Friday, November 28, 2008

Equality Now!

Around this time last year i blogged about Equality 2025, the UK government's supposed disability taskforce (aka meaningless talking shop who like to host lavish "consultation" events, at which potentially exciting stuff gets talked about, but nothing actually gets done, and no contributed views actually make any difference to government policy, which has quite blatantly already been decided on, with the "consultation" event being merely a tokenistic piece of window dressing - at the one a month ago, exactly the same things were talked about, with no actual progress, as last year...).

After going to another of their events last month and being given lots of "promotional" material (the use of which for scrap paper, along with the free food, was about the only worthwhile thing to get out of it), i finally got round to scanning in and playing around in Paint with their logo today, and created this subvertisement:

For those unable to view the image either due to impairment or computer issues, it's an altered version of the Equality 2025 logo (which can be seen here), with the colours changed from pink and blue to red and black, and the text changed from "Equality 2025, working with government for disability equality" to "Equality NOW! Taking direct action for disability equality"...

(And yes, there is some of the latter coming up. I am very excited...)

It isn't perfect; the "NOW!" could be in a slightly wider font, and/or moved a bit to the right, and there was some weird anti-aliasing stuff (presumably done by the scanner) that i wasn't fully able to correct, even by scanning it in monochrome. But it's my first attempt at a subvert created by computerised means (done in Paint)...

Edit: apparently, it also isn't very big. It looked a lot bigger when i was making it...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Cake Is Not A Lie

This is a several months late response to this post at Asperger Square 8 - it's several months late because, for some reason, i *thought* i had posted it back then, but i hadn't. It's a cake that doesn't require eggs...

(Also a response to a post by Dave Hingsburger, around the same time (which i can't find right now) about accessible recipes...)

Egg-Free Banana Cake


100g margarine or vegetable oil (non-dairy margarine or sunflower oil work best... i wouldn't recommend olive oil!)
3 bananas (over-ripe or slightly squashed bananas are actually better than fresh ones)
200g sugar (I use demerera sugar, but any granulated sugar will do)
150ml soya milk (cow's milk will work OK if you aren't vegan and can't find soya milk - other plant milks (rice, oat, etc) are OK too, and if you want an extra rich cake, you can even use coconut milk)
275g flour (white or wholemeal, but not self-raising flour)
1 heaped teaspoonful baking powder (DO NOT FORGET THE BAKING POWDER!)

Other stuff you will need

An oven - if it's a gas oven, light it and set it to gas mark 4. If it's electric, set it to 350F/180C (apologies for being unable to find how to do a degree symbol on a computer!)
A saucepan
Weighing scales
A potato masher
A teaspoon
A larger spoon
A fork
One or more cake tins - the quantities above will fill one 30cm diameter round cake tin, two 20cm diameter round cake tins, or a rectangular cake tin a bit smaller than an A4 piece of paper... you can of course multiply the quantities for larger cake tins...

First, pre-heat the oven.

Then, if you're using margarine, melt it in the saucepan over a very low heat (this only takes a couple of minutes - it will become a fairly bright yellow liquid). Obviously you don't need to do this if using vegetable oil (in which case, you can use a mixing bowl instead of a saucepan).

Peel and roughly chop the bananas, add them to the melted margarine (or oil), and then mash them with a potato masher. (In the absence of a masher, you can mash them with a fork, but it takes a lot more effort.)

Add the sugar and milk, and mix it all together with a fork. (If you don't have a measuring jug and are worried about getting the right quantity of milk, you can weigh it instead - most liquids commonly used in cooking, such as milks or fruit juices, are about the same density as water, which means that a millilitre of them weighs roughly a gram. I have no idea about the equivalence of Imperial units, as i simply can't get my head round any of them except feet and inches. I do know a pint is 568ml and a pound if 454g, though (there is some usefulness in having a trading standards inspector for a father)...)

When it's mixed fairly evenly, add the flour and mix again. Stirring hard enough to mix it together with a fork does take a fair bit of arm/wrist strength (though it's probably not as difficult as people who have never made cakes tend to be led to believe, because of the silly "mystique" about successful cake making... the lack of eggs actually makes it easier as well), so if you have difficulty with that and have an electric whisk or food processor, then you can use that. I don't have any of those expensive gadgets, though...

