What Vulnerable Implies

I am in the mood to dissect the word “vulnerable” as it is used to describe groups of people. You’ve heard it a lot this election cycle: “The most vulnerable among us are at greatest risk if x, y and z policy are put into place.”

I’m not attacking the concept of vulnerability that Brene Brown has articulated so well. It is important to be willing to risk ourselves emotionally, especially if we want to find authentic connections with others. Vulnerability on an interpersonal level is great and I only wish I were better at it.

I’m talking about vulnerable, the adjective, meaning suseptible to being wounded or attacked. My issue isn’t even with the word itself, but its application when used to describe marginalized groups who are perceived to be able to be harmed because of their group membership.

I find it to be a very disempowering word. Moreover, I find it to be an inaccurate word. There are two general schools of thought about how disability is defined.  The first says that I am disabled because my body possesses a set of traits that make it impossible for me to do certain tasks, so I’m disabled. Another theory holds that those traits are only disabling because we live in a society with a specific structure that only provides for given tasks to be achieved in particular ways with a limited set of tools. The first theory says I’d be disabled no matter what environment I inhabit, tools I’m given or varied ways a goal can be achieved. The second says that I’m only disabled when I’m placed in a specific set of circumstances and that a different set would not make me disabled. The question turns into this: Am I disabled by something inherent within me or by the world I occupy? I would argue it is the world I occupy.

Back to vulnerable. The way the word is being used lately implies the susceptibility of the group is based on a trait of that group. Vulnerability is reliant upon the group definition. It strips away all societal structure, outside factors and cultural context. Children, seniors and people with disabilities are vulnerable because they possess certain traits putting them at risk. From this perspective, people within “vulnerable” groups are almost victims, without any remedy for their vulnerability.

I beg to differ. Our vulnerability comes from the world we inhabit. The laws, policies and practices of our society make us vulnerable. If we lived in a world where seniors were given enough money to live a reasonable life, including access to medical care, etc., sufficient to meet their needs, would they still be “vulnerable”? Similarly, if all children had access to the same high-quality education, sufficient food, clothing and shelter, safe places to live and parents equipped to nurture them, would children be “vulnerable”?

The way our world works makes certain groups susceptible to attack and harm, not the nature of the group itself. When people talk about the most vulnerable among us being at risk in a Trump administration, they are tacitly agreeing to a version of reality that assigns the cause of the vulnerability based on the characteristics of the group. People with disabilities are vulnerable because their bodies work in certain ways, not because they happen to inhabit a world functioning with a specific set of rules. It is like defining how a race can be won so narrowly that most of the competitors cannot actually win.

I have no idea how to solve this problem because I don’t currently have a word or phrase to replace vulnerable. The best I can do is “people made vulnerable by our society.” So, for now, one could say, “A Trump administration appears poised to inact policies that will place those our society has already made vulnerable more at risk.”

Half A Glass

This is the speech I gave at the San Diego Pride Spirit of Stonewall Rally.


Half A Glass

Imagine in my hands I hold a gllass with a capacity of 16 ounces and it is currently holding 8 ounces. Let’s think about this gllass as my blindness.

Some people tell me I’m amazing for taking the bus, baking cookies or living by myself. The most mundane tasks become praiseworthy because a person with a disability did them. These people would say my imaginary glass is half full..

Then there are people who feel sorry for me. They say things like, “It mmust be so hard being blind” or “Your life would be so much better if you could see.” For them, this glass is half empty,

My question is this: Why can’t it just be half a glass? Disability is a fact, but society loads it with a lot of meaning and insists on foisting that meaning off on the person with the disability. Believe it or not, when I tell people it’s not amazing that a blind person can bake, that it’s just a skill, they argue with me. Argue.Heatedly.

Now let’s think of this imaginary glass as my bisexuality. We are going to pretend I’m that mythical creature – someone equally attracted to more than one gender for my entire life. Some would describe me as half straight. Others would describe me as half gay. My question is this: Why can’t I just be a glass of water? A person attracted to more than one gender?

