Did I catch your attention with that title? Good. Now, keep reading to find out what it is and why it’s not cool.
Although stories like the ones I’m going to tell you about have been around for as long as I can remember, over the last few years, I’ve been seeing them in huge numbers.
“Heartwarming” & “Inspiration” are key words to these stories. But from the other side? We call them Inspiration Porn. (That’s not a good thing, in case you’re wondering.)
Inspiration porn is:
A photo of a disabled person, usually a kid (but it can and has been adults too), doing something ordinary, mundane, boring, and/or every day. Talking, writing, playing, going to work, doing sports, drawing, shopping, getting married, graduating from school (any level), and captioned something along the lines of: Your Excuse is Invalid, Don’t Give Up!, Don’t Quit Before Trying! Or even worse: The only disability in life is a bad attitude. Do you know how ridiculous that really is? Stella Young writes about the bad attitude phrase, pointing out that having a good attitude and smiling isn’t going to make a ramp appear!
Inspiration porn is:
When disabled people are celebrated or called inspirational, brave, amazing, awesome, and so forth, for doing the same things that non-disabled people do.
Inspiration porn is:
Generally aimed at non-disabled people to make them feel better about themselves. How do you think that makes us feel? Because, yes, we do have feelings.
The basic premise is someone feels badly (even if it’s not written as such) about someone else because that other person is autistic, a person with Down syndrome, or another disability, and so they let the other person win their wrestling match, invite them to prom, let them play for the first and only time – in the last game of the season, celebrate their poor penmanship on a cake (when it wasn’t even in their job duties) but until they learned that worker was (disability) – they were making fun. And it goes on, and on, and on.
Although I certainly can’t speak for every autistic person, and I do not claim to do so, I know that from my own experience and from what others have told me, making friends is not a skill we tend to have. It’s not something we’re good at. And many of us are still trusting and good-natured enough to believe that if you call me your friend, we’re really your friend. Not an acquaintance. Not your good deed of the month. Over and over again I’m shown that I was wrong to trust someone that I called a friend. But I keep, however tentatively, sticking my neck out and trusting again, because despite stereotypes about autism, I want to have friends. But I often have trouble telling when someone is being nice and acting like a friend, but they would really never want to do anything with me, and someone who genuinely wants me as a friend.
Don’t make it harder for me by pretending to be my friend so that you’ll feel better about yourself. It’s cruel.
You think you are doing a good thing, but in my eyes, you are being a bully.
Especially, if it becomes a (viral) news story or video.
Now, even if I took your friendship at face value before, I’ll know the truth.
Everyone will know the truth.
And even if you genuinely wanted to be my friend after you got to me some? The likelihood is I will never believe it, nor will I trust you.
Please think about that before you do your next ‘inspirational good deed’.
It is not inspirational when someone does their job. It’s not inspirational when a disabled person gets married (yes, a total stranger actually congratulated me on my marriage because I’d managed to do ‘something normal’). It’s not inspirational when we go to the store, or make true friends, or manage our personal hygiene needs on our own. We’re still human beings.
Did I like receiving congratulations on my marriage? Sure! From actual friends and family. Not from total strangers. Congrats from people who care about me, are happy for me, that’s one thing. Congrats for the sole reason that a marriage happened? Yeah, not so much.
I know it’s an apparent shock to some of you, but we are going to do human things. The stereotype about not having empathy, not wanting friends? Not true. We have empathy. Often an overwhelming amount of empathy. We may not express ourselves in the same way as non-autistic people, but that doesn’t mean we lack empathy.
We want friends. We may not be good at making them, but we want them. (Even if we want/need a lot of alone time to recharge, we still want friends.)
It’s not being a good sport when you intentionally lose your end-of-season game, your wrestling match that the college scouts came to see, a board game, a game of Jenga, etc. It’s not being a good sport when you let the disabled person off the bench for the final game of the season to make one hit, one shot, and then cheer wildly – whether they do well or not.
It’s not being a hero, good sport, nor is it doing a good deed to ask a disabled person to prom, or to talk everyone into nominating them as Homecoming King or Queen when they weren’t in the running (or convincing everyone to put them in the running to make the person ‘feel good’) and then privately or publicly celebrating how you’re helping them out.
That’s called pity.
sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, often often leading one to give relief or aid or to show mercy
an act of kindness, compassion, favor
You’re also telling the people you let win that they will never be good enough on their own.
