But Wasn’t it Nice of Them?: How Praising the Helpers Can Lead to Less Aid

Image Description: A black computer illustration of a graduation cap outlined in white.

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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8 thoughts on “But Wasn’t it Nice of Them?: How Praising the Helpers Can Lead to Less Aid

  1. Holy cow, I’ve never heard of a note-taking system dependent on volunteers earning the possibility to win free tuition?!

    Our disabilities services department recruited fellow students from the class and paid them a small stipend. Not a lot (I think like $35 per class per semester) but an amount of money that it was nice to get at the end of the year. I did it a few times. I don’t think they ever had much trouble getting volunteers, with even a small amount of money involved. “You could win free tuition” seems weirdly stigmatizing…it’s not the Hunger Games, it’s just transcription work. Why not just pay for it like that’s what it is?



    Inspiration porn drives me up the wall (figuratively). It makes it all about the able-bodied/NT/etc person and sidelines, patronises and silences the disabled person, belittling their side of things. Treating us like a normal person? 😮 Must give them lots of praise and attention! >sarcasm< No, society and inspiration-porn-pushers – treating disabled people like normal people SHOULD BE NORMAL, it should not be some sort of extraordinary, newsworthy item. It should not be newsworthy. It's a sad indictment of the self-centredness of our society.

    In this case, yes, it's great that she helped, but as you say, where's the criticism for the system failing the student by not providing the assistance and accommodation he required and should expect from the institution? Why not acknowledge and point out that, BBC? Where's the focus on the hard work the student put in to achieve his MBA? Reminds me of David Cameron's ridiculous "Big Society" notion – a hypothetical army of willing and able (and unlimited supply of) volunteers (who are able to do it because everyone's clearly wealthy enough to do work without being paid, didn'tcha know???)

    As you point out, this can be harmful – what about those students who don't have that luxury – and it *is* a luxury – of a family member etc who has the time, money and willingness to do this? If this story is repeated often enough people and institutions will come to expect it, and then those who don't have that support available to them are completely screwed.

    Focus on the son, not the mother.


  3. So there’s a lot of missing information here. You ask, “Where were the supports provided by the university?” We have no way of knowing what the university offered and what the student chose. Some individuals choose to have a family member be their PCA/notetaker/transportation coordinator even if the university has supports in place they can offer for academic accommodations so I would not jump to any conclusions that the university was abdicating their responsibilities to accommodate this student.

    I totally agree that there have to be effects on the student socially if Mom is taking him everywhere and taking his notes. It creates a barrier between the student and his classmates. And I don’t know about California, but in Massachusetts, there are independent living centers that can help persons with disabilities obtain PCAs with their Medicaid funds so a family member does not have to perform those takes for free. But some students and families make this choice nonetheless.


    1. True, but the point is we don’t have that information because the journalists didn’t see the need to ask. The mother if she is performing a role that should be provided by the university should also be paid with more than an honourary degree that she didn’t even know that she’d get.

      That’s the problem with inspiration porn it goes for the emotional factor by not asking necessary questions and functionally dehumanizing disabled people in the process.

      The story isn’t as inspirational if the mother did all that even though the son could have had someone else and the mother was properly paid.

      It’s also unlikely that if she is simply the preferred aid that the university would have given her an honourary degree.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was a note taker in college for my first and second semesters, earning a nominal fee, and a Deaf friend in a college with 0 Deaf community. As a child of 2 disabled parents (deaf and spina bifida), I was similarly angered by the ablist journalism. Even if the journalist asked questions to the student (aka son), the information was neglected to be provided to the reader. The focus on the mother’s do-good actions are the wrong focus or spin of this, focus on the son and MBA earning student. The mother should never have been given an MBA unless she also took all exams independent of her son and wrote all papers as the writer (not transcriptionist), giving her an MBA reduces the value of all others rightfully earning theirs.


    1. I wasn’t suggesting they just give her an MBA. I was suggesting that because she was there anyway working, that they waive tuition and let her take the program alongside her son


  5. Great post. I agree to all your points about reward vs paid labor. My undergrad University had paid note takers (work-study students) so it’s not an unprecedented idea.
    While I know it’s not the focus of your post/blog, this situation does reinforce the societal expectation on mothers and especially mothers of disabled children, where we are expected to sacrifice our lives for our children without exception.


  6. WOW I cannot believe that I have been reading these sorts of stories for so long and never thinking outside the box about them! They’d always seemed weird, freaky and fetishizing to me, but harmless beyond that. (If that could be considered harmless) Now, I’m wondering how many other institutions have been getting away with stiffing disabled people under the mask of inspiration porn. Great article!


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