Random Acts of Kindness or Systems of Equity?: Giving the Ball to People with Disabilities
The video clips are everywhere. I just saw one today on social media.
They are often accompanied by emojis of crying and comments like, “Congratulations to this group of boys (or girls, or young people) for taking the time to give their teammate a chance to play. Good for the coaches, too.”
They all win.
The video clip goes something like this: a youth or high school sports team is playing another team in a regular season game. There’s a break in the action as they invite a team member onto the gym floor. The crowd breaks into cheers. The new arrival, presumably someone who does not see much playing time, is encouraged to shoot, hit, kick, or pass the ball. The opposing team, also in on the special moment, mounts a well-intentioned though half-hearted defense. In the span of about ten to thirty seconds, maybe not even while the clock is running, the guest star shoots, kicks, hits, or passes. The crowd erupts again. There’s a flurry of back-slapping and hand-shaking. People wipe their eyes. The guest player goes back to the bench. The game resumes. End of video.
Aside from the congratulations to the teams and coaches who deigned to let this happen, the viewers of the video follow up with a range of predictable reactions:
I’m crying right now!
It takes so little time to be kind.
I’m not opposed to kindness nor to the moments that touch our hearts. I welcome inclusion, especially of the coordinated and intentional kind.
My critique of videos like the ones I describe, as well as the reactions of the able-bodied community that celebrate and share them, is that they are fleeting moments. They portray people with disabilities as mascots, rather than team members and participants. They remind me that access and inclusion are by invitation only.
When we invite people with disabilities onto the floor, the field, the pitch, or the screen for guest appearances, we become witnesses to random acts of kindness, not alliances and systems for equity. The benefits of the kindness accrue to the able-bodied keepers of the game, rather than to the people who remain sidelined. When is inclusion merely a pause or an interruption, not a guiding ethic and value?
As we find ourselves dabbing our eyes in response to such uncommon acts of kindness and heroism (on the parts of the inviters and the invited), does the possibility exist that we might be perpetuating harm? When we pause the game to allow people with disabilities to participate, if only for a few seconds, are we promoting justice — or reinforcing exclusion?
The transformative justice movement has been led by Black and Brown feminists, like adrienne maree brown and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha, who have sought to address harm in the community through “any way of creating safety, justice, and healing for survivors of violence that does not rely on the state…to free our people.” Mia Mingus, a notable advocate for transformative justice who is also an Asian, queer, and disabled woman, writes: [transformative justice is about] actively work(ing) to cultivate the very things that we know will prevent violence, such as accountability, healing, trust, connection, safety.”
Transformative justice is not merely about “restoring” the relationship between the perpetrators and survivors of harm, but also about locating the harm in a system of community-based oppression and violence. Transformative justice requires us to ask: What are the roots of the harm? How do we dismantle it and embody patterns and systems of care, not just random acts? How do we make healing, connection, and safety part of the way we live?
One of the first things to do toward transformative justice for people who live with a disability is to understand why we are crying. As I wrote earlier, the videos of the teams that allow a disabled person to play are inevitably met with tears. Are we crying because we are touched by able-bodied kindness — or do we still carry the weight of disability as something that is tragic and sad? The centering of disability as a lack of ability — a deprivation — denies the complete humanity of people with disabilities. Given that one billion people worldwide, and nearly 20% of the American population, live with a disability (physical, cognitive, psychiatric, neurologic), we all live with disability in our communities, whether or not we acknowledge it. I would offer that our tear-stained responses to disability are rooted in our culturally-prescribed norms around what “normal” is. If you’ve ever used the words “less fortunate” to describe people with disabilities, you might be part of the problem. Interrogate these words: luck, lack, fortunate, and less. Where do you situate yourself within them? If you consider yourself among the lucky, what do you do with that power and privilege? Being “sad” about disability may, in fact, find its emotional genesis in the knowledge that our systems, structures, and values are not designed for the survival of people with disabilities. That is sad…
…and tears are not enough.
Creative imagination about futures (and presents) that include and embrace people with disabilities is an effective antidote to tears. Acknowledging the contributions and generativity of people with disabilities is a start. Disrupting, dismantling, and rebuilding new systems of access, equity, and inclusion is the next step. It’s hard work. Again, adrienne maree brown provides useful guidance:
Our work is to make the unimaginable feel tangible, become a longing. I have worked with organizers for years, and we’ve found the edges of what we are building. In science fiction and visionary fiction, it feels like we give ourselves permission to move beyond that edge…Beyond that edge we find solutions and more problems, which is also important to me in transformative justice: that it isn’t utopian.
What is the most ridiculous future about living with disability that you can imagine? Hybrid teams comprised of people with all abilities that are experiments in collaboration and understanding, not just winning and entertainment? Television shows that are written by, directed by, and acted by people with disabilities that reflect an authentic view of what living with a disability is like, as an everyday experience? Public venues that are designed to provide access to as many people as possible, inclusive of ability? An enduring respect for disabled lives that does not require a box of tissues, but a responsibility to care for and about others?
Jim Dator, renowned futurist and former director at the University of Hawai’I’s Future Studies program, once said:
Dator never said that the future(s) — any and all permutations of them — should be easy. It’s the visioning, and the question “what if?”, that should guide us into the uncomfortable wondering about the futures in which we all might live and thrive.
When thinking about transformative justice for people with disabilities, let’s come back to the word “harm.”
It’s a powerful word: harm. It means injury, insult, and even trauma. I am sure that when the first-string team members and their coaches decided to put their disabled teammate on the court to give them a chance to shoot a basket, they weren’t thinking about harm. They thought they were doing a good deed. When people on social media reposted the video, I’m sure they did so with good intentions. When fans cheered and respondents commented with tearful emojis and sympathy, I would assume they were genuinely touched.
Intention and impact are two different things. I am willing to absorb the resistance. Maybe it was a generous act. What happened, though, after the end of that video clip? What changed in the lives of the “regular” players, the coaches, the fans, and the “less-fortunate” person who had a moment of luck and kindness? Were we witnesses to transformation — or just a brief interruption in the status quo?
Harm is not only the intention to inflict cruelty but also the willingness to accept that the present that exists is intractably correct. The only possibility imaginable because of how things have always been. I posit: there is harm in believing in and celebrating random acts of kindness instead of in systemic patterns of inclusion and equity. There is harm in perpetuating myths about people with disabilities — as temporarily useful, as mascots, and as props for telling stereotypical stories about people with disabilities. If we were to rewrite these stories, what stories would we tell? What stories would people with disabilities tell? What is the substantive difference between invited to play as part of a concocted scene versus being authentically included and valued as part of our living together? What changes would we have to make about our ideal of the “comfortable” and the “good?” The games of the future belong to all of us. Perhaps we will know we have transformed when the moments of kindness are neither memes nor news stories, but the everyday habits by which we have learned how to be.