Finally add the baking powder with the last bit of the flour. Make sure it's mixed evenly throughout the mixture.

You will need to grease whatever cake tin you are using if you don't want your cake to be impossible to detach from the tin once it's baked - the simplest way is to get a bit of margarine (a teaspoonful should suffice) and rub it over the surface until it's covered in a thin layer. Then pour the mixture into the cake tin, and put it in the oven.

This cake should be fully baked after about 45 minutes, but ovens differ in efficiency, so you might find it taking a shorter or longer time in yours. It can survive being in longer than necessary fairly well (I forgot about one cake and left it in for an hour, and it was a bit crunchier than usual on top but otherwise fine). If you're not sure if it's cooked, try sticking a knife blade in it and pulling it out - if it comes out clean, the cake's cooked, if there's anything sticky on the blade, it might not be (tho, because of the bananas, it might be, so don't totally rely on this method).

It really is that simple - there is no secret to it!

Variations on this recipe:

Chocolate banana cake (my favourite variation) - just replace 50g of the flour with cocoa powder.

Other fruits - i have tried replacing the bananas with other fruits, and most of the attempts have been successful. Blackberries, raspberries and redcurrants all work very well with the chocolate variant (they also turn the cake mixture an awesome shade of purple). Chocolate and blackberry cake is probably the nicest-tasting of the variants i have made, IMO.

Apple and cinnamon cake - replace the bananas with apples and add about a tablespoon of ground cinnamon (only done this once and it wasn't *very* cinnamony-tasting, so you could experiment with more). If using apples as the fruit bit of your cake, you'll need to grate rather than mash them (and remove the cores first).

Covering/decorating - for a special occasion cake, one of the simplest things you can do is cover it with chocolate. About 100g of chocolate covers a 20cm/8" cake, about 200g covers a 30cm/12" cake. The easiest way to melt chocolate is to break it up into small pieces, put it in a bowl and then put the bowl over a small pan of boiling water so that the bottom of the bowl just touches the water, Stir it with a spoon until it's all melted, but stop when it starts bubbling because it will burn if it continues. Then just spoon it over the cake and smooth it flat with the spoon.

You can decorate the cake while the chocolate is still hot by sticking things in it - marshmallows, small sweets, etc... spell out a friend's name, "Happy Birthday", a symbol (i've done the circled-A anarchy symbol and the CND symbol (sadly no photos), and am thinking of trying to see if i can do the "Wheelchair Guy" disabled access symbol - maybe for a cake for the International Day of Disabled People...) - anything you can think of...

I've done a few other things like sandwiching 2 cakes together with a filling, but can't remember the proportions of the ingredients for the filling off the top of my head - it was basically icing sugar, margarine and a flavouring, though, so experiment...

Sorry for the randomness of this in place of serious posts - i just wanted to post something tonight, but couldn't get my thoughts together very coherently on any of the things i really want to post about at the moment. Anyway, if this inspires you to bake cake, let me know what you think of it...

(Also a couple of people who i have made cakes for in the past have asked me for my cake recipe, so rather than sending it to each of them individually, i can now just point them here...)

(see here for origin of "the cake is a lie" meme)

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Sorry for not responding to the comments on recent posts - I have had a lot going on in offline life, including several friends in different parts of the country having major life crises all at once, and as a consequence haven't had many verbal-communication spoons left over for blogging.

I will try to get back to them (and to the various posts on other people's blogs that i have felt the need to respond to) within the next couple of days.

Normal blogging service (hopefully) resumed soon...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Call for papers: The Body as a Site of Discrimination

via FRIDA:

Call for submissions: The Body as a Site of Discrimination - A Multidisciplinary, Multimedia Online Journal

The Body as a Site of Discrimination will be an interactive, educational, multi-disciplinary, high quality, critical, and cuttingedge online journal. This creative project will fulfill the degreerequirements for two Master's of Social Work students at SFSU. This is a call for submissions to explore the following themes, but other interpretations are also encouraged.

