People with disabilities, or at least most of us, have highly attuned antennae for picking up any gesture or comment that undercuts our humanity. After millennia of being considered less than, functionally useless, and tragically scarred, this is understandable. Especially when you are newly disabled, you want to bash the guy who (in my case) decided to push my chair across the street without asking. Arghhh…
Over time, this hypersensitivity tends to fade as you realize that the lady in the elevator who announces, “You are doing a super job!” is just trying to be complimentary and/or dealing with her own discomfort. She may be ham-fisted in her comment, but she’s not mean or hateful. And if you snarl at her, she won’t understand. She won’t get the subtlety of the offense.
I was reminded of this apparent disconnect between people with disabilities and the responses of the non-disabled world with the recent brouhaha surrounding the appearance of a young singer who happened to be both autistic and blind on the talent show, “America’s Got Talent.” The 22-year-old man, Kodi Lee, had a shy, almost child-like demeanor, but when he opened his mouth to sing, millions of viewers felt their collective jaw drop in amazement. On the other hand, many in the disability community were offended by his treatment. They found the comments of the panel, and the audience’s teary reception, to be cringe-worthy, overwrought, condescending, and infantilizing. They saw it as the deadly curse of ableism: inspiration porn.
As I read through this slew of brickbats, the question I kept asking was: Did you listen to the song? I know we crips hate being called an inspiration or treated with excessive deference because we know we aren’t an inspiration, or hero, or particularly “special,” and are just being patronized, but in this case, the performance itself was, if not inspiring, then a close synonym – moving, exhilarating.
I understand some of the unease with the panelist/audience reception. It was over the top – way over the top. At times, it was as if Kodi were just a stage prop and the whole audience was wallowing in a big cryfest, essentially congratulating themselves for being so kind to this poor man. Howie Mandel used the dreaded “i” word,” and the woman next to him said she could “hear your heart, your passion.”Simon Cowell, the kingpin, said, “I don’t know what it’s like to live in Kodi’s world,” then praised “his (vocal) tone” and “his relationship with his mom.” He called the performance “extraordinary,” because he calls every big performance extraordinary.
Remember Susan Boyle? She was the oldish, frumpish British woman who blew a million minds when she started to sing on “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2008. When she was finished, the audience cried, cheered, applauded, stood up, and Simon called it extraordinary. Her comment at the time: “I know what they were thinking, but why should it matter as long as I can sing? It’s not a beauty contest.”
No, it didn’t matter as long as she could sing. There was never any mention of patronizing the old and frumpy. The audience went crazy because of the stunning juxtaposition of the modest person and the soaring voice.
So with Susan, so with Kodi, and so with the dozens of off-beat performers, including many with disabilities, who have graced the stages of “America’s Got Talent” and “Britain’s Got Talent.” As with Kodi, if they weren’t good, really good, and the response was like that, then it would feel patronizing and infantilizing, the pity factor at work. But the performance blew all of those considerations away. The performance is everything. The fact that it came out of Kodi’s mouth is just icing.
I’m not trying to start an argument here about what or what isn’t cringeworthy in the public perception of people with disabilities. I’m just throwing out a different perspective. I know some people were upset about this and felt genuinely offended. If that’s the way you felt, then so be it.
But I implore you, go to YouTube and listen to Kodi sing this song again, this time with your eyes closed. Hopefully, you’ll soon forget about whether non-disabled America was indulging in inspiration porn or not. And hopefully, Simon Cowell and friends, as they have dozens of times in the past, will continue to give other gifted performers with disabilities like Kodi a stage to show their stuff. In my mind, it’s a small but decidedly positive step toward inclusion.