We’ve reached that part of year once again folks, prom season; a time of excitement, overpriced gowns and ableist memes. Most of us, disabled or otherwise, have at one point seen viral photos and stories that involve disabled high schoolers being asked to prom. Generally accepted as feel-good lessons about faith in humanity, these type of posts harmfully exploit disabled people and reinforce the concept that disability should be regarded with pity. Stories of this nature all too often focus on an abled person’s “selfless act” rather than the actual experience of the person who’s been asked. Disabled teens certainly deserve every opportunity that their non-disabled peers have but also deserve the dignity of not being used as Inspiration Porn.
The most recent example of these parasitic memes making it’s rounds on Facebook, is a photo of a young woman in a wheelchair wearing a dress and holding hands with an able bodied young man in tuxedo. The text in the photo reads: “He asked her to prom even in her condition! Like and share=respect.” First of all, this particular image has been shared without context which creates the impression that it’s being used without the knowledge or permission of the young people shown. It is clear that the purpose of the photo is to generate online traffic and even possibly to make money, much like the posts which encourage users to type “Amen”. Many times, these “like and share” style images are part of a scam known as “like farming”, in which users elicit a massive amount “likes” and then sell the post.
Secondly, the language of the post is very demeaning to those of us who are disabled. The phrase, “Even in her condition!” implies that her disability is a burden and that disabled people are ultimately undesirable. This troubling message indulges the idea that interacting with us is a heroic sacrifice instead of a meaningful two-way encounter. We are meant to believe that this boy couldn’t possibly enjoy spending time with a sad disabled girl or, God forbid, actually find her attractive. This degrading narrative unfortunately extends far beyond the realm of Facebook scams, prevalent in the news media and even among parents of disabled high school students.
Being a former disabled prom invitee myself, these kinds of stories have always made me a bit uncomfortable. When I was in high school, my best friend at asked me to the junior prom; not to be a hero or because she felt bad but simply because she liked hanging out with me. My personal experience could have easily been used as a sappy human-interest piece, when in actuality in was a fairly average story. Going to the prom wasn’t a spectacular, life-changing event for me, I honestly had far more fun playing video games with my friend after. Not only can these “inspirational” tales be condescending but also downright misleading.
The problem is not that these prom stories themselves exist but rather how they are told and the intent behind them being shared. I think it’s wonderful when disabled people are accepted—so many times we are not sadly—but we should be normalizing disability, not exploiting it. The way to tell a compelling and truly respectful story is to talk to the people who experienced it firsthand, the people who are disabled. The most effective strategy to avoid being ableist is to talk to us, not for us. Disabled people are more than just viral photos or uplifting anecdotes, we are real human beings with the full range of emotion, that don’t want or need pity.