When A Destroyed Wheelchair Doesn’t Go Viral

Last month Carson Briere, a senior student-athlete at Mercyhurst University, was hanging out with two of his friends and fellow student-athletes Sullivan’s Pub and Eatery when he pushed a person’s wheelchair down a flight of stairs, breaking it. Sydney Benes, the wheelchair’s owner and a student at Slippery Rock University, had gotten out of her chair to use the bathroom, which was located in the bar’s basement and accessible only by stairs. The entire incident was captured on the bar’s security cameras

Sydney was a regular. The staff knew her, were friends with her, and had a system in place to assist her when she needed to use the restroom. The bar was a safe space for her. Speaking from personal experience as a disabled person,  I don’t have a lot of safe spaces. The few I have I cherish. With a mere push, Carson Briere did so much more than just damage a wheelchair. 

What happened last month was not a one-time incident. There is a dangerous epidemic in this country of individuals and institutions disrespecting, dehumanizing, and destroying mobility devices. To quote Sydney Benes in an interview she gave to YourErie.com after the incident, “We are treated like things, like second-class citizens, we’re not treated with respect.” 

What happened to Sydney happens all the time – not just when it goes viral on Twitter because the individual at fault was the son of an NHL executive. It’s not infrequent that I learn someone in the disabled community – often a friend – has had their wheelchair damaged, lost, or destroyed by an airline or in another careless, preventable incident. 

What does make this instance different is the fact that we know who did it. We know their face, we know their name, and we have a video confirming the pure callousness of the act. This irrefutable evidence showing Mr. Briere pushing the wheelchair is perhaps why he was one of the rare individuals held accountable: Briere and Patrick Carrozzi, a lacrosse player who stood with Briere at the top of the stairs, were charged last month with three misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief, criminal conspiracy to commit mischief and disorderly conduct. On April 4, Briere was officially removed from the Mercyhurst hockey team (though he immediately entered the transfer portal).

Despite those accountability measures, we need to continue talking about this. Because the loss and destruction of a person’s mobility device – whether it is a wheelchair, a cane, a walker, or a scooter – has real-world repercussions that those who are non-disabled do not understand. These repercussions can be fatal. 

While I am a disabled person, I am not someone who uses a mobility device. For this story, I reached out to four activists in the disabled community,  Rebecca Cokley, the first disability rights program officer at the Ford Foundation, Danielle Frank, Little People of America’s Program Director, Emily Ladau, author of Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally and Emily Voorde, Associate Director of NEWCO strategies and former Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Biden, to talk about what happened, its impact, and what needs to change.

The reactions to the video, unsurprisingly, were mixed. As Emily Voorde said, who I should mention had her wheelchair broken by an airline and is still waiting for a replacement more than a month later, “For every comment or tweet I saw from the disability community expressing understandable outrage, there were comments and tweets from people who chose ignorance – minimizing Sydney’s hurt and pain, questioning why this was so problematic, why she was at the bar in the first place, and victim shaming.” Unfortunately, this kind of reaction is normal. We live in a society that has constructed an environment that is structurally and inherently ableist, and the way that society treats the disabled community has been normalized over generations. 

I also asked people to analyze Mercyhurst University’s response to the incident, which stated:

Mercyhurst University has heard a considerable outcry regarding the social media video of student Carson Briere showing him pushing an unoccupied wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Mr. Briere today issued a statement taking responsibility for his actions, and in doing so, he recognized his behavior reflects a “serious lack of judgment” and that he is “deeply sorry.” The actions displayed in the video make our hearts heavy and fall short of our Mercy belief in the inherent dignity of each person. We pray for and are in solidarity with the victim and all persons with disabilities who rightfully find actions like this to be deeply offensive. Our Mercy tradition also reminds us that students and all people who make poor choices deserve opportunities to learn, change behaviors, and atone for harmful actions.

As Danielle Frank put it: “Mercyhurst University, in their statement, took no accountability. There was no indication of disability training for their students nor any indication that Briere will be facing any actual consequences.” 

What they did take note of was the fact that the chair was unoccupied, which some say minimized the severity of what happened. Emily Ladau said she saw people making the comparison that what Mr. Briere did was comparable to damaging an empty car while it was parked. Let me make this clear: If you damage a wheelchair or any other mobility device – regardless of whether or not the person is in it or using it – you are causing direct harm to a person.

