July 17th, 2016

Fully Rugged Personal Branding

Something happened to me that is so perfect I just can’t get over it: earlier this week, I needed a new phone. Once I had settled on the new Amazon model, I was delighted to find a case that matches my laptop. This is something I wouldn’t have bought until recently. I was initially a little self-conscious about this laptop, a lovingly home-rebuilt Toughbook CF-30 with some added bells and whistles that are definitely not from the factory, but it’s grown on me enough to be part of my branding.


My laptop, pictured lying on a Capitol Hill sidewalk, is about four inches thick and silver with black edges. Its case is a mix of metal and very hard plastic. It has a handle on the top like a briefcase, and its design includes raised ridges reminiscent of armor. It's covered in scratches. A silver phone case, starting to have a few scratches of its own, lies on top of the laptop. It has the same armor-like looks.


People notice it. Strangers ask questions about why I have it and where it came from. It starts conversations when I use it in public places.

At first, all the attention was uncomfortable because of my particular history with computers. I’ve had a lot of devices of carious kind since the schools gave up on fixing my handwriting at age eight. Handwriting is most of my actual impairment, one of those odd, little things that my dyslexic, autistic neurology can’t do very well. I can write well enough to get by when I would have to make an issue of typing, when I would have to go through some special process or risk the ire of a technophobic authority figure to be allowed to type, but writing by hand is laborious and uncomfortable for me. Typing will probably always be more useful to me for most written communication. I also live in and love and love to hate Autistic blogging and social media culture. I deal with the internet as a matter of work, play, and networking, and I don’t want to do all that on a tiny phone screen. That means that my laptop will always work long hours, and it won’t get days off any more than the internet does.

Over the years, many of my devices have died of being overused and carted around. I love the written word enough to want comfortable access to it wherever, whenever, whatever is going on, but I don’t care to limit my life to computer-safe activities. If you build things for people with disabilities, remember that we want to live fully, and that sometimes entails sweat, grit, and rain. For those reasons, I don’t think I’ve ever had a normal laptop longer than around 18 months. That was getting expensive, and the delay and inconvenience was untenable in law school. When an HP warranty replacement I didn’t even like dropped dead in October of 1L, it was time for a change. I bought the bones of an old CF-30 from a police department out west, ordered parts off from China, and purchased Windows. I wasn’t sure all the different pieces would be compatible in practice, however feasible it looked in theory, but it fired up when I hit that weird, spring-loaded power switch.

Because of my history with laptops, because any laptop I own is always partially assistive tech and deeply ingrained in my experience of disabled identity, carrying this one around felt awkward at first. It felt like a public display of disabled identity, even if the strangers who complimented it or asked questions didn’t perceive it that way at first glance. It was quirky, though, improbable, and hard as nails. It works for me. It probably helped that I was proud of having built this thing. I couldn’t help but start to like it. It’s strong enough to go out and engage with the world in a bag, in my hand, thrown down on the front seat of my car. Several thousand miles, Georgia mud and Texas dust, twelve traditional law school finals, and a number of drops and run-ins with liquid later, it still starts up less grudgingly than I do on a weekday morning. It’s what freedom looks like for me, and it fits as a piece of my aesthetic.


Me with my bike, laptop, and phone on some grass

What goes into a personal brand, especially on the internet? Some distinctive touches, some statements that are distinguishing and hard to miss. Gradually, inevitably, the laptop edged in. I started to work it into things like Facebook and Twitter cover photos. When I stumbled on a phone case that would allow me to turn an average smartphone into an echo of, a reference back to, my aggressively functional statement piece, I couldn’t imagine picking out any other case. It’s sad to say that it took me longer to give up on the idea of pocket-sized notebooks and sleek laptops than to become open about my disability, but I’m really excited about this phone case. I’m also more quietly, deeply happy about coming around to a more authentic personal brand and an aesthetic that doesn’t clash with the realities of my life.

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