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Monday, 15 September 2014

Kanye West's Treatment of Disabled People Proves that He Really is aJack-Ass

"He's a jack-ass."

President Obama is speaking, in this clip from off-the-record portion of a 2009 CNBC interview that was later leaked, about singer Kanye West. It was right after West had jumped onstage at the 2009 Music Video Awards and interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for Best Female Video category, insisting that Beyonce's video in that category was "one of the best of all time."

More recently, Obama publicly called Kanye West a jack-ass in an article in The Atlantic...a talented jack-ass, but a jack-ass.

I know pretty much nothing about Kanye West (expect that he married one of the Kardashians, because it was difficult to miss that story this summer), but the Taylor Swift incident pretty much had me and just about everyone I know convinced that he's just astoundingly arrogant and really not a person in whom I'm all that interested. But even I couldn't miss the news of his apparent need to get the disability community's attention last week.

You got our attention, Kanye West. Congratulations on a job well done, jack-ass.

Setting the Scene: September 10, 2014, Melbourne, Australia

You've paid good money for a ticket to a Kanye West concert on his "Yeezus" tour. (Your guess is as good as mine.) You're wearing a cast.

When the song "Good Life" comes on, West stops the music and claims that he can't go on until everyone in the audience is standing...unless you're handicapped, and willing to pull out your "handicapped pass" right now.  He walks around the stage asking seated people why they're not standing.

Since you're wearing a cast, he tells you that it's okay for you to stay seated.

But it gets worse.

Setting the Scene: September 12, 2014, Syndey, Australia

It's September 12 in Sydney, Australia. You've paid good money for a ticket to a Kanye West concert on his "Yeezus" tour. You're using a wheelchair.

Again, when the song "The Good Life" comes on, the music stops, and Kanye West demands that everyone stand...unless you “got a handicap pass” and “get special parking and s**t”. You are one of the two that he zones in on as not standing up - the other is man that uses a prosthetic, that he waves in the air as proof of not being able to stand. Despite audience members around you yelling that you're in a wheelchair and making motions like they are in a wheelchair, and despite Kanye West saying that if you're in a wheelchair, it's okay if you don't stand up, he sends a bodyguard to check to make sure that you are indeed in a wheelchair.

Onstage, West says, "This is the longest I've had to wait to do this song. This is unbelievable."

Once he's sure that the people who aren't standing up are in wheelchairs, he goes on with the song.

Washington Post Article on the Sydney Incident

Let's Talk About Kanye West and How He Treats His Disabled Fans

Now, just to start with...I really resent the idea of being told how I have to enjoy the music at a concert, just as a matter of principle. The first concert I went to, I was at the start of a stomach virus. While I managed not to throw up, I was fairly nauseous through the whole thing, and I don't remember standing up a whole lot, and I don't know how pleasant it would have been for everyone if someone had made me.

I don't know how much a ticket to a Kanye West concert goes for, but I'd imagine it's probably more money than I spend on a couple of weeks worth of groceries right now, and I'll be damned if I, as a member of the audience whose financial support even allows the performer to tour, am going to be told by said performer, "If you don't do it my way, I'm not going to play."

Whatever. It almost...almost...makes me want to buy a ticket to one of his concerts so that I can remain sitting down when he insists that I have to stand up, just because I have the right to do so. I'm really rubbed the wrong way by this.

However, there's a larger issue here, and Scott Jordan Harris sums it up quite nicely:
"Kanye West gave so little thought to disabled people that he was surprised to find two among an audience of thousands. When he did, he felt it was his right as an able-bodied person to determine whether those people met his personal standard for disability. This attitude comes from the belief that public spaces belong to the able-bodied and that disabled people can only ever trespass in them."

What did these disabled people get for daring to buy a ticket to a Kanye West concert?

  • They were shamed because they couldn't stand

  • They were centred out in front of an entire concert venue audience on the basis of their disabilities

  • They had to "prove" that they were disabled to Kanye West before he'd continue the performance

  • Because *he* needed the proof, they were made to feel like they were holding up the concert

Not only would I have left, I would have asked for my money back.

It shouldn't be a shock to anyone that Kanye West hasn't given any thought to what his behaviour says about how he views disabled people and their place in the world. The man obviously needs a separate tour bus for his ego.

What still should at least give us pause is that society doesn't think all that differently than Kanye West does:

"He can walk fine...why has he got a sticker?" I've heard people say, watching someone walk from their car parked in the disabled parking spot to a store door.

"That person's not disabled enough to get benefits. Scrounger." I don't like to think about how many people in England have heard this said over the last few years, possibly about them when they were in earshot.

"Why is he using a scooter? I've seen him walk." I've heard this a lot about disabled people in my community who end up using scooters instead of manual or electric wheelchairs.

Many non-disabled people (and sometimes even among other disabled people) seem to think that they have the right to declare, based on what they think disability should look like, whether it's "okay" for  a person to do/not do certain things, act/not act in certain ways, have/not have certain supports...it doesn't always come with the arrogance of Kanye West declaring it's "okay" that you remain seated once you've proven that you can't stand up from a wheelchair, but even the more subtle manifestations are still a reminder that there's a perception out there that if disabled people expect to participate in society, we should expect to have to prove that we're "disabled enough" to the general public every now and then.


There are very few people to whom I have to prove that I'm disabled. They are service providers that need proof of disability so that I can start/keep receiving some sort of service. I'm not crazy about this, but it's part of life, it's fairly infrequent, and I deal with it.

