“I can’t do this song, I can’t do the rest of this show until everybody stands up.”
For those of you who do not know, Kanye West said this while performing in Sydney, Australia earlier this month. He expected his audience members to stand and show their support of him and the work he has produced. He then went on to say, “Unless you got a handicap pass and you get special parking and shit.” It was only after stopping the show, sending a bodyguard to make sure that the audience members that were still seated were in fact seated in wheelchairs, and stating his frustrations for having to wait, West continued his show.
The conversation has been on social media and in the news about Kanye West being an “idiot” or “making a fool of himself.” While I agree with that, I think there is a much more useful conversation that should come from this classic example of ableism — discrimination against disabled or handicapped people.
The first topic of discussion should be the way our society defines our bodies and the “correct” way to use them. Kanye is guilty of perpetuating the notion that standing is the highest form of showing respect. Emily Smith Beitiks, assistant director of Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disabilities says, “Our culture includes many rituals in which standing is the norm, seen as a way to give the highest praise.” When a judge enters a courtroom, you stand. When the bride walks down the aisle, you stand. When a singer in a play steals the show, you give him or her a standing ovation. The list goes on about how people place assumptions upon others because they have a particular idea of how the body should work. Making those assumptions point to ignorance and a lack of knowledge when it comes to disabilities.
Another blunder of West’s is one that our society as a whole is guilty of: policing the disabled. From handicap placards for cars to filing paperwork, disabled persons are constantly being scrutinized and questioned as to whether they are truly disabled or just trying to reap the benefits. “People with disabilities face stigma and discrimination daily,” says Beitiks, “yet if anything positive seems to come from being disabled, you are then scrutinized to prove your disability, often again and again.” The fact of the matter is that some disabled people are in a wheelchair but are able to stand for a minute at a time, while others are incapable of standing for even a second. There cannot be discrimination based on the severity of a disability; there must be understanding and empathy.
West has been very open about the fact that when he was younger, his teachers believed he had a learning disability. In his song “We Don’t Care” off his album The College Dropout, West raps, “Now tell my momma I belong in that slow class/ Sad enough we on welfare/ They tryna put me on the school bus with the space for the wheelchair.” He has faced discrimination based on his own abilities and yet he still displays ignorance when it comes to this topic. This incident brings to light that there are misunderstandings and misconceptions even among the disabled community, not just from the outsiders looking in. Even people who have experienced ableism in their own life are capable of participating in discrimination against other disabled groups and people.
The conversation about West being a walking contradiction and being the king of sticking his foot in his mouth is entertaining, there is no denying that. I have enjoyed watching clips of interviews and reading all the absurd things he has said. But the situation that occurred in Australia has a much deeper take-away about disabilities and how to educate the public about them. This is the conversation that needs to be happening, this is the issue at hand, this is the problem that can be solved—let’s not target Kanye, but realize that we are all part of a culture that ostracizes and alienates people with disabilities.