Ableism in the Anti-Vaccination Movement: A Qualitative Content Analysis of the Great Mothers Facebook Page
Union Institute & University
Fall-Winter semester, 2012-2013
In U.S. culture, visual and textual representations perpetuate the ideology of ableism, a set of perspectives and practices that make the able body the epitome of human worth. Like other forms of prejudice, ableism permeates our culture and rests on a number of distortions and largely uncritiqued assumptions. For this paper, I will look at the ways in which ableism is embedded in the anti-vaccination movement. I will do so by carrying out a qualitative content analysis of an anti-vaccination Facebook page called Great Mothers (and Others) Questioning Vaccines. In the course of the paper, I will show that the following ableist assumptions emerge from the Great Mothers page: disability is simply a medical issue; disability is a human tragedy; disabled people are passive victims; the able body is perfect; one should both ignore and stare at disabled people; disability is a story about individuals, but never about the society that creates disabling barriers; disabled bodies are economic and social burdens; and someone or something must be to blame for disability.
In this paper, I will begin by describing the methodology I will use for the content analysis. Then, in order to make clear the theoretical framework for my analysis, I will outline my core assumptions. From that point forward, I will devote a separate section to each of the themes about disability and the body that emerge from the Great Mothers page.
The Description section of the Great Mothers page describes it as “dedicated to the storage of information for the Great Mothers Questioning Vaccines group” (Great Mothers 2012). Because the group itself is closed to non-members, I do not have access to the posts there, but the resource page provides a great deal of information on the anti-vaccination perspective, and it is a relatively active page with over 2500 Likes. In analyzing the page, I will carry out a qualitative content analysis of links to articles, videos, radio programs, and webinars, along with graphics and quotes posted directly on the page, for the period from November 1, 2012 through November 15, 2012.
In terms of method, I will take my lead from media specialist Beth Haller’s explanation of the goals of content analysis in her book Representing Disability in an Ableist World (Haller, 2010). In particular, I will draw upon her discussion of James Carey’s theory that all communication consists of two simultaneous layers: the transmission layer, “in which information moves in a linear fashion from a source to an audience,” and the ritual layer, whose purpose is not to provide information, but to create a world of shared perspectives and assumptions (Haller 2010, 36). It is this world of shared perspectives and assumptions about disability that I will be examining in my analysis.
At the outset, I should make clear that I am a strong supporter of vaccination. But because I will be looking less at the nature of the information than at the purpose of its transmission, I will not be addressing the question of whether the anti-vaccination stance is correct. Instead, I will be looking at how it is put into the service of a worldview and a belief system about disability and the body. In doing so, I will draw from the criteria that Haller outlines for both quantitative and qualitative analysis; thus, I will examine sources, quotations, language, unnamed perspectives, the arguments brought to bear on both sides of the conversation, and graphic symbols (Haller 2010, 34, 68).
The following assumptions underlie my approach to looking at questions of disability and the body on the Great Mothers page:
1. Disability derives from a complex interplay of physical, social, and architectural conditions.
2. Disability is normal.
3. Disability is an overinterpreted condition.
Core assumption 1. Disability derives from a complex interplay of physical, social, and architectural conditions.
Before embarking on my analysis, I want to define the term disability. In the field of disability studies, two models for understanding disability predominate: the medical model and the social model. The medical model a) holds that disability is a problem that inheres solely in the physical body of the individual and b) views disability, in the words of disabled academic and activist Simi Linton, “as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, as deficit, and significantly, as an individual burden and personal tragedy” (Linton 1998, 11). Paradoxically, despite its emphasis on the individual, the medical model also paints with a broad brush when it comes to disability, representing the experience of different conditions in the same way, despite the fact that each person experiences disability differently. As Susan Wendell, a scholar who brings together feminist and disability theory, notes:
It is true that people with the same physical condition, such as osteoarthritis… will usually have quite a lot of bodily experiences and struggles in common. Nevertheless, their social experiences, their opportunities, their economic welfare, and their status in their communities may be very different, and these will have profound effects on how disabling their arthritis is… and on how they experience their disability. (Wendell 1996, 71)
As Wendell implies, the medical model decontextualizes disability.
In order to remedy the absence of social context in the medical model, the social model holds that disability is not an individual tragedy, but a social condition. It is not the impairments of the body that create this condition, but the social and architectural barriers of the society at large: inaccessible buildings, discrimination in employment and housing, social exclusion, prejudice, lack of access to health care, and hate crime. In fact, the social model makes a distinction between impairment, which inheres in the body, and disability, which is the result of an impairment meeting an inaccessible environment (Shakespeare and Watson 2001, 10). In terms of the social model, disabled people are not tragic figures, but an “oppressed social group” (Shakespeare and Watson 2001, 10).
I find myself unable to choose between the medical model and the social model because I have come to see that disability derives from both physical and social causes. As disability scholars Shakespeare and Watson point out, the social model tends to ignore the degree to which impairment, such as physical pain, is a limiting factor in the lives of many disabled people and would continue to be so even with the most thoroughgoing accommodations (Shakespeare and Watson 2001, 18-19). Moreover, they assert, the line between a medical impairment and a socially induced disability is not always clear: disabling social conditions can cause exacerbations of physical impairments (as when the physical environment exacerbates a sensory condition), and physical impairments that are invisible can create social barriers once they become known (Shakespeare and Watson 2001, 18). The solution, they believe, is to recognize the universality of disability, to realize that “all living beings are impaired — that is, frail, limited, vulnerable, mortal” and that “impairment is not the core component of disability (as the medical model might suggest); it is the inherent nature of humanity” (Shakespeare and Watson 2001, 24-25).
I will pick up the theme of the normalcy of disability in the next section. At this point, I will simply note that my definition of the term disability follows the broad one implied by Shakespeare and Watson: disability, for the purposes of this paper, includes not just diagnosed physical impairment, but the frailty, vulnerability, and mortality of the human body. Our bodies are prone to injury, to illness, to breaking down, to change, and to all of the contingencies of existence. All of these factors fall under the rubric of disability. All of these factors come into play on the Great Mothers page.
Core assumption 2. Disability is normal.
