Text reading Where is the line between inspiration and inspiration porn? with image of Capitol Crawl next to image of little girl with prostheses and Oscar Pistorius and words saying "The only disability in life is a bad attitude"

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!

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Published by

Marissa Stalvey

I'm a passionate disability advocate and PR/Social Media professional living in the DC Metro area. Aside from disability advocacy, I love traveling, history, good food, my 3 furry babies, and reading.

11 thoughts on “Where is the Line between Inspiration and Inspiration Porn?”

  1. Ran across this when looking for comments on Mandy Harvey, a woman that lost her hearing but continued to pursue a career in singing. There’s no doubt at ALL that she is a fantastic singer but the pieces on her and the show pushing the narrative of her being deaf does tend to come off to me as a bit “inspirational porny”. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mary Jo, thank you for your comment! I just happened to catch the finale of AGT this past week while on vacation, and got the chance to hear Mandy sing. You’re right, her talent is unquestionable, but I felt the same way you did about the way the show portrayed her and the narrative they told. Even when they said “who happens to be deaf,” it felt like they were still using her deafness as a selling point. They also said “inspiration” like a zillion times when she was on air. I noticed they tend to do that a lot – any person with some kind of talent that has something different about themselves, like a disability, skin condition, etc, the producers pounce on that. On the other hand, I do think Mandy’s story could be inspirational to other Deaf people who think singing is beyond them because of their deafness. I think that could be a positive influence for others.

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      1. Well I’m not sure I quite agree with your last statement… in fact I have seen comments from people that are concerned that they would now be getting pressure that their child born deaf should be able to learn to sing just because of Mandy. Similar to how because some deaf people learn to speak, hearing people will often be less accepting of those that don’t learn themselves to. it’s simply not something the vast majority of people born deaf have any aspiration to in the first place, and we shouldn’t expect them to…. or think that Mandy would “inspire” them to something that they aren’t interested in. There certainly ARE people that work with the deaf to learn music or singing, especially those that lose their hearing later in life and have some degree of memory to fall back on, but as they will tell you, even those that lose their hearing later typically cannot sing well or in tune, it’s mainly just for the experience and fun. Mandy’s situation is SO unique in terms of her level of musical training before she lost her hearing as well as her innate abilities (having close to perfect pitch, which a rare ability and is essential to her being able to stay in tune) that it really doesn’t mean all that much to the vast majority of people that are deaf that she is able to sing so well, because it simply is a 1 in a million chance that someone else would do what she does, no matter how much they wanted to. I think it’s a mistake to look at any one person’s journey in life and assume that it would have any kind of meaning for other people that don’t share that same journey themselves, just because they share a specific disability. So I definitely think she’s inspiring in terms of her talent and finding new ways to approach singing that allowed her to do what she does, and certainly show that the only thing that deaf people absolutely cannot do is hear… and that’s the message that deaf people are brought up with. So they didn’t need Mandy to come along and teach them that, which is why I think a lot of them would be kind of insulted that they would even NEED someone like Mandy to “inspire” them to something.

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  2. How do you think Keirsey type (Guardian, Artisan, Idealist, and Rational) would factor into this? Different types would react differently to this kind of “inspiration”, whether denouncing or praising it.

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  3. Nice blog. My sister calls what you term inspiration porn being “praised for living,” where people with disabilities are perceived as admirable for just getting on with their lives. The assumption behind such praise is that people with disabilities should be helpless and hopeless and sad, rather than just people doing the best they can like all God’s children. And it’s pretty condescending to go around thinking of other people as “less fortunate” or “worse off” because no one is in the position to know the quality of someone else’s subjective life experience.

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  4. I wish you lived closer so we could go out for coffee and discuss this topic! I’m torn. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and my initial response is to think that we shouldn’t read too much into an inspirational commercial or cute little meme shared on Facebook. I share stuff like this all the time on my FB page and it’s sweet and harmless… right?

    But then I’m also becoming more aware of this issue and I’m starting to notice that a lot of the comments are things like, “Something to remember when I’m not feeling satisfied with one or other aspect of my body…I’ve got feet!” (when I shared a video of a little girl getting foot prosthetics for the first time) and that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, you know? Am I objectifying this little girl by sharing her video? Or am I being too critical?

    Yes… we need to meet for coffee! When will you be in Boston next? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amber, your struggles are EXACTLY why I wrote this. You are definitely not alone in this. A cute meme or video may seem harmless, but it’s probably just unknowingly contributing to others’ misconceptions of disability. And yeah, that comment leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too! I’d like to find a middle ground in which disability itself is not meme-worthy, if that makes sense. Focus on the accomplishments/desires/dreams of the person, not just that they have a disability.

      Yes, I wish I lived closer! I’m in DC now, so slightly closer than when I lived in Louisville, but still not really close enough for coffee!

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