There is this social phenomenon that I have been reading a lot about lately, it’s called “inspiration porn.” It is basically this idea that people with disabilities are truly inspiring to everyone without disabilities because they get up in the morning and go about their day as if they weren’t cursed with such misfortunes. It’s actually a byproduct of something called “ableism” which is this horribly discriminating social prejudice revolving around the idea that able-bodied people are society’s norm and anyone not considered able-bodied should strive to be like their able-bodied peers. Most able-bodied people can’t fathom this idea that maybe someone with a disability wouldn’t choose to be cured of their disability if given the option. Yeah, there are some people with disabilities who actually respect their disability for making them who they are. I know, I know. I mean, how could anyone want to keep a defining feature of their entire existence and individuality when they could instead trade it for the ability to not be stared at sometimes when they are in pubic? Clearly that person with a disability doesn’t know what they are talking about. Obviously the problem is that they are disabled and not that society should just maybe tweak their views on physical abilities (seriously, have you guys even seen X-Men?) and realize that it’s okay to be lots of different things. It’s like when you do a multiple-choice exam and instead of the right answer being A, B, or C it is actually D: all of the above. We understood the concept of “all of the above” in elementary school, so why is it so hard for us to grasp as adults?
Anyway, out of this over-arching theme of ableism arises something called “inspiration porn.” You will find inspiration porn all over the internet, television, magazines, etc. etc. You have probably seen 6 examples of it since you refreshed your Facebook newsfeed ten minutes ago. It is there in viral memes, inspiring disability videos set to soft instrumental elevator music, and motivational photos of double amputees walking down the street with their family that read “you can achieve if you just believe.” Inspiration porn turns people with disabilities into objects for the able-bodied norm to cheer on and gush over. It’s there for those able-bodied people to say “if she can do that one thing, then I can do anything!” It serves as a barrier between the socially constructed world of ability vs. disability. It’s that story about a girl who actually stayed with the husband she loved even though he lost all of his limbs. It’s that viral list of 20 awe-inspiring moments and 15 of them are people with disabilities just doing normal every day things but with a smile on their face (the other 5 are about cute animals). It’s complete bullshit and I hate it so much it makes me want to just pound the keyboard like this sdhgvkjndoaijkjahflajgfioeajgnoeiangoviehjgiojagoifnaoifgjhi.
I have gotten inspiration porned (how is that for an awkward way of putting it?) since getting sick. When it happens to me I usually laugh a lot and roll my eyes so far back in my head that it probably looks like the beginning of a lupus flare up. I am not an inspiration because I have lupus. It’s not like God came to me in a dream and told me that I had to choose between me developing a debilitating disease or some random baby in China developing a debilitating disease and I selflessly decided to sacrifice my musculoskeletal system to save an infant from illness. Lupus just happened to me. And what are you sort of forced to do when something shitty happens to you? You’re kind of forced to live with it. And what would you naturally do for extremely selfish reasons when you are forced to live with a debilitating illness? That’s right! You would probably choose to make the most of it and do what you can to live a normal life despite it. Having a job and going into the office when you have lupus is not inspiring. Traveling the world and taking pictures of yourself in front of famous landmarks when you have lupus is not inspiring. Being in a happy relationship with an able-bodied guy and going for a walk in the park even though you use a cane because of lupus is not inspiring.
Would I change things and not have lupus if given the opportunity? Yeah, probably. I don’t particularly love all of the pain and sickness. But there are lots of things that have happened as a result of my disease and disability that are really cool and have made me a slightly better person (yet still in no way an inspiration). But there are people out there who wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Their illness or disability has completely shifted their view of life and transformed them into someone they really like and respect. And that’s awesome! And there are also people out there who were born with illnesses and disabilities who only know their bodies that way and shouldn’t be expected to desire being able-bodied. And guess what? That’s awesome too. It’s all good, because we shouldn’t have a say over anyone else’s feelings about their bodies or their lives…period. No one is an inspiration just for being themselves and also still being alive. You can be an inspiration for what you do with your life. You can be a quadriplegic and decide to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and train really hard for it and defy a crap load of odds and show other people with disabilities that they can do whatever the hell they want to do in life, and you wouldn’t have to roll your eyes if someone called you an inspiration. But if you were a quadriplegic and you got up in the morning, got dressed and like went to the mall to see a movie, not really an inspiration. You’re just a person doing peopley things.
So please save the “you inspire me” crap for people like Michael J. Fox who has Parkinsons, but also uses his experiences and his celebrity status to raise bajillions of dollars and awareness about the disease. Or save it for me when I publish a book and give some of the proceeds to the Lupus foundation and use my celebrity status to help find a cure. Would now be an inappropriate time to guilt you into talking me up around the water cooler so I can get a book deal and get started on that cure? Yeah? Okay, pretend I didn’t ask that.
Now do you understand why it’s so incredibly laughable (and usually offensive) when you keep telling people with disabilities that they inspire you? Hopefully going forward you can be more mindful of your words and actions. I bet you probably didn’t even realize that you were doing it because it is such a social norm at this point. But from now on when you find yourself talking to someone with a disability, or you’re itching to hit that share button on Facebook, think to yourself: is this truly an inspiring act or am I just bringing the disability rights struggle back fifty years by indulging in some old-fashioned inspiration porn?
Good, I’m glad we’ve got that settled.
UPDATE: I feel it necessary to update this post and add a link to one of the main reasons my friend Clare and I have been prompted to do our research on all of this ableism and inspiration porn bull.
Here is just one of a zillion links to a story about a guy in a wheelchair who crowd-surfed at Osheaga music festival in Montreal this summer. During a performance by Edward Sharpe his able-bodied friends lifted him up above their heads so he could crowd-surf. This caught everyone’s attention because oh my god look at that poor guy in a wheelchair trying to be normal and oh my god aren’t his friends just absolutely amazing and inspiring for doing that for him. People said it was the most beautiful thing they have ever seen. It “restored faith in humanity” to see a disabled guy crowd-surf and most importantly have able-bodied friends who are being so nice to hang out with him. Ummm…no. Just no.