How to Quit the Disability Blame Game

In centuries past, disabilities were often blamed on supernatural beings. It was thought that a child’s disability was bestowed as punishment for the parent’s sins, that an adult’s disability was punishment for their own sins, or that deities used disability as a way to test one’s faith.

In the 21st century, such theories have fallen out of favor in the western world. However, the tendency to blame someone or something for disability is stronger than ever. Too often, parents blame themselves for their child’s disability: They blame themselves for contributing “bad” genes (even if they didn’t know they carried such genes); and mothers may blame themselves for pregnancy or birth complications that led to a child’s disability. Tragically, such self-blaming is often reinforced by the reactions of others, fixating on what caused a child’s disability, sometimes implying or even stating that a mother must have “done something” to cause it. Other groups of people blame disabilities on environmental agents: “anti-vaxers” blame vaccines for autism; childhood learning or behavioral impairments may be blamed on omnipresent substances like gluten, food additives, or airborne toxins. And, when adults develop chronic health conditions or disabilities, they are sometimes blamed by others for becoming disabled through poor health choices, or for not doing enough to manage their own impairments.

Why are we, as a society, so obsessed with finding someone or something to blame for disability?

Blaming is actually an important aspect of human behavior. When we search for the cause of an event, we gain the ability to predict and control that event. As a species, our survival depends on how accurately we can control our environment to promote desirable phenomena and prevent undesirable phenomena. When disability is so often seen as an undesirable phenomenon, we can become driven toward finding its causes in order to control it.

Furthermore, disability blaming helps us manage our own fears of the unknown, the uncontrollable, the possibility that we may be touched by new disabilities at any moment. As long as we can pin disability on something someone else did, we can feel confident that the same thing will not happen to us or our children. Or, if we pin disability on something measurable and avoidable in the environment, like a vaccine, we can feel confident that as long as we or our children avoid that thing, disability will not touch us.

So, disability blaming can be functional. But it is also clearly harmful. Disability self-blaming creates emotional turmoil for parents, and can distract them from the important work of equipping their children with tools and self-confidence. Blaming others for their own disabilities leads to stigma and exclusion. And when disability is erroneously blamed on an environmental factor, such as autism being inaccurately blamed on vaccines, the consequences for society can be destructive. Vaccine avoidance harms not only the autistic community, but also those who are no longer protected by herd immunity. Or, families may fall victim to unproven quack theories about the origins of disability, when peddlers of such quacks take advantage of a parent’s need to predict and control disability in their child.

How do we walk away from the blame game?

We can start by examining what we do know about the causes of disabilities. Most disabilities are simply nobody’s fault. I will repeat this because it is so important: Most disabilities are nobody’s fault. Genetic disabilities appear when DNA randomly changes during the process of replication. This has been happening since the beginning of time. When a sperm and egg line up that happen to bear the same DNA mutation, or when one parent contributes a “dominant” genetic mutation, then a child is born with a new trait. Sometimes that trait is brown eyes instead of blue; other times, it’s a disability. Sometimes, acquired disability arises from an accident or illness; in most cases, this, too, is nobody’s fault. Occasionally a disability can truly be blamed on a specific individual (as in the case of disabilities caused by abuse or neglect). Even in those cases, though, focusing on blame for a deed that cannot be undone distracts us from moving forward and accepting the “new normal” of disability.

So, perhaps we need a better phrase in our language to capture the concept of “nobody’s fault.” Then, when we need to pin disability on something, we can simply pin it on “nobody’s fault.” But, that doesn’t completely solve the problem, because “nobody’s fault” is something we cannot predict or control. We need to find a way to overcome our fear of the uncertain and the uncontrollable. Anyone who knows me well will be surprised to see me giving this advice, because I’ve always struggled with uncertainty. It’s gotten easier as I’ve aged, but even today an unanswered email or an ambiguous conversation can fill me with anxiety. Heck, I’ve even previewed the ending of a book more than once because I just couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting another 20 chapters to find out what happens. In fact, I went into the field of psychology because I was so attracted to the idea of being able to predict and control human behavior through science, and to get reasonable clarity on the causes of puzzling human actions.

But, in order to relinquish our obsession with blame and accept disability as a natural part of the human condition, we must find a way to accept the uncertainty and unpredictability of human difference. The fact is that disability can touch any of us at any time. When it comes, it can bring some unwanted consequences. But ability differences also enrich the diversity of our species. Disabilities can lead to unexpected discoveries and connections. We may not be able to control the arrival of disability, but we can control our response to it. If we can learn to embrace the chaos of disability, or at least to tolerate it, perhaps we can find our way from blame to acceptance.
Related reading:
Let’s Not Play the Blame Game: Parenting, Disability and Social Stigma