The statement that disability is normal goes very much against the cultural grain. After all, in our culture, we are taught that disability is the opposite of normalcy. What we don’t always realize is that normalcy itself is a socially constructed concept. Lennard Davis, an expert in the field of English literature and disability studies, points out that the concept of normalcy entered the cultural imagination in the period between 1840 and 1860, beginning with the French statistician Adolphe Quetelet, who calculated a statistical average of human qualities that became the image of a non-existent “average man” (Davis 1995, 26). From there, European and American society increasingly began to accept the idea that “average” was synonymous with “normal,” and that anyone outside the center of the bell curve was deviant and undesirable (Davis 1995, 29). Once the ideal of normalcy was in place, disabled people became thrown in with members of all other groups with “abnormal” traits, such as criminals and the poor, and ranked on a scale in which they were believed to impede human progress and the moral and physical health of the nation (Davis 1995, 35-36). From that time forward, disability and abnormality, in the cultural mind, have been synonymous.
However, as a number of disability studies scholars have noted, disability is a condition to which the human body, because of its fragility, inevitably tends. Tobin Siebers echoes Shakespeare and Watson in asserting that, if we recognize the fragility of human bodies, then disability becomes central to the human experience and not its exception. Because all bodies are vulnerable to injury, illness, and age, disability is “a defining characteristic of human beings” (Siebers 2011, 178). Disability, to turn conventional wisdom on its head, is neither exotic nor tragic, but utterly ordinary and common to all societies, in our era and in every other. As Linton notes, disabilities can be difficult, but they are “nevertheless part of the dailiness of life” (Linton 1998, 4).
Ultimately, it is not a homogeneous and fictional “norm” that is normal, but a wide diversity of human embodiment. Any society that attempts to make disability exceptional is, in Davis’ words, “invested in denying the variability of the body” (Davis 1995, xv). This denial is a feature of the Great Mothers page, as my analysis will show.
Core assumption 3: Disability is an overinterpreted condition.
Despite our cultural denial of human fragility, one of the most striking historical facts about the representation of disability is that it is rarely an unremarked or ignored physical state, but a condition that evokes interpretation (Mitchell and Snyder 2010, 283). As independent historian Fred Pelka points out, throughout the Christian tradition, people with disabilities have been considered either “unholy” or “special” — recipients of divine displeasure or closer to God (Pelka 2012, 5). For the ancient Greeks, according to the late essayist and activist Susan Sontag, disease could be a punishment for personal, social, or ancestral sins, or simply random bad luck (Sontag 2001, 43). In the nineteenth century, Sontag writes, this emphasis upon random fate or divine punishment gave way to a perspective in which disease and disability became representations of a person’s character and inner state. In the twentieth century, Sontag notes, the perspective shifted once more: a person’s character isn’t simply reflected by illness, but actually causes it (Sontag 2001, 43-46).
Why this unrelenting need for interpretation? One explanation might be that, because disability is a reminder of the fragility and unpredictability of life, most cultures feel the need to grasp it, to explain it, to create meaning from it. Ato Quayson, a specialist in cultural and postcolonial studies, points out that our attraction to ideals of normalcy is about creating order, predictability, and control. When someone tries to find those things in a social interaction, and they come across a disabled person — a person whose physical body is evidence of contingency, loss of control, and vulnerability — it disrupts the interaction (Quayson 2007, 17). Thus, Quayson asserts, the disabled person enters the position of metaphysical, un-graspable, unknowable, unrepresentable truth (Quayson 2007, 22). By representing what the late anthropologist Robert Murphy called “liminality,” the space between life and death (Murphy 1990, 33), the disabled body raises questions about metaphysical issues of death, fate, sin, mystery, and the divine.
It is my contention that the anti-vaccination movement’s treatment of disease, disability, and death is a response to the vulnerability and unpredictability that disability represents and an example of the overinterpretation of disability common to most cultures. In the face of this overinterpretation, disability studies scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder conclude that the problem for disabled people is not to come up with more “positive” representations of disability, but to issue “a thorough-going challenge to the undergirding authorization to interpret that disability invites” (original emphasis) (Mitchell and Snyder 2010, 283). In other words, we must struggle for disability to be seen as a fact in and of itself, not as a symbol of something else. Unfortunately, such a struggle is nowhere in evidence on the Great Mothers page.
In order to focus on the themes about disability and the body evident on the Great Mothers page, I will employ the concept of “news frames” as described by Beth Haller, Sue Ralph, and Zosia Zaks (2010). These authors define a news frame as a set of principles employed by people in the media to create their storylines — principles that go unremarked and uncritiqued by most observers, with the result that the outlook underlying the storyline is considered “normal” and “obvious.” (Haller, Ralph, and Zaks 2010, 13). In my analysis of the Great Mothers page, the following news frames emerge:
1. Disability is a medical issue caused by modern medicine.
2. Disability is a tragedy to explain.
3. Disabled people are passive victims.
4. The body is perfect and can be controlled.
5. Disabled people are both invisible and hypervisible.
6. Disability is a narrative about individuals.
7. Able-bodiedness is a measure of human worth, and disabled bodies are economic and social burdens.
8. Disability is the result of a war against human beings by corrupt companies and government agencies.
In the sections that follow, I will discuss each news frame by introducing a theoretical framework from the field of disability studies and then exploring the material on the Great Mothers page in the context of that framework.
News frame 1: Disability is a medical issue caused by modern medicine.
As noted above, the medical model of disability posits that disability is a problem that inheres solely in the physical body of the individual, while the social model holds that disability is the result of an inaccessible and otherwise disabling social and architectural environment. On the Great Mothers page, the medical model predominates, and it does so in order to illustrate how vaccines, one of the triumphs of the medical profession, allegedly cause disability and death. For example, in the video “The Life of Ian Larsen Gromowski,” Ian’s mother details her son’s brief 47 days of life with a series of slides containing a great deal of medical detail regarding what she considers the effects of the Hepatitis B vaccine on her son: a drop in his platelet level (thrombocytopenia), severe rash, “seizure-like posturing,” and a fever over 104 degrees. She describes the various medical tests and treatments the doctors performed: hourly platelet transfusions, two spinal taps, three bone marrow tests, dialysis, biopsies, ultrasounds, x-rays, and antibiotics. His disabled condition is presented purely as a medical issue (Fred Bloem 2009). The social model is nowhere in evidence.
