Nonviolent Communication Is Not Emotionally Violent

A friend of mine and I have a running joke that everyone who starts a hackerspace should get a free copy of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Rosenberg was a psychologist who started his career as a mediator, for example, helping resolve conflicts in recently-integrated schools in the U.S. South after the end of racial segregation. Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, was his attempt to codify the strategies he found most successful during his years as a mediator. Since I came across NVC a few years ago, it’s been incredibly helpful in all aspects of my life, including running a hackerspace, which another friend of mine describes as “making sure 200 roommates all get along with each other.” If you look around online, you can read stories from many people who have been helped by NVC, but you can also find some very harsh criticism. Although NVC isn’t the perfect tool for every situation, most of the criticism I’ve seen stems from a misunderstanding of what NVC actually is. So I’d like to clear that up and respond to some common criticisms.

In short, NVC is a framework for identifying the things you need to know about yourself, and the things you need to know about the person you’re talking to, in order to make your conversation a collaboration rather than a competition. It’s often summarized with a four-part template: “(1.) When you [observation], (2.) I feel [emotion], because (3.) I need [need]. (4.) Would you [request]?” This script is a tool to learn which things are most helpful to communicate (observations, emotions, needs, and requests). In practice, NVC doesn’t take the form of reading from a rigid script, but it does communicate the same content. And this is where most criticism gets it wrong. Almost all criticism I’ve seen of NVC describes it as being about how you say something, when it’s really about what you say, and even more importantly, about the self-awareness and empathy you need to exercise in order to put those things into words. So with that out of the way, I’ll address some specific criticisms.

"You have to put the needs of others before your own."

It’s easy to see how someone might think this about NVC. Practicing NVC involves accepting the observations, emotions, and needs of others as valid. If you are thinking of a conversation as a competition, then obviously this means putting someone else ahead of yourself, but not so in NVC. Observations in NVC are meant to be free of judgement, meaning they are statements everyone can agree on. If there are disagreements, you focus on finding the things you do agree on first. There’s no win or lose, just a better mutual understanding of the situation. Next, you have to acknowledge the validity of emotions. But that doesn’t mean giving someone a free pass to act out on those emotions or agreeing with the thinking that led to the emotion. If someone is scared of kittens, I can acknowledge and validate their fear without agreeing that kittens are dangerous and need to be exterminated. Likewise, acknowledging someone’s needs does not mean you need to satisfy that need. And that’s why the last stage is “request” and not “demand.” It comes down to this: you don’t have to put someone else before yourself, but you can’t ask them to put you before themselves either.

But what if listening to someone’s emotions and needs is harmful? Should a victim of violence have to listen to the emotions and needs of the perpetrator? No, not at all. NVC is a tool for communicating, but only if you want to communicate! Also, NVC begins with self-awareness. If you need to avoid talking with a particular person or about a particular subject, NVC encourages you to realize that and act accordingly.

"NVC doesn’t allow you to identify abusive emotions."

This one is true, but it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Emotions aren’t abusive, actions are. When someone makes this criticism, they’re failing to realize that there’s a difference between how you feel and how you act. Of course not all emotional responses are healthy, but it’s up to each individual to take responsibility for their emotional health. Trying to control someone else’s feelings is emotional violence, which is why it has no place in NVC. But NVC does allow you to respond to someone’s actions. Focusing on actions is beneficial because they’re what actually affect other people and they’re easier to change than emotional responses. Also, abusive behavior often happens because someone experiences a strong emotion, which they see as something that happens to them and therefore not their responsibility, and then believe they’re entitled to act instinctively on that emotion. NVC helps identify harmful behaviors, which can be changed, and helps disentangle them from the emotions that motivated them. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic you’re likely to experience anger, and that’s a valid emotion, but it doesn’t justify chasing them down and beating them up, even if that’s what you want to do when you’re angry.

"Using NVC is engaging in non-consensual emotional intimacy."

NVC is based on empathy, and this criticism says that empathizing requires consent. The key here is that NVC is meant to be used when emotions are already on the table, meaning someone has already consented. If the clerk at the DMV asks for two pieces of ID, I’m not going to ask them about the deep emotional roots of that need. NVC is more useful when someone is using their emotions to justify a harmful action. But even then, it’s not necessary to discuss their emotions. Yes, part of NVC is identifying your own emotions, but you don’t always need to discuss them, the important part is being conscious of them. In NVC, any (or all) stages (observation, emotion, need, request) can be used internally rather than externally. In a less emotionally intimate context, it’s perfectly acceptable to just make observations and requests. What NVC does is help you remove judgement from observations and figure out what you actually want to ask for.

