Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe. However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered. A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.” During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out. They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code.
This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.
This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk. There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do.
The Human Rights Connection
It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved. Consider some of the jobs of social workers. They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more. In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former. Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.
One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce. Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need. Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and,“All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”
The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations
Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities). According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics,“The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well–being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” A vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.”
Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence. It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need. Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.
The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.”
There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct. It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court overruled the “separate but equal” clause of Plessy v. Ferguson with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that “separate” educational facilities are inherently unequal. While Brown v. Board was aimed at addressing racial segregation, it is worth noting the implications of this view of separate educations because students with learning disabilities are often educated separately from their peers. Our current education system divides students into different categories and programs based on their perceived levels of academic ability under the assumption that this is the best way to help students reach their fullest potential. This is problematic and leads to students’ missing the benefits of an inclusive classroom. Though it would not be a simple task, students who have learning disabilities should be educated alongside students who do not, using cooperative classwork, where students work together to complete an assignment or task, whenever possible.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” For this blog, I will be focusing on learning disabilities, particularly those that do not completely inhibit functions that are vital in a traditional classroom, such as communication. However, I do recognize that the line that I am drawing between which disabilities/experiences of disabilities my proposal would apply to and those it would not is not completely clear, as no two people with the same disability have the same experience. The degree to which a person is able to participate in inclusive and cooperative learning would have to be determined on a case by case basis.
Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has a right to an education. Article 24 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that all people with disabilities have the right to “an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.” The use of cooperative classwork among students with and without disabilities would hopefully help more effectively access these rights for both parties. Additionally, by helping the members of each group become more accustomed to interacting and being part of a common social group, this can also help individuals with the types of disabilities that are focused on in this blog to access their right to employment (which is given in article 23 of the UDHR and article 27 of the CRPD) and their right to participation/inclusion in their communities (article 27 of the UDHR and article 19 of the CRPD).
Our Current System
When discussing whether students who have disabilities should be educated separately from students who do not, it is helpful if we begin by considering why we use the system we currently have. A literature review titled “Implicit Assumptions in Special Education Policy: Promoting Full Inclusion for Students with Learning Disabilities” was published by Moira Kirby in the Child Youth Care Forum in 2016. In the review, Kirby aimed to find special education trends relating to “inclusive practices, Response to Intervention (RTI), and student achievement.” She argues that the educational system currently used in the United States, while meant to increase access to education, perpetuates certain students’ isolation from others, as it is based on problematic assumptions about disabilities. The first assumption is that disabilities are deviant conditions that should be “eradicated.” The second is that “all special services should be delivered in a separate environment.” These assumptions inform the implicit biases about degrees of educational ability. Kirby also argues that these assumptions must be changed in order to “promote access and equality for students with learning disabilities.” In her article, she states, “The question is not, how can we fix a disability, but how can we make our classroom environments a place where all students can learn, regardless of their need.”
The educational system that is currently in place in the US involves separating students with learning disabilities, “low-performing” students, students who meet “average” expectations, and “high-performing” students. This system is well-intentioned, theoretically giving each group of students the unique resources they need to reach the height of their personal capabilities. In practice, however, this system is quite flawed. It is a system based on expectations (typically informed by assumptions and implicit bias), which become harmful to many students, especially those with learning disabilities, due to stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is “the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group” and the effect that that risk can have on the individual’s performance. Many people assume that students with disabilities will do poorly in school, and when students with disabilities know this, they often adopt those same expectations for themselves. If academic success seems unlikely or even impossible, this can become a barrier to the motivation and access to resources that can lead to it. Stereotype threat also leads students with learning disabilities to underestimate the quality of their academic performance overall, even at times when they are doing well. They can start to assume that they simply cannot do well in school.
Another problem that comes with stereotype threat is that it takes up precious cognitive resources. Students spend part of their cognitive resources thinking about the expectations they are held to, distracting them from the work they are trying to do, and preventing them from using all of their resources to their advantage, which contributes to a decreased ability to perform well.
In her research, Kirby found that teachers who had been asked about inclusion in the classroom tended to attribute the success of attempts at inclusion to the students’ physiological traits rather than the value of inclusive practices. She points to this belief as one that could potentially lead a teacher to believe that students with disabilities could be taught only separately from others. They were also often found to lack confidence in their abilities to teach students with disabilities. Parents also either had negative or neutral views on the impact of inclusive education.
In 2015, “68.2% of students with learning disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in the general education classroom, while 24.1% spend 40-70% of their day in the general education classroom.” This in no way aligns with the idea that students with learning disabilities need to be educated separately from other students, and it highlights a point of concern. If many general education teachers do not feel like they are able to teach students with disabilities, and most students with disabilities spend a large part of their day in general education classrooms, what implications do these things have regarding those students’ education? Ideally, students would be educated by someone who felt they were qualified to teach them rather than someone who is uncertain about it. If students with different educational needs were consistently taught in the same classroom, teachers would all need to go through the training necessary to teach students with special educational needs, allowing them to better support their students.
An Inclusive Educational Environment Can Be Beneficial For All Students
The negative impact that a segregated educational system can have on students with disabilities is not the only reason to move towards a more inclusive system. Evidence that suggests that inclusive classrooms can lead to positive outcomes for all of the students involved.
In their article “The challenges of implementing group work in primary school classrooms and including pupils with special educational needs,” Ed Baines, Peter Blatchford, and Rob Webster review the results of two research projects: the SPRing (Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work) project and the MAST (Making a Statement) project. Realizing that most studies regarding collaborative work in education that had previously been performed had been on a small-scale and short-term basis, the authors reviewed the results of these two projects to come to a better, more reliable understanding of the challenges of inclusive group-work in primary schools.
