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Challenging Ableism: Autism and the Conversation about Vaccines

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March 24, 2014

Recently there has been a debacle in the public health field about the connection between vaccines and autism. The Center for Disease Control will tell you there is no connection, while plenty of Americans and Jenny McCarthy believe that there is a definite link between the two.

First off, there is such a range of autism. I will be using the term autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to cover the range of them, including Asperger syndrome, since there is rarely the distinction around this conversation. If you are not familiar with ASD, check out what information the Center for Disease Control has.

But I am not here to debate with you about whether vaccines “cause” ASD.

But here’s the thing: Why are we so afraid of autism and children with disabilities?

One of the problems I have with this debate is how we talk about oppression and autism. Why is it that we talk about being afraid of having children with autism, rather than ways to change ableist mindsets? I acknowledge that the quality of life with autism is not high for a number of reasons beyond social circumstances; but why aren’t we focusing on eliminating oppression, rather than the disorder itself? Why is our biggest debate about whether or not autism is caused by vaccines, rather than why kids with ASD are more likely to grow up to be unemployed, or why children of color with ASD are less likely to have access to services?

Ableism and ableist language is a huge problem in public health communities, with language about “eliminating” particular disabilities being very prominent. While the intentions of folks in the public health field are to improve the well-being of the community, it ignores how this language impacts how people with ASD are perceived. When we put down ASD, we are putting down people with ASD. When we talk about “preventing” ASD, we are creating a hierarchy of, able bodies >disabled bodies. It perpetuates oppression of people with ASD.

In social justice, we also must ask the question to ourselves: why are we so obsessed with “curing” disabilities, instead of focusing on making life easier for folks with disabilities? Why are we so content with putting expensive prosthetic limbs on people with an amputated leg, instead of making the 2nd floor of a building accessible? This is especially true in reproductive justice movements, when we consider the ethics of terminating pregnancies with fetuses with disabilities and predicting them in utero. In the end, our obsession with curing and preventing disabilities comes down to internalized ableism, and people being terrified of themselves or their children being diagnosed with a disability.

Ultimately, creating accessible and accepting spaces, uplifting voices of folks with ASD and other disabilities, and dismantling an ableist mindset should be our priority, rather than dueling out how to prevent autism in the battle of the vaccines.

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