Being visibly disabled in public is incredibly polarizing, something I did not realize until I first stepped out of my house with my cane. People either treated me as a nuisance and a burden or as pure inspiration for simply existing with a disability. I was their “inspiration porn,” to borrow the words of the incredible Stella Young. On the same day that I had a colleague breathlessly stammer, “I find you so inspiring!” I had an impatient student shove past me as I struggled slowly up a flight of stairs. I nearly fell, something that has caused devastating injuries to me in the past, simply because I did not move fast enough out of this person’s way. Even after repeatedly facing these seemingly disparate reactions, I still cannot wrap my mind around how the pain of another person can be viewed with irritation rather than compassion or with praise rather than understanding. Although it may seem flattering to be called inspiring, being viewed as inspiration porn is actually just as damaging as being seen as an aggravation.
On the surface, the two reactions might seem to be opposed, even antithetical to each other. However, they stem from the same fundamental idea that a disabled person is not a real person. Inspiration porn reduces a person’s disability to a single negative characteristic in which any attempt to exist as a human being apart from the disability is labeled “inspiring.” For an able-bodied person, viewing people with disabilities solely as inspiration is an easy escape from being complicit in every day ableism. Rather than attacking barriers to accessibility or petitioning for equal wages, you can just bask in how inspiring people with disabilities are. This invasive practice not only presents people with disabilities as the object of othering, but also dehumanizes us. It conflates the identity of the person with their disability, leaving no room for anything apart from “the disabled one.”
Inevitably, slogans such as “The only disability in life is a bad attitude!” are a natural consequence and not only are incredibly ableist, but also erase the validity of mental health disabilities. This brand of thinking puts the burden on people with disabilities to “overcome” their disabilities, and any perceived failure can be written off as lack of determination or desire to be better. It also silences the narratives of struggle, which are a part of many disabled people’s lives. Furthermore, it minimizes the role of supportive medical staff, effective treatments, and affordable care in a disabled person’s life. It is far easier to shrug off someone’s pain as being their fault than face the reality of living with a disability, the reality of an unsympathetic society, frequent inaccessibility, and a medical infrastructure with the singular goal of profit.
The only way to progress towards equity for people with disabilities is to eradicate dehumanizing rhetoric in all of its forms, whether that is viewing disability and illness as irritating nuisances or manipulating the lives of people with disabilities to be inspiration porn. Participating in either is a deliberate act of othering, or setting up a false dichotomy between “us” (i.e. able-bodied people) and “them” (people with disabilities). “Othering” is used by people with privilege to excuse marginalizing groups of people and to classify them as lesser. By perceiving people with disabilities as fundamentally separate, able-bodied folk can enforce a system of inequality and inaccessibility because it is “normal.”
Unfortunately, othering is a frequent problem within the medical community as well. It is widely understood that doctors dehumanize chronic, terminal, or incurable patients as a coping mechanism. While this has some horrifying consequences within medical research—the Tuskegee syphilis experiment is a terrible example of racial othering—it also has serious effects for a disabled person’s primary care. People who have chronic illnesses or disabilities often face frustration from doctors when they do not improve. They are often viewed as drug seekers, lazy, or hypochondriacs: all variations on the same dehumanizing, othering label. Like inspiration porn, this view faults people with disabilities for their disability and like the burden rhetoric, it reduces people with disabilities to being an irritation. Just as frequently, doctors equate people with disabilities with their condition, which ultimately prevents them from providing equal care. In my personal experience, I have been refused treatment by several different doctors because they did not want to “deal with a difficult condition,” forgetting that I am not just a condition; I am a person.
People with disabilities are first and foremost people, and we have a human right to accessibility, regardless of whether it is irritating or frustrating. I may be disabled, but I am still a person, and my disability isn’t something I bravely overcome or courageously face. It’s a part of my life, it’s a part of who I am, and it most certainly isn’t here to inspire you.
Shanahan is a graduate student.