The Trouble with Inspiration Porn

Imagine if the world thought you were so unlovable that when someone was nice to you, it made the national news. It sounds hurtful and demean­ing, but when it happens to disabled people, it’s “inspirational.”

Stories like these, which disabled activist Stella Young has dubbed “in­spiration porn,” typically follow one of two patterns. In the first, the dis­abled person is praised for “overcom­ing” their disability in order to achieve something, often adding that if some­one with a disability managed to do what they did, abled people have “no excuse” not to achieve more. In the second version, an abled person is showered with praise for treating a disabled person with basic respect. Together, these stories make up a sig­nificant part of disabled media repre­sentation, and this saccharine objec­tification and infantilization has far-reaching effects.

“Mom Cleverly Dresses Up Son’s Wheelchair with Amazing Halloween Costume,” reads the headline of a Huff­ington Post article, which describes how a child with spina bifida got to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, while a Mental Floss list of “7 People Who Refused To Be Limited” de­scribes how Hector Picard, a man whose arms were amputated after an injury, traveled 1,500 miles by bike.

One article is about a child trick-or-treating. How is that newsworthy? And not to diminish Picard’s accom­plishments, but his arms are missing, not his legs. Plenty of able-bodied people can to ride bikes without arms; do they make the news? He should be celebrated for his athletic prowess, not for the fact that he’s disabled. It’s con­descending to imply that someone is doing such a good job for just going about their day, and it’s harmful to treat disabled people, who live com­plex, fulfilling lives, as if they exist only for the benefit of abled readers.

There are also the stories about someone being nice to a disabled per­son, framing the friend or good-doer as a hero who sacrificed so much by even tolerating the disabled person’s presence. During prom season, “heart­warming” stories about disabled people being asked to prom circulate throughout the web. One such story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, titled “Prom a memorable night for teen with autism—and his parents,” frames his invitation to prom as a sympathy date and says his parents thought it would “never happen” to him, without bothering to ask why they thought so in the first place.

Some may say critics of inspiration porn want to ruin everyone’s fun. The world is full of bad news: why take away the few bits of inspiration we have?

Because it’s a matter of life and death.

Intellectually and developmen­tally disabled people, for example, often suffer discrimination when it comes to life-saving organ transplants: the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation specifically states that “mental retardation or de­mentia” can disqualify someone from a heart transplant, and according to a 2008 study at Stanford University, 85% of pediatric transplant centers admit­ted to having factored neurodevelop­mental status into their evaluations of patients’ eligibility for transplants. This issue was made public in 2012, when 3-year-old Amelia Rivera was denied a kidney transplant due to her intellectual disability and Wolf-Hirschorn syndrome. Despite family members’ offers to donate kidneys, hospital staff did not reverse their de­cision until national outrage pressured them to do so.

The same year, a mother named Annette Coriveau appeared on the TV show Dr. Phil to discuss how she wanted to murder her two disabled adult children, and was praised for her desire to give them “mercy.” Almost every member of the audience agreed with her decision. Two years later, a judge gave British mother Charlotte Fitzmaurice legal permission to kill her daughter Nancy by starvation and dehydration—an agonizing 14-day process that neither the UK nor the US accepts as punishment for even the most heinous crimes.

Inspirational stories can exist with­out exploitation. In 1990, physically disabled people took their wheelchairs and crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to protest delays in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last May, after pressure from the group Washington Autism Alliance and Advocacy, Washington governor Jay Inslee signed a bill prohibiting the use of physical restraint and isolation against students with disabilities. And in September, the ACLU won a class action lawsuit against the federal gov­ernment on behalf of 900 immigrants with mental disabilities who had been deported, allowing them to reopen their cases and granting them a fair hearing.

These stories fly under the radar, while pithy and infantilizing clickbait goes viral. However, to be truly inspi­rational, stories about people with disabilities must cease to perpetuate oppression and instead celebrate the fight against it.

ILLUSTRATION BY FELICIA CHANG