July 31, 2011

Strong, entitled, impolite.

Over the weekend, I gave a speech, the closing keynote at the 2011 Angelman Syndrome Foundation Biennial Conference. It was a somewhat different kind of speech for me, more of a call to arms than I've really given in the past, and it was unproven. It seemed to go over well, and I hope I get the chance to deliver it again, but still. I wondered if it was appropriate.

If I'd been paying more attention to the whole debt ceiling debate going on in Washington, and in particular who was increasingly likely to get thrown under the budget cutting bus in whatever deal was made, I would have realized that yes, my approach was appropriate. Appropriate, and necessary. I have a feeling that a great many of us are soon going to find ourselves standing up and throwing rocks at giants.

Anyway, here's a short excerpt from the speech I delivered, the part that feels the most relevant.

Who's going to speak up for our kids?

This is the fight. These are the kinds of things that lurk out there, the attitudes towards a segment of our population that struggles for respect like no other. We simply must make significant cultural and societal changes and acknowledge that the struggles of those with disabilities are nothing less than human rights issues.

This is the heart of our fight, because it extends to every aspect of our children's lives, from the care they receive from the medical community to the seriousness they are afforded by their schools to the resources allocated to them by our political leaders. We've all seen it, time and time again. We've watched our representatives in government approach funding for disability programs and special education as if these are the nice things we can afford when times are good, like luxuries. They behave as if cutting these programs is reasonable, as if life will somehow wait for our kids until the good times return. More and more frequently, I hear these programs referred to as "entitlements", spat like a dirty word, as if our expectations constitute an unreasonable drain on society. And I'm not even talking about this from a partisan position. We've all heard political figures from both parties as they put our children's quality of life on the table while protecting their own special interests. I've come to believe that the term “independent voter” has come to represent someone who is equally appalled at what both parties are doing. I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover a great many of these appalled independent voters in the disability community.

What I have to say to you today is something that you already know. As parents and family members, as caregivers and therapists and teachers, we are the voices for our kids and our loved ones. We are the believers. So much of the world sees our disabled loved ones as powerless, so it is us, you and me, who must be the forces of change. We have to toughen up. We have to stop accepting scraps from the table of human decency. We must be the ones to lift the expectations of society. We have to be the ones to write the narrative of this fight in terms of civil rights, of basic human rights. Our voices must be strong, they must be entitled, and, on occasion, they must be impolite.

I believe in my heart of hearts that in terms of legal protection, in terms of funding in education and adult services and accessibility, and most of all in terms of a fundamental change in the empathetic and compassionate hearts of our fellow citizens, the fight for equality for children and adults with disabilities will be the next great civil rights battle in this country. But for that to happen, our loved ones, the ones who depend on us for so much else, they will need for us to stand up and raise those strong, entitled, impolite voices on their behalf. Are we ready to do that?

I think we are.

July 12, 2011

Rabbit, Run

("Black in White" by Luke Chueh)

Let us take a moment to consider the strange, sad story of how Marissa's Bunny lost its way.

If you want a pretty complete telling of the story, go check out a post on Love That Max. In particular, read the comments, because much of the story plays out there.

(Shannon Des Roches Rosa sums it up very nicely, too.)

The short version is this: Marissa's Bunny tells the story of little Marissa, born in 2007 with a pretty terrible condition called West syndrome, or "infantile spasms". The blog is written by her father, Mike Wuerthele, and over time has garnered quite a following. A lot of people care very deeply for Marissa.

Last year, Mike turned to that caring community for help. He said he needed to raise money for surgery for Marissa. Thanks to the generosity of people in the gaming and disability communities, Mike raised almost thirty thousand dollars. It strikes me that the folks who helped Mike were very similar to those who helped Schuyler get her speech device six years ago. I suspect that some of them WERE the same people.

Here's where things get murky. Mike announced that he was starting the Marissa's Bunny Foundation, and with matching funds from his employer (who wished to remain anonymous), parents of kids with special needs could apply to receive free iPads for their children. This application process included submitting a great deal of extremely personal information. Forty parents were selected, and they were overjoyed.

Well, of course they were. In addition to the great need being filled, things like this are rare for parents of kids with disabilities. Generosity and good news are like buried treasure to these families. Enthusiastic parents began making plans with their therapists and school teams to incorporate these iPads into their kids' treatment and curriculum. Then they waited; many were notified that their iPads had shipped.

You know where this is going, I know.

