“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
examples are not harmful on the surface, but rather it’s how the stories have
been put together.
Inspiration Porn such a problem?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
About the Author Ali Ingersoll
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.