In a similar way, the video “Profile of a Pertussis Vaccine Injury” focuses very specifically on the medical diagnoses of a 12-year-old girl named Emily, a child her parents say had a severe reaction to a pertussis vaccine at 15 months of age. Emily’s mother tells the interviewer that a neurologist did “exhaustive testing” for “every genetic abnormality” that might account for her reaction, along with CT scans, MRIs, and EEGs. She goes into detail about her daughter’s medical diagnoses: encephalopathy, epilepsy, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), mood disorders (including depression and anxiety), and immune deficiencies. There is much talk of medical treatment: seizure medications, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy.
We hear about Emily as a physically injured individual who is easily emotionally dysregulated and who has difficulties containing her anger, but we don’t hear about any of the barriers that the outside world throws in her path as a disabled person. This omission is especially apparently when the interviewer says, “Emily’s come a long way from when she had her vaccine injury and was so so impaired… and yet she still has some really serious limitations and will likely always have serious limitations in terms of what she can do” (Profile 2011). The interviewer represents those “limitations” as simply physical and the result of her purported vaccine injury; she does not represent them as existing in the inaccessible and inhospitable social environment in which Emily must navigate.
And yet, although the medical model of disability holds sway on Great Mothers, the page shows a great deal of resistance to the medical model of care and represents this model of care as the cause of disability and death. For example, an article by Dr. Suzanne Humphries alleges that bringing an infant with whooping cough to the hospital is more dangerous than treating the infant non-medically at home:
As herd immunity measures continue to fail and infants become infected, they will be brought to the hospital – where the real damage is done…. To me, their survival is testament to the fortitude of the human immune system when they make it past the medical model of whooping cough treatment. (Miss Eco Glam, 2012)
Instead of urging her readers to bring their seriously ill children to the hospital, Dr. Humphries rejects the medical model of care in favor of the “natural” model: the mother should take high doses of Vitamin C and drink plenty of water, breastfeed the child in an upright position, and give the child mega-doses of Vitamin C as well (Miss Eco Glam, 2012). It’s a dangerous approach, to be sure, given that whooping cough can prove fatal to infants too young to be vaccinated against it.
One sees a similarly hostile and rejecting posture toward the medical profession in a book to which the Great Mothers page provides a link: The Medical Mafia by Ghislaine Lanctot, a former physician whose medical license was revoked after she wrote about vaccines as a public health hazard and governmental conspiracy (Lanctot 2002, 4). Lanctot alleges that the medical establishment and governmental entities have caused disability and illness by silencing independent researchers, poisoning the food supply, modifying our genetic structure, drugging the populace, conspiring to implant microchips in our brains, and plotting ways to clone our bodies, all with the aim of making us sick and keeping us that way (Lanctot 2002, 1). Her solution to the problem, much like Humphries’ solution, is non-medical: she alleges that physical sickness is a condition of the soul, and that if the soul is sick, the body will be sick as well (Lanctot 2002, 18, 19, 31, 47). She even refers to illness as “a malfunction of the soul” (Lanctot 2002, 48). Thus, she directs people with arthritis to “induce a change in your eating habits and free the emotions that imprison you” (Lanctot 2002, 66). Clearly, the medical model of care, along with germ theory itself, has been thrown overboard, even if the medical model of disability has not.
News frame 2: Disability is a tragedy to explain.
A salient feature of the medical model is the notion that disability represents a tragic failure in which both doctors and disabled people lose control over the body. This notion of disability as a tragedy is one that runs very deep through our cultural representations. In “From Self-love to the Picket Line: strategies for change in disability representation,” disability studies scholar and photographer David Hevey writes that, within literary tragedy narratives, disabled characters function according to what he calls “the tragedy principle” (Hevey 1993, 424). This principle dictates that, as soon as the disabled character enters the plot, the body of the person is an indictor of his doom. When such a character comes to his end in a literary tragedy, that end has already been inscribed, from the beginning, on the character’s body and functions as an inevitability in the plot. Hevey notes:
The basic rule of the tragedy principle within representation… is that fate must be made physical on the body…. The testimony, the words and actions, of this doomed character will then reveal to the audience the ‘natural’ and inevitable decline of the disabled character.… Intragic theatre where the character enters impaired, then doom or the clear prospect of doom enters the narrative at that point. (original emphasis)(1993, 424-425)
Ultimately, Hevey asserts, this literary representation is a reflection of the view of able-bodied people that disability is a tragedy; in a literary work, the disabled character allows people to project their worst fears about disability — and its comrades illness, pain, and death — onto the character for the dual purposes of distancing themselves from the inevitability of physical frailty and of engaging in a temporary catharsis of their fears (Hevey 1993, 426).
In the face of the notion of disability as tragedy, our culture constructs the bulwark of what Wendell calls “the myth of control” — the notion that one has the power both to have a culturally acceptable “ideal” body and to keep oneself from the inevitability of physical breakdown: “The essence of the myth of control is the belief that it is possible, by means of human actions, to have the bodies we want and to prevent illness, disability, and death” (Wendell 1996, 93-94). One of the results of the myth of control is the belief that if a person does fall prey to sickness, disablement or death — all outcomes synonymous with tragedy in our culture — blame must ensue. Wendell notes that oftentimes ill or disabled people, or people who have died, have the blame cast upon them: they failed to take adequate care of their bodies, they didn’t go to the right doctors, or they were morally weak. These responses derive, Wendell believes, from a thoroughgoing need to think of the body as within our control, at all costs:
When people are blamed or made to feel responsible for having nonideal bodies despite their reasonable care, when unproveable theories are generated to explain how someone could have avoided becoming ill, when people with disabilities are seen as having their psychological, moral, and spiritual failures written upon their bodies, and when every death is regarded as a defeat of human efforts, the myth of control is at work. (Wendell 1996, 94)
For Wendell, then, the myth of control leads people to posit the disablement and death of a human body as a tragedy to blame on someone or something, rather than a natural part of being human that engenders grief, suffering, and loss, but not guilt or fantasies of control.
On the Great Mothers page, the notion of illness and disability as a tragedy is apparent in the ways in which parents describe their disabled children. For example, in the video “Profile of a Pertussis Vaccine Injury,” the mother of a child who became disabled at 15 months says that her loss is as great as if her child had died (Profile 2011). An article that blames vaccines for autism does so under the title “Heartbroken in Brooklyn” (Thinking Moms’ Revolution 2012), and a commenter on the page on November 1 refers to needing to “save” families from being “robbed” of their children by autism, as though their children have been lost:
My son was above average in many areas until MMR robbed us. Six years old and still not talking. We don’t vaccinate in our family anymore. Lots of people put us down for it and family members have defriended me because I am so vocal about not vaccinating, but if I can save just one child it is worth it. (Great Mothers 2012)
The notion that disability is a kind of death functions on the Great Mothers page as a prime expression of the tragedy principle at work in everyday life.
