Blog Bonus: What PWDs Can Learn From Vanellope Von Schweetz

Hello readers,

Time for a bonus round! I felt like doing an upbeat post after the one about PWDs serving jail time or getting lost in the criminal system, so here it is.

After my post on Queen Elsa, a reader mentioned Vanellope Von Schweetz of Wreck-it Ralph. Vanellope doesn’t have a “classical” disability, but she is considered disabled, therefore “less” in her world. If you haven’t seen Wreck-it Ralph, you should know it’s all about the worlds of arcade characters. Vanellope lives in a game called Sugar Rush, which is sort of a combination of Candy Land and Mario Kart. The game revolves around players choosing a cute little kid with a candy-themed go-kart as an avatar, then racing against the game or other players to win. To give you an idea, other racers have names like Crumbelina diCaramello, Taffyta Muttonfudge, Adorabeezle Winterpop, and King Candy.

Vanellope longs to race more than anything. What’s more, she knows she’d be great at it. The problem is, she’s a “glitch.” She randomly blurs in and out of focus, especially when stressed. Because of this, the other racers bully her, thus making her stressed and her glitch worse. Vanellope is also barred from racing because the other avatars fear that if a player chose her, that player would think the game was broken when Vanellope glitched. Thus, the game would be unplugged and the characters homeless. Vanellope must live in exile, and she tells main character Ralph straight up, “Everyone here says I’m just a mistake and wasn’t even supposed to exist.” Ouch.

Any real-lie PWDs out there feel like glitches? I know I have. Still do sometimes. Being a believer in God, I’ve even straight up told Him He messed up and had no clue what He was doing. Well one, that’s an insult to God; it’s calling Him a liar and insulting His creation. And if you think writers feel bad when their novels are insulted–well. Two, as hokey as it sounds and as hard as it is for me to believe at times, God does not make junk or mistakes or glitches. So, that’s something I learned from Miss Vanellope Von Schweetz. Here are a few more sweet morsels:

Know your gifts and believe in them. Ralph eventually helps Vanellope learn to drive so she can race and says that once she finishes one, she’ll be a real racer. “I’m already a real racer; it’s in my code,” Vanellope insists–and she’s right. She’s dynamite at it. No matter if you can’t walk or talk or do anything others expect you should be able to do, you have gifts, too. You can be great at whatever they are. Embrace them–they are in your code.

Have a sense of humor. I love Vanellope in part because she’s snarky and sassy. Part of that comes from her voice actress, Sarah Silverman, who’s a comedienne. But I think most of it comes from Vanellope’s character and her positive response to the adversity she’s experienced. Take a cue from this gal. Disability is serious–but it’s okay to laugh about it. Zinging bullies can be pretty fun, too.

Compensation is good, not bad. While barred from racing, Vanellope couldn’t have a real go-kart. She made one from odds and ends around her home. The result was a pedal-powered kart that probably wouldn’t have won her any races, but the key is, she was proud of it. She found a way to put herself on equal footing with the other Sugar Rush denizens, as best she could. PWDs do this all the time, but they’re sometimes made to feel lousy about compensating. Like the kid in gym who gets belittled because he plays basketball in a wheelchair or someone runs for him in baseball, therefore, his athletic accomplishments don’t count. Baloney! Compensation, done the right way, can help, not hurt. If you’ve had to modify or compensate on your own, be proud of your ingenuity.

Don’t be afraid to call others out. This doesn’t mean starting a fight with bullies or accusing everyone of trying to hurt you. But when someone does try, never be afraid to say, “Hey, cut it out. Don’t call me that. Don’t do that.” And so on. Vanellope didn’t let Taffyta and other snooty racers walk all over her and tell her what she couldn’t do. Don’t you do it, either. But on that note:

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Vanellope found the backup she needed, and a friend, in Wreck-it Ralph. She was sassy and confident, but little, so she couldn’t tackle every tough situation by herself. Don’t be afraid to find someone you trust and say, “I need help here” or “This situation is too big for me.” As an added bonus, it’s likely you’ll find a new friend. And perhaps that new friend can help convince any naysayers and bullies that you’re a lot more than you seem.

