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We Need to Talk About Police “Wellness Checks” and the Violence They Do to Disabled People in Crisis

By Derek Newman-Stille

Content warning for discussions of police violence and the murder of disabled people and BIPOC people

Police are being sent to do “wellness checks” on people who are reported by friends and family to be in a mental health crisis. Most people call 911 when someone they know is believed to be having a mental health crisis… but increasingly, media is illustrating something that many of us in the disabled community have known for years – police are the ones doing these “wellness checks” and all too often, these “wellness checks” are resulting in violence toward and the murder of the people who the police are supposed to be checking on.

On May 26, 2020, during a “wellness check” by Nanaimo BC RCMP officers, Shanna Blanchard was beaten by police and left with a broken nose, bruised ribs, and damaged teeth. She was placed in a “spit hood”, which is used to keep incarcerated people from spitting, but this was placed in such a way that she couldn’t breathe. According to CTV news, she repeatedly told the officer that she couldn’t breathe and the officer responded “If you’re speaking, you’re breathing.’

According to CBC News, Blanchard’s son called 911 when Blanchard was in the bathroom crying due to her continual experience of depression. She states to CBC news “I’ve been struggling with depression through COVID. I lay on the floor and cried and cried and cried – I was really upset”. Blanchard’s son did what most people do when someone is in crisis… and it’s something we are constantly told to do. When in crisis, we are told that we should call 911. We expect help from professionals when we call 911… we don’t expect the police to come and beat up or murder the person they are supposed to be checking on. Yet, this happens regularly and its only now getting attention.

CBC News points out that Blanchard “is now speaking out about her story a month later because she thinks police should not be the people responding to calls for mental health and wellness checks”. She told CBC news that she was already fearful of police before the event and when she heard male officers outside her bathroom, she told them that she would come out if the paramedics were called instead. She told CBC news that after officers convinced her to exit, they punched her in the face and later that her face struck a bannister while police were dragging her down the stairs.

Earlier this week, a video surfaced showing an RCMP officer dragging nursing student Mona Wang and stepping on her head during a “wellness check”. CBC news reports that the officer said that “only necessary force was used to subdue the student”. Even if Wang was a danger to herself or others, there are ways of subduing someone through nonviolent holds. I can’t imagine anything that can excuse someone stepping on someone’s face. According to CBC news, Wang reported being unable to stand up when officer Browning demanded she stand up and Browning then repeatedly assaulted her and stood on her arm, and kicked her in the stomach while she was semi-conscious. The officer then reportedly dragged Wang into the hallway in handcuffs and dragged her down the hallway while punching her in the face. The legal response to this in support of officer Browning states “the limited use of force by the defendant Browning was no more than was reasonable and necessary in the circumstances to both direct compliance as well as protect the plaintiff from further harm”. It is difficult to imagine that this situation was considered “limited use of force” and raises questions about what is considered a “normal” use of force in situations where police are dealing with people in mental health crises.

I want to especially bring attention to the word “compliance” in officer Browning’s statement of defence. This word is frequently used around areas of police violence. Often in cases where police violence occurs, the officer will comment on the lack of “compliance” from the public that they are encountering. This points out that much of the violence happening is because people are not immediately doing what they are told by the police. There is an assumption here that the act of saying “no” or being unable to do what they are told is viewed as a hostile act by police.

I want to also point out that these acts of violence during “wellness checks” have also resulted in the deaths of at least 4 people in Canada since April, as noted by CBC News Nova Scotia . Chantel Moore was fatally shot by police during a wellness check in early June. She was a 26 year old woman from the Tla-o-qui-aht First nation in British Columbia. According to CBC News New Brunswick, the officer involved claimed that he shot moore because she allegedly had a knife. They point out that a former boyfriend of Chantel Moore’s called in for a wellness check on her because she was being harassed. She was already in a situation of experiencing violence in the form of harassment and police were called to help her cope with that, but this resulted in her murder. It’s incredibly concerning that she was killed during an act that was supposed to bring her support and help.

Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29 year old living in Toronto, also died during an encounter with the police during a “wellness check”. CBC News Toronto points out that Korchinski-Paquet has been experiencing seizures for the past 5 years and has been requiring occasional help from the police during that time. During a wellness check by the police, Korchinski-Paquet fell from her 24th floor apartment building. A special investigations unit is currently examining the circumstances around her fall and the lawyer from the family has indicated that the process so far “limits transparency” according to CBC News Toronto.