The SPRing project was a five-year-long project that aimed to “develop and implement with teachers a programme of principles and activities that incorporated group work into curriculum and everyday school activities” and “to evaluate this programme relative to a control group in terms of academic progress, behavioral interaction and dialogue, and attitudes and motivation towards learning.” The developed program included a handbook and six training sessions where teachers could develop the skills that they need to incorporate group work into their lessons. The four main areas covered by the program included “preparing the classroom and group context for group work,” “preparing lessons and group-work activities,” “preparing adults to support pupils and groups,” and “preparing pupils for group work.”
The results of the SPRing project show that, relative to the control group, the students that participated in the program made more progress in general science tests, “were more actively engaged in task interactions,” had more sustained interactions, and “engaged in more high-level reasoning talk.”
The MAST project “involved systematic observation and case studies” of students with known special educational needs that were being taught in general education classrooms. This project’s results provided Baines and his co-authors with information about the interactions between students with special educational needs and adults/peers. The project found that students with special educational needs “were half as likely to work with or alongside peers” as other students. It was also found they were often isolated from the other students. Some of the reasons for this isolation included a student with special educational needs choosing to sit away from the others, and other students being afraid of or nervous about working with them. One factor that may contribute to each of these reasons could be that the students with special educational needs that were a part of the study may have had poor social and communicational skills. While difficulties with communication are an aspect of many learning disabilities, inclusive group work may give these students an opportunity and a safe environment in which they can develop these skills (though a student should never be pushed to do group work if it causes them an amount of stress that is genuinely detrimental to their well-being).
This isolation of students with special educational needs may also result from traditional students and school faculty viewing people with disabilities as “the other” as being outside of normal. This would help to explain why traditional students may be hesitant to associate with students who have disabilities. It could also explain why students with special educational needs isolate themselves from other students, as they may have internalized their peers’ view of them. They may feel like they are on the outside looking in, unable to be a part of the rest of the group.
In her literature review, Moira Kirby also addresses some of the benefits of inclusive educational settings, as suggested in different case studies. In one study, elementary school students scored higher in reading and writing when taught in a general education classroom rather than a separate special education classroom. Another study found that eighth-graders with learning disabilities had “significantly higher scores in math academic achievement tasks and self-concept” when taught in an inclusive classroom. Students from another study scored higher in math, science, social studies, and language arts.
Students without learning disabilities may also benefit from inclusive educational environments. Students who perform well could potentially benefit from working with students with disabilities and helping them understand the topics they are learning about and the group work they might do. Re-wording and explaining a concept to another person can
help cement one’s understanding of it. Additionally, if all teachers have to teach classes with children with different educational needs, they would have to be prepared to work with students with disabilities, which would improve the support that those students receive and broaden teachers’ perspectives. This could allow teachers to develop skills that would be beneficial in teaching all students, with or without disabilities.
Concerns and Challenges
Though there are many advantages to adopting a more inclusive educational system, there are still concerns and challenges that also come with it. One concern is that students with learning disabilities may face social rejection from their peers. For their article “The Social and Emotional Situation of First Graders with Classroom Behavior Problems and Classroom Learning Difficulties in Inclusive Classes,” Johanna Krull, Jürgen Wilbert, and Thomas Hennemann surveyed 2,839 first graders and found that students with “classroom learning difficulties” (CLD) and “classroom behavioral problems” (CBP) were at a greater risk for social rejection than their peers. However, the authors found several outliers in their data, where students with CLD or CBP had higher rates of social acceptance, and they interpret this to mean that, under the right circumstances, an inclusive education system is possible. In their article, Baines and his co-authors suggest that social rejection in this context can decrease over time when students are involved in inclusive group-work (if the students remain in the same groups throughout that time). Group work allows students with disabilities who struggle with social skills to develop those skills. It will enable other students to better understand people’s experiences who are different from them, which may lead them to be more willing (and happier) to be inclusive and build friendships with other students. If a student has no/little prior experience with students with learning disabilities, it would not be surprising to find that they are nervous or uncomfortable interacting with them.
When discussing the possibility of an integrated classroom, people are also concerned with the impact of having children with severe behavioral issues in general education classrooms, as they may become distracting or disruptive to the point of preventing any productivity in the class. This may be a factor that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some children that are deemed as being too disruptive have the potential to become less disruptive with exposure to a traditional classroom setting. There are likely situations where students truly are too disruptive to allow for a productive classroom, but that is certainly not always the case. It is important that, if a student is found to behave in a distracting way, that they are not immediately moved into another classroom after a single incident (although consideration should be given to the severity and the nature of the interruption). They should be given the opportunity to try and adjust to the traditional classroom environment before they are placed in a different one.
Another concern is that educating students at such a range of degrees of ability in the same classroom might prevent both students with learning disabilities and students that are currently in advanced programs from reaching their fullest academic potential. This concern is largely connected to the assumption that being in the classroom means that students would all be learning from the exact same curriculum, but that is not necessarily true.
In her article, Kirby suggests that a completely inclusive classroom might not involve basing lesson plans on the categories that students have been assigned to. Instead, each student would have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In our current public education system, children in special education programs must have an IEP, a “map that lays out the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school.” Each child has an IEP team, including their parents, at least one general education teacher (unless the child does not work with any), at least one special education teacher, a school district representative, a school psychologist/specialist, and the child. After the IEP is developed, the team regularly meets to discuss progress and possible changes for the plan. If every student, whether they have general or special educational needs, has an IEP, then (in theory), each student could have their personal needs recognized and met in the classroom. Kirby also suggests that making IEPs standard for all students could reduce the impact that the stigmatization of learning disabilities has on students, as school faculty would be less reliant on separating students into different/broad categories to teach them.
