Tag Archives: Disability

Image Description and Identity

Sometimes I try to take on big questions; today we’re going to keep it light and only tackle the nature of identity and the relationship between author and reader in interpreting an image.

It all started with a question about image descriptions. Image descriptions are a way of making the images in webpages more accessible, primarily for readers with print disabilities. Screen readers will read accessible text, but when they encounter a photo, say (to take an image at random)

Image: Photo of golden retriever.

the screen reader can’t read it or render any useful information from it unless you add an image description. To make sure that print-disabled readers aren’t left out, I would add the description “Image: Photo of golden retriever.” I can put that either in the body of the blog, or in the “alt-text” field of the photo when I upload it. Here, I did both.

When adding image descriptions, I’m always challenged by how much detail to include. The photo above is easy: there’s one major feature and it’s quick and easy to describe. When I describe people, I’ve tended to describe them using a couple of basic characteristics: gender; age(ish); race; and perhaps an additional detail or two (color of clothing; glasses; sitting/standing). When someone is in a wheelchair, I say that; when they’re not, I don’t say anything.

For example, I described this photo

Image: slighly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.


slightly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.

When I started adding image descriptions to the large number of people photos in the presentation we put together to introduce CREEC, I started tripping over the question of how — if at all — to describe race and ethnicity.  Many of the photos depicted people whose races were (1) obvious; and (2) known to me.  For example, this awesomely cliched photo that Tim and I had taken around 2002 as an Official Fox &  Robertson Photo:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  (Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

I described it:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

That was easy:  I’m white; Tim’s white; I know our races.  Tim’s disability is visible.  All the props on the table probably aren’t that relevant, but my view is that the description helps convey the posed-ness of the photo.

But what about photos depicting people whose race or ethnicity was either unknown to me or not easily described?  This, in turn, raised the obvious question whether it is relevant at all. I felt torn between trying to achieve accuracy for print-disabled readers and adding unnecessary focus on race and ethnicity. I posed this question on Facebook, and deeply enjoyed the ensuing discussion.

When adding image descriptions to photos, what do you do about perceived vs. known vs. visible ethnicities? For example, if I’m in a photo with an African-American woman, I would say something like, “White woman in white shirt and jeans; African-American woman in dark shirt and skirt.”  Easy.  But what about describing someone whose ethnicity is likely neither white nor African-American but is not known to me? Or someone who “looks” “white,” but I know would be annoyed by being described as “white.” Describing degrees of skin tone seems weird.

A surprising number of people responded with something like, “I don’t describe race.”   From Andrew Montoya:

Generally I do not comment on race/skin tone in alt text unless it’s germane to the picture.

From Carrie Lucas:

I don’t describe skin color.  If race is important to the picture, or skin, hair, etc, then describe it.  Otherwise just say “person” or “people of multiple races.”

My response (edited for coherence):

But that would mean that (respectfully) I’m making the decision for the reader when race/color/ethnicity are relevant. I try to be complete and objective in descriptions, though completeness is never possible and there is always editorial discretion.

If you don’t mention race, do you say “woman in a wheelchair” “older woman” “young girl” or just “person”?   What matters?  Gender? Race? Age? Disability? Hair color? Skin color?  At what point are we short-changing a blind reader who just wants to know what the photo looks like.


  I wouldn’t say race; I would say “dark colored skin, light colored skin, olive colored skin.”


But if I say that [Chinese-American colleague] has “olive skin” don’t I leave out something important, that is, that he’s Asian?  Or do I have to anatomically describe his eyelids?


But then where do you draw the line? How much detail do you use to describe the individual’s clothes, type of glasses, how the hair swoops over an eye, where the person’s shadow falls against the all white background even? It seems a line must be drawn somewhere lest you lose the content to the details of the description. So unless race is part of the relevance of the picture, I prefer to let people be people.

I will state that a person is in a wheelchair or using other equipment if it’s relevant. I rarely mention age, unless it’s relevant to the description (i.e., saying “cranky man” doesn’t convey the image as well as saying “cranky old man” for the stock picture of the muppet in the theater box guy). I do often state gender, as it seems a natural descriptor, but generally only for pictures where there’s only one gender present. However, stating a race or skin color where it’s not relevant to the picture seems odd and forced to me. As for determining relevance, I think that I’m already editorializing by having used the picture. I intend it to convey a particular thing by using it, so that’s where I focus my alt text description.


