Recently, megastar maker MrBeast posted a video on his YouTube in which he highlights numerous blind and partially sighted people who have undergone a surgical procedure that ‘cures’ their blindness. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed more than 76 million times and the response has been both praise and disdain. For his part, MrBeast taken to Twitter to publicly lament the fact that so many are so angry with him for pulling off a publicity stunt under the guise of selfless charity.
The truth is simple: the video was more skillful than altruistic.
Before we get into the many layers of why the video is tricky, it’s important to make a caveat. As problematic as MrBeast’s premise was in producing the video, the people who took part – the patients and their doctors – should not be slandered. They made the decision of their own accord to go ahead with the operation. The reasoning behind making that choice goes well beyond the scope of this article.
In its broadest sense, the main problem with wanting to “cure” blindness is that it reinforces a kind of moral superiority of people without disabilities over those who are disabled. While not nearly as commonly encountered as racism and sexism, systemic prowess is ubiquitous in all parts of society. The fact is that the majority of able-bodied people view disability as a failure of the human condition; as such, people with disabilities should be deplored and pitied. More emphatically, as MrBeast said in the thumbnail of his video, disabilities must be eradicated – cured.
On the one hand, it is technically correct to think of disability as a failure of the human condition. That’s why disabilities are what they are: the body somehow doesn’t work as designed. If handicaps were computer software, engineers would be tasked with finding and fixing the bugs.
Yet the human body is not a soulless, lifeless machine that requires perfection in order to function properly or have value. Ever since I tweeted my thoughts on MrBeast’s video, I’ve fallen victim to a barrage of harassment on Twitter. In between calls for me to imbibe a bottle of bleach, most of them have hurled answers at me asking why I wouldn’t want to “fix” or “cure” what keeps people from living what ostensibly a richer, fuller life. is because the blindness would be gone. A blind man, they said, could suddenly see the stars, a rainbow, a child’s smile, or any other romantic idea one could think of.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning would be proud of the way I do count the ways in which this short-sighted perspective lacks perspective.
For starters, the doctors shown in the video are not miracle workers. There is no all-encompassing cure for blindness. If the people who took part in this surgery changed their lives for the better by regaining their sight, more power to them.
That said, we don’t know anything about their visual acuity before surgery, nor do we know what the long-term prognosis is for their vision. That MrBeast proclaims to “cure” blindness is essentially baseless.
On a fundamental level, MrBeast’s video is inspiration porn, intended to portray able-bodied people as the selfless heroes waging war against the diabolical villain known as handicap. And that is ultimately not the intention for the handicapped. It’s for people with disabilities to feel good about themselves and for people with disabilities who strive to become more like them – more normal. For the disability community, inspirational porn is often so derided because the message is not about us as human beings; it involves a group that is “less than” the masses. This is where structural prowess rears its ugly head again.
Think about it: if you were to fall and break your hand or wrist, that would be bad indeed. You would be incapacitated for work for a certain period of time. But the expectation during your recovery time would be that you are still human, still yourself to reasonably do everything you could do before. You may find certain things inaccessible for a while and require some forms of assistive technology, but you should expect to be treated with dignity and you would not expect someone to miraculously mend your broken bone. Yet this is what MrBeast (and his millions of followers) are peddling with this video. They don’t recognize the humanity of blind people; they only acknowledge the horror of not being able to see.
In other words, people with disabilities tend to think that disability defines us.
In many meaningful ways, yes, our disabilities define us to a great extent. After all, no one can escape his own body. But what about our traits as individuals? Our families, our work, our relationships and much more? Of course people know things like the Paralympics and wheelchair basketball competitions for example. The point is that people with disabilities are no different in our personal makeup than anyone else. We shouldn’t feel pity and we certainly don’t need the uplifting manners as MrBeast suggests.
I have multiple disabilities due to premature birth, but most people know me as a partner, brother, cousin and friend who enjoys sports, cooking and listening to rap music, and a renowned journalist. Everyone around me is well aware of my disabilities, but they don’t judge me based on that alone. They know the real me – they know that my disabilities are not the totality of my being.
My lived experience is unique because I have so much to draw from: I have visual disabilities, physical motor disabilities, and speech disabilities, and my parents were both completely deaf. I grew up the eldest of two children and served as an unofficial in-house interpreter for my parents. Like a CODA, I sat astride the border between the deaf and the hearing world. I know firsthand how deaf people view their culture and way of life with immense pride. If someone “cured” deafness, what would happen to the people? Deaf culture is real. The culture would disappear because there would be no reason for the existence of sign language and the resulting experiences.
I had a mentor in my senior year of high school who asked me the day we met in my counselor’s office if I would go back and change things in my life so that I wouldn’t have disabilities. I told him quite unequivocally that I wouldn’t. He was shocked by my answer, but I explained that my rationale was simple: it would change who I am.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, my feelings have not changed. Granted, I have my moments. I curse the fact that I can’t get in a car and go wherever I want, whenever I want. Likewise, I often complain that my limited range of motion caused by cerebral palsy prevents me from literally moving as freely as I sometimes need or want.
Overall, however, my disabilities have enabled me to thrive in many ways. The relationships I’ve built, the knowledge I’ve gained, the journalism career I’ve had for nearly a decade — none of this would have been possible in an alternate universe where I wasn’t a lifelong disabled person. To me, that’s the ultimate silver lining.
I don’t pretend to be an oracle when it comes to accessibility and assistive technologies. I know a lot, but I don’t know everything. Similarly, I make no pretense of speaking for all blind people or the disability community in general. Blindness, in particular, is a spectrum, and I only declare knowing where my eyesight is on that line. This I also know: healing is not the answer to “helping” blind people, let alone someone else with a disability.
People with disabilities don’t need pity. We don’t need to be lifted. We don’t need healing from ourselves. What we desperately need is some recognition of our basic humanity. We need capable people to see us as the people we are rather than the saddened, burdened outcasts society likes to portray us.
MrBeast (and his defenders) easily fall into the trap of perpetuating that entrenched ability mentality; as I wrote earlier, ability is as pervasive as racism and sexism. Simply put, we need allies – people who see us as real people.
Finding a cure for cancer or a cure for AIDS is one thing. Disabilities don’t need healing. What really needs to be healed is society’s tendency to see the disability community as little more than real characters from a Tod Browning movie. Disabled people are not freaks. Disability is not a bad word. You can learn a lot from us.