5 thoughts on “How to Quit the Disability Blame Game

  1. I have been dealing with the blame game my whole life. Nobody believes me, because I’m not 100% mentally disabled and they use that as what they call ‘proof’ that I’m lying, I’m in denial, I’m delusional, crazy, psychotic, refusing to be responsible, refusing to listen, refusing to hold a job like ‘everybody else’, refusing to ‘be normal like everyone else’, that I’m careless, lazy, greedy, unwilling to participate.’ And often I’m demanded an explanation, but my explanation is always dismissed, because they want to hear what they want to hear. And they keep referring to their view as the truth. But of course they don’t want lies. So the truth and what they want to hear are 2 different things. So I have no right of way to satisfy them. And their argument goes all the way back to when I was a year old. Even though that argument was about why I didn’t just sit down in the back of the truck, a time when the brakes were slammed on and I hit the back LEFT corner. The same LEFT side I was told to stay seated on. And it was in the back of an old ford truck. So there were no seatbelts to keep me from flying and suffering injury to begin with. Even my mother blames my deceased father for all of this. And she blames God. Not only in her mind, but out loud in front of me. During the argument in fact. And I’m an adult and I don’t have to ignore or accept. But when I argue back, she not only threatens to evict me, she tries to take advantage of my disability by for example one time, she claimed to call the police and have me removed. Even though I’m paying rent with my SSI disability benefits. More rent than anyone else pays. Others often refuse to pay rent and she doesn’t threaten to evict them. She even signaled a cop while heading home, during another argument she opened and attempted to leave me in another town where I only went with her, all because she demanded that I help her clean someone else’s house. She doesn’t give me the choice to say no, and yet she tried to force me to find another way to get home. And it’s in isolation, so I can’t use a taxi or a bus. I don’t even have a phone, because she’s in charge of the spendings, since as a disabled, someone else has to handle my benefits. And I can’t move out, because I would move out of the isolation, which would mean a trip hundreds of miles away. And as a disabled, I can’t drive. And she doesn’t want to help me. And she doesn’t want me to choose where I live. And she expects me to continue to pay my rent with my entire benefit amount. So I can’t save money to afford to move out or to rent a room. And anytime I receive my benefit amount, it’s under her control. So I have no control. And the Workforce tells me that it’s important that I don’t move far out, because as a precaution in case I can’t afford to live independently. And my mom doesn’t want to move out. And every time we do move, it’s into further isolation. So the only way I could move out is by taking a bus out of State and leave all my belongings, except for only what I can carry. And in only 1 trip. Because she tells me that if I were to move out, my room would be emptied out immediately and rented out. And I can’t rely on Workforce helping me move my stuff out and out of State, because they expect that I don’t move out. So in all of the help in the world, I have none. Now confident that I have what it takes to at least relocate, she’s concerned about not having me to look after her. Even though she often acts in disgrace about me. And when I remind her of her reliance on me, she denies it. And when I express that I can afford to live in an apartment, she’s dismissive. But still criticizes me. Wanting me to leave, but dismissing me that I have a way to do so. So just an argument that she wants me out of there and that she’s stuck with me. But still wants me out. But still dismissive. So a solution of what, but with no solution for how. So the argument doesn’t end until she chooses when to walk away. She doesn’t want me arguing back of course, but she argues about times when I leave an argument. Like as if I don’t want to listen because I don’t want to help. And whenever I point out her contradictions, she acts like I’m the one who is confused. And she brings up the past about me, but when I bring up the past, even if she brings up the past, she’s like- “There he goes again- bringing up the past.” Even when she complains that I did something wrong. Wrong, only because she’s not satisfied. And from time to time, she reverses how she expects things done. So what’s right today could become wrong tomorrow. And she expects me to stop bringing up such a time of the past. Even though if I don’t think about the past, how could I learn from my “mistakes”? Her answer to that question is “common sense”. This consuming hostile environment is why I never want to get married. I would rather live alone and free than risk more like this. Because I have already had enough to take even the slightest risk. My worries would be over. Even my politeness with women in Church as a volunteer missionary has been mistaken for disturbing flirtation. So I have been social with women, only to be suspected of harrasment when in fact I wasn’t even looking for a girlfriend, given my life at home. I’M DONE! And I haven’t even started. Now anytime I get any feeling of faith in finding a potential girlfriend, or I imagine finding one, while watching how women meet friends, the memories of judgement spring back. I continued to have hope, but once I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication for my anxiety disorder that causes thoughts that had nothing to do with anything, I became clearer than ever and I finally have been able to get the clear mind I needed to also stop ongoing thoughts of faith, sympathy and stop visualizing as I watch about women with terrible experiences and who could use some closure. As they tell me- “I don’t know you.” And now, I finally face it. Any sympathy has gone. No crying. As now a recognition, they don’t know me and don’t want to get to know me, all because they don’t know me at the moment, and any further persuasion is often taken as harassment. My clear mind has saved me a lot of grief for women. I would still accept a request, but in the time being, I can’t feel sympathetic for women who haven’t had or don’t want anything to do with me. My sense of heart or God has shrunk to my boundaries. But prior, I felt more like Jesus. Now I feel like an unmarried man with no commitment to care for women. It’s shocking, because this is so not me. But rejection is hurtful. As are distrust, suspicion, judgement, disapproval, depreciation, dissatisfaction, impervious. And it’s being so distant why my courage and faith don’t simply come back. Especially when compared to women who are not bothered by their boyfriend/husband being a drug addict, a gang member, or abusive towards her. With that kind of evilness not enough for those to resist their ‘man’, while my generosity is dismissed as harrasment, I realize my mom was right all along. I am delusional.

    1. My love you are in the grips of a narcissist. Please seek out an abuse hotline for your area an get to a shelter. Do this secretly or she will smear your name to them. Walk in to any public place, find the manager and tell them that you are being emotionally abused and financially abused by a supposed care giver. Tell them you have been isolated an need immediate support from authorities. I know you are scared but there are people who will truly care for you and ensure that your needs are met. Forget about your belongings, they can be replaced. You need safety, autonomy and counseling my dear. If you have a computer look for an Abuse Hotline in your area and take the first step to freedom. Much love.

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