Why Some “Good Deed” Stories Can Do More Harm Than Good

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Another day, another “feel-good” story. But what if these stories actually do more harm than good? Before you judge me for being cynical, let me explain.

What often happens is there is a person who has some sort of disability and they might also need some assistance. Then some “typical” person decides to be kind and help them. Usually that’s fine. Great even. We should reach out to our fellow humans. The world needs more genuine compassion and caring.

Sometimes a third-party happens to witness the scene, and interprets it as the grand gesture of an amazingly generous individual who took their time to help out a poor, pitiable and helpless disabled person. Then pictures are taken without asking the permission of all the parties involved, because they want to spread the amazing, feel-good story throughout all kinds of news outlets and social media platforms. Still sound great?

There is nothing inherently wrong with positive stories about people with disabilities or tales of good deeds. It’s the motivation behind it or the way the subject is handled that can be problematic. Sometimes the individual performing the good deed or telling the story does so with motives other than just being kind to someone else; sometimes they do it for notoriety.

In other cases I don’t doubt that the overall intention of the story tellers was good, yet somehow things took a turn. Often that is the fault of the tactics used by the media, who love a heart-tugging, viral story. News sources often spread these “feel-good” messages at the expense of the dignity of their subjects, presenting the person with a disability as merely a pawn in someone else’s story. It is designed to make US, not them, “feel good,” and praises and elevates the person performing the “good deed.” These stories do all that at the expense of the recipient, often without their consent. Stories like this are commonly referred to as “Inspiration Porn.”

Why is such a term used? One of the best articles I have ever read about the subject explains it this way, “Pornography, whatever your feelings about it, is inherently aimed at the viewer. That’s the whole point. Inspiration porn, likewise, turns the disabled individual into an object for your consumption. These stories place the emphasis on the typical person who does something nice to the disabled person, assuming that’s who you will identify with. The non-disabled person gets to be active; they get to drive the narrative forward. We learn about why they did their good deed and how it all makes them feel.”

There can also be problems in the way the help is offered. Often it is what the giver, rather than the recipient, wants or needs. What if the disabled veteran in the supermarket parking lot wanted to be left alone, yet someone else decided to put their hands on his wheelchair to push it around the grocery store without his consent so they could buy him things he may have needed but didn’t ask for? What if it actually took away his sense of control and hurt his sense of pride, but he was still expected to smile and say “Thank you”? What if being the center of attention like that made him uncomfortable?

In the past year alone I have seen countless other examples of media stories that somehow missed the mark. (Update: I confess that in the past I may have missed the mark with my own writing. I am trying to constantly grow, and want to learn how to be more respectful. It’s a process, but we have to be open to changing our way of thinking.)

What if the dirty homeless person didn’t want his picture taken and plastered all over the media, thus presenting him as him an object of pity. What if it took away his privacy and dignity, simply because someone else decided to buy him a hot meal?

What if the “aggressive” individual, who frightened other subway passengers until a kind woman held his hand, was actually having the worst day of his life? I LOVE that someone was there for him in his moment of need.  I don’t love that we saw a picture of it. Would you want your worst day to be immortalized? What if that picture humiliated him because then the whole world could see his struggles, and then they also speculated that he may be a drug addict? What if the description of him in the post actually helped promote fear and stigma against those who are mentally ill?

What it one of those Prom-posal stories about, say, a popular jock who asked a girl with Down Syndrome to prom only praised and interviewed him, but didn’t ask the girl how she felt? What if the article made it seem like it was remarkable that she would even go to Prom, or surprising that he was even friends with her?

The week I wrote this post there was a story that said, “Waiter’s response to man trying to eat without hands goes viral.” I am not going to link to it because I don’t want to help boost it. I am, however, truly glad that people like that waiter exist. He took the time to stop and help someone who asked for assistance. I also know that it can be hard to ask for help, but one of the reasons that disabled people often don’t do so is because of over-the-top responses like this. It can make them feel raw, vulnerable and helpless, and also like they are under scrutiny. And they are, to a certain extent. However in this case we never learn the name of the customer who struggled to eat. Instead the focus is on the waiter. We learn his name and see a picture of him assisting the customer. In this case, though, I am glad that less focus is on the disabled person because it helps preserve his privacy a bit. The lack of information about him makes me suspect that the picture and story were shared without his knowledge or consent. But again, that can also makes him seem less like a person and more like a subject in a story.

Many will read this and think, “What a grouch! You can’t please everybody! Some people are determined to find the worst in everything! Can’t you just focus on the good deed?”

No, I can’t. Stories like these can hurt individuals with disabilities, and it can damage the way we see them. It increases the stigma and “other”-ization of disability by presenting it as not like us. It reinforces the underlying belief that there are the weak/pitiable/disabled people, and then there’s the “normal” people who are kind enough to help them. It makes it seem like it is SO REMARKABLE when anyone is kind to them.

Kindness matters, friends, don’t get me wrong. But dignity matters, too. It’s important to change the way we perceive and discuss disability and disabled people. People who have disabilities are strong, and are also proud and have value. They have much they can contribute to society, if we will only just see them. We also shouldn’t accept them despite their disability; we should accept them and their disability. We are ALL people and are all in this together. At some point each of us may find ourselves in a situation where we are in need of kindness or a helping hand. When that day comes I hope that someone is there to help, and does so simply because it is the right thing to do. Maybe one day kindness and assistance will even be viewed as the norm rather than the exception. Maybe then these stories will no longer be seen as news-worthy, because it is simply what you see every day. Let’s work together to make that day a reality.

 

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