What is inspiration porn?

And how can we do better when it comes to disability representation?



Picture of Rea on green background, next to her is a title that says: "What is inspiration Porn? And how can we do better when it comes to disability representation?2

Whenever disability is presented in the media it can be a tricky subject – especially if no disabled people were included in the writing process. It often happens, that disabled people are presented in stereotypical ways and certain narratives are being perpetuated, which ultimately hurts the disability community. And now with the Paralympics taking place, there is no lack of stereotypical representation, catered for non-disabled viewers.

But what is inspiration porn – and how can we do better when reporting about disability?



Content warning: in this article I will discuss and show images of ableist stereotypes. If this topic is upsetting or triggering for you at the moment, don't feel bad for skipping this one or coming back another time.


What is inspiration porn?

“Inspiration porn” is a term coined by the late disability activist Stella Young. It refers to the objectification of disabled people in the media, which serves the purpose of making non-disabled people feel better about themselves.

(If you haven’t seen her legendary TED talk: it is a must watch, see here


How can you recognize inspiration porn?

Inspiration porn comes in a few different categories, but basically you can recognize it because it usually centers the feelings of non-disabled people and are catered for a non-disabled perspective, instead of centering the voices of the disabled individuals themselves. This includes

· praising disabled people and calling them inspirational for carrying out daily tasks,

· praising them for overcoming their disabilities, or

· non-disabled people receiving praise for helping a disabled person.


Here are some examples of inspiration porn, but I have to warn you, these are incredibly ableist and have the possibility of making your blood boil:

(I chose to censor the faces of the people shown in these pictures because i do not know if they ever consented to being shown like this, especially since some of them are children)


These are typical examples of pictures that are meant to make non-disabled people feel better about themselves, while completely objectifying the disabled person shown.


What’s the problem with this?

Showing disabled people in these stereotypical ways only further perpetuates these stereotypes, without questioning, why these stereotypes could be hurtful. Also, images like these are incredibly objectifying.


Disabled people do not exist to inspire you. - Stella Young

It often happens, that the media shows disability as either a tragedy, or as something heroic, once the person has managed to “overcome” it. But what about those in between? People who just live their lives with their disabilities – and are neither heroes, nor tragic figures?


Another problem is, that inspiration porn shows inclusion as something extraordinary, while also often infantilizing disabled people and perpetuating the stigma that all disabled people need to overcome their disabilities in order to be worthy. It often shows disability as something inherently bad, that needs to be fixed, or that deserves to be pitied.

Of course, if a disabled person achieves something awesome- of course that is a great thing that deserves to be valued. But we shouldn’t have to overcome our disabilities in order to be seen as worthy.

And a disabled person carries out a daily task, it should not be seen as inspirational. Disabled people don’t want to be praised, for simply existing as disabled people in a world that is not made for them, neither do they want to be seen as tragic figures. Disabled people do not exist in this world just to inspire others.

Seeing disabled people living their lives and succeeding shouldn’t be seen as something extraordinary and praise-worthy – it should be a common occurrence to us! But in order to achieve that, non-disabled people would have to take accountability and see, where they could actively make our world a more accessible place. Inspiration porn practically absolves them of this responsibility.


The social model of disability

instead of emphasizing that society has a big responsibility in making the world more accessible, inspiration porn puts the onus on disabled people to overcome their disabilities.

“Wow, look how they succeeded against all odds!” But the thing is: we shouldn’t have to “succeed against all odds” - the odds should be in our favor!

Disabled people have been asking for more inclusion for decades and are often still being ignored (and as we could see so obviously in the pandemic: if all people need it, things like home-office or distance learning were suddenly possible, but disabled people who need these things for accessibility have been denied them for years, and with the return to presence learning, are being denied again).

If we want disabled people to succeed in this world, it is all about accessibility and the removal of barriers, and this is a societal responsibility, not an individual one.

But while our world is still lacking accessibility everywhere – in schools, in public transport and buildings, at events or at the workplace, disabled people are actively excluded, so it is no surprise that seeing a disabled person out and about is seen as something extraordinary. If the world isn’t accessible to you, how could you take part?