Unfortunately, people tend to think of us in terms of partly gay and partly straight, as if we can divide ourselves into sections. Nowhere is this more obvious than in LGBT-serving organizations, where we can acknowledge our same gender attractions, but must find somewhere else to express our different gender attractions.

Guess how well that is working for bisexual people? We are the largest segment of the LGBT community, but the smallest group served by LGBT organizations. Our isolation and alienation have led to some disturbing trentds. Commpared to lesbian and gay people, we have higher rates of suicide, depression, intimate partner violence, poverty, poor helath… The list goes on.

So, back to this glass of mine, this glass of identity. In the trans community’s fight to use the bathroom in which they feel safest, we are demanding that trans people are allowed to define their own glass– their own identity. We must extend that same courtesy to people with disabilities, who get to decide for themselves if their disability is good, bad, or neutral. We must allow bisexual people to define their sexual orientation however they wish, not insist they express it in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality. And we must stop forcing our own definitions onto others and when people tell us who they are, we believe them.

Public Speaking “Adventures”

I was honored to be asked to speak at San Diego Pride’s Spirit of Stonewall Rally, which launches our city’s Pride celebrations. My mission was to come up with something true about both the Bi+ community and people with disabilities, distilled down into three minutes. For anyone curious, that’s less than 400 words. I found it incredibly difficult to accomplish this and in rising to the challenge, I learned useful things about my speech writing and public speaking process. (I’ll post the speech text in a subsequent post.)

While waiting to speak, the MC of the event — a member of San Diego Pride’s Board of Directors — invaded my personal space, touched me without my permission and made it clear he is bisexual. It is my hope that the last fact was uttered to find common ground with me, not as a sexual overture. The visuals of the entire event has been preserved for posterity.

Before you watch it, I should convey a few facts. Prior to speaking, I was warned the stage had a variety of obstacles and the back had no railing. I also suspected I could be seen from the audience as I waited for my turn to speak. Finally, as a Pride volunteer, the person invading my personal space was my ultimate boss.

You will find me at the back right of the stage, wearing a blue dress and accompanied by a black lab of incredible cuteness.


AS you may have noticed, the MC also “assisted” me to the podium. This was not based on any request of mine. In fact, it was not in keeping with the arrangements I’d made with San Diego Pride’s amazing staff.

So, to summarize, I was touched by someone without my permission and helped against my express wishes. Believe it or not, it took me a week to realize what happened was not acceptable. A week. (I’ll explain why in another post.)

Once it dawned on me that nobody should be treated in that manner, I brought it to the board’s attention. The person who responded said the board clearly needed more disability awareness training. When I pushed back, arguing no person should have this happen to them, disability or not, I received no response. Then life got a bit nuts with other things. (I’ll post about that later. I’m up to three now.)

I did not attempt to push the issue until September when Pride’s board did something else I found questionable. At a public meeting, I spoke about my experience in the vaguest of terms, allowing the offender to remain anonymous. Unfortunately, later in the meeting, when someone else referred to my accusation, Jaime Carrillo decided to announce, “I did it. It was me!” When someone suggested Mr. Carrillo apologize, I clearly said I did not want one. I just wanted him to stay away from me.

A month later, I attended another public board meeting and learned one of the board’s Co-Chairs had stated my situation had been resolved to my satisfaction. Having never even spoken to this person about what “resolving to my satisfaction would be, I objected.

At this same meeting, Mr. Carrillo managed to not honor my request to stay away from me. I grant you he was in a difficult position since the only path out of the room went directly by me. Instead of asking someone else to run his errand or verbally letting me know he was coming past, he simply walked by me, unfortunately tripping on my guide dog, which caused me to know he was very near me.

A week later, a story was published in the San Diego LGBT Weekly about what happened to me. It can be found at:



The same day the story was released, I was contacted by the board for a meeting to, no kidding, “discuss the safety and well-being of everyone.” I suggested a more specific agenda related to what had happened to me and they agreed to the meeting. One can only assume they have agreed to the items I listed.

Stay tuned for whatever happens next and I owe you all some follow-up posts.



