Inspiration Porn Debate

Inspiration Porn Debate

In Everyone has one, Opinion by Guest Contributor15 Comments

Inspiration Porn Debate

Annessa Mortensen

On a recent day last April, during a speech at the Ted-X conference in Australia, disabled activist Stella Young coined a new phrase that has since rocked the disabled community.  Her term, “Inspiration Porn”, referred to posters, internet memes, media stories and real-life examples

 of disabled people being depicted as heroic just for doing seemingly normal, everyday tasks.
The idea, in a nutshell, suggests that it is wholly inaccurate, and often insulting, to be hailed as an inspiration just for making it through an average day.

In the months since, not only has this term been used in several news articles, videos and online blogs, but has caused a bit of controversy amongst the disabled community at large.  Much debate ensued on various blog posts and social media.  Many people, myself included, applauded Ms. Young for finally pointing out our annoyance at constantly being portrayed in this manner. Yet many other people with disabilities voiced disagreement, stating that they felt complimented when described in this way.

Inspiration: What does it really mean?

Although we may never reach a full consensus, it occurs to me that perhaps the reason so many of us have viscerally disagreed on this issue is that we haven’t given much thought to what the term “inspiration” really means.  How and when does true inspiration occur, and what separates it from other, less positive, labels like pity or prejudice?

When someone who knows us, and is aware of our personal achievements, tells us that we’ve inspired them to attain a goal of their own, that’s a great feeling that I think most people would take as a compliment. True inspiration is motivating, uplifting, and is based in personal, specific knowledge of the person or thing that inspires you.  It allows us to see the very best in others while contemplating endless possibilities for ourselves. We can attain inspiration from nature, music, science, art, and, yes, sometimes from people. The personal stories of achievement and triumph made by countless individuals – disabled and not – often motivate us to seek our own personal best.  But, can we really be inspired by someone we know nothing about?  Probably not.

Welcome, Inspiration’s insipid opponent: Pity.

Pity, by contrast, is prejudicial, fear-based, and demeaning. It sums up the net worth of a person based solely on what is visible and holds little regard for the breadth of a person’s character, much less their accomplishments.  Pity, disguised as inspiration, is often based on the many outdated stereotypes about the disabled that have existed in the media, film and television industries for decades.

This form of pity usually stems from a person’s fear of change, and since disability represents for many the ultimate in negative change, people – particularly those who don’t know anyone with physical challenges – assume that disability would be something that they themselves could not handle.  They believe they would probably give up and that their life would no longer be worth living.  Therefore, when they see us, they assume, simply because we are out in public, living our lives, that the mere act of doing so represents some level of courage that they themselves would not possess in similar circumstances.

When a stranger who knows nothing about us labels us as inspiring, although they likely mean well, what this person is truly feeling, deep down, is NOT inspiration but abject pity.  While their words may sound complimentary, the message they’re really sending is:

When I look at you and see your wheelchair (or cane, walker, guide dog or use of sign language), I believe your life to be so filled with sadness and strife that it must take true bravery to face your day.”

This sort of superficial assumption is just as infuriating to us as it would be to make a prejudicial assumption about someone based solely on race, religion, gender or nationality.

Now that the difference between these two entities has been defined, the question becomes: How should these encounters be handled when they do occur?

If you are a disabled person, and the inspiration label is coming from a friend or colleague that knows you, then there’s probably nothing to handle.  They’re basing this on their personal knowledge of you, so it’s usually a compliment.  However, if you are faced with the Pity-Disguised-As-Inspiration scenario, what should you do then?  Some people with disabilities have said that they just ignore the insult or say “thank you”, since the person probably means well, while others express outrage by telling these people off.

While both of these reactions are understandable, I’m not sure either represents the best option. By ignoring the insult or saying ‘thank you’, you’re allowing these people to walk away with their misconceptions affirmed, which means they’ll likely continue this behavior in the future. Becoming belligerent, on the other hand, only serves to perpetuate yet another inaccurate stereotype about us – that we are all angry, bitter and unapproachable.

The best thing to do, I feel, is to engage the person in conversation and hopefully educate them as to why this term can be offensive.  Perhaps begin by asking them why they feel you are inspiring.  What, specifically, has caused them to feel this way about a total stranger?  Chances are, they’ve never really thought about why they feel this way, so challenging their assumptions is a great place to start.  I would then follow up by kindly pointing out that everyone on Earth faces challenges of some sort, and we’ve all developed our own strategies for overcoming these issues and that in that sense, we’re all far more alike than we are different.

Finally, if you happen to be a non-disabled person who has mistakenly committed this faux-pas in the past and aren’t sure how to proceed in the future, here is a general guideline:  If you know a person and possess intimate knowledge of their particular accomplishments, and as such, that person has motivated you to achieve your own goals, then it’s fine to tell that person that they are inspiring.

But if you see a stranger on the street, who happens to be disabled, and you’re feelings of inspiration are based not in knowledge of the person themselves, but only on your preconceived notions of what you think that person’s life must be like, then I advise you to refrain from any comments relating to courage, bravery or inspiration.  Chances are, what you really desire, is an opportunity to interact with this person, in which case, a simple “Hello. How are you?” should suffice.

How do you handle these situations? Leave us your comments.

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Written by: Annessa Mortensen who is a retired public school teacher born with a bone condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta. She lives and works in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida.