What’s Really Behind Curtain #3?: Giving People with Disabilities “Consolation Prizes”

Hello, readers,

Okay, I admit it–I’m a game show enthusiast, but I’m picky about what I watch. My favorites? Jeopardy, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader, Trivial Pursuit, and the upcoming Great American Bible Challenge (premiere slated for August 23rd, GSN). In other words, game shows that don’t particularly focus on winning the BRAND…NEW…CAR behind curtain number three. But I think that kind of game show works better with the topic of today’s post. So, let’s do this Jeopardy-style, shall we?

Answer: It’s the role, job, or position that we give people with disabilities, telling them that it’s important, but covering up the fact that it’s the one we don’t want.

Question: What is a consolation prize?

Show of hands, studio audience: how many of you know what I’m talking about? How many of you have seen this happen to a child or adult with disabilities? You know how it goes:

Little Robbie wants to play basketball. The problem is, he uses a wheelchair. So the coach, not knowing that modifications can be made, or perhaps not wanting to deal with the fallout should Robbie happen to get hurt (or should rival teams scream, “Unfair advantage!”) says to little Robbie,

“Robbie, I’m so glad you’re on this team. You have a very important job to do. You’re going to be our equipment manager!” Never mind that Robbie would much rather be playing the actual game.

High school student Charlotte wants to be in the school play. She has a form of autism, but she can remember lines and say them with expression. She gets distracted or upset around things like loud or unexpected noises, but is generally focused. The director, though, doesn’t think through modifications very well (such as marking Charlotte’s script or helping her prepare for any particular “noise issues,” like if the play calls for a thunderstorm, a gunshot, or a falling beam). Instead, she assigns roles and then says Charlotte is “the most important person of all”–but that somehow means a non-speaking role, or one where Charlotte gets to say maybe one thing, and sit in the corner the rest of the time.  (Maybe her role is kind of a centerpiece, like the willow in Wind in the Willows, but come on).

Megan is an adult who works at a farm and garden designed to teach children the benefits of nature, where their food comes from, and how to take care of plants, among other things. Megan would like to take a leadership role in her organization’s new gardening project, because she loves, and is good with, plants and flowers. But Megan has Down’s Syndrome, so rather than offer ways for her to work in the role she wants, her supervisor says,

“I’ve got a better idea, Megan. Why don’t you be head of our gardening clean-up committee?” In other words, a menial job that involves picking up after the “normal” workers.

I’m not suggesting that people with disabilities–or anyone, for that matter–should have plum, leadership roles all the time, or that supervisors, teachers, and coaches shouldn’t be responsible in how they mesh the person with a disability’s role into the bigger picture. Nor am I suggesting that one job is inherently better than another; some people with disabilities, and people without, do gain satisfaction from the jobs others consider menial. I only use “menial” disparagingly because in many cases, the menial stuff is not all a person with a disability can do. Yet, it’s what gets offered as a consolation prize for what they really wanted–and were really capable of.

Here’s a wake-up call, folks: Robbie, Charlotte, Megan, and other people with disabilities know when they’re being given consolation prizes. What’s worse, and what hurts them more, is that they know when you’re being phony and nicey-nice about it. No matter their IQs or what you *think* they understand, they know. And they’re probably not as happy to take on the roles nobody wants as you think they are. In fact, they might be just plain mad! And if you think people with disabilities don’t get upset–or that their being upset is nothing other than a direct result of the disability–then go back and read the rest of the blog.

You’re probably asking, “Chick, how do you know all this?” Answer: I know because it happened to me. And no, this is not a bitter post that I wrote to get back at those who did it to me. This is my way of bringing the problem to center stage, if you will. I was the one who got the consolation prize. As in, my musical director called my line delivery “phenomenal,” and though I wasn’t a virtuoso, she acknowledged I could sing. The problem? Those pesky dance numbers. But here’s the kicker.

That director could’ve modified a supporting character’s role so dancing wasn’t required (I wasn’t asking for leads, here, or trying to take parts from people who honestly did better than me). She could’ve even decided that–gasp!–a character could have a disability, and it wasn’t a big deal. What did she do instead? Right–I ended up in the chorus line (whose main function is to, guess what, dance), or given a walk-on, which was made to seem like a big deal.

I love cooking, and in school, I was excited to try it for the first time as part of an exploratory course (this was junior high). But the girls in my group decided I would “get” to read them the recipe, or fetch them ingredients, or throw things away. That’s not even a consolation prize–that’s like the participation trophy they give the kid who sat on the bench all season. As in, are you people kidding me????

So, to close out, let’s do a Daily Double, shall we? We’ll do the question first this time: What should we do instead of constantly giving the people with disabilities in our lives consolation prizes? Should we:

A. Not let them do anything, because no matter what, they’ll whine about what they didn’t get?

B. Give them roles they can’t fulfill, and then say, “I told you so” when something negative happens as a result?

C. Listen to what they are asking, see their true capabilities, and modify as needed?

D. Create a “special” program just for them?

If you guessed C, congratulations. You’ve been paying attention. If you picked A or B, you either have premenstrual syndrome at the moment (or a male counterpart thereof), are jaded, or just plain don’t care, in which case I hope tomorrow looks better for you. If you picked D, well, that is a time-honored solution, but it often doesn’t work as well as we think it does, even though for a lot of people with disabilities, that may sadly be the only option. But let’s not leave it at D, shall we? Let’s instead make option C our true goal, and then make it happen.

We’ve got too many future stars waiting not to make it happen.



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