An Open Letter to Ken Jennings:
A year ago, you tweeted “Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.”
Yes, that was a year ago, about a million years in cyber time.
Let’s revisit this anyway.
There’s some important stuff here.
We still have ableism, and we still have loads of wrong-headed beliefs about disabled people’s sexualities. The difference is that more and more people are speaking out than ever before.
Like this lovely person:
Now, isn’t that hot?
Okay, maybe you don’t find it hot. You’re allowed. We all have different measures of hotness, though most of us don’t dismiss an entire group out of hand.
The main reason I’m writing you this letter is that you are, overall, a pretty clever guy, and your fame is built on your cleverness. Your fans depend on you to always have the right answer. So, it only serves everybody to unpack how not-clever this tweet was.
I figure that with what I assume to be your immense love of knowledge, you’d want to know the truth of things.
The truth, sir, is that the buzzer wont’ stop ringing; that’s how factually off-base you were here.
Basics first: You said you don’t think there’s anything quite so sad as a hot person in a wheelchair.
Personally, I think seeing hungry children or abandoned puppies or countries ravaged by war is much sadder than seeing anyone in a wheelchair, but okay, if you find that the saddest, you’re allowed. You might want to rethink that, though, especially since you already acknowledged that the Internet didn’t agree with this joke.
I’m also really shocked at your lack of imagination. You really think people in wheelchairs, no matter how hot (or not) you think they are, can’t or don’t have sex? Really? *raises eyebrows*
Maybe you’re thinking that what you said isn’t such a big deal.
After all, it’s not the hungry children, abandoned puppies, or war-torn countries I mentioned earlier.
You didn’t physically harm someone or swindle them out of their life savings.
What you did was what we call a microaggression.
Only, it’s on the Internet. The Internet has this habit of making things grow, taking away the micro and increasing the aggression.
Micro is small, but small can be mighty.
When you’re on a popular TV show for six months, have written lots of books, and are generally being a public figure, people kind of tend to believe the things you say. You wouldn’t want to steer them wrong, would you?
At least one disabled disability rights advocate is concerned about the kind of example you’re setting for young people by spreading this harmful misinformation.
The first question I asked myself when I saw this tweet a year ago was: Why? Why would he even think such a thing?
Some possible answers:
You’re sexually insecure.
You really did think this was the best joke ever.
You forgot that disabled people are human beings.
You’re skittish around wheelchairs.
Sometimes people lash out when they’re feeling insecure.
A lot of times when people are afraid of something, they get defensive. And, you know what they say: The best defense is a good offense.
Actually, the best defense or offense is education and knowledge.
Nothing helps quite like the truth of things.
People with disabilities–these are real people you’re talking about. I know: I am one of them. I’m visibly disabled, though not a wheelchair user. People with disabilities are frequently seen as childlike, incapable, often even subhuman. Denying our sexuality is just one more way to deny our humanity. Denying our sexualities leads to pressing problems like thinking that disabled people don’t need sex ed, or that we don’t need sexual healthcare.
You were talking about people in wheelchairs, but I’m left wondering: Where does it stop? Do hot blind people make you sad? How about hot people using crutches or a walker? What about hot people who have more than one disability? How does it work if a person’s disability is invisible? If they’re hot, and you only find out about the disability later, is that sad too?
Business Insider called your tweet insensitive. I think it goes way beyond that. When talking about negative comments about disability and disabled people, words like sensitivity, compassion, and caring get thrown around a lot. I’d like to see more people talking about respect and knowledge.
It’s not primarily sensitivity you lack here—frankly, I don’t care all that much about your moral compass–(though your decency does leave something to be desired) but plain old-fashioned know-how. Sorry if that’s painful to read, but that’s just how it is. Okay, I’ll stop telling you you’re wrong.
Or, maybe the problem here is that you can’t imagine how someone who uses a wheelchair could possibly have sex? So little imagination, Ken! Really, I’d expect more creativity from a trivia buff/expert in obscure knowledge.
Look, I don’t care if you don’t find folks in wheelchairs hot, but you have a public responsibility not to share misinformation.
