Inspiration Porn – the second best thing about the internet

The other day I threw my back out while visiting DC, a painful three hours of travel from my home in Brooklyn. After two days laid out on a friend’s bed, unable put on my own socks, I took a handful of Advil and got on a plane.

The trip was full of all sorts of scary problems: How would I take my shoes off at security? How would I get my luggage from the apartment to the cab? How would I walk to the gate? etc. These once invisible challenges made me question a lot about my own assumptions about society and disability. With a the last week of very limited mobility I turned to the internet for some answers and inspiration.

stella-young-quote-image-3-data
The quote is from Olympic Figure skater Scott Hamilton, someone who is not disabled.

Stella Young, a comedian, a writer, an advocate, and a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer refers to the above image as “inspiration porn” in her in her 2014 Ted Talk . Inspiration Porn is the objectification of disabled people and their experiences for the benefit of others. This objectification, according to Stella, dehumanizes disabled people turning them into objects to be admired for feats non-disabled people do, often without thinking.

Now, my dear non-disabled readers, I know what you are thinking, “Hell yes! A person without legs swimming is inspiring, I can’t do it with legs.” I often have the very same response, it is emotional and it is something I don’t want someone to take away from me.

The devil here isn’t the feeling of inspiration of seeing someone do an amazing athletic feat (regardless of disability), it is that inspiration porn obscures the fact that it is society that disables people creating barriers to participation, some of those barriers being our own assumptions and expectations.

Back to Stella:

That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude’, the reason that’s bullshit 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.

We hold a deep assumption: there is a particular level of ability that is normal, and all deviations from this norm are exceptional in the form of a challenge or an advantage. The standard against which everything else is measured is the white male body and how it moves through the world.

This underlying assumption leads to the cultural construction of individual disability as limiting, when in fact we have constructed our society to meet a normal which is limiting to the participation of people who deviate from that norm. This limiting construct feeds back on itself and sets up limited expectations of disabled people, so when they overcome these socially constructed limitations we go “Oh! What an inspiration.”

Back to you, my dear non-disabled readers, for many of you this all sounds like bullshit. You are thinking something like, “But disability isn’t socially constructed, it is actually someone’s body limiting someone.” I know you are thinking this, because again, this is my go to thinking. But what if we are wrong about who actually creates those limitations to participating in our society and culture?

How to Become Batman, an episode of the Invisibilia podcast from NPR, focuses on Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself to see through echolocation (think of how bats see through the use of sonar). At one point in the show the reporter runs next to Daniel with her microphone while he rides a bike.

Daniel’s friend narrates:

Step right up, step right up. The amazing Daniel Kish will demonstrate one of his greatest tricks to date. And then he will proceed to mount himself on a bike and ride. So step right up, step right up and see the amazing Daniel Kish do something that everybody can but most people don’t.

Daniel’s friend makes the same point as Stella, people with disabilities doing things that we assume they can’t because of our own expectations, and how we constructed (physically and narratively) society is AMAZING (and patronizing). Riding a bike for Daniel is not amazing it is something he learned to do because he wanted to.

Stella takes the idea of inspiration porn and brings it down a notch to make it really clear for us non-disabled people. Objectifying disabled people starts with our amazement that they are actually trying to live in this world. She says:

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I’m brave or inspirational, and this was long before my work had any kind of public profile. They were just kind of congratulating me for managing to get up in the morning and remember my own name.

I know, my non-disabled readers, some of you are squirming, looking for links and saying, “Well, what about this?”

Of course we feel something (I know I did) when we watch these videos. I bet like me, you are feeling more protective of the inspiration you get from these types of stories because  we all need a little inspiration. It feels so good. And that is the point.

The ads are also tapping into a comfortable underlying American narrative based in exceptionalism, beating the odds, the survival (dominance) of the fittest, and individuality. That is why some of the top corporations paid the top advertisers to make these Super Bowl ads, to make you feel something, attach that feeling to their product, and encourage you to buy that feeling, I mean product.

Like I said above, I don’t want to give up inspiration. Images of a kid learning to walk and run and a woman performing some amazing athletics are inspiring regardless of disability.

I am going to work on challenging the underlying assumption so I we can see disabled people as objects to be pitied when they are not being inspiring. I am asking you to not see disabled people a exceptions to the rule, but as much the rule as you and I, so that we might start to build society that does not disable people’s participation, but instead encourages the participation of all people.

Now back to trying to put my socks on.

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