Skip to main content

Your Disabled Child Is Not a Prop

Sarah Palin used pictures of her son Trig to demean liberals. She's not the only special needs parent to exploit images of her kids.
Former Governor Sarah Palin speaks at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on April 14th, 2016.

Former Governor Sarah Palin speaks at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on April 14th, 2016. 

In the aftermath of the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, right-wing pundit and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin took to her Instagram feed to share a version of a popular meme suggesting that, while protesters might consider themselves brave warriors, they were really crying babies. There are lots of these memes out there, but Palin's had a special twist: Her version featured four breastplate-clad Amazon warriors on top with the caption, "What protestors think we see." On the bottom, she added three pictures of a crying boy with Down syndrome over the caption, "What we really see." The boy turns out to be Palin's son Trig.

The right wing has a whole lexicon of insults to go with its love of memes, foremost among them the word "libtard"—a portmanteau of "retard," a slur for people with intellectual disabilities, and "liberal." When I saw Palin's meme, my first thought was just how many folks in Palin's orbit would interpret it as a suggestion that liberal protesters were nothing but crying "libtards." And if not Palin’s direct followers, what happens if the image goes viral? Yes, she trolls protesters, but the cost to the disability community seems high.

What should parents, especially parents of children with Down syndrome and other disabilities, share on the Internet? It's been a topic of considerable debate for years, particularly as an industry of parent blogs blossomed in the early 2000s and led to book deals, speaking gigs, and sponsorships. At conferences and online discussions, parents generally touted their online work as a way to spread awareness and build community. In the last decade or so, however, more and more disabled people have been pushing back against oversharing online, especially when parents of disabled children post pictures and descriptions of meltdowns or other instances of acting out.

The writer s.e. smith, for example, has asked the important question, "What happens when those children grow up, and how will they feel about the dissemination of their photos across the web, especially in the case of children who became the center of controversies?" Carly Findlay, a disabled Australian who has been working against disability-related online abuse and parental oversharing, notes that, while social media and blogging are relatively new, "disabled children being thrust into the media spotlight" is an old story, dating back to the days of telethons and even freak shows. Findlay talks about what happens when those kids grow up, some of whom look back at the photos with frustration or anger at having been exploited. Amy Sequenzia, one of the most important autistic writers around, says, "Some parents insist that there is nothing wrong with posting all the details of a child's disability on the Internet—knowing that, once posted, it will be there forever, and obviously knowing that children do grow up and will be able to see their life exposed online."

Over email, Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, strongly advises against sharing negative imagery of developmentally disabled children, pointing out that stigmas around developmental disability are already strong. Bascom writes, "Sharing extremely personal details of your child's most vulnerable moments, without the broader context of already knowing and loving them, just reinforces those myths and stigma. That's not raising awareness. That's just making prejudice and ignorance even more ingrained." Bascom asks people who consider sharing such intimate images to imagine that they are "scared and overwhelmed and unable to control your body or calm down. Now imagine that your parent, the person you trust the most in the entire world, films your meltdown and puts it on the Internet. Imagine that you find that video some day."

I have never been a fan of Palin's politics, but since she burst onto the national scene in 2008, I've pushed hard against any liberal who tried to drag Trig into criticisms of her. My very first piece on Down syndrome was published during Palin's vice-presidential campaign; it criticized liberals for engaging in conspiracy theories about who Trig's "real" mother was, but it also criticized conservatives for wielding Trig as a prop in their fight to ban abortion. Trig, like all people with Down syndrome—including my son, who is just a year older than the youngest Palin—deserves to be treated as a whole person rather than objectified in political squabbles.

This new meme generated controversy because it violated Instagram's policy against content promoting discrimination against people with disabilities, and Instagram took the meme down. Palin compared being censored to being lynched and claimed that she'd only tried to "personalize" the meme "by replacing my own child's temper tantrum for the 'normal' kid's tantrum that someone else used in their meme." She added that these pictures were just "Trig acting like a normal kid—which I am so proud he can do."

I believe Palin. Still, I can guarantee that at least some of the millions who follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter will process the image through the lens of ableist slurs. As I've written for Pacific Standard, this kind of dehumanizing language and imagery has real-life consequences. Even if unintentionally, Palin should never have trafficked in it.

I do sometimes share images and videos of my children online. With my hyper-verbal daughter, I ask her whether she wants something shared. Generally, she doesn't trust all those strangers on Twitter, but does like to share pictures with our closer friends on Facebook. My son, on the other hand, is a born performer. He's non-verbal but communicates well through a variety of means. He often demands that everyone stop what they are doing to watch him dance, or to get me to take silly selfies with him. Afterwards, we look at them together, and I only share images that clearly make him happy. The desire to be seen is central to his personality, and I'm happy to be part of it. I would never dream of using a photo of either of my children to insult people who don’t share my policy preferences, and that's at least in part because, with every picture and every word that I write about either of my kids , I remember that someday they might see or read these things as adults. I hope when that happens, they're proud of me. I wouldn't want to have to answer for using their photos the way Palin used Trig's.