The tipping point was a story by an autistic mother of an autistic child, a supposedly lighthearted take on the intense behavioral breakdowns so often associated with autism.
“Introducing: Meltdown Bingo” featured a Bingo board with squares representing common consequences of an autism meltdown: a door slamming; a child punching a parent; someone starting to cry. Checked five boxes? Bingo!
It was meant to be funny, the author said, a way to extract a shred of levity from a terrible moment. And the author “meant no harm,” said the editor in chief of the Mighty, the disability-focused online publication where the post appeared Dec. 20.
But plenty of outraged readers and members of the disabled community thought otherwise. The woman was mocking a devastating experience, they said, making the meltdown about her instead of the child in distress. It was nothing short of disability-shaming. And they weren’t about to let it slide.
It wasn’t the first time the Mighty, launched in 2014, had clashed with the community it aims to serve. Disabled writers and activists had previously complained that the site gives too much space to the parents of children with disabilities, sometimes at the expense of a child’s privacy, and that it promotes “inspiration porn” — patronizing stories that celebrate people with disabilities for basic accomplishments or applaud able-bodied individuals just for being kind.
But the backlash reached new heights after “Meltdown Bingo.” Writers and activists took to blogs and social media to pen scathing responses. A Change.org petition (titled “The Mighty: Apologize for the harm you do to the disability community!”) drew more than 280 signatures. A Twitter hashtag created by Disability Visibility Project founder Alice Wong fueled an impassioned discussion about the media’s portrayal of disability and inspired the Inspiration Porn Resolution — a media pledge to avoid exploitative coverage of disabled issues.
The Mighty moved fast to stop the bleeding. It stripped the story from the website the day after it went up, and editor in chief Megan Griffo published a contrite editor’s note apologizing and explaining why the post had been taken down.
“Basically, we messed up and hurt the exact community we aim to serve,” she said. “While there’s room to find humor when facing challenges, when the attempt at humor ends up not being funny, we cross into offensive territory.”
The Mighty asked readers for guidance: What could it do better? Which websites and writers were covering disability issues the right way?
To which some responded: That might have been a good question to ask before launching a disability-focused website.
Wong’s reaction was to laugh.
“I could list over 50 great websites and writers immediately,” she said. “Disabled people have always been a part of the media landscape — speaking out, creating, writing and protesting.”
But if the Mighty wanted feedback, fine. Wong, an outspoken activist diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy when she was 2, created the hashtag #CrippingTheMighty to respond to the site’s questions while drawing a larger audience’s attention.
“Who cares to listen to actual disabled people on their lived experience?” she said. “I’m still looking for an answer to that question.”
Writers with disabilities — including some who had contributed to the Mighty — quickly piled on with critiques.
In an open letter, blogger and occasional contributor Cara Liebowitz urged the publication to examine its habit of publishing stories that “objectify and even humiliate” disabled people.
“I embrace humor to cope with my disabilities and I encourage others to do the same. But the difference between the self-deprecating humor that many disabled people utilize and the humor of ‘Meltdown Bingo’ is a question of perspective and nuance,” she said in the letter. “It is the difference between brushing myself off and making a crack about becoming floor pizza when I fall, and other people pointing and laughing at me on the floor.”
Many used Wong’s hashtag to make other suggestions: How about hiring more disabled people to write about disabled people? And — since the Mighty doesn’t compensate its contributors — how about paying those writers for their work?
“Listen to those of us with lived experience as disabled people,” one Twitter user implored. “We’re the experts of our own lives.”
It’s “important for parents of disabled people to have a voice,” another said, “but not louder than their sons and daughters speaking for themselves.”
Griffo told The Washington Post in an email that the site is taking the feedback seriously. She pointed out that the Mighty has already moved to publish more stories about the damage caused by lauding disabled people as “inspiring” or “brave” just for living their lives.
“We’ve appreciated the constructive criticism,” she said, “but there’s also a lot of misinformation about us out there.”
The two biggest inaccuracies “are that we are a site run by people without disabilities and that we make money through ads,” she said. “We have no ads, and there is no revenue.”
She noted that the staff of 13 includes seven people with a disability or a disease, and that the remaining staffers all have family members “living with a condition.”
She estimated that “somewhere between one-third and one-half” of the stories by outside contributors were written by people with disabilities. “But we’re doing far more outreach to get more of their voices,” she said.
In a new post Monday, the Mighty founder Mike Porath said that a review of the site’s editorial standards is underway.
“We’re discussing editorial guidelines not just internally, but with many others in the community,” he said. “We listen, we learn and we move forward.”
Not all of the website’s critics are convinced. But even if the Mighty doesn’t change course, at least #CrippingTheMighty made people pay attention to the larger issues at stake, Wong said.
The hashtag “amplified the voices of people with disabilities in their own words,” she said. “It shows the untapped talent and power of the disability community.”