American Idol Episode Creates Body Image Controversy

Outraged viewers say judges made one disabled guest feel uncomfortable

Anyone with a TV or a Facebook page no doubt knows American Idol auditioner Chris Medina and his fiancée, Juliana Ramos. Last week, the two were featured in a lengthy AI spot, where viewers learned Ramos was involved in a horrific car accident in 2009, resulting in near paralysis, facial fractures and a traumatic brain injury. Now in a wheelchair and unable to communicate via conventional methods, the AI judges invited Ramos into the audition room, where Steven Tyler bent down, kissed Ramos on the cheek, and whispered, "That's why he sings so good, because he sings to you."

It was a touching, heart-wrenching moment, but one that has elicited some anger by people who were upset with the way the judges spoke to Ramos. J. Lo used a high-pitched voice, similar to a tone one might use with a child, introducing herself to Ramos by saying, “Hi. I’m Jennifer…Lopez.” Some even construed Tyler’s sweet tone as patronizing.

I don't think the celebs intended to sound condescending. The truth is, most people don’t know how to speak to someone in a wheelchair. And while gamechangers like Lauren Ruotolo and Zach “The Sexiest of the Palsies” Anner from Oprah’s new Your OWN Show are revolutionizing the way we view individuals with disabilities, we still have alot to learn. Unfortunately, many folks assume a person is developmentally delayed or hard of hearing, simply because they’re in a wheelchair. But you wouldn’t slow your speech or elevate your pitch to speak to someone who broke her leg and needed a wheelchair, would you?

To get the straight scoop on this situation, I asked Kris Cichowski, director of the LIFE Center at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, for tips on how to communicate effectively and respectfully with disabled individuals. His top suggestions:

-Treat them like you would anyone else. "Speak like you’d normally speak. If you’re talking too fast, they’ll ask you to slow down," she says. "If they’re in a wheelchair and you have the opportunity to sit and chat at eye level, do so."

-Speak to the person, not their companion. (For instance, I once saw a waiter motion to a customer in a wheelchair and ask his date, “What would he like to eat?”)

-Respect the fact that their wheelchair is part of them. Don’t lean on it or tap it; “It would be as if you walked up to someone new and hung on their shoulder," expliains Cichowski.

-Use “person-first” language. (Describe someone as “a woman who is blind,” not “a blind woman.”)

-Make eye contact. “I think people are often worried the person will think you’re staring," she says. "If you see someone in a wheelchair, look them in the eye, nod and say hello, just like you might any stranger. The worst thing is to be ignored."

-Value people for their differences. “Remember, it’s fine if they don’t talk or look or behave exactly like you," she says. "Can you imagine how boring life would be if we were all the same?”

-Understand that individuals with disabilities struggle with the typical “not good enough” body image issues, often compounded by the fact that “people are already looking at you to see what’s different about you.” But like anyone else, Cichowski says, “if they have good confidence, the other stuff falls into place. Everyone’s got something they don’t like about themselves and everyone has something they do like: A great smile, awesome legs. Some people have lots of disfigurements but they have such vivacious personalities that no one notices. Accentuate what ‘s meaningful to you, and let your personality shine.”

What are your thoughts? Do you think the American Idol judges conducted themselves in a disrespectful way? Chime in below!
 

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