Much of the praise surrounding Kodi Lee is pretty offensive to many with disabilities — despite how well-intended it may be.
On the season premiere of “America’s Got Talent” on Tuesday, the 22-year-old contestant, who is blind and autistic, sang and played piano for the judges and earned the golden buzzer, advancing straight to the live shows.
He also became an overnight sensation, earning acclaim from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, blogger Perez Hilton and Utah Jazz player Joe Ingles.
Lee’s performance was extraordinary, but the way the talent competition show portrayed him — and the way most non-disabled people and media outlets responded to his performance — echoes offensive stereotypes about disability that reinforce ableism, or discrimination against people who are disabled. Some members of the community vented their frustrations on Twitter.
The Center for Disability Rights, a not-for-profit, community-based advocacy and service organization for people with all types of disabilities, said in a statement sent to HuffPost that the coverage surrounding Lee is a “perfect example” of how many media outlets use the unfortunate stereotype of disability being a “tragedy” to create “an inspiring story of overcoming.” By doing this, Lee becomes the subject of a media trope called “inspiration porn” that the organization described as stories in which “people with disabilities are portrayed as ‘inspirational’ for doing the same things as everyone else.”
The CDR said in its statement:
“The media picked up on Kodi Lee’s performance and was quick to show not only how he spoke, but even how he situated himself at the piano, often praising his mother for assisting him. Kodi Lee’s disabilities are as much a part of his identity as one’s heritage or culture. While we agree that Kodi Lee is incredibly talented with his voice and piano skills, we want to be clear that one can be both talented and disabled. By trying to inspire others by showing how Kodi Lee undergoes mundane tasks such as sitting down at the piano, we are only further marginalizing people with disabilities.”
One aspect some found ableist was the original title of Lee’s performance on the show’s YouTube channel, which was “Kodi Lee Defeats Autism and Blindness With Music.”
The title, which has since been changed to “Kodi Lee Wows You With a Historical Music Moment,” implied that blindness and autism are burdens that one needs to overcome. When the reality for many who are blind and autistic is that it’s burdensome to have to constantly overcome obstacles in a society that is not accessible and often forgets their existence.
“There shouldn’t be a need, by media or society as a whole, for Kodi to have to overcome his disability to achieve,” the CDR said in its statement.
A seemingly innocent tweet by actor Terry Crews, who is currently the host of “America’s Got Talent,” serves as an example of how inspiration porn reinforces ableism and affects the way society views disability.
In Crew’s tweet, which praises Lee, the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star calls to “Erase the DIS, highlight the ABILITY!”
It is a clichéd sentiment that many in the disability community found problematic, and they voiced their concerns.
Zoe Gross, director of operations at Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told HuffPost in a statement, “It’s frustrating to see so much of the response to his performance focusing on outdated tropes about disability.”
Gross said that there was no need for those ideas to be attached to his performance and agreed with the opinion of many in the community that Lee’s performance “was strong enough on its own.”
“I think a lot of the disability community’s disappointment is due to people openly expressing surprise that someone with multiple disabilities can have exceptional skills and lead a happy life,” she said. “It isn’t helpful for our community when people assume that disabled people don’t do much and are sad all the time, and I think that’s what some people are seeing in the responses to Lee’s performance.”