The TARDIS is Inaccessible: Disability in Doctor Who

 

doctor who logo

Image Description: Doctor Who logo written in blue with a DW in the centre of the two words forming the shape of the TARDIS

 

This most recent season of Doctor Who has had me thinking about just how bad and limited the representation of disability has been on the show. The show which is often very socially conscious has created a universe past, present and future where disability is generally nonexistent or tokenized.

This is of course not just a problem with Doctor Who but is a wider issue of disability representation in the media more generally. The thing that makes Doctor Who stand out (other than the recent storyline of the Doctor going blind) for criticism is that on the rare occassions that there are disabled characters, they are either done very well or very badly. Most recently both at the same time.

The season 9 episode Before the Flood included Cass, a deaf character whose deafness was not a major plotpoint. The character was also played by a deaf actor. This kind of representation is revolutionary. A disabled character who just happens to be disabled.

This trend continued in the 10th season with the character of Erica in The Pyramid at the End of the World. She just happened to have dawrfism. It played no part in the plot. This positivity was however, overshadowed by the Doctor’s blindness–part of a three episode arc–which was dramatically cured at the end of the episode.

It really threw into sharp relief how tokenistic these disabled characters–and it is relevant to mention that not all people who are deaf or who have dwarfism identify as disabled–despite how good they are. They are still really noticeable because of how rarely they appear and yet they appear without question. In order for disability to be truly unnoteworthy is to make it normal and a part of the world of the show but these characters appear and are gone. Disability isn’t even visible in the background as extras. So as normal as the characters are in their stories, they remain noteworthy exceptions outside of them.

This is particularly clear when you look at what happens to the narrative of disability when it happens to the Doctor. Suddenly, the writers fall back on many harmful stereotypes and storylines.

The Doctor’s blindness which begins in Oxygen and is conveniently cured in The Pyramid at the End of The World is purely a plot device that is used to create tension and then conveniently discarded to again further the plot. The fact that this plotline intersected with actual disability representation is offensive.

A blind doctor was an ineffective one. His blindness had to be cured because he could no longer really be the Doctor. Having that moment of cure in an episode also starring a terrifically competent disabled character, really undercut the power of that representation. Particularly because the thing that foiled him was absurd. He needed to enter a code but instead of the more realistic keypad–which he could have navigated without sight–he was inexplicably presented with a combination lock.

The moment was so utterly unrealistic (yes I know it’s sci-fi) and clearly contrived to create the need to quickly cure the Doctor because if he doesn’t get through that door he’ll die.

So the audience is presented with the paradox of the real representation provided by erica’s character and the played out disability as plot device provided by the Doctor all in a single episode.

I want the future–both in the real world and in the universe of Doctor Who–to be accessible but it isn’t. We generally only see disabled characters in if not the present day then in earth type settings. The future in Doctor Who is very much not accessible.

The TARDIS itself is horribly inaccessible which limits who the Doctor can have as a companion and how well he would function if the Doctor became disabled in a way that couldn’t be magicked away for the convenience of the plot. The TARDIS doesn’t have automatic doors, though the amazing Mike Mort designed a shirt with just such an adaptation (buy it here)

 

accessible Tardis

Image Description: A Drawing of the TARDIS, a blue phone booth with Police Public Call Box on the top and a sign on the left door that reads “Police Telephone Free for the Public. The right side door has an automatic door opener with the International Symbol of Access and the words “press to open”

 

The real inaccessibility of the TARDIS goes beyond getting in the door. There are stair to access pretty much everywhere. There are stairs to get to the console and even more stairs to get to the rest of the ship that we never see. I can only imagine that the inaccessibility extends throughout the vessel.

the world of Doctor Who, very much like the real world is inaccessible but in some ways it’s worse because it shows that the world doesn’t get better and that the future is just as if not more inaccessible than the present unless it’s briefly convenient for the plot or to accommodate a single character who will never be seen again.

 

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Guest Post: The Unwritten Dress Code For Service Dogs at Graduation

 

image1

Image Description: A golden retriever in a work harness wearing a graduation cap with a black and white tassel.

 

Graduation season is again upon us, which means students across the US and Canada are donning their graduation regalia and marching across the stage. It is also the time of year local news agencies around the country start reporting on the adorable service dogs that are also prancing along the stage with their handlers. If a local news agency is picking the story up, there’s a good chance the service dog was wearing a cap and gown as well.