This is where the social model of disability comes in: instead of seeing our bodies as the reasons for our limitations, the social model sees society and its lack of accessibility as the limiting factor in the lives of disabled people. In an ideal world with no barriers, disabled people wouldn’t have to overcome anything. We would just be able to live our lives to the full extent.

And while the social model surely is tricky when it comes to chronic illnesses or pain (no amount of accessibility will make your chronic pain go away), removing barriers and making healthcare more accessible would certainly make our lives dramatically easier and would allow us to focus on things that we are passionate about, instead of spending every single day fighting for our basic human rights. But if we only ever show disability in stereotypical ways, we might not even realize, what things may be a barrier.


Othering

Also, inspiration porn further “others” disabled people from non-disabled people. It creates feelings like “wow, my life could be so much worse!” or “Thank god I’m not that person!” – but what if you are that person? Most disabilities are actually acquired later in life. Disability is something that could happen to anyone – at any time! But this is a very uncomfortable thought that people like to push aside. Especially when it comes to chronic illnesses, people like to tell themselves that if they do everything right, if they are being “good” – they can avoid becoming sick. And while leading a healthy lifestyle can certainly be helpful in preventing certain illnesses – you can never completely avoid getting sick. The reality is, it can happen to anyone. But by perpetuating these stereotypes that illness only happens to bad people, or that it happened to them because they were lazy and they must have done something wrong, or if they just worked hard enough they could overcome anything – it puts the blame on the individual person, instead of taking a critical look at our society to see, where we could do better, and where we still seriously lack inclusion and the right support for chronically ill or disabled individuals. By perpetuating these stereotypes, our society at large is being absolved of any responsibility in making our world a more inclusive place.


Also, spending time with a disabled person or asking them out on a date does not make you a hero! Whenever these images or videos are being spread there are comments like “Wow what a hero, he asked her out despite her disability! His heart is so pure!”

Can you imagine how hurtful it is for disabled people, especially disabled children, to see something like that? That spending time with someone who is like you, is seen as something so extraordinary, it deserves praise?

Spending time with a disabled person is not something bothersome that needs to be praised as heroic! Talking to us as if we are normal people is not something extraordinary – it should be common! A person who talks to a disabled person is not “pure-hearted” or “inspirational” – it should be the norm!


Perpetuating stereotypes

Inspiration porn usually shows disability in stereotypical ways, instead of offering diverse and realistic disability representation.

They often show disabled people as helpless, and in need of a non-disabled savior or hero. In reality, disabled people can be just as independent, and just as “heroic” as non-disabled people – even if they haven’t overcome their disabilities. All we need is accessibility and inclusion. But by showing disabled people in that way, they are often being infantilized. You see comments such as “Oh, look they are so pure!” in reference to a grown up, visibly disabled person, and while the commenters probably mean no harm in saying such things- it makes them small and puts unrealistic expectations on them. Disabled people are often viewed as de-sexualized beings, and people end up being completely flabbergasted by the idea that disabled people enjoy sex too, just like everybody else! (Unless, of course, they are asexual, which is completely valid too, but we shouldn’t automatically assume that all disabled people are). We shouldn't talk about grown up disabled people as if they were kids, and we shouldn’t treat them as such.


We need to stop harmful narratives around disability

The way that the media shows disabled people, is often done in completely stereotypical ways, or even shows them as villains! We all know the typical tropes of the evil pirate who has a hook as a hand, the scary witch with the limb difference, the science fiction villain who has cybernetic parts, or the mentally ill villain. Imagine you are a little child with a disability, and all the disabled people you see in movies are evil? How must that feel?

Not long ago the film adaptation for Roald Dahls story "the witches" with Anne Hathaway was heavily critizized for depicting her with a visible limb difference in her hands, indending to make her look "scary" or "witch-like". A social media campaign was started, where people with limb differences posted pictures of themselves using the hashtag #notawitch.


Also, the way mental illness is depicted in the media is not only stereotypical, but also flawed and unrealistic. And this can be really harmful for people with mental illnesses.


