Sunday, November 17, 2013

5 On Stephen Hawking, Disability, and Capability: What Are Limitations?

A few months ago, I read an article in The Telegraph about a doctor in the UK who made a statement about how people who receive disability benefits should not because if Stephen Hawking could work, then pretty much everyone could work.

The Telegraph quotes Dr. Peverley, who practices in Sunderland, England:
“We are, as a profession, dedicated to making our patients as healthy as possible, and yet a proportion of punters are hell bent on trying to prove they’re really ill, and need us to confirm it." 
“The fact is, nearly everyone is capable of some kind of work. I had considered, at one point, putting up a portrait of Professor Stephen Hawking in my consulting room with a caption that said, ‘This bloke is not on the sick’.”

Dr. Peverley is one of a number of doctors and politicians who have been engaged in a strange war on the disabled in the UK. This war began during Prime Minister David Cameron's term in office, and has been reflected in the hiring of private firm, Atos, to complete disability assessments on new patients and reassess those already disabled for the purpose of getting them off a disability pension and put them back to work.

In theory, getting people with disabilities back to work who are capable of work sounds good. One problem is, though, that Atos doesn't appear to be doing a good job of determining just who is eligible to work again and who should remain on a disability pension.

Since 2008, Atos has conducted more than 1.5 million disability assessments. However, during this time there have been more than 600,000 appeals at a cost of £60 million. A number of these appeals were based on reevaluations of disabled people who were in fact still quite disabled, but their new evaluation forms were filled with erroneous or incomplete information which did not characterize patients' degree of disability properly.

One doctor, Dr. Greg Wood, who used to work as an evaluator for Atos became a whistleblower. When interviewed by the newspaper he revealed that he had been not only encouraged - but ordered - to downplay the severity of patients' disabilities or misstate their limitations so as to get them off the disability pension rolls.

Which brings me back to Dr. Peverley. Dr. Peverley sounds like the kind of doctor who would comply with whatever Atos asked him to do in order to get patients off disability and return them to work, no matter how sick or how poorly suited to work they would be.

The Telegraph article later states, regarding Dr. Peverley:
He said that being declared “fit to work” did not mean patients had to do a laborious job.

“Being found fit for some kind of employment by Atos does not mean you’re necessarily capable of being an FBI agent or a lumberjack”, Dr Peverley said.

“However, you might be able to work at a desk on a telephone, or hold a lollipop on a zebra crossing."
On one hand, he makes a good point: Many people with disabilities and chronic illness can do something and many are not completely incapacitated. They may be disabled in some way, but they are capable of completing a task.

On the other hand, he entirely misses the point that being able to work at a regular, part time or full time job is not just about being capable of doing a task once or even here and there - it's about being able to consistently perform certain tasks repeatedly on a regular basis, typically daily, often at long stretches of time without a break. And to do so in a workplace which may only allow you a minimum of flexibility in your work hours and may or may not permit you to work from home at all.

Stephen Hawking, in a short BBC interview about his autobiographical film, Hawking (by Vertigo Films - not to be confused with the film, Hawking, starring Benedict Cumberbatch)discusses his own disability and his view of it includes acknowledgments which Dr. Peverley does not make:



Stephen Hawking acknowledges that in his situation, he was very fortunate that his disability in some ways has been an asset which allows him to avoid teaching or attending more boring committee meetings so he can spend more time doing his own research on theoretical physics. He admits that because he cannot talk to people quickly, he tends drift off on a mental tangent about some aspect of physics while around other people. He also acknowledges that with his kind of disability, it has not been a drawback to working in his field because he can do theoretical physics in his head. His physical capabilities aren't necessary to do his work.

Stephen Hawking recognizes his good fortune despite his misfortune - of this it's quite clear. And it's this message he wants everyone watching to hold on to. But he also states that some of his good fortune has been due to the support and love of his family and friends, his upbringing, the opportunity he had to get a solid education until his physical condition began to deteriorate, the care he received for many years from the National Health Service, and the fact that his condition has been a form of motor neuron disease which has given him a chance to go deep into his mind to explore new concepts while outliving doctors' expectations about his lifespan.

