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Disability Employment: The Chronic Crisis

  • Posted on December 16, 2013 at 10:00 AM

In November 2013, 68.6% of Americans without disabilities participated in the workforce. Only 19.6% of Americans with disabilities participated in the workforce. Of the 68.6% of Americans without disabilities who participated in the workforce, 6.4% of them were unemployed. Of the 19.6% of Americans with disabilities who participated in the workforce, 12.3% of them were unemployed. This isn’t a lingering effect of the recession. This is a chronic problem that has gone on for years.

If it were any other American minority group, there would be public outcry and a demand for action. Unfortunately, people with disabilities don’t warrant that much attention from the general public. Despite the persistent prejudice against people with disabilities:

  • People with disabilities are employable.
  • People with disabilities can make substantial contributions as part of our workforce.
  • There is no excuse for these discrepancies.

I’m not going to dwell on this. The numbers speak for themselves. But I will return later this week with more information.

Voices: Susan Boyle

  • Posted on December 11, 2013 at 10:00 AM

“Celebrity” autism diagnoses aren’t terribly uncommon. Of course, in most “celebrity” diagnoses I’ve seen, it’s the child of a celebrity being diagnosed with autism and the celebrity using their fame to raise awareness and drive for a cure. It’s a relief, then, to see another voice take on the issue from an entirely different celebrity perspective.

Here are some quotes from an interview with Susan Boyle:

“It was the wrong diagnosis when I was a kid,” she says. “I was told I had brain damage. I always knew it was an unfair label. Now I have a clearer understanding of what’s wrong and I feel relieved and a bit more relaxed about myself.”

Unfortunately, this is a common experience for women with Asperger’s. For several reasons, it’s especially difficult to get an accurate diagnosis of autism when you’re a girl. What’s even more unfortunate is that this is still true. We’re making progress, but there’s still an assumption that the autism spectrum is primarily a “place” for boys.

“I am not strong on my own,” she admits. “When I have the support of people around me I am fine. I have a great team.”

There is an assumption that, because people on the autism spectrum have trouble with socialization, they have a lesser need for friends, family, love, fellowship, and all that goes with it. This statement is in direct challenge to that assumption and is consistent with the experience of many people on the spectrum.

“I think people will treat me better because they will have a much greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do.”

I would hope this is true, but considering the lingering prejudice against people with neurological differences, I fear it will not be.

The Employment Conundrum

  • Posted on June 12, 2013 at 10:00 AM

If you’re paying attention to the world of employment, then you might think the tide against homogenous thinking is turning. Maybe it is.

“The multinationals [SAP & Freddie Mac] both say they hope to harness the unique talents of autistic people as well as giving people previously marginalized in the workforce a chance to flourish in a job.” -- Fox News

For those of us who have people with autism in our lives, this may be seen as an opportunity. If you’re an adult with autism, there are people out there who value your unique qualities as employable assets. If you’re the parent of a child with autism, your child might have an employable future. This should be seen as good news, right?

I’ve read a variety of articles that communicate a changing trend. I’ve seen universities, employers, and other organizations all expressing their perception of the value of people with autism. As a neurodiversity advocate, this seems very much like what I’ve been working for, hoping for, fighting for. But then I remember that what I really want is a chance for my children, and everyone like them, to be valued for who they are.

You see, there’s a problem with all of this. I feel it like a shadow creeping up behind me. I feel it like slimy fingers along my spine. I feel it like the brush of coarse fabric against my skin.

Is valuing someone because they are autistic any better than NOT valuing someone because they’re autistic? Either way, it’s judging someone’s value based on a preconceived notion of who that person is and what they can or should be able to do. In other words, it’s prejudice.

I get the same creepy crawly feeling when I hear affirmative action expressed as a good thing. I’m sorry, but how is judging someone favorably for their race any less an act of racial prejudice, especially when it means judging someone else unfavorably for their race?

On the one hand, if we do nothing, then people with autism will still be marginalized. On the other hand, if we convince people in power that people with autism have a peculiar set of traits that can add value to their workforce, then…people with autism will still be marginalized, but at least some of them will be employed.

