Screen grab of NBC video, Teenage girl uses sign language to help deaf and blind man on flight.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch/NBC News

The video has gone viral, with millions across the US – and even the world – watching as a 15-year-old teenager from California helped a 65-year-old man get a glass of water during a flight from Boston to Portland. It received more than a million likes on Facebook, and last weekend even mainstream US media outlets reported on it.

But why is this story so extraordinary?

A teenager and an older person talking about unimportant things to kill time during a commercial flight was only news because the man was deaf and blind, and because the teenager, Clara Daly, knew sign language and could communicate with him. In other words, helping someone know what time it was and having a conversation with him on a flight became a heroic, “angelic,” “heartwarming” act because it involved a person with disability.

Yet this narrative makes people with disabilities objects of pity. It portrays them as weak, needy individuals, or conversely, paints them as extraordinary beings there to inspire people without disabilities. Stella Young, a comedian and activist for the rights of people with disabilities, coined the term “inspirational porn” to refer to this phenomenon of transforming people with disabilities into objects of charity to make others feel good.

The case of the man on the airplane is patronizing. The media could have reported on the fact that none of the airline staff could communicate with this deaf and blind man well enough to allow him to travel comfortably, as others on the plane had. Instead the media chose to treat a teenager talking to an older man with disability as some kind of beatific act, or an act of charity. The media can and should do better.  

This man wanted to have a conversation between two human beings. He simply wanted to be included. Don’t we all?