It might have been more traumatic for Stephen Hawking to have lost his cognitive capabilities than it was to have lost his physical capabilities because his life up until the point his condition began to worsen was already about academia, about learning and innovative thinking.

Only Stephen Hawking can really say what his choice would have been if it were given to him - I'm just guessing. But it's very clear that his complex internal mental world is where he lives, works, and plays - and if that were to be cut off from him, depression and losing the will to live might follow. This world is a big part of who he is.

Stephen Hawking is visibly physically disabled. And yet he has certain abilities others with different disabilities do not have: He can see, hear, communicate with others on and off the internet, and think clearly and rationally. He can create whole models of the Universe inside his head. He can sleep 8 hours a night, wake up refreshed, and get around with the assistance of a wheelchair and a personal assistant. While he is physically impaired, others act as his physical extensions to care for him - whether it be eating, bathing, dressing, or using the toilet. With such support, he can focus on his work.

But just because Stephen Hawking can do what he does does not mean all people with disabilities and chronic illnesses can do what he does. No one would expect someone with short term memory problems and difficulty learning and retaining new information to be able to explore problems of theoretical physics in their head any more than one would expect Stephen Hawking to start washing windows and painting the trim.

I can think of any of a number of disabilities and chronic illnesses which could impair people to the degree that a regular part time or full time job would be impossible for them. Those with severe anxiety, severe depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD can be so overwhelmed by managing their condition that at times it is enough work just to get through the next hour - let alone day or week. Those who have cancer and have many side effects from chemotherapy and fatigue may not be able to work. Those who have frequent flareups of autoimmune diseases or have conditions which require multiple surgeries over time and recoveries and/or multiple regular tests and scans every week or two may not be able work. Those who have more than one medical condition to manage may end up spending so much time and energy in their management that it would interfere with working.

Some disabilities and illnesses get in the way of accomplishing things in a number of spheres in life more than others. Some disabilities and illnesses are more disruptive or have the potential to be more disruptive than others for holding down a regular job with regular hours and regular deadlines.

It is this last bit around which I think Dr. Peverley - and those like him - has a blind spot: The issue of employment being contingent upon consistency and reliability.

When it comes to someone being disabled or chronically ill, their capability and consistent ability to do work is different from their disability or illness. In the UK, the 2010 Equality Act defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.” This definition covers a wide range of conditions, from mental illness and learning disabilities to chronic physical illness and long term physical impairments.

Sure, someone with moderate myalgic encephalomyelitis, fibromyalgia, or chronic Lyme disease might be able to hold up up a sign as a crossing guard for a few minutes one day. But can they do it for the next fifteen minutes? Can they do it for three hours a day? Can they do it for three hours a day, five days a week, for ten months of the year? If they can't - and an employer witnesses that their crossing guard begins to fail to carry out this supposedly easy task (easy for whom?) by leaving their station early or calling in sick too many days in a row, then they will not be a crossing guard for long.

Even if this crossing guard job were a job one could do, how on earth could it provide the disabled or chronically ill individual with enough financial support to keep a roof over their head? In all reality it can't, and so even if one could work 15-20 hours a week, within one's maximum capacity for work under the best of conditions, the wages earned from being a crossing guard are small. Anyone doing such work would need additional forms of support. And even if the disabled and chronically ill individual were to be capable of this type of job, one has to consider as an employer, if your employee will be capable of doing such job for at least an intermediate length of time if not the long run - and if one is a disabled or ill employee with such job, whether doing such a job with such frequency will have a negative impact on one's health.

The same applies to Dr. Peverley's assumption about anyone with a disability or chronic illness being able to hold down a desk job. Maybe some people with disabilities or chronic illness can. Maybe some people can't. In this Telegraph article, Dr. Peverley makes it sound as if everyone can and this, again, brings up the same issues that the crossing guard job has: Someone could have trouble sitting for long periods of time due to pain and fatigue, someone could have trouble consistently performing other duties required of the job due to their individual disability or illness.

In all of these situations, Dr. Peverley overlooks two realities:

One is that the way most work is organized is that there is a daily routine and expectation where - no matter what the job is - employers want employees who will be able to show up to work on time, work at a consistent level, leave work at a certain time (often later than originally intended), work day in and out, and meet deadlines at regular intervals.