Practically speaking, I recognize that there is a real-world trade-off going on here. I recognize that, as abhorrent as the practice may seem to me, affirmative action serves a purpose. I recognize that marginalized but employed is better than marginalized and unemployed.

But, aside from these practical realities, the truth is this doesn’t change anything. The real problem isn’t simply that people with autism are unemployed or that people who are not white are less favorably employed than people who are white. These very real, life-altering hardships are symptoms, both of them, of a much bigger cultural disease.

Prejudice is alive and well in our cultures. Prejudice has a deep, lasting, traumatic, and obviously negative impact on the lives of real people. The cure to this cultural disease, the cure to prejudice, is not to tweak prejudice to be more favorable. The cure to this cultural disease is for everyone within the culture to open their eyes and see a fellow human being—not a white male or a black female or a black male autistic or whatever other boxes you might put a person in.

I don’t care what your skin color is, what your diagnosis is, or whether you have a diagnosis. You have value. You have something you can contribute to society. You have a reasonable expectation to earn a living contributing in some fashion to society. When applying for a job, you should be judged solely on whether or not you can do the job that needs to be done.

Granted, in certain cases, designing jobs that meet organizational needs and yet accommodate for existing weaknesses is a very good thing. I’m all for it. Until you stick a label on it. As soon as you designate that job to a certain label, you dehumanize the people who can do the job with the accommodations in place. The fact is there are people who are similar to people with autism who do not qualify for or do not have access to an autism diagnosis. Some of them have other diagnoses. Some of them have none. Can they do the job? Can they benefit from the accommodations? Does a label really matter? The fact is that the label only matters in a world where prejudice reigns.

Connecting the Isms

  • Posted on November 1, 2012 at 11:11 PM

What does it take to hate someone you don’t know? What does it take to dismiss someone you don’t know as unimportant or unacceptable? What does it take to merely underestimate them?

Racism and sexism are the two major instances of this in this country. But “we” also hate, dismiss, and/or underestimate people for their religion, for their political affiliations, for their country of origin, or even for their sports team. “We” hate, dismiss, and/or underestimate people for their abilities and their impairments.

Why? What does that prejudice get “us?” There’s got to be some sort of motivation, doesn’t there? To continue holding onto a prejudice, you either have to be exposed exclusively to examples that fit your expectations or you have to resist being corrected by your own experience, by the logic and experiences shared by others, and by a lot of other information that is available in order to hold onto something that makes no sense.

People hurt others through prejudice and acts of prejudice, through bullying and teasing, through abuse and neglect. The only connection I can find is an under-appreciation of life—particularly other people’s lives—and an over-emphasis on self.

What is this but a lack of empathy? Yet, it’s perfectly “normal,” so normal it’s rampant in our society and in many others. Is this what people strive for when they try to make their children “normal?” Why?

Our Hidden History

  • Posted on October 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM

In an effort to prepare for Willy’s appointment with the geneticist, I pulled the major records from all three boys’ medical files. Each packet of documents in these old files corresponds with a story point on the memoir I’m writing, but I hadn’t pulled any of them yet. For a while, I just re-read what had been said and what had been determined. I spent a little longer on Ben’s, because getting an accurate diagnosis was a bit more difficult with him. I thought about the moments and the hardships that had gone along with each of those packets of papers.

Reading them again, I was surprised at the hidden prejudice I saw so clearly. Alex, who is the most severely autistic of my children, was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, not autism. Though his verbal and nonverbal communication delays are extreme, he’s more socially-inclined than expected of an autistic individual. His ability to engage socially is impaired, but his desire to engage socially (with adults) is not. For this reason, he did not meet the criteria of autism.

As time has passed, as their skills have improved, neither Willy nor Ben showed this dramatic decreased desire to socialize that was expected of Alex in order to obtain an autism diagnosis. Their ability to socialize is impaired, and this ability is impaired in some different ways than Alex’s is, but the desire is there and it has always been there with all three boys in one way or another. Just not the “normal” ways.

