When the news recently broke that Kanye West had opened his mouth and said something insensitive again, half the people I know immediately got in touch with me to gauge my anger and find out when I planned to rip his comments apart from my disability advocate's perspective. And while I was indeed frustrated, something about this particular incident made me hesitant to fire off a furious public response without first exploring the root causes of the issue.
Seemingly the entire Internet erupted into an uproar over West's tactless demands that everyone in the audience stand up at his show Sydney, Australia. When two audience members didn't oblige, West caused a major scene, even going so far as to send his bodyguard to confirm the reason one of the concert-goers wasn't standing was due to using a wheelchair. Of course, this stunt was nothing short of offensive to disabled people. However, aside from demonstrating that West needs to think before he speaks, it also demonstrates quite a bit about the significance of standing and how the values of our society are at odds with the disability community.
Emphasis on the value of standing has continually proven problematic for me. Consider, for instance, a typical day at an American school. The day begins by requiring students to stand as a sign of respect while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance -- something that I, as a disabled person, simply cannot do. Then, later in the day, a teacher might ask students to stand up during a learning exercise, or perhaps stand in front of the class for a presentation. Slouching, slumping and staying seated in school were interpreted as disinterest or disrespect -- much the same logic that likely fueled West's insistence that every single person in the venue get on their feet.
Obviously, no one forced me to get up from my wheelchair because it was just not possible, but not being able to stand up always made me stand out. Worse, some of my teachers would comment on the fact that I wasn't standing, trying to make a lighthearted joke but only serving to embarrass me more. Being called out for my disability in this way is something that has followed me everywhere; it often feels like everyone has something to say about it, even if they have no malicious intent. It's quite possible this is the case for what happened during West's concert. I honestly don't think West meant to be malicious towards the disabled people in the audience.
I'm not defending West. I think what he did was ridiculously rude and unnecessary. That being said, I think he perceives his level of fame as such that people should stand in his presence, which goes to show that the connection between standing and respect is completely ingrained in society's conscience. West took it way too far by creating a spectacle, but in principle, is what he did really so much different than what other people do when they make unwelcome comments that call attention to me because I can't stand?
I've struggled not only with the concept of standing as a way to show respect and involvement, but also the concept of standing as a way to command respect. In academic and professional settings, for example, we are taught that standing up straight, tall and proud is indicative of authority. Does the fact that I cannot support myself on my own two feet mean that I am both disrespectful and unworthy of respect? It absolutely does not, and yet I frequently feel that I need to compensate for sitting down. I've mastered the art of beating people to the punch and cracking my own jokes to deflect from the reality of not being at eye-level with everyone around me.
My experiences with the dynamics of standing and sitting lead me to believe West's insensitivity should be taken as a lesson on the problems with society's expectations. Standing when a bride walks down the aisle, standing ovations, standing during prayer in religious institutions, standing when an important person enters the room -- reasons to stand are all over the place. Standing is intended to be a sign of respect but who, exactly, does it respect? Certainly, not people who use wheelchairs.
Though the non-disabled people expressing rage towards what West said in solidarity with disabled people are well meaning, we should all take time to reflect on just how much ableism pervades the activities and behaviors people engage in on a daily basis. To the people who don't identify as disabled that are demanding Kanye West be the one to sit down and shut up for telling people to stand up, I sincerely hope you remember that you, too, must be mindful and respectful to those of us with disabilities who do actually have reasons to be sitting down.