The Right to Mental Health and the Importance of Self-Care

An image of a brain embroidered on a piece of fabric in an embroidery hoop.
Brain Anatomy Hoop Art. Hand Embroidered in Pink and Blue. Source: Hey Paul Studios, Creative Commons

While it seems that most people today would agree that taking care of one’s mental health is important, it may come as a surprise that mental health is actually a human right.  According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family…”  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that “that the right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights and or our understanding of a life in dignity.”  

Mental Health as a Human Right 

The United Nations Human Rights Council recognizes three principles regarding the right to health: 

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 

In addition to being a right on its own, maintaining good mental health is also a key part of being able to meaningfully access many other human rights.  For example, even when given all the necessary tools that are directly related to education, struggling with mental health issues can impede a person’s ability to receive a truly meaningful education.  This is reflected by the long-term effects of depression.  In one study, scientists found that individuals who faced depression during mid-adolescence and continue to deal with it as young adults are at an increased risk of educational underachievement and unemployment.  One’s mental health can also impact their access to other rights such as the right to participate in the cultural life of their community, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to work. 

Scrabble pieces spell out the words "mental health."
Mental Health. Source: Kevin Simmons, Creative Commons

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. 

The Basics of Self-Care 

Self-care can be defined as “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”  

Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist, suggests that there are three golden rules to starting self-care: 

  1. “Stick to the basics.”  This makes it easier to include self-care into your schedule, make it a part of your regular routine, and figure out what works best for you.
  2. “Self-care needs to be something you actively plan, rather than something that just happens.”
  3. “Keeping a conscious mind is what counts…if you don’t see something as self-care or don’t do something in order to take care of yourself, it won’t work as such.”  

Michael also gives a basic checklist of self-care tasks that can apply to pretty much anyone.  This list includes things such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, following up with medical care, and looking for opportunities to laugh every day. 

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. 

 

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

Known as black gold, petroleum has long been, a valuable resource that many of us benefit from during our daily lives. The petroleum industry’s products range from transportation to even the feedstocks that make the “plastics and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Shockingly, the United States has consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, with about 46% of it used as motor gasoline. However, “there is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations,” ranging from relocation to even suppression of critics.

What is Petroleum?

An image of a pipe pouring some type of green substance, oil in particular, into a barrel.
Recirculated petroleum is pumped from the well by a replica steam engine. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Known officially as crude oil, petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be found underneath the Earth’s surface in areas known as reservoirs. Petroleum is mainly used for gasoline that fuels most cars in the world. Petroleum is also used as diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, and others.

However, petroleum is not just a fuel source. Many factories and production sites use petroleum in order to make “crayons, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, tires, and ammonia.”

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

An image of an oil well, colored black, in the process of digging for oil. Located in Lufkin, Texas.
Pumpjack, Spindletop oil field. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Through the growing and prosperous iron and steel industry, the 20th century became a period of “great change and rapid industrialization.” However, the birth of the railroad and new construction materials gave way to the petroleum industry offering an alternative source of fuel needed in everyday life.

In Texas, the discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for the creation of hundreds of oil companies, especially Texaco and Golf, and for the massive decrease in oil prices, from “$2 a barrel to 3 cents.” In 1901, the Hamill brothers, contracted to drill into the ground using a steam engine, came into contact with 160-million-year-old crude oil, shooting up in a geyser meters high. They had anticipated 50 barrels of oil being produced in a day, but more than 80,000 barrels were being produced each day, enriching the backers of the oil rig exponentially.

When talking about the history of oil, one must never forget one of the key figures in the industry, John D. Rockefeller. Through his experience in entrepreneurship and organization, he became a leading figure in the oil industry by creating the Standard Oil company, one of the “world’s greatest corporations.” Through a monopoly, his company integrated itself both horizontally and vertically by eliminating competition and making products cheaper and production more efficient.

The discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for competition against Standard Oil, through the rise of the Texas Company and the American Gasoline Company (Shell Company of California during the mid-1910s). However, because of Standard Oil’s attempts to “monopolize and restrain trade,” the Supreme Court decided to split up the company into 34 smaller companies.

Oil in the World

Reserves can be found all over the world, but there are countries that produce more oil simply due to the vast reserves found underneath the Earth’s surface. In the United States, the five largest oil producing states are Texas, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In the world, the top oil producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, and China. The need for oil in the United States surpasses the amount it can produce, generating the need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Looking closely at the top producers of oil in the world, you may notice that two countries in the top five are countries in the Middle East, each with their own host of problems regarding human rights. They range from Saudi Arabia’s supposed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the killing of more than 6,500 Yemeni civilians as a result of numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and the presence of Iran’s death penalty for most extreme offenses. Allegations of human rights abuses also extend to China as well, where Xi Jingping has removed term limits for the president and enabled the mistreatment of Muslims living in northwestern China. Many consider these human rights issues are due to something called the “Resource Curse,” where the abundance of natural resources in developing countries, like oil, usually lead to “economic instability, social conflict, and lasting environmental damage.”

