If the “inspiration porn” discussed in my previous post nauseated you, you may want to take something to settle your stomach now. The media is at it again, putting people with disabilities on a pedestal for living life, or worse, praising the non-disabled for interacting with us. A few weeks ago, the media was buzzing with the story of two football players at North Carolina who ate lunch with a fellow student in a wheelchair. Reporters went on to praise the football players for “their good deed”, even going so far as to call them “heroic” or “inspirational.” Hold up, wait a minute. There are several things that are beyond problematic with the media’s assessment of the situation. Eating lunch with fellow students is a completely ordinary act, to which people with and without disabilities are entitled. Why should a disabled person having friends make the news?
When people with disabilities being genuinely included in friendships is an item that makes the news, we as a society assume that isolation, exclusion, and loneliness is not only the norm, but the natural outcome for people with disabilities. Furthermore, praising non-disabled people for merely being with us implies that we are not deserving of friendship, or not worth spending time with in the absence of money, volunteer hours, or “feel good” attention from social media outlets. The fact that someone may just want to be with a disabled person for the sole purpose of eating lunch seems to be too much for the media to handle. Disturbingly, the photo is accompanied by hashtags such as #volunteerism. Volunteerism? It is obvious that our world remains in a terribly backward place if spending time with a person with a disability is considered an act of charity. They should try #ableism, if the writers are seeking greater accuracy.
This disastrous attempt at a feel good story made me feel sick, and it should do the same to you. These kinds of accounts have messages between the lines. They say:
Gasp. People in wheelchairs… with people! Don’t they sit alone?
Gasp. Someone being a friend to a person in a wheelchair! How benevolent!
Gasp. Let’s reward others for simply acknowledging them!
Just because I have a disability does not mean being with me is community service. I am a person worth getting to know, and anyone who considers eating lunch with me an act of charity to be documented on Reddit is not a friend. Unfortunately, our culture often trains non-disabled children to view those with disabilities exclusively in the context of volunteerism and charity. Thus, inspiration porn like this news story is born.
Inclusion should not be shocking. Friendship should not be newsworthy, and no one should assume that the only company a wheelchair user will have is the result of an act of laudable compassion. One article even suggested that the football players were helping a “less fortunate man”. Not only does it imply that people with disabilities must have a lesser quality of life, it implies that the only friendships we will ever have will exist because someone feels sorry for us.
The article was followed up with a companion story stating that the original photo was not what it appeared. The person in the wheelchair was not sitting alone. The football players were not doing “a good deed”. In fact, the young men had been friends for a while. It is disgusting that the writer had the audacity to assume that the person in the wheelchair was sitting alone, and to assume that the scene only developed in the spirit of volunteerism. We owe it to our children and the adults they will become to treat people with disabilities as ordinary people, not objects of pity. If we begin there, people with disabilities sitting alone will be a terrible exception, not a rule. We will no longer be surprised when people with disabilities engage in meaningful relationships, because such things will be expected. And the next time someone sees a person with a disability surrounded by friends, he or she will barely look up, and instead search for something out of the ordinary.
See the articles here: http://nesn.com/2013/11/two-north-carolina-state-football-players-decided-to-eat-lunch-with-student-in-wheelchair-sitting-by-himself-photo/
IMAGE DESCRIPTION FOR ARTICLE: TWO FOOTBALL PLAYERS ARE SEATED AT A LUNCH TABLE WITH A YOUNG MAN IN A POWER WHEELCHAIR.