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.
Let’s Not Play the Blame Game: Parenting, Disability and Social Stigma