With the current graduation style trend incorporating decorated hats, and other colorful accessories, it’s easy to brush this parallel trend under the umbrella of fashion and the euphoria of the day. However, there are differences between how abled-bodied students choose to express themselves, and how the handlers of these service dogs are treated.

People frequently anthropomorphize animals. Dogs do not seek personal gratification through earning honorary degrees, nor do they understand or care about public displays of adoration. Service dogs work because they enjoy it, because they get to hang out with their handlers all day, and because of perks like getting showered with love when they do a good job. Yet every year dogs across the country are given honorary degrees.

These degrees are handed out not for the sake of the student or their accompanying service animal, because it certainly does not reflect either the student’s academic prowess nor how the dog perceives affection. No, it is instead a phenomenal opportunity for universities to get showered with praise for being so welcoming to students with disabilities, and is free advertising. In effect, it is a publicity stunt intended to serve the needs of the higher education institution. Perhaps it also serves to get donations to the progressive school who supported their student with the service dog.

The scheme does little to showcase how accommodating schools are to their students with disabilities. No one is going to pat the university on the back and tell them how amazing they are for having their staff spend weeks before school is even in session sitting at a scanner working on making materials accessible for students. But you can bet someone is going to hand over a fistful of cash when they see an adorable dog on stage receiving an honorary degree.

With the amount of pressure being put on grads to put their service dogs miniature regalia, you would think that there was some kind of dress code we’re all unaware of. When I told staff that I was just going to put a few flowers and ribbon in the university colors on O’Hara’s harness, it was met with serious disappointment. Staff tried to convince me how adorable it would be to have her in a little outfit. Service dogs don’t exist to add an entertaining cute factor to university sponsored events—or any event. O’Hara’s role that night was to do what she does every day. To guide me safely around obstacles, and keep me safe. Given the extra distractions of a loud audience, unfamiliar environments, the stopping repeatedly, and other strange going-ons, O’Hara didn’t need to be worried about wearing a cap and gown when I needed her to worry about where the microphone cord was, and making sure I didn’t faceplant.

The graduation of service dog handlers from universities does not mean it’s open season for publicity stunts for those universities, or regalia companies, or anyone else. Service dogs are not an excuse to exploit them to increase the cute factor for entertainment, or for inspiration. Pressuring handlers into putting regalia on their dogs is not acceptable, and they don’t owe you the chance to see a charming dog all dressed up. In fact, the only thing handlers and their dogs owe to anyone, is respect for the other half of their service dog team. I happily chose to dress up O’Hara’s harness with ribbons and flowers. It was simple, understated, and did not disrupt her work. Nor did it play directly into hands of a publicity stunt. More importantly, it was an artistic expression of self, which was exactly what all the other students were doing with their own adornments. O’Hara did more than look pretty in regalia that day, she did her job with poise, and served me with all the dignity her training called for. That is something that cannot be represented in regalia.

 

Author bio:

Kit is a freelance writer and public speaker working toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in STEM fields. She currently runs Femme de Chem a source for science, disability, and geek news that is 100% accessible.

 

But Wasn’t it Nice of Them?: How Praising the Helpers Can Lead to Less Aid

cap-2029798_640

Image Description: A black computer illustration of a graduation cap outlined in white.

But wasn’t it nice of them? Shouldn’t people who do things like this be rewarded? These are the questions I am often asked when I critique inspiration porn. Particularly around stories that heap praise on nondisabled people for their assistance of disabled people. The answers to these questions and their accompanying justifications are more complicated than the yes or no answers that the questions imply.

This university graduation ceremony season, the international media has siezed on a story about an American mother who was given an honourary MBA after she attended all of the classes with her son as academic support.

Why would anyone complain about this story? Wasn’t it nice of her to do this? Yes and no.

It is, of course, nice to help people who need assistance but as David Perry points out “Inspiration porn buries analysis of ableist societal structures under a mountain of awwwwwwww.” It is important to consider this story in context. There are other questions people should be asking but aren’t like,

Should she have had to do this?

Why were there no supports provided by the university?

What happens to disabled students who don’t have access to a parent who can take them to all of their classes?