Two is that in many ways, being disabled or chronically ill can interfere with this very structure of expectations and routine around which work is organized, and because of this, employers who fear the disabled or chronically ill will not meet expectations can either discriminate against hiring those who are visibly disabled or chronically ill, and/or more easily let go of employees with disabilities and chronic illnesses if simple accommodations aren't enough to help the employees accomplish their jobs under existing terms.

The missing piece that would help empower more disabled and chronically ill people enter the workforce that is currently not part of our modern workplace culture is to adapt jobs and adapt workplace infrastructures to accommodate the person who is disabled and/or chronically ill - not the other way around.

The situation for many disabled and chronically ill people is that they may not work at their best under circumstances which are normal and typical for the average able-bodied, healthy worker. In order to empower those who can work to some degree, the best accommodation comes from acknowledging the person with disability or chronic illness' circumstances and work with them to create a suitable position and environment.

In this respect, Stephen Hawking has the kind of support that many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses do not: Throughout the film of his life, people value Hawking's opinion and ideas and bend over backward to accommodate him, with graduate students often also serving as personal assistants early in Hawking's career. As time goes on, hired nurses and assistants take their place. Personal care, assistive technology, and Hawking's research position are all created specifically to support him in doing his work as much as it is possible - rather than having Hawking be given only a few accommodations which might make the simple act of living possible.

People with disabilities and chronic illnesses who could work and contribute something to society are better able to contribute if society as a whole begins to integrate a concept of working with disabilities and chronic illness into existing economies and workplaces. Workplaces and technology can evolve to create jobs which empower those with disabilities and chronic illnesses to work as much as it is possible.

Rather than have the standard job with typical requirements and routines, jobs would have to be created which disabled and chronically ill people can do which do not rely on consistency or on meeting deadlines at regular - often short - intervals.

Jobs and workplace infrastructures would have to be created which can flex around the circumstances of a person's reality, strengths, and weaknesses - rather than to try to shoehorn the disabled or chronically ill person into a job and workplace which permits a few small changes that help accommodate the person to try to work at the job in the same way able-bodied and healthy people do.

The support should be there to accommodate people in reaching goals whether or not they conform to standard workplace expectations. And not to do so in order to make the Dr. Peverleys of the world shut up and feel righteous about their idea that those with disabilities and chronic illnesses should be able to get off disability pensions and work - but to empower anyone to pursue goals, to follow dreams, to have some hand in supporting themselves and having a sense of a future despite the cards they've been dealt.


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Monday, November 11, 2013

10 Thoughts on "Canary In A Coal Mine" and "Under Our Skin"

It's been five years since the controversial award-winning film about chronic Lyme disease, Under Our Skin, was first released.




When it was first released, Under Our Skin provided catharsis for me as a patient who developed chronic pain and chronic fatigue since that fateful day I received an infected tick bite and fell ill.  It was the first film - the only film, in fact - that I could point to, share, and say to others, "Look. Watch. I'm not the only one who is dealing with this problem".

And share I did. I bought the DVD and gave it to a therapist who at the time was working with me on tips for coping with secondary depression. I showed it to a few close friends who wanted to know more about the chronic Lyme disease controversy. And I sent a copy to my parents.

Under Our Skin helped open the door for discussion about my illness, it made me feel less alone in my suffering, it validated my condition for others, and it brought up the very controversies involving chronic Lyme disease I'd been discussing with other patients in a way which easily summarized them for those new to it.

Lately, I think more about Under Our Skin in a broader sense and less about it being a piece of my own personal chronic illness manifesto. Here was a film which scored an Academy Award nomination and several international film festival awards - no small feat for a documentary film of this nature. Here was a film which took Lyme disease into the spotlight and encouraged people to take more steps to prevent tick bites so as to avoid having the kind of experience I've been having. Here was a film that spoke to a larger proportion of the population than I originally thought possible.

"Lyme disease?" I remember muttering to myself, "Who the hell wants to watch a film about that except patients?" But watch it they did.

Whatever your personal opinion about Under Our Skin is - like it or loathe it - it spread awareness about the issue of chronic Lyme disease and touched on why the topic of persisting symptoms in patients has become a loaded subject.

