Inspiration Porn: Once You See It, You Can’t Not See It

Content Note: Inspiration Porn, Ableism, Objectification, Work without Pay, Murder

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I talked to a lovely group of stroke survivors in my community last week about a variety of stroke and disability-related issues. I was very impressed with their insights and honoured to be asked to speak to them. I wasn’t surprised when they hadn’t heard of inspiration porn when the subject came up (I didn’t learn about it until I started blogging) but I was a bit surprised when a couple of people brought it up with me one-on-one afterward; it obviously struck a chord.

So, for those people from that talk visiting my blog for the first time (and for anyone else who’s curious) here’s a bit more about inspiration porn and how to spot it.

Inspiration Porn is a Media Depiction Issue

As I described the nature of inspiration porn to the group, a woman picked up on it right away.

“It’s about how the media depicts the story,” she said. We were talking about a story (a type of story that seems to emerge on an increasingly frequent basis) of a high school football player asking an intellectually disabled classmate to the prom. I’d been asked to talk about activism, so I pointed out that the disability community generally doesn’t like these sort of stories — they come across almost exclusively as praise for a non-disabled person bestowing a favour on a disabled person who obviously shouldn’t expect the privilege of attending a dance with a non-disabled date, or of attending a dance at all (even if the non-disabled student who asked the disabled student to the dance wasn’t thinking those things.)

History professor and disability scholar David Perry identifies 3 major categories of inspiration porn, usually involving people with Down Syndrome or another developmental disability:

  • Teenagers give disabled person some award or treat them especially nicely.
  • A high school sports team or athlete “allows” a disabled student to do something — usually to participate on a team in a way that non-disabled students do.
  • A disabled person “overcomes” their disability to do something where disability would seem to be an obstacle.

From what I could tell from her reaction to the discussion, another woman in the group felt that I was assuming an ill motive of the non-disabled people in these stories, which isn’t true and is very rarely true of inspiration porn. Perry agrees:

“In almost every case, I have no criticisms of the young men and women who are seeking ways to better include their classmates with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities. Teenagers…are good people looking for ways to be more inclusive. High-school kids must take such steps because too often, our education systems, recreation leagues, and society at large lack natural pathways for people with and without disabilities to compete, play, or develop easy social interactions with each other. My issue is with the reporting.”

It’s the reporting. And once you see it, it’s hard to not see it.

Why “Inspiration Porn”?

These stories are called inspiration porn because they operate (in the general sense) the way traditional pornography does — people (mostly non-disabled) use it for their own purposes (to feel inspired, to feel better about their lives, to feel better about the state of the world in general), and as that happens, people get objectified. These stories aren’t about the disabled people in them. They’re about:

  • How wonderful the football player is for asking the poor disabled girl to prom
  • How gracious it was for the basketball team to make a disabled boy’s dream come true by letting him take a shot at the basketball game
  • How inspirational it is that a woman in a wheelchair manages to get herself up, dressed, and on the train each morning to go to a job (even though she’s only doing what millions of people do every day); after all, she could just be sitting at home watching television all day like most disabled people do because they’re, well, disabled. And if *she* can get up each morning and get on with things, shouldn’t *you* be able to face the challenges in front of you with grace? At least *you* don’t have a disability, you quitter! Remember, the only disability in life is a bad attitude! (There are about 4 types of inspiration porn tropes in this last one.)

Disability activist Stella Young addressed inspiration porn extensively in a TED Talk, “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much” that went viral in 2014:

It’s not wrong to feel good about stories of people helping each other. But inspiration porn is damaging — it reinforces negative messages about disability and puts a positive sheen on stories that appear feel-good but are actually very problematic. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Ridge Quarles and Qdoba Restaurant

Disability advocates including me and David Perry read “Qdoba Worker Feeds Disabled Customer, Reminds Us to ‘Help Someone Every Day’” when it ran on the Huffington Post’s “Love Matters” page in May 2015 and declared it inspiration porn, even though it’s a nice story. A regular customer at a Qdoba Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, a female wheelchair-user that travels to the restaurant using a what sounds like city-run wheelchair transit service, asked then-employee Ridge Quaarles for some assistance to eat her dinner, which he provided. Good for him. It would be great if there were more people like Ridge Quarles, that will help when others ask them.

This story veers into inspiration porn in 3 significant ways:

