Avoiding Inspiration Porn in This Time of Constant Vigilance

Feature images via Bluestockings Mag and Shutterstock

Spend enough time on the disabled internet and you’re bound to come across the term “inspiration porn.” The late disability activist Stella Young introduced it to the world during her 2014 TED Talk, when she explained:

There are a lot of these images out there. You know, you might have seen the one, the little girl with no hands drawing a picture with a pencil held in her mouth. You might have seen a child running on carbon fiber prosthetic legs. And these images, there are lots of them out there, they are what we call inspiration porn… [their purpose] is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, “Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse.”

Internet memes are the most common variety of inspiration porn, but their core sentiment — that disabled people exist to inspire able-bodied people and remind them of their good luck — has also fueled many a Very Special Episode (hi, Glee), film (cheers, Me Before You), and political stump speech. That last one is why I want to examine inspiration porn now, as we wait for the Donald Trump carnival ride to begin in earnest. Because mark my words: he will talk a great game about our “amazing bravery” as he gets to work stealing our healthcare. The man knows how to throw out a red herring, and we all need to be ready for this one. The first step is learning how to avoid perpetuating inspiration porn yourself. While it’s easiest to spot in media, it flourishes through day-to-day conversation — the kind you have with friends and family, and the kind our president elect will try to have with us.

So gather ’round, my fellow resisters, and let’s have a little chat.


How to Avoid Using Inspiration Porn

1. Acknowledge that ableism — not disability — is the real problem.

Part of the reason people buy into inspiration porn is that its basic premise is true: being disabled is, in fact, really hard. Our bodies are unpredictable, healthcare gets costly and complicated, everyone assumes you’ll never have fulfilling relationships, and let’s not even start on accessible buildings and transit. But inspiration porn only addresses those difficulties on the surface. Scapegoating our diagnoses is much easier than overhauling the way we discuss disability at a personal and policy level. Simpler to assume we must be miserable, say “there but for the grace of God go I,” and move on.

But what if you look at disability as a body type, identity, or way of being in the world? It becomes harder to justify parading disabled people around as inspirational objects. Inspiration porn lives and dies by the assumption that no one wants to be disabled, and doesn’t bother grappling with what actually makes disability so exhausting: the collective insistence on only accommodating one kind of body.

2. Watch your language.

So yes, disabled folks do have to “overcome” a lot to achieve equality, let alone any greater aspirations. We succeed and thrive “despite” the deck being stacked against us in a very real way. It’s not that you can’t use those words — please do! We need to rescue them from the ableism watch list — but make sure you’re deliberate. Know where you’re pointing them. Unravel their implications all the way back. Where do they place the blame? If it’s on disabled people or the way we’re built (even just a little bit) find a better way to make your point. Use “in spite of” to call out the institutions, attitudes, and yes, able-bodied people that cause us the most grief. Because they’re what’s in the way.

Undoing these patterns will feel like walking backwards with your eyes closed, and sorry, but you’re going to screw it up a lot. I (still!) catch myself going there sometimes. Because the trouble is no one else will stop you — that’s how pervasively we believe, as a country and a culture, that being disabled sucks. You get a lot more pushback for questioning that assumption than reinforcing it. So it is your responsibility to examine and reframe the way you, as an individual, discuss and think about disabled people. Do it constantly, do it imperfectly. Just make sure you do it.

3. Don’t pile on praise where none is due.

If you’re confused as to whether something you’re reading/watching/saying/doing is inspiration porn, here’s a trick: break it down to its component parts. Separate disability from whatever else is going on. Then ask yourself whether the achievement in question is honestly worth getting excited about. Because guess what: not everything is! Life’s kind of a slog, actually! So take a good hard look at that “compliment” you want to give. Would you praise an able-bodied person in the same situation? Would it be front-page news if they did it? If the answer’s yes, by all means, full speed ahead. That means you’ve got a legitimately accomplished disabled person in your midst — and damn right you should acknowledge it. But if not, it’s time to decide whether you really need to run that article or post that meme or say it like that.

