Autistic Future
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.