For the second year in a row, my plans to use World Poetry Day to actually talk about poetry and to talk about our 30 Days, 30 Poems Project–one of my favorite things I get to work here. Once again though, something has happened that has focused my attention elsewhere. A year ago, instead of World Poetry Day, a week of hard conversations and my own mental health dragged me out of the poetry mindset. I wrote about trauma and rape. I wrote about those hard conversations and about apologies. Well this year, we’re back on the subject of apologies. Or more precisely fauxpologies. And the fauxpologies directed at Sydney Benes after her wheelchair was deliberately pushed down the stairs.
Setting the Scene: The Bar and the Wheelchair
So why does Sydney Benes matter? Because last weekend, Sydney Benes, a twenty two year old college student, went out to a bar to enjoy a night out and some drinks with her friends. The bar happens to be in a building that pre-dates the Americans with Disabilities Act and is exempt from certain rules about making buildings accessible to people with disabilities.
But Sydney Benes happens to be friends with the security manager at the bar she went to, and was comfortable asking for assistance getting to the restroom. As a double amputee, this meant allowing him to carry her down the stairs. And so he did, waiting with her while she used the restroom.
While they were down there, three college students, all athletes from Mercyhurst University, wandered over to the top of the stairs and noticed a wheelchair. The three students stood nearby chatting, and then Carson Briere sat in the chair. This is mistake number one. Never sit in someone’s wheelchair without their explicit permission to do so. It’s a vital piece of equipment, and many are custom made so they meet the specific needs of the user and cost thousands of dollars. And then, after a moment, Carson stood up. One unnamed friend walked away. Patrick Carrozzi, the other friend in the video, stayed.
Fauxpologies Aside, NEVER Touch our Fucking Wheelchairs, Okay?
This is the part where I lecture you for a moment because I’m angry. I’m angry about what happened and I’m angry that I, or that any other disabled person still has to say these things.
For fuck’s sake people, never touch, move, use, manipulate, push,play with, etc, someone’s mobility equipment of any type without explicit permission to do so. It’s not a toy. That equipment is an extension of a person’s body. It’s not furniture. It’s not a convenience. When I’m in my wheelchair, I’m not suddenly transformed into a piece of furniture that you can move around wherever you like if I’m in your way. We don’t touch other people without consent.
It’s one of those very basic principles that we (should) learn as kids: keep your hands to yourself. (Unfortunately, some people are inclined to forget that rule, but that’s another conversation.) You don’t go around putting your hand on a random stranger’s leg without asking. Mess with someone’s mobility equipment and you’re doing just that. Breaking someone’s wheelchair is like breaking their legs. And it can take weeks or months to get a wheelchair repaired and again, cost thousands of dollars. Thousands of dollars that many disabled people don’t have–disabled people are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people.
Here’s Why you Don’t Touch our Wheelchairs
Sydney Benes’ chair sustained a damaged armrest and brake lever. One of the push handles was broken. And the frame was bent. These aren’t minor problems or little inconveniences. This is major damage. It’s the reason that so many disabled people are afraid to fly with their wheelchairs–because of the major damage caused everyday by careless handling of wheelchairs.
Carson Briere could have got up from the chair and walked away. It’s unlikely anyone really would have noticed that someone had sat in the chair. Perhaps not even that it had been moved. Or if they had noticed it, they might have even gone on thinking it was accidentally moved. Instead, Carson Briere pushed the chair straight down a flight of stairs. And then he and his friend walked away, smirking at each other.
And thankfully, they were caught by the security cameras while they were doing all of these things.
This whole thing might not have caught the attention of many people, except that an employee at the bar, a friend of Sydney Benes, posted it to her Twitter feed. And that’s when action happened. Mercyhurst University released a fauxpology about the incident. Carson Briere and his father (who is a former NHL player and current interim GM for the Philadelphia Flyers) each released their own fauxpologies for the incident.
I am deeply sorry for my behavior on Saturday. There is no excuse for my actions, and I will do whatever I can to make up for this serious lack of judgment.
You may notice that nowhere in Carson’s statement does he say that he takes responsibility for his actions. He never acknowledges the degree of damage that he’s done with his thoughtlessness. He doesn’t tell us anything like “I caused this kind of harm by doing that,” nor does he tell us specifically what he learned or what he’ll do to make it right.
He’s not sorry for the harm he caused. He’s sorry he got caught.
And from Carson’s father, Danny Briere:
I was shocked to see Carson’s actions in the video that was shared on social media yesterday. They are inexcusable and run completely counter to our family’s values on treating people with respect. Carson is very sorry and accepts full responsibility for his behavior.
What is the Difference between an Apology and a Fauxpology?
This is another “oops, I got caught” apology. Carson was naughty, but our family didn’t teach him to do that. Again, no actual acknowledgement of the harm that was caused. No comment on how he might help make sure that Carson would make things whole again for the person he victimized. You might ask me how I know these are not real apologies. And the answer is: experience. I trained as a social worker. And I’ve been disabled for a while now. Longer than I’ve been an ambulatory wheelchair user. These apologies sound coached. And they make no mention of what’s important: paying for the full cost of repairing the wheelchair and apologizing for the suffering they caused.