Moreover, the page is replete with examples of blaming outside forces for what it poses as the tragedy of disability. The need to control, to have an answer, to resist accepting the reality that sometimes disability just happens, leads to a number of instances of blaming vaccines and vaccine manufacturers. Vaccines become responsible for a host of disabilities, conditions, and illnesses for which no one has proven a cause: autism (Blogtalkradio 2012; Heinze 2012, front cover; Ogundipe 2012; Thinking Mom’s Revolution 2012; Vaccination Risk Awareness Network 2012; VaxTruth 2012; Wakefield 2010, 3); Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), allergies, asthma, and diabetes (Heinze 2012, front cover; Vaccination Risk Awareness Network 2012); haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, which includes liver dysfunction (Otagiri et al, 2002); Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Vaccine Liberation Army 2012); cancer (Heinze 2012, front cover; The Truth about Polio Vaccinations 2012); and learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, ear infections, eczema, and obesity (Vaccination Risk Awareness Network 2012). The sheer number of conditions for which people blame vaccines is an astonishing testament to the idea that, in the absence of vaccines, people simply would not become ill or disabled.
Some vaccines seem to be especially open to blame. Articles posted to the page attack the flu vaccine more than any other and hold it accountable for everything from illness and disability (Johnson 2012) to miscarriages and stillbirths (Child Health Safety 2010; Mihalovic 2012). For example, an article by Scott Johnson called “Ten reasons you should think twice before getting a flu vaccine” alleges that the flu vaccine can cause Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), “vascular inflammation,” narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s (Johnson 2012), as though such conditions had never existed prior to the development of the vaccine. In a piece by Beatrice Fantoni called “Woman claims flu shot paralyzed her, forced her out of work” (Fantoni 2012), a 59-year-old Ontario woman who became temporarily paralyzed as a result of transverse myelitis blames her ongoing weakness, fatigue, and incontinence on a flu vaccine she had received fully two weeks before symptoms appeared. Further, in response to a piece called “Pregnant Women and the Flu – Behind the Story of the Latest Announced Findings” (Raising Natural Kids 2012) on November 12, two commenters express their belief that the flu vaccine causes miscarriages, with one commenter blaming the flu shot she received while pregnant with a healthy baby for the five miscarriages she suffered after the child was born:
Can I just say that before I knew better, I took the ‘new’ h1n1 shot while pregnant, ended up with a healthy 2nd baby who I chose not to vaccinate, but since have had 5 miscarriages in a row with no answers as to why. (Great Mothers 2012)
Because she has “no answers,” she seeks one by blaming vaccines, rather than accepting that, sadly, women can miscarry for unknown reasons, or for no particular reason at all.
But the flu vaccine is far from the only culprit blamed for disability and death. Gardasil, the vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV), is another focus of blame for the inexplicable. Several posts on the site make reference to the death of 17-year-old Jessica Ericzon, who died of unknown causes two days after her third HPV vaccine. According to a post on November 12, the county coroner who examined Jessica could find no cause for her “instantaneous” death, and “speculates she suffered a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat” (Great Mothers 2012). In the absence of any answers for the death of an apparently healthy young woman, her family blames vaccines; according to two posts on November 12, her mother asserts that she was a “guinea pig” for the HPV vaccine and that “we are sure a vaccine killed her” (Great Mothers, 2012), despite the fact that studies have shown the HPV vaccine to be safe.
One commenter on the page sums up the need to blame vaccines for illness and disability by using vaccination as an explanation for any sort of ill health, no matter how long it has been since the person actually received the vaccine. In a November 5 response to a man who is trying to convince his girlfriend that the HPV vaccine is safe, the commenter asserts: “Vaccines are not safe. Anything you experience as different from before you got the vax is definitely caused by the vax! Guardasil is not good! It is dangerous! So are all shots!!” (Great Mothers 2012). Vaccines, it appears, have become the object of blame for the contingencies of life.
News frame 3: Disabled people are passive victims.
If someone or something is to blame for disability and illness, then almost inevitably, disabled people find themselves cast in the role of victim. Linton points out that, in our culture, the notion of disabled-person-as-victim manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the term victim appears explicitly; in these cases, Linton asserts, the term connotes passivity, the disability as aggressor, and the fatalism of a pre-determined outcome (Linton 1998, 25-26). But the notion of victimhood is also implied when writers and speakers describe disabled people, simply because they are disabled, with terms like “childlike,” “miserable,” “sad,” “tragic,” “pained,” “burdened,” “suffering,” “afflicted,” “invalid,” “patient, ” “at the mercy of fate,” and “incompetent” (Linton 1998, 25-28). As Linton points out, while disabled people can undeniably experience any of these conditions, these types of term imply that the conditions go on endlessly and that disabled people are so thoroughly victimized that they are incapable of happiness (Linton 1998, 26). In fact, she notes, these terms do not begin from the vantage point of a particular experience, but from stereotype: “Although some people may experience their disability in this way, these terms are not used as descriptors of a verified experience but are projected onto disability” (Linton 1998, 26).
The Great Mothers page makes consistent use of the image of the disabled person as victim. Sometimes, the language of victimhood is explicit. For instance, in “Profile of a Pertussis Vaccine Injury,” Emily’s father uses the language of suffering — “Emily suffers from frustration for just wide gamut of different things, she suffers frustration from school” — and describes her as a passive victim, saying that getting vaccinated “wasn’t a decision that she made… it was done on the advice of the physician at the time…” (Profile 2011). A November 8 post paints victimhood as an entirely random phenomenon, asserting that “there’s not a doctor who can predict what child… will be the next victim, or of what vaccine” (Great Mothers, 2012). Moreover, a headline for the article “Woman claims flu shot paralyzed her, forced her out of work,” makes the flu shot the aggressor that caused her disability and “forced her” to stop working (Fantoni 2012).