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

If you read the news as much as I had a couple of years back, then you might recall a certain conflict occurring in North Dakota regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is designed to transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil everyday from North Dakota to Illinois. Proposed by Energy Transfer Partners in 2014 and completed in 2017, many interest groups protested the pipeline, ranging from environmental activists to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

An image of protesters holding up a banner with the words "STOP DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE" across it.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters against Donald Trump

The pipeline currently travels under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as a source of biodiversity in the environment. Part of the reason for the protests include the damage to the water supply that said pipeline could inflict if leaking occurs which is justifiable due to the more than 3,300 occurrences of leaks since 2010 at many pipelines in the United States.

An image of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tribal location highlighted as well, showing where the pipeline would threaten those tribal areas.
Le Dakota Access Pipeline avec la réserve indienne de Standing Rock en orange. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Reactions towards the protestors have also been extreme, as Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, has reported. The North Dakota National Guard, law enforcement officials, and private security organizations have used extreme force, shown through the use of “rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds.” These reactions have been in violation of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. Although some protests have become violent, Kiai suggests that “the response should remain strictly proportionate and should not impact those who protest peacefully.”

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.” — Maina Kiai

By also having part of their cultural homeland destroyed during the construction process, the company contracted for this project is violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where Article 8 of the Declaration clearly states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” However, it is clear to note that U.S. support does not consider the Declaration as a “legally binding or a statement of current international law,” but instead a political or moral force.

Economic trends and forces have commanded the way in which our country has treated those who have been disenfranchised and harmed culturally. The creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline is merely an example of the effect that these economic interests can have on native populations, the environment, and the treatment of those peacefully protesting. Although the pipeline’s main intent is to provide a source of energy for the United States, the threat to harm a cultural tribal site can lead to the destruction of homes for many residents.

Art for Human Rights: The For Freedoms Congress

FFCon Header. Source: For Freedoms

As the crowd chanted the words “Reactionary? No, visionary” in synchronization, we could envision the power of community and our passion to create change. Our minds were synced in for a collective purpose and hearts full of warmth and unity. This was at the first For Freedoms Congress in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of March earlier this year. I had the incredible opportunity to attend and bring back home a plethora of inspiration, information, and ideas on using art as a tool for activism.

What is For Freedoms?

For Freedoms is an artist-run platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for artists in the U.S. inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century. Their belief is to use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues through non-partisan programming throughout the country. Hank Willis Thomas, the cofounder of For Freedoms says that “The people who make up our country’s creative fabric have the collective influence to affect change. Right now, we have a lot of non-creative people shaping public policy, and a lot of creative individuals who haven’t or don’t know how to step up. For Freedoms exists as an access point to magnify, strengthen, and perpetuate the civic influence of creatives and institutions nationwide.”

About the Congress

The For Freedoms Congress gathered delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to come together to share their mutual passion of using art as a tool for advocacy and activism. We were honored and proud to represent the Institute for Human Rights, UAB, and the state of Alabama at this nationwide platform. The Congress spanned over three days in the historic city of Los Angeles to celebrate its role as the birthplace and driver of many important artistic-led cultural movements over the decades. The use of remarkable locations such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japanese American National Museum, and the Hammer Museum added to the artistic aura of the conference and gave us an opportunity to explore these exciting places.

Over the course of the conference, we got to attend a number of artist-led planning sessions, creative workshops, art activations, and performances on topics ranging from refugee rights to gun violence, indigenous rights to gender equality, and the criminal injustice system to public art policies. In addition, featured townhalls were held on each of the four freedoms that sparked constructive dialogue between the participants.

The 50 State Photo. Source: Ural Garrett, FFCon

Culture, Art, and Advocacy

The foundation of all the discussions and sessions at the Congress lies on one fact: culture is a human right. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” To make this right a reality, activists, advocates, and cultural institutions from around the country came together to share their ideas, foster collaboration, and to create a platform for civic engagement. They committed to keep playing their part in their respective communities to help make this right a reality for all through public action and commitment to the American values of equality, individualism, and pragmatism.

We need to make sure that cultural and social groups are able to express themselves and exercise their right to art in addition to other human rights. The right to art suggests that it should be accessible to everyone and is synonymous with free speech and self-expression. It goes back to having the freedom to speak up for one’s own self, to have representation, and to practice religion and cultural ways free from any fear or want.