Keep these tips in mind, and continue racing on to your personal victories. Have a sweet Thanksgiving.


Doing Time, But Was There a Crime? Why are PWDs Being Sent to Jail?

Hello, readers,

I admit, I kind of procrastinated with this post because it’s a frustrating and discouraging topic. Yet, current news trends show it is true. One in three adults in America’s prisons have a disability, and estimates show the total number of PWDs in America’s prisons may be as high as 70%. However, these PWDs don’t generally have visible disabilities. PWDs who are sent to jail or prison often have psychiatric disabilities such as bipolar disorder or learning difficulties such as dyslexia. In some ways, that makes the current situation even worse.

So, why are PWDs with these psychiatric and other disabilities being sent to jail or prison? A recent article on Disability Scoop states it’s often because of poor service in special education, the lack of highly qualified special education teachers, and the lack of mental health care, particularly in states, towns, or schools that struggle to maintain services for all their students and citizens. For example, the boy featured in the article titled “For Many with Disabilities, Special Education Leads to Jail,” is from Mississippi. Mississippi has been consistently ranked as one of the worst states for quality disability services in America.

Twelve-year-old Cody, a resident of Grenada, MS, was sent to a youth mental facility two hours away from his home after he “lost his temper” in an argument with a classmate and hit several teachers. I’m not excusing that behavior; a child who strikes out at adults must be disciplined. However, I question whether the discipline was warranted or appropriate for a couple of reasons:
-It was said that Cody, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the time, was sent to this mental health facility because he “lost his temper.” When kids without disabilities lose their tempers, do we send them to mental health facilities or jail? Let me tell you–I’ve seen and heard of temporarily able-bodied children hitting teachers and calling them dreadful names, and nobody locked those kids up.
-Cody was called to youth court “three times in four months after the incident.” As a result, he missed a gratuitous amount of school. He was not even allowed to return to school after these proceedings. Thus, he became one of thousands of students with disabilities for which “education is minimal or non-existent” after they enter the justice system, despite laws that we think protect the right to an education for PWDs.

The article goes on to state other reasons why a student with a disability and/or in special education might end up in the justice system. For example, it’s said that students with learning disabilities may go down this road because they learn to dislike school, so they act up. But why are they acting up? Often, it’s because they don’t have adequate or appropriate services, because they’re not treated with dignity and respect, and because it’s been drummed into them that learning disability = no significant future. Come on, people. Whatever happened to a free, appropriate, public education? I think it’s gone out the window, and the result is, more kids in special, segregated schools or learning environments, in residential facilities, and locked up. If in fact these people do receive an education of any kind once they enter the criminal system, it’s sub-par, and they emerge from the system “far behind peers without disabilities.” And what happens when an ex-inmate doesn’t have the education, skills, and dignity to function in society? Right–you get a repeat offender.

Again, none of this is to excuse dangerous or threatening behavior from PWDs. As with the temporarily able-bodied population, sometimes this happens and it needs to be dealt with. However, I find that in the case of Cody and others like him, the main reason for the involvement of the criminal system is an underserved and misunderstood, very real, disability. That needs to stop, because it’s trampling on the civil rights and basic dignities of these people, just as it would be trampling on civil rights for a cop to say, “Well, he was a black guy in a white neighborhood and wouldn’t be there unless he was looking for trouble.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you wouldn’t do it to a person without a disability, why are you doing it to someone who has one? In other words, is losing your temper justification for being sent to a mental facility and indefinitely kicked out of school?

I’m going to provide the link to the Disability Scoop article below for those who want more information. If you have questions or comments, you know where to find me.

You Got Served: What are We Teaching PWDs About Service?

Hello, readers,

I promised a post about PWDs who are jailed often because of their disabilities, and that is coming. However, I have a pressing topic that I found out this morning can no longer wait.

This morning, I was asked to moderate a comment from a reader who goes by the name Shamstar. This reader has Asperger’s Syndrome and because of that has had trouble keeping jobs. This reader writes, “I have to do what I feel like doing,” and finds it difficult to fill orders, take direction, or do other things people take for granted in job settings. Shamstar’s brain is just not built the same way as most workers’ are. But Shamstar’s concerns don’t rest with the job market. They rest with the church.