Of course, creating an IEP for every student in the public school system is much easier said than done and is a much more attractive idea in theory than in practice. It would require a significant shift in the allocation of resources in education, which may not be practical with the financial resources we currently have access to. It would also be asking many teachers, as they would no longer be able to teach with a singular lesson plan. It is unrealistic to expect teachers to carry this burden themselves, as they are already spread too thin, given more responsibilities than they can reasonably handle. Having IEPs for every student would likely require a serious increase in the number of teachers at each school or at least an increased/reinforced support system for school faculty. Perhaps a more feasible solution could be developing IEPs for students with a clear need for increased educational support that involves their being more present in the traditional classroom than in a separate one. While this is still likely to feed into the stigmatization and othering of students with disabilities, there do not seem to be any strong alternatives that are both practical and successful in avoiding stigmatization altogether.
In short, we should aim to educate students with and without learning disabilities together whenever possible, even though it will take a lot of time and effort to do so. We currently separate students based on expectations of their academic abilities, and these expectations are informed by and reaffirm problematic assumptions about people with learning disabilities. This can be harmful to people with learning disabilities and prevent students with all degrees of educational needs from accessing the benefits that can come from an inclusive classroom. However, it is important that we recognize and genuinely consider the concerns and challenges that arise when we look to put inclusive education ideals into practice. It is also important to recognize that the conclusions that can be drawn based on the resources used to support this argument are limited, as many gather data from anecdotal situations and small samples sizes. These factors prevent the results of sources from being reliably representative of experiences with inclusion and students with learning disabilities on a larger scale. The application of my argument is also limited, as I have focused on students with learning disabilities that do not completely prevent them from effectively learning or functioning in a general education classroom. While an integrated school system is generally optimal, there are some students for which that kind of system genuinely would not work. We cannot treat all students with disabilities as if their experiences are the same by assuming that all would do poorly in an inclusive classroom or that all would be unquestionably better off in an inclusive classroom. Overall, even though it will not be easy, even if we can never achieve a perfectly integrated educational system, it is an important goal which we should work towards for the benefit of all students and their educational rights.
The first is that it is an inclusive right. This means that it extends “not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health.” This includes things like access to clean water, safe working conditions, and important information about health. These factors, while clearly relevant to physical health, are also important in maintaining one’s mental health.
The second principle is that the right to health includes both freedoms and entitlements. Freedoms would include things like “the right to control one’s health,” while entitlements would include things like “the right to a system of health protection that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.” This is significant because one needs to be able to access important information and resources related to mental health in order to have meaningful support for their mental health.
The third principle is that the right to health is a broad concept that can be divided up into more specific rights. For example, there are some aspects of health that are specific to people who are assigned female at birth, and those aspects are associated with specific rights. The right to mental health (and the rights associated with it) is one of the many rights that make of the right to health.
Mental Health Impacts Your Overall Future Health
According to the World Health Organization’s Constitution, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Based on this, taking care of your mental health is not simply making sure that you are not actively going through a crisis. Being healthy is more than just surviving. Taking care of your mental health involves taking daily steps to care for yourself that not only improve your health in the present, but also protect your health in the future.
Having poor mental health puts you at a greater risk for physical health problems.According to the American Psychological Association, having a mental health condition reduces men’s life expectancy by an estimated 20 years and reduces women’s life expectancy by about 15 years. This is in part due to the fact that nearly two-thirds of people with mental health conditions do not seek any form of treatment.
Mental Health is a Key Part of Accessing Many Other Rights
You Have to Help Yourself Before You Can Help Others
You’re probably familiar with the concept of putting your oxygen mask on before assisting others on a plane. If you are struggling to breathe yourself, not only is your ability to help others inhibited, but you’re putting your own health and well-being at risk of harm. This can be applied to mental health as well. If you are facing serious struggles with your own mental health, it is important to focus on helping and support yourself before taking on responsibilities related to other people’s mental health.
For this reason, the maintenance of good mental health is especially important for people who work in fields such as human rights advocacy. The world of human rights is full of issues and topics that can be emotionally draining, so one can easily become overwhelmed by it all. It is vital that advocates make their mental (and physical) health a priority, even if their main concern is helping others. Self-care needs to be a part of any human rights advocate’s tool kit.
It is so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget to take care of oneself. We all do it sometimes. It is important that we set aside time to properly take care of ourselves and pay attention to our own needs. Mental health matters just as much as everything else that is going on, and that’s something we need to remember.
On October 25, 2019, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center. During the lecture and discussion, Risse asked the audience to consider the present and future moral and philosophical implications of ever-growing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
One of the most well-known ethical dilemmas that Risse addressed is the Trolley Problem thought experiment which, seemed to be irrelevant in real life at the time of its conception, has massive implications in today’s world. Imagine that you are standing by as a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are tied to the tracks. You can either refuse to intervene and allow those five people to die, or you can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack where a single person is tied. Which option is more ethical? As AI technology is developed and products such as self-driving cars become more common, we cannot ignore the ethical concerns that will emerge and their attendant consequences.
Risse also discussed rising concerns about the relationship between social inequalities and AI technology. One concern is that, as technology develops, “unskilled” labor will be outsourced to AI, leaving low-income communities that typically work those jobs behind. Not only does that leave people struggling to find work to support themselves and their families, but it also takes away their voice and political power because it pushes them out of the job market and economic system. There is also a concern that technology will become less accessible to low-income communities as it develops, and that under-privileged groups will be left behind. This has led many to worry that AI will “drive a widening technological wedge into society.”
After the lecture, Risse and Raman answered some of the audience’s questions. One person asked which of the problems regarding AI and human rights is the most concerning. In response, Risse pointed out that it depends on who you ask. From policymakers to tech developers to “unskilled” laborers, each group would have a different perspective on which part of the issue is the most urgent because each party has a unique relationship with technology.
In closing his lecture, Risse noted that he wished he could end on a more cheerful note, but he found it to be nearly impossible due to the long list of concerns that the philosophical community has regarding the future of humanity and artificial intelligence. Throughout his lecture and the Q & A session, Risse emphasized the point that there needs to be a serious increase in the interaction that occurs between the AI community and the human rights community. While technological advancements can be wonderful and even lifesaving, it is vital that we evaluate the potential risks that come with them. Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done, and multiple perspectives are necessary to effectively evaluate any given possibility.
