By Isabel Barbera
Throughout my younger life, I had very limited interactions with the disabled community. Students with disabilities were in different classes, on different sports teams, and at different after-school activities. Adults with disabilities were not my doctors, my teachers, or my friends’ parents. In fact, the only people with disabilities with whom I interacted were a small handful of employees at grocery and department stores. And to be honest, when I was young, they scared me. At four or five years old, anything unknown is scary. And because I was so isolated from this huge group of people I was fearful of them.
As I got older, that went away. By the time I headed off to middle school that fear of the disabled community became essentially nonexistent. But the absence of my previous misconception about this group was soon filled by a new one. As I reluctantly watched the Superbowl and very enthusiastically got a Facebook, I was handed a new metaphorical box in which to place people with disabilities: inspiration.
Suddenly, through shared images on social media and halftime sport company commercials, I was exposed to ‘inspiration porn’. Coined by the late comedian Stella J. Young, ‘inspiration porn’ is any sort of image or media production that shows a person with a disability doing something completely ordinary (i.e. running, laughing, drawing) accompanied by some motivational phrase or sentiment. Think along the lines of “Before you quit, try” or “What can YOU do?” On the surface, this can seem harmless. However, although it is often created with good intentions, inspiration porn only serves to further marginalize the disabled community.
The problem with inspiration porn is that it reduces people to their disabilities. It defines someone by something they cannot control, and refuses to acknowledge their multi-faceted personality. Not only does this strip disabled people of their humanity, but it severely limits the relationships they will be able to maintain in their lives. When we see people with disabilities portrayed in the media as one dimensional characters who exist only to inspire, we begin to treat them like that in real life. Non-disabled people tend to focus on a disabled person’s disability above all else. You will almost never hear someone describe a person with a disability without using an adjective such as “brave,” “inspiring,” “moving,” or “strong.” That’s not to say that people with disabilities cannot be all of these things. But to immediately label every disabled person as an “inspiration” is not only ridiculous, but insulting, as it emphasizes how low the bar is set for them.
But perhaps the most upsetting aspect of inspiration porn is that it exists to benefit the non-disabled, while doing nothing to help the people it so blatantly exploits. Massive corporations produce million dollar commercials to motivate greater society. Facebook friends share endearing photos of children in wheelchairs so that they can remind themselves that they “don’t have it so bad.” But when it comes to actually advocating for the disabled community many of these same corporations and individuals choose to turn a blind eye.
Inspiration porn is part of the overarching stigma that surrounds intellectual and physical disabilities. It is part of the reason that people with disabilities are arguably more disabled by the society they exist in than by their clinical conditions. Try to remember that nobody wants to be called inspiring with a “despite” clause. Special and Paralympics athletes are inspiring, but it’s because they work hard and achieve greatness, not because they were born with 47 chromosomes or only one leg. And the man you saw on the sidewalk who creates extravagant sketches with his toes because his hands are paralyzed is incredible – because he makes beautiful art. People with disabilities do not exist to be exploited and objectified for an emotional response. It’s time we start treating them accordingly.