How did having a parent ever present in the university impact the disabled student’s ability to socialize?

Does championing this mother so widely and publicly let the university off the hook from having to figure out how to accommodate disabled students in the future?

So, yes, the mother performed a selfless act for her son. She did it without pay and without the expectation of reward. However, the widespread celebration of her conceals not only the achievement of her son (who was the one to actually complete an MBA after all). It also reinforces the idea that disabled people’s access to things like education should not be the responsibility of society or the institutions themselves but rather on the availability of selfless volunteers.

The selfless volunteers are far too often mothers or other female relatives. The work they do is unpaid and generally considered to genuinely be their responsibility. Not only does this maintain a major system of unpaid labour. It also limits access to opportunities to those few people who have access to it.

It does not create or contribute to a more equal society. In fact, it actively works against it. So, yes it was nice that she attended every class with her son to take notes and otherwise assist him but she shouldn’t have had to.

Some of the justifications I saw around this boiled down to the idea that this mother would take better notes than anyone else because she’s personally invested her child’s success.

I call bullshit on that though. You know who else cares about success? The other students in that class. Many universities use a classmate volunteer system–often with a reward system of tuition credits or the potential to win free tuition (the latter being more common and still less fair)–where classmates share their notes either by taking them by hand and written on carbonless copy paper (how I got my notes through most of my undergraduate degree) or taken on the computer and emailed anonymously to the disabled student. While that system still unfortunately often depends on potentially unpaid labour, it comes from people who are already going to class in the first place and doesn’t require anyone to do much extra work or give up their time. It simply needs to be improved to ensure that note takers are getting something for their effort not just the potential of something.

I had great success with peer note takers. It’s not a flawless system but a disabled student can absolutely succeed using peer note-takers.

Additionally, if professional note takers are used, they have the incentive to do well because if they don’t they can be fired.

A mother is not by default the best or even most preferable option because really who wants their mother following them to class and participating in all their social interactions?

Twitter has also gifted us with many reactions to this story and common theme is this

This idea, that this story is what we should aspire to. This kind of selflessness. Which would be great if it meant a societal change to create more accessibility rather than a statement of support for self-sacrifice in order to access education. These sentiments are also predicated on the idea that this behaviour is or more accurately was normal. There is a false nostalgia here because access is definitely better (though not sufficient) now. There is no golden point in history where disabled people were universally or even widely ferried to school by selfless volunteers.

So, should this mother be rewarded for her actions? I actually think not. I think she either deserved to be paid–I would be open to the idea of her being given the option to pursue a real MBA (not just an honourary one) alongside her son–or external supports should have been provided. What she did deserves a salary, not a reward. Rewarding this kind of action only reinforces the idea that disabled people should be dependent on charity rather than given the right of access regardless of the ability of find or provide a volunteer.

Helping disabled people needs to stop being framed as an extraordinary act because it leads people to think that accessibility is and should be extraordinary, rather than the norm.

 

 

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When People Use Diversity to Defend Sameness in Autism Narratives

“It’s just one story” or so people keep telling me when I protest the lack of diversity in both autism narratives and characters in the media. The thing is that’s exactly the problem.

Film and television have basically been writing fan fiction about the same autistic character in different scenarios for decades.

This character is invariably white

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Male

Adam

Image description: a still from the film Adam where actress Rose Burne (a thin white woman with brown hair pulled up in a messy bun) sits on a bench facing and speaking to Hugh Dancy (a white man with wavy brown hair), the autistic character who is sitting faced forward rather than toward the person speaking to him

Have savant-like abilities

rain man

Image description: Cover art for the Rain Man soundtrack. Dustin Hoffman (a white man with dark hair) who plays the autistic savant walks down a path beside Tom Cruise (a white man with dark hair) who walks with his right hand in his pocket while he carries a bag in his left

There is generally very little deviation. Occasionally, overt savantism is replaced with a special skill or focus as in the case of the film Adam. These minor changes are however not meaningful.Savantism and special or focused skills are treated as almost interchangeable personality quirks.

You will very rarely see and autistic character who is not white and even more rarely see one who isn’t male. These characteristics extend beyond the acknowledged autistic character to those who are merely coded autistic. Those whose behaviour and traits are largely indistinguishable from those of the acknowledged autistic character. The only difference is a lack of stated diagnosis. Examples of such characters include Sheldon cooper on The Big Bang Theory and Spencer Reed on Criminal Minds.

