There’s a meme I see about “kids with special needs” that I see making its way around social media every few months. I know that the people who post it do so in good faith. However, their actions, while well-meaning, are deeply flawed. As the brother of somebody who has special needs, and as a physician who is dually specialized as both a pediatrician and an internist, I have a request to the entire Internet: please STOP sharing this meme.
Here’s the meme:
KIDS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS ARE NOT WEIRD OR ODD. THEY ONLY WANT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE WANTS… TO BE ACCEPTED!! CAN I MAKE A REQUEST? IS ANYONE WILLING TO POST THIS IN HONOR OF ALL CHILDREN MADE IN A UNIQUE WAY. LET’S SEE WHO HAS A STRONG HEART ♥
First of all, it is based on a stereotype. It’s not talking about “kids with cerebral palsy” or “kids with autism” or “blind kids” or “deaf kids” or “kids with ADHD” or “kids with glutaric acidemia type 2.” Instead it’s talking in general “kids with special needs.” There are all kinds of special needs. Some kids are intellectually disabled. Some kids are physically disabled. Some are a combination of both. Not all disabilities are created equal. And, all disabilities have degrees. Many people with intellectual disabilities are still very high-functioning in daily living. This meme is based on societal stereotypes of people with disabilities.
Second, it’s extremely patronizing. Of course my brother isn’t “weird” or “odd”— that is, no more or less than anybody else’s big brother is. Why does somebody feel like this needs to be pointed out?
Third, it’s extremely self-righteous and presumptive to claim to speak for him. It is extremely self-righteous and presumptive to claim to understand what he wants, i.e., “to be accepted.” My brother is a human being like everyone else, and one can’t just make a blanket statement of what “they” want. I’d wager he doesn’t care one bit whether you accept him or not, and given a choice, he’d rather have a donut.
Finally, this idea of sharing this to see “who has a strong heart” has nothing to do with actually advocating for people with disabilities and solving the actual problems of discrimination that people with disabilities actually face in real life. Rather, it is a way for people to just feel self-righteous on the Internet, to feel like they “did something” to help the “needy.” Again, it’s patronizing to people with special needs, treating them as objects to be pitied instead of as unique humans.
In her TED talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” Australian comedian, journalist, and disability rights activist Stella Young discusses what she calls “inspiration porn.” This is the popular portrayal of disabled people as “inspirational” simply by virtue of being disabled. It is where able-bodied people treat the disabled as being extraordinary just for doing ordinary tasks. She criticizes this behavior as a way of treating the disabled as “others,” and as a way of dehumanizing them. As was spoken by a character on the ABC sitcom Speechless, “It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”
This meme does the exact same thing.
And this isn’t just a problem with “political correctness.” This has very real impact on people’s lives. Memes like this perpetuate stereotypes about people with disabilities, and those stereotypes find their way into the law. The most egregious example of this I can think of is Texas’ former “Lennie standard” for determining if somebody is legally “intellectually disabled.” The Supreme Court had previously ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are intellectually disabled. In response to this, the state of Texas established its legal “intellectual disability” standard, which was based not only on grossly outdated medical criteria, but also on whether or not the prisoner is more or less “able” than the character “Lennie” in John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men. A legal standard for determining if somebody could be put to death was based in part on a fictional character, who himself was based on a stereotype of a person with an intellectual disability. Fortunately, Texas’ legal standard was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2017.
Memes like this one are part of that problem, part of the perpetuation of the “Lennie standard” in society. So, please stop being part of the problem. Please stop sharing this meme.