The (prom) politics of pity

Growing up with a disability, I have always had trouble navigating social situations. I learned at a young age that people would treat me differently simply because I was in a wheelchair. While some refused to engage with me because of their discomfort with disability, mostly I just found people to be overly optimistic and celebratory, where accomplishing simple day-to-day tasks would be met with cheers, awards and assurances of my bravery and courage. And while perhaps graduating elementary school was the pinnacle of human accomplishment, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one receiving this treatment, despite the fact that I was but one of thirty graduating students that year. These other students, “normies” as I call you people, would receive no special awards, would not have newspaper articles written about them, and would not be celebrated as heroes for accomplishing the same thing as me. These students were merely doing what was expected of them, something most of us will accomplish, and apparently there is nothing particularly impressive about that.

While this excessive praise certainly helped boost my ego, it also made it quite difficult when socializing because I was never sure if people were being genuine with me or not. Worse still I remember questioning in that moment if anything I had done was really that remarkable. I was left wondering whether I had ever really done anything significant in my life aside from simply being disabled. Suddenly everything I had done seemed meaningless and I could not tell whether people were really proud of the things I had done or if they simply pitied me—this is some pretty heavy stuff for a teenager to interrogate. As I got older I learned to stop worrying so much about what others thought of me and simply do things that make me proud.

Boy driving electric wheelchair pulling cart with prom date on the back
Just taking this girl to market, nothing to see here

Although acceptance of people with disabilities is certainly increasing, a recent article published on the front page of the London Free Press reminded me a bit of the good old days. On Wednesday, June 5th in a story entitled “A night fit for a king,” Londoners learned of a young man with a developmental disability who was crowned king of his prom for, what appears to be no other reason than having a disability, as the article does little to tell us anything about the individual in question aside from the fact that he’s disabled. This is not something unique to London, as a quick search of Google reveals hundreds of high schools across North America have been electing intellectually disabled students as prom king and queen over the past few years, events also covered as headline news in their respective local media (like here, here, here, and here for example). The real question for me, though, is whether or not this is really “news.” Do any of the other prom kings and queens get front-page coverage? I think you may see the problem here.

While I’m sure the students in London, along with the kids across North America, have the best of intentions with this gesture, simply trying to do something nice for someone they perceive as being hard done by, we cannot ignore the reality that these actions are often imbued with a sense of pity and paternalism all too often faced by the disabled in our day-to-day lives and this practice is made even more degrading by the fact that it is covered as headline news. Worst still, these articles almost never provide any context for why the individual was elected prom king or queen. The result is that these articles then seem to revolve around how “generous” it was of the attractive person to take the disabled kid to prom, as just friends of course, and how “great” it is that the student body subsequently voted them king and queen. Ultimately, the story is not even about a disabled student, but actually about how considerate the student body was for putting themselves aside and bestowing this honour on the poor and needy.

The intention here, admirably so, is to try and make life a little easier for the disabled. These students have grown up being told that life is tough for the disabled and that everyone has the responsibility to help those less fortunate. And while helping the less fortunate is indeed a noble and worthy cause, voting the disabled as prom king or queen is tokenism at its worst and does not make our lives fundamentally better or easier. If you legitimately want to make an individual with an intellectual disability’s life better, for the long-term, then offer them friendship, respect, and compassion. Not pity. Inviting these individuals to prom, and voting them king/queen, does not make up for years of insufficient academic and social supports. In fact, this media circus distracts from the real structural changes that need to be made and let us feel as though this one symbolic gesture absolves us of the responsibility of working toward genuine inclusion. Rather than encouraging our youth to just treating these individuals like royalty for one day a year, why not treat them like human beings every day of the year?

UPDATE: I was just informed the LFP actually published a near identical story, two years ago, about a different school in London (but the same program). You can see it at: http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2011/06/21/18316356.html

34 Replies to “The (prom) politics of pity”

  1. I like to think I treat those with disabilities the same as I do “normies,” unless the situation calls for otherwise (e.g. speaking more slowly). I get your point though, and know first-hand how too much praise can lead to a big ego for, really, no reason. Thanks for writing about this Jeff from the other side of the coin!

