Commodifying the Disabled People

(The photo shows Ben Morser and Mary Lapkowicz in their prom dresses http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/05/19/high-school-quarterback-takes-friend-down-syndrome-prom)

Under the tag “good news,” Fox News tells us the story a high school quarterback named Ben Morser, who took Mary Lapkowicz, his childhood friend with Down syndrome, to his prom. He had made the promise back in fourth grade and kept his word. The article includes Ben’s comments about how cool and easy going Mary is.

Sounds like a heart-warming story? Maybe suspend your judgment until you hear about how others reacted to Ben’s action.

First, Ben’s mother expressed her pride in her son through a Facebook post; “[Ben] has grown into a man with a big heart, a deep sense of putting others first, and most of all making people feel special and loved.” [1] Not only that, Mary’s brother also made a complimentary FB post about Ben, namely about his remarkable kindness towards Mary, unlike so many others who avoided Mary because of her Down syndrome.

Ben Morser is probably a nice guy with well intentions- I don’t deny that. However, the problem lies in the media’s portrayal of the story, especially its objectification/commodification of Mary, a disabled person. Mary is not depicted as someone with agency. There is no mention of how Mary felt about the event except for the brief, indirect reference to Ben surprising her by suddenly inviting her to his prom. (After all, they were attending different schools and were no longer maintaining active interactions) Even then, the sentence positions Mary as an object- the receiver – of Ben’s action. This resonates with a concept articulated by bell hooks; when whiteness comes into contact with Otherness, it is the “always a white hand doing the touching”[2] Mary is the Other who is stripped of her agency and turned into an object that satisfies the desires of the non-disabled people.

Think further about who benefits from the objectification of disabled people like Mary. It certainly isn’t the disabled. First, Ben’s mother was able to publicly give credit to her son for his ability to make someone like Mary feel special and beloved (and perhaps his ability to see beyond her disability), and by extension, to herself for successfully raising such a wonderful son. Secondly, Ben is seen almost as a hero who went out of his way to save a damsel in distress, bringing joy to her otherwise miserable life. Thirdly, Ben is pictured as an inclusive, open-minded individual, willing to embrace the Other. Mary has no control the narrative here. Instead, by coming into contact with the Other, Ben asserts his power- he is the one who can control how society views him.

The utmost harm that comes from objectifying Mary is that it covers the reality of social stigma around disability and the nature of disability. Consider why Ben Morser became a hero for merely sticking to his promise and paying attention to Mary. People with Down syndrome are often discriminated in our society, and our society is disabling people like Mary by stigmatizing disabilities, thereby excluding her from social activities. The heart-warming, inspiration story component clouds our view of such core problem.

 

Endnotes:

[1]“High school QB takes friend with Down syndrome to his prom.” Fox News Insider. http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/05/19/high-school-quarterback-takes-friend-down-syndrome-prom(accessed May 1, 2017)

[2] bell hooks, (New York: South End Press, 1992), 29

Bibliography:

“High school QB takes friend with Down syndrome to his prom.” Fox News Insider. http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/05/19/high-school-quarterback-takes-friend-down-syndrome-prom(accessed May 1, 2017)

hooks, bell. Black Looks. New York: South End Press, 1992. c2.“Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”

Perry, David. “Inspiration porn further disables the disabled.” Aljazeera America http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/6/inspiration-porn-further-disables-the-disabled.html (accessed May, 1 2017)

Pham, Minh-Ha. “Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to be Diverse.” Threadbared https://iheartthreadbared.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/just-stop/ (accessed May 1, 2017)

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5 thoughts on “Commodifying the Disabled People

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  1. First, I think this post (and all posts engaging people with disabilities) would be helped by a discussion about people first language versus identity first language when referring to people within this community (I’m speaking as a member of it).

    About people first language: https://themighty.com/2015/07/when-i-called-out-my-mom-for-not-using-person-first-language/

    About identity first language: https://themighty.com/2015/08/am-i-autistic-or-do-i-have-autism/

    About the debate between the two: https://themighty.com/2015/08/should-you-use-person-first-or-identity-first-language2/

    Second, I think there’s more here than just commodifying the Other, as hooks describes. I think the commodification applies to certain people with certain disabilities (I use person first language). I notice in the posts discussing this topic, all people who are commodified are white, which is what the certain people refers to.

    However, I am also interested that the two examples brought forth by people on this page involve persons with visible disabilities (Down Syndrome being one example). There’s a great article here by the NPR about the distinction between Visible, Invisible, and Semi-Visible disabilities.

    http://www.npr.org/2015/03/08/391517412/people-with-invisible-disabilities-fight-for-understanding

    This leads me to discuss what exactly causes people to want to commodify the other, who in this case has visible disabilities. I suspect the reasoning is similar to what hooks identified (trying to look accepting of people with disabilities). I think this reasoning is a bit more explicit and has a dimension of condescension attached to it (“look at us helping people with disabilities who can’t help themselves” attitude).

