Inspiration porn: A look at the objectification of the disabled community
By Rebecca Rakowitz | 12/01/2016 1:02pm
A typical disability article would probably begin by describing an “inspiring” day-in-the-life of a person who was willing to share their story. For the most part, readers would not be able to distinguish a disabled subject of a story from an able-bodied one, until the grand reveal – the moment where the writer explains that the person has a disability. That fact alone is supposed to be enough to make the subject inspirational.
That is how it would start if it was a typical disability article. But this it is not.
Contrary to popular belief, many experts and members of the disabled community not only dislike such stories, but find them to be incredibly harmful. They call it “inspiration porn.”
In a 2014 Ted Talk entitled “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” Stella Young, a noted disability rights activist took a closer look at how social media depicts the disabled community. She mentions memes with images of people with physical disabilities and captions such as “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” or “Your excuse is invalid.”
“And these images, there are lots of them out there, they are what we call ‘inspiration porn,’ ” Young said. “And I use the term ‘porn’ deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group.”
And so the term “inspiration porn” was coined, though the concept had been alive and well long before Young took to the Ted Talks stage.
She said these images are created in order to inspire and motivate people, all the while degrading the disabled community by telling the viewer that however bad their life is, it could be worse.
Nirmala Erevelles, a professor in the University’s College of Education, researches disability studies in education and agrees with this sentiment. She said there is a permeating perception that the only thing that those with a disability need is a good attitude.
“Non-disabled people look at [inspiration porn] and say, ‘Oh my life could be so bad and if that disabled person can make their life happy, then I can make mine much better,’ ” Erevelles said.
She later said people are inspired by a child with disabilities coloring, but not by someone with a disability fighting for their rights, because in the former the subject is happy, while in the latter they are frustrated and angry.
Frances Isbell, a third year law student at The University of Alabama, said inspiration porn can manifest itself in other ways – not just through memes. She said that news stories about students with disabilities being voted prom king and queen or receiving prom-posals with accompanying comments that applaud the story qualify as inspiration porn as well.
“Disabled people are seen as ‘other,’ ” Isbell said. “And because they’re seen as this ‘other,’ someone doing an act of kindness towards you is seen as newsworthy.”
Isbell said she has been turned into inspiration porn. Born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, she must use a wheelchair that she said attracts a lot of attention.
Often, Isbell will be out in public and constantly have people come up to her and say, “You’re so brave,” or “Bless your heart” – a comment which Isbell admits to getting a lot since she lives in Alabama. However, rarely do these people know her, or anything about her life, other than the fact she is in a wheelchair.
“People have come up to me and said they’d rather kill themselves than live my life,” Isbell said. “But I think it’s almost the other examples that are worse because they’re more common and someone telling you you’re brave is seen as a compliment.”
Isbell said it would be great if someone looked at her and said, “Oh wow, she’s in law school and she wants to be a disability rights attorney, that’s great.” To her, such comments do not count as inspiration porn because someone is finding her inspiring because of her actions and achievements, not because of her disability.
“It’s when it’s ‘Oh wow she got out of bed today,’ that it’s more of a problem,” Isbell said.
Erevelles and Isbell said part of the problem is that non-disabled people often see disability as something terrible and that living with a disability makes someone exceptional.
“Non-disabled people have to stop seeing disability as a burden,” Erevelles said. “… Many disabled people live their lives not seeing their disability as a burden – what they really think is a burden is the way in which so many places are inaccessible.”
To Erevelles and many disability rights activists, the biggest problem with inspiration porn is how it shifts the focus away from what is really important.
“Instead of paying attention to the conditions that make disabled people’s lives difficult, inspiration porn focuses on attitudes of disabled persons as the thing that will make one’s life better or not,” Erevelles said. “[Inspiration porn] takes away from the actual issues that disabled people want folks to pay attention to – like the lack of access, like exclusion from schools and community activities, the ways in which people stare at you, the ways non-disabled people are so uncomfortable being around disabled people except for when they are a source of inspiration.”
Erevelles said non-disabled people, instead of telling a disabled person that they are brave or inspiring for living with their disability, that they should ask people with a disability what obstacles they face and they can be fixed.
The idea that inspiration porn is negative has not been accepted by all, causing significant push-back in both the able-bodied and disabled communities.
It is a concept that members of the able-bodied community have not yet fully accepted because some see inspiration porn as complimentary, and because some think that being against inspiration porn is an act of political correctness. Erevelles said she rejects this notion that not supporting inspiration porn is about being politically correct – rather saying that it is about critically thinking and understanding what inspiration porn is, how it affects the disabled community, and understanding your own attitude toward the disabled community.
As for push-back in the disabled community, Erevelles said it comes from the broadness of the disabled community, noting that every community has differing opinions on what representations are and are not harmful.
“It’s like when you have a television show that belittles women; not all women are upset [by that].” Erevelles said.
Isbell said another reason is that many people with disabilities question why it is wrong that they inspire people. “It’s not wrong if you actually inspire people for doing something good and having achievements,” Isbell said. “But when it’s linked just to your disability, that’s where the problem is.”