Learn to Laugh

Freud categorized certain common coping strategies as “defense mechanisms.”  Most people are familiar with at least a few of them – repression, denial, regression and rationalization. Later, scholars broke them down into hierarchical categorizations.

Believe it or not, humor, where an uncomfortable or unpleasant internal reaction is transformed into a more enjoyable emotion, is considered one of the “higher-order” defense mechanisms.

Since high school, I’ve known my tendency to seek the humor in the things that happen to me was a way of coping with the inherent discomfort.  A couple of weks ago, a line from a song reminded me of this:


It’s only funny ‘cause I learned to laugh.


How many of us, with what degree of frequency, teach ourselves to laugh instead of cry? Another musician’s words come to mind:


You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.


I worry about how people with disabilities handle the ongoing, daily discrimination and oppression they face. I’ve watched many people become increasingly bitter and then be rejected more because of that bitterness.  I’ve noticed others become comedians, poking fun at themsellves before another can do it.  (This is often hard to discern from those who use humor as a means to dispel others’ discomfort.)  Sometimes the humor turns dark, as if the bitter and the funny were shaken well, then poured.  As I think back, I know my own use of comedy has evolved, from protective to bitter to something cleansing.

No matter how we have each learned to cope, our coping sprang from a need to handle constant emotional assaults from the outside world.  Yet, our world praises the disabled comedian and shuns the bitter one.

I’m not going to suddenly give up my tendency to find the funny, but I am beginning to wonder if bitterness is, in fact, a more honest reaction.  How people with disabilities are treated is painful.  Transforming that hurt into humor is far more enjoyable for everyone involved, but is it as honest as bitter?


The following was posted as my contribution to  Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016 

Changing Perspectives

I was fortunate to be invited to the recent White House policy briefing for the bisexual community. Even better, I was able to attend thanks to help and support from a variety of people.  (You know who you are and your help is appreciated.)

While in DC, I stayed with Mike and Tina, friends from high school.  We all trooped off to a

weekly lunch that always follows a faith-based gathering – the equivalent of coffee after church. In general, this collection of individuals is progressive and has a sense of social justice.  Over the years, Mike has told me a great deal about this caring and supportive community where he has invested so much of his time, energy and heart.  I was eager to go forth and meet everyone.

It did not quite work out that way.  I was a part of one conversation, introduced briefly to another person and mostly simply absorbed the vibe.  Oh, yeah, and Camille and I displaced people from their seats not because I asked, but because they decided I needed the seat more and went elsewhere.  (I can’t be sure, but I think the table had empty seats, so I felt a little bit like Typhoid Mary.)   In other words, it was my typical social experience.

Later, I learned this is not the way this group tends to treat new people.  Fortunately, the circumstances present a rare opportunity to hear from someone familiar with the group who can comment upon the ways their behavior strayed from their normal patterns.  Mike, who has helped and supported this blog for years, has been drafted to offer up his observations.  I shall yield the floor to him, but I will reclaim it to discuss one factor I think contributes to the quality of my social experiences, which other events during my DC trip highlighted so glaringly that even the blind person noticed.



The Road to Discrimination is Paved with Compassion

Lately I have become hyper-aware of situations in which kindness and compassion reign, but the end result is limitation and lack of choice. I tend to notice it happening when a group of people, including a person with a disability, are trying to pick an activity. With kindness and compassion, people will not suggest activities they feell aren’t possible for the person with a disability. That makes sense when it comes to not suggesting a peanut butter-making demonstration when someone has a peanut allergy, but not proposing a hike when a blind person is involved seems less reasonable.


My guess is the person not raising the idea of climbing a mountain is thinking, “Well, they can’t do that and I don’t want them to feel bad because they have to say no.” This sparing someone from having to be the “wet bllanket” is noble. On a deeper level, though, it might have less warm and fuzzy consequences.


Who said the blind person can’t hike? Unless that specific individual has directly mentioned they don’t hike, it is an assumption by a person without a disability about what a person with a disability can do, restricting the person with a disability. In the immediate, it means an entire group of people might miss out on a fun activity that had the potential to also broaden everyone’s understanding of what it is like to be sight impaired. What does a blind person need to hike? How does everyone work together to be certain everyone is enjoying themmselves? An opportunity was lost because someone assumed another’s abilities and tried to be kind.


