Deaf people like me deserve better than MrBeast’s latest piece of ‘inspiration porn’

When watching MrBeast’s video, will the average viewer be more alert to the needs of deaf people, or will they instead be drawn to the ‘heroic’ Donaldson going out of his way to splash around some cash?

Liam O'Dell
Sunday 07 May 2023 16:55 BST

When I had my first hearing aid switched on, it certainly wasn’t a one-and-done situation like YouTube creator Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson would have us believe in his latest video. It was a sudden flood of noise, it was overwhelming, and it definitely required more fine-tuning and adjustments over time.

Yet this process isn’t something that fits neatly into a six-minute video which apparently took the online personality’s team “almost 4,000 hours” to edit, so instead we’re left with viral content which is nothing more than harmful sensationalism.

After coming under fire for a video in which he helped treat 1,000 people’s blindness, Donaldson decided to double down on videos in which he would go out of his way to “help” people from the disabled community – this time uploading a video titled “1,000 Deaf People Hear for the First Time”.

The video thumbnail alone hints at what angle it’s going for: a young boy cups a hand to his right ear, with tears photoshopped onto his cheeks. It’s exactly like the clips you see online of babies crying when they have their hearing aids switched on; but again, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

What MrBeast has produced here is flat-out inspiration porn, a term coined by the late, great disability activist Stella Young back in 2014 to describe the “objectifying [of] disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people”.

With the flick of a switch (MrBeast actually has each switch-on be accompanied with a misleading “toggle” animation), individuals from multiple different countries can suddenly hear.

And so ends their moment in the video as we move on to the next person MrBeast can “help” like some auditory Jesus.

This is just one part of the problem, in that it amplifies the dangerous misconception that hearing devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants are “cures” or “fixes” for deafness. They aren’t.

They simply produce the sensation of hearing. They do not “restore” it, and when deaf people take off these devices for whatever reason – say, to go to sleep at night – they are, in these moments, deaf.

There is nothing in MrBeast’s video which acknowledges the fluctuating relationship we deaf people have with hearing and listening. It is not a binary process where we suddenly go from deaf to hearing, but rather these devices are – as the name suggests – there to “aid” hearing, and help us pick up on auditory information we might not catch otherwise.

Not only that, but the video fails to properly emphasise the element of choice deaf people have around whether they want to use them. Yes, these devices are expensive, but some will try hearing aids or receive cochlear implants, only to find they aren’t the right fit for them.

Others will decide not to explore them entirely, and some individuals won’t be eligible for them altogether, at which point they might use sign language to communicate instead of speech with the help of hearing devices.

Donaldson only considers sign language as something to tack on to the end of his video, though, saying “providing hearing isn’t the only way to connect people” and that sign language does so too, but struggling to underline the fact that deaf people can choose how they want to connect with the world.

I mean, we only need to look at MrBeast asking one individual if they think “hearing or the 10 grand” is the better news, to know that the philanthropist is still shockingly out-of-touch when it comes to disability.

Now, ardent fans of Donaldson may well dismiss all this legitimate criticism as me simply being a “hater” – despite my lived experience. “He’s doing a good thing,” they may say, “why can’t you just appreciate that he’s trying to help people?”

I don’t dispute that MrBeast may well have good intentions, and that a rich man doing something charitable will warm many anti-capitalist hearts; but benevolent ableism very much exists.

You don’t have to be unashamedly abusive and discriminatory to be ableist; sometimes even the most casual and well-meaning actions can be harmful to deaf and disabled people.

I’m talking about the hearing content creators on Instagram who share inaccurate sign language versions of Ed Sheeran songs and push talented deaf performers further down the algorithm; the sighted people who grab blind and visually impaired people without consent and offer to help them go where they need to go, without considering the danger in which you might be putting them.

These examples only put the non-disabled person on a pedestal as our “saviour”. When watching MrBeast’s video, will the average viewer be more alert to the needs of deaf people (in a way which isn’t some patronising pity for a life many deaf people actually enjoy living), or be drawn to the “heroic” Donaldson going out of his way to splash the cash on 1,000 people out of the goodness of his heart?

The social media reaction so far – in which commenters cruelly joke the “amazing” news is something they “love to hear” – certainly points to the latter.

But here’s the thing: deaf people like me need hearing people to speak up alongside us, just not for us.

We need allies – the people who will offer up their platforms and privileges and let us take the mic.

These individuals don’t spend all their time talking about how great an ally they are, they don’t centre themselves in other people’s narratives, and they certainly don’t expect you to like and subscribe at the end of their video.

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