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Where Do We Draw the Line: Disability Representation and Inspiration Porn



It is important for most marginalized groups in society, to have representation in all areas of society, and the Disability community is no different.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2023, twenty-seven percent or one in four adults in the United States were reported to have a disability. According to the World Health Organization in 2023, the global percentage of people reported to have a disability is sixteen percent. It is reasonable to presume that there are far more than reported, whether due to equity in reporting, or to understanding of the parameters of disability. It is said that most people are expected to experience disability at some point in their lifetime.


"Inspiration Porn...in which non-disabled people portray people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability."

Whether in movies and television, or social media and advertising, representation is important. There are, however, important caveats to all forms of representation. One critical issue is accurate depictions. A lot of issues come into play in television and movies when roles for disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors. This creates problems that are two-fold. It is inequitable to disabled actors who could have played the part and who already have less opportunities for roles. The other issue is that if the disabled character is played by a non-disabled actor, especially if there are no disabled script writers, or even no disabled people involved at all in the process, the accuracy goes out the window.


A separate issue that comes up often, especially in social media and news outlets, is the issue of Inspiration Porn.


Disability rights activist Stella Young coined the term Inspiration Porn in 2012 to describe a phenomenon in which non-disabled people portray people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability. Young stated “I use the term porn deliberately because of the objectification of one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” Young rejected the idea that disabled people’s mundane activities were considered remarkable purely based on their disability.


You may be wondering; how do we draw the line between accurate and equitable representation and crossing the line into inspiration porn. While it is wonderful to celebrate disability pride, it is important to identify and avoid crossing that line.



Some signs to look for:


Objectification

Putting disabled people on a pedestal for everyday tasks, due to assuming (inaccurately) that disabled people are completely incapable of anything, even unrelated to their specific disability. If you would not celebrate a non-disabled person for the same accomplishment, it is not appropriate to put a disabled person on display.


Otherization

Treating disabled people as less than, or abnormal, such as acting as if they should not be allowed to experience the same things in life as everyone else. Examples may be the non-disabled hero that asked the disabled girl to prom, or has been lifelong friends with them, as if this is an incredible act of charity. This implies (inaccurately) that disabled people are not worthy of the same social status and experiences as non-disabled people, and that the non-disabled person is extraordinarily kind for including them in their social circle. This is a common example of the Charity Model of Disability, a paradigm that depicts disabled people as victims of circumstance and deserving of pity.


While other examples can exist, these are two commonly used approaches.


"[C]elebrate disability representation without inappropriately objectifying or othering disabled people."

So now we must explore how we can celebrate disability representation without inappropriately objectifying or othering disabled people.


  • Celebrate true accomplishments (the ones you would also celebrate for non-disabled people) without making it about their disability. Many people with disabilities accomplish substantial things, just like their non-disabled counterparts.


  • Ensure that disabled people have a voice in roles in television and movies that portray a disability. Involve them at all levels of the process. Remember the disability saying, "nothing about us without us.” There should be decision makers, consultants, writers, actors, and anyone who can create an accurate depiction of lived experience.


  • Consume content by disabled people and share with others. A good place to start is the #WeThe15 campaign video on YouTube. Of course, as an Autistic person myself I would also strongly encourage you to watch another YouTube video channel called CommunicationFIRST.


  • Listen to disabled people. Their lived experiences are far more accurate and valuable than perceptions or portrayals stemming from societal attitudes towards people with disabilities. Let them tell their own stories.


  • Understand that though disability can limit some areas of our lives, it does not extend to unrelated areas of our lives, unless additional barriers exist. For example, a wheelchair user does not automatically have an intellectual disability. Neither is inferior to the other, nor to any other human life. However, assuming that they are automatically correlated leads to additional otherization of the individual, as societal attitudes about both are stereotyped and stigmatized. Always presume competence.


  • Rather than being our voice, or speaking for us, be our microphones by giving us the opportunity to use our own voices and amplifying that to others (for example, letting us tell our story, and then sharing it with others via social media, news, television, etc.).


  • Look for signs of inspiration porn being shared by others and speak up when something is inappropriate. Objectification and otherization have harmful impacts, regardless of intention. Remember, often those using these approaches are good intentioned, and try to take that into consideration when approaching them about the harm inflicted. Calling them in, rather than calling them out, can make the difference between educating them and vilifying them. Afterall, inspiration porn is a form of benevolent ableism.



Some examples of Benevolent Ableism include:

  • Microaggressions (if well intended can be considered benevolent ableism)

  • “Helping” without consent.

  • Not respecting the lived experiences of the disabled person

  • Not considering the disabled person’s input in decision making, especially when it affects them.

Challenge your own internal unconscious biases. We have all been exposed to both subtle and direct forms of ableism throughout our lives and have unintentionally absorbed some of these perceptions. We are likely not fully aware of them, but it is important to intentionally look inwardly to identify and challenge these misconceptions.


So, the next time you see a story of a high school football quarterback who has grown up best friends with a girl with a disability, and then asked her to prom, ask yourself (and maybe even others):


“So what?”



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