MARK OF THE BEAST – 1805 STYLE

Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement
By Erica X Eisen

Ox-faced children, elderly women sprouting horns, and cloven minds — all features attributed to Edward Jenner’s vaccine against smallpox. Introducing us to the original anti-vaxxers, Erica X Eisen explores the “vacca” in the first-ever vaccine: its bovine origins and the widespread worry that immunity came with beastly side effects.

Illustration of the cow-poxed, ox-faced boy, an example of some proclaimed bovine side effects of the smallpox vaccine, as featured in Dr William Rowley’s Cow-Pox Inoculation (1805) — Source.

The ox-faced boy who stared out from the opening page of Dr William Rowley’s pamphlet possessed strangely elongated eyes, one bloodshot and one healthy. His right cheek was reddish, while the entire left side of his face was so massively swollen that it knocked the contours of the boy’s healthy features off kilter. Several pages later, a portrait of the Mange Girl, a child of perhaps four years of age, looks out pitifully to readers, the skin from her cheek to her hip covered with clusters of painful-looking sores. The conditions of these children — and (supposedly) of thousands of others across Britain — were not, the accompanying literature warned, symptoms of any natural human ailment. Rather, they were the results of the recently developed smallpox vaccine, which Rowley said exposed recipients to “the diseases of beasts, filthy in their very nature and appearance, in the face, eyes, ears, with blindness and deafness, spreading their baneful influence over the whole body”.

Rowley was a prominent figure in nineteenth-century England’s anti-vaccine movement, the earliest predecessor to today’s anti-vaxxers. Several years before Rowley published his vitriolic pamphlet, Edward Jenner’s discovery of a vaccine against smallpox had caused a public health revolution and birthed the field of immunology as a discipline — but it also came decades before germ theory was known to scientists. As a result, even those who embraced Jenner’s vaccine lacked the conceptual framework needed to understand precisely how it worked. This gap between evidence and explanation allowed doubts to suppurate and spread as clergy, members of parliament, workers, and even doctors voiced their opposition to the vaccine on religious, ethical, and scientific grounds. Jenner’s supporters saw it as their moral duty to advance the cause of a life-saving technology; their opponents felt an equally strong moral obligation to put a halt to vaccination at all costs. In the decades following Jenner’s discovery, this conflict would play out bitterly in newspapers, in artwork, and even in the streets as both sides battled for the body and soul of Britain.

Anti-vaxx fearmongering extended beyond the shores of Britain. This French etching, ca. 1800, shows a diseased mermaid-creature being pulled by a cow-riding physician and syringe-wielding apothecary, to the children’s horror — Source.

Living as we do at a time when the sudden emergence of a new virus has drastically altered the normal patterns of life, it can be difficult to imagine an environment where epidemic disease was the norm. Prior to the advent of vaccination, smallpox was widespread, deadly, and all but untreatable given the state of medical knowledge at the time. Roughly one third of those who contracted smallpox did not survive; those who did often bore grim reminders of the disease for the rest of their lives. It could leave victims blind; it could reach down to their bones and render joints and limbs permanently deformed. And it left the vast majority of its victims’ faces scarred with the telltale pitted pockmarks, sometimes severely: historian Matthew L. Newsome Kerr estimates that “probably one-fourth to one-half of the population [of Britain] was visibly marked in some way by smallpox prior to 1800”.

Folk wisdom, meanwhile, had long observed that those who worked closely with livestock possessed a strange resistance to the disease even as it ravaged the communities around them. Jenner, a country doctor, decided to put this idea to a formal test. In 1798, he lanced a sore on milkmaid Sarah Nelmes’ hand and injected the resultant lymph into the arm of his gardener’s son, James Phipps. A week later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox to see if he would get sick: as Jenner had hypothesized, the boy remained healthy. Just a year later, the first mass trials of the smallpox vaccine were already underway. (The preserved hide of Nelmes’ cow, Blossom, now resides in the library of St. George’s, a medical school in London.)