If you wouldn’t congratulate an able person on their accomplishment, it’s not an accomplishment. It is just a Thing They Did. Measure disabled people by that same standard. Otherwise, you’re not applauding our victories; you’re patting us on the head for not giving up. And we don’t need that from you. We need you to save your praise for the moments when we achieve actual, tangibly great things. Because we do and we have and we will.

4. Center disabled experiences, not able-bodied feelings.

Here’s where we get to the real issue with inspiration porn: it’s not about disabled people. It’s about how we make able-bodied people feel. And that, I hope you realize by now, is not the point. More than ever in our post-election world, feeling inspired or realizing how good you have it means nothing if you don’t translate those feelings into action. Inspiration porn stalls that process halfway through, at best: giving you the warm fuzzies without asking you to consider why.

As disabled people figure out how to survive whatever’s on the other side of January 20, we need the conversations around us to shift our way. We need our voices, not other people’s reactions to them, amplified over and over and over until it becomes standard. That’s especially true for disabled folks of color and everyone else at multiple margins. So if you’re someone who tells stories, whether professionally or not, make sure the ones about disabled people are actually about us. Ask us what we want and how we feel. Let the disabled folks you know, even if we’re just on the internet, guide your engagement with disability. If you are a professional, make sure you get quotes from us. And no matter what, when you hear Trump or anyone else selling a different narrative — the kind about lifting able people up — recognize it as useless (because it is) and counter with something better.


So What Should I Do Instead?

Glad you asked! In case you couldn’t tell, I have some ideas.

1. Call us MacGyvers, not feel-good memes.

Disabled people do deserve your praise and, more importantly, your respect. We work damn hard to make our way in a world designed (both physically and ideologically) for other people. And in that work, we develop skills, talents, and ideas that we might not have otherwise. Young gave the example in her TED Talk of “using a pair of barbecue tongs to pick up things that you drop” from your wheelchair. Personally, I’ve found my enhanced pain tolerance extremely useful in (ahem) certain circumstances. So it’s not in spite of disability that we are clever, creative, resilient, and resourceful — it’s because of it.

If you’re going to compliment us, compliment our innovation. Reconsider the way you think about our bodies and ways of being. Every time someone implies that we’re deficient or tragic, remember that we were hacking our world long before the tech bros.

2. Don’t say we’re “just like you” — because we’re not.

The de facto “solution” to inspiration porn is emphasizing disabled people’s ordinariness and, more to the point, our similarity to able-bodied people. It certainly helps determine whether a particular “achievement” is worth applauding, but personally, I think it also lets people off the hook a little too soon.

Measure our accomplishments by the same standards as able people’s, absolutely. But watering us down to “just like them” is not the way to do it. Because the fact is we’re not; we bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table that able-bodied people never will. It is your job to acknowledge, respect, and investigate those differences — not erase them because it’s more convenient.

“More equal” is not “more like.” You have to work harder than that.

3. Educate yourself and speak up.

I got this message from a college acquaintance the other day:

Because I’ve grown up in and always lived in communities with a strong emphasis for equal rights across gender, race, and sexuality I was a bit lulled into complacency regarding my own awesome approach to and understanding of the world (heh). Then sometime in the last year, I randomly clicked on one of two of your articles as they floated through my feed and I was like “Say, what!? How am I and this whole world totally biased against disability in ALL of these ways I never ever even noticed!?”… It was humbling in such a good way, and a good mental ass-kicking to step up my game — what else was I missing? … Your reset of my brain/lens/whatever helped me to tackle the racial, misogynistic, discriminating shit of 2016, and made me more comfortable speaking up strongly in conversations where I may have been a passive contributor, or silent.

I share that not to brag, but to drive home a point: if a disabled person motivates or inspires you through our work, that’s how you should let us know. Recognize your obligation to get smarter about these issues — don’t expect us to do it for you — and then put that new knowledge to work. In conversation, in your own creative output, in your way of thinking, everywhere, remember that ableism is real and pervasive and deserves to be confronted. Smiling next to a disabled person for a photo op (which I’m sure Trump will get around to) or equating “feeling inspired” to “learning something” does us absolutely no good. Especially now, it’s time to start recognizing what ableism looks, sounds, and feels like.

