This essay was included in the November 22, 2019 newsletter for MindFreedom International, a non-profit organization that fights for human rights in mental health.
I was recently invited by my new friend Tom Olin to attend an event in Washington, DC titled ‘Humanity of Connection: A Celebration of Leadership and Empowerment within the Disability Community’. Tom, whose photojournalism work chronicles the history of the disability rights movement, was honored along with nine other disability rights activists. While I consider myself new to the psychiatric survivor movement, this was my very first exposure to the disability rights movement. In addition to attending the event to celebrate Tom, I went with the goal of learning as much as possible and the hope of finding common ground between our two movements.
I left the event feeling an unusual blend of inspired, frustrated, uncomfortable, embarrassed, and hopeful.
The speech which inspired me the most came from Reyma McCoy McDeid, the Executive Director of the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living. Her words reminded us all to:
1) proactively think about who we are leaving out of our work and
2) aim to achieve the impossible.
My frustrations arose from this feeling that the psychiatric survivor movement was left out of this event. Though there was diversity of skin color, gender, and physical disabilities – there felt like an absence of honorees involved in the mental health space. That’s not to say there was no presence. Julia Bascom, who is executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, was an inspiring honoree. But overall, the optics of the event seemed to define “disability” as being a permanent, physical condition like being blind, deaf, mute, or immobile.
I did find a peer who had a psychiatric label, though they seemed to embrace their label or at least accept it. I was shocked when they asked if they should introduce me to people by saying “This is Jim Flannery, he’s bipolar.” Never before in my life has anyone introduced me to someone that way; it felt incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t fault the person who suggested introducing me that way; they’re clearly a considerate individual. After all they did ask me, “Is this how you’d like to be introduced to people?” But the fact that introducing me by a psychiatric label was even an option felt like a real disconnect that I wasn’t sure how to handle or manage in that moment. Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, after all, my diagnosis might be relevant at this particular event where many of the attendees had an apparent physical disability, that one should introduce me by specifying my so-called “invisible illness”.
I can’t help but express another discomfort I felt at this event: the “business attire” dress code. I felt incredibly uncomfortable at having my clothing dictated to me by this corporate entity, and felt this unnerving feeling that I was being coerced into “being more like them.” Of course, the dress code is ‘for my own good,’ right? That somehow we should all feel better about ourselves by looking the same way as these corporate folks? I commend my friend Tom Olin for wearing his t-shirt commemorating the upcoming 30 year anniversary of the ADA, and am embarrassed I didn’t have similar courage.
While it sounds like I’m focusing on complaints, I will say, it was great to be at an event where everyone was being treated as equals. The event was a welcoming, loving, and compassionate atmosphere. I am not suggesting that anyone purposely slighted people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. But I realized we may focus on our differences and our different movements, even though we ultimately want a lot of the same things.
Specifically, we have in common our fight for voice, choice, and personal empowerment.
I heard many stories from attendees about the plight of disabled people struggling to find employment, struggling to be trusted with responsibility, struggling to be considered an equal, struggling to be considered worthy. The history of the disability rights movement is rife with people being locked up in institutions “for their own good”. It’s filled with people having to beg and demand for their voices to be counted, for their wishes to be considered valid, and for their selves to be included in the community.
This is a fight we all share.
I’m inspired to see that activists like ADAPT have been able to organize in such an effective manner, something I wish the psychiatric survivors movement could achieve. This sense of coming together to sacrifice themselves for the greater good is admirable. I hope that ADAPT is a group we can not only learn from, but hopefully even collaborate with.
As Justin Dart, Jr. said:
“People labelled with psychiatric diagnosis are by far the largest constituency among people with disabilities. There are tens of millions of us. We have the potential to be one of the most powerful forces in the culture but it’s not going to happen until we unite and until we organize.”
As an advocate for voice, choice, and personal empowerment, I believe individuals should have the right to choose the type of support they want, or to reject support if they don’t want it. And I believe in creating a world where, when someone does need support, they feel comfortable asking for it. And it should never be forced on someone.
We all want the opportunity to find meaning in this world and live a meaningful life. Many of us have had a paradigm thrust on us which tells us that our future is limited, that we should accept our limitations, and that we should lower our expectations.
As Reyma McCoy McDeid said in her speech, I want to strive beyond what I am told is possible. I want to stretch the boundaries. I want to strive for more. I want human rights for all – maybe an impossible goal, but one which motivates me every day.