Disabled boy wearing face mask writing while sitting on his wheelchair in class
(via iStock)

CW: This article contains mention of child abuse, ableism, and enslavement

On Twitter a couple of months ago, I stumbled into a discussion about adults who hate children. As a disabled person, I’ve been aware of how hostile U.S. culture can be toward children since well before I grasped the full extent of how harmful and dangerous that hostility can be and how it stems from many of the same biases and attitudes that underpin ableism. 

Stating that adults hate children is not sensational—we can open any news app or watch a news program and find an injustice enacted on a child by someone who should know better. Children are not safe at home or in our schools. U.S. employers still exploit child labor, and several states are attempting to roll back existing child labor laws. In middle school, I remember realizing I could get shot at school when Columbine happened, and children of this generation are still being traumatized and killed in their classrooms by gun violence. We fail children at every turn. 

This is especially true for disabled children. I went to school within the first 14 years of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While I attended mainstream classes, I still saw firsthand the mean-spirited and significantly problematic way that educators discussed their disabled students in the accessible education classes. The teachers and teacher aides would gossip about how they felt they were “babysitters” for students who were non-speaking or intellectually or developmentally disabled (I/DD). They felt these students should be kept at home and believed they were “wasting time” on students they assumed weren’t learning or capable of being taught. Eventually, I realized the teachers and aides only treated me differently because while I was physically disabled; I was neurotypical, so to them, I was “easier” to manage. 

The double standard exhibited by my teachers and others like them isn’t just troubling, it’s also deeply rooted in ableism and the particularly insidious way it manifests when it meets our culture’s disdain for children, especially those who don’t fit into a very narrow set of “acceptable” behaviors and capabilities.

U.S. society treats children—both disabled and non-disabled—as everything from occasionally useful, exploitable props to unwanted burdens who shouldn’t exist. This lack of respect and care for children can be easily found in the history of enslavement in the U.S. One of the stories I tell in my activism work is about the lives of Millie and Christine McKoy, better known as the “Carolina Twins.” Millie and Christine were born in North Carolina during slavery and were conjoined. They were sold for $1,000 by their enslaver to a showman who wanted to exhibit them. The McKoy Twins’ story is one of many about the ways enslaved disabled children were exploited for profit within an undeniably dehumanizing system.  

But the abuse and exploitation of children in our country’s history isn’t limited to chattel slavery. There is a reason why child labor laws were enacted in the U.S. Children were placed in incredibly dangerous work conditions in industries such as mining to support their families in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Federal protections came in the early 20th century through the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which ended child labor in the textile industry, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a national minimum wage and a maximum number of hours for workers in interstate commerce and limited child labor, prohibiting the employment of children under 16 years of age in manufacturing and mining.  

I would be remiss if I did not state that this very same act contained provisions that overlooked the continued exploitation of non-white children and has allowed for disabled people to be legally paid a sub-minimum wage, an injustice we are still fighting against today. Many of the same children the act ostensibly protects grow up to become adults whose autonomy and capabilities are undervalued by racist and ableist systems of capital and economy.

We claim “children are the future,” but how the U.S. discusses, interacts with, and fails to fully fund and support initiatives that could protect and increase access to resources for children and their families displays the complete opposite of that statement. The U.S. hates children for a number of reasons—they are deemed an inconvenience; people lack patience for them, particularly those who are considered “problems” or require more support; and for some, we remember the pain and mistreatment we endured as children and don’t know how to nurture ourselves, much less provide such tenderness to another. Some of us are only just beginning to learn that the ways we were treated as children weren’t fair or just, and we are doing the healing for both ourselves and any young person we encounter.  

Our embrace of childhood and adolescence as something to be protected and valued is still relatively new. And even then, that protection often only extends to a very narrow band of children. Children with multiple marginalizations, like being of color, disabled, queer, or trans, are still treated more as inconveniences—if not outright threats. We are living in a time where the gender identity and expression of our children are being heavily targeted, from the classrooms to communities at large to state legislation. Black children continue to be in danger from racist policing that denies their vulnerability. Immigrant children are forcibly separated from their families and trapped in toxic facilities. The continued gutting of social support programs leaves disabled children even further behind. Instead of embracing the uniqueness of each child and allowing it to flourish, some of us adults are doing our best to push conformity with the hopes of erasing and shaming segments of our society to disappear from view.  

The U.S. needs a reckoning about the way we engage with children and where they experience harm. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “more than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16.” This is a startling statistic, one that should distress all of us. Notably, these studies also indicate that the harms a significant number of children may experience have nothing to do with the issues or people that conservative fearmongering continually points the finger at. The potential sources of danger for children are often much closer to home at the immediate hands of family members and authority figures like religious leaders, teachers, coaches, and medical professionals.

Ignoring this fact allows us to ignore how policymakers downplay or cover up actual sources of abuse, neglect, and harm that threaten children. Moreover, it reveals how calls to “protect the children” are nothing more than cover to protect systems of power, especially when the children most at risk are those who are least likely to become adults with a power-holding stake in those systems: queer, undocumented, non-white, disabled, poor, and otherwise marginalized. America, we have a problem—a society that fails its most vulnerable members is a violent society.

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...