness. She comes at disability through feminism and commits the traditional feminist errors about disability, rather than reaching for the vitality that a fully realized interaction between feminists and those concerned with disability can offer.”
How I feel about most Deathlings whenever they even hint at discussing disability or at trusting and using systems and practices that tend to kill us a lot. Which is disturbingly often. Yet…
Spoiler: I’m a closet Deathling (well I guess not closet anymore), and an actual member of the Order of the Good Death. But one reaching for connections between death acceptance and disability rights that compromise absolutely nothing of the safety of disabled people, and that come at things from what to many people are probably wholly unexpected angles. Stay tuned for more on that, I’ve been writing a post ever since someone asked me about it. It’s complicated and hard to write the bullet points.
And that thing about what a fully realized interaction could offer… I only wish, with Deathlings and disability rights. I haven’t even seen it tried yet. I’m trying singlehandedly a little with parts of this mortality series, I’m sure others are out there doing the same mostly in isolation. I think the irrational fear of death and the irrational fear of disability are deeply intertwined and equally destructive, among many other angles I wish people would try and look at things from for at least a moment. And I’d love to hear discussions of The Good Death that involve an extreme acceptance of disability to the very end instead of using death to try and get around disability because you fear disability so much. Because nobody ever talks about that choice, and fear of loss of control over your body and mind and many other things disability represents to people feels so obviously connected to fear of death and decay and the like, yet they usually aren’t making that connection…
And there’s always one more quote in “Critic of the Dawn” that requires a tenth, eleventh, twelfth, fiftieth look… I was one of the test-readers for that piece (a task I was wholly inadequate to, especially at that age) and I still find new things in it every time I read it.
And yes, I believe it’s possible to be both a member of The Order of the Good Death and Not Dead Yet, if you wanted to be. And I wish more people were informed by the best of both mindsets. (I know there’s problems with NDY but I’m using them more as a placeholder for a mindset, than a recommendation of membership.) And I’m gonna be out there trying, always. I know the dangers disabled people face firsthand, so I’m never gonna forget where deadly forms of ableism are showing up even if the people doing them can’t see them.
And I also think facing one’s own mortality and the place of death in the scheme of things is an incredibly important thing to be doing, disabled or not. Hence being an avid but mostly closet Deathling. (Mostly closet because I don’t know how to explain the drastic misgivings of a disabled person and it’s exhausting to try.)
In the meantime my memento mori / memento vivere (reminder that you will die / reminder to live, loosely translated) ring. I got it recently as a reminder of everything I’ve been through lately, and the closeness of Death at all times, and what that means for the living.
I’ve experienced this for a long time, but several years ago I met a doctor who really brought into focus what the problem was. It’s one way ableism can turn deadly, but you can’t always catch it because it sounds almost like normal medical advice.
I had a GJ-tube at the time. This is a tube that goes into one hole into your stomach, but contains two sections, one of which ends in your stomach, one of which ends in your intestines. This means that part of it winds through the inside of your stomach into your intestines. But the stoma (hole) itself is just a single gastrostomy hole.
Anyway, I had two separate and unrelated problems.
One, the part of my tube that went into my intestines was rubbing on an ulcer right over a blood vessel, so a lot of blood was coming out of the tube.
Two, a giant nasty abscess had appeared on my stoma practically overnight. Like one day it was a red spot, the next day it looked like a blister, the next day it was this giant two-inch monstrosity that had popped in several places and was oozing pus everywhere. To make matters worse, it appeared to have a hole that opened deep into the stoma, so that stomach fluid flowed into it, making it impossible to keep clean.
I was seeing a surgeon to see what, if anything, he could do about the abscess. Which, at this point, had been there for two months. (Antibiotic scripts were being mismanaged which made it last far longer than it needed to and in potentially dangerous ways, according to the infectious diseases specialist I finally managed to see after four months of this.)
His immediate response:
“I can’t do anything. Even if I could get rid of it, you’d just get another.”