As of this writing, not a single family has received an iPad. Mike has given a number of different stories, about shipping errors and legal obstacles and even threats made against him and his family, causing him to stop any shipments at the advice of his lawyers. He offered to refund donations to anyone who asked, but then claimed that his access to PayPal had been restricted.  As more and more people compared notes, the extent to which Mike had been covering his tracks and telling outright lies became clear.

Finally, it all came down to this, an email sent yesterday to the "winners":

There are no longer any iPads. I've never had access to the matching funds I've been promised. Something along the way changed and I'm getting hung out to dry by my bosses.

As to my obliqueness about my bosses and the company I work for, If their identities ever got out, long ago they promised I'd lose my job, my insurance, and take us for everything we have making Marissa's surgery impossible to afford. If I keep my mouth shut and the fact that I got screwed never gets out in any way then I keep my job, and my insurance, and they've promised to pay for Marissa's surgery after we give everything we can.

My reputation is now screwed with the SN community but I have to be able to give Marissa the best chance for as close to normal as possible and will happily work under whatever conditions I need to. I'll dance with the Devil if it gets Marissa what she needs.

We're not going to fundraise any more. There won't be any more giveaways on Marissasbunny for special needs or otherwise. I'm still going to update with Marissa's surgical preps and that kind of thing, but that's all. Marissasbunny is going back to what it was before they got involved, back when many of you started reading. No more promotions, just Marissa and her brother's story.

There are the first words that are my own and not through a corporate lawyer since Thursday.


There will be aftershocks to this story, I'm sure, especially since a number of people have apparently contacted law enforcement. As of this writing, Mike has said that he will be personally giving an iPad to a single winner this afternoon, with photos and no doubt some balloons and bullshit-flavored cupcakes. But I think this story is mostly over.

So what happened here? Was it all a scam, and if it was, to what end? No one paid for an iPad or a raffle ticket, but apparently there were pleas for matching funds funds from Mike's apparently mustache-twirling, comic book villain bosses. That request raised about $4400, funds that have now simply disappeared, along with other money raised for various reasons during the promotion. And the Marissa's Bunny Foundation? Does not appear to exist at all.

Does Marissa herself exist? Did that original almost thirty grand actually help her receive needed surgery? I'm going to step on my swelling cynicism for a moment and say that yeah, I believe that Marissa probably does exist and that Mike's original plea for money was legit. If Mike is anything like Julie and I, he must have been astonished at the generosity of a bunch of strangers on the internet.

Perhaps that opened a door to a dark place for him, a sense that "If it was that easy, then maybe..." Or maybe he was so desperate to be someone's hero that he kept this going to feed on the accolades and the gratitude for the work he was doing. Work that we now can see he probably wasn't doing at all.

I guess there are some lessons to be learned here, beyond the old "trust but verify". After all, when Julie and I and a good friend did a fundraiser to help buy Schuyler her speech device, those of you who donated took it on faith that we were telling the truth. As much as I've welcomed the democratization of the AAC process that the iPad has potentially brought to our families, this might just be the flip side. When you look carefully at Mike's whole "Free iPads for special needs kids!!!" promotion, it fails the sniff test on multiple levels. A speech-language therapist might have picked up on that, because an SLP doesn't exist on scraps of hope like special needs parents do. Situations like this serve as a reminder that regardless of the product or the therapy, we need as much professional guidance as we can get.

For me, however, there's a larger lesson here, a reminder that there is an even greater equalizer at work. People talk about the disability community as if we all gather at the VFW hall on Fridays and approve the minutes from the last meeting while practicing our secret handshake. And those of us who live in this world are treated like saints. "God chose YOU for this very very very special job!"

But our reality is one of blind selection, one of the few truly equal experiences in the universe. A very fair unfairness, perhaps. Membership in this community is open to Kennedys and Palins alike. We celebrate writers like Rupert Isaacson, but we struggle to make sense of someone like Arthur Miller. Many of us talk about how we're not special, we are just doing what any parent would do for their child, but we know that many don't.

Most of all, we like to believe that our commonalities provide a kind of sanctuary, and that when we hear a story like Marissa's and we meet someone like her father, we believe we can trust them. Because to face the alternative, to admit that a father would see his broken, beautiful daughter as a device by which to cheat his fellow special needs parents? That's a bitter pill to swallow. And we've forced down a lot of bitter medicine already.