Some descriptions I have seen include information that is visible such as describing the skin tone but not assigning racial identity. So the description might say: “a light skinned female appearing person sits in a wheelchair. A dark skinned male appearing person stands nearby wearing a dark suit with a light shirt and plaid tie.”

Good point:  you can’t assume gender either.


It depends on why you are including the picture; whether race is important to the purpose of the picture.


But I think that’s circular, in the sense that “importance” is created by the interaction of creator and reader.  Should my purpose be the be-all-and-end-all of the decision?  I totally agree you have to make choices or you’d spend 3 paragraphs describing the building in the background of the photo, etc. But the question of when race is relevant seems to me to be one that the reader should make.


Yes, you are the author.


Don’t you often see things in photos that the photographer or user didn’t see or intend? I think we’re heading into lit crit territory!!!

That is, it was starting to sound very vaguely like the discussions of author, reader, and text that my much smarter classmates were having in 1981.  Which, to me, meant that I was way in over my head, and thus could start making shit up with impunity!

Then my law school roommate, Kristin Robinson, chimed in.  She was a grad student in American Studies (IIRC) when the two of us and a med student shared a house in 1985, and we’ve only recently reconnected on Facebook.

Long descriptions include information that is relevant to understanding the reason (instructional goal) the image has been included. It highlights salient information. So, if race or other aspects of people’s appearance is salient, you would include it. If it isn’t, you wouldn’t.

So perhaps in a strictly educational context, the teacher’s purpose is more important than total transparency.  Kristin also provided a helpful link to guidelines for describing science and technology images in the educational context.  The very first guideline is

Brevity. The most frequent recommendation from respondents was for more brevity in description. Simply put, it takes people with visual impairments more time to read books and articles than people without visual impairments and the process should not be further slowed down by unnecessarily long image descriptions.

For all my pontificating about the need for enough detail to let print-disabled readers interpret the image, I may also be annoying the crap out of them with verbose image descriptions.

Here’s where I end up.  Once you start describing people — that is, going beyond something like “three people in the background” — you owe it to your readers to give a description sufficient to let them decide what features are relevant.  To my mind, that includes at least (perceived) gender, age, race/ethnicity/skin tone, and [visible] disability/lack.

There will always be filtering and interpretation in the descriptions and I realize that my perceptions (and thus descriptions) will not always be accurate.  That I may describe someone in a way that suggests the wrong identity, or that suggests an ethnic, gender or disability identity where the subject would prefer to be just “a person.”  So I’m making a decision that affects not only the reader but the subject.

Ultimately — perhaps by dint of what I do for a living — I don’t think I should be deciding for the reader that race and other identities don’t matter.  I may use a photo for one purpose, while my reader perceives other meanings.  When I see a photo, my eyes and brain (with its inevitable set of life experiences and preconceptions) conspire to give it meaning.  Sometimes that meaning may be different from what the photographer and/or author intended.  My goal in creating an image description should be to try — with acknowledged and inevitable limitations — to provide the opportunity for a print-disabled reader to have that same conspiracy of brain and ear to give their meaning to the image.


There is finally a stock photography site full of real, active, did I mention real? people with disabilitiesPhotoAbility.net has apparently been up and running for a couple of years; I just discovered it because its founder, Deborah Davis, was featured as New Mobility’s Person of the Year.

We first used stock photography in a monumentally misguided* attempt to settle a case by presenting the defendant with examples of how people with disabilities could be part of its advertising and outreach.  Seeking stock photographs, we ran searches like “wheelchair,” “disabled” and of course “handicapped” in the various mainstream stock photography sites.  What we found were (1) hospital and medical images; and (2) essentially fake images in which obviously non-disabled people had seated themselves in crappy gray-vinyl hospital wheelchairs to undertake random daily tasks.