D’Andre Campbell, a 26 year old black man with schizophrenia, was shot by police on April 6 in Brampton after having called the Peel Regional Police for help. This is a case where he actively reached out for assistance and the result was his death. As of June 11, 2020, CBC News Toronto reported that the officer who shot D’Andre Campbell refused to provide an interview or turn over his notes to investigators in the case. According the the article, the officer “cannot be legally compelled to present themselves for an interview to the SIU”. This is a concerning policy and illustrates the protection that is afforded to police officers that is not afforded to the people who are shot by them.

D’Andre Campbell’s sister Shenika Malcolm reported to CBC News Toronto “He called out for help, and the system that was supposed to help him failed him. There was no imminent threat… and no de-escalation methods”. During the encounter, a taser was used by two officers and one officer shot D’Andre multiple times.

I want to highlight here that many of the people being killed during “wellness checks” are BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) people. There is a history of racism in this country that also intertwines with ableism and BIPOC people who manage mental health are often victims of violence from police, medical authorities, and the general public. Indeed CBC New Brunswick points out that “black and indigenous people are overwhelmingly over-represented in fatal encounters with police.”

Police are not trained to deal with mental health crises. They are trained to think of the people they are interacting with as a threat. They aren’t equipped to deal with mental health or disability and too often, these incidents of violence occur when a person is already in crisis.

These situations also highlight a dangerous ableism amongst the police community and it is something that needs to be examined. These are cases where people are in need of help and either they or their families are reaching out for police support, and yet the results are either fatal or extremely violent for the person who is already in crisis. Police should not be involved in “wellness checks” and these recent deaths and acts of violence highlight that fact.

This system of police involvement in “wellness checks” needs to be critically examined and questioned. Disabled and BIPOC lives are at risk and we need to examine the way that systemic ableism and racism is involved in these acts of violence.


Editorial by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (they/them)

The Right to Say “No” Versus Denial of Service for Disabled People

By Derek Newman-Stille

The medical model of disability presents disabled bodies are things that are broken and in need of being fixed by a medical professional. Our bodies are presented within the medical model as incomplete and flawed and our knowledge and experience of our bodies is treated as irrelevant information. This poses a considerable issue with disabled access to medical practitioners. Many of us have disabilities that require constant contact with doctors. This puts us completely under the control of that doctor and subject to their assumptions about our bodies, which are largely shaped by the medical model.

Doctors regularly give up on disabled patients, especially when we have long term conditions that cannot be “fixed”, but are persistent. This happens so often that we have a term for it – “patient abandonment”. Patient abandonment generally refers to the process by which doctors terminate their work with a patient. However, it can also refer to denial of service.

Disabled people frequently face the threat of withdrawal of care if they are “non-compliant”, which is a lose definition applied to situations where we say “no. That is not in the best interests of my health”. Various patient rights organizations have expressed the need for firm policies around patient rights to access to care. The Patient Bill of Rights Ontario states:

“Every resident of Ontario has the following rights:

1. The right to receive all necessary health care services in a health care system that,

i. is accessible, universal, comprehensive and publicly administered and funded,

ii. offers freedom of choice,

iii. provides timely treatment,

iv. does not allow personal income to determine access to health care services, and

v. recognizes that every provider of health care services is a valued member of a multidisciplinary health care team.

2. The right to give or refuse consent to the provision of health care services.

3. The right to all information necessary to make fully informed health care choices, including information about who will provide particular services and about the qualifications of those providers.

4. The right to receive publicly funded health care of high quality in the home and in the community as well as in health care facilities.

5. The right to receive information, whether in a health care facility or in the community, about choices that promote good health and measures that prevent illness and accident.

6. The right to be dealt with by health care service providers,

i. with courtesy and respect,

ii. in a manner that recognizes individual dignity and privacy and promotes individual autonomy,

iii. in a manner that recognizes and responds to individual needs and preferences, including those based on ethnic, spiritual, linguistic, familial and cultural factors,

iv. without mental, physical, sexual or financial abuse.

7. The right to participate in any assessment of personal care requirements and in the development of plans for care.

8. The right to make complaints, raise concerns and recommend changes without fear of interference, coercion, discrimination or reprisal.

9. The right to be informed of,

i. the laws, rules and policies affecting providers of health care services, and

ii. the procedures for initiating complaints about providers of health care services.

10. The right to confidentiality of health care records in accordance with the law.” (https://www.ola.org/en/legislative-business/bills/parliament-38/session-1/bill-22)

And yet these rights are regularly violated by medical practitioners working with disabled people.

