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What We Need to Think About Before Sharing These 'Feel-Good' Disability Stories

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Every morning, after I send my daughter off to school, I read the news. I look at the trending items on Facebook, and then I look at the local news stations in my area.

Today I saw an article from a local news station about a woman with Down syndrome. She had worked at McDonald’s for years and was retiring. Here are some the comments on the story:

“How sweet!”
“Good job, McDonald’s!”
“Wow. So nice!”
“All the lazy non-disabled people need to take note.”
“Congratulations to this woman. Bless her heart!”

This, my friends, is called “ableism.”

Ableism is defined as, “discrimination by individuals who aren’t disabled, resulting in discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.” Some ableism is fairly easy to notice, such as saying someone who does something wrong is “retarded.”

Other forms of ableism are far more covert and insidious.

Take for instance this article, and the responses it garnered. First, there’s the article itself. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. It’s a feel-good story. It’s just the fact that the story was generated only based on a disability. To put it bluntly, how many people have retired from McDonald’s? How many articles have you seen about non-disabled people who retired from McDonald’s? This article was specifically written because a person with Down syndrome retired from McDonald’s. Think about this a moment.

Then there are the comments in response to the article. Why are people thanking McDonald’s for hiring her? Clearly, she must have done her job. She was there for 30 years. Is it sweet? Should we be saying, “bless her heart” to describe this lady? Keep in mind, this isn’t a 5-year-old child or a pet. This is a grown woman who worked a job for over three decades. Why are we talking about her as if she’s a child?

As a parent who has an autistic child, I notice this is a widespread phenomenon for autistic people as well. After I read this article, I saw another article about a football player who sat next to an autistic child. Apparently the child was sitting alone and the football player felt sorry for him and sat next to him.

Why is it important that the child is autistic? If the child wasn’t on the spectrum would this have been news? Shouldn’t we be kind to people not because they have disabilities but because we want to be kind?

I understand the appeal of these stories. They make us feel. I’m also sure most people, myself included, have participated in this sort of behavior.

I only ask that the next time you see an article about someone being kind to a disabled person, or a differently-abled person accomplishing something most people in society are expected to do, I ask you to think a little bit deeper before you comment or hit that “share” button.

The intentions and the reality of the situation might be two totally different things.

Image via Facebook.

Originally published: September 1, 2016
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