Monday, February 4, 2013

7 Ableist Arguments I'm Tired of Hearing (from "Progressive" People)

Ableism is the view that people who don't have a disability or illness are somehow better than people who do, or the refusal to acknowledge that disabilities even exist. You would think I'd encounter less of this in progressive communities, but I actually find ableism running rampant among people who think they're being compassionate and inclusive. I know most of these people mean well, so I want to shed light on some particularly problematic arguments I've seen. Please consider the impact on people with disabilities and chronic illness before you make any of the following claims.
1. Everyone can breastfeed

No, they can't. There are a lot of things wrong with this argument, because it implies that every baby is raised by the person who gave birth to it, which isn't the case. But even birth mothers can't always breastfeed. My mother couldn't, because she was on powerful medication that wouldn't have been safe for me to ingest, plus she had a skin condition she was worried about passing on. There are lots of reasons a person might be physically unable to breastfeed. I do think breastfeeding is the best option when it's possible, but it isn't always an option. Not being able to breastfeed doesn't make someone a bad parent, and they shouldn't be shamed for it.

2. You can decide to be happy

Boy, if this were true, my life would be a lot different. I've poured tons of time, energy and money into anything that might ease my depression symptoms, from antidepressants and therapy to self-help books and vitamins. If happiness were the result of personal effort, I'd be the happiest person in the world. Unfortunately, for people with mental illness, it just doesn't seem to work that way. I understand the basic sentiment behind this statement - that you have control over your priorities, you can choose gratitude over self-pity, and so on. But there are people who, by reason of brain chemistry, trauma history or insurmountable life circumstances, simply cannot wish our pain away. Telling us "you can choose to be happy" sounds a lot like blaming the suffering person for not making that choice.

3. Abortion is okay no matter the reason

I know I'm going to take a lot of shit for this one, but it's important to me, so here goes. I don't think every reason for having an abortion is equally valid. I am a feminist, and I believe safe, legal abortion should be available to people who don't feel equipped to become parents. But there are eugenic reasons for having an abortion, and I think eugenics are disgusting. The fact that up to 98% of fetuses with Down syndrome are terminated makes me want to cry. I understand choosing to abort a child with an illness that will lead to a very short, painful life, but Down syndrome is not such a condition. People with DS are able to live fulfilling lives, often holding jobs, getting married, even attending college. To suggest that a person's life is not worth living because they have a disability is unacceptable. And not every disability makes itself apparent before birth, so if you're not prepared to have a child with a disability, you aren't prepared to have a child, period. I still believe abortion should be the pregnant person's choice, but I also think people have a responsibility to consider ALL the possibilities before deciding to start a family. Once you've committed to have a child, you don't get to choose what kind of child you have.

4. Vaccines cause autism

No they don't. It's been proven that they don't. But even before it was proven, I had a problem with this argument, because it rests on the idea that it's better for a child to be potentially dead than potentially disabled. Polio, measles, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough are deadly. Autism is not. To suggest that it's better to risk subjecting a child to a deadly illness than risk them being autistic is deeply insulting to autistic people, not to mention trivializing the suffering of people who've survived those illnesses. Now, while I myself am vehemently pro-vax, I do know some thoughtful, intelligent people who are anti-vax, so I know that there are other reasons a parent may choose not to vaccinate. But if any part of your reason for making that choice involves fear of autism, you need to seriously re-evaluate your thoughts on the matter.

5. ADD/ADHD isn't real

I agree that ADD is probably way overdiagnosed. I also agree that the environment of modern public schools sets children up to be diagnosed with ADD, and subsequently medicated, simply for behaving like children. But the argument I frequently encounter is that ADD was invented by schools and that there is no such thing. As a person who has ADD and was NOT diagnosed in school, I can confirm that this isn't the case. For a person who truly has ADD, it's not simply a matter of not being able to focus when something is boring. I can't focus on things I want to focus on. I don't watch movies because 90 minutes is just too long - I have to stop halfway through even if the movie is really good, because my attention span is spent. I can't read a book for more than about half an hour at a time, and my mind often wanders when listening to a friend speak, even if what they're saying is interesting to me. On top of that, I have a lot of trouble with executive function and organizational tasks. The way my life is currently structured I seem to function well enough, but if I were to take on a mentally strenuous goal - say, graduate school - I would probably need a lot of extra support, and possibly medication, to function on the same level as my peers. 

6. You don't need allopathic medicine

I don't talk about this a lot, but my mother had schizophrenia. She had to take powerful antipsychotics in order to have any semblance of a normal life. I had relatives who would suggest that she didn't need to be medicated, and that in fact it was the medication itself that had caused her mental illness! But I've seen her off her meds, and she was simply not the same person. Haloperidol allowed her to connect with people and freed her from terrifying hallucinations and delusions. It allowed her to be my mother. 

I've known people who needed allopathic medication to keep their hearts going, to manage their diabetes, even to digest food. There are people who can only stay alive because of CPAP machines, colostomies, or shunts. I'll try an herbal remedy if I have a cold or a headache, sure. But when I couldn't keep liquids down and was running a 104F fever that turned out to be caused by a kidney infection complicated by sepsis, you better believe I went to an ER for some antibiotics and a saline drip. I've seen people actively discourage friends from going to the hospital to get checked out when they had symptoms that could point to something life-threatening. That's dangerous and irresponsible.

7. You wouldn't be ill if you went on x diet

If a person asks for suggestions on how to manage their illness, it's perfectly fine to mention that you've heard a specific diet might help. But I've seen people claim that if a person refuses to go on a raw-vegan or gluten-free diet, they are to blame for being sick and deserve no sympathy. As heartless and rude as this is, it's also factually questionable. If anyone had found a 100% effective, works-for-everyone cure for diabetes or cancer, they'd have a Nobel Prize. I know not every treatment option has been empirically studied and that "big pharma" exerts some influence over this, and I'm willing to accept that there are "alternative" treatments out there that could bring people some needed relief. But when people start blaming the victim for being sick in the first place, I stop listening. 


Anonymous said...

Holy shit - I thought I was the only person in the South and maybe in the country who thought that way about abortion but who is ALSO a feminist, liberal, etc etc. I can't tell you how nice it is just reading this.

I stumbled on your blog as an unschooling mom of young kids, and this is wonderful stuff. Thank you for putting your thoughts out here in the world.

greenwick said...

You're not the only person who hilds that view on abortion. I believe t s important for abortion to be legal, bt I am very worried a out people choosing to abort children solely eause their child might be isabled or queer. :(

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