Why the ‘Heartwarming’ Story of a Little Girl Carried by Her Teacher is Problematic

Many of us have seen it– the “inspiring” and “uplifting” feel-good story about a teacher in Kentucky who carried a 10-year-old girl who has spina bifida (just like me) on his back during a school field trip so she wouldn’t miss out. 

Awwww. 

But here’s the reality of the situation that the general public seems to be missing, the questions that usually only a disability activist thinks to ask:  

1. Why didn’t the school/class arrange a trip to an accessible location instead of putting the child in this situation? 

2. Why does the media insist on positioning people with disabilities (in this case, a girl with spina bifida, like me) as objects of charity? People without disabilities often cannot understand that stories like these, while heartwarming to many, serve to dehumanize people with disabilities. We are meant to be smiled at, patted on the head, carried piggyback, and used to make others look good. 

Let me preface this by saying that I, too, am a sucker for the average human interest story of people helping out people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially (and this part is important) if the recipient of help doesn’t mind being part of the story. If the girl’s mom and the girl herself didn’t mind the media attention, fine. 

But still, I cannot ignore the fact that major national news outlets fashioned this news piece as nothing more than pure inspiration porn. What is “inspiration porn,” exactly? Wikipedia defines the term originally coined in 2012 by the late disability activist Stella Young as “the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability.”

Read that again. 

Let’s face it– this story would not have been considered “newsworthy” at all had not this young girl had a disability. Imagine pitching this story to someone without the disability angle and the pitch falls short. 

But the fact that the girl has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair meant that she might miss out on this field trip, and the teacher graciously offered to carry her, thus setting the stage for yet another tried, if trite, ableist story that seems to play out so often on a slow news day– “a person with a disability is again the recipient of charity by a heroic person without a disability.” 

Think about it. What is that narrative really saying about people with disabilities? That our sole purpose in society is to exist as props to make people without disabilities look like selfless humanitarians. 

It’s absurd and very offensive. 

It is the same narrative that makes it socially acceptable to break social conventions and invade the personal space of people with disabilities on a daily basis. It makes it okay for people without disabilities to pat a wheelchair user on the head, to touch a Little Person on the arm, to speak to an adult with Down Syndrome in that sing-song voice usually reserved for elementary school-age children. 

If you think these are rare, isolated incidents that involve only the most ignorant people, then you’re wrong. Unfortunately, intelligent, well-educated people often make these mistakes. Just a few weeks ago, I was accosted by a woman at a classy networking event so she could ask me how long I would be in my wheelchair. (My response to her? “There are so many more things about me that are more interesting than my wheelchair!”) 

Make no mistake– this is a dangerous narrative that continues to depersonalize us and rob us of our dignity. 

Instead, the media keeps sidestepping stories of real badasses in the disability community– scientists, educators, artists, activists, athletes– all of these people whose presence in mainstream professions is truly helping to normalize disability not as an invitation for pity or inspiration, but rather as one more characteristic that makes us as human beings so beautifully diverse and multifaceted. 

By focusing the lens on how “heroic” this teacher was, you are reminding the public of what this girl is perceived as lacking, instead of highlighting whatever strengths and abilities she has. 

And tragically, but ultimately, this depersonalization and objectification of people with disabilities can and does lead to us being seen as less than human, which makes it easy for mainstream society (i.e., people without disabilities) to justify their behavior when they discriminate against us in gaining access to services, accommodations, and everything else that all humans are entitled to. 

For example, by seeing us merely as objects of “inspiration” and “pity,” you are ignoring the injustice of a person without an accessible parking placard taking up the ramp space next to an accessible parking spot that someone with a ramp might need. You are overlooking the frustration of a person with a disability who must wait a long time to use an accessible bathroom stall while someone is inside, doing their makeup. You are ignoring the person who has spent years applying for a job but keeps getting rejected due to their disability. You are ignoring causes you could be supporting that could help empower people with disabilities.

You are ignoring that we are more likely to be targets of crimes because we are perceived by others as being vulnerable and not competent and strong. 

What happens when the girl featured in this viral story becomes a teenager and becomes fully aware that her 15 minutes of fame was being carried piggy-back by a teacher on a school field trip? What about when she accomplishes something big in her academic or professional career? Will this be the story that always follows her, instead? 

And more importantly, what does it say about a society that it would rather focus on these inspiration porn stories rather than address the blatant disregard on the part of the school for this child’s accessibility needs? We have no time to talk about accessibility for all– we are too busy sharing heartwarming viral content! 

