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There was once a young girl with a learning disability. She was quiet, socially awkward, and kept to herself but was kind and intelligent. One day a girl in class she liked talked to her for the first time. The young girl was ecstatic. However, the following day that same classmate came up to her and said I hate you and walked away. What is hate? The dictionary says its a tense or passionate dislike of someone. Yet, is that all it is? It’s a way to put someone down, to build confidence, to get your way.

A teenage boy is bullied at school and struggles with his classes. He is always worried and anxious about everything. His ticks and obsessive-compulsive behaviors interfere. His grades drop and he wants to drop out of high school. Yet, he did not quit school due to a single teacher’s devotion to him. He followed his passion. He received his masters and became one of the top employees at his workplace.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

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People are not very open about suicidal ideation. It can be embarrassing and shameful for some. People with emotional/mental issues tend to cover up their suffering. They do not want others to see it or be a burden. People will suffer in silence and fight it the best they can. When people are suicidal they hide it, but there are signs. Professionals are always looking for these signs, knowing that right before suicide; people are calm and happy because they know they will no longer suffer. People often misinterpret this calmness and happiness as the person doing better. Unfortunately, by this point it is usually too late.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

A large part of disability etiquette is policing your words. It is about being respectful and courteous in what you say. It is very easy to use the wrong words, to phrase a statement in the wrong way. A small slip up, a small shift in connotation can drastically alter a message. At the same time it is important to police your reaction to those words and phrases. Everyone has their own unique perspective of their disability and stigma that influences their reactions.

The disability community is very aware of the negative effects of words and phrasing. The “normal” community, with some exceptions, is often unaware of this effect. Sometimes normally harmless words and phrases become insults to those with disabilities. The person-first versus disability-first argument is one of many phrasing etiquette issues. It is an issue of possession I-am versus I-have. Using ‘I am’ (ex. I am autistic) puts the disability in possession of the person. Using ‘I have’ (ex. I have autism) puts the person in possession of the disability. Putting person first also places the individual higher in value than his/her disability.

Two words that have made a small shift in connotation are disturbed and suffering. The word, disturbed, is a description of emotional distress. However, some are applying the word as a identity label. A person’s identity is defined by emotional distress. The word, suffering, is a way to describe that a individual is experiencing harmful effects. However, some are applying it as a possession label. The person’s suffering is in control of his/her life.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

You wake up and wonder whether you’ll survive the day. Can you endure another day of pain and suffering? How much will you sacrifice? Will you be able to achieve the days goals? Do you go out into the world or stay in your safe haven? You put on your mask, hiding your emotions away and head out into the world. You wonder if your mask will slip and people will see your vulnerability. You hope someone will see through to the real you, the you crying out for help. Survival is becoming harder, the mask slips, your shield cracks. Your emotions are overflowing. You are exhausted and irritable. You can’t take in anymore. The dam has broken.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

Everything and everyone is connected. The world is an intricate interconnected web of emotions, thoughts, actions, and words. Each and every person affects others, who affects others, who affects many more.

Humans are full of contradictions. One of the greatest being our fragility and resiliency. Humans are the weakest and most vulnerable species as a baby. Our bodies go through drastic changes during puberty. Humans can easily break down and lose hope. A single, small injury can kill us. Despite this, humans survive infancy. Humans can survive death defying feats. We will fight to our death for what we believe in. Humans continue down the hectic path of life and we survive.

The human race is capable of extreme benevolence and extreme malevolence. The human race should not be destroyed through its own doing. Humans have tremendous potential to become an impressive, unrelenting force of nature that is capable of extraordinary acts of goodwill.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

Consequences
A little girl with autism was on a long car ride across many states with her mom and grandma. There were no exits in the area. They could not stop because she might run out into traffic. The girl was tired, hungry, overwhelmed and started to break down. She could not express her frustrations and needs because of language difficulties. Her mom was unable to calm her down. The girl hit and scratched her mom. By the end of the trip her mom’s arm was covered in scratches and bruises.

How would the mom explain the bruises and scratches? What insulting remarks would they endure in regards to the girl’s behavior? What if the mom decided to risk stopping? Would the girl have run out into the street? How would they survive even greater stigma and the repercussions of the girl running out into traffic?

