Rachel Kallem Whitman


AKA Let's discuss why "A Mom Realizes Her Baby Has Down Syndrome During This Water Birth And The Images Will Warm Your Heart" is actually a harmful story.

There are two things that are here to stay: babies and disabilities.

I'm a proud disability advocate and I consider it to be a part of my duty to educate people who aren't familiar with ableism, also known as disability oppression [1]. I bet you can imagine that this happens all the time because while pretty much everyone has heard of racism, sexism, anti-semitism, heterosexism, and the other isms, ableism usually isn't listed among them. So when I stumbled upon this Buzzfeed article I audibly groaned but admittedly wasn't that surprised. This article features a family who during their baby's birth find out she has Down Syndrome. The author takes several paragraphs to congratulate the mother for giving birth and then for taking cute photos with her baby. But I thought all moms have their baby, take photos, and then (not always of course) keep their baby… Hmmmmm. The only difference is that Baby Ami has Down Syndrome. So what exactly is happening here?

"A Mom Realizes Her Baby Has Down Syndrome During This Water Birth And The Images Will Warm Your Heart” is an article in which babies, disabilities, and ableism collide.

If you have a baby, you love, nurture, and protect it. And while having kids comes with its share of problems and having kids with disabilities can come with its own set of challenges, praising this family for merely treating their baby like you would any baby is ridiculous! The fact that Ami has Down Syndrome shouldn't make this scenario extra special. She's another beautiful baby being brought into a beautiful family. I have no doubt they love their daughter, I have no doubt that they will be phenomenal parents, but should they be celebrated for loving and raising a child with Down Syndrome?

I live with a disability and my educational background is in disability studies. I'm invested in disability from a variety of vantage points. Much like babies are a part of the human experience, disability is part of the human condition. In fact, disability is the largest minority group in the world, in part because it is the only minority group that everyone will find themselves a member of based on natural limitations that are acquired over time (or sometimes suddenly i.e. if you injure yourself in a car accident) [2]. A commonly used term for this concept is TAB, which stands for "temporarily able-bodied." In our society we often define disability based on access, or rather, lack of access. For example, if someone who uses a walker can't access a restaurant because its entryway has stairs, we are quick to label the individual as disabled and when we do that it typically has negative connotation. We view the individual as needing special accommodations rather than addressing the inaccessible landscape. The individual is flawed, not society. [3]

But when it comes to Down Syndrome, it's important to note that a significant number of potential parents ( 67% in the US) decide to abort a fetus if Down Syndrome is detected. And while of course it is the mother's right to choose, I think the decision to abort disabled fetuses is highly problematic and tragic [4]. We think it is ok because we assume that a disabled child won't have a good quality of life (unfortunately this can be true based on the pervasiveness of ableism, but this makes it all the more critical to acknowledge and dismantle this structural oppression). We also might assume that this child won't have a happy, satisfying life. Maybe we don't consider them as valuable as their neurotypical, able-bodied (NT, AB) siblings. I think the serious underlying factor is that we don't understand disability and we dehumanize those who are disabled. Disabled people are denied the everyday access that TABs are granted automatically (I mean, they built the world for themselves) and instead of recognizing this social injustice and fighting for change, we accept it and hope that disability doesn't happen to us.

But disability is truly universal – we all know someone who is impacted by disability – yet instead of learning more by listening to disabled people as they share their own narratives, we devalue and appropriate the disability experience. We don't want to learn more. We don't want to challenge ableism. Instead we get lured into reading ableist crud on Buzzfeed to teach us about disability. We focus on stories like this that depict disability in a way that is comfortable, in a way that gives us warm fuzzies, in a way that claims that disability makes one special and that loving someone with a disability is an act of charity.

My problem with this article is that lauding this family and framing them as amazing people suggests that it takes – that it requires – an amazing family to love a disabled child. Would Buzzfeed write a similar story about a NT, AB baby? I'm gonna say "no." Does this family want a trophy for having, loving, and raising a new member of their family? I shouldn't speak for them but I'm gonna say "probably not." They are a typical family who just welcomed its newest member. We shouldn't throw them a parade – or write this ableist puff piece as a tribute – just because they are parenting a disabled child. Does that make them special? Unique? Do we put them on a pedestal? If we say yes, it's because our perspective is rooted in ableism and the prejudice attached to disability. We say yes because disabled lives are considered less-than; by lowering their worth we elevate the status of the people who will raise them, love them, educate them, work with them, marry them, and listen to them. It shouldn't take a hero to love someone with a disability.

Here's the thing Buzzfeed, with this article and the message you're sending, you're doing this family a disservice and more importantly, you're doing Ami a disservice. Ami has Down Syndrome but she is a gorgeous little baby and the best way to support her is not by putting out this feel good clickbait nonsense, but by pushing against ableism and fighting for real change so that people with disabilities aren't marginalized and access is not something reserved for the privileged who can think, feel, learn, get around, and communicate a certain way. We need to hold people to a higher standard when it comes to accepting disability – acceptance should be the rule not the exception. Personally, I'm looking forward to the day when Ami can share her own story in her own words and hopefully people will ignore Buzzfeed and listen to her.

For similar stories pertaining to ableism in mainstream media please check out:

Ellen DeGeneres' Video About the Starbucks Barista "Sam with Autism" Shouldn't Make You Feel Good

Dear Tim Tebow, All the "Special Needs Proms" and Prayers in the World will not Actually Improve How Disability is Experienced

[1] Ableism, best summed up as disability oppression, argues that disability is always a negative state of being. That living with a disability is synonymous with being broken. That people with disabilities need to be cured or fixed. That a disabled life is worth less – less deserving of equitable opportunities, equal access, and the right to be happy. But for many people living with disabilities –who often prefer to be called "disabled" – disability is an integral part of their identity, something that our pervasive neurotypical, able-bodied (NT, AB) dominant narrative challenges pretty vigorously. For example when someone on the autism spectrum says they prefer identity first language, meaning being called autistic, many people balk. Why would you want to identify as being disabled? Whether the NT, AB community likes it or not, disability is not only an identity, but a culture and a community. I guess disability advocates are here to stay too. As long as ableism is a rampant part of our worldview, self-advocates and allies are here to push back on the prejudice, bias, and stereotypes that appropriate the experience of being disabled. To challenge the ableist idea that only certain types of bodies and brains have the right to belong.

[2] Check out Keywords for Disability Studies (2015) by Adams, Reiss, and Serlin for a great overview on this important yet often unacknowledged discipline.

[3] As a disability studies researcher I lecture quite a bit about the social model of disability, which pushes back on ableism. The social model poses that it's not the disability that limits people but rather society. So let's turn my example upside down, if there were no steps and the individua l using the walker could successfully make their way into the restaurant, would they still be considered disabled?

[4] To learn more about the disturbing pattern of individuals with disabilities being murdered by their caregivers/family members check out the Disability Day of Mourning.


Rachel Kallem Whitman is a freshly minted doctor, educator, self-advocate, and writer who has been shacking up with bipolar disorder since 2000. Through raw, honest, and emotional storytelling Rachel seeks to narrate her own journey, navigate her own recovery, and kindle hope for those impacted by mental illness. A reader once emailed her to say that the most beautiful words in any language are "you are not alone." This sentiment drives Rachel's mission to create a safe community to empower individuals to look beyond their illness to find themselves. Rachel has over three thousand followers at medium.com/@RKallemWhitman and her speeches, interviews, and writings have garnered acclaim locally in Pittsburgh, across the United States, and internationally