Last week I came across four media pieces that were to varying degrees, ableist, or at least had terribly ableist comments. Stuff that really made me cringe.
Let’s get started with this.
New York Times Magazine: “The Kids Who Beat Autism”
This article was the most ableist of the four pieces, and it was painful to get through.
Phrases such as “overcoming autism” and “stopped being autistic” made me uncomfortable and suspicious, not just because they were being applied according to the diagnostic standards in the DSM (which, as we’ve seen with the DSM-V, change according to what clinicians think is most appropriate) but because I’ve heard too much about what autistic people experience to believe that it’s merely, as author Ruth Pawader states, “a constellation of behavioural symptoms”. Behavioural interventions may help autistic people to deal with some of the biological realities of autism, but just because someone has learned to “look” more neurotypical doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t autistic anymore. And frankly, the “cured” kids that I read about seemed to have so much pressure on them to become more “normal” and less “autistic” that I (and some of the commenters) wondered if looking at interventions with the aim of curing a child is something that’s particularly constructive…autism *is* a part of who a person is, and what does it say to them who they are as a person when people are aggressively trying to extinguish that part of them?
I’m not saying that I’m against interventions, especially in situations where children hurt themselves with their stims or are so frustrated by not being able to makes themselves understood that it’s obviously causing them high levels of stress, anxiety, or unhappiness. But there’s an ableist assumption in this article, echoed in the comments, that overcoming autism (or the appearance that it’s been overcome) would be the “optimal outcome” – that sort of ableist thinking needs challenged.
The New York Times – When Wheelchairs Are Cool
I was originally very unsure what I thought about this opinion piece, written by wheelchair use Brian Mattlin., about Justin Bieber’s recent trip to Disneyland in wheelchair. The word on it was that he’s hurt his knee and wanted to rest it, but speculation is that he did it to draw attention to himself and to take advantage of Disney’s policy of letting wheelchair users go to the front of the line for rides. (For the record, it’s much more difficult to get the pass that allows you to do this than it used to be, and there are far more restrictions on it.)
Unsure because Mattlin seemed okay with with people that don’t use wheelchairs using them, as long as they’re not in it for the benefits like line-jumping at amusement parks, and as long as they’re doing it with a sense of “joy and respect”:
“So go ahead and play disabled. As long as it’s done with joy and respect — not to tease or poke fun — I won’t be offended. Just don’t do it for the freebies, which are harder and harder to find these days anyway. Do it as you do anything else, because you think it’s cool.”
I don’t know how I feel about that. His opinion is based on his understanding of “crip culture” (which is different than mine, and I’m not saying that mine is the right one). Brian thinks that crip culture is about finding the fun in disability.
“Wheelchairs can be fun. Voice-recognition technology is a blast. Vans with automatic ramps are awesome. And don’t forget our coveted parking spaces. All of which help mitigate the bad stuff.”
That’s probably as constructive a way to look at it as any – finding joy in your situation, as opposed to my understanding of crip culture, which was more related to disability pride and activism (not that the two are necessarily mutual exclusive). However, it’s my sense of disability pride that’s a bit injured by the idea of non-disabled people using wheelchairs because they’re fun. Even in the early days after my stroke, when I had a burgeoning sense of disability pride, I didn’t consider being in a wheelchair fun. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but because I felt a bit shut out from the social experience using it.
But I’ll also defend Justin Bieber’s right to use one his Disneyland excursion, and most of the commenters didn’t seem to want to do that. We don’t know exactly what he did to his knee. Maybe he truly needed to rest it, and I take exception to the suggestion that if needed to do that, he should have stayed home that day. He has a right to go to Disneyland if he wants to, and just because he *can* walk doesn’t mean that it’s inappropriate for him to be using a wheelchair, granted that he has a knee injury. I *can* walk outside without my cane. But, as I learned last year after walking around the Toronto Zoo last year for a day without it, it really takes a toll on me. John Q Public seems to think it has the right to dictate when people have the right to be “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair” (plenty of both those ableist gems in comments) and when they should be able to suck it up and walk. It’s only because they’ve seen Bieber walking in the past that this is even an issue, indicating how binary people are about disability: people that can walk don’t ever use wheelchairs, because only paraplegics use wheelchairs.
Ableist thought, assumptions, presumptions, and a lot of anger over a young man going to the front of the ride lines that was going to do so anyway.
Speaking of assumptions and presumptions and ableist thought…
George Takei Takes on the Disability Community with an Ableist Meme
George Takei, Star Trek star, Internet sensation, and normally quite astute social justice advocate posted the following ableist meme on his Facebook page over the weekend:
Fans were not impressed. I’ve been following Takei for a long time, and I don’t think I ever seen such an outpouring of fan posts expressing their disappointment in him. And it wasn’t just that disabled people that argued that, given Takei’s record of standing against racism and homophobia, that he’d post a meme that’s so blatantly ableist and that reinforces negative stereotypes of disabled people. Again, a person standing up from a wheelchair is hardly a miracle, and there’s an implication that the woman is faking a disability for benefits until she gets to the liquor store (playing right into the “scrounger” narrative in the UK that has the government cutting disability services to the bone).
Takei told them to “take it down a notch” and didn’t apologize or remove the ableist meme, prompting another round of comments at how disappointed were in how he handled the whole business. I can’t say that I blame them.
Of course, there were plenty of people who agreed with Takei that folks were getting offended over nothing, and who got quite vulgar in expressing that opinion. But this is the internet, and it’s why you shouldn’t be like me and read the comments.
I’m sure that some of you have heard about this story.
An as-yet-unnamed Australian couple paid a young woman in Thailand to be their surrogate, since surrogacy is illegal in Australia. She discovered that she would be having twins, and four months into the pregnancy discovered that one of them had Down Syndrome. The couple asked her to abort the child and she refused, saying that it was against her Buddhist beliefs.
When the children were born, the couple took the twin without Down Syndrome and went back to Australia, leaving the disabled baby with the surrogate, who already has several children of her own. As well as Down Syndrome, the baby, named Gammy by the surrogate, has heart issues and a lung infection.
The surrogate has agreed to raise Gammy, and donations from around the world have raised money for the medical care that he will need, but the entire case is so sad. The Australian couple may not have felt able to handle a child with special needs, and perhaps they were told that the baby was aborted, but they knew that this woman had no money, and they just walked away from their child presumably because it wasn’t perfect.
I understand that this is a complicated case. The surrogacy business is unregulated, so discussions about what happens in these cases don’t occur. And babies with disabilities (particularly Down Syndrome) are aborted for a variety of reasons. I don’t like that women abort for this reason, but I’m never going to tell a woman that she can’t have an abortion, even if her reason for doing so makes me sad. It just seems so short-sighted to me, when, after all the focus on having a non-disabled child, things can happen in the delivery room or shortly after…or at any time in a child’s life…that could result in a disability even more “catastrophic” (phrase in one of the comments on jezebel.com, where I first read this story) than Down Syndrome. Lots of women commenting on jezebel.com talked about how they’d definitely abort if they found they were carrying a baby with a genetic abnormality, too. One commenter said that she’d feel judged by her friends if she didn’t abort in that circumstance. The fact that there’s still that knee-jerk fear of disability in a child just…stunned me, even though I know that many women do choose to abort babies with Down Syndrome.
These things…these ableist things…just catch me by surprise sometimes, is all.
It seems like there’s still a lot of work to do.
You can make a donation toward Gammy’s care here.