TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains mentions of ableism, suicide and assisted suicide.
‘Wait, you are disabled and you did not kill yourself yet? So inspirational! You even went to school and now you have a job?! You created that job for yourself?! Look at you overcoming your disability, you should write a book to inspire others!’
Disabled people hear similar proclamations every time we dare to tell someone the most mundane things about ourselves. And then we hear them again if upon our next meeting we didn’t present them with a published motivational autobiography.
The Internet is full of stories of disabled people living their lives, sometimes achieving their dreams or receiving medical treatment and they are all called heroes, warriors, or a great inspiration. These posts get thousands of likes and spread faster than Covid.
“Why are you comparing heartwarming stories to a horrible disease? What’s wrong about inspiring others?”
There is nothing wrong with inspiring others but there is everything wrong with inspiration porn.
Your post isn’t heartwarming, it’s dystopian
What is inspiration porn, you ask? It is a phenomenon in which able-bodied people find us inspiring simply for being disabled.
We call it porn because it objectifies disabled people for the benefit of the ables.
You wouldn’t cheer a random adult for going to work, living on their own or getting out of bed, right? Why are those things suddenly inspirational or even newsworthy if the person in question happens to be disabled?
“Because disabled people have such hard lives, they have to overcome their disability to do all those things!”
We are not overcoming our disability if we go to study, have a job, a baby, or engage in our hobbies. We are overcoming ableism.
If a disabled student struggles at school because of the lack of accommodations, that’s not admirable, it’s infuriating. If a disabled person had to create a job for themselves, because no one wanted to hire them, that’s not inspirational, it’s discrimination. If a disabled person had to crowdfund to be able to afford a mobility aid or a medical treatment they need, that’s not heartwarming, it’s dystopian.
By turning those situations into “inspirational” posts you are hurting us. For every disabled student who managed to finish school without accommodations, there are many who had to drop out or who never got in, in the first place. For every self-employed disabled person there are many others who are out of work and struggling to survive on benefits. For every disabled person who managed to raise enough money for their treatment there are many who died.
No, it doesn’t mean those others didn’t try hard enough. If the entire year five except for one student fails the test we don’t call them all lazy. Instead we acknowledge that while the one student is either exceptional or exceptionally lucky the test was still too hard for year five to pass. Afterwards we revise the test, the curriculum and teaching methods in order to better help the pupils to learn. Why then when the entire community of disabled people struggles to live in our society, we ignore them and instead of addressing the systemic ableism that is harming them, we guilt trip them with inspiration porn?
If a disabled person could do it, everybody can
Victim blaming isn’t the only thing that’s wrong with inspiration porn. It invalidates the efforts of the person it is trying to praise.
“Wait, how can someone invalidate your efforts when they are praising you?” The comment section of the posts about inspiration porn is always filled with people saying something like this: ‘It is so inspirational that a person without legs could be a professional athlete. From tomorrow I am starting to train for a marathon!’ There is nothing wrong with having the success of others motivate us to try new things or follow our dreams, but the assumption that since a disabled person did something, you could do it, too, is ableist. It undermines their talent and the work they had to put in to achieve their goals. When reading about Serena Williams winning a tournament our initial reaction isn’t “I could do that!” Why then do we react that way to the success of disabled people?
When a disabled person creates beautiful art, wins an athletic competition, becomes an expert in their field, or runs a successful business, they aren’t just doing well for a disabled person, they are doing well, period.
Often when there is an exhibition of a disabled artist, people focus one the fact that they created their art with their legs instead of hands. This is ableist. The artist being disabled can certainly inform their work, and the medium and techniques they use are going to influence the result. None of that means their disability makes their art better or worse. If you bought a piece of art not because you liked it but because the author was disabled, you are an ableist. Work of disabled artists isn’t inferior and it has value outside of you feeling good for being charitable.
Me before killing myself
The most sinister manifestation of inspiration porn is people applauding us for not killing ourselves.
What are you saying, surely no one does that? My sweet summer child… ‘You are so brave, if I was you, I would kill myself. I could never do that (meaning live with a disability)! Do you want to kill yourself, too?’ (A question many disabled people got asked after the premiere of Me before you).
I am sorry, what was that? I didn’t quite catch it… You would never say those things? I am glad to hear that but I have a question for you, if I may. Did you ever share, or like a post about a disabled person being a brave warrior for undergoing medical treatment?
“Yes, what’s wrong with that? Are you trying to say that those people aren’t brave?” Correct, that’s exactly what I am saying. There is nothing inspiring or brave about us undergoing surgeries or taking medication we need. We do it to survive, to retain abilities or simply to remain healthy. For the love of Pink Invisible Unicorn we’ve been over this before, healthy doesn’t mean non-disabled.
Us undergoing necessary surgeries is no different from you going to the dentist or taking antibiotics when needed. It is not heroic, it’s common sense. Turning it into inspiration porn is incredibly harmful and dangerous. It makes healthcare that we need into something extra that should be fought for. Do you know what happens when we have to fight for our healthcare? We die.
Be the inspiration
“You said it’s ok to be inspired by disabled people. So how can I tell the difference between the inspiration that’s alright and the inspiration porn?” That’s easy as I said inspiration porn paints us as inspirational simply for living with a disability. If you wouldn’t find something inspirational when a non-disabled person does it, then it is not inspirational just because a disabled person is doing it.
That doesn’t mean you cannot find things related to disability inspirational. If a disabled student fights for their University campus to become accessible or if a disabled journalist makes the broadcaster start captioning all their content, that’s inspirational. For both disabled and non-disabled people because it shows us that oppressive systems can be changed. If you will find disabled people inspirational I hope they will inspire you to fight for equality.
And what can you do to help us get rid of inspiration porn? Next time you see an inspiring disability story online, ask yourself: ‘Would this be inspiring if the person in question wasn’t disabled?’ And if you see a heartwarming disability story, ask yourself: ‘Is this heartwarming or is it infuriating and dystopian?’ After answering those questions, call the inspiration porn out where you find it. Comment on those posts, talk to the friend who shared it, send them this article. Be their inspiration on how not to be an ableist.