Inspiring or cruel play on sympathy?

Today I was walking along the high street when I saw two people dressed in matching t-shirts who were holding leaflets in their hands which they offered to passers-by. This might have been something that I would forget about as soon as I walked past, but the unfamiliarity of the event struck me and I was left thinking about it for the whole journey home.

Those two people in matching t-shirts were disabled – my best guess would be that they have Down’s syndrome. They seemed to have been accompanied by two supervisors who were dressed in casual wear and were  leaning against the wall behind them chatting.

My first reaction  upon seeing them was a strong surge of inspiration. I had just left a charity shop where one of the workers was on the phone with another worker in a different branch, who was troubled by the non-attendance of the volunteer workers. I was slightly angered by the fact that people were irresponsibly not turning up to their shifts, so that the one that does turn up is left to handle everything on their own. Therefore, I was inspired by these two people handing out the leaflets because they were taking their time to stand there outside in the eyes of the public for a good cause. I will admit that I thought to myself, even these people can give their time to volunteer; surely others can too?

However, as I continued to walk on, it occurred to me that perhaps it was all a cruel form of advertisement by playing on sympathy. Although I was not close enough to see what exactly the leaflets were about, I assume that they were handouts to raise awareness for the disease that they themselves carried. What better way to get attention than stationing the very people who are the subject of the matter as the advocates? It’s like getting a starving child with big innocent eyes to stand there asking people to give money, so that others are moved by sympathy to give or do something to help. What particularly struck me was that their (I think) supervisors seemed to be chatting and caring little for the reason that there were there – they weren’t doing anything to help hand out leaflets. I have no idea if the people who were actually doing the work were fully aware of what they were doing, but if they weren’t…? It would mean that the people in the t-shirts were placed there as a public display. That is just cruel.

One might argue that there are lots of advertisements out there that exploit the human emotion of pity. But is it right to feel pity for the disabled people handing out the leaflets? It might be one thing to pity a situation. It’s another to pity someone for being themselves, for who they are.

If those two people were handing out those leaflets with their own good will, I respect them highly. I strongly believe that disability is not something to be hidden away and I respect them for standing out there in the streets where various attitudes towards disability still exists. It would be great if this unfamiliar event was not so unfamiliar and disabled people can stand in public for whatever they believe in – personally I don’t think we have enough of that at the moment.

If they weren’t though – if they were tasked to hand out the leaflets as a means to an end, that is disgusting and should never happen.



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