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Transcript of Video on Ableism in Atheism

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How to Increase Accessibility in the Freethought Community

[Slide titles in bold.]

How to Increase Accessibility in the Freethought Community
Every single person in the freethought community needs access to it. That seems like a simple concept – if you can’t get here or follow along, you can’t participate. There are plenty of people who would like to participate more, but encounter barriers to doing so. Fortunately, we have the tools of compassion and critical thinking, humanism and skepticism, to guide us.

Response: Accommodation
I would like to open with a few individual responses to my survey on ableism and atheism, which I will explore in more detail later. In this first one, a mother says: I asked Minnesota Camp Quest for accommodation for my son’s food allergies and asthma a couple years ago, including my attendance at camp as a health aide, his carrying epi-pen and inhaler, a place in the kitchen to heat up pre-made meals, campers washing their hands after eating and a place for a minifridge.  He was denied access.  I was severely disappointed.  There just aren’t that many places for atheist kids to feel comfortable.

Response: Inclusion
When I’ve said that I have mental health issues in the past, a number of people I know in supposedly “rationalist”, atheist circles have taken that as a license to disregard anything I might say on any particular subject. It’s as if they’ll accept my agreement that the existence of a god or gods is highly unlikely, and that Christianity and Islam are irrational, but my depression excludes me from having opinions on anything else.

Response: Skepticism
Rationality/skepticism are very important to me in fighting my mental illness. I had to learn to rigorously check claims like “everyone hates me” and not just take it on intuition or faith.

Response: Atheist PR
The atheist community, I think, needs to do more outreach to the disabled. Far too many of us are preyed upon by people of faith, promising that we will be healed if we just believe, or that “god’s plan” is such and such (usually something along the lines of “for women to get married and have a family”). So, please, more outreach to the disabled and mentally ill.

Skepticism gives us a unique approach to the issue of disability and accessibility. Humanity created god and the scientific method. We use human reason, not divine revelation, for understanding. Humans are basically social animals. Some of us like getting together at Skepticamp and hanging out with like-minded people to learn new skeptical things. We who are here love seeing more of us here, and are interested in making that happen. That’s what “accessibility” means.

What about other groups? & Aren’t Christians worse?
Why am I focusing on increasing accessibility to the freethought community, and not just to life in general? Well the obvious answer would be that I’m here right now giving a talk I wrote for this particular audience. But more to the point, I don’t know whether we perform better or worse than Christians do in our society at accessibility,because when I looked, I couldn’t find any such comparison study. There is almost nothing online about skepticism and disability, which I found to be a huge gaping hole in our collective dialog. I hope we can begin to fill this hole, starting with my talk (and of course JT Eberhard’s talk on his own mental illness at Skepticon 2011).

The Perfect Human Body?
Just so we know how most of our creationist society views disability. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis says there is a one perfect human form, which is the likeness of YHWH, and any deviation from that perfect human form is a flaw. The greater deviations become disabilities, all of which are the result of man’s sinful nature.

Perfection According to the Creation Museum:
Apparently perfection includes being lilly-white and looking like a Vidal Sassoon commercial. Let’s move on to something more realistic, shall we?

The Perfect Human Body?
Our knowledge of the human body as discovered through the scientific method paints a much different picture of what constitutes a perfect human body. Note that I sad “a” and not “the”. According to natural selection, an organism is successful when it can survive its environment long enough to produce offspring, which can survive its environment long enough to produce its own offspring. Each generation is slightly different than the previous, and a few of those changes are successful enough to make it to the next generation. Which traits count toward success depends entirely on the environment itself, which is also constantly changing. Thus, “a” perfect human body cannot exist, because a static environment does not exist.

The Onion
Study: Dolphins not so intelligent on land.
A dolphin performs poorly in a University of Florida land-based locomotion test.

What “counts” as a Disability:
Since ability and disability are entirely dependent on how our bodies fit with the current environment, we sometimes have difficulty deciding exactly what is a disability. Using myself as an example: I’m not disabled as long as I’m adapting myself to my environment with my Electromagnetic Radiation Refraction Lenses of Science! Otherwise known as glasses. But if I take them off, I run into things and trip over things and take on all sorts of physical risks. And what about my ADHD? It isn’t interfering with employment or academic performance, for the most part. But it does put a tremendous strain on my personal relationships. Also I tend to get distracted at the worst possible times – like traveling high speeds in a 3 ton death machine. And if I attempted to do that without glasses… look out!

