In the past week, the Internet has bombarded us with constant commentary on stories ranging from the earthquake in Nepal to the Amtrak crash to the former Qdoba employee helping a disabled woman eat. When I consider these stories side-by-side, I find myself struggling. The world needs reminders that there is good to be found amidst the pain and heartbreak. And I am a huge believer in the importance of random acts of kindness. Society is sorely in need of more of them. But it raises a question I ponder time and again: how can we celebrate and admire kindness in a way that avoids treating certain people like props in society’s quest to feel warm and fuzzy?
The Qdoba story is simple: A woman with a disability went to eat at Qdoba. A former employee of the restaurant assisted her in eating her lunch. A bystander videotaped it as it happened and sent the video to a media outlet. People watched the video, cooed over how heroic that employee was to help a woman who is disabled, and began sharing the video all over the place.
Let’s unpack this, because even my deep appreciation of human decency does not outweigh the problems with this video and how the responses to it have unfolded.
First, why did the man who filmed the video think it was okay to do so? Did he go up to the woman and ask, “Hey, is it okay if I record you while you go about your daily life and eat a meal?” Would he have considered it appropriate to take a video of a non-disabled stranger eating? Probably not.
Voyeurism aside, I’m deeply uncomfortable with how the media is handling the video, and with how people are responding. In addition to the fact that someone assisting someone else with eating should not have been deemed newsworthy to begin with, the woman is barely even acknowledged as a person. She is nameless, an object. Specifically, she is deemed an object of helplessness.
But the woman is NOT helpless. She specifically requested assistance with eating, as is noted in the news clip. She advocated for what she needed. The employee’s assistance was simply a kind acknowledgement of her request. However, I’ve read some of the comments on the video posted on various websites and many of them miss the point, making my stomach turn. The comments regarding the man are all to the effect of “bless his heart,” “what a hero,” “such a saint.” And then there are the comments about the disabled woman, which essentially proclaim how sad and terrible her life must be if she cannot raise a bite of Mexican food to her mouth.
I left a comment on one site that posted the video, and was met with exactly the kind of replies I expected. I wrote: “Are you kidding me with this? This is NOT heroic. This is not inspiring. Kind? Yes. But this is not newsworthy. And ignoring the woman’s identity, instead celebrating the man lending her a hand? The woman is a person and she has a disability. She is not a community service project.”
I was frustrated. But people who responded called me cynical. Am I a cynic? Generally, no. I’m just so sick and tired of disabled people being used for other people who want a little inspiration. Believe me, I know how badly the world needs to focus on love and kindness. The public responses I’ve seen are just not the way to do it.
And here’s the real kicker. A woman named Karen responded to me with this gem, which I copied and pasted word for word:
“Emily: Did it ever occur to you that this woman didn’t want to give her name, perhaps afraid that crooks will use her name to find her address so they can rob her. Its like putting up a big sign in front of her house saying ‘I’m wheelchair-bound, so just come on in and help yourself, theres nothing I can do to stop you’. Keeping her name a secret is a pretty good idea.”
EXCUSE ME? Talk about being cynical…and completely stigmatizing. Are disabled people helpless victims who need heroes and protection? NO. Just, no. Disabled people are people. We are all people, no matter what abilities we have. Kindness should be celebrated for the sake of kindness. And everyone should be careful and protect themselves and one another. Disabled people do not need to be treated like delicate flowers.
At the root of the problems with this video is the reporting that accompanies it on each website that has shared it. The headlines influence how people perceive the act of kindness. How could this have been avoided? Good journalists might have examined the lack of access to the restaurant, questioning why the Qdoba is structurally inaccessible for the woman to enter. Good journalists might have interviewed the woman to inquire if she was okay with the video being shown, or how she felt about receiving assistance from the employee, or if she has access to supports. Good journalists might have bothered to care that the woman in the video is a person.
Make no mistake; I absolutely do think that the Qdoba employee was kind. More people should follow his example, but should apply it to everyone. Be kind to everyone. No one is here just to be another person’s community service project, and the disabled woman who was helped does not deserve to be viewed as less-than or pitiable. She was just a woman who decided to go out and have Mexican food. The man who helped her was just a person who decided to assist a woman with consuming her Mexican food. When acts of kindness like this are celebrated as human-interest fodder at the expense of showing respect to the person on the receiving end, it isn’t really kindness anymore.
Emily Ladau is a writer and disability rights activist whose passion is to harness the powers of language and social media as tools for people to become informed and engaged social justice advocates. She maintains a blog, Words I Wheel By, as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. You’re welcome to connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.