"NVC can be used to legitimize emotional violence."

The argument here is that harmful statements can be disguised to look like NVC. For example, “When you ruin everything, I feel like you’re an asshole because I need you to do everything I say. Would you stop being horrible?” To anyone familiar with NVC, this is very obviously not NVC. But it is true that people sometimes try to pass emotional violence off as NVC in this way. But the problem isn’t with NVC. Those people would still be committing emotional violence without NVC, they’d just phrase it differently. It is a problem if the victim of emotional violence is tricked into accepting it. And NVC provides precisely the tools necessary to identify emotional violence, even when it’s disguised as NVC or anything else. So yes, bad stuff can be called NVC, but the problem is entirely the bad stuff, not the NVC.

So those are my responses to the most common criticisms I’ve heard. There are some valid limitations of NVC, but the above are not them, and they’re much less severe. One of the main limitations I’ve come across is that, because it relies on cognitive empathy, it doesn’t work very well for anyone on the autistic spectrum or people with certain personality disorders. Another limitation is that when you’re on the receiving end of emotional violence, it can be incredibly tempting to try to teach NVC to whoever is inflicting it, because you can see that there’s a win-win outcome if they could only see it too. But trying to teach someone to dance is not going to make them stop punching you. So word to the wise: if you find yourself trying to teach someone NVC, cut your losses, tell them you need to be left alone and GTFO.

Learning NVC has helped me realize how poorly we understand our own emotions. How often do we say “you made me feel…”? But NVC teaches us that our feelings are the results of our needs and our beliefs, which coincidentally, is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most successful evidence-based psychotherapy techniques. And how often do we describe our feelings as “disrespected” or “lied to” or “manipulated”? Which, of course, are not emotions at all, but interpretations of other people’s actions that (while possibly accurate) are only weakly correlated with our emotional responses to those actions. What leads to one person feeling angry, may lead to another feeling sad, or even happy (see, for example, compersion). So based on my experiences, NVC is not the problem. The problem is that we live in an emotionally illiterate and emotionally violent culture. If someone complains that NVC makes it difficult to fight fire with fire, they’re really missing the point.

How not to handle misconduct in an organization

A repeating pattern I've seen from multiple perspectives throughout my life:

1. One member of a community (Alice) repeatedly makes anonymous complains to an administrator (Carol) about another member of the community (Bob).

2. Carol takes action against Bob, giving only vague justification rather than addressing specific behaviors or events.

3. Bob asks for specifics about what the problem is.

4. Carol responds with a long list of vague statements, which at closer inspection contain no additional information.

5. Bob attempts to challenge Carol's action, but 1. the claims are too vague to be falsifiable and 2. any attempts at discussing specific claims are seen as nitpicking.

In practice, this usually occurs in the context of three scenarios, all of which look similar to outside observers:

Scenario A: Bob has done something wrong but has a skewed view of acceptable norms. The process does not clarify those norms and Bob leaves the community thinking "What I did was OK. Those people just don't like me. I'll go do it somewhere else." Observers get them message "What I do doesn't matter, just whether people like me."

Scenario B: Bob has not done anything wrong, but Alice has a skewed (possibly bigoted) view of acceptable norms (e.g., the way "wearing a hoodie" becomes "acting like a thug" for black men). Carol has unknowingly empowered Alice's bigotry.

Scenario C: Both Alice and Bob have a misunderstanding that could be resolved, but never is. An opportunity to strengthen the relationship between two members of the community and to clarify norms is lost.

None of these seem particularly desirable from a social justice or community standpoint. It's pretty easy to get a different outcome though, by 1. having a clear code of conduct for communities, and 2. separating behaviors from character judgements (as in NVC). But I haven't yet come across many communities that do this well.

Hackers are Whistleblowers Too (live blog from HOPE XI)

Naomi Colvin, Courage Foundation
Nathan Fuller, Courage Foundation
Carey Shenkman, Center for Constitutional Rights
Grace North, Jeremy Hammond Support Network
Yan Zhu, friend of Chelsea Manning
Lauri Love, computer scientist and activist

Naomi begins. Courage foundation started in July 2014 to take on legal defense for Edward Snowden. They believe there is no difference between hackers and whistleblowers when they’re bringing important information to light. Information exposure is one of the most important triggers for social action. The foundation has announced their support for Chelsea Manning, who is beginning her appeal.

