On Being a Disabled Introvert and the Follies of Social Skills Training

In my earliest childhood memory, I am standing in a room that is not in my home. I remember hearing the words “San Diego,” one of my parents handing me a piece of banana and then walking away. I was likely younger than 2 at this point. I remember the words “San Diego,” the taste of the banana, but most of all, what I remember was the sense of peace I felt standing alone for just a moment, with nobody talking to me, touching me, or trying to engage my attention. My parent was near, but I was alone in my little space, and it felt glorious.

Several of my favorite other early-childhood memories involve the joy and peace I felt spending hours in my bedroom listening to music, lying quietly with my thoughts, and when I got old enough, reading. I am told that in my toddlerhood, when I heard the doorbell ring or discovered that someone was visiting our home, I would head off to the quiet of my bedroom. This behavior deeply concerned my teachers at the local blindness agency where I received early intervention services. They were worried about my socioemotional development. But in relaying this story, my dad-a smart, funny, loving man who just happens to be an introvert-told me he understood

When nondisabled children prefer quiet activities or have quirky interests, they might be considered a little odd or unusual, and adults might make a few attempts to encourage them to be more social, but usually it’s accepted that this is part of who they are. In contrast, when disabled children display any kind of social behavior that deviates from the developmental charts, alarm bells sound, and often an entire team of adults swoops in to try to save these children from social isolation. As my fellow blind blogger, Meagan Howell, writes (full post is linked at the end):

…my introversion seemed to be a source of ongoing anxiety for the adults in my life. Daycare workers, teachers, consultants, and all manner of others concerned themselves with my social development, no doubt worried that a disabled child left to her own devices would morph into a stunted mess. Their fears weren’t entirely unfounded, and my isolation did facilitate certain quirks it took me a bit too long to eliminate, but my intelligence, contentment, and overall growth didn’t feel impeded by my apparently-tragic lack of friends. At least, that’s how I tend to view it. Frequently labeled antisocial and stubborn, I noticed that my personal preferences were considered partially or wholly irrelevant. This is true for many children, I think, especially when they grow up surrounded by people who fear they’ll turn out wrong, somehow. I don’t know that any adult stopped to consider that maybe, just maybe, Meagan was at peace with not having many friends, and that she’d make them when she was ready.

Most disabilities are perceived as social liabilities, and this perception has a kernel of truth-disabled people of all ages are more likely to encounter abuse, bullying, and exclusion than their nondisabled peers. In addition, certain disabilities can change the ways in which children develop social skills. For example, children with sensory disabilities may not be able to directly observe all aspects of other people’s social behavior. And, one common feature of autism (according to autistic self-advocates) is “difficulties in understanding or expressing typical social interaction.”

While it is true that disabilities can alter the process of social development, prevailing beliefs about how to intervene are often based on problematic assumptions. Social “deficits” are often expected in disabled children, and the popular solution for these “deficits” involves top-down instruction from nondisabled educators. “Social skills training” is considered a part of the “Expanded Core Curriculum” in instruction of blind children, and is popularized in the education of autistic children as well. All too often, well-intentioned social skills programs for disabled children continue to perpetuate long-lived power imbalances and societal prejudices. For example, when rooted in a culture that values extroversion, social skills programs may ignore and devalue the needs of introverts like myself and Meagan. More insidious, “social skills training” is often code for “compliance training,” where the hidden curriculum involves teaching a disabled child to comply with nondisabled norms in order to be accepted. Rather than instilling competence, confidence and well-being, inherently compliance-based instructional approaches can instead instill shame, insecurity, or self-loathing, as children may feel compelled to censor a part of themselves in order to be accepted by others.

So then, is there a better way?

