The Words We Choose to Use

Trigger warning for derogatory, ableist labels such as the r-word.

I have a migraine this week. I’m not surprised, as they plague me on a regular basis. I just can’t trace this one back to a trigger the way I can trace most of my migraines. So I’m going to blame this one on measles.

Fret not, friends: I do not have the measles. I have not been exposed to the measles. And I have been vaccinated against the measles. I am attributing this migraine to the amount of time I spend cringing, facepalming, and headdesking every time I read about the measles outbreak. I cringe when I read the articles, I facepalm when I read the comments, I headdesk when I read quotations from adult humans who should really know better but still manage to use language that is so damaging and ableist and dehumanizing that I can hardly believe that a living breathing human can lack empathy to such a degree.

My aim here is not to get into the vaccine/anti-vaccine debate, although I will be pulling some information from both sides. I’m not arguing science today; I’m analyzing language. Where to start? There is so much rhetoric through which I have slogged, I can hardly begin. Perhaps I shall start with the viral man-meme of the hour: Dr. Jack Wolfson.

Dr. Wolfson shot to instant internet stardom with his four-word retort to those who blame the current measles outbreak on parents like him, who choose not to vaccinate their children against such diseases: “My child is pure.” He went on to say that a child with leukemia–who cannot be vaccinated against the measles–“very likely” got leukemia from the vaccine in the first place.

“My child is pure.” When I read that sentence, I shivered. The implied superiority, nay, the explicit superiority is astounding. To first assert that his child is more clean, more pure, than a child that has leukemia, and then to contend that the child has leukemia because of the parents’ decision to not maintain their own child’s “purity” is steeped in privilege, judgment, and, dare I say, social Darwinism. At the end of the CNN piece on this story, Wolfson indicates he would feel no remorse if his unvaccinated child exposed a vulnerable child to measles because “people die,” and it’s not his responsibility. In his worldview, it’s entirely the fault of the parents of the child who died. He verbalizes no empathy whatsoever. It boggles the mind.

Wolfson’s words should not have been so shocking for me to read; he echoes the sentiments of the bulk of the anti-vaccination movement. No matter where you stand on the science, there is one thing I want to make clear: anti-vaccine rhetoric is damaging. It blames parents for their children’s autism. It tells autistic individuals that they are broken, a burden, and a scourge to be eradicated through protest and activism. It reinforces disability hierarchies, placing autism on a scale with polio, measles, rubella, and pertussis, and saying, “We’d rather risk infecting hundreds of people with measles than have a kid with autism.”

One mother, in a Slate article this week, summarized this stigmatization perfectly as she shared her story of raising her children (one of whom has autism) during the beginning of the anti-vaccine era:

Autism has been a witch-hunt for centuries. Demons, refrigerator mothers, vaccines, gluten. These hysterias torture parents. They also marginalize the children themselves. During the years of vaccine fever, my son was seen as something monstrous, to be avoided, the result of damage—instead of the quiet, funny, often troubled person that he is. Our society’s drive to eliminate his kind, even if it meant bringing back diseases that kill, has had a dark, dehumanizing effect on his life.

Let that sink in for a moment.

My criticism does not fall only on the side of Dr. Wolfson, even though he does garner a large helping for himself. Anyone who draws an imaginary line and divides children into the categories of pure/impure or clean/dirty is bound to get a few words from my fingers. There are many on the “Please just vaccinate your kids already!” side of the debate who engage in equally damaging uses of the English language.

There are comments that encourage parents to vaccinate their children by telling a scary story of someone they know who had polio/measles/etc., and then refer to those people as crippled, retarded, or deaf-and-mute. There are the comments that invoke disability hierarchies, saying that even if vaccines caused autism, at least autism isn’t as bad as [complication from disease]. These labels are ableist, dehumanizing, and absolutely unacceptable.

Even in the CNN piece, the mother of the three-year-old child with leukemia used ableist language that shocked me: “My biggest fear is that I’ll lose my child, or that she’ll become deaf.” Her biggest fears are, in order, death and deafness. I have four deaf children in my classroom. I have taught a couple dozen others, and I have countless friends and acquaintances in multiple states who are d/Deaf, some of whom lost their hearing due to complications from meningitis, the measles, or another illness. I can imagine that many of them would be offended at the thought that their identity is terrifying.

As we all shout past each other, while kids are getting sick and doctors are getting click-bait famous for touting the purity of their own brood, the words we choose to use speak volumes about our underlying assumptions. And what we’re saying is this: it is your fault. The Dr. Wolfsons of the world say it bluntly when they say some children “shouldn’t be going out into society.” The supermarket busy-bodies say it when they publicly shame parents of children with disabilities. Venture capitalists say it when they proclaim that “Down syndrome is hell on earth” during an interview and it goes unchallenged.

It is your fault. We say it when we give the side-eye to someone with “special needs” in a public space who we think is drawing too much attention to themselves. When we roll our eyes at a child throwing a tantrum in the store, without taking into account what else may be going on. When we wonder why someone needs to be out in the community instead of in a special place for people like that (a store clerk recently said that to a friend of mine about one of her clients, thinking the client was her mother).

Children are not separated into categories of pure/impure. Parents are doing the best they can. The disability is not their fault. A child with a disability is as wonderful, and frustrating, and rewarding, and loved and human as a child who does not have a disability, and we’d do well to mind our rhetoric, because they are all listening.

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