Call for Support – Rally May 15 from Noon – 1 pm

42 million in cuts to services for the disabled in Alberta!

Over the past several months you may have been aware that Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) has been directed, along with many other social programs, to make arrangements for budget cuts. These cutbacks are happening alongside an effort by PDD to better regulate funding models for people. These changes, unfortunately, make what we need to present at this time more complicated. Administrative changes around assessing support needs is co-mingled with the severe funding cutbacks being experienced across the province of Alberta.

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What sorts of academics should there be?

from Carl Elliott, “How to be an academic failure: an introduction for beginners”, The Ruminator Review, but also:  whitecoatblackhat.com/academicfailure/

Carl visited us up in Edmonton a few years ago, courtesy in part due to the work he was doing at the time on big pharma and also as a member of the What Sorts Network.  In addition to enjoying and learning much from his public lecture, we also had a great informal, roundtable session with about a dozen people that was focused on his then-developing work on a particular case in psychopathology that involved a senior professor who had murdered his spouse.

I also had a fun dinner with Carl in which he confessed his slight ill-ease with me.  This was caused by the fact that every time I started speaking, I managed to disappoint his expectation that I would sound just like The Dude.  “Damn it, how can that be?” he wondered aloud, almost with sufficient pathos for me to consider peppering our conversation with some of the many lines I know from heart from The Big Lebowski.  But despite the short-term fun this would have involved, I thought that this might actually exacerbate the problem in the long run, so I resisted the temptation.  “But that’s just like, your opinion, man.” I still hear a small voice inside my head say.

Here’s how his recent article, with all its sage advice on academic failure, begins:

How to be an academic failure? Let me count the ways. You can become a disgruntled graduate student. You can become a burned-out administrator, perhaps an associate dean. You can become an aging, solitary hermit, isolated in your own department, or you can become a media pundit, sought out by reporters but laughed at by your peers. You can exploit your graduate students and make them hate you; you can alienate your colleagues and have them whisper about you behind your back; you can pick fights with university officials and blow your chances at promotion. You can become an idealistic failure at age 25, a cynical failure at 45, or an eccentric failure at 65. If failure is what you’re looking for, then you can hardly do better than the academic life. The opportunities are practically limitless.

Call me arrogant, but I like to think I have a knack for failure. Having started and abandoned one abortive career, participated in the dissolution of a major bioethics center, published dozens of articles nobody has read and given public lectures so dull that audience members were actually snoring, I think I have earned my stripes. It is true that I am not an alcoholic yet. I do not have a substance abuse problem, and no university disciplinary proceedings have been brought against me so far. I am still a novice at failure. Many other people in my own field have succeeded at failing in a far more spectacular fashion than I have, some of whom are rumored to be living in South America. But I am learning. And I think I have something to contribute.  Read more

Here we go again… population panic and the blame game

Last month the United Nations announced that we’ve arrived at a human population of more than 7 billion people, sounding a call for alarm to provide targeted reproductive services for the 215 women worldwide that do not have access to reproductive services, according the UN Population Fund.

 Population panic is not new. In the early 19th century, Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus claimed that the dangers of population growth would put human civilization in jeopardy. Malthus did not support keeping the poor alive through charitable means and protested the Poor Laws of the time, which provided food aid and support for poor citizens and set the groundwork for the modern welfare state. Despite the fact that Malthusian population theory was proven to be erroneous- his work has been tremendously influential, most importantly, in evolutionary biology. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling book ‘The Population Bomb’ once again raised alarmist, doomsday predictions about the danger of population growth causing crises of apocalyptic proportions.  His predictions were also inaccurate.

 There is no question that we are facing a wide range of environmental and financial crises and far too many women lack access and choice in reproductive medicine. However, in the face of doomsday fears of scarcity, targeted population control of specific groups based on class, medical status, race and other social determinants has been a troubling historical trend. The question is not ‘if’ population is a problem; but ‘who’ gets targeted in population control programs.  Since the 1920s, targeted and eugenic population control in marginalized populations has been present across North and South America, Australia, the Middle East and Europe.  Anecdotally, we can estimate it to be happening, or have happened all over the world. This past summer at the 9th Annual Conference in Ethics in Development in Pennsylvania, a medical researcher from Nigeria approached me following presentation of my paper on sterilization in the Americas, to say that forced sterilization surgery in tribal communities in South and Western Africa has been happening for many years and went on to describe a personal account. Belief that these incidents of reproductive abuse represent collateral damage in the more pressing fight for contraception access has cloaked the deeper Malthusian ideology that lives who cannot provide for themselves are ‘fertility liabilities’.