Picture of actress Anne Hathaway in the movie "The witches". She has a visual limb difference in her hands.
Example of the common trope of the disabled villain. Here: Anne Hathaway in "The witches" https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/17/movies/witches-movie-disability.html

Another harmful narrative is the narrative of the person who turned out to be a faker after all, as they are shown in a dramatic scene where they stand up from their wheelchairs (which- surprise – is not that uncommon, because ambulatory wheelchair users exist!) These narratives can really hurt disabled people, because they end up not being believed in real life and having real problems accessing the help that they need. Also, it often leads to disabled people having issues with their own internalized ableism, and starting to doubt themselves.


“Don't let your disability stop you”

Another very harmful narrative is the narrative of “They didn’t let their disability stop them”.

What’s the problem with this narrative?

Well, sometimes your disability will “stop” you from doing certain things- that’s just the reality of having a disability. If you use a wheelchair, your disability will stop you from climbing a flight of stairs. If you have a visual impairment, your disability will stop you from reading books the traditional way. If you are deaf, your disability will stop you from listening to a podcast. And if you are chronically ill, your disability will stop you from going out on your bad days. And that is all completely ok and valid! The point is: if our world is accessible enough and there are no barriers, these things don’t have to be a problem. In an accessible world, there will be enough ramps and elevators nearby, so you won’t even need to use the stairs if you can’t climb them. If braille or audio-descriptions were common everywhere, your visual impairment wouldn’t exclude you from consuming any media or any important information. If all media was subtitled, you wouldn't miss out on anything if you are deaf. And if we would take advantage of digitalization it its full capacity, it wouldn’t be such a problem if you couldn’t attend in person because of your chronic illness- with things like video chats you could still partake in social situations, work or education.

But the narrative of “They didn’t let their disability stop them” puts the onus on disabled people to overcome their limitations, instead of making society responsible to remove all of the barriers they need to overcome in the first place. And if your disability did stop you from doing something: that doesn’t make you a bad person, it does not make you lazy or any less valuable. It is just the reality of your disability, and that is ok.

Also, these sentences are often used to make people feel bad about themselves if they aren’t able to achieve something. We hear things like “I knew someone who also had xyz, but they didn’t use their disability as an excuse!” Please, never say this to someone. Maybe you want to be helpful by saying this, but you’re not!

If we can’t do something due to a disability, it is not an excuse, it is a matter of fact. And comparing to people who have the same illness is pretty useless, because even if two people have the same diagnosis, their symptoms and the way the illness affects them may be completely different. So, comments like “They could do it, so why can’t you?”, aren’t just annoying and infuriating, they’re not helpful at all.

If you want your chronically ill friend but don't know how- this article is for you: How can I support my chronically ill friends.


We need realistic disabled role models

Instead, we need to show disabled people as they are, in a realistic and representative manner. We need to normalize disabled people being actors (who also play other roles apart from the tragic disabled trope), teachers, lawyers, doctors, or artists. We need to show disability in all facets, by including visibly disabled people as well as invisible disabilities and normalize, that some people sometimes need wheelchairs – and sometimes they don’t!

Disabled children deserve to grow up with disabled role models that show them, that they don’t exist solely to inspire non-disabled people. They should grow up seeing that as a disabled person you can be just like everybody else, that you can achieve anything you want to achieve, but not because you have to overcome anything- you should be able to achieve anything because the world should be accessible to you in all of its facets.



A drawing of books with a rainbow around them, on purple background. The title says: "Representation changes lives"
Representation changes lives by Dandy Doodlez

Artist: Dandy Doodlez, buy her art here


So, to quote Stella Young: “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever turned it into a ramp” Being disabled is not a tragedy. Being disabled is not exceptional. Just living your daily life as a disabled person is not inspirational.


If you want to call a disabled person inspirational, then praise them for what they actually did, and not for merely existing. Praise them, for something they said or wrote that made you think. If you want to be inspired by disabled people- that is ok! But be inspired to fight for a more inclusive world. Be inspired to fight against everyday ableism. Be inspired to listen to more disabled people and gain more perspectives. Be inspired to say something, if you witness some ableist behavior. Be inspired to be an ally.





Have you ever heard of the term "inspiration porn"? Please let me know in the comments or find me on social media @rea.strawhill


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