Conditions like chronic Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and myalgic encephalomyelitis - also known as chronic fatigue syndrome - fall outside the usual diagnostic box and frustrate doctors and patients alike.

Patients inexplicably report being diagnosed with depression or anxiety when they're running a fever and have joint pain, or report being diagnosed with anxiety when they're dizzy and have signs of orthostatic intolerance. Instead of more involved investigation and attempts to improve patients' symptoms, some are only sent home with a prescription for psychiatric medication and told to call if there are any side effects.

Doctors, likewise, mention patients who clearly have something going wrong but they have no idea how to help them because the literature just isn't there; the guidelines they are supposed to use have no contingency plans for those who fall outside the box. Some want to help, but they don't know where to begin. A rare few are willing to experiment and try an out-of-the-box treatment for the out-of-the-box patient, and some do so at a risk to themselves.

If there were more research, if people invested more in projects to help people with such conditions, then maybe we would already have more answers which would help people. As it stands, funding for such research is slim, people are not aware of how profound an impact these conditions can have, and as long as many patients are so sick that they venture outside tentatively (if at all), the only way they can stop slipping through the cracks is to make their voice heard without leaving their beds.

It is these kinds of points which were made during the Kickstarter campaign for the film, Canary In A Coal Mine, that grabbed my attention, including this one statistic: "Male pattern baldness gets more money for research than myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome".

It has to be one of the most ridiculous statements made in remarks sandwiched between footage for the film. Or rather, it would be ridiculous if it weren't for the fact that it's actually true. The reality is sad: ME/CFS only receives about $5 million in NIH research funding annually compared to the hairless wonder's many million dollar pot (hell, just this one private company announced an $11 million funding round for research) and an industry which generates hundreds of millions in profit. Bill Gates also stated earlier this year that male pattern baldness received more research funding than malaria - another sad surprise. So when $2 million of NIH funding is given to 3 different institutions to study ME/CFS, it's considered a big deal - however, that amount of money pales in comparison to the funding for research on other conditions.

Sadly, somewhere along the line, it was decided that vanity was more important than a person's ability to get through their day like a normal human being, such as being able to hold down a job and go out to a movie after work - maybe even have a family. Things like that. Normal, you know?

(I don't know about you, but screw my insecurities about going bald - If I had to choose between being bald and having ME/CFS or chronic Lyme disease, well, show me the god that can grant me this wish and let's get that shaver rolling. I can join the Hair Club for Men later and get a transplant or an outrageous selection of hair pieces.)

Chronic Lyme disease falls into its own funding hell, because while Lyme disease receives a fair amount of funding compared to ME/CFS, it's still relatively less compared to other conditions and projects which are specifically about chronic Lyme disease are rare.

Twelve years ago, the NIH Lyme disease program officer said data collected from the Klempner antibiotic trial for chronic Lyme disease would be used to help develop new innovative treatments for patients. Well, it's twelve years later, and the number of innovative treatments for chronic Lyme disease which have been developed from this NIH-NIAID project data are exactly zero.

But getting back to Canary In A Coal Mine...

When I first saw the appeal for Canary In A Coal Mine, it came via a tweet from a member of the ME/CFS community. I didn't know what to expect, and when I played the trailer, I was immediately taken in by it.

Canary In a Coal Mine began as a Kickstarter project initiated by Jennifer Brea, a Harvard doctoral student on medical leave whose life has been changed dramatically by myalgic encephalomyelitis (more commonly referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome, a name which does not do the condition justice) and Kiran Chitanvis, an independent filmmaker who attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Jennifer Brea directs the film, Kiran and Jennifer are both producers, and Kiran is director of photography.

Within days of posting the project on Kickstarter, the initial funding drive exceeded its first goal of $50,000 and today, weeks after posting, it has received over $150,000 funding towards the entire $200,000 needed to complete the film.