On November 7, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Alexandra Zapruder, author and member of the founding staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. She discussed her first book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, and answered questions about her work. Throughout her lecture, Zapruder highlighted the variety of insights we can gain from the diaries of teenagers/young adults who experienced the Holocaust.
While Anne Frank is certainly the most well-known authors of such a diary, there is much to be learned from the other young authors whose diaries have been found in the last few decades. Zapruder described these diaries as being both historical and literary fragments, giving us a window into the past and helping us better understand human experiences from different perspectives of the time.
Zapruder described having to grapple with the legacy of Anne Frank’s diary and how it shapes the reception of the other diaries that are found. For example, people often associated Frank’s writing with a hopeful view of humanity. It is often discussed with language that relates to redemption and optimism that is rarely used when discussing the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust on their own. This does not, however, reflect every young writer’s writing during this time. Zapruder noted that, no matter how great a writer is, it does not make sense to expect their writing to represent all perspectives in a common experience when people are so different. Reading other diaries from the Holocaust requires setting aside the preconceived notions we have from learning about Anne Frank’s diary in the past.
One young writer that Zapruder spoke about during her lecture was Klaus Langer, a child of a fairly well-to-do family in Essen, Germany. She read an entry from his diary that was written on November 11, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. His diary entries were generally records of what happened in his day-to-day life as he and his family made efforts to leave Nazi Germany, and this entry was no different. Langer described walking down the street through the wreckage after everything that happened, walking on glass splinters. Though that day in history had not been named “Kristallnacht” yet, the significance of the shatter glass is clear in his writing. When reading this entry, Zapruder recognized that, when you are writing in a diary about the day-to-day, you capture nuances you might miss later, things that would be easy to forget in future recollections.
Another writer that Zapruder discussed was Elsa Binder, a 21-year-old girl who lived with her parents in Poland. Zapruder described Binder as someone who could be sarcastic and had an edge. In Binder’s diary, Zapruder found a strong example of an unexpected common theme among the diaries: the passage of time. There were certainly themes that had been expected, such as desperation, hope, hunger, and displacement, but the passage of time was addressed to a surprising degree in nearly all of the diaries. Zapruder found many entries detailing life before the war, the traumatic break from normal life, and waiting liberation as time passed. Birthdays and holidays were noted regularly, even when the world was in chaos.
Perhaps the most striking thing that Zapruder addressed during her lecture was the way that these works resonate with young people. Though the experiences of most American teenagers are far different from those who lived during the Holocaust, many of the things that young people experience today connect to the themes found in the diary, from hope for the future to fear to desperation. Children face many human rights issues, such as school shootings, gun violence, and violence against people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Like many of the young writers that Zapruder discussed during her lecture, many of the children of today are desperate for a better future. It is vital that adults step up and become better advocates for that future and for the human rights of children and adolescents.
Is this because of an overall misunderstanding about the parameters of disabilities among the general public? Or do the producers of film and television realize they are failing to accurately represent society and just not caring?
Even the media that currently feature characters with disabilities are often misleading and lean heavily into pre-existing, incorrect stereotypes. Manifestation of this issue draws parallels with insensitive stereotypes about race, gender, and sexuality to the use of common (over-used) archetypes.
One way in which film and television often generalize people with disabilities is using character archetypes. It worth noting that archetypes are not inherently bad, rather they become a problem when they are focused around a specific group of people. As a result, this creates/reaffirms the assumptions that people make about others. When it comes to characters with disabilities, it is especially problematic, as these characters are rarely depicted outside of their archetypes while non-disabled groups may be more likely to have a nuanced portrayal.
The helpless victim character is severely limited by their disability and is depicted as having little chance of happiness or normalcy in life unless their disability is removed. This character is depicted as needing to be “saved” from their condition and are designed to evoke pity and sympathy from the audience rather than be viewed as a regular person. These characters are often rescued from their disabilities through “miraculous” events whether it be an “unexplainable change” or directly stated as part of an intervention by a higher power. Not only does this lead people to look at people with disabilities with the same pity they give fictional characters, but it also fosters an inaccurate depiction of many people’s experiences with their own disabilities. Contrary to these depictions, people can have disabilities and live happy lives at the same time. The helpless victim archetype is also sometimes used for comedic purposes. For example, a person with a disability does or experiences something related to their disability that mildly harms them or is considered inappropriate by societal norms. This is shown in how Forest Gump is depicted in relation to his intellectual disability.￼ This allows people who do not have disabilities to feel comfortable with not taking people with disabilities seriously or giving them the same respect they give people who do not have disabilities.
The Evil Villain
The second main archetype is the evil villain, often designed as a dangerous and uncontrollable monster. This character is often seen in horror films, such as the Unbreakable trilogy, Gerald’s Game, and many more. The horror genre is notorious for using both physical and mental disabilities (often those that the general public is not well-educated on) to frighten audiences. Since many of the disabilities that are targeted by this archetype are unfamiliar to most people, many audiences walk away having absorbed a great deal of misinformation and a fear of people with these disabilities. These representations have led many people to believe that people with disabilities, particularly any mental disorders that are unfamiliar, are dangerous and should be avoided. In reality, people have a tendency to largely overestimate the likelihood that a person with a mental health disorder will become violent. Additionally, when people with these kinds of disabilities do become violent, is largely linked to other factors, such as substance abuse and family history.