What If
A young girl with autism goes to the renaissance festival with her family. She was very happy and excited. However, an hour later she became overwhelmed. The crowds and loud noises were causing sensory overload. She struggled to process everything going on. Her stress and anxiety levels shot through the roof. Her dad took her to a quiet, secluded area.

What if things didn’t turn out well? What if she had a meltdown? What would people think? Would the police or social services be called? Would the family suffer injustice stemming from stigma and ignorance?

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

Do or do not disclose your disability to your employer, a predicament that has haunted people with disabilities to this day. Most advise that you do not disclose except when necessary to perform the job. Sometimes it is not necessary but it would be helpful. How much do you disclose? Do you have to include specifics? It depends on the situation. People are concerned about disability discloser. Yet people don’t think that we are forcing people to hide who they are. A disability is a part of who a person is. They shouldn’t have to hide that for fear of retaliation. A person doesn’t have to worry about disclosing that they are “normal.” They can work without fear of retaliation. Why can’t we accept the “normal” and the disabled as equal partners in the workplace?

No Disclosure
Expectation: normal, meet expected
Reality: don’t meet
Interpretation: incompetent
Reason: slacker, uninterested

Disclosure
Expectation: abnormal, achieve less
Reality: meet or exceed
Interpretation: “competent”
Reason: less than, stupid

Hope
Expectation: individual ability
Reality: meet or exceed
Interpretation: competent
Reason: different, not less

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

Each year CUNY SPS asks graduating students to apply to be the Student Speaker at Commencement. As part of their application they are asked to submit their anticipated speech. At the end of the process only one student is selected, however, numerous speeches embody the spirit of the graduating class. We are proud to share some of these speeches here.

Danielle Lucchese is graduating from CUNY SPS on June 6 with a Master’s Degree in Disability Studies and this is her speech:

I would like to begin by sharing a piece of advice one of my college mentors gave me a few years ago: follow your heart. These three words, though sometimes under estimated, are worth some deeper thought. For each of us, our hearts, for one reason or another lead us to CUNY SPS. Whether we pursued a master’s degree, bachelor’s degree or certificate, our time at CUNY SPS has claimed a space in our personal narratives. Although all of us share the commonality of deciding to pursue our studies at CUNY SPS, our experiences and memories differ. I would like to share a fragment of my CUNY SPS experience with you.

My CUNY SPS adventure began when I received my acceptance letter into the Disability Studies master’s degree program, only five days after graduating college. Less than a month later, I followed my heart and decided to pursue my graduate studies at CUNY SPS, instead of Hunter, where I was offered admission into their master’s in Social Research program.

As a disabled student, my initial thought was that I was going to study a subject that was very familiar to me. The truth is, I could not have been more incorrect. While I did bring some personal experience and prior knowledge to my studies, I did not know all that there was to learn. In fact, I soon realized that learning is never ending.

My views on what disability is and how the concept needed to be explored changed. The language in which I used to describe and discuss disability shifted. I met both fellow students and faculty who had disability experiences contrasting mine. I began advocating for disability on a broader level when I joined the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities, made lobbying trips up to Albany and testified on the importance of funding for online education. Two years later and I am here, celebrating with each of you, who also decided to make CUNY SPS part of your journey.

As we leave CUNY SPS, it is important to both look to the future and continue to follow our hearts. As individuals now equipped with educational tools, we are responsible to continue our work in the world, regardless of our chosen fields and leave it better than we found it. As disability advocates, sociologists, psychologists, business women and men, higher education faculty and staff, among other careers, always remember that we have the power to assist in creating change in the world. Some of us will go on to contribute valuable ethical research and advocate for policy changes, some of us will use passions of ours such as theatre and apply them to the broader world. Some of us will expand on knowledge gained and pursue further studies. Regardless of where our futures take us, we must remember the importance of creating change in the world, ultimately expanding on the work of the individuals who came before us and paving the way for the people who will one day follow a similar path.

Of course, many of us did not achieve our goals alone. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge everyone who has shared in some aspect of our journey: family, friends, faculty and the larger CUNY SPS community and say thank you. Thank you for your support, guidance, love and encouragement. Without you, my fellow graduates and I would not be where or who we are today. No matter where the next chapters take us, we hope you will be there cheering us on.

