Disabled People Don’t Exist to Make You Look Good

I have already discussed the issue of inspiration porn on this blog before. What I was discussing last time was the use of images or videos of disabled people doing everything from the mundane to highlighting actual achievement. The major issue in these images is that they either celebrate disabled people for simply existing or fail to contextualize what it really takes for us to succeed at a level of merit. Both are dehumanizing and need to be critiqued and hopefully stopped. There is however a third form which is actually much more insidious.

Images or videos of nondisabled people doing everything from simply deigning to be in close proximity to a disabled person or being helpful. In these instances, regardless of how small the act on the part of the nondisabled person, they are treated as heroes. These stories (and they are often just fabrications based on stereotypes) often go viral online as people applaud the perceived kindness.

This kind of narrative completely objectifies disabled people and places them in the default role of victim. These stories also frequently occur without the disabled person knowing that they are being photographed or filmed much less that the resulting media will find its way online or in a news report.

A couple years ago a picture started making the rounds on the internet. It was an entirely innocuous image of three young men eating lunch in a university cafeteria. Two of them were athletes and the third used a wheelchair. The image was framed as this grand act of kindness. The Huffington Post covered it with the headline “North Carolina Football Players Join Student Eating Lunch Alone“. The picture showed up in feel good lists with titles like “35 Pictures that will Restore Your Faith in Humanity” in the list the picture is still framed around the assumption that the athletes were performing an act of charity by eating lunch with the man in the wheelchair. It also assumes that the man in the wheelchair has no social circle and requires an act of charity for social interaction. It turns out these assumptions were false.

It turns out that one of the athletes had been friends with the wheelchair user for years. They ate lunch together often. This kind of image is dangerous because it normalizes the idea that social interaction with disabled people take an extraordinary act. It rejects the idea that disabled people can and do create and maintain normal and fulfilling social relationships. /by disregarding this reality it further normalizes the idea that it is ok to feel uncomfortable around disabled people. Look they treat other people like heroes just for sitting with them at lunch.

Even before knowing the truth behind the photo it not only did not restore my faith in humanity it actually killed it. How bad must the social view of disabled people be that nondisabled people could be celebrated just for being willing to associate with us. The bar couldn’t be set any lower.

More recently another story has emerged, this time in the form of a feel good news piece. The piece includes amateur video and captures a fast food worker helping a woman in a wheelchair eat her meal.

This story has some very troubling elements beyond the fact that anyone thought that this was newsworthy much less something that should go viral.

I first encountered it in my Facebook, at the time, I intentionally avoided watching it. I knew what it would be and I knew it would be bad. I eventually watched it when it came up again on Twitter during a weekly chat on disability in the media (You can follow or participate Saturday nights 9:00PM ET with the #FilmDis).

While watching it not only were my worst fears confirmed but the video is actually worse than I expected.

In it there is not only the over celebration of a nondisabled person assisting someone who is disabled. We also learn that the restaurant is inaccessible, the woman has to wait in the parking lot until someone notices her and lets her inside. Predictably the reporter is to busy congratulating everyone willing to help her inside to consider the implications of the inaccessible building.

The video shown in the report was filmed by another patron without the woman’s knowledge or consent. In fact the reporter even makes a point of clearly saying

We don’t know her name or her story

She had no idea she was being filmed or that she was going to end up on the news, so had no say in how she was presented or talked about.

This is the norm for this kind of media. It depends on the passivity of the disabled person, so that stories can be woven around them for the benefit of others. These stories don’t educate the public about disability. They just reinforce the idea that disabled people are passive and their only positive impact on the world is by giving nondisabled people the opportunity to look good by helping them. No active recognition of the humanity and individuality of the disabled person is necessary.

I am not suggesting that nondisabled people shouldn’t help disabled people. They absolutely should but they should not do so in search of accolades. They should also avoid those accolades unless they come from the person they are helping. Otherwise it is just nondisabled people patting other nondisabled people on the back for helping disabled people and then dehumanizing them by publicizing their life without their input.

2 thoughts on “Disabled People Don’t Exist to Make You Look Good

  1. I understand your frustration & concern. Sometimes, I must admit, I wish someone WOULD help me or give me a small accomodation. I have a TBI. An invisible disability. It is a shame acts of kindness go viral,not because of the diabled subject, but because kind acts are so rare.

    Be well


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