An example of the evil villain character is the Beast from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy. The Beast is an alter in a system with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) that is depicted as having super-human abilities and a desire to get rid of all impure people in the world. Throughout the series, he is depicted clearly as a violent monster. For many people, these movies were their first exposure to DID, and, though it did not necessarily convince people that DID gives people supernatural capabilities, this has led to many people having a serious misunderstanding of DID and a fear of people who experience the disorder. Even the “nice” alters in the system were depicted in a negative light, as they helped the Beast carry out his evil plans. This representation of DID is also problematic because there are so many misleading or definitively incorrect ideas about DID propagated in these films.
The third main archetype is the hero/inspirational character with a disability is held up as an example of someone “overcoming the odds”. These are the characters that lead people to say, “well if they can do that, then I can do anything!” While it is considered a positive stereotype, it is nonetheless problematic for several reasons. First, it suggests that the only way a person can be happy is if they are “cured” or if they overcome their disability. It specifically frames disabilities as enemies to defeat rather than a part of daily life. It can also lead people who do not have disabilities to believe that people who do have them will be fine if they only try hard enough. As a result, this may make them believe they do not have to do anything to accommodate people with disabilities. Depicting people with disabilities this way can also lead to people without disabilities looking to them for sources of inspiration and examples of courage rather than as regular people.
Many people develop their understanding of different disabilities through the representations they see in film and television which impacts the way people are viewed by their local communities and, therefore, their ability to access their human rights. The way students are treated by their classmates impacts how they benefit from their educational experience (Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights). The way people are treated by their employers (or potential employers) and co-workers impacts their access to a favorable work environment without discrimination (Article 23). Theway people are treated holistically by their community impacts their ability to actively participate in their communities (Article 27). A community’s view of people with disabilities can also impact their willingness to make accommodations for them which further affects their ability to access the aforementioned rights.
Does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”?
Does it address the cause of the disability?
Is the character relatable? Are they well-rounded and realistic?
An Example of Good Representation: A Quiet Place
John Krasinski’s film, A Quiet Place, is a wonderful example of quality representation. In the film, the Abbot family is fighting to survive in a world where making a sound could be a death sentence. Reagan, the daughter in the family, is deaf, which has led to the entire family’s ability to communicate silently through American Sign Language (ASL). Reagan’s disability is not treated as a burden or as a superpower. While their knowledge of ASL is a key tool in the family’s path towards survival, it does not change the way Reagan is treated as a character. She is a normal kid. She is a multi-dimensional character who has strong relationships with her family and faces personal struggles that are unrelated to her disability. The character is also played by a deaf actress, which is an important part of good representation and surprisingly rare on television and in film.
The existence of quality representation for people with disabilities is increasing in television and in films like A Quiet Place, but we still have a lot of work to do. It will take time, but we can hopefully look forward to a day where people with disabilities are well represented in popular media.
What would you do if you felt like the whole world was on your shoulders before you were even old enough to vote? Many children have faced this exact question, some of which have been acknowledged for their extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place. Malala Yousafzai. Greta Thunberg. Emma González and David Hogg. These are only few from a long list of young activists who have made great sacrifices in hopes of creating a better future for themselves and future generations.
For many, seeing children give up so much for something they are passionate about is greatlymotivating. Children’swillingness to put themselves at risk for the greater good often makeadults feel like they should be doing more to make a difference or that they have been underestimating the problem the entire time.
That being said, why should children have to make sacrifices in order to convince adults to change? Should the burden of change ever be placed on a child’s shoulders?
Why do they feel the need to get involved?
When discussing this issue, it is important that we consider what is causing so many young people to feel the need to take on the serious responsibilities that come with activism. It may speak to the severity of an issue when the members of society with the least responsibilities for the problems we face are the ones leading the charge for progress or, possibly, because they are the ones dealing the brunt of the impact of change.
Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old environmental activist, skips school on Fridays in order to “protest outside Swedish parliament buildings, pressuring the government to pass legislation that would reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement”. These efforts interfere with her right to an education which is recognized in Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child).When asked about her message for world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit, said, “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
Personal Connections to the Issue
For many child activists, their membership in a community that is particularly or uniquely impacted by an issue contributes to their involvement whether it is by participation or choice. Consider the activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Their activism began as a response to their experiences as survivors of a school shooting. Many of the activists have attributed much of their drive for promoting gun-reform to their feeling that adults are not doing enough (or are even making the problem worse). Cameron Kasky, an 11th grader at the school, said, “The adults know that we are cleaning up their mess.” Emma González added onto this, stating, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m sorry I made this mess,’ while continuing to spill soda on the floor.”
In other cases, children carrying the burden of change are from marginalized groups who are disproportionately impacted by a given issue. Malala Yousafzai grew up in Pakistan, where her father was a teacher who ran a school for girls. In 2008, the Taliban overtook the town she lived in and put many harsh restrictions in place, one of which was declaring that girls could no longer attend school. Yousafzai spoke out against this and in support of girls’ right to an education(which is recognized as a right in Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In 2012, at the age of 16, Malala was shot in the head by a masked gunman in response to her activism. She knew that speaking out was dangerous but took the risk, because she knew, firsthand, how girls are affected when refused their right to an education.
Children should not have to lead the fights for their own rights and well-being, especially when it involves risking their lives.
One way in which heavy involvement in efforts for change has been harmful for children is the way people who disagreeoften begin to treat them. While Ruby Bridges was not an activist at the time, she still faced serious backlash when she became the first African American to attend a school that had previously only enrolled white students. Throughout her first year at her new school, there were mobs of people in front of the building every day protesting her attendance. People were angrily pointing and shouting at her as she was escorted into school every day. In an interview for NPR, she shared that some people would bring a baby-sized coffin with a black doll inside, and she would have to walk by it every day. This frightened her so much it gave her nightmares. She was simply a little girl going to school, but it was as if people stopped seeing her that way.