While Sydney said she was able to repair her chair and donate proceeds from a GoFundMe to others in need, many are not able to seek the same solutions. 

For some, the loss or destruction of a person’s wheelchair could lead to a loss of life. In October of 2021, Engracia Figueroa, a prominent advocate for disability rights, died after an airline damaged her wheelchair. It was a chair that was built for her body to meet her access needs. The 51-year-old advocate’s chair was destroyed in cargo, and she developed fatal health complications as a result of an ill-fitted replacement. 

Mobility devices are an extension of one’s body. The problem is that our society and its laws rarely recognize them as such. According to police, Briere and Carrozzi were charged because their actions “posed a potential danger to anyone coming up the stairs, while also creating a hazardous condition by blocking the staircase.” These charges – while fitting the crime – do not necessarily hold Briere and Carrozzi accountable for the full damage they caused. Why? Because there are no laws on the books that treat the assault on a mobility device as an assault on the person. And why is that? Because there is still a fundamental misunderstanding of disability. 

When asked how to define the relationship between a disabled person and their mobility device, Emily Voorde defined it as “incredibly personal, incredibly unique, incredibly empowering in a way that is not able to be understood by non-disableds.” Rebecca Cokley went further, stating, “A damaged wheelchair could mean that one loses custody of their children, that because you may have to miss class or work that you are kicked out of school or fired.” And as Engracia Figueroa’s family understands, a damaged chair can set off a series of events that end in tragedy. 

So what needs to change so these incidents get the national attention and criminal punishment they actually warrant? There certainly need to be stronger civil and/or criminal ramifications. As defined by the Department of Justice a hate crime is “a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.” In all my conversations, people pointed out that a mobility device is clearly a visible representation of a disabled person’s identity. The predominant symbol of the community is the wheelchair. And whether or not the individual, entity or institution was intending to cause harm, they were targeting someone because they were disabled. 

Disabled people are not being hyperbolic when we say that these devices are an extension of our bodies. They enable us to communicate. They are life-sustaining.

The disabled population is the world’s largest minority, and it is one that anyone can join at any time. One in four people living here in the United States has a disability. Yet the fact remains that we live in a society that is inherently ableist and that often fails to comprehend the fact that all issues are disability issues.

What will it take for people to finally start listening? We’ve seen what happens when Gen Z and Millennials shine a light on issues that the mainstream media chooses to ignore. When we see what happened to Sydney happen again, because it happens nearly every day, we all need to be talking about it. We need to amplify disabled voices. 

We need to make it clear that there are too many lives at stake for people to continue to choose ignorance.

Candace Owens Demanded An Explanation For This Inclusive SKIMS Campaign. Allow Me!

Candace Owens took to her platforms this week and — to absolutely no one’s surprise — delivered a pointless attack on a marginalized community. 

Speaking from her dedicated program on the far-right platform the Daily Wire, Owens offered a bizarre statement about a beautifully inclusive shoot for the SKIMS adaptive clothing line that featured models with disabilities. What was unique about this particular rant was that it was a no-holds-barred attack on disabled people, a community that most people don’t intentionally target with hot garbage, malicious content.

Owens even went as far as to share an image of Haleigh Rosa from the campaign, complaining that: “I really don’t know how far we’re going to take this inclusivity thing. I really don’t get it. If I’m wrong, educate me. Today I just want to be educated in the comments.”

Well Ms. Owens: Class is in session, and I’m your professor. My qualifications are that I’m a person with four disabilities, and I own an agency, Misfit Media, solely led by disabled people. All we do is help marketing agencies or in-house teams create inclusive content. We start with anti-ableism education (which you clearly need) and then go into strategy, campaign planning and execution and then PR (which you clearly don’t understand). 

We are the best in the biz at what we do, so while I doubt your sincerity in wanting to learn, I do believe I am the best person to equip you and anyone curious with some important reasons why not just SKIMS, but all brands, need to include disabled people in their content. 