  2. A very thoughtful response Jeff. You effectively highlight the importance of seriously considering our motivations, and taking the time to understand the deeper meanings of our actions, well before we act. I am always grateful for your perspective.

  3. I think you’ve highlighted the biggest pothole on the road to inclusion. Unfortunately the tragedy/charity model of disability is very much ingrained in the human experience and I don’t think it will be easily lost.

    1. This is true. Especially when we are literally rewarding the high schoolers with praise/attention for perpetuating the behaviour. We’re literally teaching the kids this is how you’re “supposed” to treat the disabled

  4. This is an excellent summary of what these things can seem like from a different perspective. I’m blind and this same thing happened at my high school and it made me so angry. None of the able-bodied students understood why I thought it was wrong to give the title of Prom King to a student with a cognitive impairment, but this sums it up perfectly. People do this because the person is disabled, and only for that reason, like that is the only part of their identity that’s significant. It’s demeaning and I definitely think people go along with this because of pity. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic–maybe it can help others understand why some people don’t appreciate this practice.

  5. I think you did a great job highlighting the difference between empathy and sympathy. So many try to sympathize when they have no capacity or life context to do so.

  6. I find it very disturbing that you try to take the great joy and honour bestowed on this young man and try to belittle it. Unless you were at this school and had intimate knowledge of the situation you can’t possibly know all the facts behind these decisions. Jackson is a fine young man under any circumstances and deserves respect for who he is and what he has accomplished. I hope he doesn’t read your blog as he deserves much better.
    His handicap is part of who he is but the person that is Jackson is a person we can all take pride in. The people at Oakridge admire Jackson for who he is and his involvement in the school. He was thrilled to have his friend be his date and it took a lot of courage for him to even ask. He is no different than any other high school boy asking a young lady on a date – nervous.
    Although I can see your point it doesn’t make sense to try and take away the sheer joy and excitement experienced by this young gentlemen. His peers respect him and so should you.

    1. if he’s no different than any other high school boy going on a date to prom, why’s it front page news?

    2. I’m not exactly sure how writing a blog about how we should treat disabled people with respect, not pity them, and support them EVERY day and not, as the article says, like “royalty for one day” is belittling to Jackson or the Oakridge community in any way.

  7. “…for, what appears to be no other reason than having a disability, as the article does little to tell us anything about the individual in question aside from the fact that he’s disabled.”

    “Worst still, these articles almost never provide any context for why the individual was elected prom king or queen.”

    If you had fact checked the information prior to using this article for your reference you would know that there is much more to the story. It is incredibly insensitive to say that they decided to select him as prom king due to the disability through pity. You have zero facts to support that claim, nor do you understand the relationships of friendship at that school.

    In general, why don’t we treat each other with respect and as human beings? Regardless of being disabled or not? Whether they were the most popular football player or a developmentally challenged student, you would make the case that crowning anyone is judgmental, but for that one day regardless of who you are… you are recognized and feel special. It’s a blip on the journey of life, but bringing negativity to this young man’s story helps no one.

    1. Without belabouring the point that others are making here in my defense, you need to read the quotes you posted here again — my point is that the Freeps didn’t bother telling the story, not that the background story doesn’t exist at all.

      Maybe Jackson is a great guy, but no one who reads the LFP knows that because the Freeps didn’t bother to write anything else except disabled + prom king.

    2. I gotta say, this is an extremely bizarre comment. What information was to be fact-checked here, exactly? Is a person expected to intimately interview all of Jackson’s friends & family commenting here, track down figures from Jackson’s childhood, and spend a few days doing a detailed ethnography of the Oakridge Secondary School Community before writing a five-paragraph blog post? Even if that blog post isn’t actually about Jackson in any way beyond peripherally referencing an article that includes him?