At times, however, the idea of disability or illness as an act of aggression against a powerless victim is implicit; in these cases, the specter of victimhood is raised by the notion that vaccines are so unsafe that giving them to human beings amounts to treating them like lab animals. For example, a November 10 post links to the article “Malaria vaccine disappoints in trial in African babies,” which covers the trial of a vaccine against malaria and its less than efficacious results (FoxNews.com 2012). The article includes a photo of a young girl lying on her side, her eyes closed, with a hand touching the top of her head as though to comfort her. The caption makes clear that the child has malaria; it reads “A young girl with malaria rests in the inpatient ward of the Malualkon Primary Health Care Center in Malualkon, in the South Sudanese state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, June 1, 2012” (FoxNews.com 2012). However, the administrator of the page does not note the child’s illness, but uses the image of the child to create a sense of victimhood regarding the risk of disability and death from vaccines. Her response to the article is to speak of the child as a research animal: “Do you see a problem with this? Experimenting on babies? A problem?” (Great Mothers 2012). A November 12 post that links the flu vaccines to miscarriages picks up on the experimentation theme, with the administrator asserting that because no safety studies have been done on the flu vaccine for pregnant and nursing women, women who get the vaccine are “lab rats” (Great Mothers 2012).
In addition to being likened to lab animals, women considered vulnerable to injury from vaccines are likened to sexual assault victims. A November 12 post casts young women who receive the HPV vaccine as victims of sexual exploitation, linking to a post from the Vaccine Information Network (VINE) called “Gardasil and Cervarix — exploiting females’ pelvic goldmine” (Vaccine Information Network 2012). The post features a photograph of Jessica Ericzon, who died of unknown causes after her third Gardasil shot. In the photograph, she is smiling, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and looking the picture of health and conventional all-American beauty. In fact, the text refers to her as “an all-American teenager” and a “blond, blue-eyed honors student.” The juxtaposition of the image of all-American innocence with the notion that her sexual and reproductive organs were exploited for profit makes her not just a victim of vaccines, but also the victim of an act analogous to a sexual attack. Along with the images of a lab rat and experimental subject, the image of a sexual assault victim connotes an extreme level of powerlessness and victimhood associated with injury, disability, and death.
News frame 4: The body is perfect and can be controlled.
The flip side of the image of disabled people as passive victims is the cultural image of the able body as the standard of physical perfection and humanity. All other bodies must measure up to it or be judged damaged, broken, and of lesser worth. Civil rights activist and legal theorist Fiona A. Kumari Campbell expresses this cultural belief in her definition of ableism as:
[A] network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability is cast as a diminished state of being human. (Campbell 2008, 3)
One of the most insidious aspects of this type of thinking is that it goes largely unquestioned, with people believing that it is simply natural to view disabled bodies as broken, damaged, and less-than, and to consider able bodies whole, perfect, and fully worthy (Smith 2004, 13). Davis writes that “most constructions of disability assume that the person with disabilities is in some sense damaged while the observer is undamaged” (Davis 1995, 14).
In counterpoint to the idealized able body is what Wendell calls “the rejected body” — the body that fails to live up to ideals of health, lack of pain, and ideal shape (Wendell 1996, 85). Because our culture socializes us to reject a body that does not fit the ideal, disabled bodies become the rejected “other,” and our culture colludes in a collective forgetting of them (Wendell 1996, 60). Davis sums up this social amnesia when he notes that “our construction of the normal world is based on a radical repression of disability…” (Davis 1995, 22). Disability is a fate to be feared and then forgotten in the race toward bodily perfection.
On the Great Mothers page, the body that nature bestows upon us is never assumed to be fragile, ill, or disabled. When speaking of what is natural, such a body is always out of sight. The natural body is always an able body. For example, in the video “Should I Vaccinate? (Ask Teal Episode on Vaccines and Vaccination),” the narrator asserts that vaccines are both unnecessary and harmful because they interfere with the natural immune processes of an able body. Her assumption is that all people who get vaccines are nondisabled and have perfectly functioning immune systems. She describes the process of vaccination as a way of disrupting a level of health considered both natural and perfect:
We are talking about intentionally infecting a human system that is in perfect health. Are we really so afraid and so distrustful of our own alignment with health that we would intentionally infect ourselves? This is not only self-abuse. This is abuse of our children. (Should I Vaccinate? 2012)
A number of articles posted to the page pick up on the belief that the natural state of the human body is to be healthy. For example, in a post on November 12, the article “Vaccination: The Basics” asserts that the body can “naturally” fight off infection and heal itself by staying in balance: “There’s a balance between immune enhancement and immune depletion. We can encourage the former by acknowledging the power and competence of our bodies to heal themselves” (Vaccination 2012). And a November 1 quote from Dr. Vernon Coleman asserts that people with “healthy immune systems” are least likely to get a vaccine-preventable illness (Great Mothers 2012). These posts show little concern — or even awareness — of people who have ill or disabled bodies.
This banishing of disability from the notion of the natural body brings with it a number of expressions of Wendell’s myth of control. Perhaps the most astonishing one occurs in the “Should I Vaccinate?” video, in which the narrator says that we can create a perfect state of natural health — and fight off serious, potentially fatal vaccine-preventable diseases — simply through good diet, exercise, stress reduction, and believing in the health of the body: “As always, you create your own reality. Let’s create a reality in which we trust ourselves to line up with well-being instead of illness” (Should I Vaccinate? 2012). Posted on November 5, an article by Joseph Mercola called “The Latest Risky Fad to Hit Your Child’s Pediatrician’s Office” is further evidence of the myth of control at work. He provides suggestions for how “to live healthy and avoid getting sick” from infectious disease; these suggestions include taking plenty of Vitamin D, avoiding refined sugar, getting lots of exercise, eating raw food, and managing stress (Mercola.com 2012). The idea that one can defend against diphtheria or pertussis merely by boosting the immune system betrays a highly idealized view of the body that denies the reality of the millions who died of infectious disease before the introduction of vaccines.
Given the fragility of the human body and its potential to break down, the assumption that the “natural” state of a human body is to be perfectly healthy is quite striking, as is the complete erasure of the question of what happens to the bodies of disabled people when disease hits. These images of the naturally strong and able body, along with the absence of the disabled body from the discussion are, in Davis’ words, “defenses against the notion that the body is anything but a seamless whole, a complete, unfragmented entity” (Davis 1995, 157). In these passages on the Great Mothers page, the repression of the disabled body is in full view.
News frame 5: Disabled people are both invisible and hypervisible.
