A Letter to the Editor

A PERSONAL STORY FROM AN AUTISTIC “DISABLED” PERSON

Sean Hartman

My name is Sean and I am autistic.

Over the past 28 years, I have been told I was “disabled” because my social behavior was not consistent with what others would deem as “normal.” I did not react in an emotionally correct way in certain social situations. I would either seem stoic and calm at times when emotions were needed, or I would react intensely at the most trivial of matters, like being unable to find certain objects around the house where I had placed them earlier.

With the recent mass shootings in our country, the issue of mental health has been brought to the forefront. And though both sides are finally turning away from that excuse in favor of alternative scapegoats, I feel it is important to address the issue of disability rights and how people like me have been affected by this stigmatization and fear-mongering.

After the Parkland shooting last year, several parents reported their children to psychiatric hospitals under something known as the Baker Act. The Baker Act is a law meant to prevent individuals with different mental conditions from being a danger to themselves or others. It seems like a good law, but I am reminded of the old adage of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Shortly after the shooting, and in response to protests of students like David Hogg, legislators, none of whom have experience with mental health conditions nor experience living with the conditions themselves, passed a comprehensive law that discriminated against people with those conditions.

I want to ignore the gun issue for a moment. I know that proposing that the mentally ill being allowed their God-given constitutional rights is somehow controversial. Even some of my closest, conservative friends, people with whom I have fought and campaigned and who are staunch supporters of our Second Amendment, have told me that I should not have these constitutional rights restored to me, even though I have never seen a judge or been in a courtroom to have these rights revoked.

In 2013, then-Governor Rick Scott passed HB 1355, which made it that if someone like me is Baker Acted, we lose our constitutional rights without due process. Every Republican legislator in our jurisdiction voted in support of this bill. When I asked Representative Dane Eagle about this, he explained that I had the right to petition for my constitutional rights back.

The way we treat our mentally ill in the State of Florida is as criminals. It is something that you would expect to see in a fascist regime, not in our constitutional republic.

For those unaware of the process, you can be held under the Baker Act by virtually anybody who reports you as a threat to yourself or others. Though it is usually parents, spouses, or psychologists, this may not matter, particularly in public. Autistic people, for example, may react to external stimuli in such a way that local businesses will see no other recourse but to call law enforcement. This is what happened to me several years ago when I was visiting Orlando for the GeekyCon Convention.

People who are held under the Baker Act are handcuffed and placed into a police car, the same treatment a criminal would receive. You are arrested for the crime of being disabled. I want to repeat that because it is extremely important. You are ARRESTED for the crime of BEING DISABLED.

From there, you must hand over any cell phones and personal belongings. If you are wearing clothes with ropes, the ropes are cut. Authorities take any shoelaces and belts. Then you wait while they process you, something that can take up to 24 hours. Nurses are unavailable to help.

Depending on the hospital, you may be placed in a room that fits the definition of solitary confinement. Food is usually not provided. Individual concerns are not addressed.

Your writ of habeas corpus is allowed, but everyone is so busy with everything else, you never obtain it.

You are confined for three days, regardless if it is necessary. On rare occasions, they may let you out, but this is less often since Parkland. If you are detained over the weekend, it may be an entirely different psychologist, so there will be a lag in treatment. And many times they will disrupt your current medication and experiment with new ones, which only makes things worse.

I have been politically active in Lee County for years, having returned home after attending the University of Central Florida. Those who know me know that I am passionate about my rights and the issues. Even now, I hate the term disabled because Republicans here in Southwest Florida never saw me that way. This was something I discussed with Lee County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Jonathan Martin.

I first Martin when I was questioning him for a YouTube channel during his run for State Legislator. We talked about how damaging the term “disabled” is to my community, and how that term alone limits our economic opportunities. What makes me disabled, and how does society perceive me?

I have already addressed my concerns to several people, including Mike Giallombardo, who is running to replace Dane Eagle in the Florida House of Representatives, and Spencer Roach, the current State Representative from East Lee County who will become Southwest Florida’s senior delegate next year.

It is my intention to meet with each legislator in Southwest Florida in their offices, as well as each candidate running, to speak to them about the importance of this issue. They can expect to hear from me soon: Heather Fitzenhagen, Lizbeth Benacquisto, Byron Donalds, Ben Albritton, Ray Rodrigues, Dane Eagle, Jenna Persons, Bryan Blackwell, Roger Lolly, Shawn Williams, Adam Botana, Jason Maughan, and Jesse Purdon.

There is a serious mental health crisis in our country, and it’s personal for me. I am tired, as many like me are, of being discriminated against unjustly. Our voices matter, and we matter, and I am proud to be fighting for this cause.

Sean David Hartman