      Maybe he’d have Googled Jackson’s name, done a little research that way? He’d have found this Free Press prom article about how Jackson is disabled, and prom king. An article that tells us literally nothing about Jackson and is in fact suggesting that Jackson has NO other personality traits or accomplishments beyond disability and prom-kingness.

      Being elected prom king is probably awesome for Jackson & his school community. Being featured by the Free Press’s terrible, terrible article–part of a long string of extremely similar, terrible article–is maybe not so awesome, for Jackson, or for the disabled community as a whole. That’s it, that’s all this blog post is trying to say. Please stop making it about yourself & your friend Jackson.

  8. For someone as well educated as yourself it’s a shame you didn’t delve deeper into the story before commenting and using this news as your launchpad for your latest blog…. trust me if you did, you would have written an entirely different blog about Jackson, his date and the School’s Prom. Prom is a milestone event for majority of Graduating students – Being named Prom King and Queen is a thrilling honour to be bestowed upon any young person transitioning into another phase of their lives. Again it’s unfortunate you ‘see,hear,read one article’ and form an opinion to launch your blog without researching. What a ignorant world we would populate if the public had only blogs to follow …. or reporters and media who ‘spin’ for their self serving rating interests.

    1. I think the last part of this comment actually latches on, in part, to what I’m trying to say here — the story presented through the LFP gives us but one frame through which to understand Jackson; that he’s disabled.

      At issue here, as the blog states again and again, is the media coverage here.

    2. why would extensive research about Jackson and his school be done for a short blog post that is not about jackson or his school? the blog post is about the LFP article, and articles like it. so that’s where the research happened too.

  9. Jeff – it’s sad that you grew up in an age when disability was looked on harshly. Sadder still that you seem to be holding on to bitterness. You completely overlook the absolute possibility that the kids made their choice b/c this young man has won their hearts, charmed their souls and become their friend. Is that pity? I see it as accepting — better yet — embracing our current reality which is that we are ALL different with varying degrees of “normal”. People from all over the world with special needs (of all sorts) are flocking to our country in droves. Why? To seek out not only the services we can provide, but the dignity and respect that living in our society affords. Hmmmnnn … why is that? Is it because we are all idiots at the pity party? Or is it because we as a society, as a culture, have evolved to see the beauty, dignity,opportunity and grace that can be found in everyone …

    1. If basic tolerance & acceptance have to be front page news in our society, then by definition, embracing difference is NOT our “current reality.” It’s, apparently, out of the ordinary enough to be newsworthy, huh?

  10. I’m really disappointed by a lot of the comments here. Nowhere in this piece is there any claim that any disabled person doesn’t deserve to be voted prom king. What is being argued here is that being disabled alone is not enough reason for it and when the stories are written up, they aren’t giving any other reason than that.

    For those telling Jeff to do his research, please read this post more carefully. He’s criticizing people celebrating nothing. Had the article that he’s talking about here actually mentioned legitimate reasons for Jackson to be prom king, I’m willing to bet that this post wouldn’t have come from that article.

    I would like to say thank you for this piece. I admit that I don’t always know how to act around someone who physically experiences life differently than I do. I usually try to just treat everyone the same, but I get caught in my own head about it and I think sometimes I overcompensate. Thanks for reminding me to truly relax and treat people the same!

