Dear Senator Fetterman,
I am genuinely sorry that you are enduring vicious bullying because of your disability.
‘Because I live in a political environment, I was ridiculed and made fun of because I wasn’t able to process things at times,’ he said as began to tear up in front of the panel. He began to tear up as he presented an app that allows him to ‘fully participate in this meeting’ and communicate with members of his family.
‘I’m so sorry, I’m sure many of you had to go through this kind of thing,’ Fetterman added. ‘I admire everyone who has to live with these kind of struggles and prevail over them.
I am also a Pennsylvanian with disabilities, also in my fifties, also rely on devices to process some spaces, and definitely have my share of bullies from childhood and adulthood. The kids were terrible, the adults are terrifying.
As an adult, I have multiple disabilities, some visible and some hidden. I need accommodations in public settings, modest things like a +1 escort to some things, an aisle seat, a cup of water or to have my cell phone so I can disengage from my thoughts and refocus on the event or activity. I also sometimes rely on my phone to communicate in situations that are overwhelming.
Accessing accommodations can be exhausting. Did you know that in Pennsylvania, we have the right to access water in public accommodations, but there is zero obligation to provide us with a cup?
The burden of shame is on our society that does not easily bend to support our needs with dignity and minimal fuss. The shame is not ours. Sadly, the burdens are.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge the risks and dangers of navigating everyday life. When I was a child, I was tortured by other children who sensed my vulnerability and preyed upon me – spat on me, put gum in my hair, pushed and shoved me, so much more.
In 7th grade, other kids decided my protruding eyes (exothalmia) resembled a frog. They called my froggy throughout high school, often making ribbit sounds in the hallways. Sometimes they chased me home and when they caught me … it wasn’t fun. I remember running with desperation and adrenaline and dread. And then everything went blank.
I just wanted to go home. It not shocking my anxiety deteriorated.
The reality is that I was living with MH disabilities since childhood or adolescence. I had no language to describe them, but I received plenty of labels from other kids and adults. Sue was weird, a freak, a crybaby, ugly, gross, a creep, unsafe, a mental case, crazy, psycho, unhinged, pathetic, etc.
I was miserable, lonely, and sad. The adults in my life had no idea how to help me navigate it as they had grown up subject to similar brutish behaviors.
Bullying By Adults
As an adult, I was recently very sick from negligent medication management by a psychiatric nurse. I needed sleep, fluids, and more sleep. Instead, I was manipulated and endured an unnecessary 302 or involuntary civil commitment to get me out of my home of 18 years so the locks could be changed. My safety plan was in place – call my therapist, then call Resolve Crisis Response Team.
Rather than a trauma informed evaluation by mental health professionals who were trained to address other issues, I was unceremoniously handcuffed, shackled in a police SUV, and driven away while someone made a phone call to a locksmith before we had turned the corner.
Four hours later, the 302 was discharged and I stood on the corner of the street outside of the Pittsburgh psychiatric emergency room, wearing baggy shorts and an oversized tee shirt I wore as pajamas with a $5 pair of foam flip-flops. I was suddenly homeless. I was denied access to my medication, my clothing and belongings. I could not see my beloved cats.
That negligent medication crisis led me down a distant but familiar path. I have been called vicious names, mocked, disparaged, and ridiculed. Misinformation has spread. For a few days, the lack of a specific phone charger left me without a valuable tool to navigate this new reality.
And clothing. My friends intervened to get some items from my home. So I had three pairs of ill-fitted shorts, a few tee shirts, one pair of socks, and the flip-flops. I looked ridiculous when I turned up to file for a PFA in these clothes. When I went to the police zone to request ultimately futile help enforcing the PFA. At the emergency room to get treatment for my back injury. I didn’t even have a hairbrush to comb my hair. And I was terrified to spend any of my limited funds.
Everyone had an opinion on what I should do, but almost no one asked what I could do.
Let me assure you that I am safe with friends and working hard to return to my home of 18 years. But is isn’t a simple feat. I had to crowdfund my legal fees to avoid selling my blog.
Someone started a nasty Twitter account to harass me. Family hurled accusations and disgust at me. The mental health slurs were fast and furious – I was psycho, unbalanced, a hoarder, delusional, abusive, unfit, unwanted, and psychologically damaged. I am described as “out of my mind” with countless false narratives used to turn public opinion against me.
I am of course still disabled and poor due to relying on SSDI. I have no access to my car.
Unlike my childhood attempts to run away from the bullying, I’ve stood my ground. Even as the insults rain down on me, I resist letting them shape my thoughts. I bought the items I needed. I found the helpers Mr. Rogers encouraged us to look for in troubled times. I asked for support.
Bullying To Remain in Power
The bullying now has been just as bad as those childhood tormentors. The difference is about power. The kids who assaulted me had more power than I did, enough to leave scars but just that. In the current situation, the bullies has so much more power than me, more money and resources, more connections with law enforcement, more family relationships, more education, and more everything.
That’s only the most recent example, of course. Bullies are everywhere. Some like in my recent situation have a personal reason, often resentment or anger that drives them to tear me down. Others are just random mean people – people who pass on the street and call me fat or ugly. People in theaters who see me use my phone before the curtain rises and hiss at me. People who get their kicks while kicking others. People who need to control their situations to manage their anxieties. Hurting people who never took the time to heal.
You have raised the bar on what to expect from adults with disabilities in leadership roles. You access tools and supports, you are vulnerable but determined, you are learning from your experiences that you have so much in common with your neighbors. And you understand that empathy from our elected officials is imperative to leadership and good governance.
You ask ‘how?” to make this happen. I suggest everything starts by acknowledging people with disabilities who have to fight for empathy and respect every single day. I would like to know that my story reaches you and that you feel something both for my younger self and my adult self. If our safety, dignity, and freedom are to be respected, our voices must be acknowledged. We know what we need.
We need more of the Mr. Rogers helpers in all of our systems – schools, athletics, family court, law enforcement, health care providers as well as our families to protect and keep us safe. I know that your family has had your back, as always. That is a grace many of us are not afforded.
I have confidence you will come through this a better human being, a better leader, and more connected than ever to everyday people in Pennsylvania. That’s a testament to your character and to our smart decision to elect you. I also trust you will understand that people with disabilities of all sorts are everyday people, too.
I would welcome an opportunity to talk with you in more detail about my own experiences.
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