This 'Feel-Good' Humans of New York Disability Story Is Actually Harmful
Yesterday, @humansofny, an Instagram page with 11.5 million followers, posted a story from a physical therapist serving disabled children in the South Bronx.
While I’m all for disability representation in the media, a lot of it is harmful, and most content is written by non-disabled people — including this particular post.
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Below is a copy of the caption. I’ve underlined a few phrases I want you to pay special attention to as we break down what exactly is harmful about this:
“I’m a physical therapist for severely disabled children in the South Bronx. Their observation skills are so keen. They understand more than you know. But they rarely get spoken to, or hugged. Often they aren’t even treated like humans. When the world can’t understand what you want, it kind of ignores you. I had one student named Tamisha who was stuck in a wheelchair. She could only move her eyes. She couldn’t speak, but I could basically read her mind. Tamisha was very intelligent, and very sarcastic. If someone in tight clothing got on the elevator, she’d roll her eyes. And giggle. I’d have to pretend I didn’t know why she was laughing. We grew so close over the years. On Halloween I dressed her up as a butterfly, because that’s how I saw her. She was trapped in this body, but she was a soul with so much depth and so much future. Many of these kids have nowhere to go when they graduate from school. They lose their social lives, and sense of purpose. They’re imprisoned in their bedrooms for the rest of their lives. When Tamisha graduated I wanted to do something for her. Her economic situation was not good. She was being raised by a single father. But Tamisha was completely immobile, so it’s not like I could just get her something cool on Amazon. But my husband and I came up with another idea. We went to Home Depot and got paint, and butterflies, and rainbow decals. And we completely transformed her bedroom. We wouldn’t let her look. We made her sleep in the living room. But at the end of the weekend, when Tamisha’s father carried her in— she started going wild. Her eyes lit up. She’s making all kinds of vocalizations. Her father is holding her, and he’s crying. It was a miracle. Every makeover is a miracle. We’ve done about 20 of them now. We always manage to find the money. We always manage to find the volunteers. Somehow they always come together in a magnificent way. Our process always begins with an interview process. We ask the person: what makes you happy? What colors do you love? What are your favorite things? We figure out exactly what they want. We let them design their dream room. Then we become the instruments who bring that dream to life.”
First of all, I want to note how much I love this woman’s mission. As someone who spends a lot of time in her bedroom resting, I know the power that your environment can hold over your mood. And while I don’t doubt that she had good intentions, there were some glaring examples of harmful rhetoric in this post.
Item one: “stuck in a wheelchair.”
Now, let me preface this by noting that I am not a wheelchair user. Although I have mobility issues, they have not progressed to the point of needing a mobility aid. But through connecting with people in wheelchairs across social media, I’ve learned that an overwhelming majority of them agree that phrases like “wheelchair-bound” and “stuck in a wheelchair” are harmful. For many, wheelchairs actually create freedom and independence by acting as the user’s legs.
Item two: “She couldn’t speak, but I could basically read her mind.”
I’m sure that as a physical therapist, this woman understands Tamisha better than most. I’m not going to pretend that I know what goes on inside Tamisha’s mind. The therapist dressed her up as a butterfly because that’s how she viewed her and decorated her room the same way. At the bottom of the post, it states how there is an interview process for disabled clients. Did Tamisha get the same input? Was she an exception to the rule?
During the 2020 rejuvenation of racial justice movements, there was a term called a “white savior complex,” referring to white people who felt it was their duty to come in and act as a superhero to people of color instead of elevating their voices. The same principle applies here: by saying that she can read Tamisha’s mind, the physical therapist acts as if she is coming in to save the day and negating her thoughts.
If you scroll the post, you’ll see a picture of Tamisha lying on a bed wearing nothing but a t-shirt and a diaper. She is a high school graduate, meaning she is a literal adult. Would you post a picture of a non-disabled adult in their underwear? The post states that Tamisha cannot verbally communicate, implying that they did not get consent to post this intimate photo of her.
The only instance where it is considered acceptable to post someone wearing a diaper or undergarment without their consent is parents posting their infants and toddlers. If you’re not familiar with the infantilization of disabled people, I encourage you to look into it. You know how some people speak to those with mental or developmental disabilities as if they are children, or worse, pets? The raising of pitch, the oversimplification of language? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s dehumanizing, ableist, and disgusting. Treat us like people, not babies or pets, please and thank you.
Items three and four: “trapped in this body” and “imprisoned in their bedrooms.”
I spend a great deal of time in my bedroom resting and missing out on classes and activities. My illnesses create barriers for me, sure, but it is harmful to imply that disabled people cannot experience fulfillment, happiness, and wholeness. I can do great things in my disabled body and tiny little college bedroom. Through accommodations and accessibility features, I can complete my coursework, watch church online, and communicate with my friends. Yes, sometimes I wish I could go out and do these things in person all the time, but that’s my reality.
Disabled people don’t live sad and depressing lives. When given the tools we need, from wheelchairs to assistive communication devices to classroom accommodations, we thrive and live productive lives.
There is a phrase I love that is frequently used within the disabled community: “nothing about us without us.” Instead of speaking over disabled voices, consider elevating and sharing the platforms of those who have firsthand experience with what it’s like to live in a disabled body. That is how we can stop these harmful media portrayals of the disabled community.
Thank you for listening.
This story originally appeared on Penned by Audrey.
Image via Instagram.