Color etching of a milkmaid showing her cowpoxed hand to Jenner, while a portly physician tempts a dandy with inoculation, ca. 1800 — Source.
The hand of Sarah Nelmes infected by cowpox — Source.

Jenner’s experiment had succeeded because the odd sores on Nelmes’ hand were symptoms of cowpox, a much less dangerous cousin of the smallpox virus that caused pustules on the hands but generally left its victims unharmed. The two pathogens were similar enough that exposure to cowpox effectively primed the body’s defenses against smallpox as well. Cowpox infections — and the immunity that came with them — were frequently transferred to dairy workers after they touched the udders of infected animals: indeed, the name Jenner chose for this therapy, vaccination, derives ultimately from the Latin word for cow (vacca). And crucially, as Jenner demonstrated, cowpox could also be transferred by lancing a human’s sores and injecting the fluid into another person — the so-called “arm to arm” method, which guaranteed a virtually inexhaustible supply of the vaccine even in urban areas far from the nearest dairy meadow.

But Jenner would not have been able to explain the workings of his discovery if asked: at the time, it was thought that smallpox was transmitted via poisoned air, or miasma, and the precise mechanisms of immune response were still unknown to science. As growing numbers of people embraced the vaccine, opposition began to coalesce. For these skeptics, the very notion of injecting a substance that ultimately derived from a diseased animal into a healthy human seemed not merely absurd but a serious peril to public health. Rowley’s scaremongering pamphlet warned that those who received the vaccine risked developing “evil, blotches, ulcers, and mortification”, among other “beastly” diseases. With the second edition of his pamphlet, a new illustration entered the menagerie of cowpox victims: Ann Davis, an elderly woman who upon receiving her dose had allegedly sprouted horns.

Ann Davis, a woman with smallpox and horns growing out of her head. Stipple engraving by Thomas Woolnoth, 1806 — Source.

Others focused on the supposed cognitive effects of cowpox: Halket admitted that Rowley’s lurid accounts were perhaps far-fetched but nonetheless insisted that so-called “mental horns and cloven hoofs too frequently shoot out”, a metaphor for the “insurmountable stupidity [that] has been observed in some children from the time they were vaccinated, no symptom of which appeared prior to that time”. One of Jenner’s fiercest opponents, Benjamin Moseley, penned a tirade against the cowpox-derived vaccine in which he warned of its effects not only upon the body but also upon the mind:

        Who knows, besides, what ideas may rise, in the course of time, from a brutal fever having excited its incongruous impressions on the brain?
        Who knows, also, but that the human character may undergo strange mutations from 
quadrupedan sympathy; and that some modern Pasiphaë may rival the fables of old?

Readers well versed in classics would have recognized this last line as a thinly veiled reference to bestiality: Pasiphaë, according to Greek myth, was the Cretan queen who gave birth to the Minotaur after having sex with a bull, driven to strange lust by a curse from Poseidon. Rowley plays with a similar innuendo in his pamphlet when he wonders whether receiving the vaccine could violate the biblical injunction against lying with an animal. Cowpox would go on to become tightly linked to syphilis (which in the past had often been referred to as “pox”) in the popular imagination, with rumors circulating that cattle contracted cowpox through contact with syphilitic milkmaids. These concerns were not allayed by the poor sanitation and medical standards that sometimes characterized the public vaccination hospitals created to serve Britain’s urban poor: at such places, the vaccines made available to patients often came not directly from cows but from the pustules of vaccinated children in the area, who may or may not have received a thorough medical check before being lanced for their “donation”. As a result, parents were not wholly unjustified in their fears that an injection meant to ward off one deadly disease might simply lead to their child being infected with another one.

Color etching by James Gillray, 1803, depicting Edward Jenner vaccinating patients who subsequently develop features of cows — Source.