I have a confession to make now. Honestly, I hope that there is no Marissa, or at the very least that she's a distant niece of Mike's, or a neighbor's kid. I find myself hoping that this is a full-blown scam, an attempt by an outsider to swindle families of kids with disabilities.

Because as bad as that would be, I find it worlds more troubling to imagine such a cynical act being committed by one of our own.

July 1, 2011

Why we fight.

This is why it matters.

From Courthouse News Service:

DAYTON, Ohio (CN) - Dayton police "mistook" a mentally handicapped teenager's speech impediment for "disrespect," so they Tasered, pepper-sprayed and beat him and called for backup from "upward of 20 police officers" after the boy rode his bicycle home to ask his mother for help, the boy's mom says.

Pamela Ford says her "mentally challenged/handicapped" son Jesse Kersey, 17, was riding his bike near his Dayton home when Officer Willie Hooper stopped him and tried to talk to him.

The mom says that "Prior to the incident described below, defendant Hooper knew Jesse and was aware that Jesse was mentally challenged/handicapped and a minor child."


"Jesse was charged with assault on a peace officer, resisting arrest, and obstructing official business."

However, "Jesse was declared incompetent by the Montgomery County Juvenile Court and the charges against Jesse were dismissed."

Jesse and his mom seek damages from the city and the two lead officers, for false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, assault, battery, excessive use of force, infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.

(Edited to add: Here's another article that gives the police officers' side of the story as well.  Interesting to note that even if you were to take the cops' side as gospel, it still brings up some questions.  Why would the cops behave this way even after being told, more than once, that there was a disability/communication issue?  Is this an appropriate force level for a kid riding his bicycle the wrong way down a street?  At any point, did the officer even try to take what would probably be minimal efforts to defuse the situation?  Even knowing the police side of the story, I still think the mother could have been charged with several counts of "exactly what Rob would have done".)

That could be Schuyler. That could be any non-verbal but ambulatory kid with a developmental disorder. It could be your kid.

Officer Willie Hooper knew Jesse Kersey, he was already aware of the young man's disability. He knew, and yet he still did this. He knew, but he didn't understand, didn't extend basic human dignity to a young man who didn't understand and couldn't communicate to the officer's satisfaction. This doesn't sound like a mistake. It sounds like a value judgment, one that ultimately concluded that a kid like Jesse Kersey HAD no value.

Now, where would someone get the idea that people with developmental disabilities have diminished value as human beings?

All this week, on Twitter and Facebook and my blog, I've made a little noise wherever I can about Tracy Morgan's recent remarks about kids with developmental disorders, and I've had a few good discussions about the topic. But I've also been told that I need to lighten up, that the attention directed at Morgan is tiresome, that free speech includes immunity from personal responsibility or simple human decency. I've been told that jokes about people with disabilities are harmless.

When I talk about a societal narrative fed by the likes of Tracy Morgan and members of the Dayton Police Department and the entitled hipsters loudly demanding their freedom of speech when taken to task for calling someone a retard, a societal narrative that re-enforces the idea that the least powerful among us are fair game, THIS is why it's important.

And when parents and advocates stand up and protest this narrative, we're not doing so to get a ride on "the Tracy Morgan free publicity train", as comedian Rob Corddry suggested on Twitter this week. We're not opportunists, looking for some sort of self-promotion. We're not pleased that Tracy Morgan gave us a chance to make a larger point, and we're not happy to shock the world with the story of Jesse Kersey, or any of the others who have been denied their dignity because they have the audacity to be broken, to be less than perfect, to be different.

We would love to live in a universe where our fellow citizens of the world heard vile remarks or read of monstrous deeds and stood up to say that we as a society are better than this. We'd like public figures and groups besides parents and the same advocacy groups like the Arc or Special Olympics to say "Well now, I may not have a dog in this fight, but that right there? THAT'S fucked up." We would like for the denial of basic human dignity to be something that distresses most anyone, outside those of us in the disability community. We'd like to feel like we have more choices that either keeping our mouths shut or standing on a hill, shouting into the wind and hoping we don't get hit by lightning.

In my book, I wrote about the island I dream about, the one where we'd go to live, just our little family, where a protecting ocean would shield Schuyler from the likes of Tracy Morgan and Officer Hooper and a depressingly large segment of society that sees her as a punchline, or worse. I admitted that I knew it was wrong, but it was still a very happy fantasy.

After this week and the conversations I keep finding myself having and the walls I keep throwing myself against, I would take Schuyler to that island in the time it would take to pack her sock monkeys and get to the airport.