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If Providing Vaccination Proof Bothers You, You’re Showing Your Ableist Privilege

If Providing Vaccination Proof Bothers You, You’re Showing Your Ableist Privilege September 7, 2021

Turns out it’s not just anti-vaxxers getting on my nerves these days, it’s also vaccinated people who are being dangerously ignorant about the world that disabled folks also navigate.

man in a wheelchair, at a metro station
Photo by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash. In public domain.

While having one of those debates on Facebook I should have just noped out of with an acquaintance who’d posted a picture comparing businesses asking one’s vaccine status to the Holocaust (yeah, that’s getting a separate post), I noticed a bizarre trend where people who are indeed vaccinated (so, not anti-vaxxers) were super resistant to the idea that they were being “forced” to disclose their medical history to access certain public places.

And I was like…huh?!

I understand that one’s vaccine card, the physical artifact, might have some sensitive information on it. But otherwise, what does someone knowing my vaccine status have to do with anything super private? Like, I could shout from the rooftops that I’ve had my tetanus shot and feel quite okay with it. How is this any different?

I also understand that some aspects of one’s medical history can feel quite personal and vulnerable. Not everyone wants to be outed as a trauma or cancer survivor, for instance. Not everyone wants every aspect of their mental health known and dissected by those around them. I suspect these aspects of experience wouldn’t feel so vulnerable if we didn’t live in such an intensely ableist and judgmental society, but that’s a topic for another day.

OR IS IT???

See, what I think is happening with this odd (to me, at least) sector of the U.S. population that is fine being vaccinated but doesn’t want to be forced to disclose it is that they’ve had enough privilege in their lives already that their right to access public spaces has never been questioned til now. It’s as though just existing in their bodies with their level of social status is a multi-pass that gets them anywhere and everywhere, no questions asked.

In contrast – and this is me speaking as a non-disabled person, though I read about disabled people’s experiences and try to listen to them whenever I can – I’ve noticed that a lot of disabled people have to disclose a lot of things about themselves in order to gain the barest access to public spaces and social goods. It seems like a really burdensome thing (not to mention a lot of emotional labor) to have to go through, especially since basic health care (and hence varying medical diagnoses) remains inaccessible to many. For instance, a disability rights Twitter account posts: “there can be no disability justice without healthcare justice. The pandemic should have made us all aware of this fact.” Yes, yes, and more yes.

I see this as a teacher, in how most universities now have some version of Student Disability Services so that students can register and request accommodations…but again, it’s not always easy to get a diagnosis. Some teachers ignore SDS requests. Others are deemed “too difficult” to accommodate. Normally, the office handling these requests disseminates information to teachers in such a way that doesn’t disclose the individual’s specific condition, but the fact remains: students must go out of their way to gain equitable treatment that allows them an equal chance at participating in their own education.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Similarly, I’ve heard anecdotes from disabled people, such as on the #DisabilityTwitter hashtag, about having to jump through multiple hoops and disclose multiple conditions to get an institution – a school, a conference, a public space – to even consider helping them out with access.

What does that look like? Yep, disclosing one’s medical history when one doesn’t necessarily want to, just to gain access to social goods. Just like the vaccinated people I was talking to were complaining about.

It takes so much unexamined privilege to whine about something that a vulnerable population already deals with. Please note that I didn’t say “a minority,” since by various counts, disabled people are among 1 in 6 Americans (though maybe I should update my number, as according to the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans lives with a disability). This is a huge chunk of the U.S., and even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) technically says accommodations must be made, usually they’re not. Or they’re fought. Or it’s too “inconvenient.”

So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who gripe about having to disclose their vaccination status in order to visit a store or a business they like, not when many disabled people must disclose extremely intimate and personal information about their medical histories just to, like, try to get access to the most basic of human needs: education, health care, public life.

