Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Inspiration Porn: High School Gestures

Silhouette illustration of a young man and woman dancing at a formal dance
I am still working on a sort of master post on Inspiration Porn, but I want to take another detour to talk about a subset of this loosely defined phenomenon. I'll call it High School Gestures, referring to three practices that have become popular in American high schools and a familiar trope in "feel good" media:

2. Organizing and hosting "special" prom events, specifically for disabled students.

3. Allowing a disabled student to "run a play" with a sports team.

Three key factors make these practices a type of Inspiration Porn:

1. They are all intended to be “good deeds” for people assumed to be stigmatized and unable to make satisfying social lives for themselves.

2. Media coverage of these events almost always focuses on the kindness of the organizers, relatively little on the disabled individuals these events are supposed to benefit, and not at all on the stigmas and barriers disabled students face every day in their effort to participate in school social life.

3. The events are often further interpreted as encouraging signs that "the kids today" may not be going to Hell after all ... the premise being that on every other day it seems like they are, an unfair and insulting idea in itself.

Labeling these kinds of events Inspiration Porn obviously indicates that I have problems with them, and I do. They are usually well meaning, but contrived and, in a sense, fake. I worry that later in life, some of these disabled youth will look back on these “feel good” events and and cringe at how patronizing they were, and wonder how they allowed themselves to be treated as objects of pity and charity. No matter what the specifics, these events are almost always reported in the same sentimental way, so that even when a specific event is really sincere, it still comes off as weepy Inspiration Porn. The worst thing, in a way, is that these are usually “one off” gestures that benefit one especially loved disabled person, while most disabled kids are unaffected.

Let’s be clear. An unstated premise of these gestures is that “normal” high school social rituals are inherently exclusive and off-limits to most disabled students. That is the problem, and these flashy gestures don’t do much to change the situation. It’s like giving a box of extra-tasty chocolates, just once, to starving person, instead of what they need, which is a reliable diet of nutritious food.

In addition, a lot of disabled people themselves find these kinds of practices truly vile and offensive, in a very personal way. And I think it’s important to emphasize that this feeling is real, not intellectualized or theoretical, or deployed merely for rhetorical purposes. And no, it doesnt matter that the intentions are good. We feel it like a gut punch.

On the other hand, I have started thinking that the acts themselves aren’t always so terrible; it’s the way they are reported that makes us gag. In a couple of cases about prom court elections, it seemed like the students sincerely voted for people they genuinely liked, almost without reference to their disability. It's just that the media covered it like it was a charitable act. Still, one or two isolated examples just don’t go far enough when the majority of disabled students are entirely left out of extracurricular activities and social life.

Instead, I would prefer schools to discourage these types of grand, benevolent gestures, and instead take up the long-term and less immediately gratifying job of removing barriers to a full social life for all disabled students.

How? Here are some ideas:

1. Schools should support a wider variety of extracurricular activities, besides the prom and the the most popular sports programs. "Schools should support" means school district taxpayers should demand and agree to pay for more diverse, robust social options that appeal to all kinds of students, including those with disabilities.

2. Schools should create clubs and organizations that are associated with the top sports programs, but serve peripheral support functions and can accommodate non-athletic participants. It's unrealistic to think that chess club, theater companies, and community service groups are ever going to be as popular as football and basketball, so let's create and recognize some real support roles that disabled students ... and other non-athletic students … can play.

3. Make it absolutely clear that all students … including those who don't have dates and just want to go and have fun … are welcomed to attend all of the proms, formals, and other social events. The long term goal here might be to permanently de-emphasize the "coupling up" aspect. Also, it would help to downplay the most expensive aspects, like tuxes, gowns, and limos. Don't ban them, but don't glorify them.

4. Instead of charitably giving awards and honors to disabled people who would probably not qualify under ordinary circumstances, create a wider variety of awards and honors that are honest and real, and which disabled students (and others) can more frequently earn without anyone having to make a “special” effort.

One argument against these suggestions might be that they shortchange students on learning valuable lessons about kindness and generosity. For one thing, that's like saying that we need people to be in poverty so that everyone else can learn to be generous. I would also counter that there are much more important lessons to learn about respecting and including all kinds of people and normalizing those values, rather than treating ordinary decency as some kind special gift that privileged people occasionally bestow on those deemed “less fortunate.”

In short, a little less “Make-A-Wish” and a lot more commitment to deep integration and equality. That’s what we should be shooting for. It’s harder to accomplish, but the long term benefits are far greater than the fleeting results of one or two big, short-term gestures per year. And although wholesale culture change sounds like a near-impossible task, these specific steps in that direction are eminently achievable.

We have to insist on it, not just for our disabled students, but for all of them.