What “counts” as a Disability:
Then there are different classifications we give based on different functions we expect from different people. If I couldn’t dress or feed myself, I’d be disabled. But an infant has a much different threshold for what it takes for us to consider hir to have a disability. Then there’s Stephen Hawking with his super brain powers, but lacking so many physical abilities. Contrast that with people who lack the mental abilities to live independently, even though they are physically capable. And what about disabilities that can become super-abilities through science?

Science: 1 God: 0
Will we one day reach the point where our transhumanism renders the distinctions between ability, disability, and super-ability meaningless? I hope so, but we’re not there yet; we’re here and now.

Ways WE can include more people
There are things we can do today to help increase accessibility to the freethought community. Just as Patches O’Houlihan taught the Average Joes to play Dodgeball through his 5 Ds (dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge), so too can we “average Joes” do our part when we listen to people with disabilities, research the community, discuss the issues, enact changes, and listen to people with disabilities.

Let's win the future!

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.

“Nothing about us without us”
It’s not just for the lulz that I listed “listen” twice, because it’s actually the most important step. As the saying goes “nothing about us without us”.

Internet Survey
In light of that fact, and because I could find nobody else had ever done so before, I conducted an internet survey of barriers to accessibility to the freethought community, 4 of the answers I read at the beginning of this talk. I passed it along to various leaders of community organizations across the nation and generally tried to spread it around as best we could. Of course, it’s not a scientific study, so it can’t give us controlled statistics. It can, however, give us a lot of information that we previously lacked.

Seems Legit
I left most of the responses as fill-in-the-blanks so as to avoid leading questions like this one from One News Now. Question: “What’s your response to verbal attacks against Kirk Cameron for defending traditional marriage?” 3 possible answers: One: “Obviously, tolerance is a one-way street.” Two: “More Christians should follow his example.” or Three: “Thank you, Kirk, for speaking the truth.” I’m sure they received nothing but impartial responses to this survey.

Ableism in Atheism Survey
Here are the questions asked in my survey, with fill-in-the-blank responses.

  • Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability? If so, what sort?
  • Have you (or do you personally know someone who has) felt out-of-place or limited your involvement with an atheist community because of disability-related situations? If so, please describe.
  • What steps could atheist communities take to become more inclusive?
  • Any other thoughts about ableism and atheism?

Mmm… Pie… (135 slices)
I received 135 anonymous responses as of creating this presentation. According to the US Census, 10 percent of people age 18 to 64 have disabilities, making this no small issue. As can be expected, more people with disabilities than without responded to my survey. The good news is many of them are getting along just fine. The other good news is that those who aren’t left some amazingly detailed responses for us. There were a wide variety of physical and mental disabilities represented, with many responders having more than one disability.

Responses fell under 4 general categories.

  • Accommodation: Removing barriers to meetings
  • Inclusion: Creating welcoming spaces
  • Skepticism: Applying critical thought
  • Atheist Public Relations: Looking good!

One of the most important messages I got from many of those surveyed was that people want their requests for accommodation taken seriously, especially when it’s a case of serious risk to personal well being. For example, this person is at risk of seizure if people ignore the request for no flash photography.

It’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible. As this response says: “ADA-compliant facilities would also be nice; going out is hard enough without being entry challenged because I don’t “look disabled.” This case in particular highlights how service animals are often used for people with epilepsy or other such invisible disabilities, disabilities which are not apparent at first glance.

Another common request was for a greater variety of meeting venues, so that people with different needs can have a greater variety of options to choose from, that way there’s something for everybody. This person points out: “Some of the venues chosen for atheist meetups are not really sensory-friendly. For example, bars are VERY hard for people with Asperger’s and Autism because of the large amount of noise and people. (and sometimes smoke)” By the way, refraining from touching or hugging people with sensory needs is another way we can be accommodating.

“For awhile there was a group I was interested in that only met in smoky bars. Thankfully many places are now smoke-free and the St. Louis Skeptics Society tends to meet in lung-friendly locations.” Props to the SSSL for making that improvement, even if not consciously. This is something I’ll go into more detail on later, but when needs are met, people are happy and even eager to brag about how terrific their group is.

Here is a response making special request for alcohol-free venues. Many recovering alcoholics would love to attend skeptical events without having to take such a risk.

