In the last week or so I’ve seen lots of memes, videos and photos online that relate to disability. All of these have shown ordinary moments in people’s lives – using a phone, having a dance, going to school or watching a football match. Most of these are activities millions of people do every day, so why does footage of disabled people doing them go viral?
I’m going to briefly explain the context of, and reactions to, four of the videos or images I’ve seen this week and describe why I find them deeply problematic.
A Blind Woman Using her Phone – A stranger took a photo of a blind woman while she was using her phone and posted it on Facebook with the caption, “If you can see what’s wrong say I see it”. This has been shared more than 33,000 times. The assumption is that you can’t be blind and use a phone and that the woman is therefore somehow being deceitful. This is ridiculous as Dr Amy Kavanagh explains in this brilliant article. Amy also articulates something I’ve heard lots of disabled people say ‘The biggest barrier I face each day isn’t my sight loss. It’s the negative and hostile attitudes of other people.’ Most disabled people will be able to recount similar experiences or fears about why our bodies and lives should be under such scrutiny.
Wheelchair Wedding – Yesterday I saw a video clip shared by TV Host James Corden. He wrote ‘Oh my god. This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen today’ The short clip showed a wheelchair user being supported by two other men so he could stand to dance with his wife on their wedding day, and it went viral. In the full video the man can also be seen dancing with his new wife in his chair. This couple can obviously celebrate their marriage in any way they wish, that’s not the issue. The issue is the weepy response of so many mainly non-disabled people. The brilliant Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project sums it up most clearly: “Non disabled friends, allies, co-conspirators: when you share & cry over these kinds of ‘feel good’ videos, think about what kinds of messages you are giving by valuing one mode of existing/functioning over others”
Going To School – This afternoon I saw a video of a disabled child in Indonesia who crawls to school on his hands and knees because his family don’t have another way of getting him to there. All the reporting I’ve seen celebrates the boy’s determination rather than being outraged that a child has to endure so much extra hardship in order to receive an education. So many of the videos that are supposed to inspire, enrage me because where a non-disabled person might see someone overcoming against the odds, I see someone facing barrier after barrier.
Goal Celebration – The final straw and the reason I decided to write this, was a tweet by Luton Football Club praising a steward for assisting a disabled fan in their goal celebrations. Tweet after tweet praised the steward for his ‘kindness’ and ‘good heart’; people asked ‘what can we do for this steward?’ The disabled fan is totally erased as people focus on the steward’s perceived ‘good deed’. The steward was doing his job and the fan was doing his – like thousands of others across the country. The steward is unlikely to have been praised for emptying a bin or showing people where the toilets are. It’s just his proximity to disability that seems to have amplified his goodness. Images like this objectify disabled people and reinforce patronising stereotypes and assumptions.
While non-disabled people might find these memes and videos ‘heart-warming’ they fill me with anxiety. Will someone make assumptions about my body and accuse me of being ‘a fake’? Will I be filmed and used to make others feel better about their lives? Will people take photos of my support workers helping me and praise them for simply doing their job? Will my private moments of humiliation and discrimination be captured and misrepresented?
This week has been by no means unusual – each of these tweets and videos join thousands more and together they have an accumulative, destructive effect on the individual and communal wellbeing of disabled people.
I understand that if disability isn’t part of your lived experience this might seem harmless and that it might be hard to know what you should and shouldn’t share. So to help James Corden and anyone else who’s unsure I’ve made this flowchart:
(Please get in touch for a screen reader compatible version of this flowchart)
I want to live in a society where disabled and non-disabled people have equality of opportunity, where diverse bodies and minds are visible in both our real and online communities, and where the true achievements of disabled people are recognised and celebrated. There are loads of incredible disabled artists and activists whose work should be going viral: check out Access is Love, Attitude is Everything, Heart N Soul, Stay Up Late and Changing Places for starters.
I don’t want praise for having a positive attitude – I want you to see the barriers I face and help me change them. Being a good ally isn’t always straightforward but there are some great tips here.
Narratives around disability tend to be polarised. We’re either ‘scroungers’ with ‘fake impairments’ who non-disabled people must root out, or we’re tragic inspirations overcoming our condition while waiting around to be the object of someone’s good will. The reality is much more ordinary – disabled people (about a fifth of the population) are getting on with their lives in an often non-accessible world.
The images and videos we share reflect our views and help shape them – please be careful about what you share so that we can build a world where disabled people’s lives aren’t measured in relation to how they make non-disabled people feel.