I want to give a personal auto-ethnographic example about my experiences with my own doctor. I was initially excited to work with this doctor because she does work around the LGBTQ2IA community. But during our first meeting, I mentioned that I am a disability advocate and was organizing a talk around health and LGBTQ2IA identities. She replied “No. You disabled advocates constantly demonize doctors. Why would I want to experience that”. I tried to explain that this was not the case, and that I was hoping to open an important dialogue around LGBTQ2IA and Disability. Following this, I was subject to hostility during each of my encounters. A lot of this hostility centred around the doctor telling me that my disability is either in my head or due to my diabetes. My disability is spinal, so I started bringing my MRIs with me to appointments to show them to the doctor each time.

However, I went in to the doctor’s office in early March of this year and met with one of the nurses on her team. I disclosed to the nurse that I had attempted suicide and wanted assistance changing my medications. The nurse noted her concerns when she saw cuts up and down my arms and sent a message to the doctor to say that my suicidality was a concern and that we should have a conversation about my medication. The doctor told her that the suicidality was likely due to my blood sugars (I am diabetic) and then said that she wouldn’t reassess my medications until I got a blood sugar test. I wear an implant to assess my blood sugar and check it multiple times per day. The nurse sent another message to the doctor informing her of this and she replied that there was nothing I could do without a blood sugar test and to just send me away with a blood sugar test form.

Blood sugar is not a primary factor in suicidal ideation and I am also on antidepressants and an anticonvulsant. These were not reassessed.

This occurred just before COVID-19 and when I tried to make another appointment to talk to my doctor about mental health resources and to ask about changing my medications, I was denied access. I was told at that time that I could not access my doctor because I didn’t have a completed blood sugar test. I informed the clinic that I am immunocompromised and did not feel safe going to the blood clinic (a space that is the size of an average livingroom and would not allow 2 meters of distancing). I raised this concern and was told “We can’t help you unless you get blood sugar tests” and told me that I should not worry about COVID. I reitterated that I am immunocompromised and mentioned that blood sugar and suicidality do not correlate and mentioned that my medication for depression, anxiety, and convulsions was probably a concern. I was repeatedly denied service, so I went directly to my pharmacist who was able to give me support and advice about my medication.

I decided that I wouldn’t be able to get any help from my doctor, who made it clear that she was not engaging with the seriousness of my disability and mental health issues.

I chalked this up to a poor attitude about mental health and kept telling myself “but she is one of the few doctors in town who really works with and supports LGBTQ2IA patients.

In early April, I began to have signs of a sinus infection. When I called the doctor, I was again told that I could not get access to the doctor without a completed blood sugar test at the blood clinic. I once again told the receptionist that I am immunocompromised and do not want to risk catching and spreading COVID-19. She told me that I was a “noncompliant patient” and that I could not get access to the doctor. I explained that a sinus infection in no way relates to blood sugar and was consistently getting worse. I was told “we are a team here and you have to follow the rules and be a team player and do what we tell you if you want to talk to your doctor.” I mentioned again that I test my blood sugar at home and had hourly data since January if that was needed. She said that she would contact the doctor.

A week and a half passed and I started calling again. Each time, I was told that I was noncompliant and that noncompliant people don’t get to see the doctor. (Note: I was asking for a virtual appointment because I am immunocompromised and wasn’t able to go into the office physically, but the office provides virtual appointments).

I am sharing my experiences here because I know that I am not alone in being denied care. This is a systemic issue and ties into ideas fo medical authority and medicalized power. Our medical system tells doctors that they are all knowing and that they have more knowledge of their patients’ bodies than we do. This feeling of expertise means that many doctors feel threatened when we say “no” and then use denial of medical service as a punishment.

Finally called with information on patient rights and informed them that what they were doing was a violation of my right of access to health care and also a violation of my right to say “no” to a procedure that could endanger my health (by exposing me to COVID-19). I explained that I would not contribute to the issues around COVID-19’s spread and that I also didn’t want to overload an already taxed medical system by taking time and care away from those that need it for urgent issues related to the virus. I was told that I was noncompliant and that they wouldn’t respond until I had a completed blood sugar test. I want to reiterate that a sinus infection and blood sugar are unrelated, so this demand was not being done for my health or safety.

We need access to better supports as disabled patients. We need to be able to have support to say “no” and to get access to medical practitioners when we need them.

