Disabled 'promposals': insulting or inspiring?

Picture of teenager Lillie and her friend Trevor who has Down's syndrome. Seventeen year old Lillie asked her friend Trevor to go to prom with her

Elaborate 'promposal' videos are sweeping across the United States as prom season descends.

Teenagers are competing to come up with the most imaginative or romantic way of asking their sweetheart to the annual high school dance. Sometimes they involve celebrities, politicians or puppies.

The videos that have garnered the most attention are those where classmates have asked their disabled friend to be their date. Some have racked up millions of views, such as one showing a teenage boy in a wheelchair being asked to prom in front of his classmates.

Many of the comments on these videos are along the lines of "so sweet", "I've watched this three times and cried every time", and "totally awesome".

But there's been growing criticism.

Image of Michael Mort Michael Mort wrote a blog in response to viral videos and memes about inviting disabled people to prom

Michael Mort, a blogger and wheelchair-user living with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in New York, has written a piece titled "Pity and the Prom" in response to so called 'inspiration porn'.

"I feel frustrated when I see this type of thing, it's a reminder of how poorly our society still perceives disability and disabled people," he told Trending.

"We do not exist solely to inspire and spending time with us doesn't make you a hero. Generally, disabled people want to be included and accepted not made a spectacle of."

Mike highlighted this meme as an example; it's been shared over 50,000 times on Facebook.

This meme shows a teenage boy in a tuxedo and a girl in a prom dress. She is in a wheelchair and the caption reads: "He asked her to prom, even in her condition! Like and share = respect."

"Personally, I felt the post was extremely degrading to disabled people and overall very exploitative," he said.

"The wording, 'even in her condition' also hit quite close to home. Being a wheelchair user with a visually similar disability, I would never want to be spoken of with that level of pity and condescension."

Another blogger commented on the issue; "If a news source had hinted that my date was engaged in some kind of bizarre community service, basically insinuating that I was the most 'undateable' creature on the planet, I likely would have taken the (very mature) path of locking myself in my bedroom and crying until graduation."

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Lillie and Trevor see it differently. They've been friends for five years. Lillie is seventeen years old, Trevor is 21 and he has Down's syndrome.

Picture of teenager Lillie and her friend Trevor who has down's syndrome. Lillie asked her friend Trevor to go to prom with her

"I was thinking about whom I could ask to prom and I was thinking about all the people I love, and the first person that came to mind was Trevor," Lillie told Trending. "I thought it would be really fun, he loves to dance… We always have fun together. So I made a poster that set out in big letters, 'I like coffee, I like tea, will you go to prom with me?'"

Still image of Lillie asking Trevor to prom with a sign that reads: "I like coffee, I like tea, will you go to prom with me?" Several 'promposal' videos have gone viral

"I was so excited to go to prom", Trevor said.

The video has had more than 400,000 hits. It was posted on Facebook by Lillie's mother Amy, who said "People have really appreciated the friendship they share, the genuineness of this proposal and it's been an exciting time for us here."

Trevor's father Randy said: "It was overwhelming; the support from the community and Facebook have been really great".

Amy added: "Certainly some people are sceptical, but that's the nature of our society I'm afraid."

"They can't see we've been friends for five years and I have two siblings with Downs syndrome," Lillie said. "They're just getting a 30 second clip, a moment… If they knew all that they'd think differently. It's all real. I didn't do it for the cameras. He didn't do it for the cameras. He had no idea I was doing it. He's my bud and we wanted to go to prom."

Analysis by Emma Tracey, BBC Ouch

Are the non-disabled teens involved here asking disabled people to the prom out of friendship, kindness, or to get attention and improve their image?

Who knows. Either way, It's not so much the invitations themselves but the recording and subsequent video sharing which makes some disabled people uncomfortable.

These sorts of stories "tend to place the focus on the good deeds perpetrated by the nondisabled person", US disability commentator Lawrence Carter-Long told NPR.

They are a variation on the prom proposal video trend which is becoming ever-more elaborate, but as Mike Mort said, one school of thought is that they are another example of "inspiration porn" - where disabled people are hailed as extraordinary for doing fairly ordinary things. The suggestion is that the viewer should find what they are seeing motivational and a remarkable gesture.

Though some describe it as sweet, many disabled people consider that it lowers expectations of them and casts them as 'undateable'.

The rise of special-needs proms - school dances for disabled people - in the US suggests that inclusion of disabled teens in mainstream high school proms isn't complete, but it does happen.

Non-disabled students do ask their wheelchair-using / autistic / learning-disabled friends to the prom, just without cameras there or an elaborate set-up.

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Some of the bloggers who have taken issue with the videos or memes say the problem is the way the story is told. Most of the time, the disabled person isn't even interviewed, they say.

Mike Mort added a final thought: "I think there is definitely less bullying and ostracism than in the past but continually being viewed as an object of inspiration carries its own feeling of separation, it can be dehumanizing in its own way."

Blog by Emma Wilson

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