One thing my husband and I learned early on is that if we wanted to engage our children in a social way, we’d have to do so where they are, which wasn’t where we’d expected them to be and it certainly wasn’t where we were. So, we adapted. With Willy, we were able to adapt the most successfully, because we could understand what motivated him. With Ben, we were able to adapt with moderate success, because we could understand enough of what motivated him to do so. With Alex, we’re still trying to figure out what motivates him. We’re still adapting. He’s still very much where he is, and we have to come to him to make the connection—but sometimes he just seems out of our reach.

The motivation is there, but with such a severe communication disability, we can’t quite make the fully satisfying connection that Alex craves.

The possibility exists that part of the reason that Alex struggles as much as he does is because he’s having seizures that we’ve failed to recognize. Until we saw this neurologist, the possibility of seizures—of Alex having seizures “now,” instead of developing them later—was never mentioned. He was never tested for “hidden” seizures, because we didn’t know that he should be. The more I read about epilepsy, the more I wonder: Is this the missing piece? Is this the key?

We won’t know until after a few more appointments—one for the initial evaluation and one for the video EEG and one for the post-evaluation, and possibly more in between—the first of which has been scheduled for early December.

Flipping back through these packets of information, I read the doctors’ words and there are passages that slap me in the face. These assessments that we endured to get where we are now were wrought with prejudice: Everything about them is underwritten with the assumption that it is wrong to be autistic. And what’s worse, the answers these assessments provided might not even be enough.

Since almost the beginning, I recognized my children as neurologically different or neurodiverse, and yet it’s only within the last few months—with the onset of epilepsy—that I’ve taken any of my boys to a neurologist. Always, it’s been psychologists. When I define autism for publication, I start by referencing the DSM-IV, a psychology manual. Throughout this time I’ve been suspicious of psychology, of the nature of the discipline, of its start with Freud, of its connection to eugenics, of its overzealous classification of “disorder.” And yet, here I am, realizing with not a small bit of guilt, that I’ve been enabling them to define autism for my children, for my family, and even for my writing. I’ve been enabling them to define, despite my resistance, the nature of my children’s being. I’ve been enabling them to set value (rather, lack thereof) on their worth.

I can justify it. The neurologists were always too difficult to get to. The referrals were always for psychologists. The system funneled me in this direction, and to get my boys’ the services and accommodations they needed I had to work within the system. I know why I did what I did.

But it all sounds hollow now. Empty. Mistaken and misguided.

What if, this whole time, Alex was having untreated seizures? What if treating those seizures empowers Alex to make the connections that have so long eluded us all?

Whether that’s true or not, I can’t help but feel that, despite my best efforts, I’ve failed my sons.

A Matter of Perspective

  • Posted on February 13, 2012 at 8:00 AM

I’m rather partial to my mind.  I’d hate to lose it.  I’m not talking crazy; I could do crazy.  I’m talking dementia.  I would hate to lose my mind to dementia.  Second to that, I’d hate to be blind.  Perhaps being blind would be worse, because I’d know I was blind—I might not know I’d lost my mind if it happens quick enough.

I can imagine how bad it would be to be blind.  I would cope, I guess, but it would be a lesser life.  It would be an exaggeration to say words are my life, but I’m not sure how much of an exaggeration.  Certainly, words are a very big portion of my life—written words.  If I had to consume my words by ear, well, that just wouldn’t be good enough.

Now, I’ve probably pissed a lot of people off with those admissions, but I’m not done yet.  Take a deep breath.  It gets better.

From my perspective, as a person with full and free use of my sight (excluding the whole glasses thing)—as someone who has built a life revolving around the use of my sight to do my work and to enjoy my leisure activities—it would be awful to be blind.

But just because I think it would be awful to be blind doesn’t mean it is awful for someone who is blind to be blind.

I am the mother of three children with autism.  My children’s disabilities range from relatively mild—though, not as mild as it seems to me—to relatively severe.  People pity me.  From their perspective, I’ve got it hard.  Ours is a hard, hard life—tragically hard, really.  I know, because people have told me so a thousand different times in a thousand different ways.  Probably more than that, actually, since I never really counted the times or the ways; besides, I’m not good with math.  Anyway, I’ve been told that my life is awfully hard a lot.  We’ll stick with that.  So, yeah, where was I…oh, yeah, our life is hard.  Hard.  HARD.  HARD.