The moral obligation

Most people believe that because the ADA was passed over 30 years ago that  — *poof* — all of the problems facing disabled people went away. This is simply not the case, and the reality is that the ADA is not a self-enforcing law. The burden of enforcing it is on disabled people advocating for ourselves. There are no checkups to ensure people and businesses adhere to it, and the process to file complaints is so long, emotionally grueling, and expensive that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports less than 13 percent of complaints of discrimination are settled

Despite the popular belief that things are getting better for disabled people, statistics show us that inequities persist. Take just three recent reports: 

  1.  According to the Bureau of Labor, less than 20 percent of people who identified as disabled were employed in 2022 (and this includes those working for subminimum wage).
  2. The 2020 Annual Statistics Compendium showed that disabled people were over 2x as likely to be living in poverty than non-disabled people.
  3. The Bureau of Justice reports that disabled people are 4x more likely to experience crimes of violence than non-disabled people. 

One of the best tools we have in our belt to combat ableism is representation. Despite being over 25 percent of the population, disabled people are only represented in media, marketing, and entertainment content a maximum of 3.1 percent of the time. While we don’t have great data on how accurate disability representation could impact society’s view on disability, we do have powerful data that shows how effective representation has been for other communities. 

For example, we have real evidence that positive LGBTQIA+ media representation helped transform public opinions about the community and their rights. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that the general US population significantly changed their views of same-sex marriage in just 15 years, with 60 percent of the population being opposed in 2004 to 61 percent in favor in 2019. While a number of factors likely influenced these perspective shifts, studies suggest that positive LGBTQIA+ media depictions played a significant role.

Those who create content, create culture. We know that public opinion is shaped by what we see in the media. That’s why there’s a global ad industry of $766 billion that is expected to hit $1 trillion by 2025. By intentionally leaving disabled people out of the media, creative professionals are reinforcing the same implicit bias that motivated the Ugly Laws, which forbade disabled people deemed “too unsightly” from being seen in public places. The last of these laws was only overturned in the 1970s, highlighting the imperative for creative professionals take disability inclusion seriously to help undo the stigma surrounding disability. 

The business ROI

While Owens clearly does not give one fuck about the moral obligation society has to build a better world for disabled people – or any people, for that matter – one thing I know this woman understands is money. So, let’s talk about that. 

It’s important to recognize the massive buying power of disabled people and disability-adjacent communities. The U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy categorizes persons with disabilities as the third-largest market segment in the U.S., after Hispanics and African-Americans. The discretionary income for working-age persons with disabilities is $21 billion—greater than that of the African-American and Hispanic segments combined. 

Companies that employ more disabled people have double the net income, 28 percent higher revenue, and 30 percent higher economic profit margins. It’s a win for our community, it’s a win for your business.

I’ll state this even more plainly for Candace: There are more than 1 billion disabled people worldwide. Businesses that recognize this as an opportunity can benefit from increased sales and brand loyalty among this demographic. By including disabled people in their campaigns, companies can demonstrate their commitment to diversity, which in turn can increase customer trust and loyalty. Since disabled people are often underrepresented in mainstream media and advertising, campaigns featuring them tend to stand out from the crowd and create powerful impactful messages that resonate with audiences. 

Owens also mocks “whoever was behind this ridiculous campaign” and says that persons should be fired, which is interesting given that this inclusivity campaign has been a massive win for SKIMS. This may come as a shock to Ms. Owens, but disabled people wear underwear and have sex. 

Disabled people need accessible items, and because SKIMS prioritized inclusivity, they won our business. I’d hope a member of the political party that loves capitalism would understand this very basic economic principle… but that’s a lot from someone who likely believes trickle-down economics is the GOAT financial policy. 

It’s Been 30 Years Since The ADA. Will We Be Waiting Another 30 For True Equality?

During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests against George Floyd’s murder, my boyfriend and I would hear people marching right outside our Downtown Brooklyn apartment. We would rush over to the window to witness these historic rallies. At first, we took enormous pride and appreciation in the fact that thousands of New Yorkers would risk their health—since the pandemic was (and still is) very much a thing—to go to the streets to fight and demand much overdue racial justice and equity.

We would watch these protests every day from afar, which was a paradoxical phenomenon. My boyfriend is a non-U.S. citizen Black man, and I am a Korean-American disabled woman. We felt like we should be out there protesting alongside fellow Brooklynites, but the truth be told, we both were too scared to do so. From a quick periphery scan of the marchers outside the window (our apartment is close to street level), we noticed two observations: no one had a noticeable physical disability. An overwhelming majority of the crowd was white. I knew that my boyfriend and I would feel immense unease and insecurity if we were to join them, especially as brutal police involvement began to escalate.