The repression of the disabled body, coupled with a widespread fear of disability, leads to a curious paradox: the disabled person is both socially erased and, at the same time, an object of excessive attention. As Murphy points out, the disabled person becomes socially erased by a combination of self-effacement and rejection by society at large: “Due to his depreciated self-image, he has a tendency to withdraw from his old associations into social isolation. And, as if in covert cooperation with this retreat, society — or at least American society — helps to wall him off” (Murphy 1990, 108-109). Moreover, once disabled people become effaced, an entire narrative about disability springs up in their place and without their consent. Disabled people are seldom invited to speak in their own voices about their own experiences. As Davis writes:
Canadian and United States culture rarely include people with disabilities in their depictions of ordinary daily life, and they exclude the struggles, thoughts, and feelings of people with disabilities from any shared cultural understanding of human experience. (1995, 65)
This exclusion, according to Davis, produces significant feelings of invisibility among disabled people (Davis 1995, 65).
Concomitant with this invisibility, however, is an extreme level of hypervisibility, in which disabled people become objects of staring and curiosity, shorn of their privacy, with inquisitive able-bodied people asking about their stories of becoming disabled. Feminist and disability studies expert Rosemarie Garland-Thomson expresses this hypervisibility by discussing what she calls the “stare-and-tell ritual”:
In the social context of an ableist society, the disabled body summons the stare, and the stare mandates the story. The stare, in other words, evokes the question, ‘What happened to you?’ This stare-and-tell ritual constitutes disability identity in the social realm. (Garland-Thomson 2000, 335)
Siebers extends this understanding of hypervisibility to cover the ways in which disabled people use it for their own purposes to struggle against invisibility, a process that he refers to as the “masquerade” (Siebers 2011, 96-119). In doing the masquerade, a visibly disabled person might consciously appear to be less able when pressured to overcompensate — such as when a person who can walk with difficulty uses a wheelchair (Siebers 2011, 118). Or, an invisibly disabled person might “come out” about a disability when others would prefer to remain oblivious of it (Siebers 2011, 118) — such as when a person who can pass “comes out” about being autistic. The masquerade, Siebers notes, results in “overvisibility” (Siebers 2011, 118).
On the Great Mothers page, disability fits the pattern of being both invisible and hypervisible. For example, the video “Profile of a Pertussis Vaccine Injury” is ostensibly about a child who has become disabled as the result of a vaccine, but we see very little of the child who is putatively at the center of the story. The young girl, Emily, appears for only brief cameos in an hour-long video; the adults take up most of the air time. In the beginning, we see Emily with the family dog, answering some basic questions. From that point, we see her only sporadically as a disabled person: she is held by her grandmother and comforted; she appears in a photograph wearing a diaper at age 6; she answers a few simple questions about a movie; she looks at her baby brother; she runs upstairs; she spins and plays with her baby sister; she plays with multi-colored balls; and, at the end, she lies on floor and hugs the family dog. Her physical image scarcely appears in her parents’ story of how she came to be disabled (Profile 2011).
But despite Emily’s near-invisibility in the video, she is also strangely hypervisible. The adults speak about her in detail: about her diagnoses, her physical challenges, her frustrations, her development, her therapies, and her gifts. We hear about her intelligence, her progress, and her prodigious memory. We hear far more details about her physical and emotional life than about the physical and emotional life of anyone else in the family. Her privacy is very nearly gone. And yet, the viewer never sees any direct expression of her great feats of memory or her intelligence. The interviewer never asks her what she enjoys, what she wants to do when she grows up, and how she feels about herself. The viewer does not see her speaking for herself, but only answering other people’s questions. Her hypervisibility is strangely combined with her not really being there.
On the Great Mothers page, this combination of hypervisibility and invisibility is also apparent when one considers that the page contains only three photographs of visibly disabled people – a young girl who has malaria (FoxNews.com 2012); a woman paralyzed two weeks after receiving a flu vaccine (Fantoni 2012); and a man using a walker after having gotten up from a wheelchair (Stokowski-Bisanti 2012). However, ten graphics show presumably able-bodied children who, we are led to believe, are in grave danger of becoming disabled if they receive vaccines. For example, in the video “Should I Vaccinate? (Ask Teal Episode on Vaccines and Vaccination),” a representative graphic shows a line of children waiting to be vaccinated, with the child at the head of the line holding her arms over her eyes and screaming; in front is a syringe stuck into a bottle labeled “Vaccine Deaths and Autism.” Other graphics show able-bodied children screaming while being stuck with needles, such as a picture of an infant with his eyes squeezed shut, his face in distress, and four syringes sticking out of his bare arms, while five more stick out of his bare legs. Behind him are a skull and cross bones and the word POISON (Should I Vaccinate? 2012). The clear message is that we must fear these children becoming disabled. The fear of disability is hypervisible, but disabilities themselves are rarely shown.
News frame 6: Disability is a narrative about individuals.
When the disabled or ill body loses its invisibility and intrudes itself upon our consciousness, it inevitably becomes hypervisible as part of a narrative. As Mitchell and Snyder point out, the culture views disability as something gone wrong, and thus, something that we must explain with a story: “The very need for a story is called into being when something has gone amiss with the known world, and thus, the language of a tale seeks to comprehend that which has stepped out of line” (Mitchell and Snyder 2010, 279). Davis notes that this story nearly always become the story of an individual, but rarely the story of the culture that surrounds that individual: “[B]y narrativizing an impairment, one tends to sentimentalize it and link it to… the drama of an individual story (David 1995, 3-4). Disability, it seems, is never simply a given, and it rarely demands an examination of social context. It demands a narrative, a story about how it came to be, in the life of an individual.
Such narratives are plentiful on the Great Mothers page. They betray a tremendous need to tell the before-and-after story of disability. A November 1 post links to a Blog Talk Radio show that asks that parents to tell the story of “their child’s behavior and well-being before and after inoculation” (Blogtalkradio 2012). A November 12 post tells the story of the death of 17-year-old Jessica Ericzon following an HPV inoculation; we hear that she was “working on her softball pitches, getting ready for a class trip to Universal Studios in Florida and hitting the slopes to snowboard with her older brother” before she collapsed in her bathroom and died (Great Mothers 2012). On the same day, another post urges parents to send “written testimony” to the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform hearings on autism in order to tell their stories of how their children allegedly became autistic after receiving vaccines (Great Mothers 2012). In all of these posts, disability becomes a condition to be explained by a personal story about an injured individual.
