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Send in the Clowns

A creepy clown in white facepaint with a red nose glancing at the camera with a menacing grin

Clowns are the worst. In a world with hairy spiders, pineapple on pizza, and the Cleveland Browns, it takes a particularly evil genius to think up something as creepy as a clown. I recognize some people love clowns. I also recognize that some people are wrong. With pale faces, red noses, creepy laughs, and their disturbingly endless supply of scarves, clowns were nightmare fuel for me growing up. Being a young, adorable kid with a significant disability didn’t help, as I was a magnet for all manner of social attention. Politicians always stopped for a photo, mascots always gave me a hi-five, and regrettably, Mall Santa was my shadow and clowns were always determined to “brighten my day” with their unique brand of terror. They would ignore my obvious discomfort, and launch headfirst into whatever shtick they though would get a smile. It was exhausting and unsettling, and I’ve had similar experiences through my work in disability advocacy as an adult.

The people who dress up as clowns or Santa Claus do so out of love for children, and a desire to entertain. It makes them feel good about themselves, and what could be more validating then making a kid in a wheelchair laugh? It is never a bad impulse to want to brighten someone’s day, or do some good for those most in need of it. The problem comes when you get so determined to do good, your particular brand of good, that you ignore the needs and feedback of the very people you presumably want to serve. When your own validation becomes the objective. If the many clowns I met in my childhood were paying attention, they would have seen from my body language and feedback that the best gift they could give me would be to run in the opposite direction. But they never did. They always stayed, painfully determined to be needed, determined to get that smile despite my protests. That is not okay and it isn’t unique to clowns.

For most people with disabilities, we are often at the mercy of our support circle, sometimes harmed by the very people who genuinely want to help us. We are denied access to jobs, relationships, or privacy by loving, overzealous guardians backed by overzealous courts. Young people sometimes never given the chance to fail, grow, and fail again. We are injured accidentally by caregivers who are certain they know what is best for our bodies despite our protests and experience. Our needs are made secondary to someone else’s ego. While these mistakes likely are well meaning, actions taken from a place of kindness still demand self-examination and self-criticism. Good intentions alone are not enough to ensure the supports provided to people with disabilities are positive and essential. True stewardship necessitates being open to feedback and a healthy dose of self-awareness. Above all, it requires the humility to recognize when we are doing harm.

Regardless of the field, we all need to work to live in service to others from a place of empathy, and empathy does not allow for ego at the wheel. Millions have been spent on harmful social services because its proponents were unwilling to consider if they were doing harm, and unfortunately, many make a career of claiming to serve the marginalized even while silencing them. While such extremes are rare, we can all do better. We can work to refocus our efforts on those we serve, on what we hope to achieve for others, and own the instances when we have inadvertently caused harm. To know our audience, and perform from a place of humility. Anything less would make us just another scary clown in an ever more frightening world.

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