How has this independent film produced in dimly lit bedrooms using iPads and video cameras gained such a meteoric rise in support in so short a time? The answer lies in the trailer presented on Kickstarter, which struck such a note with viewers that they immediately felt inspired to donate:




I've viewed the trailer several times, and with each passage the same scenes stand out for me, over and over. As a whole, it is a masterful piece which builds suspense around the mysterious beginnings of ME/CFS with a history of unusual outbreaks of illness where no one could pinpoint the cause to demonstrating how ME/CFS has had a profound impact on its sufferers and the current controversy over the scientific positions on what causes ME/CFS.

In this regard, the trailers for Canary in A Coal Mine and Under Our Skin are similar: Both hint at a history of controversy and mystery surrounding the condition. Both highlight the patient experience, by capturing the suffering and changed lives of individuals and families whose lives are abruptly jarred by disease. Both point fingers at doctors who claim patients' symptoms are psychological in nature rather than looking at evidence that the condition is physical. Both open the door into sharing moments in people's lives which are difficult and usually suffered alone in silence or only with those closest to them.

But where Canary In A Coal Mine immediately diverged from Under Our Skin as a concept is what truly got to me, and almost made me break inside: The trailer is in large part made by the very person who is invested in it the most: Jennifer Brea, a patient suffering with ME/CFS.

As Kiran Chitanvis, the independent filmmaker directing the project states, the film is intended to be a narrative which pulls the viewer into the experience of what it's like to have ME/CFS in a way that hasn't been done before. And this is one reason why the trailer has been a success: It subtly places the viewer in the position of imagining what it is like to have ME/CFS and have to live life around and through it.

It can do so effectively because Jennifer Brea is telling her own story, filming her story, interviewing others about her story, and by extension, the making of the trailer and the film actually become part of her own story.

Footage in the trailer and supplemental videos on the Kickstarter page show the viewer how difficult it is for Jennifer to work on the film and the costs on her body of pushing through a 12 hour day of shooting - a day which will not be repeated because the cost is too high. To emphasize this decision, the statement is made that pacing is important to preserve Jennifer's health, and that if 6 weeks' worth of shooting the film has to be done over the course of a year or more, then so be it. There is no race to finish the film. The important thing is to finish it, period.

We witness the difficulty involved in watching Jennifer slowly walking, staggering towards a vehicle and outlining the planning required for a journey that most people don't give much thought when they get in a car for a one hour trip to New York City. We see Jennifer slowly struggling to stand up with a laptop in her arms, only to watch her fall forward. We observe Jennifer lying down on a couch in a dimly lit room, too exhausted to stand while friends socialize in a kitchen down the hall. As time trickles by, we catch glimpses of how plans and key milestones Jennifer had planned for her life have been railroaded into some murky unknown future where it's uncertain what will happen.

This is a trailer which inspired other patients, caregivers, and advocates to fund the project because it is a film that is not only speaking on behalf of all the patients who cannot march on Washington to request funding for more research, who cannot stand for more than a few minutes or even a second, who cannot speak for themselves - it inspired others because it is by a patient, about a patient, and for patients in the voice of a patient - and using this perspective to spread awareness to those who do not have ME/CFS. This angle is one way in which it is very different from a documentary like Under Our Skin.

One of the scenes in the trailer which put a catch in my throat is shown in this still:

Jennifer Brea mapping out the pathways and immunological profiles which underlie part of the myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) puzzle, or what American researchers renamed "chronic fatigue syndrome" (CFS).
© 2013 Canary Films with permission

I can't get this scene out of my mind, because this one moment captures so much of my own experience as chronic Lyme disease patient with an diagnosis of ME/CFS as well.

While much of my limited energy goes into a few mundane tasks during the day, it also is spent on research related to Lyme disease and immunology, microbiology, molecular biology, and genetics. It is spent pouring over many documents, where I am trying to piece together parts of the chronic Lyme disease puzzle and figure out what happened to me - and to see what novel ideas I can come up with that might make my quality of life better.

This one snapshot of Jennifer Brea's life could just as easily be a snapshot of my own. I couldn't help but be moved by watching someone else having an experience similar to my own; someone who wanted to do the hard work of getting answers and learning as much as they could even with the challenge of brain fog, overwhelming fatigue, and other disruptive symptoms getting in the way.

