Why Do You Only Love Them If They Can Dance?

You may have heard or seen the recent viral news story about Sam, the Autistic dancing Starbucks barista who won over the hearts and minds of the internet.

Sam’s dance moves helped him find his way onto The Ellen Degeneres Show (Ellen is a big fan of dancing, if you didn’t know), and there was much rejoicing.

But this is a scene we’ve seen many times, and there’s an angle that doesn’t get considered often enough. Yes, it’s great that Sam has found success (and supportive employment) despite his disability, but there is a pattern here which is problematic.

What if Sam couldn’t (or didn’t like to) dance? He may have still gotten the job, but he likely would not have become the feel-good story that he did. You might be thinking “so what? he got the job and he had his 15 minutes, why do you have to rain on his parade?” Well, because it’s not just his parade.

And my answer to that is “what about all the other Autistic people out there who don’t dance, or sing, or do something remarkable, but who can still do a fine job?”

The pattern is that people who are disabled, or who don’t easily fit in with the general societal conception of “cool” or “entertaining” don’t become sensations, and more likely they are derided and draw the ire of impatient patrons who are not otherwise willing to put up with impaired physical or social skills.

In other words, disabled people who aren’t entertaining, are seen as inconveniences. If it’s entertaining, people will give it a pass. If not, get out of their way.

Think about it — how many examples can you think of where a person with a visible disability has been embraced, supported, or ultimately praised, if not for some quirk, talent, or ability that “makes up for it”? And this is the problematic trend that rarely gets talked about.

It reminded me of this meme:

Ultimately, I think there is ample evidence to support the 3rd panel of the above: “Deviation from the norm will be punished unless it is exploitable.”

So while it’s great that Sam found the success he did, I ask again — “what if Sam didn’t like to dance, and didn’t have some other noteworthy skill?” And what about all the other Sams and Samanthas with disabilities, but who don’t have some entertaining talent to compensate.

This is the problem with praising people only for special talents, and this is why the term “Inspiration Porn” was coined. Disability activist, speaker, and comedian Stella Young put it bluntly: She’s not here to inspire you. This is why disability rights campaigns are pushing beyond “awareness” and pushing toward acceptance.

Everyone matters, whether or not they can dance or make you laugh with them.