In parent support groups, parents of disabled children sometimes voice concerns about their kids preferring to interact only with adults, or to play by themselves for hours with a single object, instead of interacting with their peers. I tell these parents that traditional children’s play activities are often rife with accessibility barriers. Solitary activities, that a child invents and directs, are fully accessible by design. I remind parents that adult interaction partners tend to be more predictable and more accommodating of access needs than other young children. Thus, a disabled child’s “socially inappropriate” behaviors may be highly adaptive. Furthermore, for autistic people (of all ages), “special interests” may serve as a primal source of joy. It is fascinating that the same deep, passionate focus derided in the autism intervention world as “perseverative” or “obsessive” is rewarded in the academic world with grants and tenure. As Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, writes (full post is linked at the end):

This is about the obsessive joy of autism. So I guess, if I’m trying to explain what an obsession (and, by necessity, obsessive joy) means to me as an autistic person, I can bring it back to the tired old image of a little professor cornering an unsuspecting passerby and lecturing them for half an hour. All too often this encounter is viewed through the terrified eyes of the unwillingly captive audience. I’d like to invite you to see through the eyes of the lecturer, who is not so much determined to force their knowledge into you as they are opened to a flood of joy which they cannot contain.

There are several things we can do to support disabled children’s social development. We can begin by understanding that social connection means something different to every individual, and instead of following a one-size-fits-all curriculum, we can try to understand and support a particular child’s social goals, knowing that these might change throughout the child’s life. We can follow the child’s lead in identifying playgroups and other natural friend-making opportunities based around their interests. We can work to ensure that play settings are fully accessible and that there is a choice of activities. We can introduce disabled children to a variety of role models, both disabled and not, who can demonstrate the social skills that really matter for healthy relationships: things like sharing, empathy, and trust. We can provide guidance beforehand, and feedback after, a challenging social situation. We can support the child’s natural social learning process so they can develop the connections that matter most to them, while accepting them for who they are.

As for me, my interest in relationships (both platonic and romantic) kicked up a few notches when I hit puberty. Today I am happily married, have a small group of great friends, have good relationships with my family, and feel comfortable teaching and leading others. What I learned about socialization didn’t come from blindness professionals or from a book. I did what the blindness professionals said I couldn’t do: I learned by observation. As a quiet person, I learned by listening to others interact, and adopting the social behaviors that fit me and my personality. At my core, I’m still an introvert, and I’m OK with that.

Related Reading:
“Go Play with your Friends!”
The Obsessive Joy of Autism
The Tyranny of Indistinguishability

I can’t hear the whispers? Breaking down the barriers of Deafblindness [Guest Post]

This week’s guest post comes from Marsha Drenth. Marsha is the manager of Pennsylvania’s DeafBlind Living Well Services program (DBLWS) through the Center for Independent Living of Central Pennsylvania (CILCP). Deafblindness has been Marsha’s passion since losing her vision in 2004 and beginning to lose her hearing in 2007. Now totally blind and profoundly hard-of-hearing, Marsha uses numerous methods of communication, including Tactual Signed English, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids, and numerous other technologies to live independently. In addition to her fulltime job as a statewide program manager, Marsha is highly involved in the deafblind, hard of hearing and blind communities both in Pennsylvania and around the country.

In addition to serving and helping persons who have disabilities, Marsha is also a wife, a mother of three adult children, and a graduate of Temple University, where she earned her Social Work degree. She lives north of Philadelphia with her husband, Joseph, and her service animal. She is passionate about empowering persons who are deafblind, hard-of-hearing, deaf, blind and disabled to receive the services they need for engaging their culture, becoming productive members of society, interacting with their environments, and expressing their own voice to influence their future.

I can’t hear the whispers? Breaking down the barriers of Deafblindness.