The satirist James Gillray channeled these popular anxieties about the monstrous aspects of the vaccine in his 1802 cartoon The Cow Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! At the center, Jenner is seen delivering a rather vicious gouge to a woman’s arm with his lancet as all around her the previous vaccine recipients undergo horrible transformations: miniature cows erupt from boils and climb out of mouths, while women sprout horns and give birth to calves on the spot. That same year, Charles Williams published an anti-vaccine engraving in which doctors (all of whom have sprouted tails and horns) are arrayed before the maw of a cow-like monster covered in suppurating pustules. A £10,000 check protruding from a back pocket identifies one of these chimerical doctors as Jenner, who had received a cash reward from the government in recognition of his contributions to medicine. Only now he is transformed from medic into mercenary, shoveling babies with his colleagues into the beast’s gaping jaws and waiting for them to be excreted with horns. In the distance, anti-vaccine doctors bearing the weapons of truth approach to do battle with the creature and the doctors who feed it.

A monster being fed baskets of infants and excreting them with horns; symbolizing vaccination and its effects. Etching by Charles Williams, 1802 — Source.

Particularly in the early days, some objected to the vaccine on religious grounds, arguing that vaccination was a hubristic attempt to evade divine punishment. Similar arguments had been made surrounding the earlier technique of variolation, in which healthy people were deliberately exposed to the smallpox virus with the goal of bringing on a mild case of the disease that would nevertheless confer immunity. In 1721, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was struck by a severe smallpox outbreak, Puritan leaders fiercely debated (and ultimately decided in favor of) the permissibility of variolation, which the preacher Cotton Mather argued had been put into humankind’s hands by God. A century later, theological debates about preventative medicine raged on: “The Small Pox is a visitation from God”, Rowley wrote, “but the Cow Pox is produced by presumptuous man: the former was what heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation of our holy religion”. “Methuselah and his antediluvian contemporaries were not vaccinated which fully accounts for their coming to such a sudden and untimely end”, Halket noted caustically. “The Creator stamped on man the divine image, but Jenner placed on him the mark of the beast”. Cartoonists frequently depicted the cowpox-derived vaccine as a golden calf that would be the downfall of modern society at the hands of those who foolishly embraced its worship.

George Cruikshank’s hand-colored etching of the “golden calf” of cow pox, 1812 — Source.

But while skepticism towards the vaccine was present from the beginning, the vitriol of the attacks against the cowpox method and its proponents would vastly expand in the mid-1800s, when parliament passed multiple laws making vaccination compulsory, providing free vaccination for the poor, and creating a system of punishments for those who failed to get the shot. These new measures made the question of vaccination impossible to ignore — and many saw such laws as an unacceptable abrogation of their personal liberties by the state. In popular writing, vaccines were compared to tattoos or brands (particularly owing to the scar left by the injection), and those who resisted getting them histrionically compared themselves to fugitive slaves. Across Britain, anti-vaccination societies organized mutual aid funds to defray the fines incurred by their members for refusing to vaccinate their children; if working-class vaccine objectors had their property seized as punishment, sympathizers would loudly protest at the auction, sometimes even assaulting the auctioneer. Contemporary newspapers described effigies of Jenner or public vaccine authorities being burned; in Leicester, a hotbed of resistance to the cowpox method, an anti-vaccine carnival drew as many as 100,000 demonstrators and prompted a parliamentary commission to review the vaccination laws.

But proponents of using cowpox didn’t take all of this sitting down. As many were quick to point out, a number of the leading voices in the anti-vaccination movement had a major financial interest in stopping Jenner’s discovery from catching on. Indeed, both Moseley and Rowley had previously practiced variolation, which prior to Jenner had been considered the best way to prevent a serious case of smallpox. But the technique was riskier than vaccination — both to the patient and to those around them, who were likely to get infected by the convalescing patient. Once among the most common medical procedures in Britain, variolation was under serious threat from its new competitor even before parliament banned it completely in the mid-1800s. As such, when doctors like Moseley were penning screeds against the smallpox vaccine, they weren’t just trying to defend their readers — they were also trying to defend their stream of income.

