A young woman with one arm wins a surfing competition. A man with two prosthetic legs goes to the Olympics. A boy with autism sinks a half-court shot. A woman with multiple sclerosis sings the national anthem.
We’re all very supportive of people with disabilities. At least when they’re doing something amazing.
Social media has created a value system in which how many mentions, shares or likes something gets determines whether or not it’s worth our time. Unfortunately, this system breeds insensitivity. A person with a disability winning a talent show? Worth our time. The daily struggles and successes of millions of people with disabilities in this country and around the world? Not so much.
Our culture seems to rejoice over people with disabilities when they’re winning and ignore them on the rough days. We’re comfortable discussing disabilities as long as it’s within the framework of “overcoming” them. But it’s unfair for us to label disabilities as obstacles that must be defeated. We celebrate people with disabilities in the moments when their disability is the least visible. What does that say about us?
It’s a constant temptation to define people by what’s different about them. “William” becomes “That guy in a wheelchair.” “Rachel” becomes “The girl with Down Syndrome.” The viral videos and posts are guilty of this. Although a video of a boy with autism making a half-court shot is highlighting a moment when his disability is invisible, the focus is still on the fact that he has autism.
A disability is only one aspect of who someone is. We don’t see viral videos titled “Boy with Red Hair Sinks Half-Court Shot” because having red hair tells us nothing about who this boy is. A disability is no different. While it may significantly affect someone’s lifestyle and experiences, it does not define him or her. No one should have to possess spectacular talents or perform miraculous feats to convince us of this.
It is wrong to only think about the challenges faced and goals accomplished by people with disabilities when they give us warm fuzzies. People with disabilities do not have this option. They live with their disability whether or not it is glamorous at that moment, so our awareness and support should be unconditional. The respect and appreciation a person deserves should not be contingent on his or her ability to wow us.
All human beings are infinitely valuable. Not because they’ve overcome the challenges they’ve faced. Not because they’ve done amazing, impressive things. Not because they have a disability. Not because they don’t have one. Because they are human.
It is our responsibility to celebrate humanity instead of “normality.” But don’t take it from me — there are many people with disabilities who use the internet to share their views and experiences. I’d like to see a move away from viral videos and toward the writing, speaking and artistic creations of people with disabilities. They don’t need “likes,” and they don’t need applause. They need to be recognized for what they are: complex, multidimensional human beings with a value that doesn’t need to be proven and could never be measured.
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