Your academic field is ableist. Are you?

Rebecca Dodgson

Author’s note: This op-ed contains mention of ableism, eugenics (particularly in the form of forced sterilization), and rape.

At the beginning of my law-related class, I mentioned my interest in disability advocacy to the professor. He conceded that he didn’t have much curriculum on disability law, and I told him not to worry — I’d make the connections. Well, I did, and it didn’t seem all that important to him.

Buck v. Bell is one of the many low points in Supreme Court history. It hails from 1927, a time when the United States was a leader in eugenics sentiment. Buck v. Bell’s implementation meant that doctors and courts committed forced sterilizations against people they determined undesirable: BIPOC, the poor, and disabled people. The case arose after Carrie Buck’s foster parents institutionalized her to curb the shame that one of their family members raped her. A court permitted her to be sterilized, and when the case reached the Supreme Court, it upheld that decision, with the famous words: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The case is obviously despicable and evidence of rampant ableism and sexism. That people in power could arbitrarily decide that a woman is intellectually disabled, and that they would consider intellectual disability a valid reason to permanently remove a person’s right to reproductive autonomy, is deplorable. The idea that disabled people are worthless to society is reprehensible. Enabled in part by the Buck v. Bell decision, as many as 70,000 forced sterilizations ensued throughout the 20th century.

It’s not hard to imagine the discomfort disabled students felt upon reading this case in class — students who very likely would have been institutionalized not 50 years ago. Yes, there are people like that at Williams. There are people like that everywhere, and you most likely couldn’t identify them by sight.

It’s not hard to imagine the shock we felt reading the word “imbeciles” as the first word on the screen when opening the Zoom class. In fact, it was a header for the topics we would cover. Carrie Buck’s story was not even told during class and the final impression of her on my classmates or the visiting pre-frosh was therefore the one painted by the Court: an “imbecile.”

“Imbecile” is one of a host of ableist words commonly used against disabled people, and like many of these words, most people don’t recognize them as harmful. But it’s a derogatory, outdated term no longer even used by medical professionals. I explained to my professor that its use made me uncomfortable. Justice Holmes may have used it in his opinion, but we don’t need to repeat it. We certainly don’t need to use it outside of quotation marks.

He was sorry that I felt that way, but not sorry for using the word. Because, he said, it has a distinct meaning in constitutional law.

Well, I guess that makes it all right. After all, the ableist man who sentenced a woman to forced sterilization during the U.S. eugenics movement is a great role model for proper vocabulary.

Why are lawyers using an outdated, offensive word no longer used by disabled people or medical professionals? Could it be because everyone thinks it’s OK to continue using it? 

Later that day, my professor emailed the class a handout that told Carrie’s story. This was a step in the right direction, but too little, too late. The article discusses the uncertainty of Carrie’s disability, but it does little to contest the practice against those who actually are intellectually disabled. There’s no mention of the modern-day eugenics disabled people face: marriage inequality, attempts to “cure” neurodivergency, medical prioritization, pressured hospice, and, yes, sterilization.

Furthermore, the pre-frosh who attended didn’t get the handout. There’s no remediation for the casual ableism they absorbed. Most everyone in that class attended out of a desire to engage with the law. These are the students who will be our lawyers, our professors, our legislators, our justices. Law is an elitist field. It’s full of offensive cases and biased readings. Only 0.55 percent of lawyers are disabled.

I’m planning to be part of that 0.55 percent, and it’s depressing for me to picture my entrance into a field that will be so hostile to my community. To know that “imbecile” is a legal term that my peers and colleagues will sling without care of whom it hits. To understand that the English language is built on oppression.

I don’t care that it’s a term in use right now. It shouldn’t be. You want to hear about issues of disability law? Here they are. What are you going to do about it?

Rebecca Dodgson ’22 is a political science and English major from Munster, Ind.