Art is a powerful tool to bring communities together and it speaks to people, which is why it can be used in all kinds of fields to foster equity, inclusion, and justice in society. For example, an important aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of art education and its access in our education system. Art education fosters social development, provides a creative outlet, enhances academic performance and intellectual development, and promotes out-of-the-box thinking for students. Brett Cook, an interdisciplinary artist and educator, led a dialogue on community and collaboration to explain how arts-integrated pedagogy can cause healing and tell stories that reinvent representation. He used The Flower of Praxis as the basic model to foster socially engaged art practices with a focus on art education for collaborative outcomes. It starts with preparing the soil by reflecting on personal experiences and moves through the leaves of connecting with others, seeking new understandings, generating critical questions, and critical analysis to grow into the flower of informed action. The process keeps going by reflection influencing action and eventually generates activism and civic engagement.

The Flower of Praxis. Source: Rosa Gonzales, Creative Commons

Making the voices of people more audible by telling their stories through art and narrative can help create a new moral imagination on pressing issues and social injustices. Art can be used to express what human rights mean to a certain group of people. It gives people the right to their own ways and to tell their own stories. The session “Art Stories on Migration” made me realize the potential of art as a tool for advocacy and how it can be used to create a sense of belonging among disoriented populations. It can redefine identity and help answer pressing questions like who belongs to the economy? Who belongs to the healthcare system? Who belongs to the American identity? It can help communities take ownership and build representation in creative ways. The language of visuals activates the aesthetic perceptions of individuals and facilitates a deeper understanding of issues beyond the surface level. Making the stories of refugees and migrants visible through artistic media gives voice to their struggles and highlights their contributions. Responding to the question of suggesting creative activities or solutions in response to the issues of migration, one participant shared their video project in which immigrants re-read the Declaration of Independence to reflect on what those words mean to them, not just historically but also contemporarily. Another delegate suggested using inclusive language and terminology in museums and other public spaces, such as newcomers or people who migrated instead of refugees or immigrants, enslaved people rather than slaves, and First Americans instead of Native Americans. There are also various avenues for advocacy for non-profit organizations and public charities to lobby, advocate, and encourage participation in politics, elections, and other social movements.

One of my favorite sessions at the Congress was the “This is Not a Gun” workshop. It was based on using collective creative activism to highlight the stories of injustices inflicted on the American people at the hands of law and order. Since the year 2000, United States police have “mistaken” at least 38 distinct objects as guns during shootings of a majority of young black American men, none of whom were armed. The participants shaped these mistaken-as-gun objects in clay, giving presence to their form, the human rights violations, and racism prevalent in America today. While carving out these everyday objects like a flashlight, hairbrush, and sandwich, we paid tribute to the victims and had a meaningful conversation around accountability, equity, safety, and social justice in our country. It made us reflect on the racial profiling, police brutality, societal trauma, and the role we can play in addressing these issues by coming together to support our people and our communities.

Me shaping a flashlight out of clay at the workshop. Source: thisisnotagun.com, Creative Commons

The takeaway message from the Congress was that art has the potential to make a difference in the social discourse and to create change through public engagement. The For Freedoms Congress built a collective platform for artists around the nation to stimulate public action on pressing national issues. In the words of For Freedoms delegates,

We are a collective of artists, creatives, and cultural institutions. We believe citizenship is defined by participation, not ideology. We are anti-partisan. We use the power of the arts to drive civic engagement, spur public discourse, and inspire people to participate in our democracy.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Counter-Narrative

This past winter break, I visited Saudi Arabia with my family. While there, I noticed that many women were active in the work force, working as police officers, salespeople, and even airport security. Under the preconceived notion that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to see this. Slowly, I began to realize that the Western perspective about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was not entirely correct. So, after I came back from my trip, I decided to look into different sources to try to get an accurate portrayal of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

An image of a news broadcast with Bayan Alzahran, the first female lawyer to have her own law firm in Saudi Arabia
Bayan Alzahran, who is the first female lawyer to open her own law firm in Saudi Arabia. Source: Al Arabiya, Creative Commons.

Women’s Rights Narrative

After conducting extensive research, I realized that while there is no denying that Saudi Arabia still has many improvements to make in terms of gender equality, there are several women’s rights that have been historically implemented or are currently being established. Almost always, women in Saudi Arabia are portrayed as oppressed, and again, while there is an undeniable lack of many rights for women, it is not a fair assessment to only discuss what rights are not realized; it is important to recognize the rights that they have as well. While I cannot say for certain why this particular narrative is often propagated, it can be argued that the mainstream media is committed to portraying Islam in a negative light, and because Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, it follows that it will be portrayed negatively. As the media does this, people begin to argue that Islam is in and of itself misogynistic and is thus incompatible with progress and civilization. While I will not be going in too much depth about the rights Islam gives women, I will note that it is important to remember that culture and religion are not interchangeable terms and should not be treated as such; Saudi Arabia may govern using Sharia Law, but many of their restrictive practices are rooted in culture, not Islam. Thus, the purpose of this post is to provide a counter-narrative to show that what the media portrays pertaining to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not an entirely accurate depiction.

