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

on the Desexualization of Disabled Women

One of the most pervasive stereotypes about disabled people is the idea that we’re uninterested in, or unfit to be in, sexual relationships. This stereotype affects both disabled men and women, but because women’s social standing is so often tied to our potential roles as wives and mothers, disabled women frequently experience a particular brand of ableism.

Disabled women face a heightened risk of sexual abuse and assault. In addition to this, we often encounter more subtle, unintentional actions-particularly from nondisabled men-that serve to infantilize, desexualize or violate us. Like other “microaggressions,” people who do these things may not even realize that they are doing any harm.

Recently a Facebook friend of mine asked her disabled, female-identified friends to describe these kinds of experiences we have had with nondisabled men-particularly unintended violations that may come under the guise of helpfulness. The below list is a combination of the responses on this Facebook thread, my own encounters, and those of my close female-identified disabled friends. I share it with the hope of making readers aware of the kinds of things that can happen and how they can be prevented. A caveat: Many of these microaggressions are also committed by women; however, the gender dynamic between a male and female (particularly when the nondisabled male holds power, such as the case of a male taxi driver and a disabled female passenger) makes the below actions especially problematic.

  • Women described being “guided” or lifted by unfamiliar men, in the name of helping, but in invasive ways (e.g., with hands under the arms, on the shoulders or on the hips) without permission. Or, during casual conversation, having a male acquaintance rub or pat their arm or leg.

  • On a related point: having male taxi or Uber/Lyft drivers buckle them into a seatbelt, without permission and even when they were physically capable of buckling themselves in.

  • Having a man place a woman’s hands on their body or on an object, particularly if the woman is blind, as a way of “showing” something (again, without permission) or having a man push a blind woman to touch his face (either as an attempt at a pickup line, or under the myth that blind people like to explore faces by touch).

  • Verbal blends of ableism and sexism: Men on the street shouting comments such as “You’re too pretty to be disabled” or “You’re skinny for a blind person.”

  • Some women with service animals said that strangers (on the subway, for example) would casually reach between their knees to pet their service animal. Or, a stranger might reach down between a woman’s legs to “help” her retrieve a dropped item. (Again, both men and women perpetrate these actions, but it is more threatening when done by a man).

  • Invasive questions: Several women described having male Uber/Lyft drivers, for example, ask if they lived alone, which is especially invasive if the driver is taking them home. Others said they were asked by strangers if they have romantic partners, how they have sex, how they put their clothes on, or “who takes care of” them.

  • Shocked reactions when women reveal that they are dating someone, engaged, married, pregnant, parenting or interested in parenting.

  • Being obviously ignored as a potential dating partner. I had the experience a few times in high school and college, when a guy would be very friendly toward me, seeking me out for conversations, asking for my phone number, even inviting me out on what I thought might be a “date” and I would later find out that the guy either had a girlfriend the whole time, or simply showed no romantic interest. Another time, at a middle school dance, a very attractive, popular boy begged me to have the last dance with him, then never spoke to me again (making me wonder if it was a bet).

  • Being called infantilizing pet names like honey, sweetie, or baby, and spoken to in an infantilizing tone of voice.

  • A blind lesbian acquaintance of mine said that someone once told her that if she could just see what men looked like, she would be straight.

  • A disabled person who is gender-nonbinary was asked if they knew the difference between men and women.

  • A man following a disabled woman, or asking where she is going, under the guise of being helpful.

  • And many variations on the above, some well-intended, others not so much.

What steps can nondisabled men, and women, take to reduce these microaggressions?
The answer is actually quite simple:

  • Start by understanding that disabled people, including those of us with cognitive disabilities, experience all sexual orientations and gender identities; have sexual boundaries; and many of us desire, and participate in, intimate relationships.

  • Before performing a particular action toward a stranger with a disability, ask yourself, “Would it be socially acceptable to say/do this to a nondisabled stranger in my culture?” If the answer is no, don’t do it.

