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Are you guilty of “inspiration porn”?

Inspiration porn is everywhere. It is a form of unconscious bias that hurts people with disabilities

Inspiration porn is portraying people with disabilities as:

  1. inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability, or
  2. One-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people

Stella Young coined the phrase “inspiration porn” in material leading up to her stereotype-shattering TED talk, “I’m not your inspiration thank you very much” Inspiration porn is disrespectful to people with disabilities, bordering on the offensive. Here’s how.

Feel-good stories

Examples: The guys from Home Depot that made the walker? The high school robotics team that made the electric wheelchair? Johnny raised $200 with his lemonade stand for cancer research? Suzie shaved her head in solidarity with her friend with leukemia?

With every feel good story there is a hidden truth — the story you should actually be evaluating

  1. Why the hell can’t the kids get the walker or wheelchair — a mobility device they need to fully participate in society? The story should be about what is wrong with our insurance companies.
  2. Why do cancer researchers need kids behind lemonade stands for funding? The story should be about funding for pediatric medical research
  3. Why did Suzie shave her head? The story should be about children bullying others because of their differences, and the failure of school districts to stop them.

Rather than focusing on the activity of the do-gooder, the focus of the story should be on the reason the do-gooder’s activity made us feel good.

“There but for the grace of God go I”

Examples: Necrotizing fasciitis. Lead poisoning for Las Vegas massacre victims. Neurological damage due to pesticide exposure.

These are stories that highlight that it is only random chance (or some deity’s influence, if you are a believer) that allowed one person to be in a situation with a disability. Regardless of your situation, you are not in as bad of a situation as the other individual.

Multi colored writing on chalkboard “The only disability in life is a bad attitude”
Multi colored writing on chalkboard “The only disability in life is a bad attitude”

People with disabilities as superheroes

Examples: Person with no legs climbs mountain. Person with autism is a savant.

Portraying people with disabilities as superheroes are sometimes referred to by others with disabilities as “supercrip stories”. They illustrate people with disabilities as inspirational icons who can overcome anything “if they just put their minds to it.”

The person with fibromyalgia who can’t get out of the bed in the morning feels worse about herself because there’s a guy without legs who can climb a mountain. The person who is blind who is isn’t selected for a choir feels worse about their blindness because they didn’t overcome their blindness by developing perfect pitch.

Supercrip stereotypes frequently show up in sports stories when athletes with disabilities are portrayed as overcoming or defeating their disability via heroic efforts. People with disabilities who become “motivational speakers” using their disability as the audience motivator normalize the “supercrip” stereotype. There problems with this stereotype are:

  1. Many with disabilities have integrated them into their identity, and don’t view themselves “at war” with their disability, thus needing to defeat it.
  2. The social model of disability views society as creating the barriers as the disability, not the medical condition itself. If the medical condition can be overcome, and the individual is not overcoming it, that places the blame squarely at the disabled person’s feet rather than society’s feet. That is closer to the medical model of disability.

These stories can actually cause damage to others with disabilities, making them feel worse about themselves because they aren’t accomplishing great things like the “supercrips” are. These people can be made to feel as if their “bad attitude” is why they are failing to overcome their disability. Stella Young’s savage response to this commonly quoted theme was:

The reason that’s BS is … No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into Braille

Screen shot of a “Feel Good” Story headline — “Stranger befriends boy with autism during flight — and more of the week’s good news”
Screen shot of a “Feel Good” Story headline — “Stranger befriends boy with autism during flight — and more of the week’s good news”

People with disabilities being celebrated for things that would never ever make news if done by someone without a disability.

Examples: Someone with Down’s Syndrome that is modeling. A person on a plane makes friends with a kid with autism.

If it wouldn’t be interesting enough to be a story if the person didn’t have a disability, it shouldn’t be a story just because of the disability. Excessive praise for engaging in everyday activities sets a low bar about what a person with a disability can do. Lowered expectations is a form of discrimination. When people with disabilities believe the propaganda that they are not capable of much, internalizing that discrimination causes them to believe that they are less capable than people without disabilities.

How do we combat inspiration porn?

The way to get rid of unconscious bias is to first make it conscious. Question every story that involves disability, and ask yourself — is this story valid, or inspiration porn? And if it is inspiration porn, can the story be salvaged by refocusing it?

  1. Is there a “hidden truth”? Should the story be focused on the the reason that the activity makes people feel good rather than the people who perpetuated the feel good activity?
  2. Does the story focus on the random nature of the disability?
  3. Does the story feature a “supercrip”? To test whether a story is valid or exploitative — remove the disability from a headline, then ask if the resulting headline would still be a story.

Stranger befriends boy with autism during flight

becomes

Stranger befriends boy during flight

That isn’t a story. Change the headline and focus the story on the process changes that allowed the inclusive activity to take place, such as Autism publicity promotes inclusion.

What the disability world needs is articles that normalize disability. News about everyday activities where the disability is a side note or captured in a photograph, if that. No more feel-good stories, no more “OMG look at what happened to that poor person in the wheelchair” no more people with disabilities being celebrated for things that would never ever make news if done by someone without a disability.

No more inspiration porn. Help make the unconscious bias conscious so that it can be eliminated.

Published inDisabilitiesInclusion

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