Stop Using Wheelchair Users as Foils for Your Lesson - Erik Kondo

“Be thankful for what you have, it could always be worse”. This is a fairly common message used to remind people about how “lucky” they should feel, after all it could be worse, they could have a disability[ 1].

Here are my responses to this message.

#1. Does telling someone to be thankful actually make that person’s life better? If you get punched in the eye, should you be thankful that you didn’t get punched in both eyes? If you just lost your phone, should you feel thankful that you didn’t lose your phone and your wallet too? If one of your parents just died, should you be thankful that they both didn’t die? If you follow this line of reasoning, nothing should ever upset you since it could always be worse. Human emotion emotions and viewpoints don't work that way.

#2. There is no lasting improvement of a person’s perspective/attitude that comes from the acknowledgement of not being someone else. Maybe they get a fleeting boost in self-esteem by comparing themselves to someone they feel is worse off, but that feeling has no substance. It doesn’t last.

#3. Making Group A of people feel better about themselves by telling them that they are not Group B of people has a negative effect on Group B. Why? Because human beings don’t thrive when other people feel that they are less than, and when they too feel less than. The more marginalized a group is, the less their opportunities for work, careers, education, social interaction, recreational outlets become, and the more they are excluded from society as a whole.

#4. Let’s imagine a meme in which three men are complaining about their problems, and then one says, “Well, it could be worse, we could be women”. What about a meme with three White women are complaining about their problems, and then one says “Well, it could be worse, we could be Black.” How would society perceive these memes? My guess is that there would be a huge outcry of sexism and racism. But three Able-Bodied people complaining about their problems and saying “Well, it could be worse, we could be Disabled.” is not seen as ableist.

Why? Because this scenario is seen as a fact both by the Able-Bodied population and also by some within the Disability Community. What does that tell us? It tells us that the negative societal view of disability is so ingrained in our culture that it is considered a truism.

#5. Negative societal attitudes create a self-reinforcing cycle. When people around you don’t respect you, they don’t hire you. They don’t want to do things with you. They don’t ask you out on dates. They don’t marry and have children with you. You in turn, have lower self-confidence and self-esteem. You tend to only meet the low expectations set for you. The negative cycle continues and grows.

The reverse is also true. When people around you respect you, your opportunities and self-respect increases. Your attitude and actions generate more respect for you. The cycle becomes positive.

#6. There will be some in the Disability Community that identify with the above Meme’s message. They legitimately feel that all Able-Bodied people should feel thankful that they don’t have a disability. My question to them is “Do you practice what you preach”? Are you grateful for what you have that others don’t? If you dwell on the advantages of the Able-Bodied, then you are doing exactly the opposite of Meme’s “positive” message. There is always someone worse off than you. Does me telling you to be thankful, actually improve your attitude and outlook? My guess is that it doesn’t.

#7. The fact that the Meme’s originators intended it as a positive message doesn’t exempt it from the fact that it conveys a negative societal message about People with Disabilities. There is no reason for there to be an image of a person with a disability as the final frame other than to add a dramatic effect intended to appeal to the Able-Bodied.

Here is my message.

Stop using People with Disabilities as foils to make Able-Bodied people feel better about their circumstances. Stop using wheelchair users as examples to teach lessons.

Do consider the entirety of the viewpoint you convey when characterizing a group that already suffers from the negative effects of stereotyping.

[1] Here is the link to the associated video.