It is time for us to have clear and reinforceable guidelines around access to care and to prevent situations of medicalized authority and the denial of patient care.

In my case, I was able to access a pharmacist who assisted me with changing my medication so that I didn’t continue suicidal attempts, but I am also in a privileged position of being confident to contact my pharmacist and find ways of working around the denial of care. Other suicidal people and people in mental health crisis may not have the same access and may not feel able to contact other medical practitioners after being denied care relating to their suicide attempts, so I worry about the results of denial of care for other people in my situation.

Charity™ and Disabled Futurity

This year I had the opportunity to write a story for the all-disabled author anthology Nothing Without Us edited by Cait Gordon and Talia Johnson (Renaissance Press, 2019). My story was set in a future in which the Canadian government stopped providing any form of support for Disabled people and instead decided to corporatize disability and give the responsibility for Disabled people to the Charity industry.

On the Spoonie Authors’ Network, I published a short piece talking about my research on disability, my thoughts about disabled futurity, the relationship between theory and speculative fiction, and my inspiration for the story Charity (TM) that I wrote for the Disabled Futurity anthology.

Spoonie Authors Network

Editor’s note: I invited Derek Newman-Stille to share with us their own experience with writing fiction, as some people might only know them as a champion in elevating speculative fiction authors and/or disabled voices. Their short story, Charity™, is the grand finale of the Nothing Without Us anthology.

Most of my writing about disability has been either academic or experiential, critiquing the representation of disability in the real world and examining my own experiences with my disabled body and identity. I have done analyses of the representation of disability in fiction, have explored the impact of government policies on disability, looked at how DisArt (disability art) articulates disability and the disabled community. I have shared my own stories about disability—how my disability relates to abuse I experienced as a child, how my disabled and queer identities interlink, the way that bullying and violence shaped my experience as a disabled…

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On “It’s Probably Just a Misunderstanding”

On “It’s Probably Just a Misunderstanding”

By Derek Newman-Stille

I can’t describe the number of time I have heard from straight, able-bodied, white people in situations of privilege “It was probably not homophobia/ablism/racism. I’ve never known that person to discriminate. It was probably just a misunderstanding” or variations of that statement.

This sort of statement does a few things. First, it assumes that someone in privilege would encounter the same barriers as someone from a group that is regularly discriminated against. This is the epitome of privilege – pretending that someone who treats those from groups of privilege well could not discriminate against marginalized groups. It turns out that this happens quite regularly. It is actually the basis of discrimination and privilege.

Secondly, it assumes that people who are discriminated against are less reliable in their narratives than people from groups of privilege. It puts the onus on us to prove ourselves instead of bigots to be held accountable for their actions.

This power dynamic doubles down on the discrimination already experienced by the person from a stigmatized group, turning an already damaging encounter with violence into a reminder of systemic violence and that our narratives don’t matter… even to people who should be our allies.

Calling an act of violence “probably a misunderstanding” doesn’t address systemic issues of discrimination. Instead, it reinforces them. It creates a paradigm where people reinforce systemic violence and put the onus on people who are discriminated against to struggle further in a society that already enacts violence against them.

Disability Tropes 101: The “Tiny Tim”

Another of my guest posts over on the Spoonie Authors’ Network – here I discuss the problematic Tiny Tip Trope of Disability as part of my Disability Tropes 101 series

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Disability Tropes 101 featured image Loose leaf paper with the trope topic: The “Tiny Tim” (by Derek Newman-Stille) Heading above it reads: A Spoonie Authors Network Series, Disability Tropes 101. The O of tropes is the wheel of the accessibility symbol.

The trope that I call the “Tiny Tim” is the creation by an author of a disabled character whose exclusive role is to be an object of pity and in need of charity. I have used the name of the best known of these figures from Dickens—”Tiny Tim.” Tiny Tim doesn’t have a life outside of his role as an object of pity, and his entire existence is about teaching an able-bodied man to be more charitable and share his wealth. 

These figures are obviously not limited to literature and, frequently, charities rely on this image when they launch funding campaigns, trying to evoke sympathy from possible donors. Charities have frequently relied on…

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Disability Tropes 101: Manipulative Sympathy

Here is another of my guest posts over at the Spoonie Authors’ Network – Disability Tropes 101: Manipulative Sympathy

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featured image Loose leaf paper with the trope topic: Manipulative Sympathy (by Derek Newman-Stille) Heading above it reads: A Spoonie Authors Network Series, Disability Tropes 101. The O of tropes is the wheel of the accessibility symbol.

