Cleansing ourselves of inspiration porn

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Inspiration Porn, to which can be described as the level of objectification experienced by people with disabilities when able-bodied individuals use them as examples of what can be accomplished even in the “worst-case” scenario. These instances, despite being thought of as “inspirational” and “defying the odds”, actually are inherently ableist. Photo courtesy emilyladau.

Ben walked into the auditorium of Mountain Heritage High School in Burnsville, North Carolina, and saw that his friends were waiting for him with flowers in their hands. At the end of the line his best friend, Rachel, was waiting for him with one last flower and a sign that asked, “Will you go to prom with me?” Ben yelled yes and burst into tears. It might be surprising to find out that this made local news, but then again, this was no ordinary duo. Ben has Down syndrome. It can thus be insinuated that Rachel is a saint; a kind, whole human who took pity on a broken boy and ultimately found personal joy through his happiness. “I did this all, just for you,” Rachel said, which is displayed in big, bolded letters above the article written about her service. She is clearly an inspiration to us all. 

I am not saying Rachel did anything wrong. I am certainly not arguing against people with different abilities forming meaningful relationships. I do, however, find that the title “Teen with Down Syndrome Bursts Into Tears as Best Friend Asks Him To Prom” seems to miss anything about Ben’s identity except that he has Down syndrome and is implied to be a charity case. While stories such as this at first glance seem to encourage kindness towards those with disabilities (if one chooses to view them through that lens), they in actuality turn these people into one-dimensional characters whose sole purpose is to make the traditionally able-bodied person feel better about themselves or serve as a source of inspiration for the rest of us.  

Ableism  is prejudice against disabled individuals, founded on the belief that people without disabilities are superior. Many can identify situations such as wheelchair-inaccessible buildings, signs without Braille or direct bullying of people’s different abilities as ableism. However, flagrant attempts to appear more accepting often come across as ableist as well and reveal a person’s core ableism that they are attempting to hide from others and often themselves. 

“flagrant attempts to appear more accepting often come across as ableist as well and reveal a person’s core ableism that they are attempting to hide from others and often themselves.”

People sometimes use the actions of those with disabilities themselves for their own purposes. Comedian and journalist Stella Young informed us in a TED Talk that just because she happens to spend her day in a wheelchair does not mean she would like to be a source of inspiration porn, a term she purposefully uses to capture the level of objectification experienced by people with disabilities when able-bodied individuals use them as examples of what can be accomplished even in the “worst-case” scenario. Young shows images of a man swimming without a leg, a boy playing sports in a wheelchair and a girl with Down syndrome running with inspirational quotes below them. She claims that those with disabilities do not want to be lauded for everyday tasks because this separates them as an “other” and insinuates that society’s expectations for them are offensively low. However, this does not mean that those with disabilities do not have to struggle. Young believes in the social model of disability, which “tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in rather than by our bodies and our diagnoses.” We must be cognizant of the difficulties those with different abilities face in our society so that we can improve the world that we all live in; as Young points out, no amount of smiling at a set of stairs will turn it into a ramp. That said, overly congratulating people with disabilities places them in an uncomfortable space that ironically robs them of their power through placing them on a pedestal that functions more as a box. 

Sometimes when we are interacting with someone who has different abilities than us it can be uncomfortable knowing how to respond to their life experiences. One must respect the person as a whole human being while also acknowledging how they have been forced to interact with society. You may be a little uncomfortable, and uncomfortable because of that discomfort. I think that’s okay. What is important is that we continue to educate ourselves and improve rather than feel shame and stop trying. 

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