But wasn’t it nice of them? Shouldn’t people who do things like this be rewarded? These are the questions I am often asked when I critique inspiration porn. Particularly around stories that heap praise on nondisabled people for their assistance of disabled people. The answers to these questions and their accompanying justifications are more complicated than the yes or no answers that the questions imply.
This university graduation ceremony season, the international media has siezed on a story about an American mother who was given an honourary MBA after she attended all of the classes with her son as academic support.
Why would anyone complain about this story? Wasn’t it nice of her to do this? Yes and no.
It is, of course, nice to help people who need assistance but as David Perry points out “Inspiration porn buries analysis of ableist societal structures under a mountain of awwwwwwww.” It is important to consider this story in context. There are other questions people should be asking but aren’t like,
Should she have had to do this?
Why were there no supports provided by the university?
What happens to disabled students who don’t have access to a parent who can take them to all of their classes?
How did having a parent ever present in the university impact the disabled student’s ability to socialize?
Does championing this mother so widely and publicly let the university off the hook from having to figure out how to accommodate disabled students in the future?
So, yes, the mother performed a selfless act for her son. She did it without pay and without the expectation of reward. However, the widespread celebration of her conceals not only the achievement of her son (who was the one to actually complete an MBA after all). It also reinforces the idea that disabled people’s access to things like education should not be the responsibility of society or the institutions themselves but rather on the availability of selfless volunteers.
The selfless volunteers are far too often mothers or other female relatives. The work they do is unpaid and generally considered to genuinely be their responsibility. Not only does this maintain a major system of unpaid labour. It also limits access to opportunities to those few people who have access to it.
It does not create or contribute to a more equal society. In fact, it actively works against it. So, yes it was nice that she attended every class with her son to take notes and otherwise assist him but she shouldn’t have had to.
Some of the justifications I saw around this boiled down to the idea that this mother would take better notes than anyone else because she’s personally invested her child’s success.
I call bullshit on that though. You know who else cares about success? The other students in that class. Many universities use a classmate volunteer system–often with a reward system of tuition credits or the potential to win free tuition (the latter being more common and still less fair)–where classmates share their notes either by taking them by hand and written on carbonless copy paper (how I got my notes through most of my undergraduate degree) or taken on the computer and emailed anonymously to the disabled student. While that system still unfortunately often depends on potentially unpaid labour, it comes from people who are already going to class in the first place and doesn’t require anyone to do much extra work or give up their time. It simply needs to be improved to ensure that note takers are getting something for their effort not just the potential of something.
I had great success with peer note takers. It’s not a flawless system but a disabled student can absolutely succeed using peer note-takers.
Additionally, if professional note takers are used, they have the incentive to do well because if they don’t they can be fired.
A mother is not by default the best or even most preferable option because really who wants their mother following them to class and participating in all their social interactions?
Twitter has also gifted us with many reactions to this story and common theme is this
This idea, that this story is what we should aspire to. This kind of selflessness. Which would be great if it meant a societal change to create more accessibility rather than a statement of support for self-sacrifice in order to access education. These sentiments are also predicated on the idea that this behaviour is or more accurately was normal. There is a false nostalgia here because access is definitely better (though not sufficient) now. There is no golden point in history where disabled people were universally or even widely ferried to school by selfless volunteers.
So, should this mother be rewarded for her actions? I actually think not. I think she either deserved to be paid–I would be open to the idea of her being given the option to pursue a real MBA (not just an honourary one) alongside her son–or external supports should have been provided. What she did deserves a salary, not a reward. Rewarding this kind of action only reinforces the idea that disabled people should be dependent on charity rather than given the right of access regardless of the ability of find or provide a volunteer.
Helping disabled people needs to stop being framed as an extraordinary act because it leads people to think that accessibility is and should be extraordinary, rather than the norm.
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