Think I’m exaggerating? I made a chart

Title Character Diagnosed Coded Savant-like Abilities White Male
A Brilliant Young Mind Nathan Ellis Y Y Y Y
My Name is Khan Rizvan Khan Y Y
The Accountant Christian Wolff Y Y Y Y
Rain Man Raymond Babbit Y Y Y Y
Mercury Rising Simon Lynch Y Y Y Y
TBBT Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
Adam Adam Y Y Y
Criminal Minds Spencer Reed Y Y Y Y
Elementary Fiona Y Y Y
Young Sheldon Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
The Good Doctor Shaun Murphy Y Y Y Y

It’s not an exhaustive list but it is an informative one. Seriously, if you come across an autistic character in film or television plug them into this chart and see how many boxes get ticked. Another thing that all of the characters have in common. They were all played by neurotypical actors.

And yet, when I wrote yesterday about the continuation of this single white male autistic narrative in the new show The Good Doctor, I was met with this

one story

Image description: a screenshot of a tweet that reads “People with autism take many forms, faces, and stories. this is just one. Showing that capability isn’t exclusive is so important!” (link to original tweet)

I have a couple of problems with this sentiment. First, it is not just one story. It is pretty much the only story we are told. For this to be an accurate defence, there would need to be evidence that there were other narratives available. Where are they? Second, is it really an accurate story. Another common defence of tired repeated disability narratives is “well some people are really like that“. I am however sceptical about the existence of a man with ridiculous medical skills and genius level proficiency in several areas. I’ll wait while you find me a real life stand in for this imagined magical autistic white man.

It is true that Rain Man character Raymond Babbit (though not the story) was loosely based on actual savant Kim Peake (who was not himself autistic) but even then it was more a mishmash of diagnostic traits than a portrayal of the man.

These characters have a fictionalized kind of autism that focus on rare traits like savantism and then sprinkle in more common traits like sensitivity to noise and difficulty with eye contact so that people see enough recognizable autistic traits to get away with an authenticity defence to tell basically the same man’s story over and over. They just put him in different scenarios. The biggest change in autistic characters overall is that they’ve become cuter (if they’re children) or fuckable (if they’re men). Though actually having sex is rare for these characters. They’ve mostly just gotten hotter. This switch to a more appealing autistic male is generally to use their savantism or special skill as a consolation prize. Sure, he’s autistic but it makes him a fabulous doctor and he’ll save that kid’s life.

This leaves little room for autistic stories where savantism or special skills don’t counteract the perceived unpleasantness of the autism for a predominantly neurotypical audience.

Despite this, there is still the idea that stories about marginalized populations should be “authentic” which is where the “This is just one story” line gets pulled out like a weapon to defend these all too similar stories.

During the promotion phase prior to the release of The Accountant, actor, Anna Kendrick

admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.

“A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong,” she said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don’t even worry about that. Everyone is different.’”

It is both unfortunate that this line is being used by people in the entertainment industry as a promotion tactic. It is also unfortunate that a parent with an autistic child helped her do it.

The phrase “if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child” was meant to indicate the true diversity of the autistic experience. Not be used as a blunt object to defend a film about yet another magical white autistic man. It does not mean “Do whatever, you want. Autism is basically whatever you want it to be”. Though that is how the entertainment industry interprets it.

Seriously, the next time someone defends a fictional autistic narrative through the diversity of autism. It had better actually be a story I haven’t seen before.

And can we just please put a moratorium on putting white men in those stories because the real diversity of autism goes well beyond diagnostic traits.

 

 

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But You Haven’t Seen it Yet: Why Critiquing Marketing of Future Portrayals of Disability is Important

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Yesterday, I saw promotional videos for two television shows that will be premiering next fall. Both shows deal with characters that are likely autistic (though only one will acknowledge that). They were the trailer for new ABC medical drama The Good Doctor

and a first look video of The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) spin-off Young Sheldon. That video has since been removed so I can’t link to it.