- Disability and Ableism
- Fatphobia or Size Discrimination
- Ageism
- Racism
- Gender Discrimination
- Transphobia, non-conforming gender identities, sexual assault, sexism, and reproductive rights

Cultural and academic communities are invited to contribute for a well-rounded exploration of the theme. The significance of this project is to examine the intersectionality between varying forms of body-based oppressions. Crossing disciplines is necessary to understand this matrix of discrimination and will lead to inventive strategies of change and resistance. The outcome of this journal will contribute to the body of knowledge and serve as a resource for subsequent generations of social workers and other helping professionals.

Entries can explore activism and resistance around these issues, focus on social justice, and implications for social work practice and policy. Representative voices from the identified communities are encouraged to submit. Submissions can include personal narratives, research articles, performance and visual art, fiction, poetry, music, etc. Electronic copies of submissions will be considered for publication.

All submissions must be received by January 15, 2009 to bodydiscrimination@gmail.com

Please pass on this call to any interested parties and contact us if you have any questions.

Thank You

The Body as a Site of Discrimination

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Piers Bolduc

Posted pretty much without comment on the case itself, because this is too horrific for me to write coherently about, especially at this time of night:

Piers Bolduc is not a criminal and he's not insane: so why is he in Broadmoor?

Yes, this is very old news - the article's from 2003 - but it's the first that i've heard about the case.

It's interesting that a normally right-wing paper like the "Torygraph" reported on this as a "scandal", given that, like most of the rest of the mainstream press in the UK, they are usually highly unsympathetic towards any disability rights issue, and generally pro-psychiatry and pro-institutions (tending to like to portray "mentally ill" people as dangerous to others and deserving of forcible "treatment").

This follow-up frustratingly makes clear their unexamined attitudes in its title, "Scandal of asylums that lock up the sane", as well as the "misdiagnosis" concept and the very telling quote:

"Antipsychotic drugs given to people who are not psychotic are very harmful. Some of the effects can be irreversible."

(emphasis added) - apparently, whether or not someone is "psychotic" (an incredibly arbitrary and IMO pretty much useless classification) makes all the difference as to whether it's appropriate to forcibly "treat" them with harmful drugs...

The Telegraph, here, is very clearly engaging in hypocritical divide-and-rule tactics - the category of people labelled "insane" (and therefore appropriate to lock up and forcibly treat, with complete disregard to their human rights) is not questioned at all in itself, merely whether people with Asperger's (here yet again misleadingly referred to as "a mild form of autism", reiterating that "mild/severe" or "high/low functioning" false dichotomy) belong within it. It's a "scandal" to lock up the "sane" - into which category Aspies (but probably not otherwise-labelled autistic people) have here been grudgingly accepted - but apparently perfectly OK to do the same thing to someone who does have the label of "schizophrenia", which Bolduc and others like him have been decided not to have.

I've said it before. "Misdiagnosis" is not the issue - the thing itself is the abuse.

Edit: it seems that in 2004, Piers Bolduc was "released" from Broadmoor - but his "release" consisted only of being transferred to another institution, the "Hayes Independent Hospital". Whether he is still there now, or truly has been "released", i don't know (but will investigate - however, right now i need to go to bed)...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Homecoming Queen (response to comments at FRIDA)

I commented recently on this post at FRIDA, about disabled teenagers Anne Jennings and Kirsten Pass being named as homecoming queen* at their respective high schools.

*Before that, the only time i had ever heard the phrase "homecoming queen" was, er, in a Monkees song, so i had to look it up...

My original comment was:

Hmm. No feminist critique of the whole concept of "homecoming queen", then?

Sounds like similar ambiguities are at play here as i wrote about in this post: http://biodiverseresistance.blogspot.com/2008/07/britains-missing-top-model.html

Also, it strikes me that this could be a really patronising, "special award" kind of thing that could be really, really sickening and demeaning if handled even slightly in that "inspirational" kind of way (which i strongly suspect it was)...

