Posted in Advocacy, Autistic Identity, Parenting, Self-Care

Assistive Technology Can be Ugly: Focus on Aesthetics, not Bully-Potential, to Build a New World

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism recently posted a great deal on ear defenders (ear muffs, headphones without plug-ins) from Boing Boing at its Facebook group.  The deal is still there for a few days, and I snapped up 5 for my students at school.  By the way, leave and come back until they give you 10% off on your first order.  It almost paid for my shipping which was $9.95 on 5 of them, the maximum it would sell me at a time.

[Image: Those big, bulky but effective and ever-prevalent ear defenders from 3M. They’re oversized and yellow. If your head is large, they might not work since they’re not adjustable, but they’re reasonably comfortable. But they are bulky. And that yellow makes SURE people can see them on your ears. But heck, they work and Amazon can get them to you quickly.  We have two pairs around here.]

Anyway, some “helpful parent” was complaining about how ugly and bulky they are and that it’s basically license to get your kid bullied as a result.  Later, she said, not realizing I was trying to help her not come off as a jerk, that there would be plenty of times it would be “inappropriate” to wear these headphones because of the bulk.  She kept silencing the voice of 1) a more experienced Autism Mama than her (me; my kid is clearly older) and 2) MOST importantly, an ACTUAL AUTISTIC PERSON.  Yeah, she’s new to this game.

She kept backpedaling to defend herself, rather than realize she was normalizing a systemic problem with society rather than focusing on her child’s needs.

Here’s why she’s wrong and how you can make the same point without enabling bullying or accepting the cruddy world we all of us are forced to live in.

Point One: People will Bully you for Making Bad Fashion Choices and Those Bullies are Objectively Wrong

Okay, this is true, some people will, in fact, bully you because of what you wear.

Believe me, I think all of us Autistic people know this to be fact.  Those of us who grew up not wearing what fashion dictated because it didn’t “feel good” to make those choices most certainly know this to be true.

However, there are two problems with this position.

First, it normalizes bullying for being different as something that one must simply accept and it puts the onus on the victim to rethink whatever he or she did to get bullied in the first place.

If you get beat up or harassed because you are fat, therefore, you deserved it.  If you could be thin, then you wouldn’t deserve being beat up.

Of course, some people got mocked for being too skinny.

Oh, and if you get  mocked because you insist on wearing dresses, as I did, because I hated the feel of anything constricting my legs (except tights, which I found okay, so I sorta get this new thing with leggings that so many of you like to wear), you should just put on jeans, even if they hurt you.

Who wants to live in that world, where this is A-Okay?

Hopefully no one.

So first, it’s NEVER okay to make fun of people because of their fashion choices.  My students have been running some interesting hair color schemes up the flagpole lately.  We adults all agree it’s the appropriate place to do this.  We’re nurturing here, and they can decide what looks good and feels right to them, free (relatively) of being made fun of (and we do come down hard on anyone making fun of anyone).  I’m not unrealistic; I do know some people will make mistakes in fashion, particularly around ages 10-14, as they try to learn how to individualize and there are times we can’t wait for a hair color to wash out since it didn’t work quite right.  But the main point is no one is forcing my kids to make these choices.  They aren’t following some herd.  They are sincerely trying on individual identities and they are themselves deciding what works and what does not.

It is essential that educators and parents help students to make these decisions not by saying, “you will be bullied,” but instead telling the bullies to lay the eff off.  When bully culture is normalized, it is repeated.  Kids today are getting better at not mocking everyone for every little thing, which helps.  Yes, kids do still get bullied for fashion choices and/or weight or anything else, but it’s less patently acceptable.  It is getting better.  Don’t be the person who normalizes the mistakes of the past or makes your own child live in fear to be who he or she is.

Point Two: People will Bully you for your Assistive Technology and Those Bullies are Objectively Wrong

This is also true, but it’s a special category of bullying.

I’ve heard in the past people used to make fun of people who wore eyeglasses.  This hasn’t been a thing in generations.  But back in the day, eyeglasses were seen as a sign of weakness.  They would literally say if you were wearing your eyeglasses (cheaters) too much your eyes would never get stronger so you were a weak person.

So-called “weak” people who use assistive devices to help them can (and regularly are) made fun of because of these devices.

This nonsense is probably a carryover from when our society members were literally scared to death a wolf might eat them all if they all weren’t able to run away or see or hear it coming or something.

Regardless, today that’s not really a thing.  And even then, I’d pin my hopes on having my Disabled brothers and sisters in my party rather than so-called abled people in the time of the Zombie apocalypse.

But I digress.

I need to make a VERY clear, very serious point.

If you as an adult ever hear anyone making fun of assistive technology (headphones, wheelchairs, crutches, eyeglasses, hearing aids, whatever), you object immediately and tell whoever it is they are wrong.  If you are a teacher you drag them to the principal and you do not rest until it is 100% clear to the miscreant why he or she is participating in a grave, moral evil.  If the bullies retaliate, you do it again and again until they get it.  In my school, they would be expelled if they could not learn that this is wrong.