When we finally found a couple of images that seemed genuine, we bought them, and then discovered such images were so rare, we saw the same folks all over the damn place.  I’m guessing, for example, if you read any sort of disability-oriented publication, you’ve encountered these photogenic folks:

{Image: Photo of boy and man. Both are African-American. The man is on the right, sitting in a manual wheelchair, spinning a basketball on his finger. The boy stands to his side, watching the basketball and holding up one finger as if to imitate the man.}

{Image: a woman and girl, both white, both blond. The girl is in a manual wheelchair. The woman hugs her from behind.}

We had such little luck finding real images that we solicited some from photogenic friends doing photogenic things with photogenic kids, and then took one or two ourselves.  This, for example, is our friend Julie, her two older daughters, and our dog in our backyard.  Think PhotoAbility would be interested?

{Image:  A blond woman (sitting in a manual wheelchair) and two blond girls playing with a golden retriever dog under a tree in a fenced yard.  One girl, perhaps two years old, sits in her mother's lap.  The other girl, perhaps 6 years old, holds a toy out to the dog.}

We continue to use stock images on our website and in educational materials, so I’m very excited to learn about stock photography with gen-u-ine pwds doing genuinely cool stuff.  Also that PhotoAbility is part of a network of great sites at PushLiving.com about inclusive travel, lifestyle, design, etc.  Check them out!


* Part of a hilariously grandiose settlement attempt suggested by new and (as it turned out) temporary co-counsel.  We appeared at a meeting with the defendant’s general counsel and her posse with a bunch of spiral-bound glossy brochures featuring our purchased and home-made stock images and a bunch of powerpoint verbiage about how wonderful and inclusive access was and how it would enhance their image, etc. etc., and of course they could not possibly have cared less.  They wanted to know what it would cost, thanks for making the trip, goodbye.  Luckily, since it was early in our practice, our dear, wonderful copy people “forgot” to charge us for the glossy brochures and spiral binding.  The case finally settled — three general counsels and two outside counsels later.  So it goes.

Hey, Lego, where’s *my* family?

I thought this sounded like a cool idea:

{Lego ad showing sample family of four people standing on two feet, plus a baby carriage.  Text reads "Minifigure Family.  Sending holiday cards was never this much fun!  Minifigure Family lets you create a customized holiday card featuring Minifigure representations of your own family. It's easy!"

Then I got started creating a holiday card with Minifigure representations of my own family, and found that it was not only not easy, but downright impossible.  Even though Lego appears to sell a variety of Minifigures With Disabilities (“MWD”), including Determined Wheelchair Tennis Player,

{Image of lego minifigure woman in a wheelchair holding a tennis racquet.  On her face is a very determined look, with eyes wide and yebrows constricted.}

Pissed Off Wheelchair Soccer Player,

{Image of lego minifigure man in a wheelchair kicking a soccer ball.  On his face is a pissed off look, with his mouth ticked off to the side and his eyebrows constricted.}

Really Pissed Off Wheelchair Basketball Player,

{Image of lego minifigure man in a wheelchair holding a a basketball.  On his face is a very angry look, with his teeth gritted and his eyebrows constricted.}

and Reasonably Emotionally Well-Adjusted Khaki Shirt Guy,

{Image of lego minifigure man in a wheelchair wearing a khaki shirt with a benevolent expression on his face.}

their Minifigure Holiday Card Generator does not have any wheelchair-using options.

Hey, Lego, what’s up with that?

Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying my best within Lego’s narrow-minded constraints:

{Image of two people and a dog on the surface of a distant planet, surrounded by flying asteroids, with a volcano and meteorite in the background.  The first Lego Minifigure on the left is labeled "Amy."  She has a helmet with antennae, a green shirt hanging with knives and other implements, and -- hanging from her belt -- a skull, a tooth and a test tube containing a spider.  The middle figure, labeled "Tim" is a man with blond hair, glasses and a wooden leg.  His shirt contains dials and meters.  The third figure is a yellow dog.}

Yes, Tim’s entire disability experience is represented by… a wooden leg.

The ramps of Route 1

[Cross-posted at CREECblog.]