to which Linda Edwards replied:

yes, there is strong feminist critique and there is also a strong feminist-disability critique of images of women with disabilities in the media by the feminist-disability scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson. There are ambiguities and tensions at play here - perhaps one of the tensions we feel is that her selection is kind of subversive and kind of not. Whilst it does not challenge or subvert the status quo around beauty pageants, the selection of a women with Down syndrome as homecoming queen on the other hand, with regard to the representation of women with Down syndrome it is very subversive. Why do people feel uncomfortable about the selection of a woman with Down syndrome as homecoming queen? Are they uncomfortable with it for the same reasons that are critical of homecoming queen events in general. Is it patronizing or demeaning. It strikes you that way, but I don't think Ann feels that way. By all accounts, she is overjoyed. Whilst a good part of me feels uncomfortable, a good part of me also feels overjoyed for her.

to which i then replied:

I suppose i can't help thinking that, given the nature of the event (based so firmly on conventional images of femininity and female beauty), the young women in question can only have been picked for horribly patronising and tokenistic reasons. Which may make me more of a cynic than i should be, i don't know...

Having fairly recently been a teenager myself, i can also all too easily imagine the probable reactions of "normal" teenagers to it (or, at least, those of "normal" teenagers in working class areas of the UK... tho, from pop culture, i can't imagine the US being *too* different) - either a combination of disgust, mockery and resentment, or a patronising "awww, isn't she sweet and inspirational" attitude.

I think it's also interesting how people with particular impairments tend to get portrayed as "inspirational", "morally superior" etc, while people with other particular impairments get portrayed as "unfeeling", "inhuman", "dangerous" etc. It reminds me of the "noble savage" contradiction of how indigenous peoples were portrayed by European colonisers, and some particular ethnic groups were singled out for portrayal as one, and some as the other.

I cannot imagine someone with, say, autism or schizophrenia, getting this kind of news portrayal, while people with Down's get it very often...

(The "noble"/"savage" dichotomy is something i intend to get back to in another post i have planned, about the parallels between disability experience and postcolonial experience... tho it's one of literally *hundreds* of vaguely-planned posts i have, so whether it'll actually materialise is another matter...)

and Linda responded:

You're concern seems to be centred on the thoughts of everyone else such as the reactions of teenagers to her selection, and the reasons why her classmates selected her. But what about you - what tensions are at play in your reaction? You wonder if teenagers are resentful or disgusted about her selection - are you resentful or disgusted, or are you thinking, oh, how sweet? Or are your feelings more nuanced, both positive and negative? I'm also reading your comments as being afraid for her, as wanting to protect her, and as projecting your own thoughts onto her - putting yourself in her place and thinking that if you were selected, you would feel patronized? According to the Chicago Tribune, her friends selected her because she is a lovely person who often hugs her friends. Isn't that a bit subversive? Doesn't it challenge the status quo in so far as her selection is based on something other than traditional notions of beauty? Whilst its possible that some of tensions you allude to, such as a little bit of tokenism, were at play during the selection process, its still kinda subversive. I'm thinking with regard to those teenagers who may be resentful or disturbed by her selection that its best to have discussions with them about that. Why are you resentful? What bothers you about it? And to convey to them that I think she is beautiful and to open them up to that idea. Yeah, I'm critical of beauty pageants - but I am awfully happy that Anne is so excited about being chosen.

As the FRIDA blog has several new posts a day, meaning that posts disappear off the front page quickly, and not many of those posts get comment threads, while i felt like i ought to respond, i decided that a better place for the response would be here...

Firstly, no, i myself am not resentful or disgusted at this, but nor am i thinking "awww, that's sweet" or anything similar. As for "being afraid for her" or "wanting to protect her"... well, that's possibly true, but (I hope) not in a paternalistically "protective" way - more in the sense of strongly identifying with her, and finding it all too easy to imagine the kind of reactions she would get, most of which I can see as strongly negative.

I don't know if exactly the same teenage culture exists in the USA as does in the UK, and i am very, very sure that class plays a huge role as well (and have no idea what sort of class or economic background Anne Jennings, Kirsten Pass or the majority of either of their classmates are from), but there is a profoundly disablist (and lots-of-other-things-ist, eg homophobic and transphobic, but i really do think that disablism is by far the strongest and deepest-seated prejudice in it) teenage culture in most working-class schools in the UK. (I think the middle and upper-class teenage cultures are arguably just as disablist, but it's expressed in a much less violent and hateful way, which is in part where the class factor comes in.) Words like "spastic" and "retard" are among the commonest and most unquestioned insults, and there is (or was when i was at school) a real disgust towards disabled people, even among otherwise unprejudiced people, that is hard to describe but, i think, has to be witnessed first-hand for its full extent to be understood.

