As many of you probably know, we’ve had some serious and sometimes painful discussions recently about people with disabilities and ableism on the Skepchick network. I don’t particularly want to get into the debate of what comments were and weren’t inappropriate or how things should have been handled because I really haven’t been heavily involved. However I have been considering language and how language can or cannot oppress people a great deal lately and that consideration led me to the following piece. It’s short, so please read it.
I don’t want to diminish the power of words, but it does seem important that when we’re deciding whether someone is ableist or not we look at a holistic picture of their behavior. As the piece said, I personally would rather have an ally who is willing to support my writing and my voice, help me through the difficult times, listen when I’m expressing my frustrations, and give suggestions or help when asked, even if they do sometimes use language like “crazy”. None of these actions negate bad language, but they do change my perspective on someone’s behaviors, and they should be taken into account.
There are a lot of people that have been accusing Rebecca and the network of being ableist and of letting them down. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I do want to share some of the ways that the Skepchick network has actively helped me to deal with my mental illness and been supportive of me as someone with mental illness in the skeptical community. I hope that people use these pieces of information to gain a more holistic picture of the person they’re angry at, because the network does house many writers with disabilities (physical and mental), and those perspectives should be taken into account when making criticisms.
As some background, I have longterm severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder traits, and an eating disorder. I don’t generally identify as “disabled”, but my mental health severely impacts my life and functioning, and would fall under the category of disability.
My experience as someone with a disability on the Skepchick network has actually been fantastic. I first joined on as a Teen Skepchick, and my editor, Mindy, was absolutely fantastic. Whenever a writer mentioned that they were having a particularly difficult bout of mental health, she would encourage them to take off some time from writing if they didn’t have the energy. Even if we were simply overwhelmed, we were always encouraged to take care of our mental and physical health, and given the freedom to ask for what we needed in order to do that.
Rebecca has followed suit as I’ve moved into the main Skepchick network, and even better, the backchannel on Skepchick is an incredibly supportive place. People are encouraged to speak openly about what’s going on in their lives and are offered hugs, support, or advice as necessary (there’s not a whole lot of in person support we can do as we’re quite spread out). We’re also encouraged to write about our disabilities publicly on the network, and if a particular post is proving difficult, our fellow writers are ready and willing to help out or take on the comments.
I’ve also found everyone to be incredibly responsive when I mention that a topic is a bit too much for me to handle. Oftentimes these are topics that don’t need to be off-limits, but they’re willing to stick a trigger warning in there, or simply remind me that I could leave the thread that is triggering me (sometimes I forget simple fixes).
Rebecca has also given many people platforms to talk about disabilities, LGBTQ issues, and whatever else is relevant to their life. This includes hiring on a wide variety of writers for Skepchick, and planning events with a variety of speakers. SkepChickCON is boasting a wide variety of panels, including multiple ones about mental health (made up of people who have mental illness).
Perhaps even more important though is that when the internet becomes a vicious and vile place (which it quite often does for many of our writers), and when that attitude triggers a mental health breakdown, Rebecca and the rest of the writers are the first to show up, help the person who’s hurting, step into the comments and protect the person, offer solace on the backchannel, and generally fight the jerkbrain that is coming out to attack.
I obviously can’t speak to the experiences of those who have physical disabilities, or those with developmental disabilities, but from where I’m sitting, the Skepchick network has done a lot to provide me with a safe space to discuss my mental health. They have helped me to be more open, to discuss the stigma surrounding mental illness, to face topics that scared me in the past, and to be more willing to stand up for myself and for my opinions. To me, this is more important than the language they use, and I hope that others consider it when making judgments about their behavior.