Employment Rights

While there is a dearth of women in the employment sector, seen through the fact that only 22 percent of Saudi womenparticipate in the workforce, there are no legal restrictions on which jobs women are allowed to work in, with garbage collecting and construction being the only exceptions to this. Sharia Law encourages women to work, so the lack of women in the work force is not due to restrictive religious practices, but rather to restrictive cultural practices. Further, Sharia Law allows women to earn and manage their own finances, making employment especially appealing to women who want to be financially independent. While the number of working women is low, Saudi Arabia is currently attempting to further integrate women into the workforce, with a goal of a 30 percent participation rate by 2030. While this is mostly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia wants to replace non-Saudi workers with Saudi Arabian citizens, it is still commendable that women are a part of this plan.

Education Rights

Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on women’s education. Saudi women have had access to education for several decades; women have been attending universities since the 1970s. Recent advances made highlight the country’s commitment to providing opportunities for women in education, namely the 2005 study abroad program, which sends thousands of Saudi women to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, to obtain an education. Another very impressive advancement is Saudi Arabia’s first all-women’s college, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 2010. The purpose of the school is to give women better access to fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as medicine and pharmacology. Due to these improvements and the general importance placed on women’s education, women currently represent 52 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia.

An image showing a Saudi Arabian woman holding up her driving license.
A Saudi Arabian woman holds up her driver’s license. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Recent Progress

Recently, steps have been taken to reverse restrictive practices, such as lifting the ban on women driving and reducing male guardianship. The former, implemented in 2018, saw the legalization of women driving. Thus far, tens of thousands of women have received their driver’s licenses, highlighting the success of this change. The latter, implemented a few months ago, saw changes made to restrictive guardianship laws. Historically, these laws heavily restricted women’s rights, specifically the right to freedom of movement; women were not allowed to obtain a passport or travel abroad without a male family member’s consent. While I could explain how changes to these guardianship laws will have a positive impact on women’s lives, I think it is best to share the perspectives of a Saudi Arabian woman on this issue. In an article for BBC News, Lulwa Shalhoob, a Saudi journalist, wrote that “the new rule means the relationship between a husband and his wife becomes a partnership between two responsible adults, rather than guardianship of a minor.” She also notes that an increasing number of Saudi women “no longer want to be framed as women of special circumstances who lack rights that women around the world take for granted.” For Saudi Arabian women, then, this move not only grants certain rights they were long deprived of, but it also fosters an unprecedented sense of agency and personhood.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has invested in specific spheres of women’s rights, such as employment and education, and in recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made progress by rescinding many restrictive practices and laws. When Saudi Arabia is included in the discourse pertaining to the rights of women, none of this is mentioned; only the shortcomings are. While I am the first to admit that Saudi Arabia still has much work to do in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general, it is important to acknowledge what they have done right.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

PRISONERS NEED ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE TOO!

Image of US flag behind barbed wire
Incarcerated America. Source: Pixabay

With the release of the film Just Mercy, which recounts Bryan Stevenson’s experience challenging death row convictions in Alabama and creating the Equal Justice Initiative, the criminal justice system is once again in the news and the topic of the death penalty is being debated. First off, everyone should see the film. Until we do away with the death penalty it is necessary that we confront the realities of it in as many ways as possible. The work that Stevenson is doing is beyond admirable, and unfortunately is still needed, yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit pessimistic about this debate. Partly because it seems so obvious to me that the death penalty should not exist, partly because I have little faith in the current federal administration or the state government to address this, and partly because we have been having this debate about the death penalty my entire life. So I fought that initial feeling and began to think about how I could incorporate criminal justice into my own work on environmental justice and human rights.

Prisoners = Environmental Justice Communities

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies”. In other words, no community should disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental ills, such as pollution, yet in reality, minority and low-income neighborhoods are the ones to bear the brunt. Just as race-based and class-based disparities exist in the experience of environmental ills, they also exist in the criminal justice system and are both the result of broader injustices, such as colonization and white supremacy. African Americans make up 40% of the prison population while representing only 13% of the American population, and Latinos make up 20% of prisons, but only 15% of the population. Low-income populations also have higher rates of incarceration then more others.

Although they are not often included in conversations about environmental justice, the US prison population mirrors other environmental justice communities in many ways especially in regards to discrimination, lack of political representation, lack of access to social services and economic marginalization. Minority and low-income individuals are disproportionately represented in prisons and therefore are disproportionately affected by inadequate prison conditions. Inmates in the US are further at risk due to their reliance on the state for protection and provision of basic needs, all while dealing with the chronic stress of prison life and lack of adequate health resources. Yet, despite this, the US continues to fail to recognize prison populations as environmental justice communities.

