I want to talk about Ian Brown’s piece in the May issue of The Walrus called Facing Difference, which accompanies a series of photographs of people who have Down Syndrome by Jaime Hogge. Reading Brown’s essay made me feel uncomfortable for a few reasons, and I wanted to spend some time reflecting on his approach to the issue.
Throughout the piece Brown points to tough questions about prenatal screening for Down Syndrome, about the choice to have a child who will almost inevitably face physical and intellectual challenges, about our increasing scientific capacity to engineer future generations. He asks,
“What is the value of the manifestly imperfect in our midst? The answer is that the fragile and flawed among us may be crucial, as Charles Darwin thought, to our ethical survival as a species, to making us more subtle, more watchful, more compassionate, less judgmental.”
It’s almost as though Brown argues that people, like Hogge’s photographic subjects, who have disabilities, are simply victims of probability and chance, there to remind us of our own imperfections and mortality:
“Without intellectually disabled people to curb our self-regard, we would be far more likely to assume that success (however you measure it) is “the crown of virtue,” to borrow the words of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, from his brilliant little book The Case against Perfection.”
Brown ignores that the subjects of these photographs are whole people, rather than moral lessons for the nondisabled. He writes that,
“Still, something about this growing ability to design our future selves makes us nervous. We worry that it could undermine our humanity. The imperfections of intellectual disability remind us of our own.”
But looking to Hogge’s photographs tell a completely different story, almost an intentional rebuttal to Brown’s dehumanizing, patronizing words. These photographs don’t tell the story of people who are incomplete, “fragile” or “flawed,” there to remind us of our own imperfections, vulnerability, or humanity. These are lives lived neither for the sake of “inspiration” nor bleak existential fodder for nondisabled people. Rather Hogge’s portraits tell an explicit story of purpose, talent, curiosity and intimacy, people with accomplishments worth celebrating and admiring.
In short, go look at the beautiful photographs, but ignore the ugly essay that accompanies them.