inspiration porn


Stella Young seems like the kind of person I would’ve enjoyed. An Australian comedian, She spent most of her life in a wheelchair as a result of a congenital condition. Stella died last Saturday at the age of 32. Although she lived on the other side of the globe and I never had the good fortune to meet her, we shared similar views on the disabled as fountains of inspiration for our able-bodied peers.

I’ve written about this topic numerous times over the last 4 years, but the following excerpt represents my most cogent thoughts on the subject:

When I first began running road races as an amputee, I found it bizarre that so many of my fellow runners and spectators shouted words of encouragement at me. They weren’t doing that because I was a marvelously gifted runner – trust me, I wasn’t. But, especially at that time, I was one of the few amputees they had ever seen on a 5 or 10k course. I was a symbol of something to the able-bodied population.

I was, in those people’s minds, brave, or courageous, or inspirational, or some other similarly-laudatory label they attached to me because of the disconnect in their own minds between what an amputee should be and what I actually was. But this was possible, I submit, in large part because of the following paradox: at the same time that I challenged their preconceptions by participating in an able-bodied activity, I simultaneously reaffirmed the order of the universe.

I was slow. I always finished towards the end of the pack. I wasn’t in any way a challenge to the other racers. My involvement validated a reflexive, nearly-universal assumption: the disabled, by the very nature of their disability, can’t compete at the same level as their able-bodied peers.

This past April, Stella spoke at a TEDx conference in Sydney and offered the following similar thoughts:

I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. We’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. Capital B, capital T. It’s a Bad Thing. And to live with disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a Bad Thing, and it doesn’t make you exceptional.

*   *   *

[T]here are a lot of [“inspirational”] images out there. You might have seen the one with the little girl with no hands drawing a picture with a pencil held in her mouth. You might have seen a child running on carbon fibre prosthetic legs. And these images – there are lots of them out there – they are what we call Inspiration Porn.

And I use the term porn deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you. So that we can look at them and think well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.

Sometimes I read things and receive a hard jolt of recognition when I realize the author is saying exactly what it is that I’ve always (unsuccessfully) tried to articulate. When I saw the above quote from Stella after learning of her death, I had one of those moments.

“Inspiration porn” is an intentionally provocative term. (I shudder to think what types of automated spam comments I’ll receive as a result of including the second word in this post.) But it’s dead on.

What has always made me so uncomfortable with people shouting, “You inspire me!” as they blast by on a race course (and yes – that has happened to me, many times) is that they don’t know me. I’m just a stranger who wears a prosthesis. Whatever they were trying to convey by saying these words, I’m left feeling uncomfortable. I’ve just become a symbol (my word), objectified (Stella’s). And, as Stella correctly pointed out in her TEDx talk, the complements seem especially unwarranted because we haven’t accomplished anything deserving of this level of praise:

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been approached, by strangers, wanting to tell me that they think I’m brave or inspirational. And this was long before my work had any kind of a public profile. They were just kind of congratulating me for managing to get up in the morning and remember my own name.

I’m not a world class runner and never have been. I’ve never set a world record. I won a single trophy in my racing life – first place, above-knee amputee division – back in the late 90’s. Sounds impressive, no? It’s much less noteworthy once you take into account the fact that I was the only AK participating. It didn’t matter whether I set a world record, personal best, or walked the whole thing using crutches – I was “winning” that race. I never looked at the trophy afterwards and said, “Man, that was an amazing achievement that deserves the admiration of others.” Rather, I felt a sense of pride in accomplishing something that I had set out to do: just finish. In other words, I felt like virtually every less-than-elite runner feels after completing a race.

In the same post I quoted from at the beginning of this post I finished with the following thought:

The future leaders of the [limb loss/disability] community won’t, in many cases, be the athletes whose accomplishments deservedly gain notoriety. … Instead, we’re going to need bridge builders, first-class communicators who can effectively highlight our common and fundamental humanity to link people together by emphasizing what we all share.

Stella Young was exactly that kind of communicator. She ended her TEDx talk with a turn of phrase I wish I had been smart enough to say myself:

Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.

I’m sorry I never got to meet Stella Young. But I do feel like I met her.

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