This isn’t the first time that Carson Briere has been in trouble either. He was kicked off of the Arizona State University hockey team in 2019 for “a violation of team rules.” Nothing more was said about what the violation was. What is it exactly, that they were trying to sweep under the rug?
What it Means to Damage a Wheelchair… and why Fake Apologies aren’t Enough
Notable is the fact that Mercyhurst University didn’t take any action over what is, essentially, a case of assault. The athletic teams that both of these men played on took action–Carson Briere is a hockey player, Patrick Carrozzi is a lacrosse player. Yes, I said assault. Even if it seems like a simple act of vandalism. Even if it seems like simple mischief by a couple of drunk college students, it isn’t. It’s far worse than that. This “mischief” has taken mobility away from someone who is more than mildly inconvenienced by the damage to their chair. This isn’t like “Oh, my car is in the shop for a few days.” It’s more like: “Oh, my legs are in the shop for a few weeks.”
Repairs to a custom wheelchair can take weeks, if they can be done at all. And in the interim, a disabled person may be forced to use a chair that isn’t appropriate for their needs, which forces them to rely on additional assistance that may not be readily available. Or they may be forced to use a chair that doesn’t quite fit–custom chairs are often designed to prevent things like skin breakdown and sores from developing when someone spends many hours sitting in one position in their chair. Those kinds of injuries can cause major problems for disabled people or anyone with a fragile immune system. Weeks or months of treatment, pain, surgery. Serious, permanent damage.
Yeah we have to Talk about the White Elephant in the Room
I could rant about privilege here. These are young men, athletes, white, attractive and at least one of whom has money. And a famous father. And so perhaps that’s why the university is excusing their behavior with fluffy fauxpologies.
Mercyhurst University has heard a considerable amount of outcry regarding the social media video of student Carson Briere showing him pushing an unoccupied wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Mr Briere today issued a statement taking responsibility for his actions, and in doing so he recognized that his behavior reflected “a serious lack of judgment,” and that he is “deeply sorry.” The actions displayed in the video make our hearts heavy and fall short of our Mercy belief in the inherent dignity of each person. We pray for and are in solidarity with the victim and all persons with disabilities who rightfully find actions like this deeply offensive. Our Mercy tradition also reminds us that students and all people who make poor choices deserve chances to learn, change behaviors, and atone for harmful actions.
I have so much rage about this statement that reading it raises my blood pressure more and more each time and leaves me less and less able to form words to explain myself.
I’m not Done Dissecting these Garbage Fauxpologies
Sure, Carson Briere issued a statement. He didn’t actually take responsibility for his actions. We’ll get more into that later. I’m going to start with Mercyhurst University first, for no reason other than that tab was closer to this one when I sat down to write today.
Maybe you don’t see a problem with these statements. And you’re satisfied with the way the university itself is excusing the actions with a giggle and a wave of the boys will be boys wand. The good athletes can get away with anything because they bring in revenue thing. The drunk white boys don’t have to worry about their behavior thing. (See also Brett Kavanaugh for this one, especially the sham FBI investigation. Or Brock Taylor.) But I have a problem with it.
First of all, the university never should have had to wait for the public outcry to acknowledge the behavior of Carson Briere and his friends. These students represent your school, with or without the public outcry. An unprompted “We do not condone this behavior,” statement would go a long way to convincing me that your feelings about how much this behavior sucks are sincere. And not just because of the way they reflect poorly on your school and community.
Then we’ve got the “I’m-sorry-you’re-offended” part when they talk about “persons with disabilities and all who find these actions deeply offensive.” Shouldn’t everybody find these actions deeply offensive? Not just disabled people? The debate about person first vs. identity first language (“people with disabilities” vs the preferred “disabled people”) aside here, the amount of pity dripping from the line about praying for and standing in solidarity with all persons with disabilities is nauseating.
If you’re Going to Pray for me… Buy me a Drink First
Mercyhurst is a Catholic university. So it’s on-brand for them to pray for somebody. But the idea of more-or-less able-bodied people praying for people with disabilities is discomfiting. Maybe I’m cynical, but when people tell me they’re praying for me because I’m disabled, I’m suspicious about what they’re actually praying for. There’s a little too much “I’m praying that God will relieve your suffering” in there for my comfort.
Because I wouldn’t call being disabled “suffering.” Does it complicate things sometimes? Sure. There are a lot of things that are more difficult to do with mobility gear. And dealing with the extras is a challenge sometimes. But it’s my life, and I’ve found ways to work with the obstacles. And I can affirmatively state, especially after last summer’s near-death experience, that I’m glad to be here. But to automatically equate it with suffering lessens me as a whole person.