With the rise of social media in recent years, children who are part of social change or activism are more aware of people’s responses to themthan ever before. Some adults, angered by the actions of these children for one reason or another, flock to websites like Twitter to air their grievances, seemingly without any consideration for how their words might impact the children involved. As her work has become more well-known,Greta Thunberghas faced much cruelty from adults.In August, Thunberg was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a high-tech racing yacht (to decrease her contributions to greenhouse emissions) to spread awareness of climate change. Arron Banks, multimillionaire and co-founder of Leave.EU, tweeted her picture with the caption, “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…”. Others have mocked her for having Asperger’s syndrome or for displaying its symptoms.
How do we deal with this issue? It is not so simple as to say that kids should be kept out of political conversations altogether. Many children live with certain aspects of their lives that require political conversations. If a child’s parents are a same-sex couple, the parents need to be able to talk to their child about the way some people treat the LGBTQ+ community. This conversation cannot be had without at least some political themes. People of color need to be able to talk to their children about certain topics which are considered political in order help keep them safe.
These conversations should not be limited to parents and children who are directly impacted by political issues. Children with privilege should not be kept ignorant of these serious issues, as gaining knowledge about marginalized groupscan help them develop empathy. Additionally, children who are impacted by political issues should not be alone whenhaving to face the difficulties of learning about these issues.
It is also important to recognize that exposure to conversations about political issues at an early age can lead to increased political engagement as an adult. Hearing their parents/guardians talk about different topics communicates to children (whether directly or indirectly) that these issues matter and have value. Political discourse that highlights the importance of such issues can, therefore, teach children to value political engagement.
One thing that we can do is spread awareness about how heavy participation in political activism can impact children, particularly their mental health. We can hold ourselves and our peers accountable for the things we say online(or in-person), hopefully decreasing the amount of mocking and bullying that children experience through the actions of adults. We can also respond to their cries for action by working toward progressive social change so thatthey do not have to do our job for us.
President Bolsonaro supports the deforestation of the Amazon because he sees it as place for development. Because of this, his administration has not framed the preservation of the rainforest as being particularly important, making groups who want to clear land for farming do exactly that. Boccanera believes that this, in combination with the expected fires of the dry season, has been the main cause.
There is also great reason to be concerned for the long-term well-being of the Amazon itself. As a tropical rainforest, it has high levels of humidity and is not fire-adapted, meaning its vegetation does not have the special traits that the plants of drier climates have developed in order to survive or even thrive when fire is present. According to Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, it takes around 20 to 40 years to regenerate after a fire (assuming it has the chance to regenerate before a new fire begins). However, any fires that do occur leave the surviving trees more vulnerable to drought and new fires than they were before. Multiple fires every few years mean more long-term, permanent damage, potentially shifting large parts of the Amazon to a “degraded shrubby state.”
As of August, 80% of the Amazon remained intact, but Malhi is concerned about how the combination of deforestation and climate change will impact the situation. Due to the reduced rainfall leading to a drier climate, fires would be more likely to spread. As Malhi points out: “If 30-40% of the Amazon was cleared, then there would be a danger of changing the forest’s entire climate,” which is hard to think about. He does, however, also say that we are at an early stage in the situation, and that there is still enough to work to save the rainforest.
Even if the Amazon produced a full 20% of oxygen, this is still a misleading claim, because the Amazon absorbs close to the same amount of oxygen as it produces, “effectively making the total produced net-zero.” The plants of the rainforest must reabsorb about half of the oxygen they produce to perform respiration and grow, and the soil, animals, and microbes also use some of it.
This is not to suggest that saving the Amazon rainforest is not an important issue (because it certainly is)–rather, it is to clear up some misinformation. People have been known to point to misinformation as an argument against the importance of an issue, so it is important to address it when it is being spread.
The Impact of Fires and Deforestation on Indigenous Peoples
According to Mozower, this is “the worst moment for the indigenous people of the Amazon” sincethe military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s. In just a single week in August, there were 68 fires found and registered in indigenous territories and conservation areas.
The indigenous people of the area are also being harmed by the fires’ impact on the rainforest’s biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest contains the most diverse range of living things in the world. For example, it is home to over 3,000 species of fish, and there are hundreds more that have not yet been discovered. The diversity of the forest is what allows the life there to thrive, with different species depending on one another, such as fish helping to spread the seeds of trees. The loss of some species leads to the loss of others, causing the rate of biodiversity loss to increase over time.
As the Amazon loses more and more biodiversity, the indigenous people who live there lose more of their resources.
This Is a Human Rights Issue
According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration for Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.”This is also affirmed by Article 7 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) states that “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.”
DRIP also addresses many aspects of the land and resources that indigenous peoples depend on (like in the Amazon rainforest). Article 8 states that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for actions that deprive them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of cultural values or ethnic identities and any action that tries or succeeds at taking away their land or resources.” Article 26 identifies indigenous peoples’ rights to the lands and resources they have traditionally possessed, to own, use, develop, and control these lands and resources, and to have “legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources” by the states they live in.Article 29 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.Articles 30 says that governments should consult the indigenous people who live in the area before using their territories.
The impacts of the fires and deforestation of the Amazon impede indigenous people’s access to these rights and must be dealt with.
What Can We Do?
When faced with the facts of the situation in Amazon, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future. Here are some things that you can personally do to help.
One option is to donate to organizations aimed at fighting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and supporting the people who are impacted by it. Survival International takes donations in order to fund their efforts to pressure the Brazilian government to keep loggers out of the rainforest in support of the Awá people. The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs aims specifically to help makes sure that the voices of indigenous people are heard.
Rainforest Safe Products
You can also try to only by products that are deemed “rainforest safe”. Products that are “Rainforest Alliance Certified™” come from “farms that passed audits and met standards for sustainability”. Some goods that might have the seal for this certification include coffee, bananas, and chocolate. Products that are made with wood can be “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)” certified, meaning the wood used did not come from illegal logging and deforestation.