The prophecies of Dr Moseley, an early critic of vaccination and Jenner’s fiercest opponent, 1806 — Source.
Edward Jenner and two colleagues seeing off three anti-vaccination opponents, with dead smallpox victims littered at their feet. Color etching by Isaac Cruikshank, 1808 — Source.

Precisely this point was made by Isaac Cruikshank in an 1808 satirical print that depicts Jenner and his colleagues banishing variolators from the land. The latter group, hefting massive bloody knives over their shoulders, openly proclaim their desire to spread the disease further as they walk past the corpses of smallpox victims. At the far right of the cartoon, a milkmaid pipes up: “Surley [sic] the disorder of the cow is preferable to that of the ass.”

Jenner himself would make similar accusations when he decided to defend his ideas and his honor in print, pseudonymously publishing a rebuttal to Rowley, the cover of which was emblazoned with its own version of the ox-faced boy. Jenner’s words for those who attack the cowpox method in order to protect their own financial interests are scathing; nevertheless, he writes, “I trust that the good sense of the people of England will feel the injury, and know how to repel it as they ought”. Two hundred years later, however, attempts to discredit the safety and reliability of vaccination — whether against measles or against COVID — persist. The arguments made by today’s anti-vaxxers often echo those put forth by their nineteenth-century antecedents: claims of inefficacy, allegations of ghastly side effects, appeals to religion. Jenner seems likely to have assumed that the benefits of vaccination would be so self-evident that they would shut down all debate. That many continue to assail the safety and reliability of the method he pioneered, not only decades but centuries later, is something that, in all likelihood, the doctor never could have imagined.

DIAGNOSIS EXTRAORDINAIRE

Sitting on the cushy-warm leather sofa just outside of Dr. S’s office, concentrating intently on bending and moving the wire-core rubbery figure’s arms and legs, a thin anemic looking three-year-old body aches with the arthritis-like symptoms her grandparents reported experiencing. The three shared evenings in front of the soothing heat radiating from the antique round oak wood stove in the living room of a creaky old house built over 60 years previous.

Unsuccessful in her focused attempt, she takes a deep breath, the first of her petite aching body since the doctor’s thorough examination earlier in the day. Becoming aware of the doctor speaking in a solemn, monotonous but deep voice, she noticed the big heavy wooden door to his office was slightly ajar as she sat in the doctors waiting room.

At first, not really hearing distinct words, only that flattened, low voice, and with the simplistic mind of a child, she began to feel impatient to leave. Day dreaming, trying to imagine what was the special treat she had been promised, believing she was the good girl everyone had asked of her to have endured the extensive and painful diagnostic testing the doctor had done earlier in the day. Would it be her favorite ice cream? Perhaps the plastic handgun and holster she had wanted to be like Annie Oakley? Would it be a new toy, maybe a shiny-faced dolly smiling from the crinkly cellophane of a colorful cardboard box?

Slowly she realized she was hearing words, distinct words, words no one wants to hear, whatever their age! Even though not exactly comprehending some of the doctor’s words, she pieced together the sad picture the doctor was trying to convey to the young, unsophisticated parents. The Orthopaedic specialist was attempting to educate them about the RARE and terminal bone disease the morning tests had revealed. She knew what RARE meant. She heard the Dr. trying to explain to parents that his expectations for her recovery were worse than grim.

Many years later, she remembered thinking to herself, nooo! I will not let that happen! I have to be very convincing when I announce to them ALL that I am stronger than anyone realizes, can win over this pain, will be a normal girl! They will all see, I will show them!

The crying face of her frightened young mother first emerges from the partially open dark wooden door, followed by her white-faced father with his head hung, following stiffly behind the mother. Dr. S slowly followed her father until they surround her tiny body settled into the mammoth-sized leather sofa.

Out of the child’s mouth before anyone could speak as simply and as convincingly as she could muster, from her rosy lips came the words, “I am NOT going to die!!!” She remembers feeling the entire universe go into slow motion and then stood completely still. Holding her breath, she waited for someone’s confident reassurance that never came.