“I’ll Pray for you” Sounds too much like “I Pity You”
I was a whole person before I was disabled, and I’m still a whole person, with a few extra challenges. And people who are disabled from birth are whole people with the same inherent worth and dignity, the same value to their lives simply because they’re human as any non-disabled person. So most of my suffering comes from being condescended to by able-bodied people. Are they going to pray for that? Because that would be fine.
That whole “inherent dignity” thing means not praying for disabled people to be changed through Christ’s love, or holy intervention from God, or anything else. It means recognizing the value of disabled people as we already exist. And inherent dignity also doesn’t mean things like: People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity.
And While we’re at it I’m not your Object-Lesson
People are not gifts. And disabled people are not a part of your life so you can applaud yourself for what a good person you are. We’re not an opportunity for your self-improvement, bridge building or anything else. We’re individual people. You’ll like some of us, you won’t like others. Our disabilities aren’t all the same either. The accommodations that suit a blind person or a Deaf person won’t help me at all.
And while there are some things I share in common with other wheelchair users, as an ambulatory user of a manual wheelchair (i.e. as someone who can walk a little but who uses a wheelchair to prevent complications from other health issues) my needs are different from a non-ambulatory chair user, from a power chair user, from someone who can’t independently manipulate their chair whether it’s a power chair or a manual chair.
Instead of Fauxpologies… How about Restorative Justice?
What should happen here? Well, Carson Briere and Patrick Carrozzi were charged with criminal mischief, criminal conspiracy, to commit criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. And they should face criminal charges for this kind of violence. But what about the consequences? This is an ideal situation for restorative justice. Which means the victim/survivor of the crime having input into the penalties; and the penalties being directed towards fostering a sense of responsibility in the perpetrators.
Briere and Carrozzi should face charges. There should be consequences. But what lesson will the usual combination of things like jail time, probation and fines teach them? These are two young, white people facing charges. People who are able to afford good attorneys. Who won’t have any difficulty paying the fines. Whose lives probably won’t really be disrupted by the resolution of the charges.
In the Absence of Restorative Justice? More Fauxpologies, More Fake Contrition
They’ll learn that money gets them out of trouble. That a smug smile and a sorry-not-sorry is enough. That they don’t really have to do anything to make it right when they screw up other than nod and smile and look charming. And that’s where restorative justice helps. Instead of focusing on punishing the offender, restorative justice aims to repair the harm that was caused by the perpetrator while addressing the reasons for the offense.
Restorative justice recognizes that crime is about people and relationships, not just the law and the states. It relies on the input of victims/survivors and the community along with direct action from the perpetrator to make things right again. It places a responsibility for being part of the resolution on the offender, and on that offender doing the work to make the victim whole again rather than only punishing them. Whatever the consequences are here, they need to actually make these people confront their own actions.
Atonement instead of Apologies
To truly atone for their wrongdoing, they need to feel the true impact of the damage they’ve done, and to be part of creating a solution for making sure that it doesn’t happen again. Not just because they have learned, or because they’ll do something like it again, with a greater focus on “don’t get caught.” Do it because their understanding has changed. Make sure that they can also find ways to pass on what they’ve learned.
And restorative justice seems to be, in part, what’s on Sydney Benes’ mind. She’s talked about how she wants to use this as an opportunity for the men in the video to actually learn something and to understand just how horrible what they did was. She wants this to be an opportunity to teach people what disabled people really go through and how we want to be treated. She said: “We are treated like things, like second class citizens, we’re not treated with respect.”
And I hear that. I’m fed up with people assuming there’s something wrong with my brain or my mouth just because my legs don’t work as well as they used to.
What would it Take to Treat Disabled People like People?
It’s great that the building owners were already working on accessibility related renovations. But that’s not enough. Because there are people who still just don’t get it. It’s a constant battle for me to get people to remember to put my walker back within my reach so I can get out of bed and use the bathroom without calling for assistance. It’s several feet beyond my reach right now.
But the reality is that disabled people already have to live in a world that puts extra challenges and roadblocks in their path, and carelessness, ignorance, disrespect and ordinary ableism make it worse.
Unpacking any of our prejudices is hard work. Ableism isn’t any easier than the other -isms and -phobias we have to break down. It’s not easy to call people out on it either–the last time I did it, it came at a life altering cost. Worthwhile, in the end, but still painful and frustrating.
What the University SHOULD Do
It’s clear that there are a lot of people in this situation who need to do it. Carson Briere and Patrick Carrozzi, who messed with the wheelchair, the third student who walked away and appeared to not say anything to intervene. (Be an upstander, not a bystander.) Danny Briere, who released a statement about his son. Whoever wrote that Mercyhurst University statement and allowed it to be published.
Let this be an opportunity for them to learn about ableism and about disabled lives, and the real cost of their actions. When they understand that, when they realize what they took away from Sydney Benes, not just the damage to the physical object that is her chair, but all of the other things like trust, safety, and security, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to believe that they understand the true meaning of “inherent dignity of each person.”
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