by STELLA YOUNG
I don’t know Scott Hamilton personally but that guy is really starting to burn my crumpets.
You’ve heard of him, I’m sure. He’s the one who said “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” You know, that quote that’s plastered all over pictures of disabled people doing completely normal things and shared far and wide on social media.
Hamilton is a figure skater who has had cancer more than once and has survived after lots of treatment. Good for him. Although how it qualifies him to make such a bold sweeping statement about disability, I can’t quite grasp. I’ll get to that in a moment. Firstly, I want to address the images that his slogan so often accompanies.
Those images constitute what’s called inspiration porn.
Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, 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”. Increasingly, they feature the Hamilton quote.= display_ad('x18', 'hidden-xs hidden-md mm_incontent', 'MM In Content'); ?>= display_ad('x20', 'visible-xs mm_mob_incontent', 'MM In Content (Mobile)'); ?>
There’s the one pictured here. It’s of a little girl running on a set of prosthetic legs alongside Oscar Pistorius, also using similar prostheses. Those legs, for the record, cost upwards of $20,000 and are completely out of reach for most people with disabilities. The Hamilton quote is plastered across the photo.
And there’s another one of a little boy running on those same model legs with the caption, “Your excuse is invalid”. Yes, you can take a moment here to ponder the use of the word “invalid” in a disability context. Ahem.
Then there’s the one with the little girl with no hands drawing a picture holding the pencil in her mouth with the caption, “Before you quit. Try.”
I’d go on, but I might expunge the contents of my stomach.
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.
For many of us, that is just not true.
When I was 15, a member of my local community approached my parents and told them she wanted to nominate me for some kind of community achievement award. My parents said, “Thanks, but there’s one glaring problem with that… she hasn’t actually achieved anything out of the ordinary.”
They were right. I went to school, I got good marks, I had a very low key after-school job, and I spent a lot of time watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek. I wasn’t feeding orphaned Chlamydia-infected baby koalas before school, or setting up a soup kitchen in the main street, or reading newspapers to the elderly at the local hospital. I was doing exactly the same things as my non-disabled friends. When my parents explained all this to the well-meaning nominator, they said “yes, but she’s just such an inspiration”.
And there’s the rub. My everyday life in which I do exactly the same things as everyone else should not inspire people, and yet I am constantly congratulated by strangers for simply existing. It happened twice last week.
I was on a train with my earphones shoved in my ears completely ignoring my fellow commuters (as is my want early in the morning) while reading inane things on twitter. A woman on her way to getting off at her stop patted me on the arm and said “I see you on the train every morning and I just wanted to say it’s great. You’re an inspiration to me.”
Should I have said “you too”? Because we were doing exactly the same thing; catching public transport to our respective places of employment. I was just doing it sitting down. Should I have pointed out that, in many ways, that requires less effort, not more?
That’s the thing about those kids in the inspiration porn pictures too – they’re not doing anything their peers don’t do. We all learn how to use the bodies we’re born with, or learn to use them in an adjusted state, whether those bodies are considered disabled or not. So that image of the kid drawing a picture with the pencil held in her mouth instead of her hand? That’s just the best way for her, in her body, to do it. For her, it’s normal.
I can’t help but wonder whether the source of this strange assumption that living our lives takes some particular kind of courage is the news media, an incredibly powerful tool in shaping the way we think about disability. Most journalists seem utterly incapable of writing or talking about a person with a disability without using phrases like “overcoming disability”, “brave”, “suffers from”, “defying the odds”, “wheelchair bound” or, my personal favourite, “inspirational”.
If we even begin to question the way we’re labelled, we slide immediately to the other end of the scale and become “bitter” and “ungrateful”. We fail to be what people expect.
Which brings us back to Scott Hamilton and his mantra. The statement “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” puts the responsibility for our oppression squarely at the feet, prosthetic or otherwise, of people with disabilities. It’s victim blaming. It says that we have complete control of the way disability impacts our lives. To that, I have one thing to say. Get stuffed.
By far the most disabling thing in my life is the physical environment. It dictates what I can and can’t do every day. But if Hamilton is to be believed, I should just be able to smile at an inaccessible entrance to a building long enough and it will magically turn into a ramp. I can make accessible toilets appear where none existed before, simply by radiating a positive attitude. I can simply turn that frown upside down in the face of a flight of stairs with no lift in sight. Problem solved, right?
I’m a natural optimist, but none of that has ever worked for me.
Inspiration porn shames people with disabilities. It says that if we fail to be happy, to smile and to live lives that make those around us feel good, it’s because we’re not trying hard enough. Our attitude is just not positive enough. It’s our fault. Not to mention what it means for people whose disabilities are not visible, like people with chronic or mental illness, who often battle the assumption that it’s all about attitude. And we’re not allowed to be angry and upset, because then we’d be “bad” disabled people. We wouldn’t be doing our very best to “overcome” our disabilities.
I suppose it doesn’t matter what inspiration porn says to us as people with disabilities. It’s not actually about us. Disability is complex. You can’t sum it up in a cute picture with a heart-warming quote. So next time you’re tempted to share that picture of an adorable kid with a disability to make your facebook friends feel good, just take a second to consider why you’re really clicking that button.
This piece was originally published on ABC Ramp Up.
Stella Young is a disability activist, comedian, knitter and the Editor of Ramp Up, the ABC’s online space for news, opinion and discussion of disability issues. You can follow her on twitter here.
Have you ever found yourself hearing the story of someone with disability and thought of them as inspirational? Do you think that counts as ‘inspiration porn’? Have you ever shared the type of pictures in this post on Facebook or by email? Will you do so again?