En route home from work last night, and it was a particularly fun commute because of the snowy weather, I had plenty of time to catch up on Facebook. I read this update from a young woman with cerebral palsy:
"So I am at the grocery store doing my errands minding my own business & some random lady comes up to me & asks about my leg & back brace. I explain that I have cerebral palsy & few other conditions that require such tools. She then goes on to explain that her kids also have CP & I am inspiration to her that I have graduated from college & am independent. I am far from inspiration I am just doing what I need to do to live my life."
I knew what she meant. But I knew what that mom meant, too.
In the last year I've read several posts and articles about so-called "inspiration porn," a term coined by Stella Young, editor of the excellent Australian disability news site Ramp Up. In We're Not Here For Your Inspiration she describes the phrase as "an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, often doing something completely ordinary like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball—carrying a caption like 'Your excuse is invalid' or 'Before you quit, try.'"
A meme Young points to as an example of inspiration porn
It's not limited to people
The purpose, Young contends, is 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 having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life.' It's there so that non-disabled can look at us and think, 'Well, it could be worse...I could be that person.'" She goes on to note, "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. For many of us, that just is not true."
One of the things I want most for Max is for others to see all of him, not just his disabilities. To see the person. Inspiration porn turns kids and adults with disabilities into fantasy heroes, further widening the gap between them and others. Another kind of inspiration porn: exalting kids with special needs for participating in sports teams or going to proms. As the woman who writes The Squeaky Wheelchair puts it, "Inspiration porn allows disabled people to become a commodity, shared, tweeted, emailed, and cooed about for the sake of a public that wants to be 'inspired' by them, to see their everyday accomplishments and participation in life as an uplifting exception and not a rule." (Cara Leibowitz of Crazy Crippled Chick also has an excellent post on this, Explaining Inspiration Porn To Non-Disabled People.)
And yet: There are times when people who don't know our family, or Max, marvel over him, and it's made me uncomfortable. This past summer, Max was splashing around in a pool and a mom standing nearby said, "I just wanted to tell you, your son is amazing." I mean, I know that years ago he was terrified of pools and he overcame his fears, and years ago he couldn't keep his balance but now he ambles around in the water, but she didn't know all that. She just saw a kid with disabilities splashing in a pool, seemingly qualifying him for an Olympic medal.
And yet: I find inspiration in teens and adults with cerebral palsy doing everyday things. Ones who write blogs, go to college, have jobs, live independently. If I saw an adult with CP in a pool swimming, I'd be psyched. I am inspired because of the hope they give me that Max will do the same when he is older.
A commenter on that Facebook post I read on the train noted, "What I find weird is stuff that runs something like, 'You should never complain about things that are hard for you again because this person with a disability climbed a mountain.' In other words, the person with a disability is being depersonalized and being made to stand in for ALL HARDSHIP EVER. In this case the person is directly seeing you as a successful person with a disability similar to her kids, meaning that she sees you as a person first, which is pretty rad." The woman who'd written the post responded, "That is a really good way of looking at it. Thanks for that perspective."
I hope the adults with disabilities out there who rightly rail against inspiration porn can cut parents of kids with special needs a little slack. I don't mean to objectify you when I gaze admiringly as you browse in the bookstore (although rest assured, I wouldn't come up to you and gush), or when I tweet to an adult blogger with CP that I find her inspiring. I don't see your life as an "exception"—actually, I want my boy to someday have your life, the kind where he does everyday things like grocery shopping. If I consider the ordinary extraordinary, it's only because I am looking at you and envisioning my son.