SICK? “It’s Your Own Damn Fault!”

SICK? “It’s Your Own Damn Fault!”

by Fred Pelka


“Nothing comes to an individual that he has not…summoned…. A person’s external circumstances do fit his level of internal spiritual development.”
– Eileen Gardner, nominee for special assistant to the Department of Education under the Reagan administration, explaining her theory as to why people become ill or disabled.

“And remember when you’re out there
Tryin’ to heal the sick
That you must always
First forgive them.”
– Bob Dylan, “Open the Door, Homer.”

A couple of years back I went to see a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Determined to do my part at this audience participation event, I threw rice during the marriage scene, squirted water during the rain scene, and shouted the appropriate responses at this or that bit of dialogue.

Near the end of the film one of the characters, a professorial type in a wheelchair, was confronted by Riff Raff, a hunchback from Transsexual Transylvania, armed with a silver ray-gun. A theater goer behind me, far gone in excitement or intoxication, stood up, shaking his fist, and screamed, “Kill that fucking cripple!” The rest of the audience cheered. I was stunned. Turning, I saw something on the man’s face beyond simple amusement. I saw anger. I saw contempt. I saw hate.

We live in a health chauvinist society, in a culture that often regards the disabled and ill as morally inferior to those who are able-bodied and healthy. Just as our culture often blames rape survivors for their victimization, and the poor for their poverty, we all grow up receiving messages, both subtle and overt, that people with disabilities are “different”; that sickness and disability are caused by sin, bad karma or negative emotions.

A swastika carved into the face of a 17-year-old disabled girl in Halle, Germany.

Consider an article called “Forgiveness as Healing,” one of the most succinct examples of health chauvinism I’ve ever seen. The article, by Catherine Ponder, appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of Spirit of Change, a new age journal specializing in features on holistic healing, childhood mystical experiences, Feldenkrais and so on. The article was an excerpt from Ponders mid-sixties book The Dynamic Laws of Healing.

The piece begins with a parable in which two people talk about the illness of a third. As is usually the case, at no time is the person with the disability allowed to speak for herself.

“A puzzled lady said to a friend, ‘I cannot understand it. I have the nicest neighbor who is dying of cancer. It seems so unfair, because this is one of the kindest, gentlest people I know.’

“The friend replied, ‘She may seem kind and gentle, but if she is dying of cancer, then there is some old negative emotion that is literally consuming the cells of her body. There is probably someone she hates.’

“Later,” Ponder tells us, “the mystery was cleared up. The one in doubt reported: ‘You were right. I learned quite by accident that this neighbor has a relative whom she violently hates. They have not spoken in thirty years.’

“If you have a problem,” Ponder concludes, “you have something to forgive. If you experience pain, you need to forgive.”

This notion of disability as a sign of moral failure is apparent even in our fairy tales and children’s stories, where the villain is often someone with an obvious physical disability or “deformity” – a child-eating dwarf or monster or giant – a Rumpelstiltskin or a Captain Hook. Leslie Fiedler, in Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, points out how “‘monster’ is the oldest word in our tongue for human anomalies.”

Our contemporary movies and literature continue this theme. Freddy Krueger – the mutilated child molester in the Nightmare on Elm Street slasher series – is a perfect example of this correlation between evil and physical deformity. Not only does he have razor extended fingernails, (an update on Captain Hook), but the layers of scar tissue on his face show us just how evil he really is. (Scar tissue, says Susanna Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted, is not just the natural consequence of trauma to tissue. “It shields and disguises what’s beneath. That’s why we grow it, we have something to hide.”) Mainstream magazine, a disability rights monthly published in San Diego, recently ran a cover story on “the new blackface” – how Hollywood generally hires able-bodied actors and actresses to pretend that they’re disabled. Most of these “disabled” characters, from Richard Dreyfuss in Whose Life is it Anyway? to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman are portrayed as embittered and emotionally stunted, unattractive people who need their able-bodied friends to straighten them out.

