Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is it offensive to find people with disabilities doing ordinary things "inspirational"?

I found this article to be really interesting. I'd like to hear what my readers think! Here is an excerpt from it, and the link to the entire thing can be found here.

"Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn; it's there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, "Oh well if that kid who doesn't have any legs can smile while he's having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life". It's there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think "well, it could be worse... I could be that person".
In this way, these modified images exceptionalise and objectify those of us they claim to represent. It's no coincidence that these genuinely adorable disabled kids in these images are never named: it doesn't matter what their names are, they're just there as objects of inspiration.
But using these images as feel-good tools, as "inspiration", is based on an assumption that the people in them have terrible lives, and that it takes some extra kind of pluck or courage to live them."

Stay tuned for an update on my life shortly!


  1. It's more of a back-handed 'compliment' when someone says something like that. Trying to feel better about yourself by dragging someone else down is a really crappy thing to do because someone else always has it worse so why not try and improve your own life and not judge other people.

  2. Interesting. The same argument has been made of pictures organizations and news programs use of people living in developing countries. With those pictures, the organization/news show are trying to highlight an issue/raise funds for an issue, and the most effective way of bringing that kind of attention to an issue is to put a human face on it. Often, it is impossible to get signed consent of the person in the photograph in developing countries because it may go against their cultural norms, be logistically difficult, and/or the subject is fine with verbal consent. There have been many discussions of the ethics surrounding these photographs. So, the same argument can be applied to pictures of people with disabilities. Yes, they inspire (they certainly inspire me and remind me to be grateful for all I have), and often they are used in organizations' brochures/news programs, etc., to draw attention to an issue/raise funds for it. In the U.S., one must get written consent from the individuals or their parents to take pictures, so one assumes that the subjects approve of the photograph being taken. So you could argue that the unnamed subjects in the photographs are not just objects for inspiration, but agents for action - action to raise money/work on research/help improve their quality of life, etc. I think it's much more complicated than the author of the article makes it out to be. And there is nothing wrong with taking stock of one's life and circumstances compared to those who have different challenges than you do. I think it helps foster gratitude, and we all need more of that.

    Just my opinion of course.

  3. I agree completely, this is one of the things that annoys me the most. I think of it as the "sanitization of disability." Collectively, we have difficulty dealing with the idea that life is just not fair -- some people are going to be deaf, some will not have legs, some people get cancer, etc. Our way of assuaging our discomfort with the inherent unjustness of life is to suddenly make everyone with a disability, illness, or other trial "special." We don't have to deal with the reality (sometimes having no hands stinks, being blind means that there are some things you just will not be able to do, etc.) by turning a person with a disability into a token inspirational figure rather than regarding him as a whole person with strengths and weakness just like our own. If you think all people with disabilities are X... you need to meet more people with disabilities.

    And the generalizations are as bad as the inspiration... "All people with Down syndrome (though I'm dreaming to think it's ever spelled correctly as I wrote it here -- see Downs, Down's, Downes, et. al) are so lovable," "People with autism are secret geniuses" "People with intellectual disabilities are just like children for their whole lives" etc.

    Don't even get me started on "special needs education," or worse, people who describe THEIR OWN CHILDREN as "my special needs child." All children are special, all children have needs. End of story.

    The above brain dump is a CIO post that I've been tossing around in my head for some time. Thanks for bringing up this really important topic!

  4. *dictionary check* Correct usage is EITHER Down syndrome or Down's syndrome (the syndrome was identified by John Langdon Down, thus "Down's" syndrome.)

    When aliens with four arms come to look at us humans and say "look at those people with fewer arms, they have great sex and are happy, what an inspiration" and the four-armed planet comes to do a photo-shoot of sexy three- and fewer-armed people, all the while telling you how INSPIRATIONAL you are... well.. ;) -jrs

  5. -- Is it offensive to find people with disabilities doing ordinary things "inspirational"?

    We shouldn't look to others who are perceived to be in a worse "condition" than ourselves so that we can be lifted up or "inspired". That's not the definition of inspiration; it's the definition of self-pity.




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