Every summer or so, we visit my brother and his family at their place in Maine.  To do this, we generally fly into Boston and then drive the four hours from Logan to mid-coast Maine.  The first three hours are on I-95; the last hour or so on Route 1 from Brunswick to Thomaston.  It has long struck me, as we meander up the barely two-lane road — often at 30 mph behind a giant RV or tractor — the amazing number of very small businesses that have ramps.

This past weekend I made the trip with no deadline and no one else in the car, so I had the time* to take some photos of these examples of readily-achievableness. (Ready achievability?)**

Disclaimer, because every now and again some defense-side attorney (hi, guys!) may read this:  I did not evaluate these ramps for compliance with the Standards.  I don’t know their dimensions or slope.  If you try to introduce this as evidence in one of my cases, I will file a Motion for Judicial Notice of Completely Missing the Point.

The first couple were actually near Manchester, NH, where I had taken a detour to visit a college classmate.

Small free-standing store with parking lot.  Store has steps in front and a ramp up the side starting from the back of the store and rising to the middle of the right hand side.
These next two are churches, which aren’t even covered by the ADA (unless they have some sort of commercial business on the side):

Front view of white building with three steps at the front entrance (in the middle of the front of the building) and a ramp extending from the entrance along the front to the left side of the building.  Ramp has a sign that reads, "Christ Died for Our Sins."


Photo of beige church building with the words "Saint Peter" on the front and a ramp curving around to the right side of the building.


Onward to Rte 1:

One story building with front porch accessible by a short ramp in front of the building.

This actually might have been someone’s house.  Along Route 1, the distinction between house and business is often sort of vague.

Gabled grey house with wooden ramp extending from the front door and curling around to the right in the front yard.  The base of the ramp is white lattice work and flowers grow along the front of the base.

Just north of Wiscasset.

Small free-standing red building with a ramp extending from the middle of the front off to the right.

Jean Kigel Studio, Damariscotta.

One-story building viewed from the side where a ramp provides access up onto the porch.

Cheap cigarettes in Waldoboro.

One-store store with a sign in the front reading "Cheap Cigarettes."  The front door is served by a short apparently level ramp with a slighly sloped portion at the end.

Somewhere south of Thomaston.

House or business with approximately five steps to the front door and a ramp to a side door on the left.

The Hair Loft, Warren, Maine.

One-story building with a sign reading "Hair Loft."  The front entrance is on the left side of the photo, served by approximately six steps.  The door is also served by a ramp from the door leading to the right of the photo.

Unidentified business, Warren:

Front of a two-story house or business with a wide metal ramp leading to the front entrance.

The famous Moody’s Diner, Waldoboro:

White building with neon sign reading "Moody's Diner" on the roof.  A ramp is positioned along the left side of the building leading up to the entrance in the middle.

Ralph’s Homes, Waldoboro:

Freestanding white building with a long switch-back ramp serving the front entrance, which is up approximately six steps.

Random business south of Waldoboro:

Red building with approximately 3 steps to a porch serving the front entrance.  A ramp serves the porch as well.

The Nobleboro Antique Exchange:

Blue two-story building with a switch back ramp serving the porch and front entrance.  Sign in front of the building reads "Nobleboro Antique Exchange."

So next time you hear some fancy store or chain claim that it’s not readily achievable to ramp their business, here are some examples to, in legal terminology, call baloney.***


* My leisurely pace turned out to have been a good plan for another reason:  when I got to my brother’s house, he and his family were out and their house was guarded by their snarling goldendoodle.  Seriously.  This dog

Benign-looking light brown dog, sized somewhere between a poodle and a golden retriever, with a multicolored color, sitting on a lawn looking to the right of the photo.

exiled me to the hammock until my hosts returned to chaperone my canine interaction.

I was not suffering:

Legs and feet of photographer on hammock, sunny Maine seascape in the background.


** Under the ADA, buildings built after January 26, 1993 were required to be accessible.  42 U.S.C. § 12183(a).  Those built before that date and not altered since must remove barriers — by, for example, ramping entrances that are only accessible by steps — where it is “readily achievable” to do so.  42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(iv).

*** I might have used a different word if not for the cross-posting, but I’m trying to keep it clean on CREECblog.

No, I’m not “with the wheelchair.”

