But At What Cost? (repost)

This is an article I wrote last summer but felt it was worth a second look.


One of my favourite parts of summer in London is the copious amount of summer festivals held in Victoria Park downtown. This past weekend was one of the biggest of them all, SunFest. Like most of London, I decided to take a stroll to the park to check out the festivities.

While the festival was loads of fun, something else caught my eye and has had me thinking for the past few days. Sitting along side the bandshell in Vic Park was a transport truck with an advertisement for President’s Choice Children’s Charity on the side, depicting a cartoonish person in a wheelchair with the phrase “Making difficult lives a little easier.” The attached photo was taken with my camera phone — apologies for low quality/fidelity.

My gut reaction was frustration, fuelled by yet another advertisement that turns its nose up to living with a disability, rather than appreciating the complexity and, at times, benefits of being disabled. To make matters worse, the childlike drawing of a wheelchair that accompanies the text leads to the whole “the disabled are naive children who need protecting” stereotype.

But it was while contemplating these complexities that I realized, much like living with a disability, this advertisement poses a deeper question than whether it is good or bad because, at its core, being disabled can be more challenging and through the support of charities, like President’s Choice Children’s Charity, some of these difficulties can be alleviated. So, according to this analysis, the advertisement is depicting at least some semblance of truth. But at what cost?

The unfortunate reality here is that this type of guilt-based advertising methodology does work quite well, financially speaking. Charities have relied on pity parades for ages to guilt prospective donors into “doing the right thing” and “helping those less fortunate.” While these advertisements do generate huge dollars from those who feel morally obligated to pay penance for their manufactured sins of normality through donation, I am left wondering “at what cost?” Yes, the money raised will help us unfortunates to overcome some of these limitations, but is it worth the damaging hegemony that the disabled are “less fortunate” than those without disabilities? Is it really worth having wheelchairs and accessible buildings if the disabled are perceived as being pathetic simpletons who are forever dependent on the all knowing, all caring able-bodied overseers?

Ultimately, the problem with this advertisement lies in its simplification of a complex reality. While it is true that living with a disability can at some times be quite trying, this advertisement inadvertently reinforces our gut instinct to centralize the root of this difficulty as being the “disability” and not the socially and physically constructed barriers that limit us. It is not difficult to live with a disability, it’s difficult being disabled in a world constructed for the able-bodied: there is a huge difference.

While I believe their hearts are in the right place, charities genuinely need to take the long view when producing these types of advertisements and ask themselves if it’s really worth producing these types of ads when, in the end, it is kind of like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.