2023 Update

This is a personal blog started in 2011. It is no longer active, updated, or maintained. Unfortunately, it appears that I've also irreparably broken some of the links by accident.

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."