Most churches are big on service. In the words of Shamstar, “we have help others, serve, give to the needy, coming at us” week after week. Now, as you all know, I have no issue with that on the surface. Jesus said to serve so we could show love for and glorify Him. What I do have a problem with, is the way service is couched and the way PWDs are often left out of service, but then shamed for non-participation.

I know this is true because I have experienced it myself many times. An older woman in my church once bumped into me in town and asked if I was going to help with Vacation Bible School that year. I wasn’t, because I’ve done it before. What ended up happening was, I was welcomed warmly–but then relegated to a corner while the other helpers made the crafts and played the sports and tied the kids’ shoes. I didn’t tell this woman any of that, but, with a clipped tone, she said, “Well, you need to do it.” Subtext: if you don’t, you are disobedient and refusing to serve.

I have been judged for not going on Third World mission trips because they are unsafe. Most people don’t believe that; they believe instead that I am spoiled and making excuses not to serve the most vulnerable people in the world. Or, they believe I don’t go because of my family’s overprotectiveness, and then belittle and push my family, nosing in where they don’t belong.

So naturally, when the topic of service comes up in a sermon, I get prickly. There have been times I came this close to walking out. And now I think, how many other PWDs feel that way? I know Shamstar does–and I have no doubt he or she wants to serve, but isn’t equipped to do so. How many others are out there? More importantly, what are we telling PWDs about service and what should we be telling them instead? I think there are a few common misconceptions on this issue, and I’m going to share them with you now, as well as how we can fix them.

Service is all physical. As in, if you can’t build a house in Africa or pick up trash on the highway, don’t bother coming out–but don’t make excuses, either. Stay home so we can either pity or condemn you later. No, no, NO. Service is not completely physical, nor does it have to take the form of a 9-5 job. Service can be praying for others. Service can be leaving a tip in the barista’s jar, letting someone else go first, or saying, “Have a nice day.” Service can be smiling, and Lord knows we all need smiles.

Conversely, there’s the myth that PWDs can only do “inactive service”-type tasks. You know, like the woman everybody reads about in devotional books who’s bedridden, but prays all day, or the veteran double amputee who now makes blankets to send to Siberia. I’m not for a minute knocking these things–they are great examples of service. If they are what you want to do most, or feel called to do, go for it, my friend. But as with everything else, don’t assume a PWD can’t serve in physical or active ways if he or she wants to.

Service is about production. PWDs get judged and maligned all the time because Christians think “production” is a synonym for service. As in, if that PWD is not out here, helping fix the leaks and change the diapers, he or she must be home, sitting on his or her butt in front of the TV. I will remind those Christians of something I was told today by a very stern but loving friend: service is not about producing. It is about glorifying God. Remember two things. Martha produced–but Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and learned. And Jesus favored neither Mary nor Martha–He loved them both best.

Serving others is about leaving one’s comfort zone. Okay, yeah, I’ll buy that to a point. Even the most extraverted person will probably admit that interacting with strangers is uncomfortable. But just because you’re not being “pushed,” it doesn’t mean you’re not serving. Writing is my comfort zone–and yet it takes a lot out of me to do it. Playing with little kids in children’s church or making appetizers may be what another PWD is comfortable doing, so don’t make the mistake of saying, “You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone–go learn to do X instead.” And at the same time, one more misconception:

PWDs could serve more, if they tried harder/practiced more/learned more. I’m not even going to bother analyzing this one. It’s the blame game, and it assumes all PWDs have hard hearts and attitude problems. Just stop it.

So, go forth and serve–but serve well.


Concealing, Feeling, and More: What PWDs Can Learn from Queen Elsa

Last November, I wrote a post about how Disney could benefit from creating a princess with a disability. I also recently found out via Disability Scoop that one mom and her myriad of supporters have specifically petitioned Disney to create a character with Down Syndrome. It looks like the nation is waking up to the dearth of royals with disabilities. But then again, is there a dearth?