First, you’re probably asking what Deafblindness is. And how does it apply to me? First the medical version, for the purposes of this article, according to the Helen Keller National Center, Deafblindness is any combined hearing and vision loss that impacts a person’s ability to communicate effectively. This is the short definition, as I could get much more technical but won’t for now. It means that a person has both a vision and hearing loss, and the combination of both causes difficulty in communication, independent living, orientation and mobility, social interactions, education, and obtaining employment. In most cases, there are two different communities in which a DeafBlind person could originate from; the blind community and the deaf/hard of hearing communities. In other cases, some persons obtain both a hearing and vision loss over time or suddenly for various reasons. DeafBlind persons have a wide variety of hearing and vision loss, communication methods for expressive and receptive language, education, orientation and mobility, support systems, involvement, experiences, and exposure. The combination of hearing loss and vision loss can happen at any point in a person’s life and effects all races, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, gender, income level, and any disability. So now to why does this effect the greater disability community? As blind persons use their hearing to navigate and understand the world; not supersonic hearing, not hearing better than others, but using that hearing in the best way possible. For example, when walking down the street, blind persons are able to hear buildings, doorways, trees, people walking by and traffic. As blind people, we are taught to listen for traffic to make sure that it’s safe to cross the street. As blind persons, we use our hearing to locate other people and objects within our environment. These are just a few examples of how persons who are blind use their hearing in the best way possible. Unfortunately, this is where I think the blind community has ignored and denied the DeafBlind community up until now. Blind persons cannot imagine losing their hearing. They think the world will be over if they do lose their hearing. Many times people will say, that will never be me, my hearing will always be good. And a million other reasons for ignoring the fact that they could lose their hearing at any point in their life. How do I know all of this, because I was once one of those blind persons who said those things! I am now DeafBlind. Yes, it can happen to anyone, at anytime, anywhere, for no reason.

Here is my story, in 2007, after being blind for several years at this point, I had begun to become lost in the most familiar environments in which I frequented on a daily basis. An O&M instructor friend suggested that I have my hearing tested. So I made the appointment, telling myself that I was just having a lot of issues lately and nothing was wrong. So I am sitting in the chair getting my hearing tested, and the audiologist comes in and says, yes you have a slight hearing loss. Of course my first reaction was that there is no way, not me. It was true, and I was fitted for hearing aids. I didn’t wear the aids, because I didn’t like the way they made me hear, or fit into my ears, and the fact that I was in pure denial. After being stubborn and in denial, I did begin to notice that I could not hear voices in loud places and I could no longer hear for the openings of doorways. Fast forward a bit, in 2011, my hearing took a sharp decline, not being able to hear people in the same room speaking loudly, understanding when a person was sitting next to me, hearing traffic, and using Jaws on my computer. Finally with much negative emotions I took those hearing aids out and began to wear them; although I still hated the idea, the reason for wearing the aids, how they felt, and how sound was distorted. Through 2011 to 2013, I went from a mild hearing loss to profoundly deaf. In the spring of 2012, I enrolled as a student at Temple University to finish my degree as a social worker. In the fall semester of 2012 and the spring semester of 2013, dealing with a major hearing loss and attending classes at a major university became overwhelming. I could no longer function with hearing aids and listening devices which increased my anxiety and stress; fearing that one day I would not hear traffic for example in the busy streets of Philadelphia.

During the summer of 2013, I was at a cross roads, knowing that going back to school would be much of the same, but also realizing that I no longer had the skills to function. So I made the very difficult decision to take a Leave of Absence from my education and attend the Helen Keller National Center for deafblind adults and Youth. HKNC is very similar to other centers, where you learn independent living skills, technology, orientation and mobility, and job readiness skills. The two areas in which HKNC is different from other centers, is that HKNC offers communication skills, like learning ASL or writing skills. The Orientation and mobility is targeted directly at teaching skills for DeafBlind persons to be independent. HKNC is a center in which other DeafBlind people attend for the same training, forcing everyone there to face the reality of hearing and vision loss. Looking back, being away from home, family, church and life was not exactly what I wanted to do, but spending the 10 months there was by far the best possible situation that could have happened for me.

Once I completed my training at HKNC, I re-enrolled at the University for my senior year. This last year of my undergrad career was going to be challenging as I now needed to use sign language interpreters to help with communication, to use Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), and a Support Service Provider (SSP). Now instead of listening to Jaws, I needed to use my braille display to read my textbooks. For both the fall and spring semester, I took 17 credit hours, with an additional 200 hour a semester internship. In May of 2015, I graduated with my bachelors of social work degree. I am now employed as the Program Manager for the Pennsylvania Deafblind Living Well Services Support Service Provider Program.

