Where is the Line between Inspiration and Inspiration Porn?

Image caption: Black background with white words reading “Where is the line between” and the word “inspiration” in green and “inspiration porn” in red. Below left is a photo of the Capitol Crawl. Lower right is a photo of Oscar Pistorius and a little girl with prostheses, with overlaying text that reads, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

I post a lot of disability-related content on my personal facebook page. In fact, if I’m not posting cute photos of my pets–they’re just so darn adorable!–then I’m probably posting about disability. I rarely get any “likes” for these posts, but I continue to post this content on the off chance that someone will read it and learn something, in addition to the obvious fact that I find it interesting myself.

Recently, I spoke with a good friend of ours who likes to give me a hard time, but has a genuinely good soul. Out of the blue, he brought up “inspiration porn” and recalled a post I had shared a while ago defining the term in relation to some news story. At first, I was a little shocked that he read the post, much less remembered it and the definition of “inspiration porn.” On one hand, this reinforced my belief that social media and advocacy can have an impact, even in a small way.

But, he did have a concern, one I believe he shares with many other nondisabled people. “Where is the line between ‘inspiring’ and ‘inspiration porn’?” he asked. He said he wanted to treat people with disabilities the right way, and have the right attitude about disability, but he was sometimes unsure of the difference between the two.

I told him that, generally, inspiration porn consists of nondisabled people showcasing or exhibiting a disabled person doing something mundane or otherwise unexceptional for the purpose of “inspiring” other nondisabled people and making them feel better about themselves and their lives.

For example:

These examples, in addition to the photo of the little girl above, are pretty much self-explanatory. People eat all the time–why should a person with a disability ingesting nutrients be inspiring? The boy in the Super Bowl ad was playing and having a good time…like any other boy his age would be doing. There are thousands of blind parents in this country who have successfully raised children. Millions of people are parents, but you don’t see their stories make it to USA Today. People with disabilities doing everyday activities should not be inspiring. And then there’s the little girl in the yellow dress. She’s definitely cute, there’s no arguing that. Nondisabled people see this and think, “She’s still smiling and she has no legs. If I had no legs, I’d wish to be dead, or at least stay in my house for the rest of my miserable life. She’s so inspiring!” In actuality, she’s just being a happy little girl. And the quote. As Stella Young pointed out, the cliche “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” is such bologna. To paraphrase her, smiling at stairs never made a ramp appear. This image appropriates the girl’s personality and experiences solely to make us pity her and feel better about ourselves.

The photo to the left of the little girl shows people with disabilities crawling up the Capitol steps as part of a protest for accessibility. To me, this image is inspiring because these people went above and beyond for a cause they felt strongly about. These activists helped create real, meaningful change that has enhanced the lives of countless people.

Not all images or news stories about disability are this straightforward. Sometimes, the line between a genuinely inspiring story and inspiration porn can get pretty fuzzy.

Erik Weihenmayer is an athlete and adventurer who has climbed to the peak of Mt. Everest, among other accomplishments. For me, his climbing one of the tallest mountains in the world is inspiring–if a little nuts. The fact that he is blind has little to do with it. On the other hand, some would argue that his schtick of overcoming adversity, combined with the fact that he is by no means the only person to ever climb Everest and only gets attention because he’s blind, makes him and his adventures inspiration porn.

A teenage boy who is going blind recently appeared on America’s Got Talent to showcase his dancing skills, which were pretty sweet, I might add. It is fairly easy to discern that the show objectified him, focusing as much, if not more, on his disability than on his dancing. But how should the average viewer react to this? I thought his dancing was pretty cool, and it was admittedly inspiring. I mean, for a teenager to receive life-altering news and keep doing what he loves is admirable. Not everyone would react the same way. Yet, I could easily be accused of being ableist for this view.

As a disability advocate, I am aware of my own internalized ableism. I’m also sensitive to the dos and don’ts of portraying disability. I could sit here all day and philosophize about what makes something truly inspiring versus faux inspiration.

But what about my nondisabled friend and others like him, who mean well but aren’t entirely sure where that line is? I usually hate the phrase “S/he means well” as it generally is given as an excuse when a disabled person takes offense after an ableist action. “Don’t be so sensitive. He meant well.” As if that makes it OK to treat people with disabilities as inferiors. However, some people really do mean well and they honestly want to have the right perspective and act in the right ways.

If a disabled person is being displayed, exhibited really, for doing an everyday activity–parenting, eating, or even graduating high school–then this is most assuredly inspiration porn.

As for those less outrageously egregious, less obvious instances, I don’t have all the answers. And if I, a person with a disability, am unsure about some things, imagine how unsure a nondisabled person can be when it comes to this issue. Let’s keep that in mind when we advocate.

Do you have any examples or thoughts on less obvious instances of inspiration or inspiration porn? Share in the comments!