No, this society needs to put us in our place– as the perpetual recipients of charity, pity, and compassion, for the human race to continue functioning properly, otherwise where would they get their warm fuzzies from? The feel-good stories that feed off of the need for humans to constantly feel good about themselves say more about the neediness of people without disabilities than about the needs of people with disabilities. 

CNN, ABC, CBS, Fox News, and so many other national mainstream outlets chose to focus on the angle of the hero helping the underdog, when it instead could have highlighted the urgent need for all public places to go beyond abiding by the Americans with Disabilities Act and embrace the concept of inclusion as a human right and not as a privilege

I remember being 10 years old and having to miss out on my class field trip to St. Augustine, Florida because it wasn’t an accessible location. My parents took it in stride– we just made a family trip there at another time. But the memory remains of what it felt like to miss out as the “kid with a disability.” 

This should have been a story about the lack of accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities, and not yet another story that paints us as charity cases. This should have been an opportunity to even educate the public about spina bifida and the challenges that people with disabilities in general face on a daily basis.

But instead, reporters thought they’d get that coveted byline by producing very shareable, clickable content that reduces people to tears and clapping. Content that chips away at our value as human beings, one click at a time. 

Indeed, this narrative, and not always our disabilities themselves, are what make living with a disability frustrating and often demoralizing. Carrying this girl on a field trip was not heroic— it was the decent thing to do in the absence of a better alternative. 

Nonetheless, stories like these and their role in the broader disability narrative are a burden we must continue to carry alone

41 thoughts on “Why the ‘Heartwarming’ Story of a Little Girl Carried by Her Teacher is Problematic”

  1. So would you rather the story was..” Little girl MISSES OUT on field trip due to disability and inaccessibility.” where she was left back in another classroom with work to finish. only to hear the next how much fun her peers had and how they wished she was able to attend….”? or better yet …” Whole class misses out on going on school trip” because one student wasn’t able to attend and teacher didn’t want to help her because he might be considered ABLEIST!!?”
    Well, which headline would you rather read?!

  2. At least the teacher did what she did not for fame and thank but for the love of her students so thank you to the teacher for the love she showed

    1. Hi Susan, I do not criticize the teacher. I think he did the best he could for that student. What I take issue with is the media attention this non-news story received.

      Thanks for reading!

      Laurita

      1. Sounds like u r a bit jealous don’t tell me ive missed ur point I know this family and I have a disability myself

        1. Hi Jessica,

          Yeah, no. This is definitely not the type of media attention I would want either for myself or the spina bifida cause. So, you are wrong about that. But thanks for reading! 🙂

    2. Great article! I too have SB and know the child and her mother featured in the story. I do love that she was able to go on the field trip and a teacher stepped up to make that happen, but I agree that was it national news worthy? Probably not. I attended the same elementary school as her 30 years ago. My PE teacher carried me up a large mountain on our 4th grade trip to Pine Mountain, so I could go to the top with my peers. It was amazing, but that is where the story ended. As an adult with SB I too feel that stories like this dont show how people with disabilities have overcome obstacles, but rather makes society continue to “pity” us.

    3. Your anger over this makes me sad. Ryan, and those around her, are amazing. Take it for what it was, a genuine gesture. You make this about how unfair it was to Ryan, to have a field trip she could not go to. Schools have field trips in place. If they had to change the trip to make it just about one child, what happens the other 29? I suggest you sit back, take your anger, resentment , or whatever, and realize things are not about you. Take it as a teaching moment. Ryan and her teacher brought to light Spina bifida to many, with this small gesture. They weren’t out to make headlines. When they did, it brought people a beautiful story of kindness, as well as the limitations of her disease. Think before you press post. Every one needs a feel good story. And this made us all beam. Know your subject before you write. Ryan is awesome. Her family and friends are awesome. Sometimes life is not all inclusive, sometimes it sucks. Not just for those with a visible disability.

    4. Hello. I read this article twice. The first time was because friends were posting it on social media, and seemed to view it as an unpleasant commentary about a mutual friend and her teacher, and I wanted to know why someone would feel that an act of kindness to a busy mom was problematic. After the first read-through I knew that was not your point, so I read it again to make sure I DID understand your point. I do, and I think you made it well.
      I also checked out your Mission & Vision and the work you’re doing to raise awareness and effect change where you can, and affect change that’s already begun. I respect people who work to make life be how it should be already. Thank you.
      Since one of your Mission objectives is “to provide an online platform allowing families affected by spina bifida and supporters to connect and engage with each other across the globe”, I encourage you to get in touch with Ryan’s mom, Shelly. Regardless of the media’s slant, I think you might have more to gain than to lose from knowing each other. I don’t know all the frustrating attitudes you’ve faced and continue to fight, nor do I know all of Ryan’s, but I’m old and have worked with and around hundreds of people on a daily basis, and I’m smart enough to spot warriors for an inclusive world when I see them.
      I’m in no position to argue about your perception of what kind of attention is absurd and insulting, nor would I pass judgement on your response to it. Corny but true, sometimes life presents a great opportunity disguised as something other than what we want or expect. Perhaps the opportunity to draw attention to your project will affect some of the changes that need to happen. Life isn’t over. How can anyone know all the negatives or the positives of this ripple until the last effect is felt?
      Maybe humans will have to fight for their rights until the end of time, and maybe I’ll never make a difference in the fight, but please accept my thanks for furthering my education today.