  1. A customer was so moved by Quarles’ actions that he filmed the whole thing on a camera phone and posted it on social media — without the woman’s consent. The assumption that it was okay to do this reflects one of core characteristics of inspiration porn: the disabled person’s feelings about what happened don’t matter. The Huffington Post follows this up with their coverage: Quarles is interviewed, but the woman isn’t. She’s just the object that everyone acts on.
  2. The story is obviously meant to be heart-warming and inspirational, right down to Quarles’ statement on social media soon after the incident: “Today I had the honor to accept public acknowledgment for helping someone else in need. I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to impact lives around me. Go out and help someone today and pay it forward. Happy day everyone!” It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s again objectifying. Disabled people aren’t there to fill whatever need non-disabled people have — they’re people with opinions and stories and lives that don’t get explored in this type of reporting because they’re objects.
  3. The exclusive focus on the feel-good aspect of this story means that problematic elements are glossed over. Yes, a Qdoba employee did something very nice for a disabled customer on that day. Usually, though, the customer has to wait outside when she arrives at the restaurant for a customer to let her in, or a staff member to notice she’s there or let her in, because there’s no electric door — and she’d been coming there for 5.5 years when the article was published. No one from the Huffington Post apparently thought to ask why the restaurant is so glaringly non-accessible, or why staff knew this woman well enough that they knew what she’d order when came in, but not that she had at least some difficulty feeding herself. Isn’t part of this story that a disabled woman who could perhaps use some support to go to her favourite restaurant either wasn’t getting it or refusing it? But it doesn’t seem like reporters wanted to talk to her (or maybe they tried and she didn’t want to talk, but there’s generally a note when someone refuses an interview.)

Whoever the woman is, she wasn’t deemed important enough to include in the story in any way that gives her any personhood. And that sort of reporting is a giant step backward for disabled people.

Sam Forbes, “The Dancing Barista”

People loved media coverage of Toronto’s Dancing Barista, mainly by CTV and The Ellen Show (see video below.)

Again, I liked this…somewhat. It’s often difficult for disabled people to find work. As someone who used to try to to help young disabled people find work, it was great to hear a story about a young man finding a job that he likes so much, where things about him that he’d always considered deficits were assets being treated like a contributing member of the team. And it was a story about a friendship between a disabled person and a non-disabled person (the manager of the Starbucks, Chris Ali.)

And then the media came along, and this story became total inspiration porn.

  1. Like the woman in the Ridge Quarles article, Sam becomes an object — The Dancing Barista. His name isn’t mentioned in the CTV headline, or in the main headline of this Toronto Star article. Again, the majority of the comments on the video story on CTV News Go were explicitly for Ali for being a good person and hiring a disabled person (although Sam did get some kudos for doing the great job that he’s doing.)
  2. There’s definitely a sense, to me, of Sam becoming, through the media coverage, somewhat of a circus sideshow — come see the Starbucks barista who’s always dancing! — when the dancing serves an important purpose for Sam, who is autistic: It focuses him and makes him more able to prepare the drinks correctly, as he explained to Ellen Degeneres (see video below.) This isn’t about entertaining customers — it’s about Sam doing what he has to in order to do his job to the best of his ability, and having some fun at the same time. He is not an entertainment attraction. But is the story really about him?
  3. Like most inspiration porn, the feel-good aspect of the story sweeps problematic aspects under the rug. First, Sam told Ellen that he expected to be interviewed for this job — he knows that when you’re applying for a job, an interview is part of it. He was given the job without being interviewed — I imagine because he’s disabled. There’s no reason why, even if Ali fully intended on giving him the job, Sam couldn’t have gone through an interview. If I’d been Sam’s support worker, I’d have insisted on it, in fact. Second, Sam is not paid minimum wage. He’s paid only in tips. This is discriminatory, and says something about how much Sam’s work is *actually* valued in his workplace. I cannot think of a non-disabled 17-year-old who would work at Starbucks for tips, or parents that would tell their non-disabled teen that a job that pays them only tips is one that they should accept — but because Sam is disabled, it seems to be okay. Third, because Sam is disabled and he dances and it’s a whole “feel-good” story, Sam has gotten a trip to Japan and Ali has gotten the meet the Raptors. Very nice — but do we really want to reinforce the notion that disabled people are so special and so unlike everyone else, so difficult to incorporate into the workplace, that we should be rewarded with expensive trips just for showing up and managers should be rewarded for hiring us for tips? *These* are the stories that need to be covered.

But the mainstream media prefers feel-good and inspiration porn when it comes to disability, because the public really does eat it up. The critiques of stories like Sam’s tend to happen in the echo chamber of the disability community, because we’re criticized when we bring these things up more publicly.

Here’s Ellen’s video about Sam. Ellen has proven herself ableist (discriminatory toward the disabled) a number of times, which is why I don’t watch her much anymore. Notice, again, that we don’t see Sam’s name in the title — as if it’s of no importance.

“The Only Disability in Life is a Bad Attitude”

This quote has been showing up on motivational posters for years. People might recognize this one:

Paralympian Oscar Pistorian, wearing a white, sleeveless top and black, knee-length shorts, runs on blades on an indoor track next to a small girl with Down Syndrome, also wearing blades. She has blonde hair and wears a yellow sundress, and her blonde hair is in pigtails. The Scott Hamilton quote, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” figures prominently. Keyword: Inspiration Porn

Image Description: Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, wearing a white, sleeveless top and black, knee-length shorts, runs on blades on an indoor track next to a small girl with Down Syndrome, also wearing blades. She has blonde hair and wears a yellow sundress, and her blonde hair is in pigtails. The Scott Hamilton quote, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” figures prominently.

This piece of inspiration porn really gets activists going (and long before Paraolympian Oscar Pistorius was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steincamp).

Why do you think that activists have branded this image inspiration porn?

I wrote about it here in 2012.

Have a great day. Thank you again to my local Stroke Support Group for letting me be a part of your meeting last week!

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