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    1. Thank you for your comment, and sorry for my belated reply!
      First, thank you for pointing out my language use- I certainly lacked understanding about the ongoing debates over people-first and identity-first. However, there was a reason for using the term“disabled people” which doesn’t seem to be covered by the people first vs. identity first debate. My use of the word ‘disabled people’ was inspired by Stella Young’s TED talk – I am not your inspiration, thank you very much. (https://www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much)
      To quote her directly,
      “I use the term “disabled people” quite deliberately, because I subscribe to what’s called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.”

      I found her approach towards disabilities very appealing and almost impulsively popped the term “disabled people” into my blog without any background….

      After thinking about the language though I’m still left with the question of how I should refer to disabled people/people with disabilities if I don’t know my audience….. Do you have any suggestions? Or your thoughts on Stella Young’s reason for the word choice?
      I found some additional source (http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/why-we-are-disabled-people-not-people-with-disabilities)

      In response to your second point, that is something I didn’t consider. This could be because I read this prom story along with another story that follows a similar story structure, but in which the commodified person is a PoC. In that version, a woman in a wheelchair asked for assistance with eating at Qdoba(a Mexican restaurant). An employee agreed, and someone else who was witnessing this felt urged to record it because the restaurant employee’s action restored his faith in humanity. The way media portrays this event is just that; the employee is saint-like while the woman has no agency/power. The media somehow brushes past the fact that the woman actively sought help, and the man simply responded to her request (he would have seemed like an asshole if he didn’t.That being said, I really am in no position to be critical towards this employee) Moreover, the woman’s privacy is not respected; No one asked her permission for releasing that record to the public. Again, such media coverage is problematic because it misses some important issues about why the woman faces challenges in the first place; the society failing to accommodate her.
      http://www.wave3.com/story/29032820/tonight-at-6-restaurant-customer-records-random-act-of-kindness

      Tying it back to your point from this very long digression, I think this version could be more than just eating the “other”; it might actually resonate with the white savior theme because the person being commodified is a PoC, perhaps? I’d be curious as to what you thought might be implied by the fact that commodified is a white person though!

      Your third point also made me think further. Although I’d decided that I didn’t want to pivot on Ben in this blog (his mother wasn’t exempt from this though) because I really don’t know if he asked Mary out of purely friendly intention, or wanted to appeal to his open-mindedness. So, I focused instead, on how the media portrayed the story and the characters. After all media can surely be blamed for omitting Mary’s perspective in such a blatant way. But I think I’ll think more about why the media might want to commodify the other.
      Having said that, I think your point can be connected with something Stella Young mentioned in her talk about people with disabilities being used as inspirational porns. (It’s the same talk again) She expands on the possible reasons nondisabled people might commodify/objectify the disabled people.
      Again, to quote her directly,
      “And I use the term porn deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, “Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.”

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  2. Stepping back from your post for a moment, I have always wondered about social media and posts about people doing good things or “slacktivism”. On one hand, it is very obviously an attempt to prove to the rest of the world that you are a good person. However, sometimes there are real pluses to this kind of behavior. For example the ALS ice bucket challenge raised enough money for ALS research that a major breakthrough was made. Obviously not all such movements are as successful, but they do create publicity and–in some cases– awareness.

    So, with the commodification of disabled people, I wonder if there may be some good that can come out of it for the disabled. Someone like Ben is obviously a well respected member of their community, and I would argue that having someone who is in a position that he is in to take a girl with down syndrome (who he calls his friend) to prom would serve to de-stigmatize down syndrome to some extent. While this may not improve the lives of those with similar disabilities significantly, I think it would make the community thing about the way they treat such people.

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  3. A couple of comments here:
    1. Don’t say “Commodify the disabled people.” As a member of the community, I’ve given you two options (disability first and people first language) that don’t use the other-ness of the phrase “The disabled people.”

    2. In response to Chenxi’s comment, hooks (1992) writes that part of commodification is that it “maintains the status quo” (22). Maintaining the status quo occurs by using token examples of “kindness” (made easier due to attitudes like “We need to help those helpless folks with disabilities”) that don’t address why such “kindness” is needed in the first place. By not addressing the underlying social structures that portray folks with visible disabilities as “irredeemably ugly,” the system can be maintained.

    3. The ALS ice bucket challenge, while raising money to push for a cure, didn’t fundamentally change attitudes towards ALS. It was successful because it allowed people to portray themselves as taking and receiving pain (and thus proving their devotion to an equal society by employing commodification) but still not changing attitudes towards those with ALS.

    Some further reading (if you’re interested) can be done here:
    1. Heiss, Sarah. “Locating the Bodies of Women and Disability in Definitions of Beauty: An Analysis of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.” 2011.

    2. Garland-Thomson, Rose. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” 2013.

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    1. I’m sorry….I’m a bit confused. I am probably missing something but are you ok with the term “disabled people” just not with putting “the” in front of it?

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