Except it’s not.  Not really.  At least, well, sometimes it is, but so is everyone else’s, so there.

My brother just had another accident.  He slipped.  For me, slipping—unless it involves falling down the stairs and breaking my wrist—is no big deal.  I just get up.  You see, I don’t have a chronically damaged knee.  My brother does.  So, his slip is a big deal.  He slips and he sprains his knee so bad that it keeps him home from work, except he can’t stay home from work long enough to heal.  He needs knee surgery, but he’s too young for knee surgery.  So, he has to live with it.  Chronic pain.  Chronic risk of further injury.  Now, that’s hard!

My cousin has problems with her gall bladder.  So do I.  Mine’s been spitting out stones since I was pregnant with Ben (he’s nine, btw).  But she also has chronic back pain, which is worse.  Seriously bad back problems.  And two kids, one with special needs.  Now, that’s hard!

And it is.  My brother’s life is hard.  My cousin’s life is hard.  My life is hard.  But not in the ways we’re prone to assuming when we look at each other’s lives.  We look at other people’s pain and other people’s hardships and we say things like…I could never do that.

I could never stand being blind.

But, if it happened, I would and I would keep working to raise my family and I would keep working to share my words and I’d find a way to “read” the words of others.  It would be hard.  But it’s all a matter of perspective.  We can’t fairly judge the quality of someone else’s life by how hard we imagine it to be.  That doesn’t really work.

People assume that the way to make my life less hard would be to cure autism.  People have told me this is true many, many times—though, not thousands, because I’ve learned the warning signs and I’ve learned to walk away whenever possible when those words are coming.  The point is, this assumption is all wrong.  If you ask me how to make my life less hard, then you’ll learn the answer has nothing to do with autism.  In fact, it’s very similar to the answer you’d get from a lot of Americans right now.

What would make my life less hard?  My life and the life of the family I support would be less hard if I had the financial resources to support my family better.  It’s really that simple and that common.

I don’t assume that my fears of blindness properly reflect the experiences of someone who is actually blind.  In fact, because I’ve listened to people who are blind I know that they don’t.  So, instead of assuming that your fears of autism properly reflect my experiences as the parent of three children with autism, try listening.  You don’t get to dictate the quality of our lives on your own terms.


  • Posted on January 18, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Worthiness is a concept that haunts much of human existence.  In a world of finite resources, we cannot seem to grasp the infinite worth of our fellow human beings.  Being creatures of such a world, even our religions reflect our desire to designate worthy and unworthy human beings.  Science does no better in this regard.  Politics often does worse.

People define worthy attributes in myriad ways.  For some, the predominant consideration is genealogy.  Genealogical worthiness permeates much of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and it has hardened the hearts of many Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  There are those who are worthy and there are those who are Gentiles; there are those who are worthy and there are those who are infidels.  (Christians use both terms to describe those who are unworthy, plus they have the legacy of Election—which I do not claim to understand.)

Genealogical worthiness is also present in science, though perhaps it could be better called gene-o-logical, since scientists tend to be less concerned with the specific ancestors from whom you’ve sprung and more concerned with the actual genes you’ve inherited.

Genealogical worthiness also permeates politics.  Both Nationalism (which can have some positive aspects to it) and genocide (which is 100% negative) are products of political ideas of genealogical worthiness.  But there are others.  Eugenics was a strange hybrid of politics and science, and its effects linger in contemporary politics despite the many efforts to destroy this debunked theory.

But genealogical worthiness is far from the only consideration.  After all, nobody chooses their genealogy and many of us are willing to give at least a little consideration to choice.  Those who choose to pursue higher education are often considered “more worthy” than those who don’t—considerations of equal opportunity are often negated in these arguments.  Those who choose to purchase responsibly are often considered “more worthy” than those who don’t—what makes a worthy purchase depends, of course, on the prevailing perspective, from the responsible use of credit to green living and many considerations in between.

