GOOD

Teen saves two years to buy his friend a wheelchair. Here's why it's not a 'feel-good' story.

The story reveals some massive holes in our healthcare system.

via hdskeil / Flickr

An “inspirational” story is making the news right now: High school student Tanner Wilson saved money from his job for two years to buy a power wheelchair for his friend Brandon Qualls, who has cerebral palsy.


The media loves to cover these kinds of stories in their quest for “feel-good” news to offset the constant barrage of reports about crime, poverty, and political upheaval. However, if you look more deeply at this story, you’ll see it’s not a feel-good tale at all.

To be clear, Tanner Wilson did something great. His friend needed a wheelchair, so he went above and beyond what many friends would do and helped him get one. There is much to be commended about this young man — but the media needs to be judged harshly for how his story was covered.

The news coverage of this story has by and large been a clear example of inspiration porn — which the TV show “Speechless” defines as the “portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”

As the media tells it, Tanner was a regular teenager who was so inspired by his friend, he saved and sacrificed his own money to buy that friend a wheelchair. Brandon is merely the grateful recipient of his friend’s charity, objectified to make readers feel better about the state of the world. If a high school kid can give his friend a wheelchair, surely all people with disabilities will get their needs met through the miracle of human kindness. Yeah, right.

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One reason inspiration porn narratives are so harmful is that they tend to focus on an able-bodied savior doing a good deed without considering why the disabled person needed to be “saved.” By doing so, they often miss the real story. As a disabled person reading about Tanner and Brandon, I immediately wondered why Brandon’s health insurance didn’t pay for a wheelchair. I never got an answer.

I read more than 10 different articles, and not one addressed why Brandon didn’t already have a power wheelchair despite his evident need for one. The media is happy to hold up Tanner as a hero, but unwilling to even ask or discuss why his heroism was required at all.

Wheelchairs are medical equipment and they should be covered by insurance. The real story here is that they often aren’t — but that’s not pretty or uplifting. From outdated Medicare rules requiring the person need powered mobility in their home for it to be covered to insurance companies deeming essential power wheelchair functions such as standing and seat elevators “not medically necessary,” people with disabilities who need anything other than the most basic, hospital-style mobility devices face an uphill battle. Insurance companies routinely try to get away with covering the cheapest mobility devices possible, even if they don’t meet the person’s needs.

The almost certainly able-bodied people reporting on this story don’t notice the inadequate mobility devices I see as a person with the same disability as Brandon looking at his situation. Based on video and images of Brandon in his manual wheelchair, it appears he is using a bulky, lower-end chair that would be difficult for anyone to push. The chair is too wide for him, provides no balance support and has what appears to be a pillow as a seat cushion.

This suggests that his family has struggled to get him the proper mobility equipment, but nobody reporting on this story has bothered to ask them about it. (I would, but I can’t find a way to reach them.)

If Brandon got a wheelchair through insurance, he should have received an evaluation with a physical therapist, who would have looked at his strengths and weaknesses, taken measurements, and helped choose a wheelchair with the right features for his needs.

His seat would have been custom built with extra padding and other supports to reduce pain and prevent pressures sore and joint problems. This didn’t happen with his manual chair, and even his new power wheelchair isn’t properly fit or adjusted to him. It’s a lower-end power chair designed for senior citizens, not the correct device for an active young adult with CP.

Wheelchairs are not cars. They’re not interchangeable, and someone without medical training can’t just pick one that looks cool and expect it to work for their disabled friend. Again, this is not Tanner’s fault and his heart is clearly in the right place. But we shouldn’t celebrate when a teenage boy has to try to do the work of doctors and physical therapists because our healthcare system failed his friend. We should be angry.

via Molly Adams / Flickr

Every person I know who needs a power wheelchair or any other expensive mobility device has struggled to get it. Why isn’t the media reporting on all those battles and the disabled people and their loved ones fighting every day? Just once, I want to see a headline that says “Teen Calls Friend’s Insurance Company Every Day for Two Years, Gets Wheelchair Covered.” Then teen takes his friend out for pizza and uses the rest of the money he saved to go to medical school or become a lawyer and fix our broken healthcare system.

Tanner and Brandon are great young people, but they’re being exploited by the media to perpetuate the harmful idea that the needs of people with disabilities should be met by individual acts of charity, rather than treated as a human rights issue. It’s part of a larger pattern in society of turning access to healthcare into a popularity contest only a few can win.

For every Tanner, there are a dozen Brandons whose family and friends can’t afford to pay thousands for a wheelchair, or insulin or a kidney transplant. Matters of life or death routinely hang on the success of a GoFundMe while politicians make excuses and insurance companies rake in profits. But we are supposed to feel good about the one kid whose friend was able to buy him a used wheelchair that doesn’t really fit, and that he can’t take home because his parents can’t afford a $50,000 accessible van? But hey, if 10 years from now Tanner can scrape together the money to pay for that too, I’m sure it’ll make the news.

The media tends to only feature stories of able-bodied “saviors,” ignoring the many times disabled people help each other through fundraising, donating used equipment and sharing knowledge on how to deal with insurance companies and government programs.

This kind of support is less glamorous and harder to turn into a catchy headline, but it changes lives for the better every day. It also takes a toll on the advocates who spend their days fighting for rights and funding, who struggle with burnout and sometimes even lose their lives to the broken system they’re trying to fix. They are the real heroes.

So let’s applaud Tanner and Brandon, but see their story for what it is — a kid trying to address an individual example of systemic injustice the only way he knew how, and a call to action for the rest of us to end that injustice and fight for all people with disabilities. Let’s make the next headline “Teen Gets Power Wheelchair After Medicare for All Bill Passes, Gets Detention for ‘Running’ in Hall.” Now that would be a feel-good news story.

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