Carey wants to talk about public interest defenses. In the US, politicians call for whistleblowers to return to the US and present their motivations and “face the music” as part of their civil disobedience. In reality, the Espionage Act and the CFAA do not allow whistleblowers to use public interest motivations as a defense or use evidence to demonstrate a public interest. Whistleblowers like Ellsberg have called for public interest exceptions to the Espionage Act and CFAA. It’s important to protect civil

Grace: Jeremy Hammond hacked Stratfor with AntiSec/Anonymous and leaked the files on WikiLeaks. Tech has an incredible power to bring movements together. This requires some tech people to move outside of their comfort zone to interact with activism around other (non-technical) issues.

Yan: Chelsea really loves to get letters and reads every one she receives. While at MIT, Yan met Chelsea through the free software community. Chelsea’s arrest was the first time Yan saw the reality of whistleblowing and surveillance. Chelsea is very isolated and only gets 20 people on her phone list. To add someone, she has to remove someone else. Visitors have to prove they met her before her arrest in order to visit. She reads a statement from Chelsea Manning.

Lauri Love was arrested in 2013 in the UK without charges and later learned that he was charged in the US, which is very unusual, not having been alleged to have committed any crimes within the US. The problems with the CFAA are being used to contest his extradition to the US. Lauri greatly appreciates the support of the Courage Foundation

Lauri asks Carey: The UK allows you to present a defense of necessity, although it’s difficult. Can that happen in the US?
Carey: It’s difficult to say. The CFAA has always been controversial. The CFAA was passed in 1986, literally in response to the movie Wargames, which sparked the fear of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”
Grace: Jeremy Hammond’s hacks were politically focused, but there were absolutely no provisions for acts of conscience in his defense. In fact, having strong political views leads to harsher treatment.

Lauri: Can we bypass the court system and national council of conscience?

Lyn: Mother of Ross Ulbricht, creator of silk road. Judges cited political views as reasons for the severity of Ross’s sentence. The court system also allows prosecutors to break the letter of the law when it is done in “good faith” while it doesn’t allow defendants to do so.
Lauri: It’s important to be vocal about these details. It

Audience question: CFAA prosecutions are really about politics, not about computers. It seems like some issues like gay marriage can change very quickly in American culture. What can be done to create these changes?
Grace: We couch issues in certain terms. What people find acceptable or unacceptable is often determined by perspective and simplified views of “legal” vs. “illegal.”

SecureDrop: Two Years On and Beyond

Live notes from HOPE XI

Garrett Robinson, CTO of Freedom of Press Foundation and Lead Developer of Secure Drop

Secure Drop debuted at HOPE X in 2014. FPF was founded in 2012, initially to crowd fund for WikiLeaks. They’ve been doing more crowdfunding for various open-source encryption tools for journalists, and for whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s legal defense. They’re also suing the federal government to respond to FOIA requests. But their main project is SecureDrop.

Over the past couple years, a lot of the plans for SecureDrop happened, and a lot changed. Last year, SecureDrop was installed at 12 independent organizations. They are a mixture of big and small media outlets, and activist nonprofits. All but one still uses the software, and several more have installed it, with a current total of 26 active installations. They’ve improved documentation to make installation easier. There’s a high demand. More organizations are waiting for help in installation and training.

FTF intentionally discourages media outlets from acknowledging which information was received via SecureDrop, which makes outreach complicated. SecureDrop was acknowledged as being used by hackers who exposed violations of attorney-client privilege by prison phone provider Securus.

As an internet service open to the public, SecureDrop attracts trolls. At The New Yorker, over half of their submissions were fiction or poetry.

Garrett gives an overview of how SecureDrop works. There are three main components: a network firewall, a monitor server, and an application server. When a source wants to submit to SecureDrop, they use Tor without JavaScript. They are assigned a secure pseudonym. They are then able to have a back-and-forth conversation with journalists. The journalist logs into the document interface Tor hidden service They are presented with a list of documents. All files are stored encrypted, transferred using USB or CDs to an air-gapped computer for decryption, reading, and editing.

The current project goals are: 1. keep SecureDrop safe, 2. Make SecureDrop easier for journalists to use, and 3. make SecureDrop easier to deploy and maintain.