And I especially don’t have sympathy for people (like the ones on this Facebook thread, grr) who hear the stats about how common disabled experiences are, and proceed to not give a shit. This is the “well they can just stay home if they’re scared” rhetoric and the “well surely not everyone of the 1 in 6 is immunocompromised, so tell me how COVID impacts blind or deaf people more than the average person” rhetoric. As to that last one, arg, I don’t even know how to convey to some people that being immunocompromised isn’t the only way a disabled person might be impacted by a global pandemic…some disabled folk need additional medical appointments (good luck getting those when health care workers are overworked, burnt out, and called into extra rotations on COVID shifts), or additional day-to-day help from careworkers (which, again, means more risk due to more contact with people), or even just, I dunno, a basic social safety net, which the U.S. is constantly in the process of gutting, for example, cutting pandemic unemployment basics for over 7 million people on Labor Day according to Newsweek.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t know how to make you care about other people.

Even if a person only gets to the self-absorbed yet inevitable conclusion that maybe non-disabled people should care more about disabled people because every supposedly “healthy” person is only one accident or devastating illness away from potentially being disabled, there’s still the notion of basic human dignity that we all have. We should all have access to basic human rights and integrity of life, and our ableist society often makes it harder for disabled people to obtain those things. I don’t care which identity category we’re talking about or how intersectional these experiences are – disabled people, immigrants, refugees, prisoners, sex workers, some/all of the above – everyone deserves basic human rights and to live with dignity.

We should all care about this stuff, not just during a global pandemic.

Maybe it’s because I have this context floating around in my head, due to being in education, due to my mom devoting her life to being a special ed teacher, due to consciously trying to unlearn all the nasty ableism from my social condition, that when people are being privileged ableist twits about having an occasional experience of inconvenience, it infuriates me. Like wow, get some perspective, folks! Stop griping about an inconvenience that is not actually that invasive especially when you compare it to what many disabled people have to go through on a regular basis just to make sure public spaces are safe and/or accessible for them!

There is, of course, a bit of nuance to the issue: some immunocompromised people legitimately cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons, and obviously they shouldn’t be punished for something outside their control. They should not be barred from public life as a result of their condition…but this is why I don’t have much sympathy for anti-vaxxers or the vaccinated who whine, since we need all hands on deck getting vaccinated and not being squirrely about disclosing it so that we can make the world safe for those who are most vulnerable. From my limited understanding of how herd immunity works, it’s fine if there’s a small percentage unvaccinated so long as everyone else it…and we need to save those spots for the medically compromised, not those who…ugh, I can’t even get into the reasons without cringing. And no, “natural immunity” is not a thing, shut up and get the shots already. As I’ve said elsewhere, shut up about bodily autonomy, because public health.

The pandemic has exacerbated many existing inequities, and this is but one of them. I wish more people with the privilege to be relatively unaffected by these issues would pay more attention, and do more to help. In addition to trying to work with my students with disabilities in as accommodating a way as possible, I teach a bit about the history of disability justice in many of my classes, so that hopefully as my students go out into the world, they’ll look for ways to challenge ableist structures/institutions and thereby help. What are things you could be doing, O Reader? (and to be clear, I’m not asking you to generate ideas in a vacuum; it is always better to listen to the people most impacted by the issue, and here, that would mean listening to disabled people about what they need and what would improve their quality and dignity of life)

Anyway, these are just my thoughts, since I noticed some of this stuff and wanted to try to make sense of it. I hope this has provided some useful ideas, or maybe I should stay in my own lane in the future since I’m not (yet?) disabled (let’s recall, all of our bodies are only somewhat temporarily able-bodied and fit). But I figured, I’ve got a platform, may as well use it to encourage non-disabled people in my audience to consider where their privilege lies and whether they can do better by disabled folks in the future. And if I’ve got disabled people in my audience, well, I figure you know all this stuff already, assuming I got it right, so if nothing else maybe it’s nice to hear it and be validated.

Also, if you liked this post and haven’t read my post about folklore and disability yet, please go check it out!

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