13 April 2013

Fighting ableism with ableism doesn't work

Fighting ableism with ableism doesn't work. In fact, it's just bad policy. Yet that's precisely the tactic that Disability Scoop, "the premier source for developmental disability news," decided to use in its criticism of the latest episode of Glee, in which the character with Down syndrome brought a gun to school. Here's the relevant part of the Disability Scoop article:

“Acting like every other teenager in doing things like sports and going to college, those are things great to portray for Becky,” said Julie Cevallos, vice president of marketing for the organization [National Down Syndrome Society]. “Taking a gun to school is something very serious and would likely come with a mental health condition. That’s not appropriate for someone with Down syndrome and not a stigma they need.”

Meanwhile, comments from viewers on Twitter criticized the characterization for being “disgraceful” and “seriously lame.”

The first bit of this is simpler to process and explain. It's in the second paragraph quoted, where one of the quotes from a Twitter used reads "seriously lame." Lame means someone who can't walk, whether because of amputation or paralysis, quadriplegia or paraplegia, or certain types of cerebral palsy. Using this word as as an insult or a criticism already denotes that "lame" is understood as a negative attribute or characteristic. This wouldn't be the case if being "lame" were not also implicitly understood to be a negative state of being. Lame can only be an insult so long as being lame is a bad thing, just as using "gay" as an insult only works with the understanding that being gay is a bad thing.

Given that the criticism in question is directed toward the (potentially?) ableist representation of a disabled character, this is particularly ironic and biting.

(I say potentially because I've never seen Glee and didn't see the episode receiving the criticism across the netscape, and so feel unqualified on that basis alone to make much commentary on the actual TV episode in question. I'll agree, though, that based only on what I've read, it was probably an incredibly poor choice at best, given the dangerous and inaccurate stereotype of disabled people, particularly the developmentally disabled after the recent media hullabaloo after Newtown, as [more] [more likely to be] violent.)

The second bit of ableism, encapsulated in the first paragraph of the quote above, is quite a bit more serious, where Julie Cevallos from the National Down Syndrome Society says, "Taking a gun to school is something very serious and would likely come with a mental health condition. That’s not appropriate for someone with Down syndrome." Unpacking this is going to take quite a bit longer to do.

Ms. Cevallos is actively contributing to the oppression of people with psychiatric disabilities. Read that first sentence again -- "Taking a gun to school is something very serious and would likely come with a mental health condition." This statement implies a) that people with psychiatric disabilities are more likely to bring a gun to school, b) that they are more likely to do this with violent intentions, c) that they are more likely to commit a school shooting or other act of violence, and that d) it would be more accurate to portray someone bringing a gun to school as "mentally ill."

These are untrue for a variety of reasons. In certain parts of the country where hunting continues to be a major part of the culture, students with and without disabilities might "bring guns to school" in the sense that they're in their cars or trucks for hunting or sport shooting after school. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that murderers are more likely to have psychiatric disabilities than not. Here's an excerpt from a recent New York Times article (and yes, the sources are linked in the original article -- if you want more, see my earlier post with links to full texts of several peer-reviewed articles on the topic):

Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness. This does not mean that mental illness is not a risk factor for violence. It is, but the risk is actually small. Only certain serious psychiatric illnesses are linked to an increased risk of violence. One of the largest studies, the National Institute of Mental Health’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, which followed nearly 18,000 subjects, found that the lifetime prevalence of violence among people with serious mental illness — like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — was 16 percent, compared with 7 percent among people without any mental disorder. Anxiety disorders, in contrast, do not seem to increase the risk at all.

Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violent behavior than mental illness by itself. In the National Institute of Mental Health’s E.C.A. study, for example, people with no mental disorder who abused alcohol or drugs were nearly seven times as likely as those without substance abuse to commit violent acts.


But mass killings are very rare events, and because people with mental illness contribute so little to overall violence, these measures would have little impact on everyday firearm-related killings. Consider that between 2001 and 2010, there were nearly 120,000 gun-related homicides, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Few were perpetrated by people with mental illness.