Keeping SecureDrop safe. Tor hidden services enable end-to-end encryption with perfect forward secrecy without using certificate authorities. The NSA has had difficulty e-anonymizing Tor (as of 2012). Since then, the FBI has been able to install malware on users’ computers allowing the de-anonymization of Tor hidden services. In 2014, Tor identified a possible attack, which turned out to be a large-scale operation coordinated by multiple states, called Operation Onymous. This attack was made possible by researchers at CMU working with the FBI. Tor was able to blacklist the attackers and block them out eventually. Directories of hidden services have been shown to enable correlation attacks. A 2015 USENIX paper by Kwon et al. has shown that it’s possible to use machine learning and a single malicious Tor node to de-anonymize SecureDrop users, without leaving a trace.

Making SecureDrop easier to use. Doing experiments with using software isolation like Qubes to make air-gaps unnecessary. If the system isn’t usable, journalists either don’t use it or work around the security in harmful ways.

Making SecureDrop easier to deploy. There is a support process in place, but it’s inefficient. The documentation, when printed out, is 138 places. As an aside, Garrett wants a Guy Fawkes toaster.

Garrett wants to live in a world where SecureDrop is obsolete. He wants to live in a world where standard technology enables privacy at the level of SecureDrop. There’s been some progress. Open Whisper Systems has developed Signal and enabled end-to-end encryption for WhatsApp (even though there are security concerns with metadata collection).

The Onion Report (HOPE XI live blog)

Notes taken at HOPE XI.

Nima Fatemi
David Goblet

Nima gives some basic stats. New board, 6 members. 8 employees, 12 contractors. 40 volunteers. 7000 relay operators. 3000 bridge operators. Dip in relay operators around April 2016 with corresponding spike in bridge operators.

Five teams work on TOR. The Network team is working on better crytography (Ed25519 and SHA3). TOR depends on 8 trusted computers around the world that maintain consensus, which are sometimes attacked with DDoS. There is now a backup list that can be used when no consensus is reached.

Application team doing ongoing development on the TOR browser. Porting the browser to mobile platforms. Doing research and development on sandboxing and usability. Also working on TorBirdy (email) and Tor Messenger (XMPP, OTR).

The UX team collaborating with security usability researchers. Can’t collect usage data because of privacy. Running user studies. Now have a security “slider.” Now display routing chain.

Community team drafting social contracts, membership guidelines, etc. Doing outreach, including the Library Freedom Project.

Measurement team received $152,500 grant from Mozilla. Revamping entire metrics interface.

Ahmia is a search engine for onion services. TOR now gives badges to relays.

How Anonymous narrowly evaded being vilified as terrorists (HOPE XI live blog)

Notes taken at HOPE XI.

Gabriella Coleman, Anthropologist, Professor, McGill University

Biella spent several years studying Anonymous. Found them “confusing, enchanting, controversial, irreverent, interesting, unpredictable, frustrating, stupid, and really stupid.” She expected to have to convince people they weren’t terrorists, but that didn’t happen.

The media usually refers to Anonymous as activists, hacktivists, or vigilantes, rather than terrorists. Pop culture has taken up Anonymous, which has helped inoculate them from the terrorism level.

The label can be used in the media to political ends, example: Nelson Mandela being labeled a terrorist. In France, the Tarnac 9 were arrested as terrorists for stopping trains, but the change was changed. In Spain, puppeteers were arrested for “inciting terrorism” and placed in jail for five days, but the case was thrown out. Common privacy tools like TOR and riseup can lead to suspicions of terrorism. Police and others in the US have tried to get Black Lives Matter designated as a terrorist organization.

Biella cites “Green is the New Red.” Since September 11, terrorism has been redefined to suit political whims, often impacting radical activists such as animal rights activists. What was once “monkey wrenching” or “sabotage” is now considered “terrorism.” A group called the SHAC7 were convicted under the Animal Enterprise Act for running a website that advocated for animal liberation. Many received multi-year jail sentences.

Focusing on technology, the language of terrorism has often been used to describe hacking. Biella was concerned she’d be targeted by the FBI for studying Anonymous. Targets of Anonymous described them as terrorists in the media. The hacktivist Jeremy Hammond was found to be on the FBI terrorism watch list, but because he was an environmental activist, not because he was a hacktivist. GCHQ described Anonymous and LulzSec as bad actors comparable to pedophiles and state-sponsored hackers. In the US, Anonymous was used as a primary example during Congressional hearings on cyberterrorism. The Wall Street Journal published a claim by the NSA that Anonymous could develop the ability to disable part of the US electricity grid.

