“I am not your inspiration, thank you very much”
Society’s habit of turning disabled people into ‘inspiration porn’
By Stacey Spencer • JFCS Disability Services Manager
To commemorate Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) each February, I like to bring attention to the life of an amazing disability rights advocate you may have not heard about. Last year, I wrote about Anne Emerson. This year, I am highlighting Stella Young.
Stella was an Australian disability activist who was born in 1982 in Stawell, Victoria. She was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (also called brittle bone disease), an inherited (genetic) bone disorder characterized by fragile bones that break easily that is present at birth and a lifelong condition (John Hopkins Medicine). She began using a wheelchair when she was young and was a passionate advocate for disability rights her entire life.
Her disability did not hold her back from attending school or working. Stella completed college with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism and public relations, and a graduate diploma in education from the University of Melbourne. She became active in the disability community in a variety of roles, including membership of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council, Ministerial Advisory Council for the Department of Victorian Communities and Women with Disabilities Victoria. She was also involved with many disability-related projects including an editorial about disability issues and “No Limits,” a show about disability culture in Australia. (Washington.edu)
Stella was known for many things; she was an avid knitter, editor, educator, feminist, writer, and stand-up comedian who was fiercely funny. But she was mostly known for coining the phrase ‘inspiration porn’ in 2012.
For those who are wondering what that means, have you ever been scrolling on social media and come across an article or video about a disabled teenager that was invited to prom by the school’s quarterback? Or how “bravely” a disabled person participated in a sport or new job, or how a group of friends got together to do something helpful for a disabled person? A headline that highlighted that the “America’s Got Talent” winner was someone who had Autism?
These are all examples of inspiration porn. It is defined as “the portrayal of people with disabilities as being inspirational to able-bodied people on the basis of their life circumstances, or disabilities, in order to make them feel good.” (Ellis, Katie; Kent, Mike, November 2016) Or the idea that disabled people can do certain things “in spite” of their disability and are used to motivate non-disabled people, rather than uplifting disabled people. (Young, Stella 2012)
Before you see another “disabled success story,” try asking yourself who is sharing the story and why the story is being shared in the first place? Could it be the case that the media consistently shows stories and images of disabled people “overcoming the odds” and doing “incredible” things? Are they possibly trying to conger up sentiment and/or pity? Maybe the media is trying to portray an uplifting message, but is their prime audience non-disabled viewers?
More often than not, people with disabilities are not doing anything inspirational – they are just doing things to the best of their abilities. I am sure when people tell others they are an inspiration, they really do mean it as a compliment and it is well-intended, but it can come off as exploitive. Having a disability does not make you exceptional. The focus on a single narrative, that disabled people are always inspirational, contributes to a lack of accurate understandings of disability identities for disabled people to have to live up to. Rather than focusing on the disability, focus on the person. People with disabilities are individuals with their own interests, unique personalities and abilities.
When Stella was asked about her decisions in naming the term inspiration porn, she acknowledged: “I use the term porn deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. We are objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The purpose 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.’” (Young, 2014).
Stella Young died in 2014 at the age of 32 from an aneurism. Before she died, she did an amazing Ted Talk, which has over 4 million views! I highly encourage you to watch it. To learn about inspiration porn directly from Stella Young is truly remarkable – it just might be the best nine minutes that you will spend today.
Thank you, Stella Young, for helping us understand disability issues by sharing about your life with fierce humor, and challenging the way society views and treats people with disabilities. Your legacy is being an eternal advocate for people with disabilities.
During the month of February, JFCS and Jewish communities around the world observe and commemorate Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). The mission of JDAIM is to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted and included in all aspects of Jewish life.
For more information, contact Stacey Spencer, Disability Services Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org or 952-542-4845.