And, of course, worthiness is also a matter of ability.  Those who are able are obviously more worthy than those who aren’t—and for many this belief is so obvious, so strongly assumed, that the assumptions it is based on are never even questioned.

The worthiness of people with autism is degraded on all three counts.  Genealogically or gene-o-logically, autistics are inferior.  There’s something wrong with the genes and that makes them at least susceptible to autism.  Shame on them.  They’re not worthy.  But, of course, being autistic—at least, acting autistic is a choice.  Passing—the contemporary equivalent to being cured—is a choice.  It’s a choice to do the work to be able to pass and it’s a choice to do the work to actually pass.  Those who fail to pass have made the wrong choices—opportunity, or lack thereof, to learn effective passing strategies is irrelevant, because if they really wanted to learn, then they would have.  Choosing not to pass makes them unworthy.  Shame on them.  Finally, ability makes them unworthy.  They are not as able as neurologically typical people, and they should be.  They should be able to mingle successfully in a crowded room full of noisy party-goers.  They should be able to sit quietly in a classroom and absorb the teacher’s lectures like a sponge.  They should be able to hold down a job without accommodations—who do they think they are to ask, they’re not even worthy to have a job considering how many able people are out of work.  Shame on them.  Strike one, strike two, strike three, autism is out.

The above paragraph is, of course, an illustrative example.  I believe it happens; I believe people think like that.  But I am not one of them.

Human worth cannot truly and accurately be measured by our genealogy (or gene-o-logy).  Human worth cannot truly and accurately be measured by our choices, at least not without considering our genuine opportunities and our unique circumstances.  (And it shouldn’t be about how much we choose to accomplish in order to “prove” our worth, but whether we choose to hurt others for personal pleasure and gain.)  Human worth most certainly cannot be measured by our abilities.

Hello, I am the mother of three children with autism.  I am worthy to live, to reproduce, and to raise my children.  All four of my children are worthy of living, dreaming, loving, and having opportunities for personal growth and betterment.  Whether you are autistic or not, you are worthy.  Whether you are college educated or not, you are worthy.  Whether you are rich and powerful or not, you are worthy.  Whether you are able to live a normal and independent life or not, you are worthy.

You are of infinite worth beyond human imagination just for being you.  And so is everyone else.

Imminent Burn-Out? (Part 3—My Panicky Aftermath)

  • Posted on November 18, 2011 at 12:00 PM

So, I knew I was adjacent to the autism spectrum and then, I read Rachel’s The Uncharted Path. I read about how she once had a lot more functioning capabilities, which she lost, and how she attributed that loss to burn-out.

I admit, when I first read that, I panicked for a good, long while. I wrote a lengthy post in near-hysterics about what Rachel said and what I feared. The post was highly emotional, a bit incoherent, and I asked my husband for his opinion before posting it. He agreed that I shouldn’t post it at this sensitive juncture (a reference you will either understand or not).

You see, it’s not that I’m afraid of being disabled. I’m not afraid of losing the ability to do things that I can do now. For me, unless I die very young, that’s inevitable. I’m a writer and I’m already showing signs of arthritis. I’m 32 years old. I use my hands and brain, almost exclusively to any other part of my body, for hours at a time several times a day, every day. So, unless I die young or arthritis is cured, I will lose the ability to work as I do now. I’ve looked ahead to that future, acknowledged that it will slow me down, and committed myself to not letting it stop me. If I lose enough functioning to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I can do the same. It’s not me I’m worried about.

There is a powerful, local government agency that has the authority—with few checks and balances—to remove children from the home of their parents. Here it is called Child Protective Services. For most of my teenage and adult life (the parts of my life that I was at all cognizant of their work), I was fully on-board with their mission. I’ve seen abuse. I know what it does to kids. I’ve seen kids have their lives ruined by abusive parents. I’ve seen some kids reclaim their lives, either as children or as adults. I’ve seen some people who struggle with reclaiming their lives every day of their lives. And I’ve seen some people who either don’t know reclamation is possible or have given up or continue to live in abusive situations their entire lives. I’ve seen it. I know. So, how could CPS be a bad thing?