There are also less obvious consequences. How, after allll, does a blind person learn how to hike if nobody ever takes them hiking? Will that blind individual ever think it is possible if the possibility is never presented? Someone else’s noble gesture mmight be, in fact, taking something away from someone ellse.


My cynnical side has a different possibility it keeps raising. On the part of the person not making the suggestion, how much is alltrusim and how much is self-interest? After all, including a person with a disability might mean everyone needs to walk a littlle bit slower or provide other forms of assistance. I can see space within this compassionate act that is more about just wanting to relax and have fun.


Much of what I write and think about these days boils down into a phrase that I would make the title of this blog, if that were easily achievablle.


Ask Not Assume

The You Cants

Any person with a disability is entirely too familiar with the phrase, “You can’t do that.” If the Obstinacy Gods smiled down upon you at the time of your birth, you are temperamentally pre-disposed to say, “Says you, not me.” Should the Obstinacy Gods not have been so benevolent, hopefully experience, parents or teachers instilled the same reflexive reaction in your soul.

For me, being explicitly told I couldn’t do something in my mid to late adolescents did cause the reflexive reaction described above and I often steamrolled ahead to prove the person wrong. Unfortunately, the “You Can’t”s are typically not explicit statements you can then disprove. Rather, they are insidious attitudes and lower expectations. Nobody says you can’t do something, they just don’t expect it from you which subtly changes the landscape in fact making it harder to accomplish the goal.

Long before a teenager learns to drive, they are exposed to all sorts of information about driving from simple observation to more tangible experiences like sitting on a parent’s lap behind the wheel. People talk about the person some day driving. “Your Barbie drives a Corvette. Do you want to drive one when you get older?” It is assumed the person will one day drive and, guess what, they typically do.

Now, take a child with significant learning disabilities. Somewhere along the way, the adults in this kid’s life have gotten the idea into their heads that the child will never drive. Suddenly, all that exposure and assumption and planning and passive education vanish. It is often done to protect the child from “unrealistic expectations,” but simultaneously strips away all the advantages everyone else gets simply through the typical course of living. Not only does the child with a disability have to learn how to drive, they also must do it without any support and lacking the tools other kids are given to accomplish the task. That’s….. nuts.


No, it’s not some unusual facial expression that people with disabilities have nor is it a reference to an outer layer or surface. Think blackface, popularized in the 19th century as a means for white actors to portray people of color in theatrical performances by using makeup to blacken their faces, as well as wearing specific costumes and adopting certain mannerisms.

The term cripface has gained popularity as a means to refer to actors without visible disabilities who play characters with visible disabilities. Obviously, it is meant as a condemnation of the practice by those who find it insulting, disempowering and marginalizing.

Hollywood has a tendency to use actors without visible disabilities to play parts calling for a visibly disabled character. The practice is so common that, except in the case of Michael J. Fox or Marley Matlin, you can more or less assume a character with a disability does not have that disability in the real world. (“Growing Up Fisher”, “Joan of Arcadia”, “Riding the Bus with My Sister”, “The Piano”, “My Left Foot” etc.) In fact, chances are you can name more characters with disabilities than you can actors with disabilities.

The reason this happens is a chicken and egg explanation. Actors with disabilities are not cast in roles, unless the character specifically has a similar disability, so they do not get a lot of work. This means they have trouble gaining enough industry admiration to be cast in roles that include a disability. Instead, established talents with name recognition are sought to play characters with disabilities.

The practice is complicated by the fact that disability is often still utilized as plot devices to elicit certain responses from the audience, based on stereotypes and reliant upon inaccurate distortions of what it means to live with a disability. There are not strong, happy characters who happen to have disabilities filling the pages of novels or wheeling across the silver screen. If disability is a characteristic, it is a noted trait given significant attention and composing a major part of the plot because no creative gains would be made by a character with a disability who is “normal.” And, of course, if you have a character with a visible disability, that disability must somehow advance the plot. Thus, there are villains with scars, paraplegics bravely shouldering the tragedy of their situation and blind lawyers who made it through law school without anyone realizing they were blind. (It’s a major plot point in “Growing Up Fisher” and also impossible.)