Inspiration porn is feel-good prejudice and we cannot settle for that. So when you start to see it coming from the highest office in our land, call it by its name. Have the difficult talks with yourself and your people. Don’t opt out or downplay or hesitate. I won’t, and you shouldn’t either. We all know better by now.


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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

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19 Comments

  1. 0

    I have a lot of friends in the disabled community, and I’ve found that it’s rather simple.

    1. Treat them like people, not Special People. I’m far more interested in what TV shows they are into than what hardships their lives have.

    2. Assume they’ve got this. They live their lives just fine when I’m not around, if they need help, trust me, they know how to ask.

    3. Assist when asked without making a deal of it. Want me to push your chair around the con? No problem, sure. Reach something? Confirm something that’s hard for you to see or hear? Okay. But it’s just a thing I do for a friend, and doesn’t get me any special accolades beyond that.

    4. Listen and learn. The world is a lot more annoying for disabled people than I used to realize. Many people don’t respect things like wheelchairs, which becomes very real when you’re helping navigate around a convention floor. The disability accessible elevator may be where the staff also takes out the garbage. (Looking at you, Embassy Suites in Indianapolis.) Sometimes people refuse to get out of a full elevator for a disabled person. Or decide to move someone’s chair without consent. Or a million other little things. These are the times to realize what daily life is really like, and help pass along what you’ve learned so that we can as a society start treating disabled people with respect. Because the bar is set really, really low for that.

  2. 0

    I like your article, but I kind of disagree with you on number three (3. Don’t pile on praise where none is due.) Personally (and I recognize that not everyone is like me ! There are many way to be disable), I like to be complimented about little things. Like “Hey, it’s great that you went to the rehearsal even if you had a long day, I know you’re tired more easily than us and I really admire your dedication to orchestra” or “Congratulation for chopping your steak yourself”. These little things are my own “actual, tangibly great things”. People complimenting me about that are attentive (because most people don’t realize that little things are quite complicated for me).

    • 0

      I think the difference is where these compliments come from. If it is my father seeing me get out of bed on a bad day or my physical therapist watching me take two extra steps, that’s fine. They are people who truly understand what a struggle those small tasks are acknowledging something out of the ordinary for me. That makes those GOOD compliments. A random person in a study group being impressed that I actually came prepared despite my pain, even though I do that all the time and it wasn’t anything special, is a BAD compliment. It just makes her feel less guilty for coming unprepared. The question you should ask is if the compliment a well thought out display of understanding, or simply to make the person giving the complement feel good for noticing their privilege and your pain.

      • 0

        Yeah, I see what you mean and reading the article it was more nuanced than what I thought (I’m not an english speaker, so I don’t pick up everything immediately). I have had friends in the past who did not want to compliment me for these little things (“it’s not because you’re disabled that we need to praise you for coming to school” Well, considering I was crying in pain two hours ago, I would appreciate it), and since I am not very talented in anything, I felt very unrewarded. Now I hang out with people who are more mindful and kind and it was a good, positive change.

        • 0

          I don’t think she really covered that subtly in the article, so it was good of you to bring it up. If you hadn’t, I would have. Sometimes having someone praise me for simply making dinner, since they know how fundamentally difficult that is, can make my day. I am really good at hiding my pain, so having someone see through that and acknowledge it can feel like I am being understood and appreciated. However that same compliment in a different time or tone could make me want to break the world from frustration. It’s all about context and content.

  3. 0

    As a disabled person (particularly a young, not straight disabled person), reading this article made me realize that ableism actually does effect my life. I DO let people use me for empty inspiration (especially doctors and professors) and I DO change the way I live my life to make it less uncomfortable for the abled people around me.

    One thing I notice myself doing is perpetuating the notion that disability is binary rather than a spectrum – especially with regards to wheelchairs. People assume you are either wheelchair bound or don’t need one, and I, like many people, am somewhere inbetween. Because of this, depending on the day, I will try and “pass” as one or the other. It is simply easier. I hate explaining why I need to sit in my wheelchair at a restaurant when I was able to walk through the door, so I don’t. I need to find a quick easy way to explain this to people like waitresses, ushers and professors. I often forget how negatively this subtle lie can effect me and people around me.