Unjust Prison Conditions

There are currently about 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the US, including those who are awaiting trial, and all of those lives are affected by the inadequate prison conditions plaguing the US.

Pie Chart of US Incarceration
How Many People Are Locked Up in the United States?.
Source: Peter Wagner & Wendy Sawyer (2018) Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org

Prison conditions throughout the country have been so inadequate that courts have ruled that they violate the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Many of these conditions are the result of environmental ills such as excessive heat or cold, exposure to asbestos, lack of drinkable water and exposure to toxic elements. Yet, while some cases have been won no national changes have been made and environmental injustice continues.

  • Graph of Medical Conditions in Texas State Prisons
    Some Medical Conditions Make People Especially Vulnerable to High Temperatures.
    Source: Alexi Jones (2019) Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison, www.prisonpolicy.org
    • In February, inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY were stuck in freezing cells for a week as the temperature dropped to below freezing and heating became almost nonexistent.
    • Prisons also fail to adequately prepare for extreme weather events. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 over 8,000 inmates were incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison. Despite the mandatory evacuation, prisoners were forced to remain for several days in flooded cells, with a limited supply of food and drinking water and lack of basic sanitation. Similarly, prisoners were not evacuated from flood zones in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.
    • Both prisons and toxic sites are considered undesirable land use and therefore they are often placed in the same area with little to no regard for the health of inmates. 589 of 1,821 federal and state prisons exist within three miles of a Superfund site, with 134 being within one mile. These sites commonly contain toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and can cause extensive damage to human health.

Unjust Working Conditions

Prisoners are also vulnerable to numerous environmental ills in their work environments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime” and under this ruling prisoners can be forced to work for no pay. Courts have also ruled that inmates do not have the right to refuse work and can be placed in disciplinary confinement for refusal. While only some states have refused any payment, most inmates make less than a dollar an hour. In addition, inmates are not protected by workplace health and safety regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because they are not considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In other words, there is no outside agency to hold prisons accountable for occupational safety, unless it is so extreme that is constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Many work assignments deal with extremely toxic materials, such as e-waste and asbestos abatement, or inherently hazardous practices, such as firefighting, with little regard being given to inmate health.

Prison firefighters have received some attention of late due to the recent wildfires in California, with much of it focusing on the fact that they are poorly paid for such work and often cannot become firefighters after they are released. Another important aspect to examine is the physical toll firefighting takes. Inmates are eight times more likely to be injured while fighting fires than civilian firefighters, and the American Lung Association has warned of the negative health effects from continued exposure to particle pollution and carbon monoxide within forest fire smoke, among other hazardous air pollutants.

Responsibility of the State

Prisoners represent an incredibly vulnerable population, as they are completely reliant on the state, and therefore the state has a responsibility to protect prisoners from serious harm. The American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Declaration of Principles even recognizes the principle of ‘‘humanity’’ as being essential and states that ‘‘the dignity of individuals, the rights of all people and the potential for human growth and development must be respected’’. This is because people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The punishment for the crime is the length of incarceration.

Unsurprisingly, the stated principles of the ACA do not always manifest in reality. One such example took place in Louisiana. In 2016 the state made headlines when it was revealed that it spent more than $1 million of public funds on legal fees in an effort to defend its refusal to install air conditioning on death row at Angola prison. The cost to install the air conditioning and operate it would have been $225,000. The state has a responsibility to protect those in its care and it is failing to do so.

Why Bother?

Many may question why we should care about prisoners when many other communities are dealing with similar environmental injustices. Others may say that they should have thought about these things before they did the crimes and that prison is not supposed to be “easy”.

My response would be to watch Just Mercy and critically examine the “justness” of the criminal justice system. To borrow a quote from Professor Nick Hardwick, “If you’re going to defend the ordinary, everyday rights that all of us depend on as we go about our lives and live in peace and security, then actually you can’t risk sacrificing the principles on which those rights are based, even for people whose behaviour you disapprove of. Once you start saying that those rights are conditional for them, they are conditional for you too”.

Disclaimer: This article is not an endorsement of the concept that incarceration is a necessary evil nor is it a dismissal of the fact that an end to mass incarceration is the most effective way to address the injustices examined in this article.

The State of Incarceration in Alabama

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Organized Radical Collegiate Activism (ORCA) Conference organized by the UAB Social Justice Advocacy Council on January 24, 2020. Various important and interesting social justice issues were discussed and presented by talented UAB students throughout the day. The presentation that stood out the most to me was “The State of Incarceration in Alabama” by Eli and Bella Tylicki. The brother-and-sister duo did a great job bringing attention to a very important human rights issue right here in Alabama.

