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If you haven’t learned to identify ableism when you see it, looking at the behaviors and beliefs of anti-vaxxers and how those behaviors impact disabled people is a master class.

First, let me be clear: I’m not talking about people who have valid reasons to hesitate before getting the COVID vaccine, or those who are not safely able to receive it (those with certain kinds of chronic illnesses or autoimmune disorders, for example). I’m not talking about people who are priced out of the vaccine due to where they live or the demands of their workplace (such as when employers in the U.S. don’t automatically grant medical time off, even when it is vitally important to do so for public health reasons). There are – sometimes – legit reasons to pause before choosing to receive a new vaccine.

I’m talking about people who are explicitly anti-vaxxers, who espouse faulty beliefs about the dangers of vaccines and refuse to consider them in any capacity. These people often overlap with anti-maskers and other conspiracy theorists.

And these people, I shall argue, are inherently caught up in selfish manifestations of ableism, or bigotry and prejudice against disabled people.

Ableism makes disabled people out to be lesser-than non-disabled people. It is a form of bigotry, however unconscious, that holds the lives of disabled people to be worth less than the lives of non-disabled people.

Oh, and one more caveat: I’m not disabled myself, I’m just somewhere in the shallow end of the chronic illness pool, and thus I am not trying to speak for disabled people (who are not a monolith, anyway) but rather leverage this platform I’ve got to make some of these common-sense, non-prejudiced views about disability better known and understood. Everything I’m saying here has already been voiced by disabled people in various things I’ve read on Twitter, in works of disability studies, and so on. Obviously, I’ll make an effort to cite people where possible – have you met me?! – but some of these points have simply become common knowledge in circles where I go to learn.

There are a few different ways to conceptualize ableism. The aptly-named Stop Ableism website characterizes it as: “A set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.” An organization called Access Living, devoted to advocating for disabled peoples’ rights in Chicago, defines ableism as: “discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior…rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability.”

Basically, ableism makes disabled people out to be lesser-than non-disabled people. It is a form of bigotry, however unconscious, that holds the lives of disabled people to be worth less than the lives of non-disabled people. And please note, I’m not writing “disabled people vs. normal people” because that kind of phrasing is also ableist. It assumes a norm and assigns any deviation from the norm a negative value.

How does this play out in terms of anti-vaxxers, specifically COVID anti-vaxxers and deniers and anti-maskers and so on?

  • The rhetoric about “just stay home if you’re afraid of getting sick” (which I’ve also ranted about here) ignores the fact that disabled people have every right to civic participation and public life, in fact, it was guaranteed by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law in 1990! Not to mention how gross the “but we must go out and live our lives, our lives are worth living!” rhetoric is, and punitive/dismissive towards people who stay at home for a variety of reasons
  • Much of the recent moral panic around vaccines is rooted in ableism due to the utterly false belief that vaccines can cause autism; I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how dehumanizing it is to tell neurodivergent people that their status is a punishment, a sickness, a fate worse than death
  • Some anti-vaxxers seem reluctant to compromise their own bodily security to help provide a greater safety net and specifically to help out the disabled and immunocompromised, which like, I’m sorry, but believing someone’s life is automatically less deserving of care and regard than your own is like the definition of bigotry!
  • The more people who refuse the COVID vaccine, the more people there are volunteering their bodies to be laboratories for making new variants, which may or may not be deadlier, but will definitely keep the pandemic going longer, which disproportionately impacts disabled people because…
  • A lot of people with medical issues – disabilities, chronic illnesses, and so on – require a bit more time with doctors, physical therapists, home caregivers, and so on. Obviously having an ongoing pandemic that’s transmissible via proximity will negatively impact the people who need the most contact in order to obtain necessary care!
  • Also, we’re living through one of the largest mass-disabling events this century, so if nothing else it’s quite short-sighted for non-disabled people to laugh it up and live it up at the expense of disabled folks! Like, why not advocate for more compassionate policies for everyone, since you could well end up disabled sooner rather than later?

But oh, you may be thinking, I’m wary of vaccines and none of those things apply to me or my attitudes! How dare you call me ableist!

My response is: boo fucking hoo. If you can’t accept that your actions have larger consequences for those around you, that we live in an ecosystem with one another and that is literally what public health means…sorry for ya, I’m a teacher for life but I despair of teaching people like you what critical thinking skills and true empathy are.

I’ve found that people – especially anti-vaxxers – really don’t like being called ableist. In the same vein, racist white people don’t like being called racist, and misogynist men don’t like being called misogynist. If the shoe fits, and I really do mean in a descriptive way, I’m not trying to sling these terms around to hurt people’s feelings but rather to accurately describe their attitudes towards their fellow humans, sorry/not sorry.

This essay by K. Cassidy about how ableism is perpetuating the pandemic sums up my points nicely, reminding us of the quote that’s been going around social media: I don’t know how to explain to you why you should care about other people. And disabled people are a huge component of the U.S. population, so I don’t know how to convince non-disabled folk to give a crap about the people who are their neighbors and colleagues and family members (Statista estimates that around 13% of the U.S. population is disabled; the CDC puts it up at 25%, but that figure is a couple of years old so it’s probably higher by now).

Clearly, disabled people don’t count as “people” in the minds and actions of many, and that’s a damn shame. I will call out this despicable behavior whenever I see it, and I encourage you to do so as well (of course keeping in mind that those of us who are non-disabled shouldn’t attempt to speak for disabled people or assume what they want/need, but I feel reasonably certain that taking ableist people to task is a useful intervention, plus if those of us with more energy to do so are able to this work, that’s probably a win all around).

Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...