I am concerned about both. I’ve written about my issues with how TBBT theory deals with the character of Sheldon Cooper who is deeply coded as autistic but the creator and writers refuse to acknowledge that (see here). Creating a prequel series focusing entirely on a Young Sheldon Cooper is only going to exacerbate those issues and concerns.

Based on the first look video, the prequel series is unlikely to be faithful to TBBT cannon. Sheldon has had some personal growth on the show but references to his youth generally paint a static picture of a walking autism stereotype. He doesn’t like to be touched, he is rigid in his rule following, he is blunt to a point beyond rudeness crossing the line into cruelty and scientifically gifted to the point of probable savantism.

These aspects are present in Young Sheldon but it appears that the show intends for the young to experience some personal growth or the series will be filled with a child tattling on his much older classmates for dress code infractions (and that will get old really fast).

He is shown possibly cultivating a touching relationship with his father. A character who is wholly absent from TBBT (having died prior to the events of the series) and generally not referenced with much emotion by any of the characters who knew him.

It is unlikely that the series will be able to stay true to a character who would eventually grow up to be Dr. Sheldon Cooper of TBBT without the content getting dry but as a prequel, it is unlikely that the series will remedy any of the more problematic aspects that arise from the staunch refusal to acknowledge that Sheldon Cooper is neurodivergent.

The show is likely to largely ignore cannon but its primary source of humour is likely to be the same as that surrounding his older self, at the expense of his neurodivergent behaviour. We can likely look forward to a show packed with a young socially clueless Sheldon constantly putting his foot in his mouth. I can only hope that viewers get tired of it fast and the show dies a swift death.

In the series The Good Doctor, the character’s–Dr. Shaun Murphy–autism is front and centre. The show is from David Shore who previously created House MD. It looks like he’s trying to recreate the popularity of an emotionally unreachable disabled doctor with this American remake of the Korean drama Good Doctor.

The trailer sets up red flags for a problematic portrayal of autism from the word go. It hits on a number of tired Hollywood stereotypes about autism (many that are shared by Sheldon Cooper)

The character is a white man (ditto Cooper)

He is a savant level genius (ditto Cooper)

He is labeled as high-functioning (for more on why functioning labels are gross, see here)

He is played by a neurotypical actor (ditto Cooper)

To add insult to injury, the show’s summary on IMDB asks this question

can a person who doesn’t have the ability to relate to people actually save their lives?

This plays into the lie that autistic people lack empathy. A myth that is increasingly being debunked.

The trailer also sets the show up to be classic inspiration porn. A story of overcoming the prejudices of a hospital board that doesn’t want to hire him and potentially overcoming autism itself.

The most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination. Believable that is until an advocate for Dr. Murphy (because of course the autistic character isn’t advocating for themself) launches into an impassioned speech about how hiring Shaun will act as an inspiration to others.

We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are. THAT THEY DO HAVE A SHOT!!!”

*bursts into tears from being so moved*

I’m kidding. This shit makes me sick.

It makes me sick because this character has been created specifically to be palatable to a neurotypical audience. He has been given special skills that exist entirely to make up for the less palatable autistic characteristics. Sure he’s socially awkward and might react strongly to loud noises but he’ll save your child when everyone else would fail. That but is the problem. We’re unlikely to see a medical drama where the doctor just happens to be autistic without the bells and whistles of a highly fictionalized savantism.

But neither show has been released yet, so why am I already concerned? I know I’ll get asked because I’ve criticized the marketing for media portrayals of disability before.

The simple answer is that the marketing is in and of itself worthy of critique. How companies choose to sell stories around disability can have as much impact as the stories themselves. I find it unlikely that CBS (Young Sheldon) and ABC (The Good Doctor) are catfishing their prospective audiences and that the shows will be drastically different from what their marketing says they will be.

In the case of Young Sheldon, get ready to laugh at an awkward child (who will be denied a diagnosis so you can pretend you’re not laughing at a disabled child) for his awkwardness.

In the case of The Good Doctor, prepare to be inspired by a highly stereotyped and false but comfortable version of autism that tells you that disabled people are valuable only if they can overcome their disabilities.

I want better stories. I’m sick of disability portrayals. I want actual representation but that would require actually hiring disabled people.