In addition to the posts asking for or sharing personal narratives, the Great Mothers page links to two videos that are especially good examples of the way that these narratives work: “Profile of a Pertussis Vaccine Injury” (Profile 2011) and “The Life of Ian Larsen Gromowski” (Fred Bloem 2009). In both videos, the narrative pattern is for a parent to describe the child before and after disability, so that the viewer sees the movement from health to illness very vividly. In the interest of brevity, I will focus on “The Life of Ian Larsen Gromowski,” a one-hour webinar about a child who died after a series of complications that his mother blames on the Hepatitis B vaccine he received eight days after his birth.
Ian’s mother begins the video by explicitly introducing the webinar as a narrative, saying to the host, “I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to tell my story” (Fred Bloem 2009). The webinar then consists of a series of slides. The first slide, “Who is Ian Gromowski?” signals that we are about to hear the narrative of an individual. This portion covers his parents’ narrative — we see a photo of his parents on their wedding day and hear a voiceover about their educational and work backgrounds. The next two slides show photographs of Ian’s mother on the day of his birth and of Ian being a healthy baby. To this point, all is well. Life is ordinary, everyone is healthy, and the parents are looking forward to bringing their child home (Fred Bloem 2009).
After this moment, however, the narrative shifts to show Ian’s physical decline, with the Hepatitis B vaccine explicitly blamed for his illness and death. The next slide shows Ian on the eighth day of his life and begins the process of describing his life story hour-by-hour and day-by-day. It reads “Day 8: Ian less than 12 hours after Hepatitis B vaccine.” As the narrative continues, we see Ian days later, intubated and with an IV, on a slide labeled “Seven days after vaccine” and then intubated and with his belly very bloated on a slide labeled “Ten days after vaccine.” As the slides progress, one sees the child becoming more and more ill — the rash on his face worsens, and he has tubes coming out of his nose and mouth — until he is finally still in his father’s arms. As a coda to this sad narrative, we see his family story continuing with a slide of his one-year-old brother Vance, born after Ian, next to a stone that says, “Ian.” Ian’s story has appeared in great detail, and the webinar ends with a new story, of a new individual, who is being taught to remember his brother (Fred Bloem 2009). In our culture, the narrative of an individual is a compelling way to talk about disability.
News frame 7: Able-bodiedness is a measure of human worth, and disabled bodies are economic and social burdens.
Despite the emotionally compelling nature of the narrative of the disabled individual, that narrative often includes the canard that disabled people are burdens on their families, on the economy, and on society. This canard derives from one of the core features of ableism: the notion that ability and human value are directly correlated, and that only able-bodied people have lives worth living. Siebers aptly sums up the ranking of human worth on an ability scale when he writes, “Ability is the ideological baseline by which humanness is determined. The lesser the ability, the lesser the human being” (Siebers 2011, 10). At its most extreme, this ideology teaches that it is “better to be dead than disabled” (Siebers 2011, 10). As Haller points out, this belief lies at the core of the movement in favor of assisted suicide. Rather than imagine themselves disabled and dependent, Haller argues, people would rather imagine themselves dead (Haller 2010, 75-76).
The question of worth does not limit itself to abstract notions of human value, however. It translates into a belief that disabled people are of lesser worth because they are incapable of contributing economic value to the nation. Davis traces this belief to the onset of factory work and the definition of citizens as “able-bodied workers,” which left disabled people outside the role of citizenship and inclusion in the emerging industrial state:
‘Able-bodied workers’ were those who could operate machines, and the human body came to be seen as an extension of the factory machinery. Ironically, this reciprocity between human and machine led to a conception of the mechanical perfection of the human body. The eighteenth-century notion that the human body was a divinely crafted machine led to a much more industrial interpretation of that insight so that the factory worker became a mere cog in the machinery. (Davis 1995, 87)
Under industrialization, being a citizen became synonymous with being a worker, and having a working body became synonymous with normalcy (Davis 1995, 130). Therefore, people who were disabled became a threat to the social fabric and economic health of the country. In the eyes of those in the eugenics movement — a movement whose rise coincided with the rise of industrialization in Europe and the United States —people with disabilities, unable to work or to become economic producers, were considered “a menace to society and civilization… responsible in large degree for many if not all of our social problems” (Cook, quoted in Pelka 2012, 9). In the national psyche, they lived outside the realm of full citizenship.
The Great Mothers page portrays disabled people as economic burdens to both family and society. In “Profile of a Pertussis Vaccine Injury,” the interviewer emphasizes the impact of Emily’s disability on her family, asking a number of very leading questions about the cost of Emily’s treatments and bemoaning the cost of her specialized private school education. The interviewer also casts doubt on whether Emily, who is only 12 years old and very intelligent, will be fit for work as an adult:
And then when she gets to be an adult, there’s the issue of whether or not she can on her own function on her own or whether she will need to be… placed into a group situation where she has social interaction with her peers and is able to hold some kind of a job… or whether or not you’re going to have to care for her here as long as you can. (Profile 2011)
In describing Emily as in need of “care” well into adulthood, the interviewer casts her in the role of perpetual patient, as though her future as a non-producer is hardly in doubt.
Other posts describe disabled people not simply as burdens on their families, but also as a source of social and economic ill health. A November 11 link quotes an article called “When 1 in 88 is Really 1 in 29,” which alleges that vaccine injuries will create a generation that cannot defend the country militarily (VaxTruth 2012). A comment on the piece alleges that the next generation will be so disabled that they will be unfit for work as well as military service: “[T]hese future adults will be unfit to serve in the work force… imagine the negative impact of financially and medically serving an overwhelming amount of wards of the state” (Great Mothers 2012). The lives of disabled people become reduced to questions of money. Clearly, the concern is not that disabled people have a good quality of life and meaningful work. The concern is that they not be a burden to the nation. Apparently, the fears of eugenicists at the turn of the twentieth century are still very much alive today.
News frame 8: Disability is the result of a war against human beings by corrupt companies and government agencies.
For the anti-vaccination movement, all of the themes that this paper has addressed so far — the view of disability as a medical issue, as a tragedy, as a state of victimhood, as a state of imperfection, as a condition of invisibility, as an invitation to staring, as a sad individual narrative, and as a burden to others — find their culmination in the notion that vaccination is a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies and government agencies to harm the public for profit. Corruption in business and government, according to numerous posts on the Great Mothers page, is responsible for corruption in the bodies of individuals at the hands of medical professionals, resulting in tragic narratives about burdensome victims with broken bodies and minds.
