The Blurred Line Between ‘Able’ and ‘Disabled’

Is disability much more than a social label?

Although this headline dates back to 2002, the issue has lost none of its controversy in the thirteen years which have followed. The topic at hand is the decision by a deaf lesbian couple to actively seek to create a deaf child. In studying this case for a class while on my year abroad it struck me that most peoples’ initial reaction to the case is one of mild horror. It is essentially creating a child knowing that child will have a disability, which surely translates as creating a child you know will suffer unduly.

The mothers’ reasoning behind the seeking of a deaf sperm donor was, I think, admirable enough; they desired the ability to share a community with their child, the deaf community to be precise. Were they to bear a hearing child they believed the child would be isolated from the community they were inextricable from by way of the stark differences in experience the mothers would encounter compared to the experiences of the child. It is no mean thing to want to your child’s life to resemble yours, so long as you lead a happy, satisfied and satisfying life.

There are, though, scores of arguments against the actions of the couple. As I said before, very few people react with initial empathy at the creation of a disabled child. Which led me to wonder, should we react with such distaste for the couple? I think, after just brief consideration, I’ve actually found the answer to be no. People do, after all, have the right to procreate with whomever they choose. Just because this procreation occurred in a laboratory rather than a bedroom should not strike us as the crux of the moral issue.

Deafness is, after all, surely closer on the scale of disability to the socially constructed end as opposed to the end identifiable with such irreversible and crippling natural disabilities as Tay-Sachs disease, where very few sufferers live beyond the age of four. There are all manner of ways that the hearing world could be made more accessible than it currently is for deaf individuals and families. In essence, is it acceptable for a hearing person to declare, upon first learning of the case, that a deaf child is disabled? It is surely more acceptable for that individual to step off their soapbox and to go into the world with the aim of making their community more accessible to deaf individuals. It struck me whilst discussing the case in class that our focus needn’t be on criticising the parents in question, when the real moral issue lies in the ability of all people to help remove the ‘disability’ label from genetic deafness.

The mothers’ own desire for a shared community with their child brought it home to me that we should not prejudge these mothers for the creation of a child (who will, of course, have two loving mothers and a wealth of opportunities open to her, even if not all the opportunities the world has to offer) we deem to be disabled when the disability barely goes deeper than our judgement. I acknowledge, of course, that members of the deaf community do suffer, and that where science stands currently deaf individuals do have fewer options open to them. I merely mean to take issue with the prejudice that I have seen people display towards this very case. There are countless cases coming out of laboratories all over the world showing that the boundary between health and ill health is a social construct, I believe (and hope) it will not be long until genetic deafness also undergoes this transformation. Until then we should rethink our labelling of ‘disabled’ individuals and instead consider what we can do to help.

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