    1. I completely agree with this article. I’m in grad school right now and I’m doing a paper on public perception of people with physical disabilities. Thank you for this article.

      1. Hi Sue,

        Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Please feel free to quote this article if you find it useful for your research, with proper attribution, of course. I’d be happy to help. 🙂

        Laurita

  3. I think the teacher did the best possible in the situation. I, too, do not want able-bodied kids to have to miss out because of one special needs classmate, but then again, that happens all the time (peanut allergies anyone?). I’m more of a fan of inclusion than putting both the child and teacher at potential risk.
    That said, I also agree that’s not the point. The point is how this has been handled in news media and on social media. As a former news journalist, I promise you that they missed the point and are just using this girl and her teacher as a feel good story that ignores the reality of the situation. Irresponsible.

    1. Thank you, Jamie, for validating my point. I also agree that the teacher did the best he could in that situation. My problem was not so much in how the lack of accessibility was handled (although that would make for another article, LOL!). My issue was the media hype. It’s great to see people with spina bifida in the news– but it depends on the context.

      Sometimes no news is better news. 🙂

  4. I’m so glad someone else questioned the location of the field trip and why an accessible alternative wasn’t found. To me that would have been the obvious solution.

    1. Hi Nicole!

      Yes, that would have been an obvious solution. But instead, we are treated to a barrage of media pieces slanted in favor of the ableism narrative. 🙁

      Thanks for reading!

      Laurita

    2. The field trip was to the Falls of the Ohio State Park. You have to hike to get to the riverbed there. It’s not the park’s fault it is at a lower elevation. It is the only prehistoric riverbed in this area of Kentucky so yeah. It was the only place for ANYONE to experience fossils naturally. Also the school district is almost entirely title 1 (poverty), most students would never have the opportunity to visit a real prehistoric riverbed and find fossils themselves had the school not provided the experience (which included a free school lunch). For free. To any student or parent wishing to go. When an administration funds state parks again, maybe an elevator could be installed in the mountain to make God’s creation more accessible.

    3. The location I. Question deals with science and history that’s a natural not man made. Unfortunately there isn’t a way to make it wheelchair accessible. Therefore if special accommodations by a kind hearted teacher (which was not his student by the way) would never see it in person unless someone carried. Whether it be with or without school, it wasn’t malicious. Mom Was gonna carry her. Otherwise as normal…mom finds a field trip for one for the day,
      Every school in area goes there for educational purpose. Please come visit so you can see first hand what this place is and why it’s hard. I’m personally glad she felt included for once and not different. I’m glad it made her happy. Media may have not given the entire story, try to read between the lines…this goes out to the author and anyone else wondering.
      Location: Clarksville Indiana
      Place: Falls of the Ohio
      Across the bridge from Louisville KY

  5. absolutely applaud the teacher, there are handicaps in many forms, we adapt and adjust daily as cities. no need to rain on this mans parade.

    1. Hi Jimmy,

      I never criticized the teacher’s actions. I am not “raining on anyone’s parade.” (Was there a parade? I must have missed it!) I agree that we must adapt and adjust to the daily challenges disabilities bring. This wasn’t “adapting.” This was media attention that skews the focus on the teacher as a “hero” and a girl with spina bifida as an object of charity. Of course, this is my opinion, so you can feel free to disagree, which obviously you do.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

      1. I just wanna say you should have contacted the family before you chose to write this. Just because you see something one way, doesn’t mean everyone else will see it that way too. Everyone I know that has seen her story did not see it the way you did. I really hope you find kindness because life will be boring without it. Also, this is my niece. And she has done so much in her life already. She’s the strongest and sweetest person I know. Don’t mess with my family.

  6. It would have been great if you contacted the family before writing this. Ryan has had more than 15 minutes of fame. She is breaking barriers and participating in activities that normally exclude people of different abilities. She is more than this I’m sorry you weren’t able to see that.

