DecEMBER 19, 2023
BY Julie Alexander, Director of Accessibility & Disability Services
Bill Maher’s words regarding disability on his December 8 episode of Real Time were troubling to me1. As one who aspires to be an ally to the disability community, I feel obligated to write a response.
Bill Maher was defending the YouTuber MrBeast who funded doctors performing cataract surgeries on 1,000 blind individuals so that they can see. This drew criticism from disability activists on Buzzfeed stating “MrBeast seemed to regard disability as something that needs to be solved.” Maher responded to that statement with an emphatic “Disability IS something that needs to be solved!” as though any other perspective is wildly ridiculous. The audience roared with laughter at what they seemed to perceive as the absurd notion that anyone would want to be disabled.
I actually agree that disability is a problem to be solved, but not in the manner Bill Maher seems to think is self-evident. The medical model of disability defines disability as a physical or mental impairment. If you cure that physical or mental impairment, you solve the problem of disability. It views disability as a defect or disease and something that belongs to the individual. The answer to the problem of disability is one for the medical profession to solve. This is reasonable if the condition threatens the health of the individual. However, many disabilities do not affect one’s physical health.
The medical model has been particularly harmful to the autistic community. Many autistic individuals view their autism as central to who they are. It affects how they process information, communicate and interact with others, and perceive the world. An autistic person can be in perfect physical health, but the medical model asserts that there is something wrong with their brain.
The Deaf community is a place where you may be likely to find individuals who appreciate having a sensory impairment and would not wish it away. The Deaf community has an added benefit of a shared language in sign language. That shared language is likely the reason Deaf culture has been able to flourish. It is a culture rich with its own poetry and artistic expressions. The idea that a Deaf person must envy those who can hear is insulting to that culture.
The social model of disability redefines and reframes disability. Even within the traditional view of disability, we might ask, when does an impairment become a disability. Not all impairments are considered a disability. I am very near-sighted. Without my contacts or glasses I would not be able to drive, recognize others from a distance, or read signs unless I am within 6 inches. No one considers this a disability because it is so common and the accommodation is so readily available. I also cannot sing on key. Since my participation in the world does not depend on such a skill, that is also not considered a disability. Being able to see well without glasses or contacts and singing are both abilities that I do not have. What makes the absence of an ability a disability? According to the social model, it is the environment. When we design the environment, whether it is a classroom, restaurant, movie theater, or website, we make assumptions about who will be using that environment. When we exclude certain groups of people in that environmental design, we, society, create disability. An example would be an entrance to a building with steps and no ramp. That environment prevents a wheelchair user from entering the building. The person is not disabled by their wheelchair. They are disabled by the steps. The solution to disability is not to cure a medical condition, it is to create accessible environments.
I am not saying that MrBeast or the doctors he partnered with are acting immorally. If the blind individuals rejoiced at being able to see, far be it from me to tell them that they should want to remain blind. That is their choice. What I take issue with is the assumption that all people with disabilities should want to be nondisabled. That assumption is arrogant and ignorant.
Part of the criticism of MrBeast is that his relationship to the disability community appears to be rooted in the charity model of disability. It seems reasonable to ask what could possibly be wrong with charity. MrBeast is using his wealth to help others and those whom he helped appear genuinely grateful. I would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with a charitable act. It is the narrative surrounding that act that may be problematic. The charity model views disability as tragic. Bill Maher appears to be endorsing this view when he emphatically pleads, “If I am ever struck blind, or deaf, or paralyzed, don’t praise me, fix me…use AI, invent something, steal body parts from a pet cemetery, steal stem cells from a frog, whatever it takes…just do something!” Clearly Bill Maher is terrified by the thought of ever becoming disabled. Perhaps he should be. No one can deny that trying to navigate an inaccessible world is difficult. It is only natural that a nondisabled person should want to keep the privilege that they hold.
The view of disability as tragedy may seem innocuous until we consider Aktion T42. Between 1939 and 1945, Nazi Germany gave a “mercy death” to those whose lives they considered unworthy of living. We tend to think that pity is compassion, but it is not. In my opinion, pity is more cruel than hate. Pity assumes that a person’s life is limited and devoid of value. The pitiful person has no hope of living a full life. True happiness is out of reach. Pity does not have to lead to euthanasia to be cruel. If you have ever been on the receiving end of someone’s pity, then you know what I mean.
I call on not just Bill Maher, but all of us, to approach the “problem” of disability with compassion and respect rather than pity. We can do that by fixing environments rather than people. It is hard to be blind in a world created for sighted people. You don’t have to be rich or a doctor to make it easier. It can be as simple as describing visual images when we are presenting to a group of people. It can be as simple as taking the time to learn how to make a word document accessible to a screen reader. It just takes some thought and consideration to change the environment. It is far easier to change the environment than to change the person, not to mention, far more respectful.