  11. Hey Jeff. Sorry you had a tough time in high school, and obviously still feel hard done by and somehow continue to label yourself in some pity box of your own choosing – but guess what? Jackson hasn’t! He’s a pretty straightforward guy, and if you actually knew him, rather than making assumptions about him from your limited perceptions, you’d realize that he is far from “poor and needy,” in fact quite the opposite.
    The reality is that Jackson has been in a school and community that values him for who he is – a funny, sweet, smart, engaging and warm teenager who likes to hang out with friends, dance and have a good time. Your basic teen, in other words. And yes, sometimes kids need a bit of help to get over initial perceptions and see beyond – don’t we all. Sounds like they got that help at school, and while they cannot control the world beyond and the inevitable frustrations people with disabilities face, inside their high school they’ve apparently figured out that people are just people.
    So,instead of treating Jackson as royalty for a day, they treat him like a human being all the time. And like prom kings and queens all over the place, the popular guy got the prize. Is that newsworthy? Well, heck yeah. So give the guy a break and let him enjoy. You should be ashamed of yourself for being a spoilsport and perpetuating the pity line.

    1. I think what is perhaps most ironic here is that while complaining that I don’t know Jackson, you are then making claims about my life and who I am without knowing me. Interesting.

      I would recommend you re-read the blog though because, much like the LFP article, this really isn’t about Jackson. At issue here is that there is a mass practice of voting disabled students for prom king/queen across North America, an action that is subsequently covered by local media sources without any explanation about why this would happen ASIDE from the fact that they’re disabled.

      Honestly, I’d love to see an article about how great Jackson is! The Free Press should honour him for his accomplishments and the change he is making in this world, rather than simply saying he’s disabled and was voted prom king.

  12. I’m stunned that Jackson’s friends & family appear to have swarmed here in droves believing that this article is in any way about Jackson himself. No one disbelieves that Jackson is an excellent human being, loved by his peers, and deserving of the prom king title. It’s just that there are well-loved excellent human being prom kings and queens at literally every prom at every single high school in this city. Why aren’t they news? And why didn’t the article focus on the actual reasons Jackson was made prom king, instead of on how nice it was of his friend to go with the poor disabled kid? This is all quite obviously addressed by the blog post–and quite obviously NOT by the Freeps… the blog is about the article, not about Jackson, so these “check your facts” comments are frankly absurd…why didn’t the Free Press get asked to do the same?

    The issue isn’t Jackson, it’s the question of the broader social issue of these terrible articles about disabled prom king/queens being a dime a dozen. The “OMG but I love Jackson why are you trying to hurt him?!?!” posts are pretty frustrating as it turns criticism of this media circus into a discussion of some random highschool kid. This post has like, next to nothing to do with Jackson himself, so cool your jets and stop making it about you guys, Oakridge Secondary School community.

  13. I am a little puzzled by many of the comments. I find that many of those who took this as an affront to Jackson totally missed the point of the blog post. Jeff was referring to the media’s way of portraying that special moment. The paper didn’t talk about what an inspiration he was to his peers or the trials and tribulations that inspired them, but decided to portray this even as the disabled kid is elected Prom King, period. This is not about Jackson or Jeff, but a certain media outlet who didn’t bother to flesh the story out for its readers.

  14. I wasn’t voted prom king even though I’m in a wheelchair. I’m suing my school for discrimination.

  15. I actually know Jackson as well and I totally would have voted for him too; he’s a balla’. Though I’m surprised he wasn’t wearing any bling in the picture!
    I can see were Jeff is coming from here though and I agree. His intentions were in right place but it seems some people here have missed the theme of the article. I won’t bother reiterating it as many other commenters already have.

  16. Dear Jackson’s friends… if Jackson’s inclusive life is so authentic you need to ask yourselves “why is this front page news”. If it is as normal and everyday as it was meant to be WHY was it even in the news. Or if it is the usual situation that Prom King and Queen are featured in the news every year then why would it need to mention his disability? If you truly elected him for the right reasons you would understand this and not be slamming this blogger for trying to make a point about the shortcomings of media stories and how they ‘frame disability’. This is not about Jackson, this is about the media. Jackson’s story is merely an example of poor reporting. The story did Jackson a disservice… good friends might have ensured that didn’t happen. And good friends would be teaching Jackson how to be mindful of media reports that might not portray him in a valued light in the future eg if they are doing story on an everyday event that is only seemingly newsworthy because you have a disability then perhaps you might want to think twice.