Ms. Cevallos is wrongfully suggesting that while it would be "inappropriate" to portray someone with Down syndrome bringing a gun to school, it would be perfectly "appropriate" to portray someone with a psychiatric disability -- say schizophrenia, bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder, or dissociative identity disorder -- doing the same thing. If we did not live in such an ableist culture where stereotypes about disability and violence didn't exist, I would have no problems with portraying someone with any type of disability bringing a gun to school. Unfortunately, because of the cultural context in which I am writing this piece, I must urge against such portrayals of disabled people because they further affirm and reinforce existing negative and inaccurate stereotypes of all types of disabled people.

I'm a writer (of fiction, I mean -- I'm working on my seventh novel right now). Don't get me wrong; I'm all for creativity and freedom of expression. I see nothing inherently wrong with portraying someone disabled bringing a gun to school; however, the extremely heightened potential for such a portrayal to ignore current cultural realities, as well as the certainty of such a portrayal further contributing to dangerous and harmful stereotypes about disabled people, mean that I cannot condone such representations of disability.

Granted, the offending remarks are contained within quotations of things other people said or wrote, but the author and editors at Disability Scoop would have been perfectly capable of selecting quotations expressing criticism of the episode that didn't also espouse ableism. In fact, I believe that they had a responsibility to either use different quotes (especially in the Twitter case) or to distance themselves from their problematic content (more relevant to Ms. Cevallos's remarks, had they chosen to keep the quote) and make it clear why the distancing would be necessary.

In any case, it's readily apparent to me that criticizing ableism using, well, more of the same, simply isn't the right thing to do. It's not merely hypocritical; it's actually completely counterproductive. It significantly diminishes the strength and force of your arguments, and it does absolutely nothing to actually benefit any disabled people. When some of us fall, all of us fall. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from the Birmingham City Jail, "Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."


  1. Yeah, that was deserving of a takedown. I think it would be very hard to do a story about a violent developmentally or mentally disabled person without their violence being tied to their disability, by the audience if not by the text, but well worth seeing if only for the contrast with what gets put out there generally.

  2. In this case the character with Down Syndrome was not violent and did not intend to hurt anyone. Instead, she was frightened by the news stories she had heard about school violence and intended to use the gun as protection, but discharged it accidentally.

    1. Thank for the clarification -- I really couldn't comment on the specific substance of the show, given that I've never watched this specific episode, never mind any episode of it at all.

  3. IMH yet considered O, no TV shows or media should EVER play off on what happens in reality or the reverse is more likely to occur: reality imitating what is thought to be entertainment. Regardless of who the character is or what (dis)ability/ies s/he is portrayed as having. Especially in a forum with a large, vulnerable and highly impressionable following (read: primarily teens and young adults) as I am told Glee has.

    How many recent mass assassinations or other heinous crimes could have been avoided if at least some of the perps had never had what their minds told them was a "good solution" demonstrated on a screen? How many would have thought to commit such crimes by themselves? We'll never know but we do know that humans -- whether NT, autistic, or one with DS (language use intentional to be respectful across constituencies) -- identify with fictional characters and model their behaviors even though the need to calculate the real (and extremely low odds) of having the same "and they lived happily ever after" outcomes is not part of that modeling equation.

    Any one of us is capable of a huge brain misfire at any moment. To equate people who are hard-wired differently in any way to be more likely to have that neurological mess from happening is, as your source cites, patently false with possible exception of people with genuine paranoid delusions or rage attacks coupled with a sense of grandiosity. In other words, people who are genuinely in fight or flight mode may commit acts of violence -- but only because they, like the rest of us, are hard-wired to self-protect.

    It is the ultimate form of communication that their lives suck and they see no other way out.