Some critics and discerning journalists say no. They point out that because Ariel was mute for a good chunk of screen time, she could be considered “disabled.” Vanellope Von Schweetz of Wreck-it Ralph could be considered so too, because she’s a game “glitch” who can’t leave her game, is not allowed to participate in the regular activity of her game (racing) and is bullied. These journalists also claim that Queen Elsa of Frozen is “disabled” by ice powers she can’t control.

I still say none of these characters have completely accurate representations of disabilities, for many reasons (check last November’s archives for a refresher). But these critics and journalists make a wonderful point, especially about Elsa. To kick off November–a month in which things begin to, ah, freeze–I’m going to dedicate a short “bonus round”-type post to what Queen Elsa represents for the community of PWDs and what PWDs can learn from her.

I love Elsa. We have a lot in common. We’re both smart, introverted, perfectionistic, responsible–and sometimes scared as heck. When I saw Frozen for the first time last year, I understood why Elsa was so scared of her ice powers. They could injure, destroy, and even kill. One year later, I also understand something else about Elsa’s problem. The ice powers keep her isolated, scared of being loved and giving love to others. Moreover, that attitude was encouraged because her well-meaning parents isolated her.

And now I think: how many PWDs are in the same situation? How many are scared to socialize, to strike up friendships and love others, because they’re scared to be judged and condemned on some level? How many of us have shut people out and regretted it like Elsa did, but not known how to fix the problem? How many of us have been judged as a threat to others in some way:
-A threat to the status quo?
-A threat to others’ socialization because our behavior is “inappropriate?”
-A threat to the school system because our IEPs, 504s, whatever, means extra work for teachers and administrators?
-A threat to the community, meant to be corralled, controlled, and kept from real life because of what we can’t do, or do differently from so-called “normal” people?

Near the end of the movie, the people of Arendelle even lock Elsa in a dungeon because they fear her ice powers. Now, granted, most PWDs don’t get locked in dungeons, though many go to jail because of their disabilities. Yes, it happens–tune in soon for an explanation of how, why, and what we can do about it. But how many PWDs are being “locked up” every day, barred from activities, independence, and life?

You get it. The way we currently treat disabilities and the people with them has some disturbing parallels to the life of Queen Elsa of Arendelle. But despite her fear, despite her struggles, she remains a strong person who’s able to grow and change. So what can PWDs learn from her?

Don’t shut yourself in or others out. If people are doing that to you, fight to be included, and get allies to help you. Take the risk. Try new things and meet new people.

Trust the people who love you. Elsa had to learn to trust her beloved sister Anna, to understand Anna wouldn’t condemn or fear her ice powers. Find the people who truly love you and have your best interests at heart, and lean on them. That’s not giving up on independence. That’s experiencing love, which is the greatest thing anyone can experience, disability or not.

Acknowledge fear, but don’t stay in it. Elsa had reason to be scared of her ice powers, but eventually learned to control them–with love. Love casts out fear. Learn to say, in whatever way you have, “I’m scared people will judge me. I’m scared of this doctor, this treatment. I’m scared I’ll have to go into a group home when I don’t want to.” Or conversely, “I’m scared of being left alone in an apartment when I turn 18.” Once you say it, find ways to combat the fear, but:

Don’t shove on the gloves. Elsa used gloves to keep her ice powers from freezing and destroying things. Sometimes, that was a good thing, like certain treatments can be good for PWDs. If you have cerebral palsy and need braces to get around, that’s fine. Those are your gloves and can be used the right way. Same if you have Down Syndrome and need a modified school curriculum. The problem comes in when you start hiding behind the gloves and letting them define who you are, or when the gloves start inhibiting your freedom. For example, parents: it never hurt anyone to give your child with CP a break from the braces–those things can hurt! And parents of those with cognitive disabilities: don’t assume they’re babies or toddlers. Don’t shut them out of decisions or disregard their wants and needs.

And yes: Let it go. Be yourself like Elsa learned to do. Learn to look at those who think less of you and say, “You’re entitled to think that, but I’m not at all what you think I am.”