Disabled People Aren’t an Inspiration

Once again, it’s that time of year. In preparation for prom, millions of teenagers plan after-parties, buy dresses, and rent tuxedos and limos.

Every year, stories go viral on social media about disabled students going to prom. Does society have such low expectations for disabled people that disabled teenagers going to prom need to make the news every year?

Going to prom is a rite of passage for many teenagers. Teenagers with disabilities are still teenagers. If they want to go to prom, they should be able to have fun without becoming the next feel-good story.

Vee Nguyen asked Ben Davis to prom in 2016, just like millions of students nationwide. The only thing different about this “promposal” was that Davis is disabled. He lives with a disorder called PKAN.

Pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration (PKAN) is a rare inherited neurological movement disorder characterized by the gradual deterioration of certain central nervous system regions (neurodegenerative disorder). PKAN is the most frequent kind of neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation (NBIA), a set of clinical illnesses characterized by gradual aberrant involuntary movements, changes in muscle tone, and postural issues (extrapyramidal).

The proposal, which was caught on tape, was made in front of the entire high school at a rally. When Davis saw the balloons, he was told to turn his wheelchair around to see more. Davis turned around to see five females across the gym floor wearing black t-shirts that said “P-R-O-M-?” with Nguyen standing beside them, ready to pop the question.

Befriending a teen with a disability isn’t unusual, and it shouldn’t be front-page news. Disabled people don’t exist to inspire non-disabled people.

Disabled people are frequently seen as inspirational. We are called inspirational for participating in an athletic event or finding employment. If a non-disabled person does any of this, it typically doesn’t go viral. Inclusion should be standard practice rather than a surprising gesture worthy of making the evening news.

Freia David died on April 30, 2019. David worked at a Needham, Massachusetts, McDonald’s for three decades. She retired in 2016, and the celebration of her incredible career made national news.

Millions of people have careers that last for decades. Their retirement isn’t national news. However, Friea was born with Down Syndrome.

Down syndrome is caused by chromosome 21 trisomy; it is one of the most well-known chromosomal disorders in humans. It affects most body systems, resulting in various clinical symptoms such as intellectual disability, small stature, flat face, flat nasal bridge, pronounced epicanthic folds, up slanting palpebral fissures, and a protruding tongue. Individuals with Down syndrome have varying degrees of intellectual disability ranging from mild to severe.

On social media, people commented on Frieda’s story with sayings like “What’s your excuse”? People also commented that she was an angel and offered blessings to her. Friea wasn’t an angel because she had Down syndrome. She was a dedicated employee who enjoyed her job.

The late Stella Young coined the term inspiration porn. Young disagreed with the notion that an individual’s disability should make commonplace activities that they engage in extraordinary. Inspiration is not inclusion.

Disabled people are not inspirational for living their lives. We have romantic relationships, jobs, and families. We are constantly fighting for our rights, but that doesn’t make us extraordinary. Change doesn’t happen if people don’t make their voices heard.

Please don’t take pity on disabled people and think that our lives are a tragedy. Instead, focus on ensuring we have the same opportunities as non-disabled people. Disabled people around the world are fighting for equality every day.


Andersen, Travis. “Freia David, Who Worked for 32 Years at Needham McDonald’s, Dies at 55 – The Boston Globe.” The Boston Globe, Boston Globe Media Partners, 7 May 2019, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/05/07/freia-david-who-worked-for-years-needham-mcdonald-dies/CBfbobMnND0VJrTY1KI8TM/story.html.

Ellis, Katie, and Michael Kent. Disability and Social Media: Global Perspectives. Taylor & Francis Group, 2017,

MacLennan, Sarah. ‘Down’s Syndrome’. InnovAiT, vol. 13, no. 1, SAGE Publications, Jan. 2020, pp. 47–52, https://doi.org10.1177/1755738019886612.

“Pantothenate Kinase-Associated Neurodegeneration – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment:” National Organization for Rare Disorders, National Organization for Rare Disorders, 12 Jan. 2023, https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/pantothenate-kinase-associated-neurodegeneration/.

Robinson, Elissa. “Lansing Teen’s ‘Promposal’ Is a Viral Sensation.” Detroit Free Press, Gannett Co., Inc., 9 Feb. 2016, https://www.freep.com/story/life/2016/02/09/lansing-teen-promposal-viral/80035944/.

Russo, Carla Herreria. “Teen’s Promposal to Friend with Disability Would Make Anyone Say ‘Yes!’.” HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Inc. , 12 Feb. 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/teen-disability-promposal-pigs-fly_n_56bd0f9ae4b08ffac1248eb0.

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