Finally, I would like to conclude with a quote from one of my favorite books, Tuesdays with Morrie, “Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to the community around you and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” I hope that wherever your heart takes you, your path allows you to both devote yourself to something you are committed to and ultimately contribute to changing this world for the better.

Thank you and congratulations class of 2016, we made it!

 

“She has been convicted. Bail revoked.”

Those are the words I received in an email from a former professor of mine. Anna Stubblefield was convicted of two accounts of rape. The verdict reached my email on Friday at 11:59am.

I know, some people are happy. They think, “A rapist has been put in jail and now Dman and his family can begin to heal.” That statement is the furthest from the truth.

The disability community is in so much emotional pain right now. For myself and so many of the members of the disability community this is history on repeat. Over and over again we are denied rights, are silenced and locked away. All because society has placed us in a figurative box, we can’t be sexual, we’re not worthy of love and we’re not people. Having impairments dehumanizes us according to society. If we can’t speak the way society demands we do, then we’re truly invisible.

Twelve people—a mixture of women and men of many different racial backgrounds, all of them appearing able-bodied, ruined two lives, those of Anna Stubblefield and Dman Johnson. Did they know what they were doing? Yes. They had a different viewpoint though. Those people thought as they sat in the jury room that they had the power to “save the disabled boy,” “make things right” and “serve justice” because, “She should’ve known better than to be sexual with someone physically helpless and mentally defective.”

Let’s take a glimpse at who they really imprisoned. Literally speaking, Stubblefield is sitting behind bars. She’s not serving a life sentence so eventually she’ll be free. Or will she? Stubblefield can never get a job working in any kind of teaching position EVER again. Once she is free, finding a place to live might be difficult, as her name will be added to the sex offender’s list. She’s lost her place in the world. Her name will forever be tainted.

With the guilty verdict also came a second imprisonment: Dman’s. No, he’s not literally behind bars. Instead he’s serving a “life sentence” of being denied independence, his voice and a life of his own. His voice forever silenced by the State of New Jersey. Not once was he allowed to speak during a trial that revolved around him. Instead the prosecution made assumptions. They ASSUMED he was “mentally defective” and “physically helpless.” He will remain forever imprisoned in society’s perception of disability.

As a member of the disability community, I can’t help but feel angry, upset and guilty about the entire situation. I’m angry because it’s 2015 and the state of New Jersey still views disability through a eugenics mindset. To the state, Dman and Stubblefield could never have loved one another. How could they? Stubblefield is able-bodied and Dman is disabled. They still frame love as an emotion that is exclusively open and entitled to able-bodied people. In contrast, people with disabilities are believed to be non sexual—“She can’t have sex, she’s in a wheelchair,” or “He’s too mentally defective to consent to sex or know what is going on.” People with disabilities shouldn’t be sexual or romantically involved with each other or able-bodied people because they’re inferior, simply because society can’t or doesn’t want to process the concept of us having sexual desires or romantic relationships. The moment people realized Dman could be and was sexual was when the relationship between Stubblefield and him was torn apart. This is eugenics era thinking, an outdated way of perceiving disabilities and the people who have them.

I’m also upset because after all that we, as people with disabilities have experienced—sterilization, institutionalization, the fight for civil rights leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—all of these milestones are meaningless if society still views people who use different methods of communication or have “severe physical disabilities” as “mentally defective” and “physically helpless.” The outcome of the Stubblefield case demonstrates that we still have a long way to go as a society in terms of the acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. After the verdict, I’m wondering when and if our society will ever get to that point.

Lastly, I feel guilty. As irony would have it, I received the news of the verdict as I was on my way to a CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD) meeting. We were electing a new E-board and discussing various ways in which we can create change and make the overall CUNY experience better for students with disabilities. How could I think of creating change with and for my fellow disabled CUNY students when Dman was locked in the narrow box of society’s perceptions of disability and the one person who had the chance at helping him gain independence was sitting behind bars? All because they loved and wanted to be with each other? It just didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t. I get to spend time with each person I love and care about while the legal system denies Dman and Stubblefield that same opportunity.