Mother walked away into the dark hallway, followed by father. Dr. S handed the uncomfortable, lost girl the “Mr. Bendy” toy, promising that she could take it home and keep it for being such a good girl for his exams. She promised him she would practice exercises until returning to show how painless were her movements, equally as freely as Mr. Bendy. The Dr. was speechless and hugged the girl tightly to his chest, glancing helplessly toward the outer door of the waiting room where her parents stood. It was a very long and quiet ride home that day.

Dr. S recommended visits to Dr. George, a chiropractor in Gardiner. Weekly uncomfortable, sweaty Ultra-Violet Ray treatments and manipulation were the best he could offer. Aside from the not-so-positive prediction, doctors were convinced she would be unlikely to survive beyond the age of ten, having no further information on the rare disease.

Accompanied with medical records, Dr. S did attend a worldwide medical conference in Japan where he learned only two other known instances of Calcinosis Universalis did not survive beyond their teens. There seemed to be no documented cause or follow-up for the odd condition which developed seemingly overnight, accompanied by a high fevered outbreak of this disease. All the girl knew was that it was excruciating to move, and that she wanted to cry, sleep and vomit most of the time, making both parents angry. The Dr. ordered a few series of X-rays to document the overabundance of calcium in the girl’s body for his records.

Daily olive oil massages on grossly swollen and knobby knuckled hands, trying to sit on the floor with painfully stiff skinny legs crossed. Exercises consisted of balling newspaper pages into as tight & small a ball as possible or bending her index finger toward the base of her palms. Impossible mission! Painful memories over squeezing the newspaper with tears spilling from her eyes, trying to be silent so she wouldn’t upset anyone or be yelled at continue to permeate her adult dreams.

Western medicine has not provided anything for relief, but diagnostic tests have depleted the health account she shares with her husband, leaving them with only questions and bottles of ineffective Rx medications. Today, at age 70, she manages the excruciating pain of her recurring “terminal” disease by dry-vaping medical marijuana flower. She enjoys gardening, riding her Kubota tractor, kayaking and hiking the Perkins Highway on sunny days.

National health care consultants and Osteopaths agree that the medicinal qualities of THC are most likely helping her body push back the debilitating effects of the painful childhood disease, Calcinosis Universalis. For as long as she is again able to enjoy the outdoor activities she loves and can perform yard maintenance or drive to fill her pickup truck with compost, she is satisfied that her self-care allows her to find peaceful moments.

SPARKLING INSPIRATIONS

COLORED GLASSMAKING SAMPLES
GLASSMAKING SAMPLES

Before T is the heavy cardboard box she visits frequently. Sitting on the new padding she was pleased she had added to the old worn wooden barstool recently salvaged from the pile of discarded furniture on its’ way to the recycling center. The mystery of how this works never ceases to intrigue her. Residing in the dark place again, she finds herself sitting in front of a cardboard box in her most feared of all areas.

Feeling no sense of time or place, always sensing cold, nearly permanently paralyzed, her mind is swimming with regret over too many negative decisions. Negative results. Guilt over tasks still undone. People she pushed away. Phone calls ignored. Places unvisited, things too numerous to list, deeply felt like a heavy anchor pulling her down but would not be forgotten. The heavy cardboard box remains closed.

T’s attempt to concentrate through the darkness of her mind on making breathing rhythmic. Deep belly breath in, hold it, push out slowly from pursed lips, focus; the initial steps to lifting the box lid, revealing this particular mystery on this particularly dark day. Afraid and anxious all at the same time, wondering, what if it doesn’t work this time? How can it not work? But will it?

Time passes. Who knows how many minutes, anticipation builds. Finally came the fortitude. Take another deep breath, hold it, let it out slowly between those pursed lips, and……ever so slowly lift that hinged lid to open the box. Unaware of anything but the song, she heard a sweet harmony coming forth.

Each equally sized, perfectly measured piece twinkles and beckons to her, select ME. Fingers dance gingerly over familiar glass samples. Feeling the blood pumping in her heart, at her temples. By touch alone with closed eyes, she plucked a glass sample from the box. Opening her eyes to see, T found the glass selected is green. It feels hard and cold in her hand at first.