 

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No, Canada Will not Cover Your Preexisting Condition

With the recent vote for the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to repeal and replace the Obama era Affordable Care Act (ACA), there has been a lot of discussion on who the AHCA will hurt. One of the (many) concerns is that the new legislation should it pass in the senate will roll back rules guaranteeing coverage for people with preexisting conditions. These changes if enacted would disproportionately affect disabled people. This has spawned the online protest #IAmAPreexistingCondition to put a human face on the people who at risk of losing their healthcare or who will see its cost skyrocket.

The changes have also spawned a lot of Canadian smugness and this meme has been making the rounds.

Trudeau Preexisting Conditions

Image description: Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, a white man with dark  hair in his forties gazes into the distance with his fisted hand touching his lip in a pensive expression. Text on the image reads “Hey girl, I’ll cover your preexisting condition”

The thing is the meme is a lie. In terms of how healthcare works in Canada, the language of preexisting conditions is generally meaningless. There are simply services that are or aren’t covered. If you’re in the system, you’re in the system. Canadians generally don’t talk about preexisting conditions the way Americans do because it’s a system we were either born into or gained access to simply by being Canadians.

The thing is though, even though we don’t generally use the language of preexisting conditions to discriminate in our healthcare system, there is still a lot of discrimination. As I mentioned, rather than excluding people based on preexisting conditions, there are simply services that are or aren’t covered. Whether a service is covered depends on whether it is considered essential. Many services largely associated with the care of disability are not considered essential. As such they either not covered and people who need them either have to pay out of pocket or seek private insurance or coverage is given at the whim of individual provinces.

This creates a second class access to the healthcare system for disabled people. We either may not have access to things that we need or our access to them depends entirely on where we live.

One of the primary principles of Canadian healthcare is that it’s supposed to be portable. You’re supposed to be able to get service regardless of your province of origin. This, however, does not apply to services that are not considered essential. So while I as a Saskatchewan resident have been able to get X-rays in BC (for an injury) and an ultrasound in Ontario (oddly enough for the same injury). I do not have access to consistent care related specifically to my disability because Saskatchewan may cover things that other provinces do not or vice versa and I can only access what is available in Saskatchewan.

This creates a couple of issues. There’s the fact that depending on your province of residence you may have less access to covered disability specific care. So the system is inherently unequal. There is also the fact that interprovince bureaucracies make it difficult to determine which services you should have access to while out of your home province or who to bill if you can figure it out. The outcome is that disabled people end up paying out of pocket for things that should be covered.

So for people within the Canadian system, there are still access inequalities. Inequalities that largely target the same groups of people likely to be disadvantaged if the AHCA passes.

The thing is, that isn’t the end of how the Trudeau meme fails. There is a scenario where access to the Canadian healthcare system does consider preexisting conditions. Immigration. Having a preexisting condition pretty much excludes a person from being able to access immigration to Canada. Which why this corrected meme needs to hopefully go as viral as the original (H/T Alex Hagaard)

Trudeau Meme corrected

Image description: The same meme as before except that text has been added over Trudeau’s face which reads “Except Canada doesn’t let disabled people immigrate #StopAbleism”

Immigration is pretty much the only circumstance where Canada considers preexisting conditions. So the meme is a lie. Canada will not cover your preexisting condition. If you have access to the system you are covered for a set of predefined essential services and the services that are most often considered inessential are those associated with disability.

So, no, Canada doesn’t cover preexisting conditions and flaunting healthcare access does nothing to address the very real dangers being faced by disabled people in the United States right now. This meme just taunts the people most negatively impacted by a potential adoption of the AHCA with lies.

*Note: I do not want to get into an oppression olympics competition here so comments along the lines of “suck it up Canada is still better” will not get through. They are reductive and also don’t address the disingenuous smugness over Canada’s healthcare system.

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Bill Nye Saves the World from Disabled People

Bill Nye Saves the World

Image Description: Bill Nye a 61-year-old white man with grey hair stands atop the earth with his hands on his hips and lab coat billowing out behind him like a superhero’s cape in a promotional image for his Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World.

When I first heard that Bill Nye would be starring in a new Netflix series, I was initially excited to relive some 90s nostalgia. The show is geared precisely towards us 90s kids who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. Unlike the show of my childhood, however, Bill Nye Saves the World is entirely geared toward Nye featuring topics that have a global impact. The first episode deals with the politically contentious but generally scientifically accepted topic of climate change. Another episode deals with sex and gender and debunking myths around how sex & gender are binaries.