My thoughts and support go out to Dman, Stubblefield, everyone that knows them and the disability community during this very sad and difficult time. If I’ve learned anything from this case, it’s that I need and will continue to advocate for and alongside the disability community, especially for the members of the community who use different forms of communication and are silenced by society. None of them will go unheard.

#freeDman #FreeAnna

Danielle Lucchese is a second year graduate student in CUNY SPS’s MA in Disability Studies program. Born and raised in Staten Island, she moved to Manhattan last year at the start of her CUNY SPS experience. When Danielle’s not hitting the books or writing papers, she enjoys exploring New York City, photography, writing poetry, playing volleyball, reading fantasy novels, listening to music and spending time with family and friends. 

Dear people seeking justice for Dman,

You think you are doing good on the side of humanity. You believe that you’re “saving” another person with a disability from being “taken advantage” of. You take pity on him and his family. Why do you feel like Dman was abused? Violated? Since I first heard of this case, I realized this case was not as straightforward as you and the media made it appear. This case goes beyond what you claim is abuse. Beyond a man with physical disabilities. Beyond hydrocephalus and cerebral palsy.

I have disabilities. My eyes sometimes like to play intense volleyball matches against each other, preventing me from seeing objects and people as they really are at that moment–it’s called nystagmus. Additionally, like Dman, I too have hydrocephalus. My quality of life is dependent upon a shunt, a tube in the back of my head that regulates the drainage of the fluid from my brain.

People here me out. They see me. Listen to each syllable I speak. They treat me like the 23-year-old graduate student that I am. My voice is heard. This is what is missing, from the Stubblefield case. I mean after all, aren’t there supposed to be two sides in any court case? In terms of this case the voices that should be heard in the courtroom are those of Anna Stubblefield and Dman Johnson. Why then is this case different? Why is only Stubblefield’s voice heard? I know why.

Dman was silenced because of his disabilities, especially because they impact his speech. Both hydrocephalus and cerebral palsy, like many disabilities, affect each person differently. My hydrocephalus did not impact my voice in any way. My friends with cerebral palsy can speak. Dman cannot “speak,” at least not in the way that society or the courtroom see fit. He can communicate though.

Have you heard of facilitated communication (FC)? I know it’s been forbidden to be said in the courtroom. I know, it’s “controversial” but did you ever think that for Dman, it’s his way to communicate? Don’t you think his voice should be heard? If you hired an independent facilitator, who is not associated with Dman or Stubblefield, then the court could get Dman’s side of the story. You had a different agenda though. You didn’t let him speak. You wanted to keep things “simple.” You’re too afraid to “complicate” the argument. So your solution? Deem him incompetent and parade him around the courtroom like kindergarten show and tell project. To you the voice of a person with a disability was too much for you–both in the effort it would take to allow him to share his story and in the emotional toll it would take on you. Allowing Dman to have a voice would mean that he would be heard and the images you constructed of him and disability would be shattered.

You claim this case is about sexual assault and harm to a disabled person. You’re right about the harm but for the WRONG reasons. Dman was harmed but it certainly was not by Stubblefield. Instead, it was YOU who harmed him.

Dman is an adult. He was attending college. He presented at the Society for Disability Studies. He had some aspects of independence. In an instant however, his independence was taken from him.

Throughout a trial where he is the focal point, he is absent. This is all too common with people with disabilities. Especially with disabilities that impact the ability to speak. If you wanted to prevent Dman from harm, you would do whatever is necessary to let him communicate his side of the story. You would give him his voice back.

You denied him communication. You think nobody cares or will notice. The truth is the disability community and many other people noticed that you silenced Dman and as a member of the disability community, I chose to speak up.

#lethimcommunicate #liberateDman

Sincerely,

A Disabled Person

If you’re unfamiliar with the case, here’s a blog post by fellow CUNY SPS student Emily Brooks.

Danielle Lucchese is a second year graduate student in CUNY SPS’s MA in Disability Studies program. Born and raised in Staten Island, she moved to Manhattan last year at the start of her CUNY SPS experience. When Danielle’s not hitting the books or writing papers, she enjoys exploring New York City, photography, writing poetry, playing volleyball, reading fantasy novels, listening to music and spending time with family and friends.