I’m “with the passenger in a wheelchair” or perhaps “with the passenger who uses a wheelchair,” or most accurately, “with the hot guy using a wheelchair.”

But I guess this makes the distinction clear:



If you are a “wheel chair” or a stroller, you are not a “passenger.”  You are your equipment.

And airline people, you don’t have “two wheelchairs on the plane.”  As a matter of empirical fact, you have zero wheelchairs on the plane.  You have two people who use wheelchairs who are waiting patiently on your plane for the doofuses (doofi?) in your ramp crew to figure out how to get their wheelchairs to the jetway.

I realize there are other circumstances in which an object associated with a person comes to stand for the person.  “Suits” comes to mind, to mean the dweebs in the organization who are imposing rules on the real people who want to create/get things done/think outside the box.  It’s not a compliment.  “Brass” for officers, perhaps.  “Uniforms” to distinguish beat cops from higher ranking detectives.  I would put “wheelchair” as a substitute for the person in a very different category, though, largely because I only hear it from people in a position to treat the people themselves as objects.

I don’t take a position on the people-first language discussion, that is, whether it is better to say “disabled person” or “person with a disability.”  Both seem better than “the disabled,” but as my disabled friend/friend with a disability Laura Hershey would say, English puts its adjectives before its nouns, so “disabled person” puts the focus on the person, it just does so grammatically.

But once you’ve taken the person out of the equation completely and substituted the thing, you’ve left the realm of grammar and made a decision to depersonalize.

The funny thing is, I always respond — when I hear this — “no I’m not with the wheelchair, I’m with the guy in the wheelchair”  or to the airline peeps, “actually, you don’t have two wheelchairs on board, you have two people who use wheelchairs.”  But no one even gets the difference.


Prior litigation: admissible; evidence of life with a disability: inadmissible.

[Cross posted at FoxRobBlog, which is involved in some sort of DNS attack.  Whatever that is.]

In Yates v. Sweet Potato Enterprises, Inc., 2013 WL 3662645 (N.D. Cal. July 12, 2013), the plaintiff — a guy who uses a wheelchair — alleges that he encountered barriers at a Popeyes restaurant.  In the order, the judge addresses questions from both the plaintiff and the defendant about what evidence can be used at trial.  In so doing, she does two things that are stunning individually, but that — taken together — turn the plaintiff into the defendant, defending his right to equal access to the businesses that non-disabled people patronize everyday without a second thought.

First, the court grants the defendant’s motion to exclude “sympathy-inducing evidence regarding Plaintiff’s disability” that is not directly relevant to his experience at Popeyes, including “testimony regarding his day-to-day hardships.” The court just doesn’t see how that’s relevant.

Second, the court denies the plaintiff’s motion to exclude evidence that he has filed a large number of other access lawsuits.


If people who use wheelchairs filed a lawsuit challenging every illegal barrier they encountered each day, most would file — I’m guessing — five to ten lawsuits each day.  Instead, most people go about their days, swearing at the illegal and thoughtless barriers, but without the time or resources to file those tens and eventually hundreds of lawsuits.  A brave and energetic few take the time to bring the lawsuits that remain necessary — twenty years after the effective date of the ADA’s architectural provisions and thirty years after California’s — to achieve a modicum of compliance.  For their trouble, these people are dubbed — in the press and in court — “serial litigators.”

The Ninth Circuit — the court with appellate authority over the Yates court — has recognized the role of these brave and energetic people in enforcing the law:

Courts must tread carefully before construing a Disability Act plaintiff’s history of litigation against him. As we have noted more than once, “[f]or the [Disabilities Act] to yield its promise of equal access for the disabled, it may indeed be necessary and desirable for committed individuals to bring serial litigation advancing the time when public accommodations will be compliant with the [Disabilities Act].” We must therefore be “particularly cautious” regarding “credibility determinations that rely on a plaintiff’s past [Disabilities Act] litigation.”