I have summarized my story of hearing loss, not to make myself sound inspiring but to help people understand how hearing loss can effect a person and the different barriers faced when hearing loss becomes a factor. I am now wearing the most powerful hearing aids on the market, but still struggle to hear speech and environmental sounds. I am one of the many deafblind persons who has one foot in two different communities, I belong to the blind community and the deaf community. For large meetings, I use a tactual English interpreter. For one-on-one interactions in a quiet environment I can use a Bluetooth microphone system that feeds directly into my hearing aids. To cross the street I use a street crossing card that asks the public for the assistance to tell me when its safe. When I am out alone needing to communicate with people, I use communication cards. I am at this point able to verbally express myself. I no longer talk on the phone because the telephone distorts the sound of a person’s voice too much. I now use non-auditory non-visual techniques to prepare and cook meals. I continue to enjoy listening to music, but unless I have heard the song before I can not hear the lyrics. As before I still enjoy community, social, organization, religious events with help from others.

So here is where I come to my topic in a roundabout way. Support Service Providers for persons who are deafblind. An SSP is the ears and eyes for a person who has a dual sensory loss. SSP’s help with human guiding, facilitating communication and providing environmental information. An SSP is absolutely not a personal care attendant, a care taker, or a nurse; SSP’s do not help with personal grooming, bathing, toileting, feeding, or hygiene needs. SSP’s work with adults who can self-determine with their own finances, and other personal matters. SSP’s are trained specifically to facilitate, not to do for the person, but instead to empower. SSps are not interpreters, and vice versa. Interpreters help bridge the language barrier and are used for legal, medical, financial and educational needs. Sometimes interpreters can also be trained as SSP’s, but not all SSP’s know sign language. I have used SSP’s for personal, professional and educational needs. For example, for social events I will employ an SSP to help with providing environmental information, navigating the surroundings, and facilitating communication. As a student in my senior year, I used an SSP for my one-on-one case management social work intake visits. In this case, an SSP would help with environmental information of our surroundings and of the customer’s non-verbal communication. In an educational setting, I have used an SSP for giving presentations, to provide me with the nonverbal and verbal communication of my audience. As a blind person, I would have never imagined needing or wanting to use an SSP. Now an SSP is absolutely vital to how I function in life.

Only about 30 states in the United States have SSP programs where the SSP’s are paid trained individuals. As you would imagine, the deafblind population is very small. Here is where I would like to ask for your help. What I am asking is several things. Acceptance; we are DeafBlind, there is a National Federation of the Blind DeafBlind division. We might do things differently than you, or as other blind persons, or even differently than other persons with disabilities; but we, deafblind persons do them in a way that works for us. Independence is in the eye of the beholder, we deafblind persons achieve independence as much or more than blind persons. Our independence is no less or more than others. We do not expect that you will understand what it’s like, but we do desire to be a part of the greater community and accepted within the fold. If you meet someone who is not like you, who might be lost, who might need help, that person could have a hearing loss, have a cognitive disability, mental illness, or numerous other disabilities. That person is not asking for a hand out, but the help or assistance as everyone needs from time to time. Deafblind persons are asking for the collaboration of everyone. When legislation, policies, restrictions effect the blind or deaf community, those same things will affect the DeafBlind community too. In other words, not only are you paving the way for the blind, but for the DeafBlind, or the Deaf, and the disability community as a whole. We are asking that you don’t forget to fight for us too, as I am sure we will fight for you when the same situation would come along. But further, when legislation, policies, regulations come along that are very specific to the DeafBlind community, do not bash, tear down, hinder the efforts to change even if you do not understand. It is this greater understanding that as a deafblind person I have gained from losing my hearing. No, I don’t understand what it means to be a person with other disabilities; but their fight is my fight. They understand the struggles, I understand the struggles, and we all should work together. There is power in numbers, so please walk aside me as a deafblind person, walk aside all people with disabilities for our right to be equal.

Respectfully Connected: The Lady on the Plane [Repost]

“I’m hopeful that maybe that woman slept a little bit more soundly, more restfully than she has in many years. Because she now knows that her grandson is exactly who he is supposed to be, and that it isn’t anyone’s fault, but just life as it is meant to be.”