And at the same time, this scene is also one which triggers tremendous anger. Why should she - and why should I - have to be placed in a position where we are compelled to figure out what is going on with our conditions? Why isn't there more research for people in our situation? Why aren't there more doctors who can help us? And most of all: Why the hell do people value a full head of hair over helping people be able to sit up and feed themselves - let alone go to work every day and have a life? Because that's what the dollar signs say. That's where the money is going.

Another scene which struck me is near the end of the trailer, when Jennifer sits in a wheelchair in the yard and watches others doing yard work:

Scene from Canary In A Coal Mine © 2013 Canary Films with permission

Howard Bloom, writer and former publicist in the music industry who came down with ME/CFS years ago does a voice-over during the scene, saying:
"There is a future you take for granted every day and never articulate to yourself - and yet it's always there. And when you come down with an illness that has no end, it strips away that idea of a future."
Howard later discusses the ability to see the infinite in the smallest detail as one of the benefits of having to slow down due to a chronic illness, and while this experience can soften the edges of the blow of having a bad day, it in no ways diminishes awareness that one's life plans have been altered - in some cases, irrevocably.

These scenes are not about the science behind ME/CFS, yet they strike a personal chord for someone in my shoes and I suspect they stand out for others who have been on the same path. Some of us have been up to our eyeballs in research and controversy - just for a moment let us reflect on our humanity in facing a difficult situation.

While all I can write about at this stage of the production is about Canary In A Coal Mine the trailer, I am hopeful that Canary In A Coal Mine the film will retain the same focus I saw in the trailer which put the patient experience front and center. I am hopeful there will be more discussion about the realities of ME/CFS and the scientific evidence supporting it as a physical, immunological condition and not something akin to the 19th century version of hysteria. And most of all, I am hopeful it is an experience Jennifer Brea will get through, intact, with adequate rest and a sense of major accomplishment on the other side of it.



[Edit Nov. 12: Updated to include info on director and producer roles by Jennifer Brea and Kiran Chitanvis.]


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All images subject to copyright and are used with permission of Canary Films.
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Monday, November 4, 2013

6 Meta: Post of Upcoming Post Topics


It's been a few weeks since my last post, and I would like to get back to blogging on a regular basis. How regular remains to be seen but certainly more than once every 6 months, which has been the largest gap between entries since I began this blog.

I haven't blogged much this year for a variety of reasons. One reason is that there has been a lot going on in real life, so in my virtual life I took to tweeting more and writing at length less. Another is that I've been exhausted, and writing at length hasn't been coming as easily as it has other times.

So I have taken a break, even if that meant having to put off writing a number of posts which I originally intended to do. I think it was necessary to take a step back and use my energy elsewhere for a while - including discussing tickborne diseases in other venues outside of this space.

I'm hoping to make a reentry and post more often as it works for me. It's going to be an experiment to see how frequently I can manage it because I can't predict what the future is going to bring between happenings in my life and the status of my health, but I want to give it another try even though at times I feel like no one reads this blog (though clearly they do, as Blogger's stats indicate several thousand pageviews each month even if I don't post anything in a long time) and few people comment lately.

My intent is to begin working through these topics, order to be determined:


  • Thoughts on the trailer for the film, Canary In a Coal Mine, and how the film may differ from Under Our Skin

  • Thoughts on the difference been disability and capability and where they intersect

  • The "it's all in your head" diagnosis: why it does everyone a disservice and can even be deadly

  • So about that 10-20% of Lyme disease patients with persisting symptoms after initial treatment...

  • Individual issue posts in response to the anti-science letter Panel 1 items:
    • Sexual transmission of tickborne diseases: Is there evidence?
    • Whether or not Lyme disease Borrelia are restricted geographically
    • Subjective versus objective symptoms in Lyme disease
    • Lyme disease as a trigger for other conditions
    • How common tickborne coinfections are
    • The pathobiology of Borrelia burgdorferi (this may be 3 separate posts)
    • Serological testing and its value in diagnosis when there is no EM rash
    • The use of IgM testing 
    • Serological sensitivity in Lyme disease based on gender
    • (Will not be addressing treatment topics on this panel at this time.)

  • The who, what, where, how, and why of blogging here: Should the focus change?

So, I have a number of posts here I would like to write, and hopefully the energy and focus can be found to move forward.



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