One of the most difficult parts of being a person with a disability in today’s closely connected society is knowing when to take social pressures and popular opinions about things personally, and when not to. Some of us are experiencing a classic example of this right now, around the issue of COVID-19 vaccination.
The increasing social pressure to get vaccinated for COVID-19 is in most cases more than fully justified. Despite the recent resurgence in cases –– including “breakthrough” infections in some vaccinated people –– for the vast majority getting vaccinated is the most healthy thing to do for themselves, and the most responsible thing to do for their communities.
However, at least some people with disabilities or chronic health conditions find themselves in an odd position. They approve of vaccination overall, especially as a way to curb a pandemic that poses an even higher risk for them than for most others. But because of their medical conditions they can’t be vaccinated. The answer to who exactly shouldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, and what the risks and benefits are with different underlying conditions, continues to evolve. It is possible that some current concerns will later turn out to be unfounded. Regardless, there is a nontrivial number of people with underlying medical conditions that make their concern about getting vaccinated, and their doubts about its effectiveness for them, at least reasonable. Not all vaccine hesitancy is political or irrational.
Yet, people who have good reason to be more cautious than most about COVID-19 vaccines find themselves exposed to much the same increasingly intense impatience and ridicule being heaped on vaccine skeptics and politically-motivated “anti-vaxxers.” It’s similar to the nasty looks and shaming that certain people with disabilities experienced when they went without masks for legitimate health or disability-related reasons. The stereotype of the selfish, politically-motivated anti-mask obsessive didn’t fit them, but they took heat for it anyway.
These examples are new, but the basic pattern is very old, and quite familiar to people with disabilities. It’s a very common form of ableism, but one that’s especially hard to explain to people who don’t experience it personally. It’s when disabled people feel overlooked, excluded, and sometimes even targeted by otherwise well-intended and generally positive moral and social pressures. To illustrate, here are a few examples of arguably good or harmless “social improvement” trends that can be read as exclusionary, hostile, and judgmental to people with disabilities:
- Listening to audiobooks isn’t really reading.
- Modern conveniences are decadent and unhealthy.
- The market is full of wasteful products that encourage laziness.
Some of these notions are more valid and popular than others. But all have in common the goal of some kind of personal or social improvement. They are meant to encourage people to live some form of “better” life.
The problem for disabled people is that we are often notable, but easy to forget exceptions to otherwise true or persuasive arguments. For example:
Audiobooks are increasingly the best way for blind people to access the information and enjoyment of reading. They also make reading more accessible to people with other disabilities that make it harder to read, or to hold and handle books and other print publications. But ––
Our adaptive ways of reading, of enjoying and appreciating literature, are by implication considered something less, inadequate, somehow inauthentic.
Some disabled people literally can’t do without shortcuts and conveniences. They cannot choose to take the stairs, walk to work, or ride a bike to run errands instead of driving. And even when we can do some more strenuous physical tasks, opting not to is most often a function of common sense and rationing of energy, not laziness. But ––
Taking shortcuts and using mechanical aids, like elevators and mobility scooters, are frequently depicted as lazy, contemptible and sometimes even ridiculous.
Many disabled people buy pre-cut, packaged fruit and vegetables because preparing raw foods manually is difficult or impossible for us. And some disabled people really do need plastic straws to be able to drink. But ––
Mocking and judging people who buy packaged, precut fruits and vegetables, as well as other “prepared” foods is a perennial favorite indulgence of a number of loosely associated groups who are fired up about nutrition, environmentalism, and just general personal virtue.
And over the last few years, the movement to ban plastic straws has consistently overlooked the unique need some disabled people have for them, and when confronted, often outright denies and ridicules this need in the harshest terms.
Whether or not critics like these have disabled people in mind on these matters, we inevitably feel both targeted and forgotten. We feel judged even when we really aren’t, and ignored when we try to explain.
This happens most notably in movements that depict technology and convenience as wasteful, lazy, and inauthentic. And in a broader sense, they probably have a point. Most of the time these exhortations towards living more authentically, healthfully, and sustainable aren’t meant to be applied in the same way to disabled people whose health and independence relies on technology and conveniences. But when these moral pressures are so pervasive, and their slogans so simplistic and full of moral fervor and high-minded disapproval, it’s hard not to take it personally.
Meanwhile, being essentially right about a broader issue often makes people insensitive or hostile to any glitches and exceptions to their secure moral equation. This is what’s probably happening with people who can’t take COVID-19 vaccines.
Vaccine supporters are tired and exasperated, and justifiably so with cases rising again and vaccination rates stagnated. But unfortunately, this makes it all the more tempting to take out their frustrations on anyone who isn’t vaccinated yet, regardless of their reasons.
In the case of disabled, chronically ill, or immunocompromised people who can’t be vaccinated, this is usually just an oversight, not an intentional condemnation.
But sometimes the shaming is intentional. Disabled people are often stigmatized quite deliberately any time we point out that things everyone else is doing don’t apply the same to us. Insisting on being exceptions, and pointing out technical flaws in wholesome, righteous causes is almost never appreciated. When disabled people do it, even some of the most progressive and well-meaning people may be tempted to fall back on ableism.
What can we do?
First of all, those of us with disabilities or chronic illnesses can try to more fully internalize that these things really don’t apply to us. We have no real reason to feel singled out, guilty, or excluded. These blanket judgements are not meant for us, so we aren’t answerable to them. We can, to whatever extent it’s possible, refuse to accept the offense.
But the rest of us should try to remember that good advice for most people isn’t always applicable to all, particularly people with disabilities. It truly helps to mention this when you are making these pronouncements. Learn to remember that when disabled people do things differently, embrace “conveniences,” and opt out of things that are good for most others, it’s necessary adaptation –– not “using our disability as a crutch” or “making excuses.”
Disabled people’s different needs and situations should always be taken into consideration by social movements, especially those that focus on changing people’s individual choices and behavior. I might help for disabled people within those movements to have more of a voice in planning strategy and public persuasion, to help avoid inadvertent ableism or misdirected targeting of disabled people.
Maybe the most important takeaway is that judging and shaming isn’t persuasive or effective anyway, no matter how good or necessary the goal might be.