Hollywood’s image of disability mirrors what the religious community has been telling us for millennia. For every message in the Bible that tells us that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, there are multiple stories of illness and disability, especially mental illness or disability, being caused by demonic possession, and cast out by the righteous and godly (and non-disabled). Jesus may tell us in John 9:1 that blindness is not caused by sin, but he also cures mental illness by casting “unclean spirits” out of the sufferer and into a herd of swine.

“In biblical times,” writes Kathi Wolfe in “The Bible and Disabilities: From ‘Healing’ to the ‘Burning Bush'” (The Disability Rag ReSource, Sept./Oct. 1993), “many thought that disabilities were caused by sin. People with disabilities were outcasts, ignored by their families and neighbors – often left alone to beg. The Bible was influenced by this context in its portrayal of disabled people.”

The condemnation of people with disabilities is by no means limited to Christians or to Western cultures. James I. Charlton, in “Religion and Disability, a World View,” (The Disability Rag ReSource, Sept./Oct. 1993) quotes disability activists from Zimbabwe, Malaysia and Indonesia as saying that their religious traditions also regard disability as “divine punishment”.

The social and individual acceptance of health chauvinism serves a number of purposes. First, it mitigates any responsibility those of us who aren’t ill or disabled might feel toward those who are. The disabled are different, and they are to blame for that difference, and thus have placed themselves outside the circle of our compassion. We need not worry about discriminating against them in the workplace, or slashing funds for Medicaid or rehabilitation or independent living services. If we do decide to help “the less fortunate,”health chauvinism allows us to adopt a stance of moral superiority, of pity, charity, and “forgiveness.”

Second, health chauvinism undercuts any critique of a social system that oppresses people with disabilities, who commonly report that it is society’s reaction to their disability – in the form of attitudinal barriers, job and school and housing discrimination, and lack of accessible transportation and public facilities – rather than the disability itself that is their greatest problem.

It’s also worth noting here that blaming cancer or other illnesses on bad feelings lets other possible culprits off the hook – for instance the nuclear power industry, chemical pollutants in our food and our environment, etc. Again, health chauvinism works to prop up the status quo, to undermine voices for radical change.

Third, health chauvinism allows the healthy to feel good about themselves. After all, if illness or disability are caused by sin, or bad thoughts, or wrong living, then the fact that I’m healthy must mean I’m a pretty swell guy.

This isn’t to say that there is no link between attitude, emotions, and health, or that certain behaviors – cigarette smoking, for example, or heavy drug or alcohol use – aren’t self-destructive. But such behaviors aren’t sinful, nor are they purely questions of “attitude,” nor do they account for the major amount of illness and disability.

Finally, health chauvinism serves to divide the disabled from other disenfranchised groups, as in the comments of Norfolk County District Attorney William Delahunt this past September. A 76 year-old Quincy, Massachusetts woman, resident of a public housing project for elders and people with disabilities, had been raped in her apartment. Though the police had no suspect, and no evidence whatsoever that anyone living in the building had committed the crime, the DA nevertheless told the Boston Globe that “you just can’t mix” the mentally ill with the elderly. Calling for a cap on the number of disabled people in elderly/disabled housing, Quincy Public Housing Director Jake Comer went even further, telling the press that the elderly have to live in fear of the mentally disabled. All of this, even though, according to Stephen E. Collins at the Alliance for the Mentally 111 of Massachusetts, “study after study has shown that the population of persons with mental illness is less violent than the general population. In fact, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.”

Health chauvinism has an intricate relationship to sexism, too. Women are generally more likely than men to be blamed for their own illnesses or disabilities. We can trace this at least as far back as the creation myth of Adam and Eve, where the pain of childbirth, and the death that often resulted from it, were blamed on women’s sinfulness, on their status as “daughters of Eve”. The medical profession has traditionally treated “women s problems” such as menstruation and menopause with contempt, and used diagnoses such as “hysteria” and “depression” to brush off any malady or disability the (male dominated) medical profession can’t immediately explain or treat.

