Inspiration. Lately, it seems like it’s become a four-letter word in the disability community. Phrases like “inspiration porn” get tossed around regularly and the definition seems to be constantly changing, depending on who you ask. But what is inspiration porn, really? Is it possible to have inspirational portrayals of disability that are positive?
The term “inspiration porn” was popularized by the late Stella Young in her famous TED talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” If you haven’t seen it already, I suggest watching it before reading the rest of this post. In the video, she discusses how people are often depicted as inspirational based solely on their disability, and applauded for doing things that wouldn’t be extraordinary if they didn’t have a disability. Inspiration porn tends to glorify accomplishments that involve physically “overcoming” a disability, such as “miraculous” medical treatments or a person walking at their graduation or wedding. Inspiration porn turns people with disabilities and those who support us into one-dimensional objects of pity or heroism. Inspiration porn exists to make non-disabled people feel better about their lives because somebody “has it worse.”
Transcript available here.
Stella’s talk brings up some very important points, and it has become an essential tenet of the disability rights movement for good reason. Inspiration porn exists, and it ranges from annoying to deeply harmful. Many people with disabilities, including me, don’t want to be called inspirational by strangers as we go about our everyday lives. Not everything I do is exceptional. If a stranger sees me at the mall, I want them to treat me like anyone else: smile and say hi, and offer to help if I seem to need it. However, there’s a truth the argument against disability-as-inspiration seems to ignore: having a disability is often very difficult.
Disabilities can range from differences in appearance that affect how people perceive us to variations in thinking, sensation and movement. Some people with disabilities are healthy, while others have debilitating or life-threatening diseases. Beyond the medical implications of our conditions, we are routinely discriminated against in employment, transportation, and housing. Non-disabled people often make assumptions about what we can and can’t do without consulting us or considering us as individuals. As with many forms of oppression, we have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. So when we manage to have fulfilling lives despite prejudice and physical difficulty, doesn’t that count for something?
Non-disabled people often react to disability by saying “I don’t know how you do it.” They tend to imagine being disabled as a terrible existence, and think they couldn’t manage to stay positive or be successful if they were placed in that situation. By and large, they’re wrong; many people with disabilities find happiness and success. The human will to survive is strong. But not everybody thrives. Some people find life with a disability to be miserable and hopeless. Some have no family support, no one to believe in them.They feel sorry for themselves and give up. I have seen it many times. They need services and advocacy. But most of all, they need support to believe in themselves and see a path forward.
When people with disabilities succeed, I believe we are genuinely inspirational — and that’s a good thing. It gives us the power to change the world. We can inspire others with disabilities and help them see their true potential. We can help non-disabled people understand how most of the difficulties surrounding disability are due to prejudice, and show how people can thrive when they are treated with respect. If non-disabled people are inspired by us for the right reasons, they’re more likely to help defend our rights, offer us opportunities, and include us in everyday life. Where would society be without Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, Frida Kahlo, and Marlee Matlin? How about Louis Braille, Laurent Clerc, and Ed Roberts? They changed the world and continue to inspire millions of people with and without disabilities.
In our quest to end inspiration porn, we must be careful not to push down the voices of the next generation of disabled heroes. We should recognize that it’s harder for people with disabilities to thrive in a society that often doesn’t see our potential and sometimes intentionally works against us. We should recognize that “success” is defined by and looks different for each person. We must lift up people with a wide variety of skills and experiences — from the doctor or lawyer to the world traveler, artist, teacher, engineer, parent or friend. We must make sure people of color, LGBTQ people, and those of all faiths are represented. Inspiration can be a good thing, as long as it’s based on genuine achievement.
I fear the anti-inspiration movement is going too far and risks erasing successful people with disabilities. I’ve seen posts suggesting that people with disabilities are “flaunting their privilege” if they post photos of work, travels or conferences on social media. I have also seen disparaging comments made about people with disabilities who choose to use inspiration as part of their motivational speaking careers. There seems to be a disturbing idea floating around that if you’re somebody’s idea of successful or privileged, no matter what you went through to get there, you should keep quiet because someone else isn’t and you might hurt their feelings. I reject this notion in the strongest possible terms as harmful to the disability rights movement. As a community, we have very few role models. Let’s make the ones we have feel proud, not guilty, especially when they succeeded despite having the cards stacked against them. They show us it can be done.
When I meet a successful person with or without a disability, I’m often inspired by them. I would not be where I am today without disabled role models. Some of them were famous, but others were not. One was a friend of my mother’s, a man who was paralyzed in an accident. I’m sure he’d roll his eyes at the thought of being called inspirational, but he was to me. When I was a teenager, I loved his small farm in the country with animals roaming the open fields. He has a loving wife and son, and an amazing collection of books and records. He was and still is a dedicated disability rights activist. He showed me I could live a full, happy life as a person with a disability, and that I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself or wish I could walk. If it wasn’t for people like him saying with their words and actions “If I can do it, you can too,” I probably wouldn’t have gotten so far in life. We don’t need to “overcome” disability physically, but we do need to overcome society’s low expectations — and our own.
I often wish I was more successful than I consider myself to be. But when I look at everything I’ve dealt with throughout my life and especially over the past few years, I realize I do have a lot to be proud of. I don’t want to be called inspirational by a stranger at the grocery store, but if someone reads my blog and thinks I’m inspiring for the work I do and the discrimination and violence I’ve overcome, I appreciate it. It gives me an emotional boost on a difficult day, or a reminder on a good day that I’m on the right track. I don’t want people to see me as perfect; they’ll only be disappointed when they find out I’m human and have many flaws. But I choose to write about my life and experiences publicly because I want to help others. If that makes me your inspiration, all I can say is thank you very much.
The disability community is diverse, and there is no right or wrong way to be disabled so long as you’re living your truth. While no person should feel obligated to inspire, I believe it’s important to recognize people with disabilities who are inspirational and elevate them. It’s time to reclaim the word inspiration and support those who want to be the best example of it they can be.
Inspiration porn is a problem. Inspiration is a good thing. Let’s not get the two mixed up.
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