Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Power, Disability, and The Realities of Consent

Image of Mu, a Hispanic presenting biracial child at age four with short wavy hair wearing a maroon T-shirt, his head
resting on the blue metal rung of the slide he is climbing at one of his favorite playgrounds. Tennis courts can be seen in the background. Image posted with permission of the subject: ©Kerima Cevik 
Over the past decade, I frequently posted the same few photographs of my son on my blogs and social media, and people would occasionally ask why I didn't post more. There are photographs of my son that he likes, and images he does not like. Sometimes I like images he does not. However, I do not have his consent to post the ones he does not like, even if I think my preferences matter. I now ask my children, both the adult and the disabled teen, for permission before I post any photos of them on any public forum. It isn't something I gave enough thought to before the arrival of this age of deep fakes/extreme photo editing/child predators/online stalking/revenge porn/etc, but it is something I am really concerned about now. I spend serious time agonizing over these questions:

Does my nonspeaking autistic son really know what it means that his images are on the Internet forever? Have I been able to successfully explain the Internet enough for him to understand the implications of what that means to him?

This is really important. Where do my parental rights to share my children's photos end and their rights to individual privacy begin? I decided to write about this on the heels of witnessing a parent doing something we parents do a great deal automatically with little regard to the consequences. We proudly display photographs of our kids during the rite of passage events in their lives. And if our kids are autistic, we insist that come hell or high water, they are going to get their rite of passage event photos too, and we are going to splash them all over social media. But should we do this without their consent? And what about their worst moments? Should we record and broadcast those moments for all the world to see?

As my Autistic son is dependent on my care and support, this means I have the power in our relationship. I need to grasp that when I ask a question, he may be afraid I won't like his honest answer. I have to make certain that when I ask my disabled teen son a question, I ensure he is not answering to make me feel better or because he is afraid of giving an answer I won't like.

What are the repercussions if an Autistic teen does not support what their parents are saying or doing? They may lose quality-of-care, affection, support,  even a safe home. They may be institutionalized for being noncompliant. It doesn't take verbal speech for anyone in a position of complete dependence to grasp this. We can't assume that we have their approval or consent unless we have spent years building a trust relationship with them. They must know its okay to say or gesture "no" to you without retaliation.

Autism consultant Carol Greenberg pointed out that even with precautions, what we parents believe is consent may be compromised by a lifetime of compliance training, trauma, and other factors that might keep our autistic loved one from giving an honest response to our requests.

I have seen recent instances of parents putting their reluctant autistic teens through rites of passage events, then broadcasting them in the hope they will become viral. What disturbed me about these events was the storytelling language usage by the parents that left the autistic teen a voiceless prop in their own event, the way the parents allowed coverage of each event without regard to their autistic teens feelings on what content and how much content should be disclosed (one autistic teen's mother bragged about calling boys in her daughter's high school class trying to get one of them to take her to the prom), and the infantilization of the autistic person involved.

And what about autistic people of color who have become public figures after catastrophic harm? While it is important that we know what has happened to them and what is being done to rectify the harm or seek justice, how far can anyone reporting these traumas and their aftereffects go in discussing private health information on public forums without that disabled person's consent?

I've written about Arnaldo Rios-Soto. He was the subject of a podcast, and there was a moment in that podcast episode that some reviewers didn't grasp the need for but for me could be called the pivotal moment of the entire podcast.

It happened during then WNYC reporter Audrey Quinn's interview of disability justice advocate Lydia X.Z. Brown, Esq, on the podcast "Aftereffect." Brown was asked to comment on their view of other's information about Arnaldo's behavior.

Brown responded. "I don't know Arnaldo personally, and I think it's inappropriate to be talking about Arnaldo specifically at his worst moments in such a public forum. Because I wouldn't want someone doing that to me. Don't be a predatory reporter."

When professor Quinn pressed on about third-hand information regarding Arnaldo's behavioral history, Brown answered: "Is that something that Arnaldo has given you permission to talk about publicly? Because that's a really important question."

This was a clear reference to Arnaldo's right to give or deny consent. Gaining Arnaldo's consent was something Quinn agonized about doing. I wondered why an attempt wasn't made with the support of a Speech pathologist, using the methods of communication already familiar to Arnaldo, for example,  by presenting him with a very brief, illustrative YouTube video in Spanish. What many journalists reviewing the podcast didn't understand was how groundbreaking an interview that emphasized the need to gain the consent of a disabled involuntary public figure to share private information about their behavioral health during moments of complex post-traumatic stress was.

So let's think about why I'm saying this. Disability justice advocate Brown demanded Arnaldo's behavioral health history not be debated or discussed with strangers in a public forum without his consent. They reminded Quinn that people who have survived trauma will react to trauma (that is what post-traumatic stress disorder literally means) and that such reactions should not be fuel for victim-blaming or mislabeling survivors. They also reminded Quinn that disabled people are people, and like all people, disabled people can be violent, abusive, terrible or compliant, kind, and passive.

Chanel Miller's identity was protected during the trial of her attacker. She made a decision to disclose her identity and gain control of the narrative about her experience as the victim of a violent crime. Arnaldo, I realized, was never given that privilege, something that regardless of his degree of disability and CPTSD, he should have had the right to do.

Sometimes people end up memes or subjects of viral social media content and lose agency over a moment in their lives forever. For our offspring, who are forced to live in social structures built to deny them any agency in their own lives, it is up to us to do whatever we must to ensure we truly have their consent to present them in public forums.

In lieu of general comments, I hope to hear recommendations on how parents can facilitate their offspring's right to give consent even when that person is a nonspeaking autistic youth or adult, and how to support ID/DD children so they gain the confidence to give or deny consent. This also needs to be a discussion on how to help parents reduce fear so they learn to respect a denial of consent from their disabled children.


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