For the same reason that autism advocacy is necessary at all. I was told: “No family should be burdened with three children with autism.” I was told: “The goal of therapy is to help your children become indistinguishable from their peers.” The person who said these words had tremendous influence with the local CPS agency, and when we didn’t comply with her “suggestions” to prioritize normalization or clinicalize our home, she called CPS—repeatedly. And they sided with her—completely. If they could, they would have removed the boys and put them in group homes for children with disabilities where they would live until they were normalized enough to be put into foster care. This was explained rather explicitly. Luckily, they couldn’t fabricate a case strong enough to make that happen.

But what if I burned-out? What if I became sufficiently disabled to qualify for an autism diagnosis? It would all start up again. The person in question would, if she became aware of it, begin harassing my family all over again. And I don’t think the autism advocacy movements have made enough progress for my family to survive the encounter.

So, I panicked.

The Big One

  • Posted on March 25, 2011 at 1:06 PM

We were in the waiting area at the doctor’s office.  Ben needed a check-up before the doctor could sign the liability release form, which was required by the special horse-back riding center Ben and Alex are going to visit with their classmates.  While I’m rather doubtful that they’ll get either Alex or Ben on a horse…it’s important that the boys go.  It’s important that they try.

So, we were waiting.  A young man in a wheelchair who also had visible disabilities of the cognitive/developmental variety was also waiting.  Ben squirmed past him to scooch as close to the fish tanks as possible.  The young man smiled and laughed, gesturing at a fish in the tank.  Ben peered closely at another fish.  They shared the same space and the same interest and they were both fine with that.

Another little boy also occupied the waiting room.  He seemed quite normal: talkative, inquisitive, and sociable.  I watched Ben (while also giving him room to explore) from my place on the other side of the room to ensure he didn’t become a threat to the young man.  I overheard, from the other side of the room, the little boy’s mother answer a question in a not-quiet-enough voice, saying, “Well, there’s probably something wrong with his brain.”  I cringed.  The young man’s mother didn’t even flinch.  Maybe she didn’t hear.  Maybe she was so absorbed with her son that she didn’t listen.  Maybe she was so used to it she’d learned not to react.  Before I could come up with a response, Ben was off and so was I.

Later, after the young man had gone in to his appointment, the little boy came up to Ben and started talking to him.  While Ben will speak on occasion, he does not engage in these random social exchanges yet.  I told the little boy that Ben doesn’t talk much.  The little boy was rather disappointed.  He seemed to want someone to engage him—like entertainment, but with people.  And the little boy compared Ben to “the big one.” 

I suppose there are worse things he could have called the young man, but I couldn’t help but cringe again.  Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it seemed a very inhuman way to refer to another person.

“The big one.”  Not “the big guy” or “the older boy” or even “the boy in the wheelchair.”  The little boy called the young man “the big one.”  So impersonal, so dehumanizing, so much like a thing instead of a person.

However busy Ben was being, I felt like this was a moment I couldn’t pass up.  So, I agreed that Ben was a lot like the young man—neither of them talked much, but they both had their own interests and they liked to play.  I told him Ben was autistic and that meant that he was still learning to talk.  I also prompted Ben to say, “Please let me go,” which is one of the phrases we’ve been working on and one I knew Ben would be motivated to say, since I pulled him away from the spinning circles he had racing each other for the few seconds it took to give him the prompt, have him speak, and then let him go.

Ben continued to play.  The little boy continued to ask questions.  I answered, building the concept of respecting people with differences slowly and subtly into our conversation.  Neither the little boy nor his mother seemed to understand what I was doing; they weren’t “against” it, but the idea of making “others” seem familiar and likable seemed foreign to them.

Behind me a mother sat with a boy who was too old to play with the preschool toys, but not quite as old as the young man.  This mother engaged in our little exchange, adding her own comments and observations to reinforce the subtle message I was trying to share with the little boy.  Her son didn’t participate directly, but his smiles and facial expressions seemed to indicate that he “got” it.