Cutting down on the consumption of animal products is also a great way to live more sustainably, as 42% of the United States’ agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture and “livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions” worldwide.
It main seem difficult, but it is possible for to make a difference as ordinary people.
Far too often popular media, particularly horror movies, paint people with disabilities as monsters. Scary movies are notorious for taking completely real health conditions and distorting them into what appears inevitably dangerous. In some cases, they create villainous characters with physical appearances that are seen as abnormal based on real conditions that have physically visible symptoms, like acromegaly. In others, they create characters based on real mental health conditions, like dissociative identity disorder, and depict them as if they have the powers and the thirst for evil of a comic book super-villain. These dangerously inaccurate depictions of disabilities dehumanize entire groups of people in one fell swoop, often without any clear recognition from the creators of the damage they have done.
Acromegaly in Gerald’s Game
In Stephen King’s novel and film Gerald’s Game, Raymond Andrew Joubert is a graverobber, necrophiliac, and serial killer. He is also a character with acromegaly, a disorder that occurs when too much growth hormone is produced due to benign tumors (adenomas) on the pituitary gland. Acromegaly is associated with many serious health problems, such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and, if not treated, even death. The most visible and easily recognized symptoms of the condition are unusual growth of hands and feet, a protruding brow bone and lower jaw, an enlarged nose, and teeth that have spaced out. The condition does not make a person any more dangerous than any other. It seems that King only chose to create this character with this condition because of the physical appearance that is associated with it. This is a problem, because it perpetuates the common, preexisting belief that people who look different from what is deemed “normal” are dangerous and should be feared.
With the right lighting and camera angles, anyone could look terrifying. There is no reason to use people with real health conditions in a way that only makes life and society’s understanding of them more difficult.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is one of many mental health conditions that has experienced significant harm due to failed representation in the media. It is far too common to find that fictional media depictions of DID lack any presentation of the true facts of the disorder. The Entropy System is a DID system who posts educational videos about DID on YouTube. Their series on DID in the Media does a thorough job at analyzing the quality of different examples of representation of DID in films. They use four main criteria in assessing each work.
First, does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”? Many attempted depictions of DID fail to even name the disorder accurately and call it “Multiple Personality Disorder”, its name prior to 1994. These works also often suggest that all systems (the collective term for one’s alters/identities) with DID are working towards the same goal with their treatment: to integrate all the identities into one. Some systems are not interested in integrating. The Entropy System points out in many of their videos that an important part of treatment, regardless of the system’s level of interest in integration, is establishing strong communication between the different alters.
Second, does the work address the cause of DID? The disorder is a result of repetitive, severe trauma that occurs during childhood. According to the theory of Structural Dissociation, no person is born with a fully integrated personality. This means that, when we are children, we are made up of multiple individual personalities or “ego-states,” which integrate and become a single personality between the ages of six and nine. Each of these ego-states is responsible for performing a different role. DID occurs when trauma prevents these ego-states from integrating. The ego-states develop into individual identities known as alters.
Third, are the alters shown as part of a unit, or as extra bits for a central/main identity? It is important to recognize that no single alter is more real or significant that any of the others. They are all parts of the same whole.
Fourth, is the character relatable? Are all the alters well-rounded and realistic?
DID in the Media
One of the most common and most serious misconceptions that the horror genre frequently perpetuates about DID is the idea that there is such a thing as a “bad alter.” Within a DID system, each alter has a role that it performs to help protect the person with DID. One alter is responsible for day-to-day living, while another might be responsible for holding on to certain trauma memories that would make day to day living extremely difficult. One alter, called a persecutor, may mimic abusers or other people who have caused trauma to the system in an attempt to keep the system from re-experiencing the abuse. When horror movies depict a person with DID as being dangerous to others, they typically do so with a severe misrepresentation of what persecutor-alters are and what they do. The vast-majority of the time, if persecutors cause harm, it is towards the person with DID themselves and not other people. DissociaDID, another system that posts education videos about DID on YouTube, has a videothat is helpful in understanding alter roles, persecutors, and how they function within a DID system.
Films like Split and Glass are extremely harmful to the DID community, because they glamorize the idea of a “bad alter” and depict people with DID as being villains or monsters, which is far from the truth. These two movies involve a character with DID named Kevin Wendell Crumb, who has a bad alter named “The Beast” that has super-human abilities and wants to get rid of the “impure” people of the world. In Split, the other alters in the system kidnap girls and watch over them until The Beast comes out. To say that DID is depicted in an unrealistic way is quite an understatement.
For many people in the general population, their only exposure to disorders such as DID is through the media. When so much of the representation is riddled with harmful, fear-inducing inaccuracies, people who see that representation start to view people with those disorders in real life as being inherently dangerous or violent. This is whyquality and accurate representation is so important.
The Connection to Human Rights
As we continue to push for more representation in popular media for marginalized communities, we must also make sure that that representation is accurate and not harmful to those communities. When horror movies use people with disabilities in their attempts to scare their audience, they create/reinforce a belief that people with these disabilities in the real world are dangerous and scary. This is a human rights issue, because prejudice, discrimination, and violence are fueled by fear. Fear impacts who parents will let their children play with, and how children treat their classmates. This can interfere with one’s access to their right to an education, which is established in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Fear affects how we interact with people we pass by on the street and people’s willingness to help find ways to improve people’s life experiences. This can impede one’s access to their right to be an active part of their community (Article 27) and their right to seek employment and have favorable working conditions (Article 23).
Non-disabled people need to use the privilege they have to advocate for those without it, and a person is less likely to want to advocate for someone who they are afraid of. In order to have the basic human rights of all people fulfilled, we need to all be able to look at each other as members of humanity, and fear, especially unjustified fear, inhibits that.