Eli Tylicki and Bella Tylicki Source: ORCA 2020

The presentation started out with some questions for the attendees, such as what they thought were their odds of getting incarcerated at some point in their life? After some interesting responses from the audience, the presenters revealed that White men have a 7% chance of getting incarcerated at least once in their life, Hispanic men 17%, and African American men have the highest (32%) chance. However, women account for only 7% of the U.S. prison population. It was also revealed that the cost to imprison one person for a year in the U.S. is $36,299.25, or $99.45 per day.

As compared to other developed countries such as Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people per 100,000 population, almost three times more than these countries. The United States makes up roughly 5% of the world’s population but holds about 25% of the world’s prisoners. Shockingly, 31 U.S. states also have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world, and Alabama is among the worst in the country. Alabama exceeds national averages in virtually every category measured by states and the federal government, making the state’s prison system one of the most violent in the nation.

Source: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html

Now the question arises, why is the state of incarceration in the U.S. uniquely outrageous, and why is Alabama among the worst in this aspect? Many factors are responsible for such staggering statistics, including our economy built on slavery, poverty, tradition-based culture, fear and insecurity, systemic racism, educational inequity, and punitive cultural attitudes just to name a few. Focusing on Alabama, the presenters showed that Alabama’s prisons were revealed to be the most crowded in the country in 2017, with the prison suicide rate being three times more and the homicide rate ten times more than the national average. On April 2, 2019, the U.S Department of Justice Report concluded that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” Note that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the infliction of excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment.

The presenters then went on to show the various horrific accounts of prisoner violence, sexual abuse, homicide cases, and extreme physical injuries during a single week in 2017 as reported by the investigation. It was extremely shocking to learn about the various instances of such abuse and violence that took place in just a single week in our prisons. Those examples were used to illustrate the gravity of ongoing issues in state prisons and are not mentioned here due to their disturbing and triggering nature. Additionally, overcrowding and understaffing are some very important issues that contribute to the worsening situation of prisons in Alabama. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the state houses approximately 16,327 prisoners in major correctional facilities which are designed to hold only 9,882. Moreover, prisons like Staton and Kilby hold almost three times the number of prisoners than their capacity. As for understaffing, Alabama’s prisons employ only 1,072 out of the 3,326 needed correctional officers according to ADOC’s staffing report from June 2018. It also reported that three prisons have fewer than 20% of the needed correctional officers. This illustrates the increased threat to the safety of both the staff and the prisoners in those facilities due to the lack of required personnel in case of an emergency.

Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Common

The Department of Justice also reported the excessive number of deaths due to violent and deadly assault, high number of life-threatening injuries, unchecked extortions, illegal drugs, and the routinely inability to adequately protect prisoners even when officials have advance warning. The report also threatened a lawsuit within 49 days if the state does not show that it is correcting what is said to be a systemic failure to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse.

In response, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership to lease three “megaprisons” from a private firm as a solution to the understaffing and cost-ineffective conditions in state prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that “we are convinced now more than ever before that consolidating our infrastructure down to three regional facilities and decommissioning the majority of our major facilities is the way to go.”

Bella and Eli Tylicki gave an overview of the potential pros and cons of the megaprison proposal. Some advantages may be that the upfront costs will be covered, and it may prove as a quick fix with less red tape (a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action). However, privatized prisons may lead to a decreased quality of life, is economically inefficient, and there is no change in cost for taxpayers. The Equal Justice Initiative explains how building new prisons will not solve the state’s prison crisis:

Alabama’s primary problems relate to management, staffing, poor classification, inadequate programming for incarcerated people, inadequate treatment programs, poor training, and officer retention. None of these problems will be solved by building new prisons, nor does a prison construction strategy respond to the imminent risk of harm to staff, incarcerated people, and the public.

Therefore, the presenters proposed an alternative to this solution in the form of decarceration and rehabilitation of prisoners. This aims at fixing overcrowding and understaffing, decreases the inside violence, and costs less for taxpayers. Additionally, there is no change in crime rate outside the prisons and rehabilitation leads toward GDP growth and a more productive society. Studies have shown that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to recidivate and have a higher chance of finding employment when they are released. Plus, these valuable educational and rehabilitative programs cost the state nothing while having significant positive effects on successful re-entry of prisoners and protecting public safety. Of course, there will need to be more done other than just an emphasis on decarceration, such as fixing the infrastructure, improving healthcare, and incentivizing an increase in Correctional Officers. Low-cost reforms such as effective use of video surveillance cameras, implementation of an internal classification system, skilled management, and other basic management systems such as incident tracking systems, quality control, and corrective action review can result in significant improvements in conditions for both the staff and the prisoners. These low-cost reforms helped the nation’s worst women prison, the Tutwiler Prison for Women, become a model for reform.

The Tylickis ended their presentation with a call for action by urging the audience members to call their state representatives and senators to take responsible action, as they will be voting on this issue in the coming weeks. Additionally, they asked us to volunteer with reentry organizations and educate ourselves and others on the issue. Some initiatives that we can support include The Dannon Project, Alabama Appleseed, and the Equal Justice Initiative. We, as responsible and active citizens of this state, need to play our part in making our society safe, just, and productive for all.