And here’s another request for variety and diversity in options, this time for special dietary needs. Don’t feel like mind-reading is required here – most responders emphasized that they were willing to voice their needs, as long as people are willing to listen and make an honest effort to include them.

Here is an example of how poverty can exacerbate disability, which is compounded by the fact that only 1/3 of people with disabilities are employed (Cornell University’s, ½ that of their non-disabled counterparts. This response is actually rather typical: “I cannot drive and there are very few buses that are wheelchair accessible out to my suburb. Plus the bus stops aren’t very close to where I live and I am pretty exhausted by the time I get on the bus. Meatspace meetups are often at restaurants that don’t cater for special diets and/or have no wheelchair access. I just gave up trying to attend.” One possible solution to a situation like this would be for leaders to ask group members themselves for venue ideas, instead of operating on an educated guess.

Also, the internet has become a terrific accessibility tool in and of itself. When we host discussions online and make the websites clean and simple to navigate, we help tie people into the community who would otherwise find themselves isolated.

Accessibility Concerns are for Everyone
So internet, transportation, health concerns, etc. I will point out that these are things we all navigate daily, though to less extremes than some of our responders. If any one of us experiences trouble in even one of these areas, it becomes an accessibility issue. Thus positive changes for the few can grow to benefit everybody.

My next response grouping focuses on fostering an attitude of inclusion. Accommodations won’t do much good if our actions create a hostile environment. Then we’re just undoing all our good efforts. This person reminds us that hosting an event at an accessible location is the first half, and that treating individuals with dignity and respect is the other. “look in their eyes when you talk with them.  Don’t show pity, because that’s sure as hell not what they’re looking for – and when people do that, it makes it even more difficult than ever to force oneself to come to meetups.”

Inclusion is about interacting with the content of a person, not the packaging. This could be a wheelchair as mentioned before, or it can be the appearance of bad spelling, as in this case. This brother with dyslexia was nit-picked so much for his spelling that he just stopped trying to interact online. People wouldn’t look past the packaging to the content of what he had to say.

There were a lot (and I mean a LOT) of responses about how perpetuating negative stereotypes of mental illnesses hurts skeptics. This response was typical: “Sometimes I feel like the willingness to call people who hold opposing or irrational views “crazy” or “mentally ill” (or the even harsher words) makes it seem like I can’t be honest about my own struggles with mental illness, or that my mental illness invalidates my positions.”

Multiple responses emphasized that “Ableist slurs such as crazy, stupid, idiotic, various other things suffixed with -wit, crippled etc. are common. Comparisons to mental illness, aneurotypicality, and lack of intelligence are also common.” People with disabilities and those supportive to them hear these slurs and get the message that they’re not welcome as members of the group.

Reports of armchair diagnosis were also common. This is simply bad skepticism. A limited interaction with someone on the internet or a handful of meetups is not enough data for the average untrained person to compile a valid medical diagnosis. Stereotyping and prejudice are not the result of critical thinking but the absence of it.

There are skeptics among us, “crazy atheists”, who are managing their mental illnesses with critical thinking. They do not appreciate being automatically clumped in with dangerous and religious people, nor do they appreciate the knee-jerk labeling of all dangerous and religious people as “crazy”. There are more accurate words we can use to describe dangerous religious people instead, which I trust that the powers of creativity and critical thought will lead you toward.

Venn diagram showing slightly overlapping circles titled "crazy", "religious", and "dangerous".

And really, skepticism has so much to offer all of us, with all of our disabilities and abilities. As this person puts so well: “With no gods to blame or to rely on, all we have are each other. It seems quite natural that humanism should promote people being of equal worth and having equal rights regardless of disability.”

We can use the tools of critical thinking, no matter who we are or what our background. This response says: “The way I see it, all of our brains are lying assholes. We are often wrong not because we’re mentally handicapped. We’re wrong because WE’RE PEOPLE.”

And another chimes in: “The skeptics movement is all about combating misinformation, and there is a lot of misinformation about disabilities out there.” If there were one thing I wish I had the time and resources to dig into more, it would be to see just how many lives are positively changed by skepticism. And I get excited thinking about how many more we could reach out to.

Atheist PR
Which brings me to the implications for public relations and outreach.This person is right in pointing out that it is good publicity. As proof that rational inquiry and critical thinking are the best tools to help people live their lives, we need to show them that we are already doing it better than any prayer or naturopathy or “the Secret” law-of-attraction BS can do. That involves recognizing that ableism is real, that we are where it begins, and that we are where it can end.