I’m not going to lie or try to pretend that I have never let these kinds of portrayals of people with disabilities change the way I look at them. Thankfully, I know better now, but there are still moments where I catch myself briefly slipping back into old ways of thinking. It is important that we as consumers of media recognize the harm that these failed representations of an already marginalized group have caused and that we do our best to avoid supporting them monetarily. We need to increase awareness of this harm, in hopes that, one day, the horror genre will no longer be made up of so many destructive stereotypes.
Rather than the same stereotypically use of people with disabilities as the antagonists in film, why not increase their representations as protagonists? Imagine, a horror movie where the protagonist is a person with DID, whose alters all work together to survive while also dealing with the memory loss that often comes with the switching of identities. The film A Quiet Place is a brilliant example of positive and constructive disability representation. One of the main characters is a young deaf girl, and her disability ends up saving her family. In a world where making noise is a deadly act, their knowledge of sign language allowed them to communicate without risking their lives. This is in complete opposition of the stereotypical idea that people with disabilities are burdensome for their loved one. The makers of the film clearly did their research and were able to help spark important conversations about disability representation.
However, things are slowly but surely improving. The First Step Actthat was enacted in December of 2018 requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide pads and tampons at no cost to the prisoners. While this is a good step forward, it only applies to federal facilities and does not help in state or local ones. Further change continues to be imperative.
Examples of the Problem
Betty Ann Whaley, who was released from the Rose M. Singer Center onRikers Island in June of 2016, told the New York Times that pads were available “seven out of ten times,” and tampons were even less accessible. It is important to remember that even a nine out of ten times availability would be a serious problem, given the impact it can have on one’s health when menstruating without the means to deal with it.
Even when pads are available, they are often very thin, requiring them to be changed frequently. This leads menstruation to still be difficult to manage, as women in prison often only have access to a small number of pads each month. Chandra Bozelko, who spent some time at York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Connecticut, wrote about her experience with menstrual hygiene management for the Guardian in 2015. Each two-person cell was given five pads each week, giving each woman about ten pads per month. If a woman’s period lasts for five days, she would only have two pads for each of those days. This would not be enough, even if the pads were of high quality.
Topeka K. Samdeveloped blood clots while she was in prison, meaning she needed sanitary pads that were more absorbent than those available in the commissary. In order to get the menstrual hygiene materials that she needed, she was forced to prove that they were a necessity. She put one of her used pads into a bag and a male staff member determined that she truly needed different pads. Five months had passed by the time she had access to resource she needed.
In some cases, there are even monetary barriers that prevent women from being able to properly manage their menstrual hygiene. Prior to the establishment of the First Step Act, federal prison commissaries charged $5.55 for two tampons and $1.35 for two panty-liners. This is a far greater amount of money than either of these products are worth. For example, you can buy an 18-count box of tampons for $9.19 at Walmart.
Menstrual Hygiene Management in Prisons Is an International Concern
Menstrual hygiene materials are also often difficult to access outside of the United States. In the Bom Pastor women’s prison in Recife, Brazil, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found a few different factors that make proper menstrual hygiene and healthcare difficult. As of March of 2017, tampons had not been distributed to the women since 2015. Water was only available three times each day, which is a barrier to strong menstrual health. There is a risk of infection if there is a lack in adequate soap and water for keeping clean. The prison system of Brazil also only employed 37 gynecologists in 2017, which means there is less than one for every 900 women in the system. HRW also found that 630 women had been placed in a cell that was only built to hold 270. This absence in any privacy and presence of practically no space makes even the act of replacing sanitary products difficult.
According to one study, prisons in Zambia leave inmates responsible for many of their basic- necessities such as menstrual hygiene products and soap. One woman living in a Zambian prison stated, “If others don’t bring them for us, we have nothing. There are lots of people with no relatives here. They have nothing.” The water that is available is often unclean, so they have inadequate ability to keep clean as well. These prisons also have the same overcrowding problem as the Bom Pastor prison, being more than 300% over capacity.
Ignoring menstruation is not an option. Not only would that be extremely uncomfortable, but it is also a health and safety issue. Lacking access to necessary menstrual hygiene management materials can have an impact on both the mental and physical health of women living in prisons. In terms of physical health, women who are trying to deal with menstruation while incarcerated might develop health problems such as bacterial infections from trying to use other materials in place of regular menstrual hygiene products.
In terms of mental health, being denied the things one needs to deal with menstruation is a dehumanizing experience. At this point in time, talking about menstrual hygiene feels awkward and uncomfortable for many people. This fact does not change among incarcerated populations. When you add experiences like that of Topeka K. Sam, having to prove that she needed the resources she was asking for, the situation becomes even more difficult.
Why Does It Matter?
Truly accessible menstrual hygiene management resources are undoubtedly a human rights issue. According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR), all people have the right to a standard of living that sufficiently supports their well-being and health. The harm that can be done to one’s physical and mental health when they lack the menstrual hygiene products they need gets in the way of this right.
How do we improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons?
The people who are most aware and likely care the most about this issue are people who have been disenfranchised, as only two states allow people convicted of felonies to keep their voting rights, and only 15 states automatically restore their voting rights after they have served their sentence. Additionally, many people would not have the resources they would need to advocate for change, no matter how strong their drive or greatness of their ideas. It would be helpful in trying to solve the problem if we could figure out a way to empower people who have direct experiences with it.
Prisons could potentially switch from providing disposable menstrual hygiene products to reusable ones, like ThinxorLunapads. While the initial change would be relativelyexpensive, it would save them more money in the long run, as they would not have to constantly buy more sanitary pads and tampons. This option could significantly improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons, and, as a bonus, it would also be much better for the environment.
Improving this issue is an important step in ensuring that people who have been incarcerated are still treated with dignity and respect as human beings. People are people, no matter what they have done in the past. There is no reason to treat anyone as less than human or prevent them from having access to their fundamental human rights.
If you have an interest in learning more about the need for improved access to hygiene management, check out this post on MHM!
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