I fly alone at least twice each year. Sometimes I focus on my music or my laptop during those flights. Other times, I strike up conversations with seatmates. Usually these conversations are brief and inconsequential. But as this post reveals, sometimes a chance conversation with a stranger on a plane can change that person’s life.

Even in todays “information age,” misinformation about disabilities abounds. In fact, the ready availability of answers with a single Google search allows misinformation to spread without its credibility being questioned. Much of the misinformation about disabilities surrounds their causes, fueling the centuries-old notion that family members are to be blamed for a child’s disability. Sometimes, the best people to correct such myths are those of us who live with disabilities and see them as a natural part of the human condition.

The author of this week’s post, Morénick, is an autistic woman in a multicultural, neurodiverse, serodifferent family of color. She describes a chance conversation on a plane, where she assured her seatmate that immunizations didn’t cause her grandson’s autism, but more than that, that her grandson is OK as he is. By briefly presenting correct information and the wisdom of lived experience, she interrupted a cycle of guilt and fear that was based on misinformation.

Sometimes I feel discouraged when I look at the depth of ableism around us, and wonder what I, just one person, can do. Perhaps the answer is in those chance meetings that pop up when we are just out living our lives. We never know how much a stranger might need our wisdom.

The Lady on the Plane

How Would We Know If We Overthrew the Mental Health System? (Repost)

I found the below article very thought-provoking. I don’t agree with all the ideas expressed in it, but I believe it gives us a lot to think about as inclusion advocates-not only regarding how we treat people with “mental health conditions” but also how we think about things like consent, competency, and who gets to define disability.

I don’t personally agree that psychiatry is a “pseudoscience” or that it should be entirely overthrown. In a limited number of cases, particularly ones in which an individual’s behavior threatens another’s safety, a brief hospital stay may be the only feasible solution. Similarly, I imagine there are individuals who are genuinely, subjectively suffering from their symptoms, and benefit from psychiatric interventions.

However, I am troubled by the diversity of human traits and tendencies that are classified under the DSM-V as symptoms of mental illness, and the clusters of traits and tendencies that are pathologized as mental illnesses. Sometimes, I try to imagine meeting a person who has absolutely none of the symptoms of any DSM-V diagnoses. This mythical person would be in constant emotional balance with never a hint of anxiety, depression, rage, or mania. They would never exhibit any impulsivity, hyperactivity, inattention, or apathy. When I contrast this mythical individual with real people in my life (including myself, as I am definitely not free from neuroticism), I can’t help but imagine that this mythical person would also lack passion, creativity, empathy, attention to detail, and so many other uniquely human characteristics we prize. In fact, the thought experiment always leaves me feeling a little, well, depressed.

This article also raises important issues about the role of medical professionals in the disability experience. Under current policies, medical professionals have the authority to deem an adult as decisionally incompetent. Is any individual truly incompetent to make decisions regarding their own life? And if so, what criteria should be used to make that determination? Is there a magical cutoff on some assessment tool that means a person must give up their autonomy?

Furthermore, across all types of disabilities, medical professionals currently act as gatekeepers, determining who is or is not eligible to receive disability-related supports. This applies not only to income and lifesaving healthcare benefits, but also to vital educational modifications, communication aids, etc. a medically driven eligibility system not only penalizes people who don’t have the resources to access a medical proof of disability, but it also seats disability as an individual problem affecting a stigmatized few, rather than a part of the human condition that can be ameliorated in a cooperative way. I agree with the author in advocating a universal basic income in place of a medically driven disability benefits system. We must also find a way to bring down the cost of assistive technology and training so that it becomes available to all consumers who need them, without having to have that cost subsidized by a medically controlled service system.

How Would We Know If We Overthrew the Mental Health System?

Reaping the Benefits of Gratitude

As a justice-conscious American, I am troubled by the historical roots of the Thanksgiving holiday as a celebration of conquest. But I enjoy some of the modern traditions that have become associated with the holiday: a few days off from work or school, a chance to spend time with loved ones, good food, and the deliberate practice of “thanksgiving”; taking time to think of things we appreciate in our lives.

