When I saw that the CDC director stated that it’s “encouraging” mostly already-ill people will die from COVID, my ableist spidey senses went up. And, judging by the ensuing outrage on Twitter, I wasn’t the only one mentally going, “What the hell?!”
We know that anti-vaxxers do not care about the needs or lives of disabled people (and probably a lot of non-disabled people too).
But now the CDC is basically agreeing? I know the U.S. medical establishment has done a lot of eugenics-type crap in the past, but I’d foolishly hoped they were over it.
The sad thing is, like many types of bigots, anti-vaxxers don’t listen to the people they’re prejudiced against.
That means it’s on those who share their identity, but not their values, to talk to them, and try to change their minds.
I see a lot of parallels with the struggles of other oppressed groups.
A lot of racist white people are, by definition, not interested in the viewpoints of the people of color they denigrate, so antiracist white people need to step it up and engage.
Similarly, a lot of misogynist men by definition don’t care about women’s perspectives or well-being, so it’s ideal when feminist men can step in and be like, “Bro, not cool.”
Sometimes this ignorance is not totally malicious; it’s enculturated and subconscious, and getting people to engage with their own prejudices will help them get over it.
Other times, this dismissal of others’ perspectives is intentional, malignant, and ongoing even when called out.
As a woman, I’ve had experiences where men talk down to me and refuse to acknowledge the multiple ways in which their misogynist beliefs and actions continue to harm women. It’s frustrating as hell to be like, “Hey, your mistaken and prejudiced beliefs are hurting me” and have someone respond “Nah.” I could rant about the centuries (if not millennia, I’m staring at you, ancient Greece) of Western intellectual history wherein knowledge is made out to be something men have, make, and transmit, whereas women are relegated to the sidelines, gossips and nags should they try to question their place. I know the deck is stacked against women making intellectual claims about their own experiences, especially experiences of oppression. The same is true for people of color in a white supremacist society, and for all us sexual deviants in heterocentric societies, and, and, and…the list goes on.
There’s a long history of gaslighting marginalized people who try to speak up about their experiences of being marginalized or oppressed, and it sucks.
So what can nondisabled people do to help?
- Get allies on the inside with disability—feminist men, antiracist white people, non-homophobic straight people—to help spread the word and help have conversations with people who may visually resemble them, but who hold completely different belief systems.
- Call out bad-faith arguments when they occur. No, anti-vaxxers are not being discriminated against, or even (to exemplify a willfully-misappropriated term) experiencing segregation or apartheid. As human rights advocate Nyadol Nyuon writes in his piece on how anti-vaxxers hide their privilege behind the language of oppression:
People who undergo real oppression know there is no real choice about the condition of their oppression.
Don’t let them get away with this crap.
Of course, I say this, and I know I do not have the willpower to fruitfully engage with anti-vaxxers. It is too close and personal, given that I have a family member who contracted polio as a child and now faces serious health consequences. Anti-vaxxers think my relative should’ve just died, I guess. How do you talk to someone who thinks you (or someone close to you) should’ve just died?!
I say this, and I know I’m coming across as weak-sauce, because activists, as well as everyday people, have to do exactly that on a regular basis: defend their humanity and their right to exist against people who will cheerfully gaslight and bully them. My compromise is that I am signed-the-fuck-up to have these conversations as a white person who practices antiracism, as a straight-passing person in the Midwest, and as a woman with enough privilege and educational background that men sometimes listen to me.
I remember writing after Trump was elected about how everyone processes things (especially grief) differently, and this of course applies to activism too. We all have our own strengths and skills, and I think it’s valid to nope out of some arenas so long as you’re trying to make a difference in others.
3. Straight up ask anti-vaxxers if they know anyone who was disabled, and explain some of the forms of oppression that disabled people face, from individual prejudice to institutional barriers, some of which include straight-up eugenic policies. Hopefully, that occurrence was a wake-up call to nondisabled people about how deep these prejudices run, but I’m pointing it out here in case anyone who’s not disabled didn’t really pause to think about it, because yes, it’s that bad when government representatives with PhDs are espousing eugenics.
If I were having these conversations about ableism with anti-vaxxers (instead of having them in my head, where they get very shouty), I might use some of the strategies in this WebMD article or those in this opinion piece from a former anti-vaxxer.
So please, if you’re not disabled and you’re not too exhausted and tapped out and burned out to have these conversations, try to educate anti-vaxxers on some of the prejudices that disabled people face, and the ways in which anti-vaccine beliefs and actions negatively impact disabled people.
You may not get through on your first try or ever, but hopefully, you’re planting seeds that will eventually bear fruit.