Misleading Media: Disabilities in Film and Television

 

Rows of seats in a movie theater.
Movie Theater Seats. Source: I G, Creative Commons

While one in four people in the United States live with a disability, it is unlikely that a person would give that estimate based on representation in popular media.   

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.   

Character 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.  

There are three main archetypes used in the creation of characters with disabilities: the helpless victim, the evil villain, and the inspirational hero. 

The Helpless Victim 

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.   

Shyamalan himself stated, “I wanted to take something scientific and psychologically proven and keep going with it.  The first two, three steps have been proven, then the next one was not proven, but it’s a question. Do you believe it, what I’m suggesting?  It is important to remember that real people have disorders like DID, not just fictional characters.  When you willingly spread misleading ideas about them, you are potentially causing serious harm to their present and future wellbeing which you can read more about in this blog. 

A parking spot reserved for people with disabilities.
Parking bay. Source: David Morris, Creative Commons

The Inspirational Hero 

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. 

Paul Hunt’s List of Stereotypes 

A 1991 study by disabled writer and activist Paul Hunt established a list of ten common stereotypes of people with disabilities.  This list includes depicting people with disabilities as: “pitiable/pathetic”, an “object of curiosity or violence”, sinister or evil, the “super cripple” (as if having a disability anoints them some sort of superpower), a way to establish atmosphere, laughable, their own worst enemy, a burden, “non-sexual”, or being unable to participate in daily life.    

The Connection to Human Rights 

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).  The way 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.  

How Do We Identify Good Representation? 

One aspect of good disability representation is that a character’s purpose is not solely based on their disability.  If the character were replaced with a non-disabled character, without changing any other aspects of the story, would they have “a story, goals, relationships, and interests”?  In a good piece of representation, the answer would be “yes”.  While a disability might be a significant part of a person, it is not the only characteristic that shapes their experiences.   

The Entropy System, a system with DID who makes educational YouTube videos about DID, has come up with a list of four criteria to identify good representations of DID in media, three of which could be applied to other disabilities as well: 

  1. Does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”? 
  2. Does it address the cause of the disability? 
  3. 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. 

Cupcake and the State of Missing Children in the U.S.

Kamille Cupcake McKinney. Source: AMBER ALERT, Creative Commons.

It breaks my heart to write about the tragedy of the three-year-old little girl Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, fondly known as Cupcake, who was abducted from a birthday party about two weeks ago here in Birmingham, Alabama. AMBER alerts were issued across Alabama and extended into neighboring states in an effort to locate her. The Birmingham police department had been updating the public on the efforts, but unfortunately a day after Mayor Randall Woodfin pleaded with the public to help find her, the remains of the little angel were found in a dumpster at a landfill in Birmingham. This is indeed a sad moment for not only the family of Cupcake and the city of Birmingham, but also for humanity as a whole. We as a society have failed the little angel, and she is indeed in a better place than this cruel world. My heart goes out to her family as this is an irreparable loss for them that cannot be made up with any amount of sympathy. We hope they are able to find solace and healing with time.

Mayor Woodfin held a vigil for “Cupcake” outside of Birmingham City Hall, where hundreds of people gathered to honor her. They expressed sorrow and solidarity for the innocent soul “whose disappearance gripped the Birmingham area for 10 days and whose death shook the city to its core.” Birmingham police department, City Council, community activists, faith-based leaders and the general public stood with heavy hearts and teary eyes to pay tribute to baby Kamille. This was one of the many vigils held in the city after the devastating news of her death, including the spot where she was last seen in Tom Brown village. Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith expressed his grief over the incident and how his department endlessly worked in hopes of bringing the child safely back home. He had some powerful words to say:

“I believe Kamille changed this city. A 3-year-old little girl has changed the landscape of the city of Birmingham. She made us stop and check ourselves. Check ourselves to see if we’re doing everything we can to keep our children safe from harm. Check ourselves to see if we’re truly the village that we promise to be. Check ourselves to see if we’re living up to the expectations of tomorrow and watching over our children today.”

This incident has called for a reflection of ourselves and of our community. It has made us question the safety of our own children because little Cupcake was one of us. We need to evaluate if we really are the village that we strive to be or are we too segmented and disconnected as a community and a society? It makes us question how safe our neighborhoods and cities are? Do we assume that someone will always be there to step in and stop it? Are there any truly safe spaces? The answers are to be found.

To this date, two persons of interest have been charged with kidnapping and murder in relation to Kamille’s disappearance. A similar case surfaced in South Carolina when the body of a 5-year-old girl Nevaeh Adams, who was missing since August, was also found dumped in a landfill within 24 hours of this tragedy.

