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Stop Objectifying People with Disabilities for the Sake of “Niceness” – Erik Kondo

Let’s take a moment to bask in the glow of this feel good video. Afterall the negativity in the world, isn’t it wonderful to see people being nice to each other? Yes. I am being sarcastic.

I am all for people being “nice” to each other in society. But there are many ways of illustrating the lesson of niceness. But some of them are actually not so nice.

In this video, we see a young woman (who is likely an able-bodied actor) in an inappropriate hospital style wheelchair, depicting the ubiquitous disabled person. Her bag of fruit falls off her lap while crossing the street, and apparently there is nothing she can do about it. Afterall, she is a hapless wheelchair user. So, she dejectedly keeps going.

Fortunately, there are able-bodied car drivers who see what has transpired, and they rush to her aid. Even a dog gets involved. Thanks to their able-bodied compassion, the woman is able to retrieve her fruit and cross the street -with the aid of the friendly dog for good measure. What’s not to love about this heartwarming and inspiring show of well-intentioned able-bodied people coming to the aid of the handicapped?

Here is what not to love. Across the world, particularly in low resource countries, the overarching societal view of people with disabilities is that they are of low competence. That they are in constant need of assistance. As a result, people with disabilities have few employment and social opportunities. Being seen as low competence doesn’t get you hired for jobs. It doesn’t get you dates. Being seen as a chronic drain on resources due to your need for help leads to social ostracization.

As a result of this societal perspective, people with disabilities suffer from negative attitudes which excludes them from society. Being seen as an object to be helped doesn’t mean you are included as an equal in society. When I am traveling down a sidewalk, if I see a worm struggling to cross to the other side, I will typically toss it into the grass giving myself a warm fuzzy of how “nice” I am. But if I want to catch a fish, I will thread that worm onto a hook without a second thought.

If society was filled with all these well meaning people who are willing to help people with disabilities, then why are there so many people with disabilities who have literally been cast aside by society? Why are they the lowest social class? Have the highest rates of unemployment? And are the most likely to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused of any demographic?

Why didn’t the people who made this video care enough to provide an authentic looking person in an appropriate wheelchair? Given the existence of harmful stereotypes, why didn’t they create a heartwarming scene with the wheelchair user as the hero, rather than the victim?

Why not? Because they don’t care. They don’t care that they are perpetuating the negative stereotype of wheelchair users being hapless victims, who are constantly in need of assistance, as long as the story fits their chosen narrative. When you think of someone with a disability do you think of competence, high social status, respected, and admired? Or how about the opposite? Are you aware of your implicit bias? We all have our biases.

The fact is that all people need help from society. Almost nobody, except for a few hardcore survivalists can make it on their own for any period of time. Yes, people with disabilities need help and so does everyone one else in some shape or form. A large aspect of helping people is enabling self-respect and encouraging autonomy within societal social structures. That is what parenting teenagers is all about.

Maybe if the apocalypse comes, people with disabilities will be the first to die. Or maybe, a lifetime of adapting to inaccessible environments and negative attitudes will enable them to last the longest, making them the most competent of all.

On a final note, I have had people stop their cars to help me out, and I was grateful for it. I crashed while electric skateboarding when crossing the street. I fell over on my two-wheeled handcycle on the road. Recently, while picking up litter on the side of the road, I went too deep with my wheelchair into a ditch and couldn’t get out. That time I waved at about 100 cars before one stopped. My point is that there is nothing wrong with getting, offering, and receiving help. But there is something wrong with using people with disabilities as the epitome of showing the need for help.


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