Shock conveys many things. Usually, we use it to describe good surprises and breaks in our mundane lives that are eventually welcome. What often goes unsaid about it is that shocks break up routines and events with expected outcomes. Society rarely questions ableism and the barriers that prohibit disabled people from going after those things they are passionate about, so when a disabled person appears in a space not designed to include them, it can be a shock when they not only succeed but thrive in that environment.
That is exactly what happened when Kodi Lee, a contestant on America’s Got Talent graced the stage for his audition. Disabled viewers held their breath as the blind autistic man began to play over saccharine music and a story of inspiration and “overcoming” disability played out. The nail in the coffin was when he graced the stage and “aww’ed” at his presence. A chorus of voices infantilizing a skilled musician. He was not a talented amateur in his field, he wasn’t someone who had practiced countless hours and honed his craft, he was cute. He’s extremely talented. That’s not what’s in dispute. It’s the treatment, shock and inspiration porn that surrounded his story that made it seem like his talent was improbable. It’s our fault though. It was really on us for expecting his talent and background would be given dignity.
There are many talented disabled people, but rarely are they given the chance to reach the epitome of those talents. And, whether they’ve admitted it or not, many able-bodied people are complicit in their apathy surrounding lack of access and inclusion. Rather than questioning the structures in place that keep someone like Kodi Lee from being able to fully explore their talents and share them, they push forth and traffic in the myth that disability can be erased once a disabled person exhibits those skills. Terry Crews demonstrated this lie when he tweeted that we needed to remove the “Dis” from “ability.”
Disabled people don’t overcome their disability because they’ve presented their skills in a manner that is palatable to an audience. They jump through hoops around inaccessibility, bias, and ableism that goes unchecked and unquestioned leading to many more disabled people feeling repressed and ignored.
Likely the worst thing to come from Crews’ tweet is that he will be heralded as an ally of the disabled community–many with the same sentiment will be. Simply looking our way has positioned him as a friend of the community, but I have some serious doubts. I doubt that the next time he returns to the set of Brooklyn 99 he’ll wonder if it’s accessible to disabled performers. I doubt he’ll question where all of the disabled talents are in front of, and behind, the camera. I doubt that he will walk into his next audition or meeting with his agent and will look for an elevator or a script in Braille. I have doubts, but they’re also my disappointing expectations.
When abled people revel in their shock at the accomplishments of disabled people and turn it into inspiration porn, they are speaking to an internalized complicity in maintaining a lack of access for disabled artists and performers.
The question shouldn’t be why we don’t take the “dis” out of “disability,” but when will anyone be making space for another Kodi Lee?