Tag Archives: ableism

Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism, But That’s Not The Point. Stop Being Ableist.

5 Feb

Here are some typical arguments put forward by parents who choose not to vaccinate their otherwise healthy child (by “healthy” I mean there are no medical reasons for the child to be exempted from vaccination).

For this example, I will pull quotes directly from a recent New York Times Article, Vaccine Critics Turn Defensive Over Measles:

‘“It’s the worst shot,” [Missy Foster, mother to an 18 month old daughter] said, with tears in her eyes. “Do you want to wake up one morning and the light is gone from her eyes with autism or something?”’

and

‘Kelly McMenimen, a Lagunitas parent, said she “meditated on it a lot” before deciding not to vaccinate her son Tobias, 8, against even “deadly or deforming diseases.” She said she did not want “so many toxins” entering the slender body of a bright-eyed boy who loves math and geography.’

You’ll notice a common theme in these defences – the brightness of or light in their children’s eyes. This is a direct reference to Jenny McCarthy’s narrative of the “light” leaving her son’s eyes after he was vaccinated. It’s used by parents who don’t want to say the word “autism” but want to imply that they’re scared their kid will become autistic (or something similar).

Here’s what McCarthy said to Oprah in 2007:

“Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, ‘I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something,’ and he swore at me, and then the nurse gave [Evan] the shot,” she says. “And I remember going, ‘Oh, God, I hope he’s right.’ And soon thereafter—boom—the soul’s gone from his eyes.”

Now consider the standard response from vaccine advocates to stuff like this – it’s always, without fail, “Vaccines don’t cause autism.”

Because they don’t, right? They absolutely, scientifically do not cause autism. That’s a solid fact.

But here’s what everyone gets wrong: regardless of whether or not vaccines cause autism, our entire conversation surrounding them is completely ableist.

When those in the anti-vaccination movement treat autism as a calamity far worse than a debilitating disease or death, that is ableism. What we also need to recognize is that every time we respond to fear-mongering about vaccines and autism with the words, “don’t worry, vaccines don’t cause autism,” that is also ableist. Because instead of pointing out that, hey, autism and neurodiversity are far from the worst things that could happen to a parent, “vaccines don’t cause autism” falls into the same narrative as “vaccines cause autism” – both suggest that autism is this boogeyman that lives under our kids’ beds that could strike at any time.

Even though telling people that vaccines don’t autism is factual, the way in which it’s said only validates people’s negative view of autism.

Says Allison Garber, an autism activist whose most recent claim to fame is being blocked by Jenny McCarthy on Twitter, “The language from both sides of the vaccine camps is definitively ableist. What’s even more jarring is that neither side seems to ever want to invite someone who is, you know, actually autistic to the party. I guess that’s because it would be awkward if they were actually in the room when we were all talking about how somebody’s neurological makeup is a tragedy to be feared and avoided at all costs.”

Instead of reassuring parents that vaccines don’t cause autism (which, again: factually true), why don’t we start refuting anti-vaccination advocates with the fact that autism isn’t a catastrophe. Why not start sending them links to blogs and articles written by people who actually have autism. Why not say something like, “it’s been proven that there’s no link between vaccines and autism, but I think it would be great for you to re-evaluate why you think so negatively of autism.”

And for the love of Pete can we please stop talking about how autistic people have no light in their eyes or no soul or whatever. First of all, you’re confusing vampirism with autism. Second of all, how can you talk about real, living people like that? Would you tell Temple Grandin to her face that the “light” (whatever that even means) is missing from her eyes? If you went to a book reading by John Robison, would you greet him afterwards with the words “So, what’s it like not having a soul? Do you still have a reflection? Can you eat garlic? Do you sleep in a coffin?”

Autistic people aren’t “gone.” Their brains function differently than neurotypical brains, which often leads to them becoming overwhelmed by outside stimuli in a way that other people might not. So, in a sense, they’re more present than many of us are – they’re bombarded by sights, sounds and smells that neurotypical people can ignore or dismiss. They are very much “here,” trying way harder than most to process what “here” is. So get out of here with your misinformed ideas about autistic people having no light in their eyes or no soul. Get out of here and maybe go meet an actual autistic person.

