Dear Tim Tebow, All the “Special Needs Proms” and Prayers in the World will not Actually Improve How Disability is Experienced

I do not know much about football. And I know even less about football players. In fact here are the only players I know off the top of my head and the only things I know about them:

  1. Hines Ward: Go Steelers! But more importantly he loves his mom (full disclosure, I’m a Yinzer)
  2. Ray Rice: Abusive dirtbag
  3. Tom Brady: Deflated a football.. maybe? (Not sure, don’t care)
  4. Tim Tebow: Good at being an evangelical Christian, bad at playing football

Anyway, like I said I do not know much about sports but I am a doctoral candidate studying disability, so when I read the following headline in the Huffington Post on 2/16/16 that merged the two, I reflexively cringed and quickly succumbed to intrigue.

“Tim Tebow Holds More Than 200 Proms for People with Special Needs: And Tebow showed up to one in New York”

Here’s the link in case you missed it: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/tim-tebow-night-to-shine-prom-valentines-day-weekend_us_56c32813e4b0b40245c7cfc6

I read the article, cringed again, and like any good doctoral candidate I did some additional research. Tim Tebow, the inventor and trade-marker of “Tebowing,” a proud pro-lifer, and a force to be reckoned with when it comes to bringing Christ to the Philippines, has made quite the reputation as a savior. And while the Tim Tebow Foundation has several initiatives that seek to bring “Faith, Hope, and Love” to those in their “darkest hour of need” I’ll just speak to what I know and why Tebow’s mission left me exasperated.

Tebow’s “Night to Shine” proms for youth with disabilities, which are hosted in churches across the country, have stirred up a range of emotions and responses. I’ve seen the pictures posted on his Instagram and Twitter feed and no doubt the young people, his “kings and queens,” had fun. Maybe they even found a “spiritual home” where they can “experience the love of God,” like Tebow was personally praying for. By the looks of it, it seemed like an exciting night for these youth to shine (as the event’s name promised) but it was also a display of prejudice masked as charitable concern. It was an embodiment of our highly-celebrated, rarely-challenged paternalistic relationship between those with disabilities and those without. In the disability community this type of message, whether manifested as a condescending meme with a tagline like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” or using someone with a disability as a token to deliver a message most likely not reflective of their experience, is known as inspiration porn. Inspiration porn effectively garners pity from able-bodied audiences while simultaneously objectifying disability as a source of inspiration for the same able-bodied crowd. These types of narratives, events, and attitudes frame disability as an inherently negative condition that one is tasked with overcoming. One must be saved. Inspiration porn also sets low expectations for individuals with disabilities as it suggests that disability is less-than. One must depend on another to raise them up. And this warm, fuzzy, and full of smiles depiction of how disability touches our kids and communities does us a serious disservice because by making a somber issue sweeter, softer, and easier to accept, we never truly address it.

We are not an accessible country, we are not an equitable country, and we are not an inclusive country. People living with disabilities are significantly more likely to struggle, suffer, and be denied inalienable rights because of our ableist cultural mindset and discriminatory systems. As of 2013 individuals with disabilities in the United States were “five times more likely than able-bodied people to be unemployed” (Rose, 2015 as cited in Adams, Reiss, & Serlin, 2015 p. 188). The Vera Institute of Justice reports that “children with disabilities are three times more likely than children without them to be victims of sexual abuse, and the likelihood is even higher for children with certain types of disabilities, such as intellectual or mental health disabilities” (2012). These are unsettling, alarming, and enraging statistics that unfortunately rarely receive widespread attention, which means even less momentum when it comes to passing legislation, evolving policy, improving our service systems, and changing how we think about disability. The progress is slow because, societally speaking, we refuse to see the whole picture.

Tebow’s “Night to Shine” events bring dancing, laughter, and, as mentioned in the title, he even showed up to one himself. I am not trying to downplay the happiness events like these can bring to the youth who can attend them. They live in a stigma-laden society and despite the fact my views on the relationship between disability and religion are drastically different than Tebow’s, I do admit that having a magical evening of dressing up and singing karaoke is memorable. Tebow was there to save the day, to bring light to the dark, to bring “Hope” to his “kings and queens,” and maybe that night he even brought some “Love” to the young people who were in that church. But at the end of the night these children left their “Night to Shine” prom, went home and swapped gowns and suits for pjs, and the next day they were sent back into a world where disability is misunderstood, often with grave consequences. Tebow is a big fan of “Faith” and pledges all over his website (http://www.timtebowfoundation.org/) that he is committed to bringing “Faith” to those who need it. Likewise his foundation is dedicated to “serving those whom the world deems as ‘the least of these’” but I seriously wonder how impactful these dances truly are in bringing about sustainable change. Because faith in isolation isn’t what we need at all. We don’t need a football player promising to save our kids with disability dances. We don’t need to praise, promote, and replicate such superficial interaction with individuals with disabilities. The Tim Tebow Foundation lists prayer as the number 1 way to get involved with their organization. But prayer alone is not a driver of progress.

I understand that faith/prayer and progress are not mutually exclusive but we need to focus on authentic empowerment, education, and actually making systemic change. We should not be comforted by photos of grinning children who we then send off into a world that was built for a “normal ideal” they can never attain. We should not glorify a man who delivers joy because that is not justice. Are you there Tebow, it’s me, Rach and while I’m glad you found your purpose and I’m not saying you should stop throwing parties, more energy, effort, time, and money should be dedicated towards actually improving our unjust system.

The Huffington Post article ends with the following sentence: “It appears that it was a special night for everyone involved.”

Wow, now that is one hell of a disgustingly saccharine, cutesy closer and that is exactly the fucking problem. We can’t continue to gloss over disability oppression and ignore the fact that it sentences people to poverty, poor health, violence, isolation, and early death. This is a real problem, not something to disrespectfully trivialize. Honestly I don’t care if it was a “special night for everyone involved,” I’m more concerned by the fact that, for the young people this event was supposedly thrown for, we are leaving them with a tomorrow that is dangerously uncertain. Dancing and prayer are not substitutes for action and actual progress.

Rose, S. (2015). Work. In R. Adams, B. Reiss, & D. Serlin (Ed.), Keywords for disability studies (pp. 187–190). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Vera Institute of Justice. (2016). Understanding and Preventing Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities. Retrived from http://www.vera.org/project/understanding-and-preventing-sexual-abuse-children-disabilities