When i was about Anne Jennings's age (and, at the time, not diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum or self-identified as disabled), i volunteered on a summer "activity scheme" for young people of roughly the same age group with learning disabilities - who were a fairly mixed bag, with a couple of people there who actually only had physical impairments and no "learning disability" label, some autistic, some with Down's or other syndromes, some nonverbal and regarded as "profoundly" impaired, others very verbal but with an obvious, significant difference from typical peers in vocabulary, non-verbal communication or topics of interest. All noticeably dressed (or were dressed by their parents) and acted in social ways as if they were significantly younger than a "typical" teenager (I have more to say there about cultural perceptions of age and maturity, and what it really means to "act younger" or "act older" than one's actual age, but i think that has to be saved for another post).

The majority of the "non-disabled" (in quotes because several, including me, actually were disabled, but did not have a "learning disability" label) young people who volunteered fell into a few categories: those from very middle-class or very religious backgrounds who had a strong ethic of altruism or "doing good" and were less invested than most in the (pretty viciously enforced) norms of "mainstream" youth culture, those who had siblings or family members in the "client" group, and some who were very marginalised and had a strong identification with the disabled young people for one reason or another (which category i was in). I was not the only person there, but one of very few, who tried to treat all of them as my equals, as a matter of fundamental principle, and tried to break the disabled/non-disabled divide (it took me a few years longer to realise how systematically that divide was part of the whole foundation of schemes like that one).

Several memories stand out strongly from that experience, all of which deserve writing about by themselves: one young woman, the same age as me, who kept hugging and being physically affectionate with me (over which i was taken aside and told to tell her that this was "inappropriate"), and said to me several times "we're the same"; someone in my class at school whose brother was a "client", but who became cold and unwilling to talk to me when she found out I knew her brother, and adamantly did not want to be associated with him in any way in front of anyone else at school; my being mistaken for a nonverbal "client" by another volunteer, and the ensuing embarrassment on her part (which to me was baffling, but then raised the very troubling question of whether i should be embarrassed by such a supposed category error); most of all the strength of the identication i felt with the learning-disabled young people, which troubled me deeply and left me reeling (and which probably sowed some of the first seeds of my own eventual self-diagnosis some 5 years later).

The point of this anecdote is that, having observed the reactions of typical teenagers to learning-disabled people of their own age, the depth of the prejudice was incredibly clear to me. One young woman who volunteered on one of the projects was utterly horrified and disgusted by a young man with a learning disability (i think he had Down's, but can't remember for sure) being attracted to her in a physically affectionate way, and left over it. I can be about as sure as I am of anything that a person with an obvious impairment such as Down's would not have been accepted into friendship groups or treated as an equal or even a valid human being by the vast majority of teenagers at my school.

The cultural standards of attractiveness, in particular, were so rigidly and viciously enforced that i was met with shock, disbelief and even something close to anger when I told a (very attractive) young woman who was generally friendly towards me that i found her more attractive when not wearing make-up. Being overweight (by an extremely arbitrary standard), having any remotely unusual facial feature or not wearing the "right" clothes was considered a perfectly valid reason for vicious insults and even personal enmity (from both men and other women) - I really dread to think what kind of response trying "to convey to them that I think [a young woman with Down's] is beautiful and to open them up to that idea" would have got among even the most outspokenly anti-racist and anti-homophobic young people in that cultural milieu.

(I do, and did then, think that some people with Down's are attractive - the UK stage actress Sarah Gordy being a case in point - but the thought of saying so openly in that milieu would have been so unthinkable that, to be honest, I would still be too scared of the disgusted response to say so in any setting other than a mostly-disabled one now... probably a good example of internalised prejudice :(

ETA: from the Chicago Tribune's photo gallery of the story, i'd say Anne Jennings is arguably quite attractive too... tho discussing the attractiveness or otherwise of a 17 year old now, at 26, makes me feel kind of squicky regardless of disability issues or anything else...)

