A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: But Are Those Words The Right Ones?
Two weeks ago, a picture popped up online and quickly went viral. It was an image showing a young university student holding the hand of a man with cerebral palsy on a city bus. The university student was being hailed as a hero for his amazing act of kindness. The university student was identified by his first and last name, Godfrey Coutto, while the man “suffering from” cerebral palsy was referred to only as Robert (he was also identified as being deaf).
After I saw it in a few of my friends’ Facebook feeds, I felt the need to comment. While I agree with allowing your hand to be held by a stranger in need, this hardly makes Coutto a ‘hero’. Referring to his actions in this context reinforces the idea that having a disability is a fate worse than most people dare imagine and it cements disability as inspiration porn. There is nothing heroic about holding someone’s hand.
My second issue is that while Coutto was quoted repeatedly, “I just allowed it. Like, what am I going to do? Sometimes you just have to be selfless and put someone else’s needs above yours … he just needed comfort.” He also attributed abounding kindness to his mother, saying, “I was raised by a queen.” This is all very well and good. I am not disputing Coutto’s kind intentions. My issue is that no one talked to Robert. His family was contacted and all they said was that Robert enjoyed riding the bus and interacting with strangers. Robert is nothing more than ‘a person with special needs’, used as leverage to highlight an able-bodied person’s relatively innocuous response to a situation.
Robert is a person, not a prop; I would have appreciated if any of the coverage of this incident treated him as such. Why did Robert feel compelled to hold Coutto’s hand in the first place? Did he want his hand held at all, or did he simply lose his balance on a bumpy bus ride and needed to reach out to steady himself? Did Robert want his hand to be held continuously? These are all pertinent questions that should have been addressed. But doing so would have entailed giving a voice to the person behind the disability and we can’t have that; society loves to perpetuate the idea that people with disabilities are like children – best left to be seen and not heard unless directly spoken to, within strict confines of what is appropriate to be heard. Would it really have been so hard to find an ASL interpreter to sit down with Robert and get his perspective on the matter? God forbid giving people with disabilities equal opportunity to express themselves freely.
Surely if something of this nature happened that involved race or cultural insensitivity, the populous would be quick to pounce and finger point. I’m saddened that disability remains such a large minority that is continuously and systematically ignored, swept under the rug and otherwise repetitively trampled on. We as a society continue to be progressive in recognizing, protecting and fighting for equality. I find myself wondering why this progressiveness does not extend to disability issues the same way it does to issues of race, culture, gender and countless other things.
Coutto was given a local award for his ‘heroism’. While I do not want to seem callous – I do not dispute his honourable intentions, or his kindness in the moment – that really makes me want to cry.
Layla Guse Salah