Ellen DeGeneres’ Video About the Starbucks Barista “Sam with Autism” Shouldn’t Make You Feel Good

This is a wonderful story and the message is delivered in a cute way. If you aren’t familiar here’s the clip:

Ellen Meets the Dancing Starbucks Barista

First off, as a nation we should be more inclusive and challenging bias really needs to be a cultural priority. And I think videos like these do play a part in countering how we understand ability, opportunity, and access. However when we tout disability as an “exceptional” thing it can be highly problematic. Chris, the Starbucks supervisor, seems like a great guy and it is great that he hired Sam. However, this doesn’t make Chris an “amazing hero.” This just makes Chris a good boss. If Chris is a hero merely for hiring someone with a disability it lets all of us other “non-hero humans” off the hook. It also implies that there is something inherently wrong with Sam that it took a hero to hire him in the first place. This video has a feel-good narrative outright but it still delivers a toxic message: disability is less-than.

The truth is we should all have realistic yet high expectations for ourselves and other people. Our employment practices should obviously expand to hiring people with disabilities, not out of any perceived charitable obligation but because they can do the work. Is Sam an “inspiration”? He has his dream job and is making great strides living the life he wants. He is proud of himself and that’s what matters. However should the focus of this video be on Sam’s autism and how he is “overcoming it” to work at Starbucks or should the focus really be on the fact that Sam is crushing it on his own terms. When we frame an able-bodied person as a “hero” and a person with a disability as a source of “inspiration” it actually perpetuates a lot of ableist prejudice (aka disability oppression) regarding what “nondisabled” and “disabled” people are expected to do and prescribes the relationship they are expected to forge. When we elevate Chris, we devalue Sam.

I understand this video was made with good intentions but videos like these are reflective of another element of disability discrimination that as a culture we tend to cherish, not challenge. The trope of the innocent, blissful person with a disability as a token recipient of able-bodied charity seems so endearing because it plays into our very paternalistic relationship with disability. God knows I love Ellen so I’m not trying to disparage her, or Chris, or Sam. However I encourage that when people see these types of videos pop up on social media, whether it features the popular kid asking the kid with a disability to prom, someone turning on their cochlear implant for the first time, etc., challenge yourself to think about who this video was designed for. Is it meant for other people with disabilities? Is it geared towards the parent audience? Is it a message marketed to able-bodied people as a peek into the disability experience? Are videos like these actually just distractions? Painting a glossy picture of disability as a “problem” we’ve “solved” rather than addressing how outcomes for individuals with disabilities are abysmal due to the very inaccessible world that we’ve built.

Again who is this video for? Who does this video help? “Disability” is the largest minority group in the United States (and the world) but yet we seldom talk about our inequitable institutions and systems that deny individuals with disabilities their basic human rights. This video is light hearted and easy to watch but improving how our country understands disability, talks about disability, improves access, and increases inclusive practices will take work, not just sunshine and smiles. Our current presidential candidates have not widely addressed the concerns of the disability community. Individuals with disabilities in the US are restricted in their capacity to become effective citizens due to systemic discrimination and this lack of access further drives our ableist, segregated society. I am happy for Sam but it shouldn’t actually be about me as an observer. It is his life and I hope he is making the decisions he can, setting his own goals, and accomplishing them. I hope he attributes his success to his own hard work and not to Chris’ generosity. I hope he is loving his job, dancing during his shifts, making relationships, BUT I also hope he is making enough money to live independently, he has access to an equitable education and affordable transportation, he can make his own health care decisions, live a life free of violence and abuse, and vote! Because statistically speaking, in our stigma-laden society Sam has a significantly lower likelihood of accessing these intrinsic rights and improving his quality of life compared to individuals without disabilities.

Being mindful and intentional when it comes to how we talk about disability, from the language we use to the individuals who create the content, is not just responsible but essential in order to confront stigma and demand change. Disability rights are human rights.