Antoninetti v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., 643 F.3d 1165, 1175 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal cites omitted; emphasis — though not nearly enough — added).   One of the cites I pulled out to make that quote more readable was Sam Bagenstos’s excellent article The Perversity of Limited Civil Rights Remedies: The Case of “Abusive” ADA Litigation, 54 UCLA L.Rev. 1 (2006).

So despite the fact that the Ninth Circuit has instructed courts to be particularly cautious about credibility determinations relying on past litigation, the Yates judge — without citing Antoninetti — holds that

Plaintiff’s  filing  of  well  over  a  hundred  disability  lawsuits  in  which  he  alleges  identical injuries bears directly upon his credibility.  . . . Plaintiff’s  alleged  scheme  to  generate  income  through  the  serial  filing  of  lawsuits  in  an  effort  to  extract  settlements  from businesses, may, in fact, be probative of his credibility.

More than simply disregarding controlling precedent, this decision has the very immediate and apparently intended effect of converting Mr. Yates from a real, live person who navigates his day to day world  in a wheelchair to a greedy serial litigant, judged on the fact that he has filed other complaints, the legitimacy of which he will likely not be able to prove before the jury.  (This question is not addressed in the decision, but my strong guess is that the defendant will be allowed to show the fact of hundreds of lawsuits, while the plaintiff will not be permitted to show that, in each one, the facility in question was indeed out of compliance.  That would, in essence, require hundreds of mini-trials within this single trial.)

On another level — about which I’ll write more later, as I have to get back to the other outrages on my desk — this is part of the broader scheme on the part of the business world to spin the fact that — 20-30 years after the federal and state standards took effect — there is still massive noncompliance.  When you’re really really wrong, accuse the other guy of “serial litigation” to correct your many many failures.

“Feds Probe Denver for Violating Deaf Prisoner Rights” – what we’re up to at FoxRob World Headquarters

The Colorado Independent has an article up about our Scott case.  The journalist had previously written about our Ulibarri case, and was thus able to put Mr. Scott’s situation in this astonishing perspective:

Scott isn’t the first deaf prisoner whose disability has gone ignored by Denver’s jail. Even as the city failed to provide Scott with an interpreter, it was defending itself against a lawsuit brought on behalf of three other deaf prisoners – one of whom hanged himself in his cell. Shawn Vigil spent a month in jail without an interpreter before his suicide in 2005. The Sheriff’s Department knew Vigil was deaf but apparently didn’t take note that he was functionally illiterate and unable to understand a question on his intake form asking if he needed accommodations for his disability.

We’re hoping this lawsuit will finally get some effective policies in place for deaf people detained or incarcerated by the City and County of Denver.

Absurdity Slider

No, it’s not a small, tasty, metaphysical snack.  It’s a review of a review — big time-saver! — and a digression into the meaning of life.  The slider is explained below.  (Look!  A teaser!)

I minored in philosophy.  At Swarthmore.  You’d think this would have trained me to overthink almost anything.  And honestly, I can overthink important things like the font in my email or whether to get the 90 Shilling or the 1554.  But I recently* read a review in the New Yorker of a book that I think may represent the gold standard in overthinking: David Benatar’s “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.”  The thesis: since it’s worse to suffer pain than to forego pleasure and since — in the words of the reviewer, “[e]ven the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain” — it is better never to have been born.

Yes, you read that correctly.  As the review notes:

The volume is dedicated to his parents, “even though they brought me into existence,” and to his brothers, “each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us.”  (It’s fun to imagine what family reunions with the Benatars are like.)

But I think I’ve found the Rosetta Stone of disability discrimination.  As the reviewer explains it:

Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s .  The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything — schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce.

The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B ‘s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

They have a WHAT?

The case of the A’s and the B’s shows that we regard pleasure and pain differently. Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one.

And what holds for the A’s and the B’s is basically true for everyone. Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone — that is, had the life never been created — no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

Is this guy an android?  Everyone suffers at some point.  In fact, how does life have any meaning without suffering?  Hell, without pain, how do you learn basic things like not to touch a hot stove and not to listen to the Beach Boys?  I suppose if you never existed, you wouldn’t have to go through any bothersome learning processes.  But then, what’s the point?  I guess that is his point.

“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad — a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick — is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes.

