Here’s Why Inspiration Porn is Bad

“When I was 15,” Stella Young, the late advocate and wheelchair user said in her TED talk on inspiration porn, “a member of my local community approached my parents and wanted to nominate me for a community achievement award. And my parents said, ‘Hm, that’s really nice, but there’s kind of one glaring problem with that. She hasn’t actually achieved anything.’”

Inspiration porn has become a buzzword since Ms Young’s TED Talk. But what, exactly, is inspiration porn? And why is it bad? Here, I combine two of my favourite hats: qualifications and experience in the disability sector, and Devil’s Advocate.

Dr Paul Sinclair, researcher and disability studies teacher, gives an example of inspiration porn from when his children were in primary school: At a school assembly, each student went up on stage to read a poem they’d written. After each poem, the parents and school community gave tempered applause… until a boy with a disability who had braces on his legs read his poem, which was on par with the quality of the other students’ poems. The applause he received was deafening.

“This is inspiration porn because the applause, pity and inspiration, arises because the child has a disability – not because his poem is exceptional,” Dr Sinclair said.

When we find an achievement inspirational, it is generally because of the achievement first – not because of the obstacles and struggles a person has overcome. “We assume that all people have struggled,” Dr Sinclair said, “but because we don’t know how true that is or have no information about those struggles, we can only be inspired by their achievement. However, for a person with a disability, very often we are inspired by their achievement primarily because we assume that it would have been so very hard for them because their struggles have been so great.”

Then there’s the stereotype of people with a disability as being ‘special, wonderful and inspirational’. This is why their ‘ordinary’ achievements are seen as inspirational: because the achievements have been achieved by a person with a disability. (Stay with me here!) And this isn’t only when a person’s disability appears related to the achievement gained – e.g., people with prosthetic legs running or the image below – it also applies when their disability appears unrelated to their achievement. Like the kid reading a poem.

Man with no arms painting with the paintbrush in his mouth.

Some rights reserved under Creative Commons
Image captured by HiLighters Photography
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Link provided as a condition of copyright

A disability support worker in Melbourne, whom I have chosen not to identify because of the nature of this debate, believes the term ‘inspiration porn’ judges people’s intentions without foundation, so found it hard to speak directly to the topic. Instead, she addressed the question of how people respond when she is supporting someone in the community: “People’s reactions don’t have to be positive or negative toward the person with a disability because they have a disability,” she said. “Their reactions quite simply reflect who they are and how they cope with life.”

After spending time with her and a young woman she was supporting to volunteer in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, it was easy to see how her non-judgmental attitude influenced their positive relationships within the community: people engaged with a natural friendliness that has evolved over time.

“Of course we have many different reactions from people,” she said. “Me naming (all of the reactions) would be like watching a day in the city and naming exactly the same reactions different people have to each other – disability or no disability.”

Samantha Connor, Project Coordinator at People With Disabilities WA and wheelchair user, says there is plenty of difference between people’s responses to those with disability, and to those without. She talks about her experience of being nominated as Australian of the Year, in a community category, for disability activism, Scout leadership and community volunteer work. She looked at the faces of the audience members, who smiled and listened quietly to the list of her accomplishments. When the announcement at the end was read out – ‘And she has six kids!’ – there was a great swell of gasping that echoed around the hall. People broke into spontaneous applause.

“Forgotten were the fire recovery efforts and the endless volunteering and the activism. Instead, my most worthy achievement was being impregnated at a young age and having the audacity to breed… because this is not what we expect of a disabled woman,” Ms. Connor said.

And that’s the problem with inspiration porn: when a person with a disability legitimately achieves inspirational things, these things are not necessarily the breeding ground for inspiration you might expect them to be. The ‘inspiration’ goalposts shift when the ‘inspiree’ has a disability, which highlights underlying (and often unconscious) biases of the ‘inspired person’.

“…this is not what we expect of a disabled woman.”

But inspiration porn is a sneaky beast, and deceptively tricky to pin down. “(I) don’t tend to try and understand people’s responses – there are too many variables!” the Melbourne support worker says.

On top of that, ‘inspiration porn’ can be seen by the inspired person as an act of kindness or inclusivity towards a person with a disability. But to the receiver, it can smother their humanity. Ms. Young experienced this as an un-extraordinary 15-year-old whose community wanted to nominate her for an achievement award. The schoolboy experienced this after reading his poem at assembly. And Ms Connor experienced this when she received the most outward recognition for the ‘achievement’ of having six children.

And it’s not just an individual thing. The way both online and print media depict people with a disability encourages the idea that to idealise people with a disability is a ‘nice’ thing to do: “We’re painted as victims or superheroes, described in the language of inspiration porn or charity,” Ms Connor says. “You can read about us in the newspapers – we are painted as either the ‘pit’ or the ‘pedestal’.”

Ms Connor references the ‘act of kindness’ that went viral not so long ago. A woman with a physical disability was filmed while eating after having asked a restaurant employee to assist her, and another customer was so ‘moved’ that he filmed it on his mobile phone. All of this happened without the woman’s permission, and people posted and commented on Facebook how wonderful the employee was.

“One can only hope that she didn’t ask for toileting assistance on the same day,” Ms Connor said. “THAT is the consequence of inspiration porn.”

The Twittersphere has responded with either inspiration porn or a critical eye, depending on where you look. The more critical hashtags used were #cripsploitation and #abledpeoplebelike

Alex Mills, Project Manager at The Opening Doors Community Leadership Program, regularly sees ‘inspiration porn’ responses towards people with a disability. He says that people’s ‘inspired’ responses to his colleagues’ (with a disability) ability to hold meaningful conversations, as well as their advocacy work, can be compared to those of “a parent addressing a child.”

“Even in the community sector,” Mr Mills says, “it’s all too common for people’s life experiences to be measured by how much they inspire those who have not lived that journey. We continue to define and interact with people based on their perceived challenges and deficits.” And there’s the clincher: ‘perceived’. How can we know what the real challenges for a person are, despite appearances?

“It is up to (disabled people) to define what obstacles we have overcome in order to achieve,” Ms Connor said. “You can almost guarantee that when we are asked, we will tell you that those obstacles are imposed from without, not within.” This speaks to the social model of disability, which says that a person is ‘disabled’ not by their bodies or their minds, but by environments that are not made accessible to people with impairments.

But due respect must be given to the flipside that was alluded to earlier: given there are often good intentions behind what is considered inspiration porn, is it really fair to say that it objectifies people with a disability? Or is ‘inspiration porn’ an overly judgmental buzzword that prevents people from connecting with one another in friendly, constructive ways?

Dr Sinclair’s current research explores the nuances of discrimination, and the role of intent when determining whether or not discrimination has occurred.

“We need to understand discrimination with intention wrapped up in it, not as a stand-alone concept,” Dr Sinclair says. “But a person’s intentions are immaterial in terms of somebody else feeling or being harmed, unless that person intends to cause harm.”

In short, while inspiration porn is tricky to pin down, it is unambiguously bad. Why? Because, like overt negativity towards a person, it is discrimination.

“Idealisation (of people with a disability) is not actually idealisation,” Dr Sinclair says. “It is a way of dealing with the threat of difference.”

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