    1. Hi Liz,

      I am sure she’s an incredible girl, and my views on the media frenzy over this story have absolutely nothing to do with my opinion of her. Clearly, you missed my point. I am merely criticizing the angle of the story that the media chose to portray, instead of educating the public about the need for accessibility or even spina bifida awareness.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

      1. If you happen to go onto the Team Ryan page on Facebook, the angle that the media chose to portray was an act of kindness from a teacher to help a child who would not be able to otherwise. This story was written originally by this little girls mother, who updates her Facebook for her friends and family as all of us do. This just happen to take off. This is about putting a bit of faith back in humanity and a simple act of kindness made by one human to another. I highly highly encourage you to check out Team Ryan on Facebook and see all of the amazing things she does for her community and her history of making a difference in her local community and nationwide. It really does give you a sense of inspiration, which we all need!

    2. You keep saying, “missed my point”. This started with a post from her mother, to shout out to beautiful ppl in a great school because of a cruel world and society that we live in. This was Ryan’s first trip with the school without her mom or “other plans” and the teacher was not her own. Here in Louisville, Ryan is the epitome of spina bifida awareness along with her friends, plastered over billboards and commercials. This story was not created for spina bifida awareness, it was a simple act of someone being humble and kind in a school system like ours.
      I am so sorry that the media has failed you to make you feel this way, but theres no need to be sour over this story. The point is that someone else volunteered, the school allowed it and Ryan had a great time,….without her mom or wheelchair. We needed that.

  7. Hi Laurita,
    I don’t think you have all the facts of the reasons behind why the class trip was so important to Ryan.
    This in particular spot in which was travel to was a Dig spot.
    Being a Special needs child should not limit your goals or aspirations of life and in this particular spot of the field trip which was covered many of times is where Ryan got to explore and dig and be just like a scientist. A dream that this teacher made possible a dream that this teacher made sure that Ryan didn’t miss out on. That was the extreme reason behind all the media coverage. A simple act of kindness a simple act of going above and beyond without even having to think was what this actually was about. Not about her having spina bifida or being “special needs” but the bigger picture was a SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS. It went a long way why would anyone want to stop that?.

  8. Wow. This is ridiculous. This happened in my hometown and the million year old fossil beds there happen to be on rocks and near a dam that cannot be made handicap accessible or the entire location loses the historic and structural integrity. If you knew that and weren’t so worried about the way the World sees YOU, you would just be happy for the little girl feeling included. You need more self awareness in your life.

  9. So why don’t you take the time to do a little research on Ryan? You felt so compelled to write an article attacking the media for making her and disabilities a charity case? Maybe you’d see that she’s constantly setting goals for herself and her community and she’s killing it! Apparently you missed the real point of the story that the teacher did what any decent human being did- he just did the right thing. Ryan has a strong presence in our community in aspect to making life itself more accessible. Her school always looks after her and she is a part of her school, fully. They don’t look at her as a disability or that she’s disabled and can’t be a part of everyday doings. So maybe instead of writing an article that shoots down what is actually a feel good community story, do some research on the girl that is constantly changing her community, a girl who is rocking the #spinabeautiful hashtag to the fullest, a girl who teams up with clothing companies to give back, the girl who is a real life beauty queen, the girl who breaks molds and standards, take time to look up Ryan and her family- and maybe you’d edit your article. Maybe do the right thing, like her teacher. Because not all people want to be charity cases, they just want to be the change this world needs. Change so that people aren’t so offended by good people doing good for other people- but I guessed you just MISSED that important part, the one where that little girl is killing the kindness game right now, and she’s got an awesome family and extended family that have her back, too.

    And sometime simple happy news stories is what we need to get a break from this day to day grind we’re all in.

    But I guess you missed that point, too.

    ??‍♀️

  10. The main reason Ryan’s story was shared everywhere was to prove there is still kindness in the world in a time where our country needs every bit of kindness the most. I agree more places need to be accessible but this particular trip wasn’t. So a kind hearted teacher stepped in. Ryan is nothing short of spectacular. She’s won pageants, plays golf, has been in dance recitals and so much more. As far as her outlook when she’s a little older, this story with her teacher will be a small part of who she is. She’s so much more than a child in a wheel chair. In fact, we could all learn from her. She always has a smile on her face, she’s always positive, she’s been through 30 plus surgeries and comes out fighting every time!! Let her have this spot light, because she was included with her friends on a field trip. She’s made lifelong friends in her teacher and his wife. She would never have the attitude of “I can’t”
    Because something is not accessible, she would think how can I make it accessible for me.. whether that’s a teacher stepping in, a family member or a friend. Her family does an amazing job making sure she’s not excluded EVER… I wish things were more accessible for you, or that there was more kindness in this world.