The first sample selected is a textured glass. As the artist continued to hold the piece in her hand, she began to feel it warming. Fingers explore the texture on the face side in contrast to the smoothness of the reverse. The green-ness is hypnotizing. Hands signal brain to notice warmth in the glass, or is it in the hands? The warm interaction is as delicious as the deep, transparent color. Reveling in the intensity it invokes; fingers linger on that solitary sample before moving onto another. Returning to the original piece randomly selected on the table, the exercise continues until seven glass samples are chosen, representing the number of days the dark time has lasted.

Sometimes at this point, T’s mind has already begun to assemble a new design to create. Other times the colored, textured pieces bring a distant memory or special feeling of calm, never sure which will reveal itself first. The color green reminiscent of spring, the St. Patrick’s Day that T’s Irish grandmother loved to celebrate, and her various gardens waiting to be preened and awoken. She loves to watch the first tiny shoots reaching through the rich seafood compost toward the warm rays of spring sunshine, growing the healthy vegetables and herbs she eats. There it is! A sudden thawing, defrosting. Sensing something; at last replacing the numbness inside. The sample box has worked its magic again.

T is most importantly thankful for her sense of touch, sight, and finally the ability to create something beautiful from cold glass objects. Her talented hands have learned their skills well and she has many. Forged once again forward through the tunnel of darkness, utilizing inanimate objects to restore some feeling inside what she believed was her deadened, black within.

T is a proud woman to have self-taught most of what she knows, resarching, educating, learning to use her hands to create beautiful objects and interesting stories. The mechanics of the human brain: wondrous. The brain-organ is the nerve center of our world, the database of who and what we are.

HARMFUL ABLEIST LANGUAGE

by Sara Novic

The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use….

Some of our most common, ingrained expressions have damaging effects on millions of people – and many of us don’t know we’re hurting others when we speak.

I like being deaf. I like the silence as well as the rich culture and language deafness affords me. When I see the word ‘deaf’ on the page, it evokes a feeling of pride for my community, and calls to me as if I’m being addressed directly, as if it were my name.

So, it always stings when I’m reminded that for many, the word ‘deaf’ has little to do with what I love most – in fact, its connotations are almost exclusively negative. For example, in headlines across the world – Nevada’s proposed gun safety laws, pleas from Ontario’s elderly and weather safety warnings in Queensland – have all “fallen on deaf ears”.

This kind of ‘ableist’ language is omnipresent in conversation: making a “dumb” choice, turning a “blind eye” to a problem, acting “crazy”, calling a boss “psychopathic”, having a “bipolar” day. And, for the most part, people who utter these phrases aren’t intending to hurt anyone – more commonly, they don’t have any idea they’re engaging in anything hurtful at all.

However, for disabled people like me, these common words can be micro-assaults. For instance, “falling on deaf ears” provides evidence that most people associate deafness with wilful ignorance (even if they consciously may not). But much more than individual slights, expressions like these can do real, lasting harm to the people whom these words and phrases undermine – and even the people who use them in daily conversation, too.

Not a small problem

About 1 billion people worldwide – 15% of the global population – have some type of documented disability. In the US, this proportion is even larger, at about one in four people, with similar rates reported in the UK.

Despite these numbers, disabled people experience widespread discrimination at nearly every level of society. This phenomenon, known as ‘ableism’ – discrimination based on disability – can take on various forms. Personal ableism might look like name-calling, or committing violence against a disabled person, while systemic ableism refers to the inequity disabled people experience as a result of laws and policy.

But ableism can also be indirect, even unintentional, in the form of linguistic micro-aggressions. As much as we all like to think we’re careful with the words we choose, ableist language is a pervasive part of our lexicon. Examples in pop culture are everywhere, and you’ve almost certainly used it yourself.