Timing influenced how the public received these claims. The government compared Wiki-Leaks to Al-Quaeda, and compelled Visa and PayPal to freeze their accounts. These actions were seen as extreme by the public, and Anonymous launched Operation Payback, a DDoS of the PayPal blog, to protest. The media framed the event as a political act of civil disobedience. A month later, Anonymous contributed to social revolutions in the Middle-East and Span, and in Occupy. Anonymous has been described as incoherent for being involved in many different things, but this flexibility has helped inoculate them against the terrorist label. Anonymous is a “Multiple Use Name,” as described by Marco Deseriis.

The Guy Fawkes mask has played an important role. While the use of the mask was largely an accident, but carries connotations of resistance. These connotations were historically negative, but became positive with Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” and its film adaptation. There’s a feedback cycle between reality and fiction about resistance to totalitarian states. There’s an astounding amount of media about hackers. Biella’s favorite is called “Who Am I.” There’s even a ballet based on the story of Anonymous. RuPaul discussed with John Waters as a type of youthful rebellion. In contrast, animal rights activists are often portrayed as dangerous and unlikable.

ISIS uses social tactics similar to Anonymous. The difference between the two groups has created a contrast, amplified by Anonymous declaring war on ISIS.

In 2012, the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement was under debate. The Polish population protested ACTA. Anonymous got involved with Operation ANTI-ACTA in support of Polish citizens. A number of Polish members of parliament wore Guy Fawkes masks to show disapproval for ACTA. The gesture helped to legitimate Anonymous and its tactics.

Tides can change very quickly. An infrastructure attack tied to hacktivists could turn the public against Anonymous. Art and culture really matter. Sometimes the world of law and policy sees art and culture as “soft power,” but Biella argues this is a false dichotomy. She appeals to people who work in the arts to continue, perhaps writing children’s books about hackers.

Phineas Fisher created a brilliant media hack on Vice News. Vice arranged an interview with Fisher, who requested to be represented by a puppet.

What the hack?! Perceptions of Hackers and Cybercriminals in Popular Culture (HOPE XI live blog)

These notes taken at HOPE XI

What the hack?!

Aunshul Rege, Assistant Prof in Criminal Justice at Temple University
Quinn Heath, Criminal Justice student at Temple University

Aunshul begins. Work based on David Wall’s seven myths about the hacker community. How does the media portrayal of hacking differ from reality? Three objectives: 1. get hacker community’s perspective, 2. how does the hacker community feel about Wall’s myths, 3. general thoughts on how the media interacts with the hacker community. Work conducted by interviews of self-identified hackers at HOPE X.

Quinn starts on the first objective. What makes someone a hacker? Plays some interviews from HOPE X. Every hacker had a unique story, but there were common threads. Many hackers felt they had been hackers from a young age. There was also a common thread of hacking bringing empowerment.

First myth: cyberspace is inherently unsafe. Mixed response from interviewees. Some felt that the internet was “just a pipe,” while others believed that as a human system, it empowered misuse.

Second myth: the super hacker. Interviewees believed that no one person knows everything. Highly unrealistic. Real people just aren’t as interesting.

Third myth: cybercrime is dramatic, despotic, and futuristic.

Fourth myth: hackers are becoming part of organized crime. Many felt there was some truth to this.

Fifth myth: criminals are anonymous and cannot be tracked. Everybody uses handles, but you have to go through a single IP. Everyone leaves a trace. The only way not to get caught is to not do anything worth getting caught over.

Sixth myth: cybercriminals go unpunished and get away with crime: Law enforcement is making examples out of people in the hacker community. You have to be careful about what you type into a terminal, assume it will be used against you in the worst possible light. Media portrayal translates into harsher prosecution for hackers than for violent criminals. The CFAA is abused by law enforcement, for example in the Aaron Swartz case.

Seventh myth: users are weak and not able to protect themselves. Media focuses too much on companies and not enough on the users whose data is released. People are becoming less scared of technology.

Quinn moves on to common themes. One was a common objection to the way the word “hacker” is used in the media. The word is ambiguous, but has been used by the media in a much narrower and disagreeable way.

Women are underrepresented in the hacker community, even though the community tends to be more liberal. Women in technology sometimes aren’t presented as hackers because they don’t fit existing media stereotypes.

Hackers are portrayed as geeky, nerdy, boring, caucasian males. But there are hackers of all races. Sometimes hackers of color are presented as a vague formless threat.

Hackers are presented in a polarized way: either losers or dangerous and powerful. Women in the media are always attractive and sexualized and/or goth.