    Well written Jeffrey, hit the nail on the head!

  17. Wow everyone take a breath and re-read the article. The reason this is news is that this kid on his own has helped bring awareness of people with intellectual abilities to the forefront of the school population and now through the LFP article to all who has read it. Through his courage and tenacity he has changed the school environment to being a more accepting and inclusive society. Congratulations goes to the Oakridge student body who have learned a valuable life lesson. Is this news. Yea and for a change something worth reading and rejoicing over.

  18. Having a child myself with a disability ( Down Syndrome) I want to point
    out, that your right on some levels. However, I have high hopes for the
    inclusion movement, and I have high hopes that my own child will pave that path
    in our community being that he is the first child with a significant disability
    to be fully included in our community.

    With that being said, no one is jumping on the band wagon and witting
    articles about how successful it has been for our community. No one is witting
    about the other children that have followed the path that he has paved either.
    No one really knows that our kids are included in general education classrooms,
    outside the norm of lunch, recess, gym, and art.

    For me, this is newsworthy, to help break down the stigma and the
    stereotypes that plague the Down syndrome community everyday. Along with this,
    he actually makes the grade.

    It’s unbelievable to me, that we have write ups about prom kings and
    queens, but not on inclusive education. This should be the norm of every day
    society, in every single community.

    If my son were to be voted prom king, I am hoping that it would be because
    he is a valued member of society through the inclusion movement and the constant
    exposure that I strive to give him on an everyday basis. I am hoping that he
    would be voted prom king because he gets good grades, is caring towards others,
    and has done something significant to change his schools ” NORM”.

    I saddens me as a parent that students are becoming prom king and queen on
    the ” JUST BECAUSE” theory, because it really is meaningless to do so.

  19. Jeff – you have said several times that your issue is not with Jackson’s
    case in particular, but with the coverage and celebration of such events in general. If so, you have set up a no-win, Catch-22 scenario! I think we all agree that seamless acceptance and inclusion of individuals with developmental delays is the goal – but such inclusion, similar to racial and gender equality, must be an on-going process. Citizens need to
    continue to be educated, and sometimes examples of these inclusion goals need to be celebrated – even if we feel that as a society we should be beyond celebrating them. I am continually reading articles about the first woman to be named to this or that position – should we not be beyond articles celebrating instances of such basic equity – and yet there is still a long way to go. As a parent of a student at Oakridge,
    I can tell you that there are a myriad of examples of seamless and “normal” integration of developmental students at Oakridge – fortunately such things are “normal” and thus don’t tend to hit the paper (another example of the previously mentioned Catch-22). I can tell you that the environment at Oakridge is significantly more inclusive than society in general – again, not celebrated, but perhaps worthy of celebration?

    As for Jackson’s election specifically – I can assure that that despite your intent, by using Jackson’s honour as a “jumping off point” for your broader concerns, you have unfortunately sullied it. His actions and personality have endeared himself to Oakridge’s students, and he is a strong advocate for inclusion. Although I obviously cannot speak to other seemingly similar elections of prom kings, Jackson’s election had absolutely nothing to do with pity.

    Again – we face the Catch-22. By speaking about the courage it takes for a student “like Jackson” to ask a “normie” (your term) to Prom – I indirectly reinforce the “difference” rather than the normalcy – but yet the courage was unfortunately necessary and real. The same is true for
    the girl who said yes – we long for the day when such acceptance will not be worthy of note – but again, it still is. And although there is no doubt that Jackson and his date are “popular” enough to warrant this honour on that merit alone – if the graduating class was empathetic and insightful enough to also factor into their selection what the couple “represents” (including, perhaps, the graduates recognising their own
    growth as a group when it comes to inclusion and acceptance) – why shouldn’t all three be celebrated? I believe that if you go back and re-read the article through that “lens” rather than one predisposed to a seeing “pity”, I believe that you will recognise those themes there instead.

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