Frequently, ableist language (known to some as ‘disableist’ language) crops up in the slang we use, like calling something “dumb” or “lame”, or making a declaration like, “I’m so OCD!”. Though these might feel like casual slights or exclamations, they still do damage.

Jamie Hale, the London-based CEO of Pathfinders Neuromuscular Alliance, a UK charity run for and by people with neuromuscular conditions, notes that the potential for harm exists even if the words are not used against a disabled person specifically. “There’s a sense when people use disableist language, that they are seeing ways of being as lesser,” says Hale. “It is often not a conscious attempt to harm disabled people, but it acts to construct a world-view in which existing as a disabled person is [negative].”

Using language that equates disability to something negative can be problematic in several ways.

First, these words give an inaccurate picture of what being disabled actually means. “To describe someone as ‘crippled by’ something is to say that they are ‘limited’ [or] ‘trapped’, perhaps,” says Hale. “But those aren’t how I experience my being.”

Disability as metaphor is also an imprecise way to say of saying what we really mean. The phrase ‘fall on deaf ears’, for example, both perpetuates stereotypes and simultaneously obscures the reality of the situation it describes. Being deaf is an involuntary state, whereas hearing people who let pleas ‘fall on deaf ears’ are making a conscious choice to ignore those requests. Labelling them ‘deaf’ frames them as passive, rather than people actively responsible for their own decisions.

Ableist language crops up in the slang we use, like calling something “dumb” or “lame”, or making a declaration like, “I’m so OCD!”
Hale adds that using disability as a shorthand for something negative or inferior reinforces negative attitudes and actions, and fuels the larger systems of oppression in place. “We build a world with the language we use, and for as long as we’re comfortable using this language, we continue to build and reinforce disableist structures,” they say.

Say what?

If ableist language is so harmful, why is it so common? Why might someone who would never purposefully insult a disabled person outright still find ableist expressions among their own vocabulary?

Ableist language as colloquialism functions like any other slang term: people repeat it because they’ve heard others say it, a mimicry that on its face suggests use is undiscerning. However, according to University of Louisville linguistics professor DW Maurer, while anyone can create slang term, the expression will only “gain currency according to the unanimity of attitude within the group”. This suggests ableist slang is ubiquitous because, on some level, the speakers believe it to be true.

It’s possible for individuals to be truly unconscious of these biases within themselves, and unaware of the ableism couched in their own everyday sayings. But the fact is, discussions about the negative effect of a word such as “dumb” – a term originally denoting a deaf person who did not use speech, but which now functions as slang for something brutish, uninteresting or of low intelligence – have been happening in deaf and disabled circles for centuries.

According to Rosa Lee Timm, the Maryland, US-based chief marketing officer of non-profit organisation Communication Service for the Deaf, these conversations have remained largely unexamined by the mainstream because non-disabled people believe that ableism doesn’t affect them, and ableist language perpetuates and justifies that belief.

“Ableist language encourages a culture of separation. It defines, excludes and marginalises people,” says Timm. She adds that this allows non-disabled people to be bystanders in the face of ableist culture infrastructure at large.

A boomerang effect

Although these words and phrases are obviously harmful to the groups they marginalise, non-disabled people who casually use ableist language may be negatively impacting themselves, too.

“What happens to this group of hearing, non-disabled people later in life – be it hearing loss, an accident, a health issue, aging or any number of things – when they transition to the disabled community?” says Timm. “The ableist language they used has created an oppressive environment.”

One of the most effective ways to move away from ableist language is understanding the disabled community, having conversations and listening to their concerns.

Timm notes this ‘environment’ includes an impact on their own self-worth. “Beauty standards are a good comparison, in terms of language’s psychological power,” she says. “As a parent, if I say, ‘wow, that’s beautiful’ or ‘that’s ugly’, my children see that and internalise it… This can have a profound impact, particularly if they examine themselves and feel like they don’t match the standard… The same goes for ability.

Hale seconds the idea that nondisabled people who experience disability later in life will be harmed by the rhetoric they use today. They also note that the divisive nature of ableist language can even have a negative impact on people who will never experience disability.