The media sometimes focuses on the hack, and sometimes on the hacker. It’s easier to get information on a hack, and easier to twist the facts to suit the story the media or company want to convey. The media likes to have a face and a personality, but that’s rare.

How does the news interact with the hacker community? There needs to be better journalism. The media takes snippets that don’t give the full story, but shape public opinion.

What about movies? Most of what happens is inaccurate. “They’re not going to make a movie about people staring at computer screens,” it would be “boring as hell.” The movies and media don’t pay tribute to the social engineering aspect. It makes sense that Hollywood would do this, but less so that the news does.

What about the 1995 movie “Hackers”? It’s almost a parody. It’s old and outdated, even for when the movie was set. It’s fun, but not good or accurate. It stereotypes what hackers are. Almost everyone mentioned this movie, and loved it in a “it’s so bad it’s good” kind of way.

Over time, the hacker stereotype has gone from the teenage prankster in the 80s, to dangerous cyber-warriors or weird, young, and soon-to-be-rich.

Hackers are careful about using the word because they’re sensitive to how people will perceive it. They described a strong personal impact due to the media portrayal. But the community remains strong.

What kind of movie would hackers make about hackers? It would be fun to flip all the stereotypes. Most hacking is boring from the outside, so it would need to be dramatized, but it could be more realistic.

Anshul: interested in more information on race, gender and age. Also wants to know how the hacking community is influenced by media stereotypes. Will be publishing this work soon.

That emoji. I do not think it means what you think it means.

When my database threw an unexpected error, I looked up the cryptic code in the message, and fell down a bizarre click-hole about a surprisingly controversial cultural symbol: the "woman with bunny ears" emoji. That's the official title at least, but it has variously been interpreted as "ballerinas" or "Playboy bunnies" or "Kemonomimi" (a human character with animal features, common in Japanese media). Different visual representations have leaned towards evoking different interpretations. These interpretations are left up to implementors and not part of the Unicode standard. There can even be differences between implementation versions from the same vendors. For instance, in iOS 8.3, Apple increased the size of the bunny ears, which had previously looked more like barrettes. For many people, this shifted the meaning of the symbol from "dancers/dancing" to "porn stars," and undoubtedly led to some rather awkward miscommunications. It goes to show that we're still figuring out how to use emoji. And perhaps it's worth looking up your favorite emoji to make sure you're not sending mixed signals to your friends.

Life on the Cliff's Edge: On depression and anxiety

Today is the last day of May, which is also mental health awareness month, and this year I've decided I'm ready to share my story. Most people who know me know that I suffer from depression and anxiety, but until now, I haven't widely shared the details or the extent of my experiences. To most, I probably seem high-functioning, if a little eccentric. The stories we tell about mental illness usually revolve around characters who are either in the middle of a crisis or who have "gotten better" through treatment. But my story is different, and I suspect that to be true for many people living with mental illness. My story is one of a constant struggle to avoid crisis. It's like living life walking along the edge of a cliff. From a distance, everything looks fine, but a single misstep could be catastrophic.

I've had the mixed blessing of learning this second-hand, by observing my family. My older half brother, Bily, struggled with Bipolar Disorder and heroin addiction until he ended his own life in 2009. My younger brother, Doug, has spent the majority of his adult life indoors, incapacitated by a cocktail of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers. And my father's anxiety, depression, and alcoholism led to him spending half a decade homeless, sleeping on a piece of cardboard outside a bus station. People who know my family always comment with awe at how differently my life turned out. The irony is that there's only one real difference: I saw the cliff before I fell off. Mental health is the first consideration in every decision I make, which tends to baffle a lot of people. So often I'm asked "Why can't you just do what everyone else does?" But "everyone" doesn't include everyone incapable of leaving their house, or everyone living on the street, or everyone who has ended their own life.

So how do I stay healthy? I don't use alcohol, nicotine, opiates, or prescription stimulants. When my panic attacks became debilitating in 2007, I gave up caffeine. I'd been drinking 15-20 cups of coffee per day because I was too tired to do anything without it. The panic attacks subsided into a slow burn of generalized anxiety, but I needed a way to improve my poor sleep. After years of experimenting, I found that a combination of morning light therapy, wearing blue-blocking glasses in the evening, and a regular schedule of 9 hours of sleep at the same time every night allowed me to function. People are often envious that I get 9 hours of sleep every night, but are less envious when I leave parties to go to bed at 10pm on Friday night so I can get up at 7:30 on Saturday. I resisted antidepressants for a long time because I was afraid of altering my thinking or further muting my already dull emotions. But then, things got worse.