The Great Mothers page bases this conspiracy theory on the notion that vaccines contain ingredients that are so toxic to the human body that they cause widespread disability and death. For example, a November 15 graphic engages in the scare tactic of showing the face of an infant with text about toxins and physical damage overlaid on it:
There are “critical periods” in human development when exposure to a TOXIN can permanently alter the way an individual’s biological system operates — Environmental Protection Agency.
Vaccinations are not a Risk Worth Taking.
October is Vaccine Injury Awareness Month. (Great Mothers, 2012)
While it is true that in certain quantities, any substance can be toxic, the anti-vaccination stance is that certain substances are toxic at any concentration. Thus, a November 12 graphic with a picture of a syringe and the words “TOO MANY, TOO SOON” lists the following ingredients in an attempt to scare parents out of vaccinating: “mercury, aluminum, antifreeze, formaldehyde, aborted human fetus cells, chick embryos, monkey kidney cells, fetal bovine serum, etc.” Fear of the “toxins” in vaccines appears in a number of graphics, posts, and links on the Great Mothers page, with one author asserting that “metals and other toxins in vaccines are doing a lot of damage” (VaxTruth 2012) and a November 12 graphic that makes the effects of vaccine ingredients analogous to a tiny drop of bee venom causing anaphylaxis (Great Mothers 2012).
Because numerous studies have shown the safety and efficacy of vaccines, the only explanation that the anti-vaccination movement can give for the widespread use of vaccines is a massive conspiracy between the government and the pharmaceutical companies to hide and falsify evidence. Thus, disability results from evil people interested only in profit. A representative graphic on November 12 shows a picture of a child being held by one woman and being administered a vaccine by another; the text reads, “Vaccination: traumatizing and poisoning children for profit under the pretext of disease prevention” (Great Mothers 2012). The notion that preventing suffering from preventable illness is merely a smokescreen to hide a conspiracy with a profit motive is clear.
A post on November 11 goes into greater detail about this conspiracy with a link to an article called “The Vaccine Hoax is Over.” This article alleges that the CDC is covering up secret documents showing a long-term, organized effort to lie to the public about vaccines (Baker 2012); it links to a post about a paper published by Lucija Tomljenovic, a British doctor who believes that the government of the UK also conspired to mislead its citizens (Child Health Safety 2012). Dr. Tomljenovic alleges that transcripts he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JVCI) engaged in a large-scale conspiracy with pharmaceutical companies, over the course of 30 years, to withhold information about adverse vaccine reactions, to work with pharmaceutical companies to increase vaccination rates for the sake of profit, to ignore safety concerns, to overstate the benefits of vaccines, to rely on questionable studies, and to throw roadblocks in the way of research into vaccine safety (Child Health Safety 2012). The article and the post to which it links are typical examples of the mindset of conspiracy theorists whose writing appears on the Great Mothers page.
Why this emphasis on conspiracy to explain illness, disability, and death? An answer may be found in what Sontag describes as a belief that western countries should be immune from the diseases and other horrors that are the lot of people everywhere. According to Sontag, our cultural mindset sees the white, western body as naturally healthy — by inalienable right as well as by genetics — but vulnerable to disease imported by outside entities. Sontag writes:
Part of the centuries-old conception of Europe as a privileged cultural entity is that it is a place which is colonized by lethal diseases coming from elsewhere. Europe is assumed to be by rights free of disease. (And Europeans have been astoundingly callous about the far more devastating extent to which they—as invaders, as colonists—have introduced their lethal diseases to exotic, “primitive” world: think of the ravages of smallpox, influenza, and cholera on the aboriginal populations of the Americas and Australia.) (original emphasis) (2001, 138)
The perspective that Europeans (and their descendents) should be without disease translates, I believe, into the assumption on the Great Mothers page that the body is naturally healthy and that any illness or disability must be the result of an evil force coming from elsewhere. In this ideology, it is almost unthinkable that a population descended from Europe could become ill or disabled simply by virtue of being human. Instead, illness and disability become injustices that an outside force perpetrates. Interestingly enough, the graphic that reads “Vaccination: traumatizing and poisoning children for profit under the pretext of disease prevention” associates the conspiracy with non-white people: the young child being vaccinated is white, while an Asian woman holds him, and an Hispanic woman give him his vaccination (Great Mothers 2012).
In the face of this imagined conspiracy by outside forces, the zeal to prevent disability by doing away with vaccines leads to some people on the anti-vaccination side to portray their opponents as war criminals. A November 10 graphic of a baby being vaccinated calls vaccination “sadistic,” and a November 15 graphic shows a picture of an infant receiving a vaccination with text that makes giving an inoculation sound like a war crime: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (Great Mothers 2012). Moreover, in the video “Should I Vaccinate? (Ask Teal Episode on Vaccines and Vaccination),” the narrator suggests that, at the hands of a pro-vaccination government, anti-vaccination activists will suffer the fate of the Jews in the concentration camps (Should I Vaccinate? 2012). Finally, in “Profile of a Pertussis Vaccine Injury,” children who receive vaccines are compared to child soldiers conscripted into the army in violation of their human rights:
The United States is engaged in a war against disease… And their primary tool or weapon is the vaccine… In this war, the soldiers are children… And sometimes, as in war, you have casualties and you have people who lose their lives. The problem is, my daughter didn’t sign up to be in this war. She didn’t ask to be a soldier. (Profile 2011)
It is as though the disabled body itself is evidence of a human rights abuse. The disabled body becomes an injustice, rather than simply a given. The disabled body becomes an indicator of evil at work, rather than a reflection of an experience that could happen to any human being, at any time, for any reason.
The conspiratorial and catastrophic thinking apparent on the Great Mothers page derives, in Sontag’s words, from “the need to master fear of what is felt to be uncontrollable” (Sontag 2001, 175). Thus, the anti-vaccination movement attempts to conquer a very human fear of what cannot be predicted or contained by engaging in all the same assumptions and distortions about disability apparent in the larger culture. On the Great Mothers page, disability is a medical tragedy in which disabled individuals are passive victims and social burdens, denied their right to a perfect, able body, and placed in the position of being alternately ignored and intruded upon. Ironically, in their zeal to find someone or something to blame, the anti-vaccination movement puts the population at risk of disabling illnesses that vaccines were developed to combat.
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© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg