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The Inspirational Disability

*Please note: the picture above has descriptive alt text that we wrote, but is only usable for screen readers as it is a featured image. 

The term “inspiration porn”, coined by Disability Activist Stella Young, or “feel-good” Disability moments has been floating around the internet and Disability Community for a while. It continues to be a reoccurring problem that spreads a narrative of worthiness and objectification.

Inspiration porn occurs when the story is based solely on the person being disabled and existing. The question is, what is it about inspiration porn that we love so much causing us to like, share, and comment on? What is it about a person overcoming some perceived obstacle and considering them worthy of the title “an inspiration”? Why do we consider some people inspirational and others not?

When we start asking ourselves these questions, we start to peel back the reason we like inspiration porn or feel-good stories, and it isn’t about the person being perceived to be inspirational.

Inspiration porn is designed to give non-disabled people feelings of gratitude about their own lives as they watch, read, or listen to stories about how endearing or helpful others are being to a Disabled person. They may feel relief that their life is better because they don’t have a disability, or it may motivate them, because if a Disabled person can do it, they can too.

The content we are often exposed to gives the illusion that Disabled people are innocent and upbeat while overcoming their obstacles and that all disabilities are evident, despite many disabilities that are not. This is problematic, because Disabled people are often compared to each other about what makes a “good” Disabled person. Consequently, if the Disabled person doesn’t perform the way non-disabled people expect them to, they are considered to be ungrateful for the support or help they are given.

Inspiration porn is harmful in the sense that it instills the notion that Disabled people can overcome their disability, it pities the disability experience, and guilts non-disabled people to do better. It centres on the idea that Disabled people are suffering and have hardships that are all consuming. Meanwhile, in most cases, this is not true, and the reality is that society is often what creates these challenges. It projects harmful stereotypes and often goes viral through social media exposing the feel-good story about how people engaged with the person with an evident disability.

When inspiration porn occurs, it’s often made without the person’s knowledge. There is no evident conversation that takes place with the Disabled person, there is no privacy, no consent, and no feelings are considered in this exchange. The Disabled person does not benefit, but the person who is helping, supporting, and sharing does. The non-disabled person is considered compassionate, empathetic, a hero, role-model, or leader. This reduces Disabled people down to objects or props, rather than human beings.

Inspiration or feel-good stories about disability does not change the narrative for Disabled peoples’ right to be parents, have relationships, sex, marriage, education, work, and autonomy. It does not dismantle physical, medical, informational, and attitudinal barriers, and it does not provide the Disabled person with accessibility or inclusion.

There are some people who argue that inspiration porn or feel-good stories provide awareness or the much-needed representation of Disabled people in media. The problem is not the stories themselves but the reactions, how the Disabled person is portrayed, and – as mentioned before – if privacy and consent were respected. Furthermore, the focus is usually not on the Disabled person, but on the parent, partner, the person supporting or helping’s experience with the Disabled person.

Now with this knowledge in mind, it is important to be self-reflective and avoid spreading more misinformation and inspiration porn. Consider these questions when you come across feel-good stories or stories with Disabled people in them:

  • Is the Disabled person telling their own story or is someone speaking for them?
  • Is this video or photo shared with the Disabled person’s consent and was their privacy respected?
  • If someone is overcoming a disability, were the barriers and circumstances mentioned?
  • Question whether the video, photo, story, article, podcast, etc. portrays Disabled people as a burden, needing to be cured, are inspirational just for being disabled, or guilts non-disabled people into doing more or better.
  • Consider the source of information and if Disabled people consider it a reputable source.