  • If you ever have any doubt as to whether a disabled person desires hands-on support with a task, ask first. For example: “Do you need any help with your seatbelt?” is a thousand times better than wordlessly coming up and buckling the seatbelt. By asking first and respecting the answer, you can never go wrong.

Is the Most Common Therapy for Autism Cruel? [Repost]

Trigger warning: ABA, aversives.
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When parents learn that their child is autistic, they are naturally interested in interventions to help their child that have a proven track record. At least in the United States, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is often the first-line therapy recommended, and some insurance plans exclusively cover ABA. On this week’s post, I am sharing an article that summarizes the complex history and controversy around ABA.

At its core, ABA seeks to encourage behaviors deemed as “desirable” by society, while discouraging other behaviors deemed as “undesirable.” It works by changing reward structures. For many autistic people, “desirable” behaviors like making eye contact and speaking may be innately challenging or uncomfortable. An ABA program will create artificial rewards for these behaviors so that the child becomes motivated to engage in them. The darker flip side of some ABA programs involves punishments, or “aversives” to deter behaviors deemed as “undesirable” even when such behaviors may serve an innate functional purpose for the child.

As I read the article below, it made me think about how the definition of “evidence-based practice” may be more complex than it seems. A practice may lead to objectively demonstrable changes in an outcome, but are those outcomes truly positive for the participants? ABA does have an evidence base in terms of being linked to behavior changes deemed positive by neurotypical educators. But, these changes could come at a cost to the participants’ identities, and particularly aversive forms of ABA can cause lasting harm which could outweigh any benefits. As with most things, the best solution may be a hybrid approach that integrates components of ABA while still respecting the child’s neurology-“a focus on teaching skills, rather than normalization or suppressing autism-related behaviors.”
Is Applied Behavior Analysis, the Most Common Therapy for Autism, Cruel?

Why Do We Fear the Blind? [Repost]

“I do not intend to suggest there is something wonderful about blindness. There is only something wonderful about human resilience, adaptability and daring. The blind are no more or less otherworldly, stupid, evil, gloomy, pitiable or deceitful than the rest of us. It is only our ignorance that has cloaked them in these ridiculous garments.”

In this timeless opinion piece, Rosemary Mahoney reflects on cross-cultural misconceptions about blindness, and considers their causes. Some of this is undoubtedly applicable to other disabilities too. While ableism is far more complex than simple ignorance, Mahoney’s reflections shed light on some of the cognitive gaps that give rise to ableism. It is also interesting that her experience of blindness simulation inspired a deeper understanding of blindness. This is probably because, unlike most blindness simulations, the one in which Mahoney participated featured blind people serving as guides and teachers.
Why Do We Fear the Blind?

Four Tips for Crossing the Disabled Adult-Parent Divide [Guest Post]

When a nondisabled parent discovers that their child has a disability, they are thrust into a uniquely difficult position. They must learn to support and accept an aspect of their child’s experience that is usually unfamiliar to them. Despite the fact that up to one in five people has a disability, most nondisabled parents have not gotten the kind of disability exposure needed to really understand and accept their child’s disability. As a result, many parents in this situation tell me they are overwhelmed, sad, devastated, terrified, or have other intense negative reactions to a disability diagnosis for their child.

An increasing number of parent support groups have emerged on social media for parents of disabled kids. This is, overall, a very positive thing that allows parents to share experiences and advice with other parents. Disabled adults frequently join these groups to share their own childhood experiences and advice with parents. This, too, is perceived as a helpful thing by many parents. Disabled adults can offer the kind of cultural awareness and knowledge based on lived experience which parents rarely get in the wider world before they have a disabled child.

However, as this week’s guest post points out, sometimes tensions can arise in online groups between nondisabled parents and disabled adults (with disabled parents often ignored altogether). As in any online environment, tactless and disrespectful comments on either side can destroy an otherwise supportive climate. But there are also intergroup dynamics that may arise in these groups which mirror the historical ableism patterns that disabled people have experienced for centuries. Parents new to the disability community may not recognize these patterns. The intent of this guest post is to help parent groups build policies that allow parents to fully benefit from the support of disabled adult members.

