16 January, 2015

The Sublime Mysteries of Belugitude

I am working on a blog and possible video series (the video part is probably a lie) about my adventures with my boss Anna. It is called Belugaville because I like to pretend that Anna and I are beluga whales. I mostly just wanted to make blogs and videos about it because Anna and I are so adorable and have so much fun, but I was also hoping it could have an educational component so people could see that having a disability doesn't prevent you from kicking back and eating some scrambled eggs.

(A drawing of a floating beluga feeding eggs to a beluga in a wheelchair.)

Anyway, I wrote a long and extremely verbose description of Anna's disabilities and my disabilities, which I'm sure would just serve to distract people from how adorable our blog is going to be, so I'm posting it here in case people who love words think it is interesting.


 (A photo of Anna sitting on the couch and looking very solemnly at the Christmas tree.)

Anna has a rare developmental disability called Aicardi Syndrome. People ask what her disability is and then are surprised when it doesn't answer their questions, but this shouldn't really be surprising. Even if someone has a common disability like Down Syndrome or autism, the label doesn't tell you much.

I don't mean this in a politically correct way like disabilities don't matter, but most developmental disabilities affect a lot of things, so it's more like someone has a lot of different disabilities instead of just one, and all the disabilities could be at different levels of severity. I think it's easier to just talk about what a person needs help with.

"What does Anna need help with?" Anna needs help with eating, walking, and most other physical tasks. You could also say that she needs help making decisions, but it's more that she is not able to communicate what she wants very easily. She can't talk, write, or use sign language.

You can learn a lot about a person by watching their expressions and what they do, but this is a little different with Anna. She often gets stuck and takes a long time to move somewhere she wants to go, or grab something she wants. I think she also is very much in the present and is focused on holding and looking at things instead of using movement to communicate an idea. In other ways, she can be detached from the present--she sometimes looks serious while something is happening, but smiles and laughs when the event is mentioned later, giving the impression that she really liked it. So it's hard to figure out what Anna likes, even by watching her expressions and behavior.

One of the very confusing things about Anna is that she sends mixed signals. For example, she always pushes food away at first, but if you make her eat a bite, she might like it. When she likes it, she sometimes grabs your hand and brings the food to her mouth. But other times, she continues pushing her favorite foods away even though she is smiling, and if you make her eat more of them, she laughs and dances. I think Anna is kind of a troll sometimes. If she looks serious, clamps her mouth shut, and pushes the food away really hard, then we know that she truly doesn't want it.

This means that Anna's parents and assistants have to play a guessing game to figure out what she wants. We have to pay attention to her behavior, but also realize that her behavior doesn't always tell the whole story. We have to remember what she liked and didn't like in the past, so we can guess what she might like in the future.

What isn't clear in my description is that Anna has a very big personality and strong preferences, even though she is hard to understand. That is one of the sublime mysteries of belugitude. We do know a lot about her. Her favorite foods are yellow curry, guacamole, grilled cheese, and scrambled eggs. She likes music, dancing, parties, applause, and restaurants. She likes going out, but loves coming home and curling up on the couch or in her tent bed.

Anna sleeps in a tent because she has seizures, which I forgot to mention. When she was growing up, she used to have a lot more seizures and she could have them at any time. She had to wear a helmet everywhere and she didn't like that. When she was a teenager, she had so many seizures that she stopped being able to walk by herself and started having more trouble with a lot of things.

When Anna got older, she stopped having as many seizures. They also started to only happen when she was sleeping, which is great because she can't hit her head on anything in the tent or on the couch. She is happy that she doesn't have to wear a helmet anymore. After Anna finished school and didn't have to get up in the morning, it turned out that she likes to sleep until early afternoon. Now that she's able to sleep as much as she wants, she has even fewer seizures. I didn't know Anna when she was having so many seizures, but her parents say that she walks better now and is more clear headed and energetic.

Objectively, Anna still has a lot of seizures; she has a few a week. She takes a lot of seizure medications and she has a magnet in her chest that sends electricity to her brain to try and control the seizures, so she is basically a cyborg. One of the biggest problems for Anna is that when she has a seizure, she can't fall back to sleep for a day or two. She ends up having a hard time because she is so tired. We usually stick to our usual routine as much as possible, even though she can't participate as much when she is tired.

We do a lot of things. We go to a group for people with disabilities who are learning to use communication devices; we go swimming; and we go to drama classes for disabled people that are offered by the City College of San Francisco. We hang out with Anna's friends and their assistants, with Anna's parents, or by ourselves. Last year we went twice to the Frozen Sing-Along at the Castro Theater and Anna was very excited by the scenes with the trolls, probably because she is always trolling and could relate to them. We also went on Anna's favorite public access TV show, Dance Party, which is just what it sounds like. Anna also likes to spend time in her neighborhood, visiting her favorite stores and being greeted by her adoring public.