Interestingly, blackface is attributed with both the proliferation of harmful stereotypes and bringing African-American culture into the mainstream. More than fifty years after the practice faded from the spotlight, the stereotypes blackface perpetuated are alive and well in our society, clearly demonstrating the harm the practice caused. Yet, there is no way to know what benefits the practice may have propagated, such as influences on music.

Proponents of casting people without disabilities in roles calling for disability often argue that at least characters with disabilities raise the public awareness of the existence of disability. Whether accurate or not, mainstream society is being exposed and how can exposure be bad?

Personally, I am not a fan of cripface when it does nothing to advance an accurate portrayal of disability. There’s no reason, other than actual storyline, to make a villain scarred, unless you are relying upon a noxious stereotype about ugly meaning evil, so don’t do it. However, if a role is based on a realistic portrayal, then anyone should be able to play the role. And, of course, the opposite should hold true. An actor with a disability should be able to play a role that does not specifically call for a disability. Why can’t a wheelchair user be an extra? For that matter, why couldn’t a “Gray’s Anatomy” patient have a prosthetic limb without it being a plot point? When disability is reduced to a characteristic that some characters have and some do not, that sometimes is relevant to the plot and sometimes is not and that doesn’t get an actor included or excluded from a role, then I won’t have a problem with cripface because it will no longer be a noteworthy event. It’s only a problem when prejudice, stereotypes and bigotry hold sway over Hollywood instead of a more balanced view of another facet of human variation.


This entry was written as my contribution to Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015. For some interesting reading, check out what others have contributed!

Events Previously Known As Legend

Every once in a while, a sequence of events unfolds that I previously thought only happened to someone else. And I had never in fact met that someone else. They were events found solely in rumors and I had more than a passing suspicion they were urban legends.

Well, the other day, I went out to the bus stop and sat next to a woman. We exchanged small talk before I zoned out. When I came back to reality, some man was standing before me offering me something. I’d missed the naming of the something.

“Hold out your hand,” he demanded.

“For what?” I asked.

“A dollar for you to take the bus,” he explained.

“No, that’s okay. I have a bus pass, so I’m good.,” I replied.

The man went over and sat on the opposite side of the woman on the bench, and then said, “When God gives you a blessing, it may not seem like a blessing, but you should take it anyway because blessings come in unexpected ways.”

“Uh, okay.” I said.

The woman on the bench is moved to get involved. Turning to me, she said, “I think you hurt his feelings.”

I did a flabbergasted open and closed mouth thing and ignored them.

You can’t make this stuff up because nobody would believe you if you did.

Never Give In?

In the midst of a novel, I stopped dead in my mental tracks when I read, “She had never given in to her disability.” “Given in”? As though disability were a foe or unstoppable force.

To declare that statement foreign to how I relate to my disabilities is a drastic understatement akin to declaring a drop of water the equivalent of the Pacific ocean. (How’s that for dramatic hyperbole? Hold on to your socks because there’s more.)

If the common understanding of disability is a “force” in “opposition” to me, then it makes complete sense that people think I’m amazing for walking out my front door. After all, I have made the Herculean effort to fight against something keeping me in place. No, actually, trying to push me in a different direction.

Our collective consciousness is full of entities in opposition — good versus evil, freedom versus dictatorial constraint, healthy versus infirm and even smile versus frown. No wonder we cannot escape Hollywood’s determination to continue to use disability as a metaphor for evil, a social understanding of disability as life-constraining, the notion that a physical condition is contagious and even that having a disability automatically categorizes you as unhappy. We are in opposition to our condition as good fights back evil, freedom overcomes totalitarian regimes, health is a goal we “achieve” and happy shines forth from sorrow.

What a load of manure. I’m no more fighting against my disabilities than you are struggling to keep your cells all together in the form of your body. You just are and disability just is. Fact, people. Fact.