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.
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.