Too Many Celebrities Are Using Social Media to Mock People With Disabilities

Health and medicine explained.
Aug. 13 2014 12:58 PM

Despicable Memes

How “miracle” jokes and inspiration porn demean disabled people.

140811_MEDEX_DisabilityMeme_1

There is an Internet meme I despise. It is a photograph of a woman struggling out of her wheelchair to fetch a bottle from a liquor store shelf. It always appears with a caption calling this a “miracle” and it always attracts a slew of “LMAO!!!!” comments about disabled people “faking” our disabilities. Able-bodied people assure me it’s hilarious.

I despise it for two key reasons. First, many people who use wheelchairs can stand and walk short distances. Second, we are allowed to drink alcohol, and to shop for ourselves, just like any other adult.

The “miracle” meme has been around for a while—long enough to be infamous among those of us who use wheelchairs—but George Takei recently shared the photo several times with his colossal social media audience, and that brought it unprecedented exposure. One response Takei received sums up many responses to the meme. In fact, it sums up the reason it is a meme at all. Someone with the Twitter handle @Andy00778. wrote that the picture shows how “much fraud there is today,” adding “Hope insurance company see it!”

Advertisement

The picture does not show fraud. What it shows is a disabled person using a tool—her wheelchair—to live independently. If any judgement is to be made about the photo at all, it should be celebrated for showing that independence.

We do not know what disability, illness, or injury the woman in the picture has. She may have a long-term illness like mine, which greatly restricts my movement but leaves me able to walk and stand for brief periods. She may have multiple sclerosis. She may be recovering from surgery. She may have a degenerative condition that will eventually kill her, such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and so she may be exercising her ability to shop for herself for one of the last times in her life. Or she may simply want a drink.

We do know, however, that no miracle has occurred and, in fact, that nothing remarkable has happened at all. This woman reaching for a bottle is something we should never have seen, because disabled people are not freaks to be photographed without our consent for the purpose of Internet LOLZ.

Observation has taught me that whenever a woman talks online about the difficulties of being a woman, a man will emerge to tell her why she is wrong. Experience has taught me that whenever a disabled person talks online about the difficulties of being disabled, an able-bodied person will emerge to explain why they are wrong too.

Since I tweeted my distaste for the “miracle” meme, several able-bodied people have helpfully explained to me why it is, in fact, funny. One explained that it’s a joke and that jokes work because they show us something counter to our expectations. But watching someone stand up from a wheelchair is only counter to our expectations if our expectations are based on an ignorant and ultimately bigoted understanding of what disability is and what wheelchairs do.

All of us who use wheelchairs do so to grant us a range of mobility our physical difficulties deny us. Many disabled people use wheelchairs because they could not move, or even sit upright, without them. But many of us use them as an aid that takes up the slack of our unusually limited bodies. They are a means of transport that allow us to get farther than our front doors. They set us free.

The “miracle” meme plays on the belief that people with legitimate disabilities must be both passive and paralyzed. But this is absurd. You should be no more shocked that someone who uses a wheelchair is not paralyzed than you would be that someone who takes off glasses is not suddenly blind.

The kicker in the meme, the part that really makes people ROFL, is that the woman is reaching for a bottle of booze, not something wholesome such as milk or bread. The sight of her shopping for alcohol is counter to the belief that disabled people can never be wholly adult or wholly human, and that any one of us who enjoys an adult pleasure, or pleasure of any kind, must in some way be a fake.

I don’t seek to unduly demonize George Takei. He did not make the meme, and the first time he posted it I wasn’t even angry at him, only disappointed that the photo was in circulation again and irritated it had received such a powerful signal boost. We all repost things without really examining their implications. I am an inveterate sharer of Internet nonsense and I am sure I have shared something someone else has not liked. But if I posted something that promoted negative stereotypes of an entire community, and that upset hundreds or even thousands of its members, I hope I would apologize and remove the post, or at least explain why I stood by it.

When Takei posted the awful “it’s a miracle!” meme on his Facebook page, where it was shared tens of thousands of times, there was an outcry in the comments. Many disabled people expressed how disgusted they are with the meme and how disgusted they were with Takei for posting it. As is the way of the Web, some were angry and some were abusive, but many just politely explained why they’d like Takei to delete a post that propagates prejudices that make their lives—which are, by nature, more difficult than those of others—even more difficult than they need to be. 

But Takei did not apologize. He did not remove the meme from his page or even justify why it was there. Instead he posted this statement:

Fans get “offended” from time to time by my posts. There hardly is a day where something I put up doesn’t engender controversy. Concerned fans, worried the sky may fall, ask me to “take it down.” 

So I’m also going to ask them also to take it down—a notch, please.

He then posted the meme again on Twitter and Tumblr. This is when I became angry with Takei (or whoever ghostwrites his social media feeds) rather than simply with the meme.

  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 29 2014 3:45 PM The Great Writing Vs. Talking Debate Is it harder to be a good writer or a good talker?