Why This Story Of A Barber's 'Kind-Hearted Act' Should Have Been Done Differently

The media, including this outlet, can do better when it comes to reporting on disability.

Over the weekend, ten daily was among the media outlets that reported on a man who was given a haircut outside a New York barbershop because it wasn't wheelchair-accessible.

The story was widely reported in the U.S., with many applauding barber Victor Burgos' "kind-hearted" gesture that was caught on camera without either of the men's consent (here, here and here).

We did the same, but, as many of our readers have pointed out, this story should have been told differently. 

We spoke to some of our Australian critics with lived experience to understand how.

READ MORE: 'The Names That Don't Get Spoken'

Both Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John and disability activist and writer Carly Findlay started with a seemingly simple concept -- focusing on the disabled person when reporting on disability.

"To me, it was a textbook example of when the media reports on a story about a disabled person and -- subconsciously or consciously -- frames it around the charitable action of the non-disabled person instead of the rights of the disabled person  that has been denied to them," Senator Steele-John told ten daily.

Findlay agreed, labelling it "inspiration porn", whereby disabled people are objectified for non disabled people's benefit. Sadly, these kinds of stories in the media are not uncommon.

"Often stories where non-disabled people do kind deeds for disabled people go viral."
Image: Facebook/ Joe Cocozza

"But the story should have been about the lack of accessibility. The story should have included interviews from the disabled man about how he felt --  his voice is not featured in the story at all."

Joe Cocozza, owner of Joe's Upscale Barber Shop, told ten daily that he's "open to anything" about making the building more accessible, but had so far received little help from his landlord.

"The building unfortunately was built in the 1800's," he said.

"Engineering is not a specialty of mine. That's all I can say about that. I have talked to the landlord about doing something. Again, unfortunately a resolution was never made and here we are now.

"I'm open to anything, [but] I'm not the property owner and I'm not an engineer. We would need a lot more than me to make it work."

Cocozza praised his barber in the original story as a "class act". Burgos was working when he answered a call from the man who was waiting on the side walk. Realising his wheelchair would not fit inside the inaccessible premises,  Burgos walked outside and cut the man's hair.

"He did not have to do this. Vic is one of our busiest barbers and is always busy," Cocozza wrote on Facebook.

Steele-John disagrees.

"Actually, Victor did have to do that. Not doing it would have been really, really discriminatory, and the story would have then been 'barber turns away disabled person'."

"He did have to do it and he'll have to do it again," he said.

The Fight for equal access

For decades, people with disabilities have been fighting an uphill battle for equality, including lack of access.  It's something Findlay, who has a lifelong skin genetic skin condition called Ichthyosis, is all too familiar with.

"I have been asked to leave a store because the owner was scared my face would ruin her clothes (she was afraid of my skin and creams)," she said.

"I've been refused seats on public transport as I don't look stereotypically disabled ... I have been treated badly by a dentist who didn't listen to me when I told him my access needs."

Built environments are typically inaccessible for people with a physical disability who use a wheelchair -- and in such stories as this one, more answers are needed as to why.

According to Cocozza, the building was too old to be fitted with a ramp -- as reported by ten daily. Local reports are now suggesting the community is raising money for a temporary ramp.

"He (Burgos) should talk to management about moving from an inaccessible space if it is the case that it can't be modified," Steele-John said.

The Greens Senator, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, said the situation is similar in Australia.

"We have a built environment that is in many ways constructed with ableist thoughts running through it," he said. 

"We now as legislators have to go back and think about how we can improve the rules going forward, how we retrofit what we’ve already stuffed up so that we can have a fully inclusive and accessible community with all the benefits." 

Rethinking disability

Since Steele-John became the first Senator with a disability to serve last year, he has campaigned to change how society thinks about disability. While the 'medical model' bases a person's impairment on their various medical conditions, the 'social model' views society as more disabling than the body. 

"So much of how we construct society is based on the wrong belief of a normal level of ability and an abnormal level of disability.

With this reading, this story, too, is turned on its head.

"This man who went for a haircut isn’t naturally unable to access that building because he is disabled and uses a wheelchair," Steele-John said.

"He is disabled by the fact that he can’t access the building because it has been built in a way that embodies the ableist discrimination in society." 

Through this lens, is the barber the real hero in this story? Perhaps not.