I, however, became concerned when I noticed that there was an episode on Designer Babies. A concern that was confirmed when I watched the episode.

The episode deals with issues pertaining to in vitro fertilization (IVF), genetic testing and gene editing. All three but the latter two especially have implications for disabled people but Nye and his guests only look at the implications for nondisabled people often in the context of the presumed negative impact of not being able to choose to not have disabled children. There is no discussion of the impact of such technologies on disabled people themselves even though both Nye and his guests acknowledge that not all disabilities can be tested for and thus screened out.

The episode starts badly with a somewhat off topic shoutout to Victorian evolutionary scientist Alfred Russel Wallace. Nye mentions him because he feels that Wallace has gone unrecognized for his contributions to helping create the theory of evolution.

Nye only asks but does not really engage with the question of whether gene editing is either playing God or toying with evolution. It is, however, worth looking at particularly with his shout out to Wallace.

Alfred Russel Wallace like many early evolutionary theorists (Darwin included) used the theory of evolution to shore up arguments of white supremacy. He believed that white people were so superior that eventually, non-white people would die out along with less desirable members of the white population to eventually create a utopia that did not suffer from any social ills*.

John Langdon Down would later expand on that to explain how the clearly superior white race could be tainted with congenitally disabled members. Down theorized that white people were more evolved than other races and that intellectual disability was actually an evolutionary throwback that proved this. He wrote,

Here, however, we have examples of retrogression, or at all events, of departure from one type and the assumption of the characteristics of another. If these great racial divisions are fixed and definite, how comes it that disease is able to break down the barrier, and to simulate so closely the features of the members of another division. I cannot but think that the observations which I have recorded, are indications that the differences in the races are not specific but variable.

These examples of the result of degeneracy among mankind, appear to me to furnish some arguments in favour of the unity of the human species**

John Langdon Down used this theory when he categorized what is now known as Down Syndrome but was originally classified as Mongolian Idiocy.

The history of evolution is full of white men arguing that they are somehow superior and classifying difference as inferior. These classifications had a real social impact on the people being classified. It helped shore up institutional racism. Gave birth to the eugenics movement and has lead to genocide.

This is why looking at the social impact of science on the people being classified as undesirable is so imperative.

Bill Nye however, does not do this instead the only social impact of genetic testing and gene editing given in the episode is the impact on the people doing the classifying. The overall assumption is that disability is bad and that avoiding it is inherently good. So when they consider the potential negative impact gene editing they look at the cost and the people for whom that cost will be prohibitive. They do acknowledge that this disparity in access will almost certainly benefit white supremacy. The downside as it is presented is only that poorer families (who will invariably be disproportionately families of colour) will lack access to the options of gene editing and thus be burdened with disabled children.

The show does not at any point consider the potential social repercussions of gene editing on disabled people themselves.

They do not consider what the ability to choose to not have certain kinds of disabled children (because they do acknowledge that not all disabilities can be tested for) will mean for disabled people whose conditions cannot be edited out.

They do not consider how the economic disparity in access to gene editing technology will expand existing economic disparities for disabled people.

They do not consider what happens when the technology fails because nothing has a 100% success rate. What of the children who were supposed to be born “healthy” but weren’t.

What will this mean for people who acquire disabilities (a population that exceeds the number of people born disabled)?

In a world where disability is not only almost universally considered bad and which contains options to opt out of having disabled children, will support for accessibility legislation like the ADA or AODA continue?

Bill Nye considers none of those questions because they are social ones, not scientific ones. This is the problem with a purely scientific discourse. It ignores the social impact.

At the beginning of the episode, Nye acknowledges the possibility of a slippery slope but he dismisses it by saying that a slope needn’t be slippery. He, however, does this despite forgetting to acknowledge the humanity of disabled people or their very real stake in this conversation. We are to Nye best served by not existing in the first place. It somewhat robs his argument of weight.

No disabled people were included in the episode.

 

 

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*Wallace, Alfred R. “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of “Natural Selection”” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 2 (1864): Clviii-lxxxvii. JSTOR [JSTOR].

**Down, J. L. H. “Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots.” London Hospital Reports 3 (1866): 259-62.