Recently, a story went viral about a girl who asked a boy with a disability to prom. This high school moment was hyped to give all the feels. But as I browsed the reader comments after the story, the only thing that I, as mom to a wonderful, neurodivergent autistic son, felt was anger.
Over and over, I saw people saying things like, “What a sweet girl!” or “She’s such a hero for doing this….” or “Her parents should be so proud!”
Nobody mentioned the boy, who was the subject of the “promposal,” and was pictured grinning. He might have been the face of the story, but to most of the commenters, he was just an object for the girl to bounce her “heroic” deed off of.
But he’s not an object.
He’s a human being. Like my son he has a disability, like my son he’s also a real boy with thoughts, feelings, desires, and everything else that goes along with being human.
And sure, maybe this girl is nice, but she’s no hero.
And she doesn’t deserve the applause of the internet for being a decent human being, especially when that same internet assumes her date is a charity case.
She didn’t save a life or put herself in harm’s way -- unless you consider asking someone with a disability to a social event putting yourself in harm’s way, which is certainly a troubling and unacceptable position to hold. She isn’t a hero because she invited a boy with a disability to prom. She doesn’t get points for not being mean.
She’s being human.
And perhaps that’s worth celebrating, but there are two humans in this story. And to just shine praise on the girl misses the point.
What if this boy had asked someone else to prom using whatever communication methods were available to him? What if this boy and his chosen prom date went to normal prom with all their other peers? Would we call that special? Would we see him as a hero?
No. We would see them as humans. As teenagers doing what teenagers do -- making friends, going on dates, hanging out at social events.
Just like old ladies don’t cross the street merely to let others help them, disabled people do not exist to make non-disabled people feel like heroes. They are not here to help others feel better about themselves. Their accomplishments -- while worth celebrating like anyone else’s -- shouldn’t be used as a motivational counterpoints to our others' actions.
Thinking like that is called "ableism," which means “a set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”
And ableism is dangerous.
Ableism is the enemy of acceptance. It’s the thing that allows comedians to keep taking cheap shots at people with disabilities. It’s the reason some parents justify killing their disabled children.
Too often, ableism is internalized: our culture rarely allows that an autistic child like my son might be perfectly fine as he is. That his being autistic doesn’t make him less than his non-autistic peers. Instead, we’re told to fix our disabled kids, to make them as normal as possible so they can pass among their peers. Which is a mistake, not to mention unfair.
If we truly want to create a culture that is inclusive, accepting, and supportive of people with disabilities, then we have to recognize ableism when we see it. We have to stop funding things like “Special Needs Proms” and work for making the lives of those with disabilities lives better in real, lasting ways. And we must insist on recognizing the inherent worth of disabled people -- not allow them to be seen as somehow less -- in every situation.
So, the next time you see one of these super-sweet-look-at-the-hero-who-interacted-with-a-disabled-person stories, be aware of the inherent ableism. Remember that there are two (or more) humans involved. Call them both heroes if you must. But please, please don’t cheer someone on just for being nice to a person with a disability.
- Matt Stafford: Disability Proms
- Rachel KallemWhitman: Dear Tim Tebow, All the “Special Needs Proms” and Prayers in the World will not Actually Improve How Disability is Experienced