Don’t Call Disabled People ‘Inspirational’

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Over the last decade, the phenomenon of ‘inspiration porn’ – celebrating disabled people’s achievements by focusing on their disabilities – has come under social attack.

Think of phrases such as ‘it’s so good you’re at university and in a wheelchair’ or ‘it’s inspirational that you lost a limb and yet still go out in public without fear’. This kind of praise for disabled people has become overwhelmingly commonplace. But should we be celebrating disabilities in this way?

What is the problem for both disabled people themselves, and the wider disability awareness movement? Is ‘inspiration porn’ actually narcissistic and patronising? I spoke to Octavia Woodward, a third-year wheel-chair bound English student, and considered some recent social commentaries to answer this question.

Coining the term ‘inspiration porn’ in 2013, Stella Young, a disability rights activist, contested that ‘Inspiration porn shames people with disabilities… we’re not allowed to be angry and upset, because then we’d be “bad” disabled people’.

This is because the movement celebrates disabled people doing normal things that are no real achievement: going outside, or talking, or wearing prosthetic limbs unattainable for most of society with the tagline “Before you quit. Try”. All of this is done, Young claims, to make other people feel good; it objectifies disabled people by making them a sign of ‘look my life could be worse, I should stop moaning’.

As Young sums up: ‘we’re not here for your inspiration’. Essentially, she thinks that ‘inspiration porn’ is about non-disabled people feeling better about their lives by making disabled people their icons not because of who they are, but their condition. The person behind the disability is unimportant. We share a post of a disabled girl going to school not to celebrate her but for the benefit of ourselves and our own need to feel morally sensitive.

And this – I think – leads to a broader problem: it stops disabled people being normalised and integrated into society. It builds up a them/us wall as we frame disabled people within that inspirational structure where (much like our treatment of children) every achievement is worth a gold star. It is almost as if the focus becomes on giving disabled people sympathy. We end up framing our language here in a way that demeans disabled people: we must feel sorry for you, we must see your disability as bad for you. How can we integrate a group into society when our language is framed within an attitude of pity?

This effect goes further. Disabled commentators talk about ‘inspiration porn’ stopping disabled people from appearing weak as then they are seen as ‘bad disabled people’ who are not overcoming their difficulties in the same ‘inspirational way’ as others. For others, it de-motivates them: after all everything is an achievement. It stops disabled people functioning in normal social relationships as the ‘expectation’ they should be seen as inspirational prevails. As Octavia jokingly comments: ‘sometimes I end up being a bitch, just so people don’t see this stereotype‘. It’s actually incredibly inhibiting. Imagine if we suddenly starting congratulating gay people on being at university because they’re gay. What kind of response would that get?

Octavia highlights the exact issues Young discusses:

My everyday life in which I do exactly the same things as everyone else should not inspire people, and yet I am constantly congratulated by strangers for simply existing.

Octavia spoke about being congratulated ‘for going out’ during Freshers Week and entering clubs, with freshers saying ‘they must buy her a drink’ as she’s such an incredible figure. But no: why does a disability make this more inspirational? This lowers the bar for disabled people incredibly, making it seem like they’re bound to achieve less so celebrate anything, while making their authentic achievements less meaningful.

We should note that we can celebrate the work disabled people put into overcoming barriers their disability places in their life. But, this kind of movement leads to treating disabled people as exactly what the disabled movement doesn’t want: as fundamentally different and deserving of alternative standards.

As Octavia told me: ‘celebrate me, my qualities, even how I work hard to overcome the troubles of my disability. But don’t celebrate and idiolise my disability… don’t celebrate the wheelchair‘. It is patronising. It objectifies disabled people in the same way that focusing on breasts objectifies women by ignoring them.

Octavia added:

My wheelchair is an omnipresent feature of my life, but it’s not my life. I can’t hide it, but people can start to see me for me and not feel the need to mitigate how they speak and explain my achievements in terms of my disability.

But surely there are some advantages? True: it pushes recognition of certain disabilities into the public mainstream, and has fostered more tolerance in the media. Think of the viral videos on Facebook celebrating autistic teenagers getting jobs in coffee shops, or being elected as prom king/queen.

What is being celebrated here? That someone with a disability has got a job, or that society has become more inclusive? The lines are way too blurred, and the potential ambiguities feed into ‘inspiration porn’. We need to be clearer to ensure our intentions are not lost. We need to think before we press that share button on Facebook.

So why should we stop ‘inspiration porn’? Because it is actually holding back the disability movement by separating disabled people and making them the object of non-disabled people’s inspiration for no good reason. Celebrate disabled people’s achievements at the same standard. Celebrate their specific work in overcoming certain barriers. But don’t patronise them. Disabled people are not inspirational for being in a club, or attending university lectures.  This is not celebrating disability, but objectifying it. It’s time to re-think.

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I'm a third-year Philosophy and History student whose interests (outside my love for Tudor history) pertain to issues on equality, sex and moral ethics and education. I'm also Philosophy Academic President 2016-17. @russb005

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