    The other thing I avoid is the “disabled community.” I live in a highly active, outdoorsy, liberal town, and rarely interact with other disabled people other than understanding glances passed between myself and someone else with wheels. I am not sure if it is my age, my sexuality, my nerdiness or unwillingness to dwell in self pity, but I often feel I have little in common with the disabled people in my area. Do you have any suggestions on how to start getting to know other disabled people in a way that is more than simply comparing and competing about who has it worst (a conversation that I detest and find is all too common)? Do you have online communities you like?

    Thanks for your articles and your dedication to educating the abled and also the disabled who truly need a perspective change on occasion.

    • 0

      Oh this makes me so happy. Thank you and I’m glad to hear it! I outlined some of my strategies for reversing those kinds of habits here: https://www.autostraddle.com/telling-myself-the-truth-5-strategies-for-fighting-internalized-ableism-350528/.

      In terms of online communities, check out the Disability Visibility Project (disabilityvisibilityproject.com) and its Twitter and Facebook accounts. The FB group in particular is a great place to connect with other folks and find even more corners of the internet to explore.

      • 0

        Thanks so much! I have read many of your articles and have found them all to be helpful. I am reading a lot of the stuff on the DVP website and wow am I impressed.

        I think I have identified the main reason why I have had so little luck getting to know other disabled people. All of the groups of disabled people I have gotten together with have been support groups. While it is true that support groups have their place and purpose, I don’t think they are good places to make friends. I think that is what I have been missing. The closest thing I have come to a disabled “community” get together was an accessible wildflower walk. Nobody talked about why we needed the accessibility, we just talked about flowers. It was great. I haven’t been able to find anything else like that in my area, but I now have a goal and am going to work towards it.

        • 0

          As a fellow wheelie(and a part time one at that) I completely get that spectrum thing!
          In terms of disabled friends, most of mine have come through getting involved in activism – predominantly through my union. Also through work – as an actor there are companies that are better at inclusivity than others so I get to know other disabled people through that. Also Twitter! Hope that’s some help 🙂

  4. 0

    In terms of one and three I think that depends on the individual and their disability. When I am unable to stay awake for more than four hours a day this negatively impacts my life and its not society that’s responsible, its that I only have four hours a day to do any of the things I need for both physical and psychological well being. Similarly sometimes I need someone to tell me well done because I’ve managed to do my own grocery shopping instead of relying on delivery.

  5. 0

    So I suffer from pretty severe emotional disabilities, as well as two learning disabilities. I was wondering what your thoughts were on those and how to direct people from using inspiration porn against us as has been my experience for most of my life. People with invisible illnesses generally get the exact opposite and I’m struggling to confront this while scrambling to figure out insurance for my varying medical issues.

  6. 0

    I really like celebrating small accomplishments, especially when people are going through hard times, whether disabled or not. But inspiration porn isn’t even really about celebrating the accomplishments of disabled people, because it’s not about disabled people at all. It’s about using the accomplishments of disabled people to make abled people feel good.

    I’m not disabled, so tell me if this is inaccurate or offensive, but some of the undertones remind me of when trans people are complemented on how pretty/hot they are “for a trans person!” or while emphasizing their transness in a way that implies it. Because transness has to be an inherently ugly thing to overcome so that we may someday meet cis standards. Disabled people can do things “in spite of disability”, because disability is an inherently negative thing to overcome so that disable people can someday meet abled standards. Even though both abled and cis standards are the standards of a pretty shitty, arbitrary society. It paints being outside the norm as being bad and doing things within the standards of the norm (and doing things within the standard of the norm usually seem to be what disabled people in inspiration porn are praised for) as better, and pretends to be supportive all in the same stroke. (I’m not saying being disabled and being trans are the same thing at all, it’s just that this particular manifestation of prejudice seems parallel in some ways.)

    I think this is a really great and timely article, and you’re absolutely right about how much conservatives dip into “feel-good prejudice” to seem positive for everyone and not bigoted.

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