So, let’s have some basic sex ed, shall we? (Wouldn’t it be fun if game shows had categories on sex?)
There’s really not a limit on what sex is, or how to do sex, for anyone
And, there’s no limit on what sex and sexuality can be for people with disabilities. Please pay particular attention to the first three myths, and the facts that go along with them.
Also, a person’s being in a wheelchair actually doesn’t tell you much about their physical abilities. It doesn’t tell you how they can move their bodies, which parts of their bodies they can feel, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what they like to do in bed. Some people who use wheelchairs are able to walk short distances, or are able to use their legs if they’re not standing up. It’s not always the case that people either walk or not-walk. And seriously, is being able to walk necessary for sex, anyway?
This leads us to another issue. It’s not our business to assume what a disabled person is able to do, and it’s not our business to ask, either.
And know, these generally are not sexless relationships, as people often assume they must be.
At least, couples in which one or both partners are disabled are no more or less likely to have sex, or have sexual issues, than couples in which both partners are nondisabled.
Just because you find wheelchairs to be impairments to people’s sexiness – and certainly, you’re entitled to feel that way – doesn’t mean that other people do.
There are also folks who are specifically attracted to disabled people. They’re often called devotees.
Sex with someone who has a disability can even be the best sex you could be having.
Or, maybe you’d like to try something a little more daring? Leroy Moore has reclaimed drooling, something seen as infantile and gross, something Leroy personally was encouraged to hide and feel ashamed about, as something sexy and intimate.
The simple fact is: People with disabilities are sexy, with and without their mobility or other assistive devices.
Okay, caveat time: Not everyone is sexy in the same way, and we’re not all going to find the same things sexy. I wouldn’t want you to tell me who I should and shouldn’t enjoy or be attracted to, so I’m certainly not going to dictate that for you.
Let’s just say it this way: A wheelchair (or cane, or crutches, or oxygen mask) doesn’t take away anyone’s hotness.
Using these assistive devices also doesn’t make people think about sex or romance any less than they would otherwise.
You know, Ken, there’s a funny irony here. Ending up in a wheelchair, of any of the experiences that makes someone a minority in our society, is the experience most likely to happen to you. No, that’s not a threat. It’s reality. And, if it’s not something that lands you in a wheelchair, it could be any number of physical, psychological, or mental impairments.
Your skin colour, ethnicity, or country-of-origin aren’t going to change, so you’re not likely to experience any racial or ethnic discrimination you’ve not experienced before. You’re unlikely to have to live below the poverty-line (unless you make some incredibly bad investments) so being the victim of class snobbery or financial discrimination probably isn’t in your future.
But, you could well develop a mental, psychological or physical impairment, either temporarily or permanently. Most people who think deeply about ability and disability consider able-bodiedness to be temporary, anyway.
You’re well-known for your smarts, but that wouldn’t much help you if you did become visibly disabled. I promise you people would treat you a lot differently. “Isn’t it sad what happened to Ken? He used to be so smart/capable/accomplished/successful/other positive attribute.” People who didn’t know you from Adam, who saw you on the street would be admiring, condescending, overly helpful or actively not helpful enough… They wouldn’t take the time to talk to you to find out how much trivia you know, or, if they did, they’d treat you like a clever child or smart puppy.
Does this sound bleak? I don’t mean it to. There are lots of awesome people who don’t see disability as such a big deal, who see the whole person, not just the disability.
Sadly, you’re not one of them.
Clearly, you weren’t interested in actively engaging with people to find out why they were so upset. You were comfortable with the Internet not agreeing with you.
That was your choice.
There were other ways to handle this, ways that show growth, learning, and humility.
When he learned that one of his jokes was ableist, George Takei issued an elegant and thoughtful apology.
General rule of thumb: Only people in wheelchairs get to make wheelchair jokes. The rest of us? We get to laugh along with them, but we don’t even get to repeat what we’ve heard, because they’re not our jokes to tell.
I’d like to invite you to explore the resource page here at Ready, Sexy, Able.
Just as a fact-finding mission, of course.