At the end of the day, words matter and how we talk about issues matters. And when those of us who believe it’s important for children to be vaccinated keep pulling out “but vaccines don’t cause autism” without following it up with some kind of explanation that also autism isn’t a tragedy, we need to consider the impact our words might have. Because of course the end goal is to vaccinate every child eligible for vaccination, but we don’t need to throw autistic people under the bus to accomplish that goal.

The debate about vaccination should be autism-inclusive, and that means re-evaluating the way we talk about autism and vaccines. Because while it’s great to raise a happy healthy kid, you can do that without turning them into an anti-autism bigot.

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“But Not All ______ Are Like That!”

25 Feb

I see this happen all the damn time.

Someone describes the actions of a privileged group of people and how these actions, purposefully or not, encourage the marginalization of a less-privileged group. Most often this description occurs within the context of trying to explain to the privileged folks how this dynamic is hurtful and oppressive. The hope is that the privileged group will listen to the marginalized person, examine their own behaviour, and try to do better in the future. The reality is that the person doing the explaining is nearly always met with a chorus of, “but not all men/white people/straight people/cis people/able-bodied people are like that!”

Look. I get it. You, whatever privileged group you happen to fall into, are a good person. You want to remind the marginalized group that you view yourself as an ally. You want them to know that not everyone is against them – the world, after all, isn’t such a grim place as all that. You want to make it clear that although you understand that your group has done some not-so-great things in the past, you are a better, more evolved person than that.

Maybe you even think you are somehow helping the marginalized group realize that you’re more than just a blank face in a group – you’re an individual person with your own thoughts and actions.

You know what, though?

You are not helping.

You are just making things worse.

In fact, you are only helping to prove the original point: that you, as a privileged person, perpetuate actions and ideas that oppress less privileged people.

See, what you’re really doing with your comment is a classic derailment tactic. In a discussion that is supposed to be about those who have frequently been silenced, you are contributing to that silencing by making it all about you. The message that you are giving out is that your feelings, your poor, hurt, privileged feelings should be taken into account no matter what the topic at hand. You are putting yourself in the centre of the discussion, and pushing the original topic off to the side. You are occupying a space that was created by and for people who don’t have many other spaces to occupy, and yet you feel entitled to be there because your privilege has taught you that you are entitled to be anywhere you want. You are telling oppressed groups that they cannot discuss the issues that affect them unless they have first considered the feelings of the oppressive group.

You are being a bad fucking ally.

I’m going to give you three pieces of advice:

1. If you don’t feel like the action attributed to the privileged group is something that you do, then assume the person is not talking about you

If you are not guilty of this particular oppressive act, then great! You are a good ally! Here’s a cookie for you! You can revel in the knowledge of your goodness without having to ask for reassurance from anyone else.

2. Take a moment to examine your past actions and ask yourself if this might, in fact, be something of which you have been guilty

The truth is that you may very well have been unconsciously participating in subtle forms of oppression without realizing it. Often our privilege is so deeply ingrained that we don’t always recognize when we are abusing it; before you decide whether or not you’re fully innocent of any wrongdoing, it’s worth taking the time to check in with yourself and see if you’re being totally honest.

3. Use this as a learning opportunity, and an opportunity to educate others

Whether or not you are guilty of involvement in some kind of oppression (and, I mean, spoiler alert: you probably are), any marginalized person relating their lived experience should be something you take seriously. Rather than just dismissing what they’re saying as something that you would never, ever, ever do, use what they are telling you as a chance to further educate yourself on the dynamics of oppression. Not only that, but use your privilege to amplify their voice – share their post, retweet their message, reblog it on your Tumblr. Instead of crying that not all ____ are like that, use your actions to show that you, personally, are not like that.

Whether or not you intend to cause harm, you, as a privileged person, have almost certainly engaged in some form of oppression or marginalization. Our culture has taught you that your skin colour or gender or sexual orientation mean that your thoughts and feelings are more valuable than those of other groups, and that is some social programming that takes a lot of hard work to undo. But if you want to consider yourself to be anti-oppression – if, instead of just saying that you’re not racist or homophobic or a misogynist, you actually want to actively not be any of those things – you need to put in the time to try to dismantle the fucked up outlook that your privilege has given you. Otherwise, you have absolutely no place in any kind of social justice movement.

And if you really want others to believe that not all men/white people/cis people/straight people/able-bodied people are total assholes, then instead of whining about how good you actually are, you need to prove it.

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