Hesse’s op-ed unfairly reinforces stigmas against people with disabilities

William Pan/Staff

As members of the Faculty Coalition for Disability Rights, or FCDR, we write in response to Dean Carla Hesse’s op-ed “Mutual respect must inform any solution,” published April 12 in The Daily Californian. Not only does the article use language that is actively harmful to people with disabilities, it uses, however unwittingly, the trope of psychiatric disability to deflect attention away from the serious issue of sexual harassment.

First, there is the tired cliche “to turn a blind eye,” an idiom that equates blindness with obliviousness, ignorance and prejudice. While not referring directly to actual blind people, it reinforces the negative perception that blind and visually impaired people must be less competent than sighted people.

Then there is the anecdote about the man ejected from the Cafe “Depresso,” a vignette that depends for its force upon a prior equation of “crazy” with anti-social, bad, scary and not belonging. People with psychiatric disabilities are hurt daily by this kind of casual slur. This kind of dehumanization has real consequences: According to the Washington Post, 324 individuals with mental illness were killed by police in 2015. People with psychiatric disabilities are actually more likely than others to be the targets — not the perpetrators — of violence.

But most troubling is how the article uses a rhetorical tactic to distract us from tackling the real issue of sexual harassment. It’s doubtful that readers imagine the “slightly deranged middle-aged man” at the cafe as the high-level administrator out to get his morning latte, who will later go on to harass his executive  assistant. “Harasser” and “respectable” are not contradictions in terms.

One of the recently revealed cases of sexual harassment involved a former counselor in the Disabled Students Program who worked with students with psychiatric disabilities. Here again, the person with the psychiatric disability was the victim, not the perpetrator.  The revelations of this case have been traumatic for many people on campus. What steps will the campus take to address the damaging reverberations of this incident?

The telling of meaningful and memorable anecdotes, particularly with illustrative flourishes, should not be at the cost of people whose bodies and minds are so often demonized by such flourishes, nor should such anecdotes be used as stories of mere tolerance. These stories fail to enact the respect they mean to call for.


—The Faculty Coalition for Disability Rights

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