The relationship between sexism and health chauvinism, and the more general belief that bad things only happen to bad people, extends beyond illness and disability. In the same issue of Spirit of Change as the Ponder article on cancer, editor Carol Bedrosian asks a survivor of child sexual abuse if “this idea that beliefs – such as ‘men victimize me’ – can bring those very experiences into one’s life?” The interviewee responds, “Oh, it’s absolutely true. I believe a lot of it is unconscious, but I was creating…my own little hell.” In other words, it isn’t patriarchy or even individual perpetrators who cause rape and incest – it’s the flawed thoughts of women and children.

Here’s what the 13th edition of the Merck Manual, the Bible of medical definitions, says about “hysteria”: “For the hysterical patient, the “sickness role” is a preferable alternative to ordinary life. The role of the invalid includes social permission to be dependent, and immature personalities who cannot satisfy their dependency needs in adult relationships may seek the special attention and compassion given to a sick person.”

How far is this, really, from traditional religious notions of the disabled as being spiritually flawed? Rev. Rufus J. Womble, a member of the Order of St. Luke, an “ecumenical” religious organization devoted to “healing,” writes, “One question the sick should face is: do you really want to be well – regardless of how desperately ill you may be? Do you really want to give up your grumbling and other poisonous sins? Do you want to come out into the world and accept your full responsibility or do you want to continue your sheltered life?”

Disability activists dispute the perception that people with disabilities lead “sheltered” lives. John Winske, director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, cites a national unemployment rate of 65 to 70 percent for people with disabilities seeking work. Housing, job, and social discrimination against people with disabilities has been so prevalent that federal legislation was required to address the problem. And Dr. Sandra Cole, in Disability, Sexuality, and Abuse, Richard Sobsey, at the Sexual Abuse and Disabilities Project at the University of Alberta, and others point out that the incidence of physical and sexual abuse of people with disabilities is indeed higher than for the general public.

Health chauvinism, like other prejudices, generally gets worse with hard economic times, and that certainly seems to be the case today. In Germany, skinheads are targeting people with disabilities as well as Auslanders, as documented in “Violence Against Disabled People in Germany,” a report prepared in 1993 by German disability rights advocates Ottmar Miles-Paul and Dinah Radtke.

Closer to home, Barbara Faye Waxman, project director for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) training for the Los Angeles Regional Family Planning Council, has written on hatred as the “unacknowledged dimension in violence against disabled people.” Waxman has recommended that the federal government begin tracking hate crimes against people with disabilities. In an article in the Fall 1991 issue of Sexuality and Disability, she cites the case of Cary Dickenson, whom she believes was targeted by his assailants because of his multiple disabilities, murdered, and then stuffed into the trash at a southern California library. James Lundvall, a Denver man with paraplegia, was hospitalized in a coma after vandals set fire to the wheelchair ramp to his house – twice within 48 hours. “It has not yet occurred to the authorities,” Waxman writes, “that these overt acts were hate crimes.”

Our collective response to AIDS is ample indication that health chauvinism can have devastating consequences, and not only for the currently disabled. Pat Buchanan, speaking for homophobes everywhere, declared the epidemic to be “nature’s” response to homosexuality, as if the epidemic was some divine retribution for “the sin” of being gay. That such sentiments are linked in fundamental ways to the oppression of people with disabilities has been acknowledged by members of both the disability and the HIV/AIDS communities. The founding of the HIV/Disability Alliance in Boston is a recognition that the two groups have common interests, and in many ways share a common oppression.

To end health chauvinism, we must first recognize it for what it is – a form of bigotry, a category of hate. Giving up this prejudice will be difficult, because it means coming to terms with our own fragility, our own mortality. It means recognizing that disability and illness are an inevitable part of the human experience. We are all of us only one accident, one virus, one bacteria cell away from being ill or disabled ourselves. The true test of our morality is how we treat each other in the face of this unalterable reality.

Contributing editor Fred Pelka is a Boston-based writer, whose work has appeared in The Humanist and the Christian Science Monitor. Portions of this article first appeared in the Nov. /Dec. 1986 issue of the The Disability Rag ReSource.