  11. The disability is not a wheelchair or spina bifida.. The disability is the negative attitude towards a beautiful moment shared all over the world that made people smile and believe in the greater good.

    I have a son who has a disability that cant be seen by the human eye. Yet there are many who expect him to be able to do everything others can bevause a physical disability cant be seen. If this field trip was part of his school outing , he would not have been able to attend to over working his heart and keeping up with everyone. I’ll leave the other details out.
    My point. Accommodating everyone for every adventure or every event sometimes isnt meant for everyone.

    We count our blessings and we utilize the gifts, strengths and blessings we have been given. Not burst the bubble filled with hope.

    One bad comment gets around faster than five good ones.
    Our world is filled with enough hate, politics and negativity. Maybe you should have reached out personally to this family and expressed your thoughts instead of seeking attention publicly through social media ?!
    Pot. Kettle.

    Let me say this one last sentence with kindness and respect.
    I pray they find a cure for all diagnoses labelled as disabled. If you knew this little girl and her family, the school, the teacher, the community, you would truly understand Ryan and her teacher made this world a better place! Even if it was just a piggyback ride in a backpack on a bed of rocks!

  12. I think your criticism of what you see as the media taking advantage is misguided. Society needs “feel good” stories in the sea of never ending negativity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with spreading a positive message. People should help others when possible & this should be seen as a example. I personally think you wrote this to try & steal their thunder, in a effort shine light on yourself.

  13. I am Ryans grandfather and they all live with us.Why did you not contact us for info before injecting your point of view without knowing more of the situation? For one thing.Ryan would not have wanted her class to miss what could be a once in a lifetime chance to see the fossil beds as it’s usually under water.Because of the drought they are very exposed now.She is always very positive in her attitude about her problems and never has felt that she is “Patted on the head” as you put it in your post!I’m glad she views life with a better attitude than you have and see’ the upside rather than the dim way you look at it. Doubt this will get posted but next time do your homework and research who you are writing about and get their point of view before you write about them. The school is fantastic in finding ways to accommodate Ryan in any way they can and putting blame on them was also uncalled for.A simple phone call or message on here could have made you a good story instead of the way you twisted things around to make it the way you wanted! Doug King

    1. Three points I would like to make and this will be the last comment I will make in regards to this article:

      1. I did not attack anyone. I didn’t even name anyone.

      2. You clearly did not read the entire article.

      3. If you read it, then obviously, you did not understand.

      Have a great day!

  14. You certainly opened a can of worms on this one! Kudos to you for trying to help your own cause and everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion and that is certainly ALL YOURS IS! You have never met this little girl or her mom to even fathom HALF if what she has already accomplished in her short life. The angle of her story is, she would have missed out because the park isn’t accessible and someone thought to speak up and say, HEY I’LL HELP!! Minorities want inclusiveness but get mad when someone else gets exposure. It’s a shame really.

  15. I personally have a problem with the teacher being hailed as a hero. He helped a child who needed help. Isnt that just a decent human act? This should be a normal action. To help people when they need it. Disability or not. The world will never be 100 accessible for all the many disabilities out there. So as humans it is our job to do the best to limit situations where people are not able to participate. I wish/hope the parents use this new found 15 minutes of fame to spread awareness to their daughters condition.

  16. Have you ever thought to see that this was not charity, they don’t see it as charity, her mom was planning on going that is why she had the back pack, it is more about the fact that the teacher stepped up to give her some independence with out mom… Ryan is such a brave strong girl who is pushing the boundaries of “having a disability”. While I agree that the media shewed the story to make it a feel good story, but the media skews everything, have you ever read a Washington Post for opposites sides of the country… they aren’t the same… So what you see as “a hero and a disabled person receiving charity” is your own perception, while others see independence, equality, and inclusion. Ryan does not need or what charity, but a hand up in life and that is exactly what this teacher did for her and her family.

  17. I struggle sometimes with these stories because, as a Special Education teacher, these “feel good” stories, of ALL kids being included, truly make me smile and I want to share them. However, I understand the flip-side and how it can be offensive to people with disabilities.

    In this particular story, the mother and child were completely on board with the publicity. Her mom is the one who made the original Facebook post that went viral. The teacher never asked to be considered “a hero” and you could tell in interviews he didn’t crave the spotlight. He truly just saw a need and filled it.

    I think that’s one important take away that stories like these can promote… if you see a need, fill it! In this story, the teacher offered to carry a student. In another story circulating, a teacher built a special trumpet holder so a student could participate in band. To me those aren’t “pity” stories. They are just cool stories of people helping people and I think that’s a story we can all learn from.

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