“It hurts all of us when we de-humanise ways of being, and construct them wholly in the negative,” they say.

Dismantling ableist structures

Given how ingrained ableism is in our society, rooting it out may seem an overwhelming task. Being aware of the words you use each day is a necessary step in the process. “Dismantling disableist structures doesn’t start with language, but building a world without them requires that we change our language,” says Hale.

Examining your own go-to phrases and attempting to replace them with less problematic synonyms is a good start. “Think about what you mean. Don’t just repeat a phrase because you’ve heard it, think about what you’re trying to convey,” says Hale.

Often avoiding ableist euphemisms just means choosing more straightforward and literal language – rather than “fall on deaf ears”, one might say “ignoring” or “choosing not to engage”.

Language is ever-changing, so eliminating ableism from your vocabulary will be an ongoing process rather than a static victory. You may stumble, but checking in with disabled people is an effective way to find your footing and continuing to build a more inclusive vocabulary. “My advice is always to listen,” says Timm. “Ask questions, avoid assumptions, and start by listening to the people who are impacted the most. Think about whether your own word choice is contributing to their oppression.”

It may feel uncomfortable, but discomfort and vulnerability necessitate introspection, which Hale points to as keys to dismantling ableist attitudes. “According to [disability equality charity] Scope, two-thirds of the British population feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person,” says Hale. “Why? If you can work out why you’re uncomfortable, you’re well en route to changing it.”

At What Point?

by MARKIE

I have to ask this question. When are people going to realize that there are bigger problems in the world than the petty things which our society seems to be focusing on lately? If foreign countries could read our headlines or watch our news coverage (cancel culture? What is that!), they would probably turn away in disgust. No matter your or my political beliefs, there are certain things happening right now that are simply outrageous.

Who cares about Mr. And Mrs. Potato Head? They are toys which help teach children motor skills. That’s it.

And why is Dr. Seuss under fire? He wrote books that rhymed, which are fun and entertaining for children. Nothing more.

Now I’m hearing words against another children’s book, curious George. Because it’s about a white man who has a monkey, and the word ‘monkey’ has been used by some as a racial slur against black people. News flash: a monkey is an animal. It’s not the author’s fault that some low class people have chosen to use that word as an offensive word against other people! At what point do we draw the line between what is, and is not, offensive? I would argue that we’re already past that point, because people are condemning this book in which the word ‘monkey’ is used in its original, correct context! Come on, America.

Why would anyone want to remove the police officer dog from Paw Patrol? It’s not only a cartoon, but the favorite cartoon of millions of children! This cartoon teaches children to respect our men and women in uniforms of all kinds. There is not only a police officer pup, but pups who represent construction, aerial rescue, coast guard, and others. The point is, are we going to boycott the construction pup because we’re fed up with having to take detours? Or the aerial rescue pup because it’s offensive to those who are scared of heights? Where does the madness end!

PAW PATROL

It is imperative that society stop swaying with the crowd, and know our own minds. And it is okay to go against the majority. Just because one or two people raise a stink about something does Not mean that the whole country needs to go into an uproar. Likewise, just because a group of people- even if it is the majority- agree on something, doesn’t mean it’s right.

In listing the above examples, I’ve noticed a common denominator: it sounds to me like it’s our children who are under attack! Because believe you me, they listen. And they hear all of this craziness. Children are extremely impressionable, and it is scary and confusing to them when the adult influences in their lives start talking about gender neutral toys and systemic racism, and asking them what sex they want to be . The list goes on!

Generations of people have grown up reading these books and playing with these toys. Think of it this way: everything is offensive to somebody, somewhere. You think I like having to press 2 for English when I live in America? No!

But I digress.

Like I always tell my stepdaughter when she’s frustrated with the rules: people are adults for the majority of their lives. Childhood is just a fraction of it, and she should try to enjoy being a kid while it lasts.

Let’s let our kids enjoy being kids, and stop taking away their innocence!