That is a terrible thing to do to another person. (By the way, this is also often an issue with today’s helicopter parents, whether their children are disabled or not. Far too many of them so want their child(ren) to succeed, to win (even if the child doesn’t actually learn how to do anything themselves), the parents will cheat and do the kid’s projects, homework, etc for them. They too teach their child that they will never be good enough on their own.)
Put yourself in my shoes. Would you want real friends? People who genuinely value you as a person? People who think you are great to spend time with? Or would you be okay with people who took pity on you and might blog about how they did a good deed by making nice with the loner?
While I want to show you examples of inspiration porn, I refuse to link to the stories and improve their rating in search engines. I would use Do Not Link, but regrettably, the site has gone down. Instead, I’m simply going to list some headlines/article summaries for you to look up, if you so choose.
Santa Lies Down on the Floor for Boy with Autism (made worse by person first language)
Birthday Cake Decorated by Employee with Autism Goes Viral (made worse by person first language and because they outed the employee)
Just about any story where a non-disabled person invites a disabled person to prom (‘promposal’ is a keyword in many headlines) so that they can have that amazing high school moment.
Just about any story where a non-disabled person and/or their teammates lets the disabled teammate (who has usually been on the bench the entire year) play for that final shot — and not only does their team ‘lift them up’, the other team lets the disabled person score against them, ‘to be nice’.
Just about any story where an employee decides to help a disabled person by feeding them. If the disabled person asks for help, fine. But to the strangers who are there eating at the same time? Do not video tape this and broadcast it all over the internet and tell us how your faith in humanity has been restored. When people do this, it makes me sad, and results in less faith in humanity for me. I’d hate to be that disabled person, who was filmed without permission, broadcast online, and reduced to a prop in the story about how wonderful said employee was.
Just about any story celebrating an employee providing good customer service to disabled people, or if the employee is the disabled person, and they’re being celebrated for doing their job.
Or stories about disabled people dating. Or getting married. Or having friends. Or doing any other thing that other people do. Us living our lives? Not inspirational stories. Not teachable moments. If I’m an amazing writer, or singer, be amazed by my writing or singing for the writing or singing, not because I’ve managed to do it while existing as a disabled person.
Many of these are also bad, on top of the inspiration porn portion, because besides being reduced to an object, a prop for the story, the disabled person usually has their disability disclosed without them giving permission for disclosure. That is simply wrong. Do not do it. Do not disclose another person’s disability without their permission. It’s no different than releasing other medical information without permission. About the only time I would be okay with this is a life-or-death situation where the disclosure would actually make a difference in the outcome. (ex: Person has a health situation (A) which, at first glance, resembles another condition (B). But if the medicine(s) for B are given, it could kill the person. They’ve been in an accident and are not able to communicate in any fashion. In this case, telling the EMT/doctors what you know could make a difference in whether they live or die.
If I was not able to communicate, and my friend knew something that would make a difference in the healthcare I received, I would absolutely want them to speak up. But that’s about it. Don’t tell someone else so that they’ll be more comfortable around me. That’s my choice. Don’t tell someone else to show how amazed you are that I’ve done X despite Y.
Telling a customer, employee, etc, that another employee is autistic is not a life or death situation. Broadcasting your child’s disability without their permission on your blog is not a life or death situation. They’ll have to grow up with strangers knowing way more about them than is appropriate.
And finally, I’m not the first disabled person to write about the awfulness of inspiration porn, and I know I won’t be the last. Below are links to some of my favorite articles about this. Please take time to read them, too.
- A Heart Made Fullmetal: If the fact that I’m calling it porn bothers you . . .
- E is for Erin: Kindness Without Respect is Worthless
- Giraffe Party: The Cake Debacle
- Radical Neurodivergence Speaking: A thank you to my basketball coach. Or, sports inclusion for realsies.
- Un-Boxed Brain: Heartwarming stories don’t warm my heart
Some other good articles/videos to read/watch:
- 4 Things You Should Ask Yourself Before Sharing Inspiration Porn on Social Media
- TED Talk: Stella Young: I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much [Transcript]
- Stella Young: I’m not here for your inspiration
- “Inspiration Porn” Objectifies People with Disabilities
- Where is the line between Inspiration and Inspiration Porn?
- Liz’s Life, Aspergers, Gluten Free & Raw Fed Aussies: Inspiration Porn is Horrific (FYI: the font on this site is somewhat difficult to read)