    The solution, IMHYCO again, is to work toward figuring out how to give all lives meaning, for everyone to experience a reasonable quality of life, and to have everyone learn that everyone -- including themselves -- is always valuable. To make certain that everyone has a sense of and truly belongs to community. To do and teach these things at an age when "they" are most vulnerable and impressionable -- read: as soon as they become human and throughout the school years. To stop widely portraying evil brain explosions as though they are everyday occurrences still noteworthy of news and fictional coverage.

    And to be VARY careful about what we say and how we say it to prevent further dehumanization and increased marginalization of those who, for whatever reason, are perceived by "mainstream culture" as somehow being less than human and deserving of de-marginalization in the first place.

  4. That is something that has persistantly bothered me about the debate on gun violence. As the gun manufacturers can portray gun violence as a "mental illness/disorder", than the gun manufacturers can successfully cover up the true source of gun violence. They are then able to protect gun pruchase profits from the general public not classified as having certain mental illnesses, yet who are most responsible for gun violence.

    Also, I really am saddend by the willingness of some to say "I may have (this disability), but at least I don't have (this disability.)" Therefore lending credence to the undesirability and sterotypes of certain disabilities. We are all in this life together. A house divided against itself....

    1. Horizontal oppression is particularly disappointing, isn't it?

  5. I saw the episode and while I thought Becky bringing a gun was a little forced, that was not the aspect of the episode that bothered me.

    Becky was talking to one of her friends, a cheerleader. Becky said she was afraid to graduate because she didn't know what would happen to her and the world was a scary place. In high school, she was taken care of and loved and had friends but after graduation, everything was uncertain.

    This highlights a big problem in our system: kids "aging out" of services. Becky asked the cheerleader to not graduate and spend an extra year in high school so Becky wouldn't be alone and the girl apologized and said she wanted to graduate and go to college.

    "I can't go to college," Becky said. The thing is, with proper supports, she could! I have known three people with Down Syndrome who went to college. One dropped out after a year, a second got an associate's degree, and the third got a bachelor's degree. All of them were motivated and worked hard. College was a challenge for them but college is a challenge for most people! As Becky is portrayed on the show, she *could* go to college and she has a very good chance of success, with motivation and proper supports.

    But she will age out of a lot of the supports she gets at McKinley High School and trying to go to college all alone will be quite daunting. I was upset that the show had the character say that she couldn't go to college and not get challenged on that statement. I was upset that the show glossed over how badly the system is failing Becky and so many like her. I was upset that the infantilization that causes the system to treat Down Syndrome (and autism!) as "childhood disorders" and offer so little for adults was never addressed at all. The system got off unchallenged and scot-free in this episode!

    I find that so much more upsetting than the idea that a girl who has been so let down by such a flawed system and who is getting no assistance with her anxiety, her fears for the future, and her lack of true mentorship and support would feel so desperate to be heard and helped that she would bring a gun to school.

    She didn't use that gun to threaten anyone. She showed it to her truest friend, the cheerleading coach, in a very obvious plea for help. And even then, all she got from coach was that she claimed it was her gun and allowed herself to get fired from a job she loved in order to protect Becky. But Becky needs so much more than that! She needs mentorship and supports and help in planning her future and help in securing the services she needs to make sure that future doesn't fall down in half-flight.

    And that's what upset me about that episode. Not the gun. Not the fact that a person with Down Syndrome brought the gun. But the fact that the true culprit -- a society that has miles and miles to go in understanding and assisting the needs of the disabled -- went unidentified and unchallenged.

    1. I just looked up Lauren Potter, the actress who plays Becky on Glee, and as of 2011, she was enrolled at Irvine Valley College. I would love to know how the actress felt, portraying a girl with Down Syndrome who said she couldn't go to college. I would love to hear Lauren Potter's perspective on the episode. I'm going to do a little searching and see if I can find an interview with her.

    2. Found one. Good article in the Huffington Post that interviews both Lauren and her mother. They are both very proud that Lauren was chosen for such a serious scene and feel that it shows her talent as an actress.


  6. And there's a massive amount of class-based privilege packed into the assumption that "every other teenager" is "doing things like playing sports and going to college."


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