(This all was approximately 10 years ago, and i am aware that inclusion/integration in schools in the UK has progressed somewhat in that time, and that a lot more kids with learning disabilities and/or physical impairments are in mainstream schools now. Maybe things would be different in teenage culture now, i don't know. My school was one which was selective by 12-plus exam results, which of course meant it had no pupils woth a "special educational needs" label, and was also very physically inaccessible (stairs to get nearly everywhere). There were a few others besides myself with fairly obvious, albeit undiagnosed, neurodiversity (most of whom were very marginalised within the school), and a few with relatively minor physical impairments, which were regarded as irrelevant except on the sports field... as long as they could get up stairs to classrooms. Other, non-selective local schools had some pupils with diagnosed mental impairments, but all those who were clients of the activity schemes i volunteered for went to "special" schools.)

If the friendships that Anne Jennings has with her classmates are genuine and equal ones, then i am immensely happy that this is the case, and think that's an incredibly positive thing for society. Maybe this is, in fact, one way in which US youth culture is more positive than that in the UK. Maybe it is my problem that i read things like this and take a default position of cynicism... i don't know, but that comes from my experience. Even if Anne Jennings and Kirsten Pass do feel unambiguously happy about their awards, i can't help seeing an ugly kind of well-meaning-but-probably-hideously-backfiring patronage in them being chosen for them. I can't help thinking that they are undoubtedly aware of the disablism of the society around them, of being regarded as negatively "special", and that they must experience some dissonance at their being singled out as positively "special" and held up as examples for their typical classmates.

I'm probably not articulating this very well, but even though the choice of a young woman with a visible impairment to win a contest closely associated with stereotypical notions of femininity and attractiveness/beauty is undoubtedly subversive in one sense, i can't help thinking that it would fail at subversion, and quite possibly result in increased bullying and abuse of the winners by typical young people whose attitudes I can only too easily imagine.

And that was really rambly, really badly expressed and probably still didn't say very much useful - but i just really felt a) that i needed to respond to that exchange and b) that i wanted to post something tonight... Linda, not sure if you read this blog but your further thoughts would be welcome - as would anyone else's, in particular those of any disabled people with more recent experience than me of the "mainstream" youth culture/school system...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Neurodiversity in Literature #1: Noah Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath"

This is the first of what might become an occasional series, focusing on characters in novels who are really obviously (what would now be recognised as) autistic or otherwise neurodiverse, but were written either before such concepts were recognised or by authors who were probably unaware of them. It might even foray into possible neurodiversity in authors, but that would probably require a separate format (for this i'm mostly going to post quotes from novels, and add a bit of commentary).

Noah Joad is the brother of Tom Joad, the main protagonist of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. He is introduced on page 90 (in the Penguin edition), when Tom returns to his family home after 4 years in prison:

Behind them, moving slowly and evenly, but keeping up, came Pa and Noah - Noah the first-born, tall and strange, walking always with a wondering look on his face, calm and puzzled. He had never been angry in his life. He looked in wonder at angry people, wonder and uneasiness, as normal people look at the insane. Noah moved slowly, spoke seldom, and then so slowly that people who did not know him often thought him stupid. He was not stupid, but he was strange. He had little pride, no sexual urges. He worked and slept in a curious rhythm that nevertheless sufficed him. He was fond of his folks, but never showed it in any way. Although an observer could not have told why, Noah left the impression of being misshapen, his head or his body or his legs or his mind; but no misshapen member could be recalled. Pa thought he knew why Noah was strange, but Pa was ashamed, and never told. For on the night when Noah was born, Pa, frightened at the spreading thighs, alone in the house, and horrified at the screaming wretch his wife had become, went mad with apprehension. Using his hands, his strong fingers for forceps, he had pulled and twisted the baby. The midwife, arriving late, had found the baby's head pulled out of shape, its neck stretched, its body warped; and she had pushed the head back and molded the body with her hands. But Pa always remembered, and was ashamed. And he was kinder to Noah than to the others. In Noah's broad face, eyes too far apart, and long fragile jaw, Pa thought he saw the twisted, warped skull of the baby. Noah could do all that was required of him, could read and write, could work and figure, but he didn't seem to care; there was a listlessness in him toward things people wanted and needed. He lived in a strange silent house and looked out of it through calm eyes. He was a stranger to all the world, but he was not lonely.