Missing children is a bigger crisis in the U.S. than most people think, and unfortunately Cupcake was one of many. A child goes missing every 40 seconds here in the United States. Last year alone, more than 400,000 reports of missing children were made to law enforcement in the US, out of which almost 15,000 were kidnapped. The most commonly abducted group was of female children aged 12-17.

It is notable to consider the amount of coverage Cupcake was able to get and the reward amounts offered for her retrieval. Unfortunately, this kind of effort is not always the case for missing children, especially for those of color. A study by Ohio State University found that missing African American children are in fact underrepresented in news media making it difficult to spread the word about them and to retrieve them. This itself is a violation of the Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. The Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit striving to bring awareness to the missing persons of color, issued a report suggesting that one reason for the under-representation of missing minority people is the widespread belief that such people live in impoverished conditions with crime being a regular part of their lives. This mindset contributes to the factor of racial consideration in the coverage and efforts of finding missing persons.

Cases of people who go missing generally involve multiple abuses of human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures the rights to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3) and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5). In a lot of cases, the right to life is also violated as in that of Cupcake and Nevaeh Adams. Additionally, the families of victims may face violation of human rights as well, such as the right to a family life. In case of the absence of official investigations, the families and survivors of the victims face the violation of their right to due process, to recognition of a person before the law, and even to the prohibition of torture. It is important to consider it as a human rights issue and the various ways in which the fundamental rights of the missing persons and their families are abused.

It is the responsibility of the state to ensure a safe environment for all its citizens and the community members to play their part in keeping it safe. In case of such unfortunate circumstances, the community seems to be limited to the aftermath and post-incident action. The states are under a legal obligation to conduct effective investigations for all missing persons and to guarantee that all abuses be officially investigated irrespective of the fact that whether or not those abuses are considered attributable to actions by the victim. International Humanitarian Law also obligates the search of the missing and complements the universal guarantees provided by human rights.

There are various reasons that a child can go missing. When children are kidnapped by strangers, it is often due to pedophilic motives and for sexual exploitation. Some kidnappings are also motivated by monetary reasons such as human trafficking, sex-trafficking, forced child labor, illegal adoption, or for ransom. These are generally well-organized illegal networks run nationally and internationally and are always on the lookout for potential target-children. A few rare cases also involve serious mental conditions or revengeful motives used for kidnapping, abducting, and hurting children. Parental abductions and runaways also constitute a large number of missing children, but the focus of this article are the abductions by strangers.

Now the question arises: What can we do on our part to prevent such unfortunate circumstances and to keep our children safe from predators in addition to actions taken by the authorities?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most of these incidents happen when children tend to wander off without realizing the danger. Parents and guardians need to take necessary precautions to help keep their children safe by being more vigilant of their surroundings and ensuring a check on children. Some kids can be more curious, mischievous, and vulnerable than others. Parents need to ensure trustable adult supervision at all times, especially in crowded public places. While choosing daycares, schools, or camps for children, make sure that there are ample security measures and policies in place for kids’ safety. Adults also need to be very careful while hiring babysitters and should get necessary background checks and recommendations before letting someone be alone with their child. Additionally, children need to be educated and trained for potential crisis situations and ways to seek help. Train them to be mindful of strangers, encourage them to share any unusual happenings, and teach them about the resources and necessary actions when encountering an unusual situation. For children with special needs, parents and guardians should take extra precautions and make necessary arrangements for the safety of their children, as they might be more vulnerable than others.

Lastly, all of us need to stay alert of our surroundings and take active responsibility for helping authorities in our communities when AMBER alerts are issued for such cases. We can look out for people, vehicles, victims, or criminals as specified in the issued alert. We can help spread the word by sharing the information with others and volunteer to distribute posters of missing children. For specific cases, community members can conduct organized searches to help the police forces look for missing children. We should stay aware of our surroundings, report suspicious activities and people, safely intervene and help in situations to the best of our abilities, and know the community resources for taking appropriate action.

A number of resources are available for parents facing such an unfortunate situation of a missing child. In such an emergency, contact your local FBI field office or call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on 1-800-THE-LOST. The AMBER Alert program has also been credited with the safe recovery of 957 children to date and is a great way to get the word out in order to mobilize communities for the lookout. Parents are also encouraged to keep child safety kits which include all the necessary information like IDs, recent photos, physical characteristics, fingerprints, and other information about the child. These should always be kept intact to be used in potential emergency situations to assist the authorities in taking appropriate and immediate action.

We as a society need to re-evaluate ourselves, our values, commitments, priorities, actions, and safety in the light of these staggering realities and horrific instances. Little baby Cupcake will not come back to her family, but a lot of other children can find their ways back home through the joint efforts of authorities and community members. We all have to work together to make our communities safer for our precious children, who are the future of this world.