He acknowledges that many readers will have difficulty accepting such a “deeply unsettling claim.” They will say that they consider their own existence to be a blessing, and that the same goes for their children’s. But they’re only kidding themselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not The Onion and as near as I can tell, this dude expects his theory to be taken seriously.  On one level, it merits only derision.  Or this year’s Hitchhiker’s Guide Philosophy Award, an award I just started for philosophical arguments that measure up to my favorite ever, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, explaining the existence of the Babel Fish:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this:

`I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’

`But,’ says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’

`Oh dear,’ says God, `I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

`Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

But on another level, the concept that it is better to avoid all pain than to experience any pleasure explains disabiliphobia.  It explains why the non-disabled world regularly projects on to people with disabilities a far lower quality of life than the latter actually experience.  This, in turn, leads non-disabled windbags like Peter Singer to opine that it is better for infants with disabilities not to be born or to be killed in infancy.  Benatar’s theory is simply the apotheosis of Singer’s: If it’s better not to be born than to be born with quadriplegia, where do we draw the line?  Better not to be born than to be born and later in life get the sniffles.  Perhaps it’s helpful to imagine this scale as a slider of the type I’m just now learning to use in Lightroom.  We’ll call it the Absurdity Slider:

The Absurdity Slider

Benatar took the Absurdity Slider and dragged it all the way to the right — up to 11 — where not only is it best to euthanize disabled infants, but it’s best that none of us ever have been born.

Given the highly accurate “that’s bullshit!” response most people will have to Benatar’s theory, I think he’s done us a service in placing Singer’s arguments along this all-important scale.  If only I had control of the actual slider.  Any coders out there want to help me develop a working Absurdity Slider, one that could tone down the absurdity in an argument the way you adjust the contrast in a digital photo?


* Yes it was in the April 9 New Yorker, but it is true that I only recently read it, as I have just now reached that archeological layer in the New Yorker pile next to my comfy chair.

“Sh*t people say” jumps the shark.

Shit people say to spouses of people who use wheelchairs:

My favorite “I”m so sorry” experience was in my first trial as a young lawyer, when Tim — who was an associate at the same fancy-pants DC law firm that I was — came to watch.  On a break, our loathsome opposing counsel came up to me and said, out of the blue, “I’m so sorry.”  Given the quantity of serious litigation bullshit he had engaged in, I was glad he saw fit to apologize, but thought it was better directed to the senior partner.  I was starting to say something about that when he added, “about your husband…”  Honestly, I still didn’t understand:  Tim wasn’t assigned to the case; what could this dude possibly mean?  He had to stumble on to say something about “injury” and “wheelchair” before it finally dawned on me.  Needless to say, I was speechless.

Years later, I actually wrote and submitted a “Modern Love” column to the New York Times after some lady walked up to us at a baseball game and said something about me being a good caretaker.  How can you explain in a sentence how ordinary life is?  How care is given and taken in equal measure?  Unfortunately, my column couldn’t compete with other important dispatches from the front lines of human relationships, for example, looking for a date on Craigslist or overthinking your boyfriend’s slippers.

That’s the great thing about the blog:  the only thing standing between my thoughts and publication is my own good judgment.  Such as it is.

Red Hook Road (with spoilers) and Parents with Disabilities.

Ayelet Waldman’s new novel, Red Hook Road, rang true and pissed me off at the same time. Given that she’s also a terrific storyteller, I guess that’s the definition of a good read. But I’m not sure the author even knows that she really stepped in it with respect to parents with disabilities.

The novel revolves around two families in Maine — one “local,” the other “summer people” — over the course of four summers. The protagonists are the Summer People mother-of-the-bride and the Local People mother-of-the-groom in the wedding that opens the book. Clearly one of the things that Waldman is wrestling with is the Local/Summer dichotomy. I think she gets that right, though I’m more Summer than Local. Interestingly, her Summer People are Jewish, while my Summer-People experience was as a half-Jewish kid in an enclave of WASPs. If you think I need more blog therapy about that, YOU’RE RIGHT! But not today.