People ask if Anna can understand what they're saying, and if she understands what's going on. It's probably clear by now that we don't really know the answer to that. In special education, it's considered best practice to make "the least dangerous assumption." An example of a dangerous assumption would be if we all decided that Anna couldn't understand anything, so we just didn't talk to her at all, and we talked about scary and upsetting things in front of her without considering how she would feel about it.

This is done to a lot of people who can't talk. Sometimes, people start talking or typing when they're older and they reveal how horrible it was when people treated them like they weren't there. Even if Anna doesn't understand anything, she still probably wants people to pay attention to her and interact with her. But I don't think that's true; I think she understands a lot.

I don't know if it is like this, but I usually assume that Anna can understand things as much as I can when I'm drunk. So I assume that she might enjoy hearing about things but she might miss some of the details, or sometimes she might be tuned out and thinking about something else, which is fine. I love talking, so I just ramble to her about everything I can think of. Poor Anna.


(A photo of Amanda sitting with a beagle standing on her lap.)

I have a very common disability, autism. Before I worked for Anna, I rarely told anyone I worked for that I'm Autistic. A lot of people stereotype Autistic people as being violent or self-centered, so I knew it would make it harder for me to get and keep a job. This is especially true because I'm not in a stereotypically Autistic line of work, like computer programming. And since I work with quote unquote "vulnerable populations," being perceived as violent, or even selfish, would be even more of a problem than in other jobs.

Since I was hiding my disability, I had two consistent problems in all my jobs:

1. I couldn't get accommodations or ask for help with anything, and I couldn't even explain why I made mistakes without revealing my disability, so I had to hide them or lie about what happened.

2. I couldn't let my employers or coworkers get to know me. I get stressed very easily, so I don't do very much compared to most people. I don't go on trips or go to parties very much, even though I like them, and I do most of my socializing on the Internet. Without an explanation, my lifestyle can seem strange since I don't have kids or a lot of other responsibilities. Also, most of my best friends are disabled and a lot of them are involved in disability rights; this is a part of my life that is also hard to talk about if I can't say I am disabled. Obviously, it made it harder to do my job when I had to stay detached from other people. It's hard for anyone to work with strangers, and I'm especially shy with strangers.

When Anna's parents had interviewed me to work for her, they researched me and found my blog about disability. I was really scared when they told me that, but reading my blog made them want to hire me. I had written a lot about my previous jobs and how I didn't want to boss around my clients or ignore them, which I felt pressured to do in those jobs.

Even though I talked about being Autistic on my blog, I couldn't believe that Anna's parents really knew I was Autistic, because they didn't seem to worry about it at all. Eventually I realized that they did know. We all spend a lot of time together so now I am very comfortable with them and tell them everything. I'm not very professional, but I find it hard to communicate with people who are not my friends and family, so I'm glad that Anna and her parents feel like both of those things to me.

I have been working for Anna for two years and plan to stay with her forever. Even though Anna is the best person ever, her parents are the ones who make this the best job ever because they accept and support me. I rarely feel scared to explain problems to them and I always have time and space to do it.

Sometimes people are confused by my lack of ambition. People who only know me on a superficial level don't understand why other jobs have always slowly fallen apart for me. I can't keep it going in the long term if I can't get any help and can't form connections with people. Also, I have some times when I'm not doing great mentally. Working with Anna is not just fun, it's also predictable enough that I can still do my job when I'm not firing on all cylinders.

I need help with a lot of things, like long term plans, making decisions, using the phone, and communicating in general. It might seem weird that I need help communicating, because I can communicate with people I'm close with, and I can communicate about simple things with people I don't know well--like ordering at a restaurant. What I can't do is communicate about complex things with people I don't know well. Actually, it doesn't have to be that complex--if I was ordering at a restaurant and they ran out of something I wanted, or just asked me a question I wasn't expecting, things could get screwed up. I honestly like people a lot, but I hate when waiters and baristas tell jokes or try to be friendly before I finished ordering, because then I can't focus on communicating clearly to them.

Part of the problem is that my speech can be hard to understand, but I guess the main problems have to do with my ability to make decisions and remember things and react to new information, and also that the way I talk is naturally somewhat idiosyncratic and disjointed. If I know someone better our conversations are longer so there's more time for me to deal with things, and we also have more common knowledge so I don't need to be super precise for them to understand me. I also feel more comfortable and less like I am inconveniencing them because I don't communicate quickly and precisely enough.

A lot of people who know me would probably think that I communicate very quickly and precisely. In certain contexts and about certain subjects, this is true. In other situations it's not true at all--another of the sublime mysteries of belugitude, I guess. One part is that you can talk a lot without actually saying anything and that is something I excel at. Meanwhile, Anna's dad often has to call and make doctor's appointments for me because it's too hard for me to remember all the relevant information while also speaking clearly, and I tend to agree with anything that's suggested to me in order to keep from stalling the conversation. It's especially hard on the phone because if I am thinking too long, they might hang up.

Anyway, that is what's wrong with Anna and me, pretty much.