A couple of pages later, Tom's first verbal exchange in the book with Noah:

Noah stood on the step, and he faced Tom, and his wideset eyes seemed to look around him. His face had little expression. Tom said, "How ya, Noah?"

"Fine," said Noah. "How a' you?" That was all, but it was a comfortable thing.

I think there's a hell of a lot in there to make a case, if this was a description of a real person, for this person being on the autistic spectrum - so much so, in fact, that i can't help wondering if Steinbeck based this character on a real person he had met who was, in fact, autistic. Steinbeck's work gives such a strong feeling of being grounded in real life, of being the dramatised but still real story of the displaced people of Oklahoma and California in the Great Depression, that it just seems natural that his characters were, if not based on individual real people, then on composites of real people. It seems likely to me that Steinbeck had met someone like Noah.

Noah is a minor character - he plays no vastly important role in the plot, and, while he goes with the rest of the Joads on their exodus to California, is only referred to pretty much in passing for most of the journey, and where he is referred to, there is nothing to imply that, despite his obvious neurological difference, he has anything other than the "normal" role of a member of the Joad family. He is one of the men of the family, in a society in which men and women within a family have very strictly defined gender roles - he does the "men's work", along with his father, uncle and brothers as an equal member of the working team.

There isn't really an obvious plot-related reason why Noah is in The Grapes of Wrath - if he had been omitted as a character, the plot would not have been significantly different. So, why did Steinbeck "create" him? I like to think that Steinbeck included him because he had known such a person in real life, and thus wanted to show how such a person would have been accepted and included, completely naturally, within a family in the pre-proletarianisation agricultural society of the 1930s American Midwest.

This reminds me of Mike Oliver's analysis of how disability developed as a social category in the transition from rural, agricultural feudal society to indistrial capitalism (in The Politics of Disablement, one of the foundational works of Disability Studies, published in 1990 - chapter 3, "Disability and the Rise of Capitalism") - in pre-Industrial Revolution British society (which the rural parts of the USA in the first half of the 20th century resembled pretty well in social organisation), individuals contributed what they could to small-scale agriculture and cottage industry, and individual impairments or differences could much more easily be accommodated than in the large-scale, mechanised and standardised workplaces that developed in the Industrial Revolution, and as a result of the development of the factory (or factory farm, as replaced the smallholdings of tenant families in The Grapes of Wrath) and its need for a standardised factory worker, the concept of "disability" in its modern form arose along with the segregation of those individuals whose impairments or differences made them "unsuitable" for such standardised, high-speed, high-pressure work - no individial "curious rhythm" permitted.

In this context, Noah's decision to leave the family before they reach California - abruptly deciding to walk off down a river that they camp by, after which he isn't seen again, his final fate unknown - makes a poignant kind of sense (perhaps not even intended by the author) - he knows that he is not capable of fitting into the new society, that in a standardised, proletarianised world he would be a liability to his family, and decides that, as there is no future for him that he can foresee, isolation and the uncomplicated sensory world of nature, even without any plan for personal survival, is a better choice than being forced into it.

The only part of his characterisation that seems unrealistic to me is the assertion that he "had never been angry in his life" - if he was based on a real person, I would probably submit that that person did actually feel anger, but perhaps did not express it in a way that was comprehensible as such to the neurotypical people around him. And there seems, to me at least, to be a kind of sublimated anger as well as sadness in his departure: as he says to Tom when he leaves: "You know how it is, Tom. You know how the folks are nice to me. But they don't really care for me." The "listlessness", too, could well have been a matter of perception by others rather than reality - a lack of the "normal" affective cues for caring about things rather than a lack of actual caring, or the "economy of energy" that many autistic people show in positioning their bodies in the most comfortable/least resistant position rather than prioritising showing alertness, or some form of the inertia often mistaken for laziness; yet despite these possible misperceptions, Noah is portrayed as a character who is not (intentionally) discriminated against until the old society is completely destroyed by the process of proletarianisation.

