“What a shame, you’re so pretty!”
Thus begins this article by the Huffington Post, bringing awareness to a social media campaign called the Chatterbox Challenge. The aim of the challenge is to use the hashtags #ChatterboxChallenge and #heardwhilstdisabled to break the seemingly public yet unacknowledged silence and give voice to the hurtful comments that are leveled at people with disabilities, as well as raise funds for several Australian disability-centric charities.
I myself added a couple of tweets with the ChatterboxChallenge hashtag, figuring I could put into words things that I hear all the time as a blind woman. I didn’t think anything more about it – much less considered writing a blog post about it – until two fairly well-known personalities got into hot water for heartless comments aimed at two people who just happen to be in wheelchairs.
Ten days ago, social media was abuzz when Kanye West called out two fans who did not stand like the rest of the crowd during one of his songs at a concert in Australia. One of them waved a prosthetic limb in the air to show security (yes, security) that they were unable to do so, and the other was in a wheelchair. The reviews of a follow-up concert indicated that Kanye changed his schtick to something like “If you are able, I want everyone to stand.” Whatever one thinks about Kanye’s music, there is no reason for pressure to be exerted by a performer to all but force anyone for any reason to do something they are not willing or able to do.
Then yesterday I saw this tweet:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p>Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.</p>— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) <a href=”https://twitter.com/KenJennings/status/514125105426071553″>September 22, 2014</a></blockquote>
<script async src=”//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>Ken
Jennings is quite possibly best known as the man who won 74 rounds of “Jeopardy!” back in 2004. Since then he has appeared on other game shows and written several books, along with many other pursuits. For someone who is seemingly so intelligent, comments like this demean both the utterer and the recipient.
Personally, the comments along this vain are backhanded compliments and full-frontal insults. To say that it’s too bad that an attractive person has a disability indicates the worthlessness of that person. Sure, everyone likes to be told they’re attractive, but to throw the disability into the equation removes any compliment that was intended. People without disabilities would feel angry and insecure if someone walked up to them and told them that it’s too bad they have blue eyes because they are truly attractive otherwise. But you don’t hear that happen, at least not publicly; instead, we with disabilities seem to be open season for insensitive comments that no one else would be expected to tolerate:
Ironically, it’s issues of employment and family life (and the issues that surround them) that seem to draw the most insults. I have posted before a brief synopsis of my employment journey, so I will not belabor the point beyond saying that it is incredibly demoralizing to be told that we have the smarts, skills and education, but… well, sorry! We’re just meant to be inspirational for living our lives the way other people expect to see as a “disabled” life. As for families? medical “professionals”, social workers, and even families act surprised and shocked that a person with a disability wishes to get married or have children. Someone I follow on Twitter posted that a former friend told his wife that she shouldn’t have babies with him because he’s blind. In a worst case scenario, parents with disabilities seem to be at increased risk to have the children they do have taken away from them because of the perception that they are unable to take care of themselves, much less the most vulnerable of our society.
I have no problem answering honest questions about how I do things – cook, know where things are around my house, match my clothes – for the simple reason that people question what they don’t know. Heck, I’m not above asking a few questions myself. Last year I worked with a woman who used a manual wheelchair, and I had this crazy question for her. I was a bit embarrassed, but I asked her what she did with all the cupboards above her apartment’s kitchen counters. I know it sounds silly, but I honestly just didn’t know. She laughed and told me she crammed everything in the lower-level cabinets and put things she didn’t use often into the upper cabinets with the help of family and friends. This is the difference between asking questions and making patronizing comments that demean. Here’s an idea: if you don’t want someone saying such a comment about you, keep your mouth shut and your hands off the keyboard.