“Disability & Inspiration - Common Misconceptions

By Ali Ingersoll

Disability, Diversity and Inclusion Specialist 

As a C6 quadriplegic injured in a shallow water diving accident in 2010 leaving me paralyzed from the chest down and a full-time wheelchair user, I am no stranger to being called an inspiration on a regular basis as so many others with disabilities undoubtedly find themselves in similar situations.  

The challenge for many people with disabilities being called an inspiration lies in the perception beneath the word “inspiration.”  Are we being called an inspiration simply because we are living a life with a disability and able-bodied people find it inspirational that we are surviving a life simply because of our disability?  Or, are they calling us an inspiration because of our accomplishments and contributions to society just as any other member of the community?

People with disabilities have a variety of different views on how to educate the public about disability and what inspirational is supposed to mean.  Disabled people don’t always agree on exactly what makes a disability depiction helpful, however most experience a certain discomfort with what are supposed to be positive stories in the media about disabled people.  These stories are usually well-intentioned, but often times make people with disabilities feel embarrassed or demoralized.

There is a conflict between intent and effect of disability depictions.  This is where the term “Inspiration Porn” comes into play.  It’s an informal term, coined by the late Australian disability activist, Stella Young, for a general genre of media depictions of disabled people.  Inspiration porn generally shares one or more of the following qualities:

·         Sentimentality or pity

·         Uplifting moral message primarily aimed at nondisabled viewers

·         Disabled people anonymously objectified

These representations, while not meant to be harmful, can be very manipulative and limiting in the view of getting to the heart of how people live, what they think, and how they are affected by what’s going on in their daily lives.

I have also fallen victim to inspiration porn myself.  For example, I’ve lost count how many times people have come up to me and told me what an inspiration I am in a coffee shop.  They don’t even know me.  However, while there certainly did not seem to be any ill intent with their comments, I can only conclude they are assuming I’m inspiration because of my wheelchair, not despite of it. Many of us with disabilities want to be commended for our contributions to our work, community, society, etc., not simply because we are disabled and decided to go out for a coffee by ourselves without assistance.

Inspiration porn is almost analogous to actual pornography in the fact that it provides a kind of superficial pleasure and satisfaction for the viewer, while objectifying, and often harming the most passive subjects to be looked at.  There’s no precise definition of inspiration porn, but certain examples include:

·         New stories about a student with a mental disability who was elected student president, portrayed as an admirable act of charity.

·         Video clips of grocery store employees helping a disabled customer shop.

·         Photos showing smiley, athletic, and good-looking people in wheelchairs with uplifting slogans about gratitude, hard work, and the benefits of a positive mental attitude.

These examples are not harmful on the surface, but rather it’s how the stories have been put together.

Why is Inspiration Porn such a problem?

Well, I would say it generally intends to convey a single feeling and superficial sentimentality, which crowds out other possible interpretations.  It does not describe the complicated challenges of really living a disability.  Inspiration porn pushes the masses to a single warm and fuzzy feeling response.  This, oftentimes, can lead to mixed feelings of condescension and pity.

Relentlessly repeated stories of positive, uplifting, charming, and high achieving disabled people tend to create misplaced pressures on other disabled people to behave in certain ways, and achieve certain successes.

Stories of individual courage and perseverance in the face of extremely adverse conditions, often mask more socially significant evidence of underlying injustice and systematic failures, which solutions can be found if properly addressed.

Ultimately, these positive messages of inspiration porn rely on the underlying assumption that disability is by default tragic.  This distorts our understanding of what disability actually is, in ways that reinforce rather than dismantle negative stereotypes.  More importantly, the stories are usually told from the point of view of non-disabled observers.

However, this is not to say that we should not highlight successful stories of people with disabilities, but rather, it’s how they are portrayed and interpreted in the present social media environment.

I’m not reinventing the wheel with the following suggestions on how to avoid inspiration porn as this topic has been touched on many times, but a few basic guidelines, while subjective, include:

·         Stories should always include ideas, input, and direct quotations from actual people with disabilities.

·         Certainly don’t speak of disability as an affliction, a burden, or a tragedy.

·         If you’re going to tell a story of a disabled person’s perseverance and triumph over challenging conditions they have had to overcome, make sure to address what is causing these conditions.  Give the readers a broader systematic change to work towards. 

·         Photos and videos posted on the Internet should actually portray individuals with real disabilities, not actors playing a disabled individual in a wheelchair.

It all boils down to education.  We need to educate the masses, media, and our communities on our needs, opinions, and thoughts on the matter.  If we continue to criticize inspiration porn in the media, but do not take action to push for changing the narrative then we have no one to blame, but ourselves.  We, as the disability community, have to pave the way for future generations in order to affect change in the way we are perceived by society.

About the Author Ali Ingersoll

Ali Ingersoll is a day trader, marketing consultant, disability advocate, writer, blogger, editor, and public speaker. She started her advocacy mission after being repeatedly denied medically necessary equipment by insurance companies over the last 10 years since becoming a C6 quadriplegic and full-time wheelchair user after a shallow water diving accident.
Ali’s passion lies in coaching people with disabilities on how to improve their quality of life by teaching them to self-advocate in order to live a life of independence, dignity, and grace. Disability  Inclusion in our society is a priority
Ali focuses on improving every day.   Ali has a firm philosophy of paying it forward by giving back to the community through working with stakeholders in the government, non profit world, and partnering with national disability organizations to create a more inclusive society and employment environment. She believes it’s important to band together as one in order to affect the greatest change on the national stage and in local communities.




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