Then, the little boy was called to his appointment and the moment was over.  I don’t know if my efforts did any lasting good.  But I hope so.  For a moment, someone who was different was a person in this little boy’s eyes.  Ben didn’t talk, but he played and singed and liked things the little boy could understand.  All the while Ben played on, seemingly unaware.  Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Ben flashed a smile for the other mom sitting in the background.  But maybe not.  Ben doesn’t speak much, but he understands a lot more than most people give him credit for (and I suspect the young man does, too).  So, perhaps I taught my son a little about self-advocacy while reaching out to a little boy who needed a little help to see a person in someone who couldn’t talk like him.

Review: Fringe: Os

  • Posted on March 14, 2011 at 9:59 AM

One of the television shows I watch online is called Fringe.  For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it’s a sci-fi/thriller that tells the story of two alternate universes colliding.  The story is told through the viewpoints of a special division of Homeland Security/FBI, starring Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop, John Noble as Walter Bishop, Jasika Nicole as Astrid Farnsworth, and Lance Reddick as Philip Broyles.

This series compels me on many levels.  As a science fiction piece, it questions scientific progress and the limits we place on ourselves (or fail to place on ourselves) based on moral and ethical grounds.  As a drama, it explores the complex relationships of Walter and Peter Bishop, who are father and son, touching on issues as heart-rending as abuse, kidnapping, and the need for time to develop deep familial bonds.  It also explores the love-story between Peter and Olivia.  As a social commentary, it not only explores the good vs. evil dynamic, but questions what truly is evil by showing how two diametrically opposed forces can be both right and wrong simultaneously.  It also explores how we, as a society, respond to and treat the mentally ill.  Walter is insane, and his experiences are highlighted in many episodes—from his frustration when coping with his impaired thought processes to the way the “treatments” he received during his forced institutionalization caused more harm than good, from the way his son feels put-upon by having to “babysit” his father to Olivia’s insistence that Walter is more capable than Peter gives him credit for.  There are many compelling elements to this story, and its complexity has sometimes excused them dropping the ball in one way or another (at least, in my opinion).

However, I’m less forgiving regarding the most recent episode, Os (Season 3, Episode 16), which involves a man experimenting on disabled individuals (users of wheelchairs, particularly those with muscular dystrophy) to “fix” their mobility problems by making them essentially weightless.  While the man considers his a noble effort to “save” his son the treatments are unfortunately toxic and have killed several people.  The man intends to perfect the mixture by continuing his deadly experiments before he administers it to his son, who also uses a wheelchair.

I would like to say this show passes.  There is one poignant scene where the son, for whom the man has done all of this, comes to the prison to see his father.  The father uses “fix” in his explanation, and the son is devastated when he realizes his father sees him (and others like him) as broken and in need of fixing.  The son tells his father he was happy, because he went to bed every night knowing he had a father who loved him.  The implication as the son rolls away is that the son no longer believes this.

This scene—which is the final point of this particular storyline—could make up for a lot.  But, it’s not enough.  While the characters regret the deaths of those who were experimented on, earlier in the episode Peter describes their willingness to participate as “a deal with the devil anyone would make,” referring to how the subjects, i.e. the disabled men who became weightless, had to steal the ingredients for their treatment.  After all, who wouldn’t want to go from being bound in a wheelchair to being able to fly?  That kind of ablist assumption is intolerable, especially coming from one of the heroes of the story.

Compounding that is the language used in the show recap (emphasis added):

“Meanwhile, Krick watches a wheelchair basketball game, cheering on a player named Michael, who turns out to be his son. Vince, another wheelchair-bound youth, watches wistfully nearby.”

“The doctor dodges Olivia and Peter, who find the thief's partially dissected corpse ... and a walk-in freezer containing more bodies. All had toxic levels of osmium in their blood - and suffered from muscular dystrophy.”

I’ll give them credit for trying—I think the creators of the show really did try to express something of value—but, they failed to overcome their own ablist assumptions, which spoiled the final effect.  In essence, it is not the father’s motivation or his assumptions that are questioned, but the lengths to which he would go—sacrificing other people’s sons to save his own—that are discouraged.  The final confrontation between father and son cannot make up for the majority of the episode, which reinforced the assumption that people with disabilities are dying to become able-bodied and justifiably so.