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Inspiration Porn: It’s a Thing


Stella Young, photo from Wikipedia

While mindlessly scrolling through Facebook the other day, I saw a montage of memes showing people with disabilities behaving in hilarious and irreverent ways. They were basically thumbing their noses at the stereotypes and provoking a bit of pearl-clutching. I marked the post with “love” and started to comment on how my friends at the rehab center loved to prank the therapists. I was drawn up short by a comment in the line before mine, “We are not your inspiration porn.”

I knew instinctively what the commenter meant by “inspiration porn,” but wanted to learn more about it. I Googled it and quickly found the TED talk by Australian comedian Stella Young (who died in 2014 at age 32), which popularized the concept.

Inspiration porn is when images of disabled people are used to provoke the feeling of “at least I have it better than that poor schmuck.” It’s often used to shame people into not feeling sorry for themselves—by making them feel sorry for someone else. Some clear examples of inspiration porn were shown; for example, a photo of a man with an artificial leg playing soccer and the message below, “What’s Your Excuse?” The distinguishing feature between real inspirational messages and inspiration porn is objectification of the disabled person, and praise for achieving anything in spite of the disability. As Stella Young said, “We’ve been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional, and honestly, it doesn’t… I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our names in the morning.”

Not all inspirational art is inspiration porn, but inspiration porn is instantly recognizable to people with disabilities. I had a moment of insecurity about my own book, On Silver Wings:  A Life Reconstructed—is it inspiration porn? I did write it to inspire others in the rehab center where I did my recovery work. But did I objectify myself or sell out my own story in the process? I think I was pretty sensitive to the way each chapter came off, and I tried to be honest about the degree of suffering involved. I wanted my readers to get the message, “it’s going to be hard and it’s going to hurt like hell, but you have to do the work if you want your life back.” Also, “Life is going to look different from now on, but it can still be great.” I shared a lot of little stories of human connection, but when I heard the violin music in my head, I backed off. I just hope I didn’t have the volume button set too low.

When I was growing up, my family was into what we called “handicapped-retarded books.” In the 1970s, those weren’t considered offensive words, though our characterization of the genre was definitely meant snarkily. We loved those stories, though, of people overcoming huge obstacles, like Olympic skier Jill Kinmont in The Other Side of the Mountain. Looking back on it, I admit there was an element of craving for inspiration porn in reading those stories. That said, I think I learned a lot from them that helped me in rehab all those years later. The human qualities that I grew up to admire, resiliency and resourcefulness, were highlighted in those books.

In 2011, I received an award from the animal shelter where I volunteer, for Most Inspirational. I had mixed feelings about it, but I knew the award came from the outreach director’s heart, and she genuinely admired the journey she’d watched me take. There was an element of congratulation for simply surviving misfortune that made me uncomfortable, but if you dealt the same injury to several different people, you would have very different outcomes in rehab. To be fair, my level of recovery was extraordinary and I deserve some recognition for that. I don’t need or especially want it, though.

It can be a fine line between inspirational art and inspiration porn. I think the dividing line rests on who produces it and why—is a person with a disability telling their own story, or is someone without a disability telling it for them? Is the person sharing, or being exploited? Does the art tell you anything about the person other than the fact that they have a disability? That may be the key—are we looking at a whole person or just a disability?

I think the set of memes I saw, that the one commenter thought was inspiration porn, was on the borderline and could have been taken either way. Each of the memes had a great story behind it, that I could guess after my experiences with visibly disabled people in the rehab center. Taken as a collection posted on social media, they were designed to make people laugh, but there was that aftertaste of “Wow, aren’t those people brave to try to be funny?” that rankled a bit. That element wouldn’t have been there if the stories hadn’t been grouped in that way.

I had a disturbing interaction with a teammate in my trivia league a few years ago. She introduced me to a man who was going to be playing with our team, and then she said, “Show John your scars.” I was completely taken aback, and John was mortified. He smiled and said, “How about I buy you dinner first,” and to his credit, he bought my burger and did not ask to see my arms after dinner. That was a moment when I felt completely objectified by a friend! Inspiration porn in real life.

It’s a sign of the times, I think, that we are looking at things more thoughtfully and examining our motives. There will be people who see inspiration porn in everything, even honestly told stories, and there will be people who defend the most blatant examples of it. It’s something to think about as the world wakes up to ableism alongside all the other isms we’re coming to understand.

With invisible disability, inspiration porn can still apply. “Look at Mary, she has lupus and she still goes to work!” Using Mary as an example to get your lazy cousin Jane off the couch is not okay.

What’s your experience with this phenomenon? Have you seen examples of it? Have you ever been objectified as a lesson for someone else?

Inspiration Porn: It’s a Thing


Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.


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APA Reference
, . (2020). Inspiration Porn: It’s a Thing. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/hidden-disabilities/2020/08/inspiration-porn-its-a-thing/

 

Last updated: 19 Aug 2020
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