inspiration porn goes to the prom

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{image is the word “PROM” spelled out in a delightfully cheesy balloon arch. I kinda love it.}

So apparently we’re in the height of prom season. One might be forgiven for thinking that prom season would be in May or June when most proms are typically held, but in a country where we start decorating for Christmas three days after Halloween, I suppose it follows that prom season starts in April. 

Besides, now that the word promposal – and all of the over the top absurdity that it represents – has entered our lexicon, the goal of asking a fellow high schooler to a school dance has become to create a scenario so extravagant that it makes it into HuffPost. The game has clearly changed. 

And with the new game comes the onslaught of “feel-good” stories in which well-meaning, non-disabled kids invite disabled friends to prom and the news heaps praise on them for invitations that the media seem to assume we all agree are – can only be – charitable. 

I have no doubt that in many, if not most, of these stories the act of inviting a friend, disabled or otherwise, to prom is just that. It’s not, by any stretch, some grand act of charity. It’s not done for pats on the head; it’s done because these kids know they’ll have a good time with the person they’re inviting. Many of the kids even go out of their way to say that, but it does little to deter the more fervent head patters. 

To be clear, an invitation to prom is not the problem. The way that theses stories are presented is. 

The formula is consistent. There’s the popular hero (or heroine) upon whom the story is focused. We hear all about how wonderful they are. About how they could have gone to prom with anyone. About where they plan to go to college. About how well-liked they are and about all of the activities in which they participate.

The other kid? Is incidental. One-dimensional. An afterthought. Worse, a prop. 

Just for “fun” I Googled the words disabled prom story just now and, among 815,000 hits, one of the top three stories read, Feel Good Story: A Prom Date They’ll Never Forget.  I opened it.

It’s an article about a girl named M. She sounds lovely. We hear a lot about her. About the sports she plays and the particular event within that sport (and how she made the state finals!), about where she plans to go to college, about what she will study and about what she hopes to be when she grows up. We hear about her last two proms and why she decided that she wanted to take one of “the special ed boys” to this one. We hear about how she befriended them and how she got angry when her friends called them “those weird kids.” We hear about her dress. Once you get past the way in which her quotes are presented, she seems like a great kid.

We hear from a school staff member who tells us that she cried when she saw the proposal, live and in person.

We hear nothing from J. The article says that “the school didn’t release his last name.” I suppose reporters have no other way to find out someone’s name than to through the school. Like perhaps asking him? They didn’t. So we know nothing about him. Not a quote, not a single personal detail. Nothing.

 

Every story is similar. Every one of them is about the person doing the asking and how great it is that they, as it was worded in one article I read this morning, “don’t mind” their date’s disability.

Last year, I wrote the following:

I saw a story on HuffPost yesterday. One of those feel good pieces in the Good News section. Yeah, that’s a thing. Cause let’s be honest, there isn’t much good news in “the news.” So I get it, and I appreciate the concept.

The story was entitled, Qdoba Worker Feeds Customer With Disability, Reminds Us All To ‘Help Someone Today.

Underneath a news video packaged around the recording of said worker feeding said customer is the following text:

Faith in humanity, restored.

A worker in a Qdoba fast food restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky was caught on video feeding a customer who was unable to feed herself.

Ridge Quarles told WAVE 3, the local NBC station, that the customer was a regular who traveled to the restaurant via a bus used by people with disabilities.

He told the station:

I had helped her through [the] line and sat her out in the lobby, got her a drink, got her utensils and napkin and kind of started to walk off and I was like, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” and she turned around and she was like, “Sir, if you don’t mind could you help me eat?”
The footage was captured several weeks ago by customer David Jones, who had helped the woman to enter the store.

“He didn’t stop to think about, ‘Well, should I help her, should I not,’ he just went over, put the gloves on and started feeding her,” Jones told WAVE 3.

Jones said he filmed the moment to show his friends “there’s still some good people in the world.”

I think it’s nice that this young man went the extra mile for a customer who was, thankfully, able to ask for the help that she needed. I’m not sure that the fact that he didn’t refuse her request is enough to restore my faith in humanity, as it did for the author of the article, but it’s certainly, well, nice. I’d imagine that the woman whom he helped thought it was nice too. But imagining is all that I can do, because, as far as I can tell, no one asked her.

I wonder what her name is.

I wonder how she feels about being videotaped while eating – while needing to be fed. I wonder how she feels about that video being shared online and subsequently put on television without her consent. I wonder if anyone, anywhere along the line, thought that perhaps they should consult her.

She’s a regular at the restaurant. According to the reporter, she patronizes the place enough that they know how she gets there, what she orders for lunch, what she prefers for dinner. Enough that the young man was able to imitate precisely what she said each time she came in.

But in the video, the reporter says, “we don’t know her name or her story.”

It wouldn’t have been hard to find her.

If they’d thought it was important.

But clearly, their story isn’t about her.

Even though it’s her story.

Once it was packaged for public consumption – for people who aren’t disabled, for those who will view it as an act of kindness to be passed on – it was no longer about her.

I think so often of that incredible Ted Talk that Stella Young left us with before she passed away. The one in which she said, “And these images, there are lots of them out there, they are what we call inspiration porn.” And the audience laughed because, well, porn is a funny word, I guess. And she said,

I use the term porn deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, “Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.”

But what if you are that person?”

What if you ARE that person?

I wonder what her name is.

I wonder how she feels about being on TV.

I wish someone had thought to ask.

These stories are everywhere and it’s easy to get wrapped up in them. It’s even easier to share them. But before you do, I beseech you to ask yourself how it would feel to read them from the disabled person’s point of view. If you were the woman no one even bothered to interview. If you were the kid with no last name. If you were the one who no one could believe the cheerleader would ask to the prom. The one who no one reading those articles could ever think might end up being the actual girlfriend or boyfriend of their one-time, feel-good date.

How would it feel?

Stella asked, “What if you ARE that person?”

So what if you are?

9 thoughts on “inspiration porn goes to the prom

  1. This reminded me that I never said Thank You for your words on this subject. A couple of months ago my son’s elementary school ASD team put together a Professional Learning Seminar on ASD for the district. Coincidentally around that same time I had several conversations with my daughter who was quite upset with how her teacher was treating a couple of students in the class. It basically boiled down to presuming competence and the teacher wasn’t — at least that’s what my daughter saw.

    So I contacted the lead person presenting the ASD seminar for the district and asked if I could give them my thoughts as a parent. She most enthusiastically said yes. Most of what I wrote centered on how the teachers treat the students (how they talk *to* the student and *about* the student) is very much reflected back by the other students in the class. I talked about presuming competence and linked to a few of your blog posts. I linked to posts from others on the spectrum talking about their experiences. (What better way to explain why this is so important.)

    I also got into this subject as well. That adults mean well but it makes many of us parents cringe when hearing these stories. I mentioned Stella and disability porn. The line I used was “my kid is not your kid’s college application essay”. The sad thing is that for the kids — these relationships just are. The kids that the stories profile are not usually looking for the gold star. They just want to hang with a friend.

    Again, thank you for writing exactly what I want to say and linking to others who talk about their experiences. Hopefully we have made a difference in my school district.

  2. Pingback: Response: DoaM’s “Inspiration Porn Goes to the Prom” | tagÂûght

  3. Jess,

    I’ve put up a response to this post on my own blog. Thank you for writing it – it needed to be said.

    tagÂûght

    (Um… can you please delete the reply I put up with my other account – exactly the same as this save without this bottom message. Thanks.)

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