This seemed like an odd statement to me. I’d had my tube for years and never had more than minor skin complications. I got compliments all the time on how well I took care of my stoma. This was the only time something like this had happened. And even if it was likely to happen again, that seemed like no reason to allow a giant painful disgusting infected pusball to fester indefinitely and get worse.
But I realized this wasn’t just his considered professional opinion when I mentioned offhand that I was soon going to get surgery to insert a separate J-tube to replace the GJ-tube and get rid of the ulcer.
“I don’t see the point in that. Even if you make one ulcer go away, getting a new tube in a new spot will just rub somewhere else and create a new ulcer.”
That’s when I realized a pattern.
And the pattern wasn’t that he actually would have said this under ordinary circumstances.
The pattern was he had already written me and my situation off as not just unfixable, but there being no point to fixing it. Then he wrote off any problems as inevitable and likely to recur.
Imagine if you took your child to the doctor for an ear infection, and were told, “We won’t treat that, he’ll get another anyway.” Yes, he probably will get another anyway. You still treat ear infections.
I’ve never gotten another abscess so far. It’s been years.
I’ve never gotten another ulcer so far. It’s been years.
But even if I did, those aren’t things you leave alone if you want to live.
And that’s the thing.
If you have a feeding tube, some people see you as half-dead already.
If you have a developmental disability, some people see you as half-dead already.
I knew a guy with a developmental disability who had to go to the emergency room for a bad infection. His communication system was limited to actions, facial expressions, and seven signs in sign language, he had spent most of his life in a state institution, he was brown, and he was a ward of the state. That makes him an unperson to most medical professionals. They told his staff, “He won’t live out the night,” without even examining him. Then they tried to walk out without ordering treatment. She had to scream at them to get him basic, simple medical treatment that would’ve been given to anyone else. He got it, he got over the infection quickly. This was at least 15 years ago and last I heard he’s still alive.
I’ve gotten it more times than I can count.
A relative has a lot of health conditions (many of which run in the family), and at one point was told there was no point in treating them because she was in her late sixties at the time. This meant to the doctors that she was likely to die soon anyway so what was the point? She had to argue that her female relatives often live into their nineties in order to get any medical care at all at times. That is not something she should’ve had to say. Her medical decisions matter no matter what the average lifespan is. She was facing a combination of age discrimination and ableism (some of her conditions are rare and complicated and they didn’t want to put in the effort of learning, and I’m sure there were assumptions about quality of life and better off dead anyway in there).
This means that in actual situations where I’m trying to do a risk-benefit analysis, it’s very hard for me to trust that the information I’m getting from doctors is accurate. Because there are situations where it really is not worth intervening to deal with something that’s gonna come back anyway. Where the treatment is more damaging than the condition. I have a few of those (including one where the condition is harmless but unslghtly and the treatment is painful and risky, for example). But when doctors act like that’s the default situation, it’s extremely hard to know if they’re telling you the truth or not.
And in the wrong situation it can kill you. Or lead to lots of work and unpleasantness and illness that could be totally avoided.
Feeding tubes are definitely one area where this happens a lot. Many doctors don’t really know a lot about feeding tubes, assume complications are the norm, and assume that anyone with a feeding tube has no quality of life worth preserving by keeping us alive anyway. That combination means they’ll assume any problems are automatic and inevitable consequences of having a feeding tube at all. That any complications shouldn’t be fixed. Either because they’ll come back right away or because they can’t be fixed at all. And that there’d be no point in fixing anything because why prolong or improve the life of someone suffering as badly as someone with a feeding tube anyway?
These are all potentially fatal assumptions. Fatal fatalism, I guess. If you have any kind of unusual medical equipment or conditions. Or if you are in any way not valued by the medical profession. Especially if you’re not valued in a way that makes them think of you as dead, half-dead, terminally ill, socially dead, better off dead, or just waiting to die. Then watch out for this like a hawk. Always think of the ear infection analogy. If you weren’t better off dead to them, would they treat this? Do they repeat this advice no matter what your actual problem is? This is not valid medical advice, this is prejudice dressed up as medical advice. And it’s an excuse not to treat you. And it could kill you. So be careful.