Should You Really Share That Inspirational Special-Needs Video?

Be sure you know what message you're sending

Woman with a Laptop
Credit: Cultura RM Exclusive/Stefano Gilera

Oh, look! That senior class elected a girl with Down syndrome as homecoming queen! Aw, the football captain took a girl with cerebral palsy to the prom. So sweet! Did you see that one where a boy's whole class slowed down so he could run with them? Wonderful, those kids. I cry whenever I think of how that basketball team let the boy with autism shoot a basket, and stopped the game to defend that girl who was being picked on. So beautiful, those videos! Gives me faith in humanity.

While inclusion of children with special needs in schools is still incomplete, and inclusion of workers with special needs in the workforce has a long way to go, and inclusion of adults with special needs in the community is still a neighborhood-by-neighborhood battle, one place everyone can agree that people with disabilities should be celebrated is in social-media videos. And in a world where our kids so often get the stink-eye from adults and the cold shoulder from their peers, and on an Internet where commenters say hateful things about children and adults with disabilities on a blithely regular basis, it can make your heart leap to see these examples of good-hearted people doing the right thing. It can give you hope, or at least lighten your worry load for a moment.

As parents, we spend so much time grappling with the imperfect world our kids struggle in that it's hard to imagine what a perfect world looks like, and that makes it easy to mistake something positive-looking as a step in the right direction.

But ultimately, what we want is for our kids to be a part of the community -- not a service project, not a feel-good opportunity, not the recipients of special favors out of the good of others' hearts, not a walking inspirational poster, but just another one of the gang. It's worth considering whether the kind of inspirational videos we see so often move us closer to that point or move that point farther away.

Before you sigh and cry and share, consider these somewhat inconvenient questions.

Is the video about a person with a disability, or is it about groovy nondisabled people being nice to a person with a disability?

Even with videos about kids with disabilities doing amazing things, the real story often seems to be how nice it was for the coach or the other team or the celebrity or another typical benefactor to give him or her the chance. Ask yourself whether that would be the case with a typical athlete or performer. Do we run the risk of making the accommodating of a child with special needs appear to be a big production that involves the typical world making a grand gesture? Might that encourage people to assume that our kids can’t be accommodated just in the course of everyday life? 

If you were the child in that video, would you want it out in the world?

It’s understandably inspirational to see someone struggle and finally succeed. Often the struggles of children with special needs are particularly touching because they’re fighting to do things others find easy.

Harried parents may also find it inspirational to see a parent dealing with the challenging or behavior of a child with special needs. Ask yourself, though, whether it’s really appropriate to take those videos public. Is it demeaning to the child in question? And does it tend to give the impression that children like this one would be impossible to accommodate in your classroom or restaurant or activity or Sunday school class?

Is the person with a disability special for anything other than being a person with a disability?

Too often, the point of videos about people with disabilities is that living with a disability is such an extraordinarily difficult and tragic and heroic enterprise that no nondisabled person has any call to complain about his or her comparatively charmed life. But being an object lesson is one step away from being an object, and surely we want more for our kids than that. It’s true that we live in a time where being inspirational and motivational can be a career path, but ideally we’d want that be something done out of interest or passion, and not by simply existing. Think about how you would feel to have people look at you and think, "There but for the grace of God."

Does the video tell the whole story?

We can’t help it—as parents, our hearts are going to swell at the sight of typical kids honoring children like ours with things like a homecoming crown or a prom date or a spot on the team. We may even have thought from time to time that, I don’t care if it’s real, I would PAY good kids to be friends with my kid instead of just ignoring her. But there are limits to that kind of friendship, and we know it, and chances are the kids with disabilities in those videos know it at some point when the cameras are off and the grand gesture is finished and kids go back to being kids with their own cliques and social stresses. We never see that part, do we? If that part is not so inspirational, should we really be celebrating and touting and putting our hearts into the part that is?

Does the video let the viewer off easy?

There is no easier way to “honor” kids with special needs than hitting a share button on the Internet. Folks get to feel all righteous and good-hearted, and it costs them nothing. Don’t have to put up with a special kid in their kid’s class, don’t have to go without some food that they like, don’t have to tolerate disruptive behavior in a public place, don’t have to figure out how to fit those pesky challenging children into their church groups or teams or schools. But hey, they’ve got a heart for those kids, they shared that sweet video to prove it. Do we really want to keep providing those opportunities? There are things to share—maybe the R-word campaign, for starters—that will really make folks put their money where their share button is. 

Watch that video again. Watch it a hundred times if it makes you feel good. Share it privately with other special-needs parents who could use a smile or a good cry. But maybe, after that, keep it to yourself. And go back to the hard work of making the world an inspirational place for our kids for real.

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