I do not have to prove that I'm disabled to a person on the street, another disabled person, or anyone else that I don't want to. That includes Kanye West and any other jack-ass pop-singer whose ego is so fragile that he can't bear not to have every single person in the audience up and dancing during a performance.

I'm nearly 37 and I'm too old for this crap - from Kanye West and anyone else. But let's just say I have further incentive not to buy any of any Kanye West's albums.


  1. I've gone up and down like a yo-yo on this one ... not your article, but the whole incident. It feels like some of the news stories and online commenters are very quick to go after Kanye West on what he did, but with a very vague understanding of what exactly was wrong with his behavior. Some people are talking and writing as if he was deliberately using the disabled people in the audience to aggrandize himself ... playing as if he could "heal" them like some kind of Messiah.

    My read is more like yours ... a general insensitivity made worse by his persistent refusal to see his mistake and back the hell off.

    But because he's an easy guy to hate for all sorts of good and also questionable reasons, the whole thing makes me squirmy. Among other things, y own first reaction to just the headlines was to assume the absolute worst about his actions and motives. The apparent reality is offensive, but not to the degree I feel we are being led to believe.

  2. You know, until about about 5 minutes ago I was going to acknowledge that maybe I should have been a little less harsh in my post. I totally agree that all of this was the perfect storm of arrogance and ignorance of disability etiquette, not some "I'm God and I heal the sick" thing, and at one point in my life I certainly wasn't aware of how I came across when interacting with disabled people (even with some experience) because...no one had told me. But, not knowing anything about Kanye West, I was also (for some reason) assuming that he was much younger than he actually is - I figured mid-20s...and Google tells me that he's actually 37. Which made him approx. 32 when he pulled that stuff with Taylor Swift in 2009...

    Bottom line is, I was ready to give him a partial pass because I thought he just at or barely past that 25-year mark where it's generally acknowledged that the brain has *only* just fully developed. :P But seriously? At 37 you should be aware enough of diversity in society and able to look past the end of your own nose enough to know better that 1) Insisting that "You all do what I say or the show stops" doesn't paint you in the best of lights and 2) There are people out there who can't stand for legitimate reasons, and it's bad form to ensure that they can't before you'll continue a performance that people paid for.

    I *should* have said, said, though, that I hope he's learned something about the world and disabled people from this, because if he takes some knowledge away and applies it now, at least that's something, right? :)

  3. Yes, that's fair. As you pointed out, Pres. Obama said it best awhile ago when he said he's a jackass. Not evil, but arrogant and stupider than he should be at this point in his life. I think I was reacting to a few Facebook post I had just seen from people with, shall we say, less honorable modes of criticism. These are people for whom Kanye West represents everything they despise, including some things that shouldn't really bother them ... like being a successful black man and a rapper at that (horrors!) It will be interesting to see if he responds at all to the criticisms, and if so, how. Could go either way is my guess.

  4. Reminds me of the 1994 movie "Forrest Gump" where Tom Hanks echoed a famous line so applicable here" "Stupid is as stupid does."

  5. The whole thing reeks. Meriah Nichols on the With a Little Moxie blog had a fantastic critique of the media's insistence on saying the audience member was "wheelchair bound." To me, that outdated term is coming from the same place as West's insistence that public space is non-disabled space, as you had quoted in here. He Otherized audience members who paid to be there (he's supposed to serve them in my mind since they paid), belittled access and people who use it with "special parking and sh*t" both with "special" and "sh*t," and that hideous territory of making people prove their disability status. But I think that age has nothing to do with it, honestly. You could say someone in their 30s should know about oppression and microaggressions. I disagree. I know plenty of people in their 60s who have developed critical thinking skills but have NEVER heard of white privilege, microaggressions, non-disabled privilege, etc. If you manage to lead a life where you never explore oppression, you'll make it to the end of your life not understanding whether and if you perpetuate it. If his main focus has been on his ethnicity, he can easily have missed disability hate/abuse/microaggressions/etc. I'm NOT apologizing for him. He behaved abhorrently. I'm saying that our entire U.S. (I know you're in Canada!) culture does what West does, just not always so publicly. I've been verbally attacked in the same way as these audience members just without an audience and by a white man in his 50s. Yes, plenty of people are horrified by this, but I would bet a lot of them don't even exactly know why. They might say, "don't be mean to disabled people" without understanding the politics of it. Just like in those damn "What Would You Do?" secret camera scenes where they never unpack disability politics but only come to the conclusion that being mean to cripples is mean.

  6. You're absolutely right, Cheryl. Age doesn't have any bearing on understanding of these things, and I've got some personal anecdotes myself that prove that. I think sometimes, with incidents of this sort, I get caught up in thinking, "Well, there's no way that someone couldn't understand why this was inappropriate!" and I forget that, yeah, there's a whole lot of people out there who not only don't know, but dismiss this sort of thing as "PC madness" or "disabled people who are already getting my tax dollars kicking up a fuss" (I read a lot of comments yesterday). And it gets disheartening to have to fight against that sort of ideology (which seems particularly strong in the US and parts of Europe right now).

    And yes, I don't think that a lot of people will truly "get" why the whole thing was so...icky. The mainstream media coverage has only really just skimmed the "don't be mean to disabled people" surface.

    It seems to me that "wheelchair bound" had really fallen out of favour even in the mainstream media and has just recently made a big-time resurgence. I seem to see it everywhere now in reporting, and it just makes me cringe. It makes me wonder if in-house style guides are even making an attempt to address ableist writing, and it's particularly discouraging from major publications that you know are using big-time style guides that students/teachers/freelancers also use.