 The Reuters humanitarian news service, Alertnet, recently quoted Parvinder Singh, of ActionAid India on the relationship between fears of scarcity and population: “the issue of population cannot be seen divorced from the aspect of resource or energy footprint,” However, Singh continued to note that: “the largest drain continues to be in the West which have traditionally consumed, and continue to, massive volumes of resources because of a life-style and purchasing power that far exceeds that of so-called high population poorer countries.” Research has demonstrated that raising quality of life for women and their families leads to a drop in fertility- so much so that the world’s richest countries are fearing a further ‘drop’ in their national populations. The recent US recession has created a record low in fertility, leading to fears that there will be ‘not enough’ children born to sustain the national economy. So, not enough of one group- but too many of another? On what basis are these determinations made? On relative value to the economy?

 If we are to make progress against this historical trend of using population panic to make authoritarian determinations over which lives have value for reproduction, we have to own up to the pervasive Malthusian ideology that views fertility in the developed world as a valuable resource and developing world fertility as a global liability

Disturbing Portrayal of Blindness

I’m used to bad portrayals of blindness and blind people—portrayals that fail to recognize the huge extent to which the challenges associated with blindness are created by negative attitudes, misconceptions about blindness, and badly designed products, services, and institutions. What I’m not used to is such a blatantly offensive and exploitative representation of blindness. This is truly one of the worst of recent years.

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I Hate “Special Needs”

Of course I don’t hate so called people with “special needs”; I hate the label “special needs”.  I’m no fan of other forms of “politically correct” language (for example, visually impaired, partially sighted, or people with disabilities).  But at least I can understand the motivations behind employing these terms.  The word blind (to the uninformed) connotes the complete absence of sight.  I would rather expand the widely-accepted meaning of the word blind, but I get the motivation behind introducing a term that suggests an inability to see very well without being completely blind.  Similarly, I understand the desire to want to emphasize that the physical variation isn’t the entire person.  I don’t like the way the phrase “people with disabilities” implies that the person possesses the disability rather than it being imposed by social factors, but we do wrong if we fail to acknowledge anything more about a person than the physical variation that results in disability, and “people first language” is trying to address that wrong.

That said, I can’t find worthwhile motivations behind the use of the term “special needs”, and I strongly reject the sentiment expressed by the term.  What it implies is that there is a group of people who possess a set of needs that differ from… differ from whom? From those who are normal I suppose.  What is overlooked by this attitude is the ways in which social factors (e.g., power and status) can shape needs and determine which ones get marked off as “special”.

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O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!

I recently had a chance to listen to a question and answer session posted on the What Sorts blog. This Q&A session followed a lecture by Martin Tweedale about the removal of John MacEachran’s portrait from the conference room in the Department of Psychology. MacEachran was the first head of what was then the Department of Philosophy and Psychology and was later Provost of the University of Alberta. He was also a major proponent of sexual sterilization and was the Chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board from the Board’s inception in 1928 up until he resigned in 1965. In the late 1990s, a portrait of MacEachran in the Department of Psychology conference room at the U of A was removed. In the words of Douglas Wahlsten, a psychology professor who instigated the motion to remove the portrait, “We decided to remove MacEachran’s name from our conference room because we felt that the questions raised about his conduct were inconsistent with the honours the university had previously bestowed on him.”

After listening to the exchange between Professor Griener and Professor Tweedale, I started thinking more closely about how we ought to address issues of historical injustice. I think one of the more challenging aspects of the debate is the idea that by removing the name of an important figure in history from an award we are guilty of a kind of moral self-righteousness. As William Graham wrote in a letter to the Folio in 1997, “Although most in society today would consider compulsory sterilization abhorrent, the view was apparently different a couple of generations ago.” By wiping away MacEachran’s name, we have bowed to current ideas of acceptability (or so the argument goes). Continue reading

Inclusive Post-Secondary Education

Alberta is a Province of contrasts. While Alberta’s role in sterilizing people with Developmental Disabilities as late as the 70s is infamous, Alberta also deserves kudos to for providing the world’s first inclusive post-secondary education program for people with developmental disabilities in the 1980s, and the On Campus program continues today, 23 years later at the University of Alberta. Alberta now boasts inclusive post-secondary education programs at 17 colleges and Universities across the Province and maintains an international leadership role in the field. Unfortunately, these programs sit precariously on the chopping block today as Alberta faces financial difficulties. Continue reading