So Waldman’s focus is the Local/Summer relationship, which I tend to think of in my judgmental way as sort of colonial: the Summer People bring necessary dollars and an appalling set of class distinctions to the Local community. But as with most things, it’s more subtle than I’m generally willing to expend the effort to understand. And I think Waldman goes a long way toward expending that effort. She also appears to credibly inhabit the head of the Local mother, though she has said elsewhere that her experience is as a Summer Person.

For all her sensitivity to the Local side of the equation, I was intrigued and pissed off by the way she portrayed the ultimately successful campaign of the Summer family to convince the Local family to permit Samantha — their adopted Cambodian niece and a violin prodigy — to live in New York. Given how hard she was working to balance Local vs. Summer, I kept expecting Local family ties to prevail over the pull of musical excellence. Was it easier to let New York prevail because Samantha had by definition already been uprooted from her birth country? Was it a determination to frustrate the reader’s expectation that family would prevail? Either way, Iris, the Summer mother who leads the campaign to bring Samantha to New York, has to work hard to convince the Local family that life in that city will be better for her — against the explicit objections of the Local mother (Samantha’s aunt) that family is more important. Yet the transition to New York from rural Maine is portrayed as cost-free to Samantha, who is simply thrilled to develop her musical gift and meet other Asian kids in the mix. “[Y]ears later, after she’d graduated from Juilliard, . . . Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D Minor became a staple of her own repertoire, and the basis of her first solo recording.” Without elaboration, we learn that the move is all good — for her and for the musical world.

This touches too glancingly I think on what it means to take a kid from her birth family and raise her somewhere that is judged to be better for her. It is interesting that Samantha has, by definition, been the object of two such decisions: to adopt her from Cambodia; and then to take her from Maine to New York. But I want to talk about another taking that I’m guessing Waldman had no idea she stumbled into: the fact that the last stop on Iris’s campaign of persuasion is with the Cambodian girl’s mother, Connie, a woman with a mental illness who “had been in and out of the psychiatric hospital.” Iris’s pitch centers around the girl’s incredible talent and the vast musical opportunities that she will have in New York that she could not possibly have in Maine. But — in what I perceived as a Local vs. Summer get-out-of-jail-free card — Waldman has Connie hand over Samantha to Iris with this blessing: “I have failed that girl. . . . . I took her in, I made her mine, and then I started to do her damage almost right away.” Iris objects: “You haven’t damaged her.” Connie: “But she will be if I keep her. She’s got a gift, and she deserves to be surrounded by people who understand how good she is. I owe it to her to give her to you.”

As a good liberal, Waldman would likely be aware of the appalling history of, say, Native American adoption — a history in which the state forcibly took Native America children from their families and placed them with white families in the name of providing a “better” upbringing. This program later came to be recognized as misguided and led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

But she appears unaware of the fact that the state still forcibly takes children from parents with disabilities. As recently as last month, authorities in Missouri placed a newborn in foster care because her parents were blind.  A few years ago, Montana authorities investigated the ability of one quadriplegic mother to care for her child while the boyfriend of another, in Illinois, sued for full custody on the theory that she could not care for her child.

My friend Carrie Lucas has established a program called Center for Rights of Parents with Disabilities to tackle these and other issues stemming from the stereotype that people with disabilities can’t be good parents and to help such parents find the community support they need.  The links above show that this is by no means simple territory to write about.  My beef with Waldman is not that she portrayed Samantha’s mother as having a mental illness, but that she so blithely assumed it justified taking her kid. I predict she would not, in this day and age, have a Native American mom tell a white woman, essentially, “I’ve failed her; you take her.”  But that’s precisely what she did with a mom with a disability.

Extra bonus stepping-in-it:  Waldman’s evident ignorance of the independent living movement.  Connie says, of being institutionalized:  “You know why I like it here so much?  . . It’s an asylum.”  Her daughter corrects her:  “It’s a mental health institute . . .” not an asylum.  Connie:  “No, they don’t call it that no more.  But that’s what it is.  An asylum.  A place of refuge, like.  A sanctuary.  It’s a good word, asylum.  I wish people didn’t mind using it.  Most of us could use an asylum sometimes.  A refuge from the world.”    Um, no, but that’s another column entirely.