Remember, not every person knows why this is bad, so you educate first.  It’s the same with a casual, racist comment.  Casual racism, ableism, sexism, etc. are all normal parts of our society.  And these are parts we want to be stopped.  Just because something is “normal” does not mean it’s natural.  People had to be taught to be jerks, and so you need to help them to stop doing this.  And yes, I know we’re working against society, but that is our job, whether we are parents or educators.  We are tasked with bringing up the next generation and stopping the sins of the past.

But that kid with the ear defenders?  If he likes them and they work for him…leave him the hell alone.

Point Three:  Assistive Technology is Absolutely Okay in Uniform

Say you’re in a marching band or an airline steward or stewardess.  You wear a uniform and you have to look the part.

You may have noticed they wear glasses sometimes, right?


So why could they not wear ear defenders?

Let’s take apart what ear defenders/ear muffs do for someone who has intense hearing.  They do not noise cancel all sound.  They just help you focus on the people who are trying to talk to you.  Sure, you might have been able to stand five feet away and whisper the person’s name and got his or her attention in the past and now you have to actually go up to him or her and get within typical hearing difference, but otherwise, it’s basically just helping them get rid of the useless noise so they can focus on the useful noise.

And heck, they tell people around you that you might not 100% hear them so they might want to get closer.  Earplugs may be great for some people, but if someone trying to get your attention can’t see you have them on, that person is more likely to think that you are ignoring him or her.

If some work or school obligation tells you what kind of ear defenders you have to wear, you do have choices depending on the situation and consider talking to the ACLU (especially if it’s a school issue) or human resources and/or an attorney if needed.

HOWEVER as the parent (or even a teacher), don’t be a jerk.  If they need ear defenders, defend their right to wear them if that’s what they choose.

Point Four:  Everybody’s Body is Different

I have the tiny ear openings.  I literally cannot wear earplugs or earbuds.

Headphones or ear defenders or nothing for me.

I don’t mind; they’re too big to get lost and they feel good over my ears (at least the big over-ear kinds that don’t touch my ears.

Sure, they’re bulky, but I like the feel on my ear.

Some people are like me and actually like them better and they actually do tend to work a little better, too.

Others hate the things and don’t want to wear them and really like earplugs and/or earbuds.  That’s okay, too.

But this is up to the person who needs the technology, not the parent or caregiver or teacher or employer to decide what works best.

Point Five:  Manufacturers Should Realize the Market Exists for Cuter Options

See, for a while there all headphones were utilitarian, then schools started getting more electronic devices.  Next thing you know, these cute headphones started coming out.  They were pretty neat except for one thing: almost all of them are crap.  They break easily and they don’t go over your ears properly so you can’t wear them long.

How do you know a good headphone?  Nine times out of ten, they’re huge and black.  I have a backup pair that’s huge and tan, but has these great padded ear rests.

In ear defenders/ear muffs, they are huge and yellow or something REALLY VISIBLE.  That’s because the purpose of ear defenders, up until now was to comply with Occupational Safety regulations and/or guidance.  The boss needed to see at a distance that you were wearing them.

Regardless, we don’t pick headphones or ear muffs, in the sensory market, because of how they look.  We pick them based on how they feel.  Some of us are good at customizing them; wrapping the headband with glitter or fuzzy stuff, bedazzling it, or something, adding a few stickers to make them “Mario” headphones.  Whatever.  We figure it out.

But really, we’d pay a little more for something cute that lasts like the utilitarian models.  This is a missed opportunity.

See, the mom’s point of them being bulky and ugly was valid.  They are bulky and ugly.  The bulky helps because it covers your whole ear, which beats having them rub into your ear and getting distracted by that feeling.  This is a situation when they work well because they are bulky.

But ugly, yeah, plain old black.  It is kind of tiring (though better than that bright yellow of the standard model ear defenders that work well that you can get Amazon to ship you).  Also, you can easily lose a plain black pair of ear defenders in your house, so there’s that.

But I paid $72.91 for these ear defenders, after shipping, for five of them.

That’s a fantastic price and I can introduce them to my kids who I think might benefit from them, but they don’t necessarily know it.

I can have several so I can begin to normalize their use in my supportive environment, and teach my kids how to defend themselves if and when they choose to wear them in public.

See, for me, it’s about getting the kids the right assistive device to meet their needs, and sometimes neurotypical parents don’t know these options exist and that they can be, for some kids, objectively better than headphones or earplugs/ear buds, based on the situation.

We try things on here, and then, when we find something that works for us, we talk about how to get the real world to BACK OFF if they say anything about our assistive technology choices.

We’re trying to change society here, not live in a world where people get mocked for what they choose to wear or what they need to cope with a busy, sensory-unfriendly world.

I implore you, if you are a parent or teacher, to try to do the same.  Help me to build a better tomorrow for all of us.

But don’t try to defend bullies in order to make a valid point about the general aesthetic of assistive devices.  I will (mentally) cut you!

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