Atheist PR
We need to foster a culture of accessibility. This person urges: “Make it known that the group wants to accommodate everyone as much as they can and sincerely want to know if people need meet-ups to be different than how they are currently. Of course, consider the input and modify as necessary. Avoid “we can’t” in favor of “I’m not sure how, but let’s look into how we could do this.” We’re human. We won’t always be perfect, but it’s important to show that we care, and that we’re willing to meet people where they are.

Atheist PR
The result: happy skeptics! People like this one, who sing the praises of their group. “MASH Fort Bragg is great, they are understanding of my limitations & inclusive. I am able to participate in those activities that don’t wear me out or expose me to sunlight. A reminder to folks that the disabled can & should be able to take part in our atheist movement.” And do you know what happens when our hard work and compassion pays off in the form of a plethora of happy skeptics?

Let’s Win the Future!
We win the future!
I am happy to answer any questions and take any suggestions you may have.

Please browse the rest of this blog for more info.

Andy Semler - SkeptiCamp Saint Louis 2012 - the Skeptical Society of St Louis

Ableism in Atheism Anonymous #54

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Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability?


Have you (or do you personally know someone who has) felt out-of-place or limited your involvement with an atheist community because of disability-related situations?

Sort of.

I am a person with an able-body/mind, and my experience with the atheist community is limited mostly to the internet, but I do feel put-off and uncomfortable with the casual and rampant use of ableist language and comparisons.  Ableist slurs such as crazy, stupid, idiotic, witless/nitwit/fuckwit and various other things suffixed with -wit, crippled etc. are common.  Comparisons to mental illness, aneurotypicality, and lack of intelligence are also common.  I find these make me uncomfortable with involvement in atheist communities much as sexist remarks also makes me uncomfortable and unsupportive of specific atheist websites.

What steps could atheist communities take to become more inclusive?

I think meetups should be ADA compliant as well as feature persons with disabilities as speakers (whether its on a broader topic or specifically on disability related issues–for example J.T. Eberhard often speaks on broader community issues, but has also done talks about his experience with mental illness).  I also think atheist communities should enforce policies that create inclusive and welcoming spaces for persons with disabilities and don’t treat them as undesirable, wrong, or cudgels to beat other commenters with whom they disagree. On Freethought Blogs there are policies by both the blog writers and commenters to in general stop, discount, and disuse any sexist slurs or similar dismissive constructions; I think a similar style should be used in regards to ableist language.

Any other thoughts about ableism and atheism?

I think ableism like any other axis of oppression should be denounced and fought against by the atheist community. General social justice and humanistic principles are important to the strength of the community and movement and foster more inclusivity and diversity both in terms of persons and discourse.

Also, in regards to whether certain words are ableist or count as slurs, I’d prefer to err on the side of caution. I am in a position of privilege, so I am unable to definitively make such a call, however, other (non-atheistic) blogs and communities I follow that deal with ableism do count crazy, insane, stupid, etc. as ableist slurs, and as such I adhere to that. On that point, I’d also argue that it would be difficult to make a case for them not being ableist as such arguments tend to simply be retreads of other arguments related to language in discussions of sexism or racism i.e. words change, intent, generic/equal use, being technically accurate, dictionary definition etc. None of which are convincing arguments. Further, there are other words and constructions that can be used to give the same general meaning without being ableist. For example, instead of crazy, use absurd or ridiculous.

I won’t go into much here, but there is also a general trend in atheist communities to treat religious persons, or certain arguers, as lacking in intelligence (using words such as stupid, idiotic, dumb). While the individuals they are arguing or responding to may be holding untenable, badly constructed ideas or be (willfully or not) ignorant, this is a much different thing than being lacking in intelligence or being “dumb.” I object to this not on a tone basis, but on a basis of it’s reductive and all or nothing view of intelligence that treats lack of knowledge as a lack of capability to ever know and thus subtly is engaging in ableist ideas about the worth of those who may be mentally retarded or have an intellectual disability.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on way too much–I apologize. I know how hard it is to remove ableist language and constructions from my speech so I am not expecting an overnight change, but I would be glad and much more comfortable if the atheist communities made such efforts. I hope this was helpful 🙂

Response #54 from the Ableism in Atheism survey.