The Washington Post has published an article that purports to examine a steady increase in disability Social Security claims by poor families. Under the heading “Disabled America” the headline bellows: “One Family, Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?” If you’re disabled like me and you’ve a sense of disability history you have to shudder since the half-rhetorical question evokes an edict by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who infamously wrote: “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in Buck vs. Bell, a 1927 ruling that upheld the right of Virginia to sterilize “mental defectives” without their consent. (You can read more about the case here.) In short, the Post’s headline raises the specter of eugenics whether the writer or editor knows it or not. Either way its fair to say “shame on them.”
Shame also for committing the journalistic equivalent of what I call “Betsyism” for Betsy DeVos who presides loudly over our education system without experience, knowledge, or curiosity. Only Betsyism, the willful extrusion of facts for ideological purposes explains the Post’s perfervid and ill informed article. Why is it ill informed? Because like other mainstream media forays into the subject of disability and Social Security there’s only a singular narrative: the US is filled with fake cripples who are stealing from good old you and me–a story that received considerable traction two years ago when the redoubtable radio hipster Ira Glass rebroadcast (without journalistic fact checking) a spurious story from Planet Money asserting phony social security disability claims are officially out of control in America. The provenance of the story hardly mattered to Glass, who, when confronted with its falsehoods simply declared himself a journalist and shrugged. It mattered not at all to the doyen of “This American Life” that the tale was largely the dream child of a notorious rightwing think tank, or that the outright falsehoods contained in the broadcast might do tremendous damage to the disabled. Falsehoods about the powerless play well.
One also remember’s NPR’s broader foray into this terrain when Chana Joffee-Walt launched a blockbuster series of stories about disability benefits. Her stories argued there’s a massive fraud taking place, that the number of people claiming disability benefits has gone up alarmingly. What’s of interest from a disability studies perspective is that Joffee-Walt offered (as a means of laying the foundation for her story) that there’s no medical diagnosis for disability–a matter that she found shocking.
Disability isn’t a medical condition for obvious reasons: the limitation of function that renders a person “disabled” depends on multiple factors–some have etiologies, some have a great deal to do with structural and social barriers. This is why scholars who study disability do so through both medical and social analyses. A Betsey-esque analysis lacks this sophistication and suggests poor people with disabilities should be held as suspect for not being–well, rich. Or as Herman Melville put it: “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.”
The Post’s article (which I won’t summarize) argues that poor people beget intellectually disabled children—actually pray to have them—for kids with bi-polar disorder or who are on the so-called autism spectrum are trailer park cash cows. A la Betsyism if you want people to believe an elitist narrative, startle them with the nefariousness of poverty as Reagan did with his mythological story about a welfare cheat who owned several Cadillacs. If you want readers to evince a collective moue of disgust tell them about real life hillbillies who are just like the characters in Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love—circus performers who’ll do anything they can to have crippled and deformed children—this is the insidious face of American poverty. Don’t tell your readers that impoverishment increases the likelihood of illness, that the lack of access to prenatal care and education increases the probability of childhood disability. Don’t tell them that the absence of accommodations in pre-school and all subsequent schooling assures failure for children with intellectual disabilities. Don’t tell them. Just insinuate the poor are up to dirty tricks. Don’t remind your readers that Adolf Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters.”