I resist the notion of “ableism” because it suggests that all nondisabled people (whoever they may be) discriminate against disabled people, which isn’t true. However, a visually impaired friend of mine, his sighted wife and sighted six-year-old daughter had an experience last month that cries out, “Ableism!” Here’s his email message on the event, edited only to honor his request to hold back his family’s identities:
Today, we took my daughter to see the Harlem Globetrotters at the Barclays Center with another family. Through some connection of the dad’s, we were in one of the luxury boxes, which we had all to ourselves. during the halftime show, the mascot, whatever it was came out and did some kind of skit. During the performance, somebody pulled the big eyes off the mascot’s costume and the mascot, presumably now blind, proceeded to stumble around, getting laughs from the crowd.
My daughter got really angry and yelled down to the court, “That’s really disrespectful to my dad!” Then she stormed off and sat back down in her seat, genuinely pissed off.
I asked my friend whether there was any audience reaction. Apparently not. It seems the occupants in that luxury box were out of view from the rest of the arena. I’d love to have heard that the crowd leapt up in support of his daughter. She was right: That act was disrespectful. So was the crowd’s indulgence and laughter.
I Googled the Globetrotters and their “blind” mascot with a variety of search terms and combinations, but to my surprise, I found no online reference to this prank. On the other hand, I did find items lauding the Globetrotters’ work with visually impaired people. (See, for example, this article about the Globetrotters and a legally blind thirteen-year-old.)
Here are some reasons why the venerated Globetrotters were this time in the wrong:
1. Blind people care very much about their dignity, and they work perhaps even harder than others to maintain grace as they move through the world.
2. The stumbling act reinforced existing prejudices about blind people’s clumsiness. Saturday Night Live pulled a similar stunt when they mocked David Paterson, New York’s then governor who was visually impaired. (See my 2016 post “On Comedy and Disability.”)
3. Many blind and visually impaired people have healthy senses of humor. Forcing someone like my friend and me to condemn this kind of comedy could signal that we lack perspective.
I don’t take the position that only blind and short-sighted people can make fun of blind and short-sighted people. I don’t want to get caught up in a disabilities equivalent of the cultural appropriation debacle. But I doubt any disabled person would endorse what the Globetrotters did the Sunday my friend and his family were in the audience. If the target of your humor wouldn’t do it, don’t do it yourself, unless you really mean to offend.
Let’s hope that as my friend’s daughter grows older, more and more disabled people are accepted into the mainstream and that mocking them ceases to get laughs. It won’t be a question of censorship. The joke will simply fall flat.
And to my friend’s daughter: Brava!