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Monday, 18 May 2015

Why Ridge Quarles' "Inspirational" Act Was Not Inspirational At All

So...it's been over a month since I've been here, for a variety of reasons. It's not like there hasn't been anything happening that needs or deserves comment (notably, the reelection of the Tory government in Britain under whom the disability support system was so ravaged by cuts that the UN investigated at one point), but it's been a matter of time, and energy, and the feeling that I'm saying the same things over and over again and ultimately boring people. But I saw this story last week about a disabled woman and her experience at a Qdoba fast food restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky (and a young man named Ridge Quarles) that's roused me.

I saw the video, which is now "going viral" and the accompanying story on Huffington Post's "Love Matters" page. Obviously meant to warm the heart and inspire the spirit, the story's headline was "Qdoba Worker Feeds Customer with Disability, Reminds Us to 'Help Someone Every Day'."

Ridge Quarles, an Qdoba employee at the time, is the article's main focus. But the article is also about one of the restaurant's "regulars", a woman that uses a wheelchair and travels to Qdoba by what sounds like a city-run wheelchair transit bus. Ridge Quarles says that she's been coming for 5.5  years, often enough that the staff knows what she'll order, and that she's told him that the restaurant is his favourite place. He's being lauded because after getting her set up at a table one day, she asked Ridge Quarles to feed her, and he did without hesitation. Another customer, David Jones, was moved by the gesture and decided to film it.

After all, who would take the time to help a disabled person who can't eat by herself? This must be an extraordinary young man.

Or, you know, a human being who values helping other people when they need it. Despite the comments on the article lamenting the lack of people like that, I know a whole lot of them, and they don't get a newspaper article every time they do a good deed. However, because this woman is disabled, Ridge Quarles' action becomes inspirational.

As one of the commenters points out, this is inspiration porn. Even though it's by no means bad to give assistance to anyone, disabled or non-disabled, that requests it (as long as you're sure that your assistance isn't actually going to hurt, like if you're asked to do something requiring training that you don't have), the message of this article is, "Go out and make your day better by helping someone in need, like this disabled woman."

But we're not there to help you feel better about yourself. We are people with fully-formed lives and stories and complex needs, and it's not inspirational to reduce this woman to an object on which to be acted.

Ridge Quarles and the Objectification the Unknown Qdoba Customer


And for those who would argue that this disabled woman was not treated as an object, let's unpack this a little:

  • No one, including Ridge Quarles, appears to know the woman's name, despite the fact that she's been coming to the restaurant for over 5 years. This account says that her name is withheld for privacy reasons, but all the other ones that I looked at said something to the effect of "We don't know her name or her story". She comes to the restaurant regularly - how hard would it have been to try to find out for the story, so that she can make a decision about whether she not she wants to be named, or to give her perspective if she desires?

  • Despite the fact that no one knows her name, no one has any problem with using a video that someone filmed presumably without without her knowing it (some accounts go so far to say that the video was secretly filmed) of someone assisting to her to eat in a newspaper article without her permission, as if she's a prop in Ridge Quarles' "it-feels-good-to-help-people-go-try-it-today" story.

  • She can't even get into the restaurant until an employee notices her and opens the door for her, or a patron notices her and holds open the door. Where is the electric door in this restaurant? Has anyone on staff at this particular Qdoba questioned, on the basis of her not being able to get into the restaurant, whether an electric door needs to be put in?

  • Is it just when she asked for support with eating that anyone who worked in the restaurant, after 5 years of her being a customer, noticed that she needed support with eating? If not, did anyone ever think about what responsibilities they had as people observing something concerning about the care of a vulnerable person? If not, how did they miss it?

Not particularly tough questions...just ones that should restaurant staff, including Ridge Quarles, should be asking after serving for 5 years a disabled customer who should have some assistance and arrives with none, particularly the one involving whether there's a way for her to actually get in and out of the restaurant.

Now, obviously those bullet points assume the best of the woman and the worst of the restaurant and its staff, which might not be the case. Perhaps Qdoba campaigned headquarters tirelessly for an electric door, or didn't notice that she needed assistance to eat because she'd never showed any signs that she needed it. Perhaps Ridge Quarles actually does know her name and *is* refusing to give it out to respect her privacy. The damage was arguably done when Jones put the video online, but that's not Ridge Quarles' fault.

The reporting seems murky, and varies across websites, which is problematic in itself. Still, stories like this also should prompt us to ask how a person who (going by what we read in the story) needs some very basic accommodations and/or support ends up going without when out at her favourite restaurant, regardless of who is supposed to provide it.

Discussion Trends


And some commenters on the Huffington Post article did ask this. But people weren't interested in discussing it. Some were criticized for bringing it up and "ruining" the story. One disabled commenter was asked, "Bitter much?", prompting a comment from another about how quickly the public perception of disabled people changes from pity to anger when we start to assert ourselves.

All I know is, my first reaction after reading the story was to cringe and think about how terrible cuts to services really must be when a disabled woman who needs assistance to eat has to go to restaurant alone and hope that someone will 1) Help her to get inside 2) agree to help her to eat, and how icky it is that a piece about those issues becomes inspiration porn.

Don't get me wrong...I'm glad there are people like Ridge Quarles in the world, who happily help others in need without expecting anything in return. But I'm also sorry that there's a need for them, and that important aspects of those stories get over-looked because they're not "inspirational".

When I discuss a video, I generally embed it. But, granted that it's so difficult to know from news accounts this woman's feelings about being in the video, I've chosen not to this time. It's easy enough to find.

3 comments:

  1. Well said, Sarah! The comments on one of the original articles were, as expected, horrifically off-putting and rude. The lack of accessible door should be an ADA violation, which is illegal, but the non-disabled community doesn't care. I had a friend try to advocate against inspiration porn (for the entire disability community), and commenters would say, "Well, you don't know this lady felt exploited. Don't speak for her." But we're not speaking for her. This video is only one of many, and we're speaking against all of them. Ugh. And sigh. And ugh again.

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  2. You've added some excellent points I hadn't seen or thought of before, which is remarkable since it's been the hot topic for at least a week now. I'm coming to feel that in the eyes of the commenters who complain of our complaints, our sin is that we dared to change the subject from what they wanted to talk about to what we wanted to talk about. It's even worse since our topic is kind of negative and upsetting, while their topic is warm and fuzzy and uplifting. I am reminded of the Peanuts character Lucy's motto: "The way of the fussbudget is hard." Disability advocates are fussbudgets. We notice the clouds behind every silver lining. I wouldn't have it any other way, otherwise what use would we be. But it's never going to make us popular or even widely understood.

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  3. If the man with the camera had engaged the woman in conversation, told her how awesome he thought the whole thing was, and asked if he could film it for an uplifting YouTube video, maybe with some comments from her, and she agreed, it would be much more acceptable. Not to my taste perhaps, but not as objectifying. I really think it's possible to do "inspirational" disability stuff that doesn't objectify, by centering the disabled person and hearing from them directly. But curiously, it's almost never done. I wonder why that is?

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