As I wrote in Teen Vogue earlier this month, “participating in protests and rallies can be taxing and dangerous for people with disabilities under the best circumstances. For example, large crowds can be difficult for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to navigate. The uneven, narrow, long routes often don’t accommodate people with mobility issues or wheelchair users. All this, combined with the recent reports of the anti-police brutality protests being met with clashes of police brutality, the movement is even less accessible for those with disabilities.”

Disability is the only identity group that literally doesn’t discriminate against other groups: people of all color, gender, sexual orientation, class, and any background could have a disability, and you can acquire a disability at any point in life. Besides women, people with disability make up the largest minority group in America: one in four adults in the country have some disability. Yet, we are the least represented group in mainstream media and news. Even during a time in history where there have been increased efforts of diversity and inclusion, the inclusion and acceptance of disabilities lag significantly behind.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, marking its 30th anniversary this month. The ADA was the country’s first-ever comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities, offering protection against discrimination and imposing accessibility requirements in workplaces and the public. However, equality in theory, unfortunately, does not equate to equality in practice. Disability-related complaints remain among the largest categories filed with government agencies that enforce fair housing and employment laws, and too many buildings and public transportation routes remain mostly inaccessible.

People with disabilities who are a part of other minority groups are even further marginalized in society. For example, suppressed by both ableism and racism, Black disabled people are among the most susceptible to grotesque treatment in this country. Additionally, movements like #MeToo #TimesUp have given millions of women the platform to speak up about their own stories of abuse. Although an overwhelming 80% of disabled women are sexually abused, their voices were not included.

The truth of the matter is that many Americans are probably unaware that July is Disability Pride Month or that this year marks the ADA’s 30th anniversary. The concept of disability pride began to emerge in the early 2000s – it reinforces the idea of accepting and honoring each person’s uniqueness and treating it as another aspect of one’s identity. Perhaps it is because disability activism hasn’t become as trendy as racial justice, LGBTQ+ equality, or feminist movement. The ironic part is that disability is at the intersection of all those issues and then some. 

Amid the pandemic outbreak, there has been a surge in anti-Asian harassment, which hit me personally like a double-whammy. My disability has never been entirely accepted in many Asian cultures—in my personal experience, they have been the least receptive of my disability. Asian cultures are notorious for fostering a seemingly unrealistic strive for perfectionism, and having a disability is perceived as being as far from perfect as humanly possible. Growing up as a first-generation Korean-American young woman, I was always told that I should take up the least space possible, and not let my disability be a burden on others. The most significant hurt I’ve received was from Korean adults who thought my cerebral palsy was a curse or sinthose were the very people who were supposed to protect and comfort me. This led me to develop both internalized ableism and racism, which I am still in the process of unlearning today. 

So, it truly felt like I was disposed into a dystopian society when, in recent months, I’ve endured disgusting comments from strangers about my race while still receiving micro-aggressions from people of my race. In America, at least we’re making strides to deconstruct that entrenched history of beliefs. Things aren’t moving that progressively in Korea, and, needless to say, in many other Asian countries. For instance, China had a history of abandoning female babies, but now it’s mostly sick and disabled kids who are being thrown away.

In 2020, we are not as progressive as a society as our predecessors probably hoped we would be. Many minority communities are still severely marginalized and don’t have equal representation in any facet of society. Too many white Americans were oblivious to the level of brutality BIPOC face every day. It took the viral spread of an eight-minute video of George Floyd’s death to convince white Americans the level of racial injustice that exists to this day is unruly. Similarly, the global pandemic has proven that the mainstream public is willing to leave the disabled community behind in healthcare; they’re disproportionately impacted by unemployment; students with disabilities are losing their equal access to education.

The well-known mantra within the disability activist community is, “nothing about us without us,” emphasizing that people with disabilities must be integral and essential parts of every human and equal rights movement. Thirty years after the ADA passage, people with disabilities–like myself–are sidelined to society’s outer-most margins. It is not until we are viewed on the same caliber as our peers that we can truthfully say the ADA’s vision has been fully recognized. Whether this takes another 30 or 300 years, that’s up to the rest of society.

Images: Vitalii Vodolazskyi / Shutterstock