In 2011, my stress level hit an all-time high. My father was newly homeless after a divorce. My own relationship of 3.5 years had ended in pain and humiliation, cutting me off from what had become my adopted family. And my childhood cat, Cotton, died. At the time, I was freelancing and working from my one-bedroom apartment, which is a perfect combination of anxiety and isolation. Soon I wasn't well enough to take on new work, and I was burning through my savings to support myself. Things peaked after fall daylight savings threw my sleep schedule off. For about three weeks, I was in constant and excruciating mental agony as bad as any physical pain I've ever experienced. My one goal was to find a way to lessen the pain. I spent every day trying to find people to talk to, just to get outside of my head, and the high point of my day was slipping into unconsciousness at the end of it. I was willing to try anything, and I finally made an appointment with a therapist and a psychiatrist. It was a couple painful weeks before I was able to meet with them. In the meantime, I made a chart of my friends. When I needed to talk to someone, I called someone I hadn't talked to in a while. I made a note of the date each time so I wouldn't lean too hard on any one person. I made it to my appointments. Therapy helped. Antidepressants helped. Things slowly got better.

Over the course of 2012, I learned to be happier than I'd ever been before. Antidepressants, combined with regular exercise and sleep, made it possible to fully experience happiness, but it was up to me to find things that brought me happiness. I learned to temper my ambition and focused on connecting with friends. I spent more time with groups of friends, which helped create a positive environment even when my mind was stuck on negative thoughts. I began inviting friends over and making crepes for them, with everyone bringing their favorite toppings. The tradition has only grown in popularity since then. By the end of the year, I finally had a pretty good idea of how to manage my mental health.

So now I know what I need to do to stay healthy, but it's still a constant struggle. I minimize my commute time so I can have social time left over after work and still get enough sleep. I try to find ways to spend time with friends who are used to party o'clock starting at 10pm. I am eternally in search of a convenient place to put my wet gym towel in the morning. I start shifting my sleep schedule weeks before daylight savings. I schedule and plan and focus my work time to increase my efficiency. And if I get off of my sleep/exercise routine, I fix that before anything else. I've been glad to see compassion for and awareness of mental illness becoming more common. And I'm looking forward to a time when the focus shifts from fixing people when they break, to accepting and encouraging ways of life that don't break people in the first place. I'm looking forward to a time when those of us who live on the cliff's edge are respected for the weird dance we do to avoid it.

Liveblog: Creating Radical, Accessible Spaces

These notes were taken live at the University of Michigan School of Information on October 23, 2015.

Jane Berliss-Vincent: Assistive Technology Manager at the University of Michigan, author of Making the Library Accessible for All.
Terry Soave: Manager of Outreach & Neighborhood Services at the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled and Ann Arbor District Library.
Carolyn Grawi: Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living.
Paul Barrow: Public Services Librarian at MLibrary.
Joyce Simowski: Information Services/Outreach Librarian at Canton Public Library.
Melanie Yergeau (Moderator): Assistant Professor at University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature, with a focus on Disability Studies.

Melanie begins by introducing the panelists. Paul works on facilities and front desk issues. His first job was working for a man with Cerebral Palsy and the lessons he learned have stayed with him. Joyce works with older adults. Jane, a UMSI alum, wears many hats, including makeing sure the University of Michigan public computers have accessible technology, and collaborating on web accessibility. Terry builds partnerships with community organizations in order to reach populations that aren't typically engaging with library services. Carolyn works with individuals having many types of disabilities at the Center for Independent Living, and has more than one disability herself.

Paul has increasingly observed that individuals with disabilities are not identifying publicly and asks how to help them. Carolyn suggests making it clear on materials that it's ok to ask for accommodations. Some accommodations can be expensive, but if you know ahead of time which ones are needed, you can avoid unnecessary expenses. Terry stresses that you have to know your community because it's impossible to accommodate everyone all of the time. You can put up a sign, but if someone can't read it, what do you do next? Terry adds that it's very challenging to understand the things that you take for granted when working with someone who has a disability. Terry tries to make it easier to do that.

Jane tells a story about going to AADL with Jack Bernard, Associate General Counsel at UMich. They went around to different desks and asked whether the library had accommodations for disabilities. Everyone was respectful and knew how to access resources. Carolyn adds that when those resources are easily available to the disabled community, they are beneficial to everyone.

