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Kanye West and proving your disabilities

By David M. Perry
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kanye West insisted audience members stand before he would sing song in Australia concert
  • He relented when those who didn't stand turned out to have disabilities
  • David Perry says it's not at all unusual for people to be asked to prove their disabilities
  • Perry: Don't blame just Kanye West for conduct that many of us routinely engage in

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at the blog How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- On Friday, Kanye West stopped a concert in Sydney to demand that everyone stand up. He looked around the crowd, pointing out those slow to rise. He said, "Unless you got a handicap pass and you get special parking and s**t," he simply would not continue the show until everyone was on their feet. The crowd shouted, "Stand up!" or even, "F***ing stand up!"

After a minute, West pointed out two people who, he said, "don't want to stand up." One of them waved a prosthetic leg in the air, so West turned to the last holdout. He demanded to know if the fan was in a wheelchair. The crowd laughed. He complained, "This is the longest I've had to wait to do a song, it's unbelievable." Finally, as the crowd was shouting that the fan was in a wheelchair, West sent a bodyguard to verify it, then finally started his song, "The Good Life."

Reaction to this incident throughout social media and in numerous publications was swift and condemnatory. West, in return, lashed out at the media. But in fact, although West's celebrity magnifies the story, the bigger issue here is that his demand that his fans prove their disability is entirely typical.

David M. Perry
David M. Perry

Every day, in every context, people with disabilities get challenged to prove how disabled they are. This constant questioning isolates people with disabilities, increases stress and shame, and can lead directly to verbal or even physical abuse. Here are a few examples:

A few weeks ago, actor George Takei shared a meme showing a woman standing up from a wheelchair at a grocery store to reach a liquor bottle. The caption, "There has been a miracle in the alcohol isle," suggested that this woman wasn't really that disabled if she could stand up to get some booze. Disability advocates protested and Takei initially told them to lighten up, but he has subsequently apologized. I was alerted to the story by a woman who can walk about 100 feet before needing her chair, and who goes through life worried about being accused of faking.

The parking lot, with its handicapped spots, can be particularly fraught for people with invisible disabilities. On my Facebook page, one of my readers remarked that, "All I see are looks of disapproval, barely veiled disgust and constant scrutiny. I'd gladly trade my 'good' parking space for being able to walk more than 25 yards at a time." Who knows how many people with invisible disabilities, managing pain, enjoying the concert, were forced to their feet by the glare of Kanye West and the peer pressure of the shouting crowd?

Invisible disability also gets people in trouble with the law. When a disabled person doesn't react the way a law enforcement officer thinks he or she should, violence often follows. But visible disability is no protection. In 2008, as shown in a disturbing video, a Florida deputy didn't believe a man who had been arrested on a traffic violation was really a quadriplegic, so she dumped him onto the floor to see if he would use his legs out of duress.

These are just a few of the ways we constantly demand that people with disabilities prove themselves. We do it because, to the not-disabled, claiming disability seems to have a kind of power.

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, to claim disability is to ask for reasonable accommodation -- accessible buildings, more time on tests, audible formats for books, Social Security disability payments, and more. Too many people seem to regard the request to accommodate as a burden and meet such requests with suspicion. The not-disabled exercise their privilege by demanding that people prove their disabilities; then, all too often, proof just generates pity, not understanding or inclusion.

By demanding everyone rise, by calling out the disabled members of his audience even as he grudgingly tolerated their inability to stand, West was being totally normal. If you think what he did was wrong, remember that the next time you are tempted to stare down someone walking from a handicapped spot at the grocery store. Remember that the next time someone managing pain can't make it into work. Remember that the next time a student needs a little more time on a test.

Because the problem isn't that West was so thoughtless, although he was. The problem is that he learned this thoughtlessness from us.

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