As disabled people, gratitude can sometimes be hard to find. We may encounter frequent circumstances that make us sad, angry, frustrated, fearful, ashamed, or worried. Some of us may be overwhelmed by physical discomfort or emotional trauma. We may face food or housing insecurity, or feel disconnected from our communities. Amid such struggles, it may be difficult to bring to mind the positives in our lives.

Yet research indicates that making the effort to identify sources of gratitude has a myriad of physical and emotional benefits. In a classic study (links to PDF) college students who were randomly assigned to keep daily or weekly “gratitude journals” reported more positive moods, felt happier about how their lives were going, were more likely to report helping others, and were more optimistic about the future compared with others who wrote about neutral topics. In a follow-up study, the researchers randomly assigned some individuals with neuromuscular disease to write daily gratitude journals. These individuals were not only happier than those who were not assigned to keep gratitude journals, but they also reported getting more sleep each night and feeling more connected to others. In another study,people with chronic pain who reported feeling more gratitude in their everyday lives experienced less symptoms of depression and anxiety, and also reported better sleep than those with less frequent experiences of gratitude.

Negative thoughts and feelings are a bit like gum on the bottom of your shoe; once it’s there, it sticks, and is difficult to scrape away. But gratitude can disrupt negative mind cycles, and if practiced enough, can become a cycle of its own. In fact, some research suggeststhat gratitude can trigger the release of “feel-good” brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which can motivate us to keep looking out for things that make us grateful.

Before I close with some suggestions to start your gratitude journal, I want to address two caveats when we talk about gratitude in the disability community. First, disabled people are often expected to be grateful by others. For example, “You should be grateful when that man almost carried you across the street; he was just trying to help.” Or “don’t ask for that accommodation; you should be grateful to have a job here at all.” Coerced gratefulness doesn’t work; in order to confer benefits, gratitude needs to be natural and organic. Nor is gratefulness a reason to accept the status quo. We can be genuinely grateful for the things we do have, while at the same time, expecting and pushing for the things we deserve.

Second, the shadow side of being grateful for what we have is pitying others for not having those things. Disabled people often find ourselves unintended objects of nondisabled people’s gratitude. “That poor man in the wheelchair! I’m so grateful that I can walk,” someone might think, or even say aloud. “Thank God I’m not blind like you.” And so on. When we exercise gratitude, it can be tempting to compare ourselves to others who lack things we have as a means of boosting our own sense of gratefulness. But this may weaken the benefits. In fact, in one of the studies described earlier, some college students were asked to write about things they had that others don’t have, instead of writing about things they were grateful for. The students who compared themselves to others did not report the same boost in happiness and optimism as the students who wrote about sources of gratitude. It is possible to fully experience appreciation for what we have in the present, without comparing ourselves to anyone else. We can be grateful, while also humbling ourselves with an awareness of our privilege and a commitment to share what we do have with others whenever we can.

When you’re getting started with a gratitude list, sometimes the simplest things can be most compelling. For example, you might be grateful for:

  • A special connection with a significant other, family member, or friend, even just one person;
  • Access to conveniences like electricity and running water;
  • The beauties of nature, the warmth of the sun, a rainbow or a sunset, the birds chirping, fresh air or ocean smells;
  • A connection with God or faith;
  • A period of good physical or mental health, which could be as long as a decade, or as short as an hour;
  • A special mentor from childhood, perhaps just one person, perhaps many;
  • An experience where you were included and valued, or an experience of access intimacy;
  • Try converting a negative situation into a gratitude exercise. For example, if you are annoyed or stressed by a situation at work, try to focus on your gratitude for having a job, and for all the things (education, mentors, resources) that helped you become employed.

This November, I am grateful for the opportunity to improve public understandings of disability through Disability Wisdom Consulting. I am grateful to everyone who has helped make Disability Wisdom a possibility. Most of all, I am deeply grateful to be part of an international disability community, to know that I am not alone in my disability experience, and to have the chance to empower others. Happy Thanksgiving to all.