Four Tips for Crossing the Disabled Adult/Parent Divide
By Tasha Chemel

In the disability community, there tends to be an artificially imposed divide between parents of disabled children and disabled adults. This divide can become magnified in online support groups where miscommunications abound and the tone and intent of posts can easily be misinterpreted by both sides. The good news is that I strongly believe that this divide is far from inevitable. Based on my own experience as a blind adult member of two groups for parents of blind and visually impaired children, I offer four tips for how parents and disabled adults can work together to create parent groups that are conducive to dialog and collaboration.

1. Mixed messages.
As disabled adults, we sometimes receive confusing and mixed messages about the nature of our role in parent groups. It often seems that though we are permitted to give tangible and concrete advice about finding the best screenreader/laptop/¬cane/wheelchair, etc., our efforts to reframe parents’ questions are not always appreciated. For example, a parent might ask about the best way to get a road sign installed stating that a blind child lives in their neighborhood, whereas a blind adult might point out that this kind of sign might be stigmatizing for the blind child. Some parents get upset when such reframes occur, and this is partly because they were not asking for a reframe in the first place. I think the ground rules have to be clarified here: if the parent group as a whole doesn’t want to allow these reframes, then this has to be made explicit. Disabled people will have to decide whether they are all right with having a conditional role in the group.

2. Safe Spaces
When a child is newly diagnosed, fighting ableism on a systemic level is the last thing most parents are thinking about. Many parents are struggling to simply get through each day. For this reason, it’s not surprising that they need a place to grieve and vent. When disabled adults join parent support groups, it should be with the understanding that parents are at different places on their journeys, and that some interactions might be very helpful for parents but are not necessarily healthy for us to witness. Sometimes we might have to step back from the group as a result. At the same time, there is a difference between a parent who expresses grief and a parent who makes sweeping generalizations about all disabled people and acts defensively when a disabled adult attempts to educate them. Disabled adults should feel free to seek out admins in these types of situations, without being afraid that the admin will use parents’ need for a safe space to shut down any mention of ableism. In addition, the group should decide whether it will allow public call-outs.

3. You’re not a parent.
A common response I receive when posting to blind parent groups is that I am not a parent so my comment is not valid. This is true. I can’t speak to what it’s like to parent a blind child. I can, however, speak to the lived experience of being one. This is a valuable perspective for parents, since disabled children become disabled adults. As a disabled adult, I’m uniquely qualified to talk about how my parents’ decisions have affected me. When disabled adults post to parent groups, they do have to keep in mind that there are aspects of a situation they might not be thinking of. For example, if a disabled adult suggests that a parent take time to do something for his or her child that is very labor-intensive, they are not considering that the parent might have other demands on their time, such as additional siblings or work responsibilities. At the same time, parents shouldn’t dismiss comments made by childless disabled adult’s simply because they are not parents. They also shouldn’t automatically assume that a disabled group member is not a parent, or that a parent member is not disabled. Disabled people can and do parent disabled children, and the assumption that all disabled people are nonparents is rooted in unintentional ableism.

4. Silencing of Disabled Adults.
Finally, disabled adults have historically been silenced or spoken over by parents and professionals. When a post written by a disabled adult gets deleted, it sends a message that the adult’s perspective is not important or not welcome. If a post gets really out of hand, freezing it, rather than deleting it, will usually solve the problem. IF a parent group has collectively decided that it wants disabled adults to be valued members of the community, then the group must do its best to ensure that the deeply entrenched patterns of silencing of disabled people are not replicated.
Tasha Chemel is a blind writer, teacher and potter. She has master’s degrees in social work and education from Boston College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Currently, she is a writing tutor at two universities and is also completing an internship in academic advising. her essays and creative work has appeared in Wordgathering, Getting Along with Grief, Breath and Shadow, and the anthology Barriers and Belonging. Find her on LinkedIn at https://-www.linkedin.com/in/¬tasha-chemel-bab8556/