On a personal level, the description of Noah's birth deeply interests me; as a first-born son whose birth was premature, traumatic and required forceps myself, I have long believed that, although autism is unquestionably primarily a genetic condition, there is also a link between traumatic births and the extent to which the genes for an autistic neurology are expressed. I have seen many other autistic people on blogs and forums saying that they had complications of one sort or another immediately before, during or immediately after birth, and forceps births seem to be especially common. While my parents both have traits that i recognise as being autistic spectrum traits, neither of them has anywhere enough of the traits regarded as diagnostic for autism to merit a diagnosis; however, i seem to have both their traits added together and amplified, and i think it's possible that the forceps birth was what pushed me over the line into actually being in the diagnosably-autistic part of the spectrum. (I also seem to have an unusually narrow skull, which could also be as a result of the forceps birth.)

I identify strongly with the description of Noah "[leaving] the impression of being misshapen... but no misshapen member could be recalled", in relation to the way that many autistic people including myself, while not being visibly disabled as such (or at least not being interpreted as "disabled" at first glance by most people), are percieved by neurotypical people as subtly "off", or having something "wrong" with them in some undefinable way, often generating a feeling of unease in neurotypical people that the neurotypical person would find hard or impossible to exactly define or justify, but might describe the autistic person as something like "creepy" or just "odd". (I touched on this here, and am still intending to return to it in a "part 2" to that post.)

It's amazing how much i find myself wanting to write about a character who gets no more than a couple of pages in total written about him in a 500 page novel... well, for now this will have to do. I don't know how much i am going to write about characters who are actually among the main protagonists of the novels that they are in... :o

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Recent Links of Awesome #2

Once again, i have LOADS of blog posts that i really want to write, some of which i was intending to do today, but i seem to be having a particularly unproductive and low-spoons day today, largely due to the cold weather and the effect of the clocks going back last week (both of which i wrote posts about at approximately this time last year - see here and here)... i might have time to get one of them done later tonight, but that's nowhere near certain, as i have considerable Stuff to Do...

Anyway, some recently-written posts by other people that i have been meaning to link:

Lindsay of Autist's Corner has written a 3-post series called "Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory", in response to this article by Kristin Bumiller (which i haven't actually read, due to the site requiring subscription/registration):

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Loads and loads of stuff i am really excited about, and really glad that someone else other than me is thinking about, there :)

I'm particularly enthused by the idea of "normalisation" and "antinormalisation" strategies as employed by minority identity/advocacy groups, and need to write something myself on that topic. I think the ideas and the tension between them are of vast relevance not only to the disability rights movement, but to many other minority rights/acceptance movements (the queer and trans movements being those which immediately spring to mind, but also those of ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and others). I will hopefully write a post on my own views on the concept soon, but i think they're pretty close to Lindsay's...

Amanda of Ballastexistenz also wrote a brilliant post recently (well, all her posts are brilliant, but this one is, i think, one of her greatest) called "People can be a bit like water", in which she masterfully deconstructs unconscious privilege (in a way which, again, goes well beyond disability, to fit perfectly with the concepts elucidated in trans feminist blogs such as Taking Up Too Much Space - i love these sort of convergences).

There's also an excellent discussion of psychiatry in the comments (Amanda's second comment on the subject really ought to be a post in itself), which really reminds me that i need to post on anti-psychiatry (and the relationships/tensions between the original form of anti-psychiatry and the neurodiversity movement).

Body Impolitic has had some really good posts recently, although i can't really pinpoint a single one to mark out as outstanding. I've been reading and highly enjoying it, though.

Ms Crip Chick had a great and highly thought-provoking (for me) post a couple of weeks ago on different cultural perspectives on disability and independence, which i still need to formulate a response to, but which has been on my mind as another subject i also need to write about.

And finally... i thought i had already posted a link to this a couple of months ago, but, looking through my archives, i obviously hadn't:

"Toward a Liberationist Feminism (Or, I Hope Pro-Capitalist Feminism Is an Oxymoron)"

EVERYONE with even the slightest bit of interest in either feminism or anti-capitalism needs to read this. Absolutely, utterly, amazingly awesome piece of writing, and apologies for not linking to it when i thought i had.

I really will be posting some proper posts soon. Honest.