The Disability Prejudice Train
Well, OK. For the record, I don't dispute the fact that most of the ordinary working folks who make small donations to Autism Speaks honestly (although mistakenly) believe that they are doing something to help autistic children. I also agree that most of Autism Speaks' rank-and-file supporters (unlike their leaders) are caring parents who would never dream of murdering a child.
There's one more point in need of clarification, which explains the other two. Although the language and views expressed by Autism Speaks are extreme by many standards, they represent a natural and logical outgrowth of an existing cultural prejudice that equates disability with death.
Today's quest to eradicate autism took root in the same social environment where Dr. Jack Kevorkian spent many years exhorting disabled patients to commit suicide with his assistance; where, as Joel just wrote, euthanasia is widely viewed as a compassionate means of saving a person from an undignified life; where eugenic abortion has become so commonplace that about 92 percent of fetuses identified as having Down Syndrome and 95 percent of fetuses identified as having cystic fibrosis are aborted; and where medical charities often solicit donations by playing up the supposedly inevitable horrors of living with a disability.
I recently received a solicitation letter of that sort from Smile Train, a charity that sends medical teams into developing countries to perform cleft lip and palate surgery on children from low-income families. The letter began by asking if the reader had ever saved a child's life, and it went on to make the following assertions (emphasis in original):
Although a cleft is not a matter of life and death, it's not much of a life for the child.
Being born with a cleft in a developing country is a life sentence of shame and suffering.
Most children with clefts never eat or speak properly. They can't go to school or hold a job. They're often ashamed to go out in public and are taunted mercilessly by other children.
Many children with clefts are abandoned every year soon after birth by their families. The "lucky" ones survive to spend the rest of their childhood in orphanages.
The good news is that there is a simple answer to this problem and a way to help end the suffering of millions of these children. We've found a way to provide cleft surgery that is safe, effective, and affordable.
Nowhere in the letter is there any suggestion that it might be desirable, or even possible, to end the intolerance that is causing these children to be abandoned in orphanages—the same intolerance which, in our allegedly more civilized parts of the world, causes many parents to rush to the abortion clinic as soon as a cleft becomes visible in the ultrasound picture. Rather, the letter simply takes it for granted that anyone who does not speak "properly" is doomed to a life of social exclusion and suffering.
So yeah, maybe I'm being a smidge too critical of Autism Speaks. They didn't invent disability prejudice; they just took it to new depths. And it's the widespread social acceptance of attitudes like those described by Smile Train that made it possible for Autism Speaks' leaders to declare publicly, to applause and donations, that their goal is the worldwide extermination of a minority group consisting of an estimated 60 to 70 million people.
You want to save a life? Take a stand against disability prejudice. Any one of us could fall victim to it at any time. The life you save could very well turn out to be your child's or your own.