Inspiration Porn

Grandpa 2014

You’ve seen the feel-good news features. They’re on almost every day.  A child born without a hand gets a pink prosthetic limb.  A woman deaf from birth hears for the first time.  A high school student with Down syndrome gets invited to the prom.  An autistic teen sings the national anthem.  An athlete with CP is allowed to shoot a basket.  An amputee runs a marathon.  A miracle cure allows a woman with a spinal cord injury to walk down the aisle into the arms of her waiting groom.

And the tears flow. It’s all so inspiring.

We who live with disabilities call it “inspiration porn.” And we note that the stories, while they serve to make the able-bodied community feel good about itself, do nothing to enhance the self-esteem of those featured in the clips.

What these news clips have in common is:

  • They tend to make the person with the disability the object of the story rather than the subject of their own destiny. He or she is always “rescued” by a caring, generous able-bodied person, through no agency of their own. They are victims of their circumstances until the shining knight rides in.
  • The assumption made by those who produce and disseminate and consume these stories is that the burning desire of a person with a disability is to be like “normal” people – to be able to hear, see, go to prom, shoot a basket, etc.
  • Another assumption is that disability is repairable. Christopher Reeve and others have promoted the fallacy that with enough scientific research and funding, we can all get out of these wheelchairs and walk again, like “normal” people. Disability is a deficit that can be remediated, often through sheer willpower (although your generous contributions are greatly appreciated!).
  • They reduce the experience of disability to that of inspirational punch-line. It’s a pity that someone should have to live with a disability. But it’s inspiring when they can overcome their obstacles. This flattens the rich experience of disability into a single, misleading narrative.

Let’s try on a different conceptual framework for understanding disability. Instead of labeling a disability as a deficiency that can be fixed with the proper medical intervention, let’s regard it as an essential component of one’s identity.  Like the fact that I’m male, balding, and in my 60s, I also use a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury.  It doesn’t define me, but it’s certainly part of who I am.

Instead of prejudging the disability experience as a pitiful curse, let’s let the person with the disability speak for him- or herself. You’ll probably find that their experience is wildly nuanced.  They have good days and bad days, that may or may not revolve around their disability.  They may regard their condition as simply given, and dedicate their lives to other, more important things.  Like nurturing grandkids or fixing lunch.

I like to think that living with disability is like a cross-cultural excursion. Have you ever visited a foreign country?  I’m guessing that when you first touched down in an international airport and set foot on foreign soil, you were culture-shocked.  The sights, sounds, and smells were strange.  The taxi driver didn’t speak English.  They wouldn’t accept American dollars.  Could you eat the food or drink the water?  Am I safe walking the streets?  The inhabitants seemed poor and disadvantaged.

That’s how I felt when I woke up in a hospital and was told that I would never walk again. I felt like I had been cruelly abandoned, with no return ticket, in a foreign culture where I couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know the currency, and was afraid to drink the water.

But if you’re able to spend some real time in this new culture of yours, you may find the blessings hidden there. It’s not deficient, it’s just different.  I’ve spent six years living in Central America with the Peace Corps and the Mennonite Central Committee, and I’ve discovered some real joys in the lives of people who live there, when my first impressions were of poverty and misery.

The same with a disability. After I got over my initial shock and anxiety about the loss of the use of my legs, I put my energies into adapting to my new life and discovered that my reliance on a wheelchair was a pretty insignificant factor.  Vastly more important to me was the fact that I was still alive and could experience the maturing of my two children and the births of four grandchildren, making contributions to the lives of the congregations that I have continued to serve as pastor, writing books and articles, and going on to compete in marathons and triathlons.  I will reject any offer to try to “fix” me, but I do welcome partners along my journey who will honestly engage with me to learn what my experience of disability is like.

Who says that a child who has successfully adapted to the use of one hand is unhappy without a pink prosthesis? That’s an able-bodied assumption.  You have no idea whether that child craves a prosthetic hand or not.  Why are we surprised that a person with a cognitive or physical disability can sing like an angel?  Why are we inspired when someone with a disability adapts and is able to get on with life?

Perhaps we should put our energies into adjusting our own attitudes, and welcoming those with varieties of needs and abilities into our common life. Instead of rescuing or repairing or being inspired by them, pitying or ignoring them, think how our common experience might be enriched by simply making room in our society for those with disabilities.

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2 thoughts on “Inspiration Porn

  1. Absolutely spot on!!!! Thank you for this excellent essay. I hope many people will read it and stop the rescue/inspiration campaigning – so easy for them; so demoralizing and stupid for those living with disability every day.

    Like

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