Jane describes how universities are accommodating a wider range of disabilities: learning disabilities, etc., when a couple decades ago, the university worked mostly with sight disabilities.

Audience question: Is anyone providing healthcare accessibility?

Jane: receiving healthcare often involves filling out inaccessible forms with small print, which may not be available in languages other than English. Carolyn just met with a group of medical students learning about compassionate care. There's definitely involvement, but she wishes there was more. A lot of what already exists would benefit from being more standardized. Medical students have to meet with community services, but not every student can meet with every service. It's key for those students to share their that information with each other. She adds that it's important to include the person with the disability: "Nothing about us without us."

Melanie asks whether anyone is collaborating with disability organizations. She gives the example of autism. In autism awareness month, groups like libraries can create well-meaning but ill-advised displays and programs, like advertising organizations that promote misinformation, offering programs that exclude the autistic individuals. Jane talks about the importance of a back and forth dialog. You can't know what people want unless you et them involved and ask them. Carolyn: the Ann Arbor CIL works closely with many organizations. One example was working with the AADL to make the front entrance more accessible. Collaboration isn't always simple, but it's beneficial. Carolyn gives another example, of working with fourth graders in public schools. Why fourth graders? They are at an age where they are open to learning, like to share what they learn with each other, and speak up about the things that they need themselves. A student who had taken one of the workshops once ran into the workshop leader at a theme park and told them what they thought the park was doing right and wrong.

Audience question: How to you ensure that the population you're serving is aware of your services? Terry has outreach staff, works with doctors offices to put information in waiting rooms, and also provides institutional accounts to other institutions that may be working with elligible individuals. By far most people learn about services by word of mouth. Places a sticker for a large-print service inside all of the library's large print books. People like to help, and making connections is an easy way to help. Carolyn: now you can access a lot of materials digitally, so you don't need to come in physically. That can be good for individuals with disabilities but can make it difficult to provide them with information.

Joyce tries to determine and respond to the needs of the community. Carolyn: we all try to follow the ADA and provide "reasonable accomodations." Jane brings up small, light-up magnifiers. They're useful and inexpensive and can be used to provide information to people who need them.

Audience question: how do you deal with the challenge of helping disabled individuals be courteous to those with other disabilities. Jane: sometimes you have "dueling disabilities" like someone who turns a monitor off because the light is a problem, but someone else might not be able to figure out how to turn it back on. It's a challenge. Paul thinks libraries are special because they are a center for conversation. Paul gives the example of moving power outlets from the wall to the table to prevent creating tripping hazards with power cords. Just having a conversation is very powerful. Humans are reactive by nature, so let's react by having a productive conversation. Carolyn agrees that libraries are one of the best places for different types of people to get together.

Audience question: Has background in rural libraries. If you have limited resources, what are the core principles you encourage a library or other public organization to pursue. Jane: listen to your patrons. Finding out what people need may be easier in a small group. Carolyn: maximize your open space. It's useful to more people. Joyce: partnerships can help, like having meals on wheels deliver books. It can be hard to do these collaborations unless they're mutually beneficial, so the collaborations have to be found on a case-by-case basis. Terry: different organizations have different types of funding, which affects which types of collaborations are easier. Paul: libraries used to brag about collections, but they're all the same now. Instead, focus on services. Jane: libraries are not just book collections anymore. In rural areas, they may be points of access for the Internet or job searching.

Audience question: The term "universal design" gets thrown around a lot. What are small changes that make things better for everyone? What is a radical accessible space, and where have you seen one? Jane: Interested by the convergence between "bring your own device" and accessibility. Now universities are moving towards "bring your own everything." Many of the features being used on mobile devices are taken from assistive technology: autocomplete, zoom. The first typewriter-like device was developed by Pellegrino Turri to write letters to his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. Carolyn: we try to describe attachments. Having inclusive seating helps: making different types of seating (front, back, etc.) accessible. It's important to be open to feedback and take it as constructive even if it seems critical. Paul wishes that physical spaces were more configurable.

Audience question: The state is putting accessibility as a low priority. What can we do to make it a higher priority? The CIL has ongoing discussions with the state legislature, but sometimes difficult to make progress because of a lack of bipartisan interest.

Closing comments. Jane: think holistically. A towel dispenser may be ADA-compliant, but it doesn't help if you place it where someone in a wheelchair can't reach it. Joyce sees advancements in technology as making a big difference. Be observant of what people need. Carolyn: be patient and tolerant if someone asks for something you don't know or isn't understanding something. Paul: be radical, do what's right, not what people did before.