Today, I read an article about two football players at NC State University who sat down and ate lunch with another student who was eating alone. Commenters on this article are calling the football players “inspirational,” “heroic,” and “extraordinary.” A quotation from the article says that people who saw the photo commented saying, “If I were an NC State fan, I’d be more proud of this picture than any regular season win. Winning isn’t everything,” and “Our team may be having a rough season, but damn this makes me proud of my school.”
Whoa, those seem like pretty extreme reactions to a photograph depicting an everyday interaction, three college students eating lunch together. What makes this newsworthy? I’m not sure, but there is one thing I forgot to mention: the third guy at the table was in a wheelchair.
Let me be clear from the start, I have no problem with the fact that two football players sat down and had lunch with somebody who is eating alone in the cafeteria. I am in no way judging their actions, what I am questioning is what makes their actions worthy of the news story. I am not questioning a seemingly regular interaction, what I am questioning is what makes three college I was eating lunch together “heroic,” “inspirational,” or “extraordinary”? In my mind, absolutely nothing.
I am sorry, but this story is not news, and pitching it as such is damaging. These football players are not heroic, and perpetuating the idea that they are simply for sitting and having lunch with a fellow college student who happens to be in a wheelchair is incredibly ableist, as well as damaging and destructive.
It’s time for us to stop being inspired and surprised when we see disabled and nondisabled people engage in everyday interactions with one another. It’s time for us to stop praising able-bodied people for associating with or being friends with disabled people. I can’t tell you how many times I have been out with my able-bodied friends and people have come up to them and told them they were wonderful people simply for being my friends. These strangers knew nothing about our relationships, but they thought that my friends willingness to simply associate with me made them saintly.
This type of mentality has to stop. It puts able-bodied people who associate with disabled people on a ridiculous pedestal and it perpetuates the idea that disabled people are somehow less desirable friends were less deserving of relationships than able-bodied people. This is untrue, and it is dangerous.
I grew up believing the lie that I was somehow a less valuable person than my non-disabled friends and family members. I grew up accepting treatment from friends and acquaintances that was less than acceptable because I thought I was lucky just to have someone who could tolerate hanging out with me. I believed it when people would come up to my friends and tell them how wonderful they were for just hanging out with me. I believed it when people came up to my mother and told her she was so “brave,” “inspirational,” or “strong” for raising me without knowing anything about her or me other than the fact that I was in a wheelchair. I believed all of this, and it made me believe that there was something wrong with me. Hearing people constantly praise my friends and family members for simply associating with me, made me believe that there must be something really wrong with me, and then without even realizing it, I started to seek and accept toleration instead of love and friendship. When describing what I wanted in the future boyfriend, I would say I want somebody who can deal with my disability and likes me anyway. I stopped looking for someone who liked all of me, and started looking for people who could see past my disability, that I had been socialized to believe was such a problem, and like me anyway.
I have wonderful friends, but it is only recently that I am learning not to question whether they are simply my friends because they feel sorry for me. It is only now that I am learning not to listen to the rhetoric that says being my friend is worthy of an award. I love my friends, and I am learning to see and truly believe that they love me for who I am, not in spite of it.
Being friends with a disabled person or associating with them does not make you special. Being friends with a disabled person does not make you deserving of a medal. Associating with a disabled person is not inspirational and it is not newsworthy. Being friends with a disabled person or showing a disabled person basic human decency does not make you an extra good person, it simply makes you a person with a friend, just like anyone else.
We have to stop perpetuating the ableist idea that being friends with or associating with disabled people automatically makes an able-bodied person somehow better than everybody else. We have to stop perpetuating the view that able-bodied people who spend time with disabled people are saints. We have to stop doing this because it makes us forget one of the most important things. Disabled people are people. They are people. They deserve love and friendship that comes from an honest and true place. Disabled people are people, they are not charity cases.
I am not questioning the football players’ actions. I am questioning why the media and our society thought it was a big deal to see people being people.
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