I recently watched the musical Wicked, and one scene particularly stood out to me as problematic. It tied into a few other problematic representations of disability that I have encountered in literature, film, and television.

In Wicked: The Musical , the main character’s sister, Nessarose, is a wheelchair user. During the performance, she, at various times, sings about deserving sympathy (which is a problematic disability trope itself), but what stood out to me was the fact that the character Boq is convinced to be her boyfriend because he believes that she deserves sympathy and needs extra care. He is portrayed as being tricked into a relationship with him because he feels bad for her. This…

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Disability Tropes 101: The Outsider

Here is another of my Disability Tropes 101 posts – this one exploring the trope of disability as Other and the problem of othering disabled bodies. Check it out over at the Spoonie Authors’ Network

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The Outsider featured image

Scholar Isabel Brittain brings attention to the trope of “The Outsider” in her article on “An Examination into the Portrayal of Deaf Characters and Deaf Issues in Picture Books for Children” (Disability Studies Quarterly 2004, Vol 24, No 1). In this trope, “the character with an impairment is portrayed as a figure of alienation and social isolation” (ibid). This is a common trope of disability where the disabled character lives in a position of irreconcilable Otherness, socially ostracized and viewed as perpetually incapable of belonging. 

This is a complex trope because there are certain aspects of it that speak to the disabled experience, after all, we are socially rejected on the basis of our disability and even our buildings exclude us since they are made for an assumed able body. But this trope contains several problematic aspects as well. Generally the Outsider disabled person is portrayed as…

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Disability Tropes 101: Karmically Disabled

In this Disability Tropes 101 Post, I explore the trope of the “karmically disabled” person, a trope that seeks to construct disability as a form of punishment.

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Karmically-Disabled

I recently finished watching Season 2 of Dirk Gently and have been reflecting on the huge number of problematic disability tropes in the show, particularly around the invented disability “Pararibulitis,” but for this post, I want to focus on one particular trope that frequently appears in representations of disability, what I call the Karmically Disabled Trope. In the Dirk Gently TV show, the character Todd fakes having a disease called Pararibulitis, an invented nerve disease where the affected person experiences hallucinations that feel completely real to him/her/them. Todd pretended to have the disease throughout his childhood to gain sympathy and money from his parents, but later his sister Amanda actually developed the disability and couldn’t get access to all of the supports she needed because Todd had used up all of his parents’ resources. At the end of the first season of Dirk Gently, Todd gets the disease as…

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Disability Tropes 101: “The Genius Cripple”

Here’s the second of my critiques of Tropes about disability that I have posted on the Spoonie Authors’ Netork. These posts are meant to show the damage that tropes about disability can do to disabled lives.

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The-Genius-CrippleThe Genius Cripple trope is pronounced in representations of disability in popular media and is generally grounded in the idea of a mind-body dichotomy. The notion of the mind-body dichotomy assumes that the mind and body are distinct from one another. This dichotomy is traced back to the philosopher Descartes, who suggested a distinction between the two when he allied consciousness with the mind rather than with the body overall, and so this is often referred to as a Cartesian Dichotomy (referring to Descartes). The more we learn about the body, the more we see that ideas of consciousness are not limited entirely to the head or the mind, but they are distributed and dependent on impulses and chemicals produced throughout the body.

The trope of “The Genius Cripple” is probably most prominent in the representation of Charles Xavier from the X-Men, a figure who is both a wheelchair user…

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Disability Tropes 101: “The Crippled Sidekick”

I’ve been writing about some of the problematic tropes of disability over at the Spoonie Authors Network. I see so many of these tropes occurring in the fiction that I read, and I am hoping that we can counter these tropes with some further insights. Here is my interrogation of the “Crippled Sidekick” trope.

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Throughout this series, I hope to bring to light some of the tropes around disability in order to (1) improve the representation of disabled people and (2) provide writing tips for those of you who want to include disabled people in your stories.

The Crippled Sidekick Trope

Today’s lesson is about The Crippled Sidekick. This is a common trope of disability, but one that really came info focus for me when reading the manga, A Silent Voice. In A Silent Voice, although the narrative is about a young Deaf girl, it really is about a hearing boy who grows up with the girl in his classes. He spends most of his youth harassing and being violent toward her because she is Deaf. The hearing character is then shown years later trying to apologize to the girl he bullied, and the story ends up actually being about his transformation from a bully into…

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